Born to two working-class Barbados immigrants in 1960, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and theater critic Hilton Als spent much of his childhood at Brooklyn’s big public library, reading widely and listening to Dionne Warwick LPs. In the late ’70s, he started hanging with downtown Manhattan’s alternative art crowd, which included a teenage Jean-Michel Basquiat, and began writing longform pieces for the Village Voice.

Als started contributing to the New Yorker in 1989, joining as a staff writer five years later and becoming a theatre critic in 2002. His first book, The Women, was published in 1996. Depicting the lives of three dominant female figures in his life, it explores race, gender, and sexuality in the construction of identity. His 2013 follow-up White Girls, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and winner of the Lambda Literary Award for non-fiction, continues to examine that intersection, in a series of essays covering everything from New York’s AIDS epidemic to Richard Pryor’s life and legacy.

In a reading list for The Week, Als recommended six powerful meditations on alienation, creativity and queer identity. From Jane Bowles to James Baldwin, find his favorite books below.

Hilton Als’ Reading List

My Sister’s Hand in Mine by Jane Bowles

“The playwright Jane Bowles produced relatively little during her brief career, but this volume of collected works proves that what she wrote was mighty. Her women are verbally pointed but emotionally lost. They remain unfulfilled because their trappings of normalcy — marriage, a ‘nice’ home, etc. — do nothing to eradicate their feelings of alienation.” -HA

On Reading by Marcel Proust

“Ostensibly, this long essay is meant to introduce Proust’s French translation of John Ruskin’s Sesame and Lilies, but it’s really about Proust’s own process of intellection. In sentences that trace the rhythm of the author’s soul, Proust describes what isolation means to creativity and how creativity grows out of difference.” -HA

The Price of the Ticket by James Baldwin

“This collection of essays amounts to a portrait of the author as a queer genius. In language like no other’s, Baldwin repeatedly dissects and puts together what his identity means and what it says about others. He does so with great intellectual verve and heart.” -HA

The Changing Light at Sandover by James Merrill

“Before there was gay marriage, there was James Merrill. The great poet describes what gay life was like in the 1950s and ’60s, when men who loved one another made families out of different bedfellows and friends. Merrill’s world of commitment and imagination is a heart swell of wit and observation, profound in its study of gay normality.” -HA

A Way in the World by V.S. Naipaul

“A very powerful evocation of otherness in a closed Caribbean world. Observant without being judgmental, Naipaul, the perpetual outsider, becomes a larger, more loving man of letters in his novel, which contains glimpses of his own life.” -HA

The Complete Prose of Marianne Moore

“A galleon filled not only with wonder about the assignments at hand — fashion, food, Auden — but with enormous sensitivity to artists such as Moore’s great protégée, the poet Elizabeth Bishop, who felt like outsiders.” -HA

(via The Week)

Categories: Writers

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