Tuesday, January 24, 2006

In Memoriam: Nellie McKay + Guillaume Dustan

McKayToday I got word via email that Nellie Y. McKay, one of the leading scholars of African-American women's writing and African-American and American literature and culture, had died after a long illness. McKay had been chairperson of the African-American Studies department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she'd taught since 1978. In recent years, she'd also held the Evjue-Bascom Chair in American and African-American Literatures. The author, editor or co-editor of eight books, she is probably best known to the public as the co-editor, with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., of the Norton Anthology of African-American Literature, which first appeared in 1997 and has subsequently become the canonical survey text for this field.

For those in the profession, she is considered to be one of the pioneer figures in establishing African-American literature by women as a subject of study. Though she wrote her dissertation at Harvard on Harlem Renaissance writer Jean Toomer and published her first book on his work (Jean Toomer, Artist: A Study of His Literary Life and Work, 1894-1936: North Carolina, 1984), her later studies and collections mapped out vital critical space for the study of Black women's cultural and aesthetic production, and Black literary and cultural production more broadly. Her works include one of the major early critical edited volumes on Toni Morrison and an important study, with Robert L. Harris, Jr. and my eminent colleague Darlene Clark Hine, which analyzed the developing field and institutional position of Black studies (Black Studies in the United States: Three Essays: Ford Foundation, 1990).

McKay was a crucial teacher, advisor, mentor, and friend to several generations of scholars and writers. A friend of mine who went to Wisconsin for graduate school always spoke highly of McKay and stated more than once that she strove to create a welcoming and nurturing community. I primarily had very limited contact with her through an editorial position I held years ago, and met her once, at a conference. In every instance, she was gracious. Her passing is a tremendous loss, to Wisconsin, to her students and colleagues, to her fellow scholars and to writers, and to American and African-American literatures and literary studies. The Norton volume, her leadership and the program she helped to build at Wisconsin will be among her many legacies.

The Newshour with Jim Lehrer on PBS featured an online conversation with Nellie McKay in 1997 upon the publication of the Norton Anthology. It's worth reading and can be found here.

One quote:

Sometimes readers complain that all the "good" literature is sad and tends to be about the sufferings of people. That's not completely accurate, but "great" literature is often about the ability of the human spirit to rise or not rise above great trials in life. African American literature has much of that quality and since black women suffered equally with black men they also expressed their strength of will and humanity through literature. One thing they also understood from the beginning: there are great differences between how men see their world and how women see their world. Knowing that, black women have fought to have their voices heard as much as black men have fought to be heard. As Anna Julia Cooper, one of the nineteenth century black women included in The Norton Anthology points out, women do not want to have themselves spoken for by black men. So they have produced a literature of their own. Today more black women writers than ever before have access to publishing and they are taking advantage of that. The reading public seems to like what they are doing and their books are selling well. I think that one reason for their popularity is their willingness to write about things that are close to the hearts of many ordinary people. There is a freshness in their works that brings into the public spaces women's perspectives on such issues as concerns for the lives of women and girls, of families, and others whom they love.

She established the Lorraine Hansberry Visiting Professorship in the Dramatic Arts at the University of Wisconsin. To honor her memory, you can donate directly c/o University of Wisconsin Foundation, US Bank Lockbox, Box 78807, Milwaukee, WI, 53726. Checks may be made out to the "UW Foundation, with "In Memory of Nellie McKay" written in the subject line.

Per her suggestion, you may also make a donation to the Children's Defense Fund, 25 E Street NW, Washington, DC, 20001. They ask that checks be made out to "Children's Defense Fund" with "In Memory of Nellie Y. McKay" written on the subject line.


DustanI also recently learned via an email from Ariel Kenig, the French author of the novel Camping Atlantic (Denoël, 2005), a sometime reader of this blog and friend of Swiss writer and artist Nicolas Pages (whose work I've translated), that Guillaume Dustan, one of the most controversial figures in recent French literature, passed away in October of last year. Last summer I wrote about the demise of the Éditions Balland imprint Le Rayon Gay, which Dustan edited for several years beginning in 1996, and which was my first introduction to him. It would not be too hyperbolic to say that for a brief moment during that period, as French gay and queer life were coming into their maturity, Le Rayon Gay assumed a central role as one of the most important presses for many of the emerging writers of this community. In addition to Pages, Dustan edited and published other younger French and Francophone queer writers such as Erik Rémès, Frédéric Huet, Béatrice Cussol, Laure Ly, Djallil Djellad, Julian Thèves, and Michel Zumkir, as well as translations of non-Francophone writers such as Dorothy Allison, Persimmon Blackledge, and Eve Ensler. At one point I contacted Le Rayon to inquire about possibly publishing Pages's work in a literary journal, and Dustan wrote me back, rather quickly I must add, to say that doing so would be fine. There was no wrangling, no quibbling, rien comme ça.

Dustan's reputation and notoriety rest, however, on his fiction and essays, as well as his extraordinary public persona. He was one of the major exponents of what might be termed autofiction, a genre of writing that blurs and complicates the fixed line between autobiography and fiction (he rejected this term), and, as was evident from his earliest novels, of autopornographie (autopornography), a related, self-evident genre. Born William Baranès in 1965, he was a practicing magistrate by the age of 23, and during the next seven years balanced his professional life with the the charged nocturnal existence that would become the grist for his early novels, under the assumed pseudonym Guillaume Dustan. After learning he was HIV positive, he quit his judgeship, moved to Tahiti, and published three exemplary autofictional works in swift succession, Dans ma chambre (In My Room: POL, Serpent's Tail Press, 1996) and Je sors ce soir (I Go out Tonight: POL, 1997), and Plus fort que moi (Stronger Than I: POL, 1998). These works detail with clinical precision and zero sentimentality a testimony of relentless graphic and raw sex, partying and drugtaking, serial relationships, and a laceratinng philosophical temperament and ethos that I would describe as equal parts Paterian, Nietzschean and Heideggerian. He also began engaging in public polemics, as a proponent of condomless sex, to the horror of Act-Up, while also chronicling his experiences as a person with HIV/AIDS.

Subsequent novels include the Prix de Flore-winning Nicolas Pages (Balland, 1999, and named after the above-mentioned artist who became the object of Dustan's interest), Génie Divin (a dazzling performance, in journal form, in which he takes up once more his advocacy of barebacking), and XLiR (2002) all of which militate, as his Libération obituary notes, against, "heterosexism, orthography, intelligentsia in general, and that of gays in particular." Dustan also staged and participated in public artistic performances, and had a confounding stint on TV. In 2oo4, he published Dernier roman (Last Novel, Flammarion), and followed this with Premier essai: chronique du temps present (First Essay: A Present-Day Chronicle, Flammarion, 2005) in 2005. His projected biography of Andy Warhol remained unfinished at the time of his death at age 40, and as of this writing, most of his novels have yet to be translated into English.

The French online journal Fluctuat.net conducted an interview with Dustan in 2000.

As with Sade, Genet, Colette, Klossowski, Bataille, Foucault, Deleuze, Hocquenghem, and other significant figures from the French tradition, Dustan's writings in years to come will serve as testaments to a fearless and gifted explorer of the outer realms of human desire, pleasure and agency.


  1. Of all the significant accomplishments this person has done, this is the first time I have heard of Nellie Y. McKay.

  2. I gotta question for you J.

    How did you go about learning French?

    Was it done in school, through self study, travel abroad or a little of all of it?

    I should have crossed this bridge some time ago, but have not.

  3. Littlemilk, I learned French, along with Latin in junior high and high school. Have you ever studied any Romance language? If so, French may come a bit easier.

  4. I studied French for 2 years in high school and my grandmother speaks some Creole and though my father does not speak French he plays French zydeco music now and then. So, my French is not that bad.

    I learned German in Univeristy and when I lived there for 4 years I got good enough to translate, but would like to study French and Portuguese.

    Self study is always difficult for me, I do better just working a job like at a bar or club to get the language in my head. It is faster. Or listening to music and reading the lyrics while doing grammar exercises.

    I just need to get back into the habit of really speaking and responding in French. Right now French is just a written language for me.

    There is no French population to mingle with, the language is loosing its former dominance.

  5. Dustan passed away. I read all of his book. He certainly spoke to me in a way no other authors could. I don't think he wanted to get old. He is now a legend, the bad boy of french literature. I saw you refered to Ariel Kening. I would very much get in touch with him. Could you pass my e-mail along? paca@canada.com

    Check out my blob about Dustan if you feel like it.