Kevin Sessums on the N word, the F word and how he abandoned his heterosexuality in Dallas
As an editor who’s worked at Interview, Vanity Fair and Allure, Kevin Sessums has written about every A-list celeb imaginable. Last year, he switched his focus with "Mississippi Sissy" (Picador), which will be released in paperback on Monday.
A warts-and-all memoir about growing up gay in the Jackson, Miss., "Sissy" is far removed from his star-fucking days in Hollywood and New York. His childhood becomes a rich literary tapestry woven with homophobia, racism, molestation at the hands of a evangelist and the early death of both his parents.
Heartbreaking, funny and impeccably crafted, "Sissy" could easily sit beside Augusten Burroughs and Gore Vidal’s self-portraits. Earlier this week, Dallas Voice e-mailed Sessums about ugly words and his ties to Big D.
The N-word’ is a big part of "Mississippi Sissy." Should bigots be the only ones licensed to use it?
I don’t think anyone should use the "N word" in daily life. But when one is writing a piece of literature or making a film or trying to create any work of art, then I think one is entitled to use all the tools at one’s disposal.
One of the important aspects of the story was learning as a little Mississippi boy how heartbreaking it was to our maid, Matty May, when she heard me use it. If that story was to have any impact, there was no way around not using the word. I was careful to only use the word in quotations. And since I was writing about a time and place and a certain sort of person Mississippi and the 1960s and the prejudiced folks around me I felt I had no choice.
Also, it was important to use it was because I had to make it clear that my grandparents who raised me were, indeed, bigoted in this regard. And yet I had to find the goodness in them. And there was goodness in them. I learned very early in life that the world was a complicated place and a lot of that had to do with the people I loved and who loved me who saved me really used the "N word" all the time.
What about the F-word "faggot"? Can gay people reclaim that one, like the word "queer?"
I think the F-word is not reclaimable. I don’t think African-Americans have really reclaimed the N-word in the sense that they don’t mind if people of other races refer to them as that. I don’t think I could ever be called a "faggot" by a straight person and not hear the disdain and hate in the word.
Ever been to Dallas?
Once. During my first year at Juilliard in 1975, I flew to Dallas in order to drive home to Mississippi with my then-girlfriend at the time. She attended Southern Methodist University. We spent the night in her dorm there and had hot sex. So, believe, it or not, Dallas was the last city in which I had sex with a woman.
Every time I meet a guy from Dallas though I am struck by how hot they are kind of a fantasy of what a weatherman should look like: A bit too well-coiffed perhaps and certainly too preppy. And you can just tell by the way they are thrilled by nasty weather that they are a little perverse in bed.
When will you write a memoir about your career?
I’m currently working on a sequel to "Mississippi Sissy" about my life in New York. The title is "I Left It on the Mountain." The first chapter is about my successful climb up Mount Kilimanjaro a couple of years ago. The only thing harder than climbing that mountain has been the climb both social and up the career ladder here in Manhattan.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition March 7, 2008
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