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My Autobiography of Carson McCullers
Cover of My Autobiography of Carson McCullers
My Autobiography of Carson McCullers
A Memoir

Finalist for the National Book Award
Finalist for the Lambda Literary Award

Longlisted for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction

How do you tell the real story of someone misremembered—an icon and idol—alongside your own? Jenn Shapland's celebrated debut is both question and answer: an immersive, surprising exploration of one of America's most beloved writers, alongside a genre-defying examination of identity, queerness, memory, obsession, and love.

Shapland is a graduate student when she first uncovers letters written to Carson McCullers by a woman named Annemarie. Though Shapland recognizes herself in the letters, which are intimate and unabashed in their feelings, she does not see McCullers as history has portrayed her. Her curiosity gives way to fixation, not just with this newly discovered side of McCullers's life, but with how we tell queer love stories. Why, Shapland asks, are the stories of women paved over by others' narratives? What happens when constant revision is required of queer women trying to navigate and self-actualize in straight spaces? And what might the tracing of McCullers's life—her history, her secrets, her legacy—reveal to Shapland about herself?

In smart, illuminating prose, Shapland interweaves her own story with McCullers's to create a vital new portrait of one of our nation's greatest literary treasures, and shows us how the writers we love and the stories we tell about ourselves make us who we are.

Finalist for the National Book Award
Finalist for the Lambda Literary Award

Longlisted for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction

How do you tell the real story of someone misremembered—an icon and idol—alongside your own? Jenn Shapland's celebrated debut is both question and answer: an immersive, surprising exploration of one of America's most beloved writers, alongside a genre-defying examination of identity, queerness, memory, obsession, and love.

Shapland is a graduate student when she first uncovers letters written to Carson McCullers by a woman named Annemarie. Though Shapland recognizes herself in the letters, which are intimate and unabashed in their feelings, she does not see McCullers as history has portrayed her. Her curiosity gives way to fixation, not just with this newly discovered side of McCullers's life, but with how we tell queer love stories. Why, Shapland asks, are the stories of women paved over by others' narratives? What happens when constant revision is required of queer women trying to navigate and self-actualize in straight spaces? And what might the tracing of McCullers's life—her history, her secrets, her legacy—reveal to Shapland about herself?

In smart, illuminating prose, Shapland interweaves her own story with McCullers's to create a vital new portrait of one of our nation's greatest literary treasures, and shows us how the writers we love and the stories we tell about ourselves make us who we are.

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Awards-
About the Author-
  • Jenn Shapland's work won a 2017 Pushcart Prize and fellowships/residencies at Ucross, the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, Yaddo, the Carson McCullers Center for Writers and Musicians, and Vermont Studio Center. Her essays have been published in Tin House, THE Magazine, Pastelegram, The Lifted Brow, Electric Literature, NANOfiction, and The Millions. She teaches in the Creative Writing department at the Institute of American Indian Arts and has a PhD in English from UT Austin. She designs and makes clothing for Agnes. She lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Reviews-
  • Kirkus

    October 15, 2019
    An intimate look at the life and loves of Carson McCullers (1917-1967). "To tell another person's story," Shapland observes in her deft, graceful literary debut, "a writer must make that person some version of herself, must find a way to inhabit her." The author knew little about McCullers before she became an intern at the Harry Ransom Center, a repository for writers' and artists' archives at the University of Texas. Responding to a scholar's request, she discovered eight letters from Swiss writer and photographer Annemarie Schwarzenbach to McCullers that struck Shapland immediately as "intimate, suggestive" love letters. For Shapland, at the time suffering the end of a "major, slow-burning catastrophe," the letters marked a "turning point." Within a week, she cut her hair short. "Within a year," she writes, "I would be more or less comfortably calling myself a lesbian for the first time." The letters inspired further research, focused especially on McCullers' sexuality, about which Shapland found intriguing evidence in transcripts of her taped therapy sessions with Dr. Mary Mercer, begun when McCullers was 41 and which McCullers described "as an attempt of writing her autobiography." In addition, following the sessions, McCullers wrote letters to Mercer "awash in the joy of self-revelation" and her "love for Dr. Mary." The more Shapland discovered about McCullers, the more convinced she became that McCullers was a lesbian who had been intensely in love with several women. Identifying with McCullers "as a writer, as a queer person, as a chronically ill person," Shapland felt she had special insight into her subject's life. At the same time, looking to McCullers "as a role model," she wondered if she was "reading into her queerness": imposing her own life story, and her own needs, on McCullers, in part to rescue her from "retroactive closeting by peers and biographers." Shapland interweaves candid self-questioning and revealing personal stories with a nuanced portrait of a writer who confessed her loves were "untouchable" and her feelings "inarticulable." A sensitive chronicle of a biographer's search for truth.

    COPYRIGHT(2019) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Publisher's Weekly

    March 23, 2020
    In this uneven hybrid biography/memoir debut, Shapland seeking affirmation of her own emergence as gay by combing archival materials for proof that author Carson McCullers was a lesbian. Predicated on Shapland’s belief that “to tell another person’s story, a writer must make that person some version of herself,” she cites—in what reveals itself to be a nonlinear collection of observations—similarities between herself and her subject, overlaying “my own life as a writer, as a queer person, as a chronically ill person, to tell Carson’s untold story.” Many of Shapland’s assumptions about McCullers are derived from transcripts of McCullers’s taped therapy sessions during the late 1950s, during which she discussed her two tumultuous marriages to Reeves McCullers and her passionate female friendships. “Carson didn’t feel shy about what the tapes contained—she aimed to publish them,” Shapland explains, which made her feel “comfortable... parsing them for subtexts.” Yet even she admits her findings are slippery: “I was a confused queer person looking to Carson as a role model... seeing what I wanted to see.” In stating that biographies “are built of artifice and lies... and this is not a biography,” Shapland’s intermingled autobiography and biography of McCullers’s life unsatisfyingly blurs what is real and what is imagined.

  • Booklist

    January 1, 2020
    Interning in the archives of the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, Shapland followed a scholar's query to a trove of letters between novelist Carson McCullers (1917-67) and Swiss artist Annemarie Clarac-Schwarzenbach: "I wasn't expecting love letters." This memoir, a creative blend of probing research and emotional discoveries, including self-discovery, grew from a resulting obsession to balance the biographical record of McCullers, which generally euphemizes or casts outright doubt on her love for women. Shapland, who endured a painfully closeted relationship before fully coming into her own queer identity, finds in McCullers "a familiarly protracted becoming." She mines McCullers' correspondence, transcripts of her therapy sessions (which were at one point intended to become her autobiography), and other personal effects and even lives for a month in McCullers' childhood home. She discovers a woman who deeply loved other women while lacking the terms and perhaps the space to define her queer desire. Celebrating McCullers, love, and the idea that every story told includes something of its teller, Shapland writes an involving literary journey of the self.(Reprinted with permission of Booklist, copyright 2020, American Library Association.)

  • Carmen Maria Machado, author of In The Dream House Gorgeous, symphonic, tender, and brilliant.
  • Star Tribune Sensational.
  • Electric Literature A gorgeous, brilliant book.
  • O, The Oprah Magazine Revelatory.
  • Harper's BAZAAR Two books in one: an examination of a famous author whose narrative has been posthumously taken away from her, but also a vital memoir of Shapland's own experience as a queer woman looking for stories about people like her.
  • Chicago Tribune An intriguing, genre-blending debut.
  • Melissa Febos, author of Girlhood You do not need to be a queer woman, a lover of Carson McCuller's fiction, or interested in the mysterious junctures between our own lives and those of our favorite artists to love this book, but for those of us who are those things, Jenn Shapland's memoir is a particular trove of delights. My favorite biographies are full of historical literary gossip and interested in the shadow selves of public persons. My favorite memoirs are those that scrutinize the self as an unreliable source of narrative truth and the one we must nonetheless rely upon. My Autobiography of Carson McCullers manages to do all of this in earnest and honest and riveting vignettes. It is a detective story and a dissection of selfhood, a puzzle every piece of which pleased me as it clicked into place.
  • Molly Moore, BookPeople A mystery, a love story, a biography, several hearts on the page—I so loved this generous offering.
  • The New Yorker A moving record of love at the margins.
  • The New York Times Book Review The kind of state-of-the-form reckoning that makes one wish there were more like it.
  • Maggie Nelson, author of The Argonauts Lucid, distilled, and honest.
  • R.O. Kwon, author of The Incendiaries Remarkable. . . . A biography that's also a memoir, a story of obsession and longing.
  • The Los Angeles Review of Books Following along with Shapland-as-detective is a delight, and the mystery she sets out to solve is one of those wicked unsolvables: how do we account for the apertures in language, history, and identity?
  • Book Riot, "Best Books of 2020" This book uncovers ways women's queer history has been ignored. It's a personal, powerful, genre-bending account of literary discovery.
  • Literary Hub A beautifully written and hard-to-categorize meditation on Carson McCullers and the hidden literary history of queer women.
  • The New York Review of Books Stimulating . . . part fan letter, part detective story, and part steely corrective.
  • Lambda Literary An exquisitely rendered map of discovery—of an icon, and of a self.
  • Autostraddle This book will change the way you think about the truth.
  • Emma Straub, Books Are Magic Mind-bending!
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A Memoir
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