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My Autobiography of Carson McCullers
Cover of My Autobiography of Carson McCullers
My Autobiography of Carson McCullers
A Memoir
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FINALIST FOR THE 2020 NATIONAL BOOK AWARD

"Gorgeous, symphonic, tender, and brilliant, My Autobiography of Carson McCullers is a monumental achievement." —Carmen Maria Machado

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 by Carson McCullers to 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, Jenn 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 2020 NATIONAL BOOK AWARD

"Gorgeous, symphonic, tender, and brilliant, My Autobiography of Carson McCullers is a monumental achievement." —Carmen Maria Machado

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 by Carson McCullers to 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, Jenn 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.)

  • Kate Gorton;Autostraddle This book uncovers ways women's queer history has been ignored. It's a personal, powerful, genre-bending account of literary discovery.
  • Broadsheet (Australia) This book will change the way you think about the truth. ... Shapland possesses the perfect storm of talents to push McCullers's love life, and beautiful writing, into the light of this century during a moment when we need all the queer heroes we can get.
  • Library Journal This is a work of lesbian recovery, of literary biography and of breathtaking queer autobiography by an exceptional debut author.
  • Carmen Maria Machado, author of In The Dream House A fine narrative of how the best writers express the deepest secrets of the heart.
  • The Los Angeles Review of Books Gorgeous, symphonic, tender, and brilliant, My Autobiography of Carson McCullers is a monumental achievement. In this genre-bending work of nonfiction, Shapland brings the full weight of her intellect to bear on one of literature's most important questions: How do queer readers find the truth—and themselves—between the lines?
  • Kirkus Reviews 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?
  • Melissa Febos, author of Abandon Me 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.
  • Ann Hood, author of The Knitting Circle 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. The Autobiographies 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.
  • Maggie Nelson, author of The Argonauts Jenn Shapland's My Autobiography of Carson McCullers is indeed part autobiography, part criticism, part memoir, and 100% human, reminding us of how books and writers can take our hands and lead us to uncover the mystery of our hearts. I've never read a book quite like it.
  • Cinnamon Magazine In lucid, distilled, honest prose, Jenn Shapland teaches us about McCullers, the desire for recognition, loneliness, the complexities of queer history, the seductions and resistances of the archive, and, all throughout, love.
  • The Inlander I felt so seen and moved and completed by this book that I haven't been able to shut up about it for weeks.
  • Atlanta Journal-Constitution Shapland's account is part memoir and part history, but it's also a pointed critique of the rampant LGBTQ+ erasure in so much of history, and a powerful attempt to reclaim McCullers' true identity.
  • Electric Literature Sleek, elegant. ... both a memoir of her own coming-out and a nuanced exploration of her magnificent obsession with the Georgia author known for her sensitive portrayals of misfits.
  • Book Riot, "Best Books of 2020" This is a gorgeous, brilliant book that is all but guaranteed to resonate with queer folks, word nerds, and readers everywhere.
  • R.O. Kwon, author of The Incendiaries You don't have to be a Carson McCullers fan to admire this remarkable book. It's a biography that's also a memoir, a story of obsession and longing. Captivating and trenchant and moving, Shapland's genre-mixing debut will stay with me a long time.
  • The New York Times Book Review A hard-won inquiry into how we seek out the truth of ourselves and others in ways that often, by necessity, aren't straightforward, that arrive in our lives in glimmering bits and shards. . . . Shapland's book is the kind of state-of-the-form reckoning that makes one wish there were more like it.
  • The New York Review of Books Her stimulating book is part fan letter, part detective story, and part steely corrective.
  • The New Yorker An unpretentious, moving record of...
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A Memoir
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