MARCH 27, 2015
BY THE TIME I was born in Jackson, Mississippi (1985), Kevin Sessums had long left the Magnolia State’s kudzu-blanketed highways for the culture and promise of New York. At 23 (in 2008) I sat at the bar in the now defunct L&M’s restaurant on North Lamar in Oxford, eagerly reading my copy of Mississippi Sissy, which Sessums had signed at the local Mecca of independent bookstores, Square Books. As a young gay Mississippian, it was like talking to family — even better: Here was someone else who had grown up “different,” and found refuge in the arts community, with a voice that evoked N. State Street, Belhaven, and New Stage Theatre — Miss Welty’s Jackson, my own Jackson. What culturally literate devotee of Designing Women wouldn’t read Mississippi Sissy and have moments of wanting to shout, “Yes, Lord!”
Our affinity aside, I hadn’t revisited Sessums’s work or kept track of his career until June 2014, when I was putting the final touches on an anthology of essays and poems I’d been working on for two years. As I was talking with my publisher about voices that I wanted that were not yet included in the book, I scanned one of my shelves and saw Mississippi Sissy. I re-read the first chapter, which ends on the image of Eudora Welty, well-bourboned (of course), picking up Sessums’s jockstrap from the seat of his car: I knew that no book exploring the queer South would be complete without that voice or that particularly queer image.
In his follow-up to 2007’s Mississippi Sissy — I Left It on the Mountain, Sessums, a celebrity interviewer turned memoirist, describes himself as one who “reside[s] just outside the frame of fame.” And he lets us in on the secret of a good interview: when the intimacy of the moment “veers into a conversation performed as a private one.” Perhaps it is Sessums’s keen awareness of the complex realms of the personal and the private that make him an effective interviewer with a storied career (at Andy Warhol’s Interview, Tina Brown’s Vanity Fair, and Parade) who is equally adept at weaving his own narrative. He grew up in the turbulence of 1960s Mississippi, against the backdrop of the murders of Medgar Evers in Jackson and Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney in Neshoba County; during a decade in which he also lost both his parents. He says of his own attempt to find refuge: “I would not only seek it out — narrative in all its forms — but begin to look on my own life as narrative as well.” Fittingly, I Left It on the Mountain is a smart, spiritually, and emotionally rich story, rife with failure, forgiveness, and the yearning for significance.
Sessums begins the book on the eve of his 53rd birthday (later this month, he’ll celebrate his 59th). In “trying to rebuild my life stone by retrieved stone,” where each stone is a memory, he gives the reader a well-orchestrated look into his process and his structure.
As with an elegant stanza of poetry (“stanza,” appropriately, is Italian for “room”), each of the nine chapters in the memoir feels complete: a reader can walk around in each one, note its particular texture — defined, perhaps, by the inclusion of a poem by Keats or Dickinson, or maybe an excerpt from Andy Warhol’s diary — and admire the author’s craftsmanship. But the ultimate mastery in this book is evident in the way that Sessums introduces a theme — a leitmotif (like Keats or Lucifer or Hugh Jackman’s indelible question: “Have you fucked the angel?”) — that may at first seem a narrative “bonus” or ornament, but then, as it recurs, takes on increased power and significance. Sessums is always on the look for signs — the universe’s nods of assent, affirmation, confirmation, or direction. These emerge, say, when the Camino in rural Spain in one chapter brings to mind Sessums’s Mississippi, or Mount Kilimanjaro in another. These sorts of complementary connections, wherein one of his past selves communes with another, create a sense of harmony and wholeness throughout.
Even when Sessums describes a particularly bleak descent into addiction (to methamphetamine), his writing is measured, controlled. The clarity with which he writes — the straightforwardness of his syntax — indicates that he trusts the strength of the narrative that unfolds: self-abuse, recovery, relapse, regret, recovery. In fact, in this way he demonstrates how tenuous recovery can be, how unforgiving addiction is, and how one must meet it with a relentless resolve in order to realize a lasting sobriety. While he addresses the physicality of his condition — memorable descriptions of needled arms and Olympic sex while under the influence — he also explores the spiritual implications. As Sessums mentions again and again, his own relationship with Lucifer (quite an interesting portrayal of the Angel of Light turned Nemesis of God, especially coming from a Mississippian reared in the Methodist Church), I was reminded of Jacob wrestling with the angel. Like Jacob, Sessums’s struggle is ultimately within himself: hence one man, one consciousness, one narrative emerges.
That acrobatic narrative covers much ground. Sessums’s Kilimanjaro climb, in the wake of his HIV-positive diagnosis, could have been expanded into a queer, contemporary version of Peter Mathiessen’s The Snow Leopard. Or he could have focused all of his attention on his pilgrimage across the Camino, and the descriptions of the people he met along the way. Instead, he links these journeys with celebrity encounters — along the way we meet the likes of Madonna, Daniel Radcliffe, Diane Sawyer, and Courtney Love; in these pages, a trip to the pet store, meth-fueled sex, and near homelessness coexist with descriptions of lavish Oscar parties. Sessums reminds us that there is no one trajectory a narrative can take: it’s the memoirist’s job to show not just the exclamation points, but the question marks as well.
Throughout I Left It on the Mountain, the Romantic poet John Keats (who died at 25) looms; he appears in an important moment with Andy Warhol in The Factory, and Sessums goes to Rome to see where he spent his last days. Sessums carries Keats with him everywhere — his poetry physically tattooed on his arm. As I read, I kept thinking about a poem that doesn’t appear in the text, one that I remember from high school, when I was first introduced to Keats:
This Living Hand
This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calm’d–see here it is–
I hold it towards you.
That’s what Sessums does in this memoir — he holds out his living hands, “capable / Of earnest grasping” for meaning, truth, redemption, and more.
Mississippi is famous for many ills — its history blighted by a legacy of bigotry. But it’s not a place that is singularly consumed by hate or ignorance, nor does it have the market cornered on all-things-wrong. In fact, living in Oxford for six years, from 2004 through 2010, I saw how Mississippi revered writers — and how the world revered Mississippi’s writers. Narrative is the lifeblood of Southern culture, after all, which is why Mississippi is obsessed with the past (its demons, ghosts, and romance) and its abiding presence in the present. Sessums may have left Mississippi decades ago, but as one of its Apostles of Narrative, his mission has been and continues to be wedding human experience to exactly the right words.
And it’s telling that he chooses to end his memoir with a chapter that characterizes him not as celebrity-adjacent, nor as a pilgrim on a quest for spiritual redemption, but instead as an addict. In that final chapter, he describes an interview with Diane Sawyer, who seems both approachable and sage. At one point in their conversation, Sawyer, in somewhat of a role reversal, asks the professional “asker,” “[C]an you stay the hero of your own story?” Perhaps the fact that Sessums has lived to write his graceful and grateful memoir indicates that you can.