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Mississippi Sissy
by Kevin Sessums

Book Review by Rob Hardy

A correspondent typed to me a couple of weeks ago, "Hello in Mississippi!" and then remarked how much fun the word was to type. It is also a fun word to say, especially if (unlike many of the natives) you pronounce all four syllables. For an arresting title of his new memoir, Kevin Sessums has paired it with another evocative word to make the tongue-twister, Mississippi Sissy (St. Martin’s Press), emphasizing the two themes in the book. Sessums grew up in Mississippi in the 1960s, and remembers and relates much of the local color of a distinctive place and time. He also grew up from an early age knowing he was different; before he knew what homosexuals were, he knew he was girlish and liked wearing girls’ clothes. There were inevitable conflicts in the conservative atmosphere of his little town of Forest, made worse by his own personal tragedies and losses. There is little trace of self-pity here, though. Sessums has a flair for colorful reporting, and uses thoughtful prose to tell his own story of self-understanding, while gently refraining from condemnation of even the darker characters in the book. He admits that the dialogue he reports has to be his own invention, as best as his memory allows. "I was not carrying around a recording device when growing up in Mississippi. But what I did have, even then, was my writer’s ear. I listened. That’s what most sissies do when we are children: We sit apart and listen."

He could listen to his parents in his earliest years only. His father was everything a good old macho boy could be, a basketball coach who was a loving bully to his family. "You girl," Kevin would goad the father into saying. "You goddamn girl." Among the few times Kevin made his father happy was when his mother had to report that Kevin had been caught with a tomboy neighbor, as the mother says, "playing doctor or whatever in one of those old Baptist softball dugouts behind her house." It was play that the girl had instigated. The mother had told Kevin not to worry about the revelation to his father: "Everything considered, he’ll probably be proud of you." And so it is: "My father scowled at me before breaking out in exaggerated laughter, ‘Way to go, Kevinator! Maybe there’s hope for you yet!" After that, the parents huddle in affection, and Sessums remembers: "Punishment I could have dealt with, but I wasn’t expecting to get laughed at and then completely ignored. I realized in that moment I was on neither of their teams. They would always be on one and I would be on another." Kevin was much closer to his mother, who encouraged his cross dressing as something "right cute" when he was little. His aunt Vena Mae objected during a dress-making session, when Kevin was not yet four, "He’s not right nothin’. And ya’ll aren’t right in the head for letting him get his way and encouraging him like this. He has to learn to live in this world and this world don’t abide boys like that." The mother’s reply is, "Hush up, Aunt Veence. I say let him get all this out of his system while he’s young. He’ll grow out of it." The father reacts with violence when he finds out about the dress, and probably the family violence would have escalated if he had not died in a car crash when Kevin was seven.

Kevin’s mother was only to live one year thereafter, succumbing to cancer. It was she who shared a playful camaraderie with the boy, not only encouraging dressing up but also making no objection (as did other family members) when Kevin chose to imitate Arlene Francis, a panelist on the game show "What’s My Line", complete with a blindfold mask: "... it was black and velvet and had pearls all around it just like Arlene’s did," only his was imaginary. Aunt Vena Mae cannot get a response from him, and his grandmother, who raised him after his parents’ deaths, explains, "He don’t see you, Vena Mae. He’s got his highfalutin’ mask on. Call him Arlene and you might get an answer out of him." His mother had shared private jokes with him, and a love of words and of language and literature. One word in particular she wanted to make sure Kevin appreciated, because she felt that she herself had always lived her life as if taking dictation from someone else. "Write it down," she tells him, and he writes down "S-I-S-S-Y", since it was what his father called him and she knew others would, too. "Now, whenever anybody calls you that again you remember how pretty that looks on there. Look at the muscles those S’s have. Look at the arms on that Y. Look at the backbone that lone I has. What posture. What presence. See how proud that I is to stand there in front of you." It was a lesson he did not forget.

Along with a peculiar upbringing, Sessums grew up in a peculiar place and time, and his descriptions of how he came to understand racial matters are poignant. He remembers a gathering of the family menfolk: "A few of the men were in that one-foot-on-a-fender stance that I always saw my uncles take when talking about deer hunting, Goldwater’s loss, or ‘all these outside Commie agitators’ who seemed continuously to be invading our state through my childhood." Aunt Vena Mae, after such agitators were killed, said, "If you ask me - we were discussing this in my women’s sixty and over Sunday-school class - those civil rights boys were just looking for trouble coming down here like that where they don’t belong. Got what they deserved. This is a sign from God that they should mind their own business." When Sidney Portier won an Oscar, Kevin is curious about how it made the family domestic help feel: "Did you watch the Oscars last night, Matty? Can you believe a nigger won Best Actor?" Matty is dismayed by the word and shows it, and Kevin says, "Nigger’s an ugly word?"; he had little idea that it was anything but just another noun. "Child, it’s d’ugliest," replies Matty, "Jesus never say nigger in d’Bible. God made us colored folk in his own image too, you know. So if we a nigger, God a nigger, too." He remembers only two teachers who shed tears over Kennedy’s assassination, and one of them tried to change things for her students. "Some of your parents will tell you bad things about the civil rights movement," she instructs. "But the civil rights movement is not bad. It is how we choose to react to it that can be bad. Don’t be bad, children. Mississippi is already full of enough badness." She didn’t know that an uncle of Sessums, informed of Robert Kennedy’s assassination (after that of President Kennedy and of Martin Luther King), roused himself to say, "We’re gettin’ ’em all. Them Yankees may have whupped us back yonder all them years ago, but we showin’ ’em now."

The ugliness is on a par with the scenes of young Kevin being sexually abused by the fundamentalist minister the family admired, or by a stranger in a theater. Kevin left Forest for the big city of Jackson, where he did have a girlfriend and the requisite pregnancy scare, but where he also came to terms with his homosexuality and was unrepentant about it. During college, he worked in the local theater group, which got him associated with a local literary lion, Frank Hains, a newspaper editor and theater booster. Hains was Kevin’s introduction to Eudora Welty, and included here are Sessums’s recollections of the cerebral cocktail-party chatter in which Miss Welty would happily join, as well as his becoming her designated driver for a trip home. The book ends with the ritual gay-bashing murder of Hains; it was Sessums who discovered the body. Sessums was not long for Mississippi; he lives far away now, in New York City, where he has been a contributor and contributing editor to many magazines. Harrowing and funny, his memoir represents a literate coming to terms by a kid, and an author, who, in multiple ways, simply did not fit in.

Rob Hardy
August 2007

Mississippi Sissy by Kevin Sessums
(St. Martin's Press; March 6, 2007; ISBN-10: 0312341016)
Available at: / Amazon UK

© 2007 Rob Hardy. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written permission from the author.

About the Reviewer
Rob Hardy is a psychiatrist who lives in Columbus, Mississippi, with his wife, two terriers, five cats, and goldfish.

He reviews nonfiction for The Times of Acadiana, but has been reviewing books as a hobby for years before that.
WebBio:  Rob Hardy

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