Winner of the Lambda Literary Award for Men's Memoir/Biography
Mississippi Sissy is the memoir from Kevin Sessums, a celebrity journalist who grew up as an odd little boy in the South. From an early age, Sessums knew he was different. He spent his childhood scaring other children and hiding secrets. He enjoyed the companionship of the family maid, who taught him that the color of a person's skin is not as important as what is underneath. He idolized Arlene Francis. His best friend, Epiphany, lived in the TV and he liked to dress up in a skirt and twirl around the carport. When his father called him a "sissy," his mother taught him to turn that word on its head.
Pursued by his secrets, Sessums moved to Jackson as a young man. He settled in the antebellum mansion of journalist Frank Hains, who introduced him to Eudora Welty and exposed him to the worlds of literature and theater. Just when he began to feel a sense of belonging, his life took an alarming turn. Kevin returned home one night to find Frank murdered—his head bashed in with a pipe. That murder started Sessums on the road to New York City, Hollywood, and the pages of Vanity Fair.
Mississippi Sissy echoes time-honored fiction like To Kill a Mockingbird and memoirs like The Liar's Club. It is a panorama of the American South at mid-century through the eyes of a unique little boy who made the word "sissy" bigger and stronger than anyone knew it could be.
"Mississippi Sissy . . . vividly recreates Mississippi in the 1960s and '70s, with bitter, brutal racism in the rural areas yet tentative steps toward change and acceptance in Jackson; its portrait of the Mississippi cultural underground is detailed . . . it is candid about Sessums's awakening to his homosexuality and his uncertain attempts to practice it in a place where it was anathema . . . Small towns can be cruel wherever they may be, but the South in those years was especially isolated, defensive toward outsiders and intolerant of deviation in any form. It's clear that people (his father included) suspected that little Kevin was what used to be called a girly-boy long before he was old enough to find himself more attracted to boys than to girls. From the beginning, though, he was more comfortable with women than with men, and his sympathies were more readily extended to them . . . His mother told Kevin that the word ['sissy'] written on paper looks 'pretty' and that he should stand behind it, and himself . . . It was in Jackson that he encountered the Mississippi underground, homosexual and intellectual, sometimes both at the same time. He was taken under the wing of Frank Hains, . . . Eudora Welty, the writer Charlotte Capers and others who passionately if privately resisted the Mississippi status quo."—Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post
"Mississippi Sissy is a book I've been waiting for most of my life, though I didn't fully understand that fact until I read the book. We have, as it turns out, been sorely missing a book by a writer who is equally at home with Flannery O'Connor and Jaqueline Susann; who understands that Eudora Welty and Johnny Weismuller are not only members of the same species but are intricately related; whose wit and insight are up to the highs, lows, and in-betweens that compose life as we know it. Kevin Sessums is some sort of cockeyed national treasure."—Michael Cunningham, Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Hours
"A young, white, gay boy, who grew up in a whirl and survived the injustices of class and prejudice, Sessums lyrically narrates his escape from this tyranny of southern hate. This is the story of an angel with asbestos skin. Were this fiction, it would be on a par with John Kennedy Toole's The Confederacy of Dunces." –Andre Leon Talley, Editor at Large, Vogue
"Mississippi Sissy is an unforgettable memoir. I think it will strike a strong chord with many, many readers. It's a far different book than Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, but it cast the same kind of spell over me."—Mark Childress
"Kevin Sessums is a brilliant writer. He is also a courageous one. Mississippi Sissy is beautifully told—hilarious yet harrowing, tragic yet inspiring. This book will deeply touch anyone who has ever felt different, which means every single one of us."—E. Lynn Harris
"The depth of the writing equals the depth of his wounds and yet there is an optimism, a surviving instinct, an honesty and an incredible dignity throughout."—Diane Von Furstenberg
"I was both shocked and moved . . . It is said that an unexamined life is not worth living. Kevin Sessums examines his with wisdom and humor and a true writer's sense of grace. This book will . . . cause a sensation."—David Geffen
"What a writer! What honesty! Kevin Sessums seamlessly weaves his heart-breaking, funny, outrageous, can't-put-it-down story. Read it! Read it! Read it! Then read it again."—Ellen DeGeneres
"I was so moved by Kevin Sessums's funny, sad evocation of his childhood and teenage years in Mississippi Sissy. His youthful instinct for finding the theatrical, musical, and literary locals who opened his eyes to the outside world that he yearned to know about is wonderfully touching."—Dominick Dunne
"Mississippi Sissy manages to be both hilarious and heartbreaking, often in the same moment. It is a poignant story of innocence and sexuality; tragedy and courage. But it is ultimately a tale of perseverance of the human spirit. Kevin Sessums not only has a great story to tell, he is a great storyteller."—Carole Radziwill
"Gutsy, moving, richly textured and immensely funny revelation, and a precisely remembered evocation of the southern political and cultural landscape in the 60s and 70s."—Patti Carr Black
"Sessums, a journalist who specializes in celebrity interviews, describes and analyzes his own childhood and youth, writing candidly of both sexual orientation and race relations in the '60s and early '70s . . . Small-town Mississippi during the third quarter of the 20th century was less hostile to the young gay boy than outsiders might imagine. Sessums recalls his grandmother's willingness to call him Arlene, in honor of television personality Arlene Francis; his sixth-grade teacher allowed his book report to be on Jacqueline Susann's best-selling Valley of the Dolls; there was even a local gay bar, which Sessums began visiting at 16. However, life provided great and certain bad times as well: the author recalls a sexual assault by a stranger when he was not yet a teen, and another by a preacher a couple of years later. Most harrowing is the event that frames the narrative, the murder of his mentor, and 19-year-old Sessums's discovery of the bludgeoned body. Whether gay or straight, readers will relate to the author's youthful awareness that self-certainty and terrifying uncertainty seem to be inextricably bound. His observations on—and, more importantly, his experiences of—race relations engage and reveal, and remind readers of the complexity of social status."—Francisca Goldsmith, Berkeley Public Library, California, School Library Journal
"This lovely, engaging memoir by acclaimed entertainment writer Sessums is not so much a gay coming-out story (although its author does discover and act upon his homosexuality) as an investigation of the effects of popular culture on a young, white boy growing up in the racist South in the 1950s. Sessums, who has written for Vanity Fair, Interview and Allure, was born in 1956 and raised outside of Jackson, Mississippi by loving parents (although his father wished him to be less effeminate), both of whom died before his 10th birthday. But the heart of Sessums's memoir is how Hollywood and Broadway stars were obsessions and guide posts to a different life, and how female icons (such as Dusty Springfield and Audrey Hepburn) were important role models as he became part of a gay community . . . he can be emotionally shocking and precise as when recalling how, at 16, he hears his older friend Frank Hains tell a delighted Eudora Welty about his affairs with 'young African-Americans' . . . Sessums's story offers wit and incisive observation."—Publishers Weekly
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Mississippi Sissy by Kevin Sessums--Audiobook Excerpt
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