Sessums’ memoir deals with death, civil rights
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Kevin Sessums has spent most of his life writing other people’s stories — first as a contributing editor at Vanity Fair where he worked for 14 years, and now at Allure magazine where he works in the same capacity.
But a year-and-a-half ago, Sessums decided to tell his own story in his newly released memoir, Mississippi Sissy.
“I tracked down people I hadn’t seen in 40 years to let them read about themselves,” said Sessums in an interview with Metro. “All the names I use are real, so I thought it was the honourable thing to do to let people read it before it was published.”
In the book, Sessums recounts his childhood, growing up as a gay boy in small-town Mississippi, and tragic events he will never forget.
Sessums lost both parents when he was just a child: his father died in a car accident when he was only seven, and a year later, his mother succumbed to esophageal cancer. He, along with his younger brother and sister, were then raised by his maternal grandparents.
“I think if you survive the deaths of both parents early on in life, nothing else can faze you. When you’re young, it’s all about your survival instinct,” said Sessums. “Youth is the greatest weapon against all that.”
Sessums, who recreated some scenes of dialogue in the book, credits the traumatic events of his childhood for his clear memory of that time.
“You have two reactions to (trauma). It can totally obliterate memory and you shut out all of that stuff, or it just heightens your sense of memory and you have an appreciation for (it),” said Sessums. “It just embeds itself in you and everything’s as fresh today as it was then.”
Sessums also clearly remembers the tragic deaths of U.S. president John F. Kennedy, Medgar Evers and the three civil rights workers who were killed in Mississippi during a period of segregation, heightened racial tension and intolerance.
“My grandparents were backwoods, Mississippi bigoted people. If they used the n-word once, they used it 50 times a day, and yet, they were the people who saved me and nurtured me and taught me about unconditional love,” said Sessums.
“If you saw them in a movie about that time and heard them speak the way they spoke about black people and civil-rights workers and outside agitators, they would be the villain of the piece, in a way. I had to find the goodness in them and there was goodness in them.”
Although Sessums has enough material from his adult years to write a sequel, he doubts that will happen.
“It took me to the age of 51 to write this one,” he says, “so I’d have to be 102 to write the next one.”