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Our April 18th New Yorker Birthday is Kathy Acker, Experimental Novelist, Playwright and Essayist.


"If you ask me what I want, I'll tell you. I want everything.”

“Dreams are manifestations of identities.”

“There are times when the law jeopardizes those who obey it.”

Novelist, essayist, and performance artist Kathy Acker was born and raised in New York City. She was educated at Brandeis University and the University of California at San Diego, where she earned her BA. Acker was associated with the New York punk movement of the late 1970s and early 1980s. The punk aesthetic influenced her literary style.

At Brandeis University she engaged in undergraduate coursework in Classics at a time when Angela Davis was also at the university. She became interested in writing novels, and moved to California to attend University of California, San Diego where David Antin, Eleanor Antin, and Jerome Rothenberg were among her teachers. She received her bachelor's degree in 1968. After moving back to New York City, she attended two years of graduate school at the City University of New York in Classics, specializing in Greek. She did not earn a graduate degree. During her time in New York she was employed as a file clerk, secretary, stripper, and porn performer.

Her family was from a wealthy, assimilated, German-Jewish background that was culturally, but not religiously Jewish. Her paternal grandmother, Florence Weill, was an Austrian Jew who had inherited a small fortune from the glove-making business. Acker's grandparents went into political exile from Alsace-Lorraine prior to World War I due to the rising nationalismonalism of pre-Nazi Germany, moving to Paris and then to the United States.

Acker was raised in her mother and stepfather's home on New York's prosperous Upper East Side. In 1978, Claire Alexander, Karen's mother, committed suicide. As an adult, Acker tried to track down her father, but abandoned her search after she discovered that her father had killed a trespasser on his yacht and spent six months in a psychiatric asylum until the state excused him of murder charges.

In 1966, she had married Robert Acker, and changed her last name from Alexander to Acker. Robert Acker was the son of lower-middle-class Polish-Jewish immigrants. Kathy's parents had held hopes that their daughter would marry a wealthy man and did not expect the marriage to last long. Although her birth name was Karen, she was known as Kathy by her friends and family. Her first work appeared in print as part of the burgeoning New York City literary underground of the mid-1970s. Like other young women struggling to be writers and artists, she worked for a few months as a stripper, and listening to the stories of women so different from those she had known before profoundly influenced her early work, and changed her understanding of gender and power relationships.

In the 1970s, before the term "postmodernism" was popular, Acker began writing her books. These books contain features that would eventually be considered postmodernist work. Her controversial body of work borrows heavily from the experimental styles of William S. Burroughs and Marguerite Duras. Her writing strategies at times used forms of pastiche and deployed Burroughs's cut-up technique, involving cutting-up and scrambling passages and sentences into a somewhat random remix.

In 1979, she won the Pushcart Prize for her short story "New York City in 1979".

During the early 1980s she lived in London, where she wrote several of her most critically acclaimed works. After returning to the United States in the late 1980s she worked as an adjunct professor at the San Francisco Art Institute for about six years and as a visiting professor at several universities, including the University of Idaho, the University of California, San Diego, University of California, Santa Barbara, the California Institute of Arts, and Roanoke College.

In her texts, she combines biographical elements, power, sex and violence. Indeed, critics often compare her writing to that of Alain Robbe-Grillet and Jean Genet. Critics have noticed links to Gertrude Stein and photographers Cindy Sherman and Sherrie Levine. Acker's novels also exhibit a fascination with and an indebtedness to tattoos. She dedicated Empire of the Senseless to her tattooist.

In 1979, she received popular attention when she won a Pushcart Prize for her short story "New York City in 1979". She did not receive critical attention, however, until she published Great Expectations in 1982. The opening of Great Expectations is an obvious re-writing of Charles Dicken's work. It features her usual subject matter, including a semi-autobiographical account of her mother's suicide and the appropriation of several other texts, including Pierre Guyotat's violent and sexually explicit "Eden Eden Eden". That same year, Acker published a chapbook, entitled Hello, I'm Eric Jong. She appropriated from a number of influential writers. These writers include Charles Dickens, Nathaniel Hawthorne, John Keats, William Faulkner, T.S Eliot, Charlotte and Emily Brontë, Marquis de Sade, Georges Bataille, and Arthur Rimbaud.

Notwithstanding the increased recognition she got for Great Expectations, Blood and Guts in High School is often considered Acker's breakthrough work. Published in 1984, it is one of her most extreme explorations of sexuality and violence. Borrowing from, among other texts, Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, Blood and Guts details the experiences of Janey Smith, a sex addicted and pelvic inflammatory disease-ridden urbanite who is in love with a father who sells her into slavery. Many critics criticized it for being demeaning toward women, and Germany banned it completely. Acker published the German court judgment against Blood and Guts in High School in Hannibal Lecter, My Father.

Acker published Empire of the Senseless in 1988 and considered it a turning point in her writing. While she still borrows from other texts, including Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the appropriation is less obvious. However, one of Acker's more controversial appropriations is from William Gibson's 1984 text, Neuromancer, in which Acker equates code with the female body and its militaristic implications. In 1988, she published Literal Madness: Three Novels, which included three previously published works: Florida deconstructs and reduces John Huston's 1948 film noir Key Largo into its base sexual politics, Kathy Goes to Haiti details a young woman's relationship and sexual exploits while on vacation.

Between 1990–93, she published four more books: In Memoriam to Identity (1990); Hannibal Lecter, My Father (1991); Portrait of an Eye: Three Novels (1992), also composed of already published works; and My Mother: Demonology (1992). Her last novel, Pussy, King of the Pirates, was published in 1996.

In 2007, Amandla Publishing re-published Acker's articles that she wrote for the New Statesman from 1989–91. Grove Press published two unpublished early novellas in the volume Rip-Off Red, Girl Detective and The Burning Bombing of America, and a collection of selected work, Essential Acker, edited by Amy Scholder and Dennis Cooper in 2002.

Three volumes of her non-fiction have been published and re-published since her death. In 2002, New York University staged Discipline and Anarchy, a retrospective exhibition of her works, while in 2008 London's Institute of Contemporary Arts screened an evening of films influenced by Acker.

Acker died of cancer in 1997. A selection of her papers is held in the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Duke University. A biography was published in "After Kathy Acker" by Chris Kraus was published in 2017, suggesting it's time to revisit her literary contributions.

Photo Credit: Evening Standard/REX/Shutterstock

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