A collection of essays has never been so utterly tragic and full of truth. James Allen Hall’s I Liked You Better Before I Knew You So Well is overflowing with vulnerability, and it is the vulnerability that makes the reading experience worth it. Hall’s essays demonstrate his ability to marry poetry and prose in a relationship that I hope will only continue to blossom.
Do you remember your first crush? Did you pass notes to them in class and flirt with them in the halls at school? “My First Time,” explores the first crush feeling of a young queer boy in Florida. He catches the eye of his crush and they have a secret note passing ritual in the halls, until another student sees their exchange. “His hands shot to my shoulders, his lips opened, and he shoved ‘Faggot’ onto me. Spittle served as a glue to make the name stick.”
In “Suicide Memorabilia” he struggles with the mental illness that surrounds his family. Suicide is a subject they are all too familiar with, and eventually it drives them apart: “We loved our mother, [ . . . ] we didn’t want her to die, but [ . . . ] we couldn’t live whole lives around the knives she insisted on wielding.” At nineteen years old, he got the first of many calls from his mother letting him know she was going to kill herself. She thought it would only be right to say goodbye.
“I tell my eighty-six-year-old grandmother that Grandsons #2 and #3 are gay. Grandma says, ‘uh-huh . . . well, so what?’” His family warns him to keep this secret from her as long as she lives, but Jamie doesn’t listen. Grandma may be smelly, have a knack for getting undressed at dinner, and she might make horrible chocolate pudding, but she loves Jamie exactly the way he is. “Adventures in Old Lady Land” is a heartwarming story of acceptance, from an unlikely, and completely eccentric, paternal grandmother.
In the namesake essay, and also the final piece in the collection, “I Liked You Better Before I Knew You So Well” tells the story of a survivor trying to accept what happened to him. The essay itself reads like pieces of flash fiction moving through the before, during, and after phases of his rape. “I am afraid to write my rapist’s name,” he says at the beginning. The development is honest and painful, and the writing will haunt and warm you at the same time.
James Allen Hall’s collection of essays is brave, powerful, and so utterly real. His stories show the harrowing experiences that engulfed his childhood and young adult life, but they also exemplify the perseverance and love that were present as well. The essays are full of life, more than just words on a page, and they will burrow their way into your heart and stay there for weeks to come.