Kathy Acker, who has often been described as post-punk post-feminist and post-industrial, in fact first appeared in print as part of the burgeoning New York literary underground of the mid 70s. She remained on the margins of the literary establishment, only being published in small presses until the mid 80s, thus earning herself the epithet of literary terrorist. 1984 saw her first British publication, her shit-kicking hell-hole of a novel –Blood and Guts in High School. From here on Kathy produced a considerable body of novels, she wrote pieces for a number of magazines and anthologies, and also had notable pieces printed in issues of ReSearch and Rapid Eye. Towards the end of her life she had a measure of success in the conventional press – the Guardian newspaper published several of her articles, including an interview with the Spice Girls, submitted just a few months before her death.
In April 1996 Kathy Acker was diagnosed as having breast cancer, and began to undergo treatment. In January 1997 she wrote about her loss of faith in conventional medicine in a Guardian article. In the article she explains that after unsuccessful surgery, which left her physically mutilated and emotionally debilitated, she rejected the passivity of the patient in the medical mainstream and began to seek out the advice of nutritionists, acupuncturists, psychic healers, and Chinese herbalists.
Kathy Acker died in Mexico on the 3rd December 1997.
Early in 1998 I attended a memorial night held in San Francisco for this experimental novelist. In one of the big trendy warehouse-style clubs on Folsom and 11th Streets, in the increasingly hip South of Market district, friends and admirers of the writer gathered for an evening of readings, song and memories. One of the most notable readers at the memorial night was a Mambo, who lit a white, a red and a black candle and explained the journey that the soul makes from life to death, the journey that Kathy’s soul was now undertaking. She rang a bell and recited a translation of an oral poem, leading us all in call and response chorus, in which the women, speaking as protective goddesses, called out to Kathy and the men, speaking as men called out in support, urged Kathy’s soul onward. Finally peace and silence fell and the Mambo placed her three candles on an altar table set by the side of the stage, which was decorated with flowers and a photograph of Kathy Acker.
Other readers took the stage. An ex-student of Acker’s creative writing course at the San Francisco Art Institute, people who had worked with her and old friends reminisced, those who were with her when she died fondly recalled her last hours. A Sufi-Mystic lute player lost himself in his music, others gave readings from the ‘spells’ of the Egyptian Book of the Dead or extracts from her books or performed acoustic versions of her favourite songs. Susie Bright, a tall, striking woman in spectacles, read from a report written by an undercover porn-squad cop. The piece described, in lurid and bizarre detail, a dirty film he’d had to watch in the line of duty. Choking back tears Susie exclaimed that Kathy would’ve had fun re-writing the report and would’ve come up with a better ending.
A dozen or more people each took the stage and added their memories of Kathy Acker to warm misty air. Each of the readers placed an object on the altar table at the side of the stage.
The altar at the left side of the stage reminded me of a Mexican Day of the Dead style ‘ofrenda’ – an traditional offering table dedicated to the dead, on which are placed favourite objects, food and indulgences of the deceased in order that they may continue to enjoy these things in the spirit world. A typical Mexican 1st November ofrenda may include cakes, chocolate, sugar skulls, alcohol and cigarettes amongst garlands, candles, incense and the traditional bright orange Marigold flowers.
Kathy’s ofrenda was a large table, covered in a red cloth, on it were placed her weights, her motorcycle boots, a woolly hat embroidered ‘Harley Davidson’ and a bottle of Bacardi, alongside candles, roses, photographs and copies of her published novels.
A Tentative Bibliography – Kathy Acker
Adult Life of Toulouse Lautrec (1978)
Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula By the Black Tarantula (1978)
I Dreamt I Was a Nymphomaniac (1980)
N.Y.C. in 1979 (1981)
Hello, I’m Erica Jong (1982)
Great Expectations (1983)
Algeria: A Series of Invocations Because Nothing Else Works (1984)
Blood and Guts in High School (1984)
Don Quixote: Which Was a Dream (1986)
Literal Madness: Three Novels (Reprinted 1987)
Kathy Goes to Haiti
My Death My Life by Pier Paolo Pasolini
Wordplays 5: An Anthology of New American Drama (1987)
In Memoriam to Identity (1990)
Empire of the Senseless (1990)
Hannibal Lecter, My Father (1991)
My Mother: A Demonology (1994)
Pussycat Fever (1995)
Dust. Essays (1995)
Pussy, King of the Pirates (1996)
Bodies of Work. Essays (1997)
Portrait of an Eye: Three Novels (Reprinted 1998)