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Bookish Birthdays: Kathy Acker

18th Apr 2012

Kathy Acker 1986 ~ London
An underground icon equal parts lauded and overlooked, today would have been Kathy Acker's 65th birthday. Beloved in the US by a host of famous faces, from academic luminaries to musicians, authors, artists and activists, in the UK she is still seen by many as peripheral to the literary canon; a cult heroine who remains conspicuously absent in mainstream academia and public recognition.

Born in New York City in 1947 and published by a variety of independent presses until her breakthrough 1984 novel, Blood and Guts in High School, Kathy was a renegade who unapologetically embodied the New York punk movement.

Blood and Guts in High School was the first of her writing to be published in Britain, and caused controversy far and wide for its explicit sexual content and central themes of incest, paedophilia, abortion and prostitution.

Featuring several graphic sex scenes between Janey, the novel’s ten-year-old protagonist, and her father, the book was banned as pornographic in several countries.

But as well as being criticised, it was original and innovative, cementing Acker’s reputation as a ‘literary terrorist’. Appropriating the work of Jean Genet, Georges Bataille and the Marquis de Sade, it used journal entries, dreams, drawings, letters and poetry to form a textual collage, similar to the cut-up techniques that made William Burroughs so famous.

Acker’s texts are renowned for being challenging reads; exploring alternative identities for characters from fact and fiction, they’re almost always abstract and non-linear in nature, with disjointed imagery and fantasy sequences of violence, sex and apocalyptic environments that bear similarities to Patti Smith‘s spoken word and poetry.

Yet despite being dismissed by some as inaccessible, Acker’s influence remains undeniable and far-reaching. Kathleen Hanna and Kim Gordon, of Bikini Kill and Sonic Youth, have acknowledged Acker’s strong influence on them (according to Kathleen Hanna, Acker is the one who told her to start a band).

She is also credited as an influence and inspiration by other contemporary experimental authors, including Stewart Home and Dennis Cooper. Even Delirium, the popular comic book character by Neil Gaiman, is partly based on Acker.

Diagnosed with breast cancer in 1996, Kathy Acker died the following year in Room 101 of a Mexican clinic. In a Bookslut interview with Neil Gaiman, comic book king Alan Moore is credited with quipping “there was nothing that woman couldn’t turn into a literary reference.”

A literary pirate and pioneer, we salute her, and will be celebrating her 65th birthday today.

Not sure where to start? Try Essential Acker, which has extracts from Blood and Guts in High School, Pussy, King of the Pirates and numerous other works, and includes an introduction from Jeanette Winterson.

Jane Bradley

(Image via cromacom. Feature partly based on this one I wrote for BitchBuzz back in 2008)