when the weather turns.


despite there being four seasons, there are two significant weather turns:  when we go from warm to cold and then from cold to warm. (it goes without saying that i am not a meteorologist.) there's something in the air that shifts, a subtle change of warmth entering the air and bringing with it the damp — or, alternately, of chill entering and bringing with it dryness — and i'm happy to report that last week's heat wave is over and autumn seems to settling in at last.

when the weather turns, my reading wants turn with it, and i start looking for so-called cold weather books. the obvious ones are the russians, jane eyrefrankenstein. du maurier's rebecca is another favorite novel to reread around this time of year, as is ishiguro's never let me go, and i start craving the dark melancholies and utter weirdnesses of korean authors as the weather begins to turn again.

maybe it has to do with the physical chill, the whistling of the wind, the crunching of leaves underfoot. maybe it has to do with how chilly weather makes us think comfort food, and all my comfort food is korean and/or japanese — curry, kimchi fried rice, mi-yeok-gukyuk-gye-jang, soon-du-bu, tonkatsu — everything hot and spicy and warm, served with a bowl of rice. maybe it has to do with the coziness of staying indoors, or maybe it has to do with the fact that i live in an area of brooklyn that seems to love halloween, which ups my desire for something creepy and unsettling to send chills up and down my spine.

whatever it is, i love it. autumn reinvigorates me, brings back to life everything that withered up in me during the summer, and i love the cold, the approach of winter, the snap in the air. i love bringing out my coats and my dutch oven, and i love being able to make pies and puff pastry in my kitchen again because it's cold, no worries about dough softening too quickly.

i love going back to darker literature, sinking my toes in the shadows of humanity again — which, okay, is not quite the most accurate statement because, right now, i'm reading ruth reichl's garlic and sapphires and cracking up on the regular. i've a small stack of korean literature to dive into afterwards, though, so there's that — and i also have this book i'm writing, which is a cold-weather book, by the way, and the leaves are turning in the park, so here are some photos from my walk today.



why do humans have this desire for possession, and why do we grow savage when we cannot satisfy it? (bae suah, a greater music, 60)

i find that there are two kinds of cities:  the ones i explore and the ones i settle into.

the latter is the rarer city, the kind of city that embraces me and makes me think, “hey, this feels familiar. i think i could see myself here; i think i could feel whole here.” it’s the kind of city i’m not frantic to see, the kind of city that discourages lists of things to do and foods to eat and neighborhoods to visit. it’s the kind of city that encourages slowing down, sitting in a cafe with a book and pastry and cup of coffee, absorbing moods instead of simply passing them by or walking them off. it’s the kind of city that says, “you have time. you’ll be here again, so slow down.”

it’s the kind of city that feels like it could be home, at least for a little bit because nyc will always be home. so far, i’ve only come across two cities like this:  sapporo and boston.

ultimately, “learning a foreign language” is too simplistic an expression for a process which is more like crossing a border; similarly, an individual’s development as a human being is only possible through language, not because language is our only means of communication, but because it is the only tool precisely calibrated for the application of critical thought. but to me, these thoughts of m’s were nothing but phantoms. a mother tongue isn’t a border that can just be crossed, not even with the strongest will in the world. even after fully mastering a foreign language (if such a thing is ever possible), your mother tongue still acts as a prison for your consciousness — this wasn’t a view that m ever expressed in so many words, but i knew that it was true. the fact that my mother tongue was different from m’s caused me unbearable grief. (61)

i took one book with me to boston because i didn’t want to carry more than one because i was traveling with friends and didn’t anticipate much down-time to read. on our second (and last) day, though, we split ways, and i found myself back in beacon hill, at tatte with a pear tart and a latte, exhausted and starving from walking and not really wanting to do much more city-seeing and/or touristing.

i spent the afternoon reading and finished this slim korean novel, a greater music by bae suah. two weeks ago, i went to hear deborah smith, the translator, speak at AAWW (that write-up is coming soon), and she’d briefly discussed a greater music and the language within — the narrator is a korean writer who returns to berlin to house-sit for her on-again/off-again boyfriend, and there’s a sense of the novel being in this in-between place language-wise because the narrator is in a foreign country, learning a foreign language, and feeling the frustrations of that linguistic barrier.

it’s been a few years since she’s been in berlin, and much of the novel is spent in remembering, in thinking back to her previous stay in berlin as a student. much of those thoughts, in turn, circulate around her former lover, m, whom the narrator hasn’t seen since she was last in berlin, though we meet m more as a ghostly figure who’s both central and peripheral to the narrator’s thoughts.

m views the world through theory. she’s clearly intellectual, and she thinks a lot, but there’s a sense through the novel that she’s removed from the world, not only intellectually or emotionally but physically, too, because of her health. this isn’t to make it sound like m’s reclusive or closed off to the world because she works, interacts with people, and so on; it’s more to say that i recognize her way of thinking, of thinking so deeply about things that everything is broken down into theories and nothing is simple or grounded.

the narrator is rather aligned with m’s ways of seeing the world, which leads to the thinking presented in the quote above. and it’s not that i have a problem with theory or that i don’t appreciate these deeper, more abstract ways of thinking about things, but here was (and is) my constant gripe with theory — that it often gets twisted up in itself and exists on its own self-elevated planes and eludes intersection with reality.

if m’s soul was with me then why did erich need to be a problem, if mere flesh, limited and inconsistent, really did amount to nothing, then why did i have to suffer on account of their one-night stand, why couldn’t i break free of this permanently unsatisfied desire for possession, when i was only too aware of how utterly base it was? i couldn’t come up with a single word of consolation or justification for myself. when its corollary is a hunger to monopolize m’s gestures, her shadow, her voice, love soon becomes a hell. (97)

you’d think that, given that this was the first time i was in boston, i’d be eager to try all these different restaurants and cafes.

instead, i went to flour for breakfast every single morning (read: three mornings) — and, then, i went back for cake and cocoa on saturday afternoon. i went to tatte twice, once for lunch, a second time for a pear tart and an iced latte. if i’d gone to the salty pig on saturday night as i’d hoped to, i likely would have gone back on sunday night, it was that good.

i am a creature of habit, and that’s also the thing about cities you settle into. there’s no frenzy to try everything, no need to cram everything in, no guilt at going back to somewhere you like and maybe ordering the same thing (i did that) or trying something new (i did that, too). also, there is nothing like a bowl of noodles and a plate of dumplings late at night.



two years ago, i read rebecca solnit’s men explain things to me (haymarket, 2014), and, the whole time i was reading it, i thought, omg, this is a book that everyone should read.

i thought the same as i read sady doyle’s trainwreck (melville house, 2016). the subtitle for the book reads, “the women we love to hate, mock, and fear … and why,” and it’s an exploration of the narrative society forces upon women and the glee with which we watch them implode as they fall from grace. in each chapter, doyle gives us an “anatomy of a trainwreck,” examples of women throughout history who went against the norms, women like mary wollstonecraft, charlotte brontë, and billie holiday amongst others, and i appreciated that doyle doesn’t try to deify women or mount a biased defense — her writing is smart and fair and easy to read, her observations astute and well-researched, and her analyses thought-provoking and oftentimes disturbing in the ways that reality is disturbing.

this is a post comprised entirely of quotes. part of the reason for this is that i think what doyle is saying in trainwreck is so crucial. another part is that i have another post in mind but didn’t want to clog that up with so many quotes, so until then ...!



women who have succeeded too well at becoming visible have always been penalized vigilantly and forcefully, and turn into spectacles. and this, i would argue, is a none-too-veiled attempt to push women back into the places we’ve designed as “theirs.” if you stay at home, get married right away, never get a job, never display any unwelcome emotions, and stay away from the public eye to such an extent that you actually never make any sort of impression whatsoever, you can’t become a trainwreck. (xviii)


01.  SEX

similarly, heterosexuality — the grand structure underpinning all these freak-outs — is the “norm.” it’s assumed, until it isn’t. but when a woman is presumed to be heterosexual, it normally takes exposed skin to trigger public freak-outs, invasions of privacy, and media handwringing. when a woman is rumored to be queer — a rumor that tends to arise whenever the press has trouble placing a famous woman with an equally famous man — all it takes is for her to go outside in the company of another woman. (15)


a woman who’s “out of control” sexually isn’t just a person making decisions, most of which will never affect you. she’s a defector from the ongoing sexual warfare; her influence stands to tera the whole system down. (16)


02.  NEED

in an ideal patriarchal world, men pursue relationships, create relationships, and end relationships; women simply sit there and get related to, answering male desire and affection rather than feeling their own. “crazy” women, again, are women who operate as subjects rather than objects, women who want things rather than passively accept the fact of being wanted; they’re seen as unnatural and grotesque because their desire exists on its own terms, rather than in answer to male needs. (48)


when we live in a climate of distrusting women’s voices, of viewing women as primarily obliged to service the relationship demands of men, their pain — pain that goes beyond hurt feelings or loneliness, pain that comes from actual abuse — is always suspect. we can blame them for not being good, not making their male partners happy. we can say, not that abuse has made them act angrily or strangely, but that they were abused because they were angry or strange. and this is true even when the abuse in question is incontrovertible and well documented. (59-60)


simply because we’ve been taught to value men’s voices over and above women’s, our natural response to a woman’s claims of violence is to see her as delusional (she can’t perceive the real story) or unstable (she can’t handle the real story) or just plain frightening (she knows the real story, but she’s out to get him). which means that a tremendous number of female stories — perhaps the most urgent and enlightening ones, the stories we most need to hear — have been shut down or silenced. or it means that women have silenced themselves, believing that if they ever truly admitted what they were going through, they would sound crazy. (63)



for men, the point of this [the rules of femininity] is obvious:  it keeps them distrustful of women, ready and eager to laugh at or dislike women, and quietly, constantly assured that they don’t really have to take women all that seriously. which, since most of the culture is aimed at conveying that message anyway, is not surprising. but in truth, men are not the primary beneficiary of all this rule-defining.

the degrading, the degraded female images are really aimed at you: yes, you, the nice, normal girl trying to figure out how to behave in public. we give you a constant stream of images and a whole lot of very good reasons to play by the rules and never, ever let the act slip because you aren’t a nice girl who spends one night a year playing dress-up as a monster. you’re a monster who spends 364 nights a year playing dress-up as a nice girl. (78-9)


mental illness and addiction ruin women — make them sideshows, dirty jokes, bogeymen, objects of moral panic — but they seem to add to a man’s mystique. […] we all understand that genius and madness are connected. at least, we do when the genius is male. (86)


04.  DEATH

put forth death as the ideal condition for troubled women — as something that makes them beautiful, forgivable, important — and plenty of troubled women will die. not because these women are more gullible or foolish than anyone else, but because, in sufficiently dire straits (at the bottom of addiction, or depression, or simple loneliness) death already looks like an easier and better solution than continued pain and helplessness. suicide-prevention experts know this. it’s why they plead with journalists, over and over again, not to make death look more appealing or glamorous than recovery. (115)


05.  SHUT UP

the more reasonable explanation is that the historical lack of support for women as artists or public figures — the dismissal and condescension they face, the pressure to do the “reasonable” thing and put marriage and family first, the lack of cultural context that would make support and promoting them a political act — has resulted, not only in women avoiding the arts or being shamed out of them (i confess, i do think) but in a landscape where even relatively famous and ambitious women were so unimportant that they could disappear without a trace.

which brings us to the idea that silence is not just an unlucky outcome, for a woman. it may be the natural outcome — as far as many people are concerned, the ideal outcome — of being female in a sexist world. (129)



no one would suggest that plath wasn’t mentally ill. suicide is never a sign of radiant health. but this is another instance of the david foster wallace conundrum: we say that david foster wallace was a genius (because he wrote infinite jest) and that he was also mentally ill (because he hanged himself). even if his experience of mental illness substantially informed his writing (infinite jest, like the bell jar, is drawn largely from the author’s experiences after a suicide attempt in college; the addiction-recovery center wallace fictionalizes was his first stop after mclean, which also happened to be the exact same hospital plath stayed in, and that she fictionalized in the bell jar), his writing isn’t a symptom of his illness, but evidence of his ability to transcend it. but for plath, even the most basic part of writing, the fact that she could sit down and concentrate long enough o compose a poem — the same skill displayed by every third-grader who has ever successfully completed a book report — is supposedly a form of madness. men have problems. women are problems. (167)


plath took her own flaws as her subject, and thereby made them the source of her authority. by detailing her own over-abundant inner life, no matter how huge and frightening it was — her sexuality, her suicidability, her broken relationships, her anger at the world or at men — she could, in some crucial way, own that part of her story, simply because she chose to tell it. and, if she could do this, other women could do it, too. (168)



the primary audience of celebrity blogs, tabloids, and reality TV shows is not straight men. women are the ones who buy these stories. we’re the ones who enjoy them. we’re the ones these narratives are shaped for and aimed at. we’re the reason they exist. but what is it, exactly, that we’re enjoying? (184)


we rarely love or hate public figures for who they are. we can’t; we don’t know them. at a certain point, the media narrative surrounding celebrities stops being about the specifics of their lives or personalities and enters the realm of myth. stars are only stars because they represent something larger than themselves, some archetype, or a story we enjoy telling. (189)



insisting on the needs of your individual nature, being unquiet and unhappy when those needs are not satisfied, requires that you have an individual nature to begin with. and it requires that you not be ashamed of it. (237)


because the fact is, i’ve spent a while looking at the lives of the strongest, most feminist women in history. the icons; the immortal geniuses; the women to whom we are all meant to aspire. and the thing is? there’s not a strong feminist woman among them.

charlotte brontë was a genius, whose work has resonated for centuries as an example of female intellect and expressive power. her letters to constantin huger are some of the stupidest things i’ve ever read, a masterful, two-year-long demonstration of one woman’s inability to absorb the fact that the guy she liked did not like her. mary wollstonecraft was over a century ahead of her time on women’s education, and twice as far ahead on women’s sexual freedom. she still thought she’d rather drown than not have a boyfriend. harriet jacobs was possibly one of the bravest women who ever lived. she survived unspeakable atrocity, thanks only to her own daring, ingenuity, and resilience, and published one of the most important political documents of her age. and she was afraid that “educated people” would make fun of her grammar.

she was scared, but she did it. that’s all being strong is, apparently: being scared, or flawed, or weak, or capable (under the right circumstances) of astonishing acts of stupidity. and then going out and doing it all anyway. trying, every morning, to be the woman you want to be, regardless of how often you manage to fall short of your own high expectations. (243)


we have to stop believing that when a woman does something we don’t like, we are qualified and entitled to punish her, violate her, or ruin her life. (253)


the thing is, i’ve never seen one [a trainwreck]. not in real life. not in the wild. as far as i can tell — and i have more evidence, and more access to it, than i would have had at any other point in history — they don’t exist. even the women who seem Good or Bad at first glance tend to fragment into something more complicated and ambiguous if you look at them long enough. women are not symbols of superhuman virtue. women are not symbols of all that is disgusting and corrupt. women, it turns out, are not symbols of anything, other than themselves.


all the women we were supposed to be, all the women we feared being: they never existed. the only thing that exists is us, in aworld where there are no normal girls. (256)

california (or, really, los angeles).

aka, the land of 100+ degree heat waves at the end of the september, with weather so dry and punishing that my sinuses, lips, and skin revolt. it's autumn in new york city now, and i am pleased as punch.


i spent the last week in california with family, which, as it turns out, mostly means that i spent last week eating. i was born in queens but grew up in the suburbs of los angeles until i moved back out to nyc in august 2012, so going back to california always feels like going back in time — and i keep calling it california, like california isn't a massive state with vastly different poles and middle. i just like the word "california;" i like the way it fits in my mouth; and i have little love for los angeles, anyway, that barren land of heat and tinsel and traffic ...

... which might sound like an unfair statement because i do sincerely enjoy my time in LA.

seriously, though, if LA were a person, despite all the good times, we would not be friends.


los angeles is all about the familiar; i rarely deviate from what i already know. i go to the same restaurants and eateries, seek out the same food, buy the same salad from trader joe's, and part of it is that i am a creature of habit and, thus, gravitate towards what i know and crave, especially when my time in LA is so limited.

LA, to me, means comfort:  tacos, korean food, jack in the box. it means gogi and sushi. it means mum's cooking because mum makes the best korean soups and marinates the best kalbi. it means a whole lot of fruit because fruit (aside from apples) tastes better and is cheaper in california, and my parents eat a lot of fruit.

it means driving a lot and trying to avoid traffic and going around blocks looking for parking. it means hot days and chilly evenings; it means sticking a tissue up one nostril because of course only one nostril is congested because my sinuses hate the dry weather. it means craving chocolate all the time, and it means crazy beautiful open skies because all that flatness of los angeles is good for that at least, for opening up that blue and making it a canvas you can't ignore because you're stuck in traffic and what else are you going to do but marvel at the colors?

LA is a reminder of where i come from, where i've left, where i've rooted myself. it's a reminder of how place shapes us, of how places can be kind to us or reject us, and it's a reminder of the people and things that ground me.

ultimately, it's a place i can't seem to shed, at least not while my parents are still living there.


alexandra kleeman & liz moore!


2016 september 16 at powerhouse arena:  last friday, i walked over to dumbo to hear alexandra kleeman (intimations, harper, 2016) and liz moore (the unseen world, norton, 2016) in conversation.

i'm a huge fan of kleeman; i absolutely loved both her books (her novel, published last year by harper, is you too can have a body like mine); and i love how atmospheric her writing is, the ways she captures mood and strangeness/weirdness but does so very thoughtfully, not haphazardly. it's easy to get lost in her writing, and i highly recommend both of her books.

  • alexandra kleeman:  the stories in this book started in different ways, but they all started from the grain*, i think.
    • * (i think she said "grain." she may not have used that word specifically.)
  • AK:  [“you, disappearing”] actually started from a tweet that i tweeted where i just said, what if the world started disappearing piece by piece?
  • AK:  i think that it’s difficult for me to think about creating a whole plot and organizing it for story. i start with an idea — it helps me feel like i’m learning something instead of investigating a plot inadequately.
  • liz moore:  “choking victim” gave me so much anxiety because it’s basically every fear i’ve had since having a child.
    • AK:  because maybe you have longer to think about being a mother now than you used to in [that] you have a lot to worry about and think to be prepared for it. i definitely have no experience, and one thing i was interested in with that story was how i could create this situation where this character realistically makes this major mistake. [we’ve all been in situations where we make decisions that are bad decisions, but, at that moment, we think it makes sense.]
    • AK:  i began from that point [at the end], that plot point in that story and worked backwards to see how to funnel everything towards that.
  • AK:  to write a novel, you have to keep yourself in pretty much the same mental condition, i think. your novel kind of anchors you to time and place. these stories, i wrote over a period of six years, and i wrote them as an escape from the novel. the earlier stories — yeah, it’s changed stylistically. i’ve gotten very interested in making characters with problems that mirror mine more literally.
  • LM:  every time i write something, i feel like i’ve started from scratch — like, what do people say, and what do they look like? i’m interested in personification as a thing you can do to people but you can also do to non-people.
  • LM:  we both have lobsters in our books. we should have done something lobster-themed tonight.

brooklyn book festival, 2016!

today was the brooklyn book festival, aka one of my favorite days of the year! unfortunately, i didn't make it to all the panels i'd hoped; a weekend of little/bad sleep and the humidity drained me by mid-afternoon, especially because i started when the festival started, bright and early at ten am! here are some photos and panel recaps.


no attempts at introductions today; i'm pooped.

10 am:  unsung heroines
alexander chee (the queen of the night, hmh, 2016), desiree cooper (know the mother, wayne university press, 2016), irina reyn (the imperial wife, thomas dunne, 2016), moderated by clay smith (kirkus)

  • alexander chee:  this novel (the queen of the night) was my attempt to write about these women i would see at the edges of things or mentioned in a sentence in other works, where the line would be something like "she was a favorite of the emperor's" [or ...] "she could walk on her hands," and the narrative would move on from there — and i was like, wait a minute, can we go back to the woman who could walk on her hands?
    • AC:  i was a boy soprano — but, when you're a boy soprano, you know your voice will leave eventually. i think female sopranos know this, too, but they have longer than 3-5 years.
    • AC:  women had to become these supernatural women [...] to be seen as more than normal women.
  • desiree cooper:  women [hold] a lot of dimensions of their lives in secret, and it's sort of like a giant well-kept secret. [know the mother]'s not an autobiographical book, but it's definitely mined from the experiences of my friends.
    • DC:  detroit is not the kind of town where you can go very far without meeting people who are not like you. it was the gift that i got, to be able to step into different lives.
    • DC:  the stories hang together around the issue of what happens when gender asserts itself when you least expect it, when those roles come down on a woman.
    • DC:  i used to be a lawyer and worked in a corporate setting, and there really was a bathroom with two stalls [for women] in this office of 150 people. [she was pregnant at one point while working here.] when you can't even talk about a happy event, how do you talk about a loss? you hide every aspect of your womanness just to survive.
      • (the story she read from is written from the POV of a woman who miscarries while at work.)
  • irina reyn:  the 18th century is no joke; there's not a lot of information about that. it's a lot of things to negotiate with the historical narrative.
  • IR:  i think what's interesting [about writing historical fiction parallel to contemporary fiction] is that we get to ask "have we come a long way?" putting those side by side really asks those questions — "where are we now?"
  • DC:  women's rights are human rights. when you humanize women, everyone can relate to them.

11 am:  culinary comfort
julia turshen (small victories, chronicle, 2016), andie mitchell (eating in the middle, clarkson potter, 2016), pierre thiam (senegal, lake isle press, 2015), moderated by helen rosner (eater)

  • andie mitchell:  in my cookbook (eating in the middle), i talk about how losing 135 pounds doesn't mean you stop loving food. i had to shift my thinking of what is comfort food and how do i remake not only my mindset of comfort food and what i think those are.
  • pierre thiam:  senegal, our culture, is comfort food. we eat around the bowl, so anyone can come and mix in. there's always room for someone, a new perso, around the bowl. and for me that's comfort food, because of the love that's in it.
    • PT:  food is healing; it's love. in senegal, that's my inspiration and that's how i wanted the hook to be translated for american readers. i didn't want it to be just about recipes but about comfort and sharing.
  • julia turshen:  for most of my career, i feel i've been very tuned into other people's comfort.
  • JT:  i studied poetry in college, and i think of recipes as these poems, and they're [things] to translate what i did at home and condense them into instruction. i try to be as encouraging as possible. i think the biggest thing i try to do with recipes is try to answer questions before you ask them. it's sort of giving all these clues, and, within that, i find there to be opportunities for descriptive language.
    • JT:  i think food is the best thing to write about because there's so much to describe.
  • JT:  telling the stories that are true to you — that's what makes a cookbook successful.
    • JT:  the thing i love about cookbooks is that they're a means to tell stories [but then people take them and cook from them and these new stories come from them].
  • PT:  i don't think the cookbook should be approached as the bible because i don't cook that way. it's always an evolution, and i think that's how food works. it evolves, but you recognize the same dish even if it's not the same dish. cooking should be a personal, intimate affair, so you come with your own contribution to the recipe.

after my first two back-to-back panels, i moseyed around a little, browsed a little, snuck into a store to use the loo, then i managed to catch half of a poetry panel and hear ocean vuong (night sky with exit wounds, copper canyon press, 2016) and monica youn (blackacre, graywolf press, 2016) read — they're both so good.

1 pm:  witches
robert eggers (the witch), robyn wasserman (girls on fire, harper, 2016), alex mar (witches of america, FSG, 2015), moderated by jaya saxena (the daily dot)

  • alex mar:  paganism as an actual movement is now a phenomenon in this country.
    • AM:  there's a lot we see in film that's real; it's high drama. there's a specific reason for all of it. the reality is that a lot of things we associate with horror films is now actually — we should start to be more open-minded about how we view what these things are, which are part of a religious movement.
  • AM:  part of this [fear] is that paganism is related to radically independent women. we were joking about this earlier — about girls and how dangerous they are — but it's true.
  • robyn wasserman:  [...] these girls are children, and they're nice innocent little kids, but, somewhere, there's a turn, and it's like something has colonized this child, and this thing is a sexual impulse. and we as a society are so afraid of acknowledging sexuality and sexual feelings in adolescent girls [...] that we talk about it as a sort of colonizing. like the devil has taken over.
    • RW:  witchcraft [is] a tool you deploy against powerful women — but also, this idea that women can't be magical in their own right? if they have some kind of strong power, they must have been taken over by some greater power.
    • RW:  we're so terrified by female sexuality that we [make it this other thing].
  • robert eggers:  i think the misogyny of the early modern period was so great that they actually thought these girls were witches. witches were real.
  • RW:  there's something so threatening about girls doing something beyond the male gaze.
  • AM:  there's no evidence that anything we recognize as witchcraft was being practiced in salem.

why is there a photo of an apple cider doughnut? because i traded my email address for a doughnut, aka i signed up for a newsletter because it meant i could have a doughnut. which goes to say that enticing people with food? it works, folks. (heh, joking; i would've signed up, anyway.)

and that was the brooklyn book festival for me this year! thanks for reading!



girls are the only ones who can really give each other close attention, the kind we equate with being loved. they noticed what we want noticed. (the girls, 30)

i’m all about girls.

i don’t care about “squads” or “girl gangs” or whatever term is trending; just give me girls in all their messiness, complicated-ness, and weirdness. give me girls who come together and form friendships and loyalties, girls who might fight one instant and stand up for each other the next, girls who rally around each other, not because they’re BFFs but because they’re friends and they’re living in this moment together.

last week, i watched “청춘시대 (age of youth)”, a twelve-episode drama about five girls in their twenties who live together in a share house. they’re strangers who end up together because they need a place to live, not because they’ve rounded up friends with the intention of getting a place and being flatmates — korean society doesn’t actually work like that; generally, you live with your parents until you get married. (it’s why love motels are so prevalent.) maybe it’s proximity, maybe it’s the nature of shared space and being away from family, but, whatever it is, they become friends — and, for twelve delightful episodes that squeezed my heart and made me laugh and cry, i thought, i am all for more dramas/films/books about girls.

roughly two weeks ago, i caved and read emma cline’s the girls, which, it’s fair to say, was one of this summer’s most heralded releases and a highly-anticipated debut by a twenty-something girl. maybe it’s not fair to call a twenty-something a girl, but i don’t know — i quite like the word girl, and i don’t use it condescendingly.

the girls is loosely based on the manson murders. we follow evie, a bored, unattached fourteen-year-old whose personal life seems to be caught in the in-between. her parents are getting a divorce; she’s distanced from her best friend; and, when she comes across suzanne and the girls, she’s immediately intrigued. she starts spending more and more time with them on the ranch, where the leader, russell, has amassed a cult following, and all of this, the entire novel, is pointed toward the gruesome murders of victims who are essentially in the wrong house on the wrong night.

cline captures the wide-eyed wonder of what it is to be a girl beautifully, to be caught in the limbo of adolescence, wanting to be someone, to be part of something. there was quite a bit about cline’s writing and storytelling that i liked, despite her tic of phrasal fragments that drove me absolutely up the wall — cline would honestly benefit from falling out of love with her own language because she has talent and potential, and it will be exciting to see how she grows and matures as a writer.

ultimately, however, i found the girls flat and anticlimactic. cline does capture the era of 1960s california beautifully, and she encapsulates the nostalgia with which people tend to look back at that time and place. however, she fails to do much with it and doesn’t actually bring us into the murders from a different perspective. evie herself is too protected, her removal from the murders too orchestrated to be a successful attempt on cline’s end to preserve the integrity of evie’s voice as an innocent. suzanne and the girls also aren’t fleshed out enough so they don’t feel like actual people, as anything more than ciphers of russell’s demands and the objects of evie’s fantasies — and, even if the latter were the point, that evie projected her wants and desires onto these girls and therefore could never see them as real, dimensional people, cline also fails to drive that home.

in the end, the girls failed to deliver what i’d hoped it had promised. it didn’t give anything new or interesting or insightful regarding the murders. it didn’t take us into the girls’ minds or sink us into what makes these girls so interesting. it didn’t give us much that was solid or complex or real about these girls at all.


a glossary of terms:

  1. unni (언니):  what a girl calls her older sister — or a girl who is older than she is
  2. dong-saeng (동생):  a younger sibling — or someone who is younger
  3. sun-bae (선배):  someone who’s been at school/work/setting longer (i.e. a third-year)
  4. hoo-bae (후배):  someone who’s newer to school/work/setting (i.e. a first-year)
  5. jon-dae-mahl (존대말):  honorific speak
  6. bahn-mahl (반말):  casual speak
  7. chung-choon (청춘):  youth

things to note about korean social relationships and language:

  • korean society is all about hierarchy.
    • the easiest way it breaks down is obviously by age.
    • however, once you get into college or the work place, it’s not necessarily about age but who enters the school/work place first. you could be older than someone age-wise, but, if s/he started school before you did, s/he would be your sun-bae.
    • accordingly, instead of going by the year you'll graduate college, in korea, you go by the year you enter college.
  • korean has different levels of speak, the two most common of which are john-dae-mahl and bahn-mahl.
    • when meeting someone new, if the age and/or status gap is glaringly obvious or has already been defined, the older/higher-ranked might use bahn-mahl from the start.
    • otherwise, you start by using the honorific with each other. at one point, you will establish how you will speak by figuring out your social relationship to each other. if you’re older (or of higher rank), you’ll “lower” your speech. if you’re younger, you will continue to use the honorific.
    • if you’re the same age, you’ll likely both lower your speech.
  • you generally never call someone older than you by name.
    • (my brother tried to do this once; instead of calling me nuna, which is what a boy calls his older sister, he tried calling me by my name. he never tried it again.)
    • usually, you will call someone by his/her surname, followed by the relevant social label. for instance, in this drama, we know the characters as yoon sunbae, kang unni, song (or ji-won), ye-eun, and eun-jae.
    • eun-jae, because she’s the youngest, calls everyone in the house sun-bae (if they go to the same university) or unni (if they just live together) and uses the honorific. on the other hand, yoon sunbae, as the oldest, calls all the girls by name and uses bahn-mahl.

what was the point of this linguistic/cultural education? i’ve no idea. i just think it’s interesting, especially the ways that language creates a structure/foundation on which relationships are built.

it’s also interesting because, when i think of girls, this is what i recognize:  this social hierarchy that provides structure and protection, these defined relationships that situate us in connection to each other and give us a place and a role, these girls who flock together within this structure and look after each other.

it’s interesting because the language demonstrates clearly that we exist in proximity to and in relationship with other people.


i’ve never been the sort of reader who looks for relatability or recognizability in books. i grew up on the white canon, reading only the classics from british, russian, and french literature, so the notion of being able to relate to characters wasn’t one that even crossed my mind as a possibility. i didn’t read to find myself or see myself. i read because i loved language and story, because i was entranced by these worlds i’d never know, characters i’d never meet, places i’d never go.  

maybe it helped that i never felt like i needed to find a place to see myself reflected. i grew up bilingual and bicultural, watching korean dramas and listening to korean music; all my media and cultural touchstones are korean. even now, i have no idea what’s going on in western entertainment, whether in the pop scene or in hollywood, and this is certainly something i never thought much about and maybe took for granted, that representation (or the lack thereof) was something i should think about.

a growing awareness of this has shifted the way i read in recent years, and going from the girls to age of youth was a reminder of where i come from, how i approach literature, what i find relatable and recognizable and why. it was a reminder of the things i’ve sometimes yearned for, the life i might have had had i been born and raised in korea, these social relationships i know and understand so intimately yet have not partaken in.

it was a reminder of who i am, that i am korean, specifically korean-american, that these are two contributing sides of my identity that inform the ways i see the world. my ethnicity and nationality are not the defining forces of my life; i don’t think any one thing is (we contain multitudes after all); but there will always be this hybrid in me, this double-stranded thing that keeps me on the fringes of both cultures and usually tends to place me outside them, despite my attempts to fit.

to be honest, sometimes, i still don’t know how to feel about that.

i didn’t really believe that friendship could be an end in itself, not just the background fuzz to the dramatics of boys loving you or not loving you. (43)


i knew just being a girl in the world handicapped your ability to believe yourself. (237)

there’s something universal about being a girl — how we’re taught to obsess over our looks, to define ourselves according to how others see us, specifically how men see us and, also, desire us (or don’t). there’s something universal in the way girls are torn down, reduced to their physical appearance, taught to be critical of themselves and of each other, and there’s something so painfully familiar about the self-loathing, the insecurities, the meanness.

it doesn’t matter your ethnicity; i certainly see it on both sides of the pacific. cline, in particular, does a stellar job depicting this in her novel, and that was my favorite thing about the girls, the way cline captured this sense of girlhood, what it is to be a girl in her adolescence, waiting for life to happen and disappointed with its banality. i could see why evie was drawn to the girls, why she kept going back to the ranch, and there’s a lovely, nuanced poignancy to her adolescent self, a loneliness girls can recognize as well as that moment of realization that this is the world, and it is one that is not kind to girls.

and i think that’s what makes female friendships so precious, this notion that we have each other and understand each other, that we know and recognize the dangers of the world. it’s what made age of youth such a delight to watch, to see these girls come together as friends, not in the romanticized sense of BFFs or forever friends, but in the everyday, in the ways we learn to live with each other, in the ways girls band together and get through life.


i loved this drama. it wasn’t a perfect drama; some of the story lines were too dramatic, some of the episode endings abrupt; but it was genuine, heartfelt, and real. it got to the heart of what makes female friendships so intense and wonderful, and it got into all the pettiness, the craziness, the loyalty of girls.

it gave us five fully-fleshed, unique girls, each with her own life and desires and loneliness, with her own quirks and fashion style and personality, and it brought them together and showed us what friendship looks like. they stand by each other; they yell at each other, fight with each other; and they cry and scream and throw bags out windows — but, then, something happens, one of them is hurt, and they’re there, no questions asked.

maybe they won’t always be there because maybe this is a friendship reserved for youth, but that’s not the point. forever isn’t the point.

the point is that they’re in their twenties, and they’re going through their growing pains, and they happen to have met at this juncture in their lives. what’s important is that these girls are living in this moment, that they have these friendships with whom to experience youth.

what’s important is that they’re present; what’s important is now.