alexandra kleeman & liz moore!

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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.

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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.
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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.
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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.

 

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)
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

it's national suicide prevention week.

trigger warning for depression and suicide.


as people who kill themselves are, more often than not, depressives, depression is one of the deadliest diseases on the planet. it kills more people than most other forms of violence — warfare, terrorism, domestic abuse, assault, gun crime — put together.

even more staggeringly, depression is a disease so bad that people are killing themselves because of it in a way they do not kill themselves with any other illness. yet people still don’t think depression really is that bad. if they did, they wouldn’t say the things they say. (25)


earlier this year, penguin published matt haig’s reasons to stay alive stateside. it’s a memoir of haig’s experience with suicidal depression in his mid-20s, published in the UK in 2015 to positive reviews, and i was intrigued by what i’d heard, despite my usual instinct to avoid books about depression and suicide.

this might be a weird way of putting it, but i loved it — reasons to stay alive is one of the most honest depictions of depression i’ve read. it’s almost difficult to read because haig doesn’t try to gloss over the darker realities of depression, but he isn’t harsh, unforgiving, or judgmental, is kind and gentle instead. it's worth noting because kindness, i find, is crucial when we write or talk about depression and suicide, kindness to ourselves, to the people around us, because depression is a disease that breeds cruelty in so many ways.

what i appreciated most about reasons to stay alive, though, is that haig doesn’t give us false happy endings. he gives us hope and encouragement but acknowledges depression for what it is — darkness, a state of being trapped in a cave without air, without light. he doesn’t diminish it, neither the pain of it nor the reality of living with it, and he doesn’t allow the reader to harbor false illusions of a total “cure,” of some kind of magical thing that will fix everything forever.

it’s a sobering book because of its reality. according to the american foundation for suicide prevention, suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the US. for every suicide, there are twenty-five attempts, though this number isn’t accurate; because of the intense stigma surrounding suicide, attempts are believed to be largely underreported.  suicide isn’t an epidemic unique to the US, either; according to the world health organization, korea has he second-highest suicide rate in the world.

so why don’t we talk about it more?

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the tattoo is a symbol; it’s a reminder of why i kept living.

nell is the band i carry with me, literally because i’ve their logo tattooed on my right wrist. people sometimes ask what it is, what it means, and the truncated explanation is that it’s the logo of a band that means the world to me. the deeper, more honest response is that it’s a reminder that i’ve been here before, in this dark place where there is no hope, no air — that, in that darkness, there was this band that i loved, whose music comforted me and reached me when nothing and no one else could.

to put it more bluntly, the tattoo is a reminder that i have struggled (and will continue to struggle) with depression, but that i have survived, that i kept living.


the weird thing about depression is that, even though you might have more suicidal thoughts, the fear of death remains the same. the only difference is that the pain of life has rapidly increased. so when you hear about someone killing themselves it’s important to know that death wasn’t any less scary for them. it wasn’t a “choice” in the moral sense.  to be moralistic about it is to misunderstand. (18)

these are not words i write or share lightly. it’s terrifying to put them out here to be read; it’s easier to hide behind fiction, to talk about the book i’m working on, these short stories that have to do with suicide. it’s easier to offer some kind of abstract, oh, i’m interested in human darkness and pain and self-annihilation, as to why i write about suicide — which is true, yes, but doesn’t tell the whole truth.

one of the things i’m learning is that it’s impossible for me to write and present my best fiction if i’m not willing to be more open about why i write the stories i do. it’s also disingenuous for me to say that it’s hugely important to me to open up safe dialogue about depression and suicide if i’m not willing to talk about it first, to find some kind of courage to come out and say that i’ve been there, i am there, and that’s okay. i can’t ask people to be vulnerable and honest without first being vulnerable and honest myself.

similarly, i hedged a lot over whether or not to use these photographs with this post. i find it weird and discomfiting to put my face anywhere, but, in the end, i [obviously] ran with it for one express reason:  to say that i am real, and i am here.  

it’s easy to forget that there is a real human being actually creating the content we see on-line and on social media. it makes people say all sorts of shit on-line, shit they’d never have the gall to say to someone’s face, and it makes it easy to make assumptions about people’s lives. it’s easy to see the good things, the happy things, the celebratory things, but it’s hard to see the pain, the sorrow, the grief. it’s hard to see the human being in all his/her dimensions. it’s easy to forget even to try.

when i talk about depression and suicide, i want to put my face out there as a reminder that i am human, that depression is an expression of humanity, broken humanity but humanity nonetheless. i don’t want this conversation to be one that is depersonalized and dehumanized, hidden behind a mask of books and food. i don’t want these conversations to be stale and robotic; i want them to be vital reminders that we are human and we are here.


depression itself isn’t a lie. it is the most real thing i’ve ever experienced. of course, it is invisible.

to other people, it sometimes seems like nothing at all. you are walking around with your head on fire and no one can see the flames. and so — as depression is largely unseen and mysterious — it is easy for stigma to survive. stigma is particularly cruel for depressives, because stigma affects thoughts and depression is a disease of thoughts.

when you are depressed you feel alone, and that no one is going through quite what you are going through. you are so scared of appearing in any way mad you internalize everything, and you are so scared that people will alienate you further you clam up and don’t speak about it, which is a shame, as speaking about it helps.  words — spoken or written — are what connect us to the world, and so speaking about it to people, and writing about this stuff, helps connect us to each other, and to our true selves. (1-2)


if you’re depressed and/or suicidal, i am not here to tell you it gets better. when you’re spiraling, when you’re trapped in darkness, it won’t feel like it will ever get better until it already has. i am also not here to tell you this will never happen again. maybe you’ll be lucky to go through this depression once, but you also might not — i certainly wasn’t. i am also not here to patronize you by saying that you will get through this, partly because i don’t know that, but mostly because i don’t know how to tell you how to get through it, either.

i am, however, here to tell you that you are worth saving.

i am here to tell you that your pain is real, that you’re not crazy, that you’re just human.

i am here to tell you that you’re not alone, that, for what it’s worth, here is a stranger on the internet who understands. i am a real, solid human being who reads a lot, maybe thinks too much, takes photos of everything, and i struggle with depression. i have days when i can’t get out of bed. i have nights i do nothing but cry. i have moments when i want all this to end, not because i don’t want to live but because i’m so exhausted and drained from the pain and defeat and hopelessness. i want to believe that things will get better but have no basis for that kind of hope, that kind of faith, and i feel like i’m grasping at straws every day.

but here is the other side of it:  i’m here. i’m still here. i’m still writing; i’m still [over]sharing; i’m still living.

this — all of this — is what the tattoo signifies. that i have been there and survived, that i have gone back and survived, that i am still here because there are people out there like you and me, people who suffer and struggle and survive. that there is this band that i love, whose music comforts me and has constantly been that lifeline in my darkest moments, and that alone keeps me safe. that there are people in my life who love me and support me and have faith in me when i’ve long run out.

that all of this is worth living for, even if living sometimes hurts so fucking much.


now me:  […] you have a life. it is not perfect. no human life is. but it is yours. (177)
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if you’re in crisis, please get help, whatever help looks like to you. if you want stories of hope, of survival, check out the #ikeptliving hashtag started by to write love on her arms for their national suicide prevention week campaign this year. if you want to talk to someone, in the US, the national suicide prevention lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. in NYC, the samaritans are 212-673-3000. calls to both lines are confidential and available 24/7.


if you’re not depressed, anxious, and/or suicidal but know someone who is, this is for you:

how to be there for someone with depression or anxiety

1.  know that you are needed, and appreciated, even if it seems you are not.

2.  listen.

3.  never say “pull yourself together” or “cheer up” unless you’re also going to provide detailed, foolproof instructions. (tough love doesn’t work. turns out that just good old “love” is enough.)

4.  appreciate that it is an illness. things will be said that aren’t meant.

5.  educate yourself. understand, above all, that what might seem easy to you — going to a shop, for instance — might be an impossible challenge for a depressive.

6.  don’t take anything personally, any more than you would take someone suffering with the flu or chronic fatigue syndrome or arthritis personally. none of this is your fault.

7.  be patient. understand it isn’t going to be easy. depression ebbs and flows and moves up and down. it doesn’t stay still. do not take one happy/bad moment as proof of recovery/relapse. play the long game.

8.  meet them where they are. ask what you can do. the main thing you can do is just be there.

9.  relieve any work/life pressure if that is doable.

10.  where possible, don’t make the depressive feel weirder than they already feel. three days on the sofa? haven’t opened the curtains?  crying over difficult decisions like which pair of socks to wear? so what. no biggie. there is no standard normal. normal is subjective. there are seven billion versions of normal on this planet. (119-20)

it’s incorrect to think that we can save people. however, we can be there for people; we can seek to sympathize even if we cannot empathize; and we can love. and that love — as simple and small as it may sometimes seem — can go a long, long way.

it’s national suicide prevention week; let’s talk.

food, bodies, & healing.

if you need a gift for a friend [...] and you’re not sure what to get, buy a book.  new, old, used, whatever.  a world filled with books is a better place for all of us.  (new school/old school, "school daze")
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it's happened to me, too.  people are meant to connect, to empathize.  sharing openly has made me a real person in other people’s eyes.  i’m no longer just a picture of a cute looking cake.  of course, you always lose followers.  i remember posting a photo of myself on instagram during my first chemo and i think i lost a few hundred followers.  which was totally fine, because they were only there to see the cakes — more cakes, dammit!  ha.  but the comments on that photo were very meaningful for me.  i really felt the support of people all over the world.”  (eat my words, "reality bites," 45)

i have a complicated relationship with food — or, maybe, it’s more accurate to say, i have a complicated relationship with my body.

i’ve hated my body for over fifteen years, which is half my life.  for years, i wanted to disappear my body, wished it would shrink into itself, and i wanted my body to be something no one would see because, in the world i was raised, i was taught that my body was directly connected to any potential — any future, any relationship, any career would be determined by my body, by the size of it.

koreans have one standard of beauty, and it is one in which a woman must be thin and pale with double-lidded eyes, a straight nose, and a v-line jaw.  it’s one in which she must wear makeup and dress a certain way, and, if she does not conform, she is shamed for it, openly and without remorse, by family and strangers both.  this is the society in which i was raised (despite having been born and raised in the states), relentlessly made aware of the fact that i wasn’t skinny, told over and over again that i would be pretty if only i’d lose weight, made to feel like my body was a direct reflection of my character and ought to be judged accordingly.

no one escapes from such constant judgment unscathed, and, in that regard, i am no unicorn.


i’ve been in a reading slump as far as fiction goes, so i’ve been reading a lot of food writing instead.  part of it is an endeavor to learn more about what food writing is, what i respond to, what i don’t, and another part of it is an endeavor to figure out what kind of writer i am outside of fiction.

another part of it, though, is an attempt to work through my relationship with food, with this mess that it became over years and years of being torn down over my body.  it’s an attempt to articulate why i love food, the aspects of food culture (and, specifically, korean food culture) i respond to, and it’s an attempt to allow myself to love what i love and to be bold and unashamed of it.

this is not sponsored, endorsed, whatever by cherry bombe.  if you haven’t noticed yet, i have a compulsion to share things i like and am reading — plus, this is sort of like closure.  i kicked off this summer reading cherry bombe (issue number 4) and baking a sponge cake, and i’m closing this summer reading cherry bombe (issues number 3 and 6) and baking a sponge cake.  it’s been a good summer of sponge cakes.

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i cringe inwardly when dining companions use terms like "guilty pleasure" and "indulgent" to describe food.  this cultural dialogue pushes women to feel like they’re either eating too much or too little.  i try hard to ignore the "good" versus "bad" dichotomy concerning food, and dining alone gives me the space to focus on the visceral experience of eating, and not what anyone else thinks about my choices and cravings.  (girl crush, "table for one," 56)

in june, i went to an event where the writer wei tchou read from a piece in which she talked about how she never felt comfortable saying she loved food because she didn’t want to be cast into the chinese stereotype.  i didn’t even know such a stereotype existed, but i could understand where she was coming from — for so long, i felt so self-conscious about the fact that i loved food because i felt like people would judge me for it, like, oh, she’s fat; of course she likes to eat.

i used to wonder if maybe my love for food was a reaction to the body shaming.  was it because i wasn’t allowed certain foods while on stupid diets like jenny craig or while counting calories?  was it because i was denied the desserts and pastries that i found so beautiful and intricate, that i wished i could create?  was it because of the way i would be openly shamed, given dirty looks, made to feel guilty for the pall that would settle over the room when i displayed any kind of enjoyment of food?

do i love food because i wanted more of it, or do i love food because i love food, because i love the craft of it, the discipline, the artistry, the way food says so much about us?


for my whole life people have asked me*, “why aren’t you fat?” and i’ve just responded, “i have a good metabolism.”  but the truth is i was a really fat teenager and people always said to me, “you’d be so pretty if you’d just lose some weight.”  then i had the really good fortune to meet my first husband, a man who likes large women.  he looked at my large body and thought it was great.  it was the first time i didn’t hear that voice in my head telling me i couldn’t eat.  we moved in together and i lost 35 pounds.  i was cooking fresh food for him.  i’m convinced that when we don’t eat good food we’re so unsatisfied we keep eating more.  (girl crush, "turning the page," 66)

* ruth reichl


as it turns out, unsurprisingly, the food writing i love best places food in the world.  it’s more about where the food is coming from, who is creating it, how it’s being consumed, with whom, in what way, than it is about the food itself.  food becomes almost a detail in a bigger picture, which isn’t a diminishing of food and those who create it — i have huge amounts of respect for chefs, bakers, cooks, like i do for all artists, for all of us who dedicate ourselves to passion, obsession, and craft in pursuit of something worth pursuing.

however, like books, food doesn’t exist in a vacuum.  everyone must eat, and we all bring our own habits and preferences to what we eat, the way we eat.  we have our own attitudes toward food, whether it’s purely utilitarian or a marker of status or taste-driven, and, in the same ways, we bring our own damage, our brokenness, our hurts to our kitchens and our tables.

food, for me, has been a way of healing and recalibrating.  i’ve always been that cliché of a writer who escapes into her kitchen when she needs to work things out in her head — or, maybe, is it a cliché of a human being who loves to work with her hands, who loves how tactile and methodical baking is, how it forces you to slow down, take deep breaths, and think things through?  baking is an exercise in discipline, in patience, though my love for baking is never one that’s been recognized as such — people hear baking, and they think indulgence, they think fat, they think lack of control.  people hear, i like to cook, and they think, but of course.

to me, though, the kitchen is a place where bodies disappear, where they become things of utility, not things to be catalogued by societal labels.  it’s not about what you look like, whether in gender, size, race, but what you can create and why, for whom.  by extension, the table, too, becomes a place where bodies disappear, where they become participants in relationships, in community, in culture — and all this sounds so obvious to me, but, at the same time, it’s been a long time getting here, to this place where i can appreciate my body for what it can do, not hate it for what it doesn’t look like.

and this is what i love about the food writing i’ve been reading, whether in cherry bombe or lucky peach or the new yorker — that there is this acknowledgment that food plays a part in everyday life,  that food is culture, reacts to culture, shapes culture.  that we all approach food in different ways with different needs, whether as professional chefs or home cooks or people who eat and cook and share on social media.  that there isn’t just one way to think about food but many because it is an essential part of our lives and, as such, we should think about it, and we should embrace it.  we shouldn’t be ashamed to love it.


some books that i’ve loved that discuss food and/or bodies:

  1. alexandra kleeman, you too can have a body like mine (harper, 2015)
  2. park min-gyu, pavane for a dead princess(dalkey archive press, 2014)
  3. han kang, the vegetarian (hogarth, 2015)
  4. esmé weijun wang, the border of paradise (unnamed press, 2016)
  5. lee seung-u, the private life of plants (dalkey archive press, 2015) 
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four years ago, i moved back to new york city from los angeles, essentially fleeing the place i’d grown up.  i needed space to shed the ghost i’d become, space to grow and expand and fit into my own skin again, and it’s been four years of slow, painful progress.  sometimes, i look in the mirror and see a monster, but, other times, i look in the mirror and see someone who’s just fine as she is, who has her fears and insecurities and flaws but who also has a heart of her own, a mind of her own, a body of her own.

like i said, it’s been a long time coming, and there’s still a long ways to go, but i’m happy to say i’m getting there.


… donuts, or doughnuts as they were once spelled, are another thing entirely.  they’re not baked, they’re deep-fried — crisp and just greasy enough and, at their best, not too sweet.  they’re nuggety bombs of decadent toothsome animal deliciousness; they stick to your ribs and give you a zingy kick and don’t make you crash.  (new school/old school, "hot potato," 108)

minsoo kang!

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2016 august 25 at AAWW:  minsoo kang (left) is a professor of history and the translator of the story of hong gildong, an iconic korean classic, which also recently became the first korean classic published by penguin classics.  ('BOUT TIME, PENGUIN.)

last night, the asian american writers' workshop hosted an event dedicated to hong gildong.  first, authors marie myung-ok lee and min-jin lee gave brief talks about the significance of hong gildong to them.  dr. kang then gave a brief but informative and hilarious presentation on hong gildong and had a conversation with ken chen, the director of AAWW.

this was so interesting, and i wish i could have gotten more down.  dr. kang is working on a book on hong gildong, though, so there's that to look forward to!

also!  he's working on a translation of a book about queen inhyun and jang heebin (the title of which eluded me), which i am so excited about!

(i only took notes during dr. kang's presentation/conversation.  everything below is him.)


from his presentation:

  • the best history books are the ones that defamiliarize the familiar.
  • it's obvious that we lionize the defenders of the law, but why is it we also lionize the outlaws?
    • you can find the bandit — robin hood —everywhere in the world.  [...]  they're not local variations of robin hood; this is a universal figure.
  • every korean knows — or thinks they know — hong gildong.  it's so steeped into their culture.
    • there are 34 versions of hong gildong.
    • it has to do with how popular stories were spread in the joseon dynasty.  when stories got really popular, publishers would start publishing shorter and shorter versions to save paper.
  • i actually thought [translating] this would be an easy task.  even for most koreans, the premodern korean language is so difficult, and you also have to deal with how many chinese characters [there are].
  • i found, to my horror, that there were these 34 different manuscirpts, so i had to go through them to decide which to translate and consult with scholars in korea as well.
    • [note:  there wasn't only the issue of having to decide with version was most accurate; there was also the issue of the cultural significance of what hong gildong represents to koreans.  and then there was also what is being taught about hong gildong in schools in korea — he found out that it's all wrong.]
    • the thing [all the scholars] complained about — why doesn't the latest research get out?
    • this is such an important story.  even for the majority of koreans who have never read it, it has such great resonance.
    • this has to do with the problem of how korean literature is taught in schools.  as you know, in korean schools, it's all about memorizing.  so the way in which literature is taught, students aren't given entire works to read — they're given a couple paragraphs, and then, they're given 5-6 facts to memorize that will show up on the college entrance exam.
      • [note:  as it turns out, all 5-6 facts about hong gildong are wrong.]
      • [note:  in korea, you take one exam — the soo-neung — and that decides where you go.  there's one test day every year in november, and it goes without saying that it is a big deal.]

from his conversation with ken chen:

  • hong gildong represented so many things.  for instance, in south korea alone, you have hong gildong as the enduring symbol of the fights against authority.  and then you have hong gildong as this masculine symbol that men cannot really become.  [...] there's so much lament about "i can't be like hong gildong!"
  • one of the cliches about korean people is that we are a people filled with han.  [...]  i recently discovered that the notion of koreans being full of han was something that was come up by japanese people during the colonial era*.  the concept of han did exist in the joseon dynasty, but you can't find a single writer who thought of it as a depiction of korean nature.  [...]  we adopted it unthinkingly when it's very recent and it's not even our tradition.
    • [* because the japanese thought of koreans as savages, this idea of han as being central to koreans was pushed on them to explain koreans' sorrows.  the more korean thing is that, while, yes, we do have han, which is very simplistically translated as a deep sorrow/melancholy, we also have heung, which is joy, and the two balance each other out.]
  • when you read hong gildong as the classical text coming out of the joseon dynasty, there is no question that it's a product of a very patriarchal society.
    • in 20th century versions, the gender stuff gets really interesting because, in every new version, there is a love interest.
    • the suffering of women is used to measure the strength of men.  [i.e. men should be able to protect their women.  if the woman is harmed, the man should avenge her.  it has nothing to do with the woman and everything to do with the man.]
    • you see that in modern hong gildong stories.  there's a woman who's harmed, and so hong gildong needs to jump in to save her.
    • i think it has to do with how, during the colonial era, korean men were feminized under japanese colonialization.

solnit, stories, & autumn.

what’s your story?  it’s all in the telling.  stories are compasses and architecture; we navigate by them, we build our sanctuaries and our prisons out of them, and to be without a story is to be lost in the vastness of a world that spreads in all directions like arctic tundra or sea ice.  to love someone is to put yourself in their place, we say, which is to put yourself in their story, or figure out how to tell yourself their story.  (the faraway nearby, 3)
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the heat wave has broken and given way to significantly cooler, dryer temperatures in new york city, and it’s got me thinking autumn.

autumn’s a great season; it means cool weather, jackets (which mean pockets), beanies, the world done up in oranges and reds, comfort food.  it means the brooklyn book festival (september 18!) and the new yorker festival (october 7-9!), and it means big fall releases (a post on that coming soon).  it also means new starts, new endeavors, new attempts to find courage — which has me turning to rebecca solnit again.

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the bigness of the world is redemption.  despair compresses you into a small space, and a depression is literally a hollow in the ground.  to dig deeper into the self, to go underground, is sometimes necessary, but so is the other route of getting out of yourself, into the larger world, into the openness in which you need not clutch your story and your troubles so tightly to your chest.  being able to travel both ways matters, and sometimes the way back into the heart of the question begins by going outward and beyond.  this is the expansiveness that sometimes comes literally in a landscape or that tugs you out of yourself in a story.  (30-1)

there’s an empathy and grace to solnit’s writing that i love.  she clearly thinks deeply and seriously about the world, and she conveys this thoughtfulness and consideration in writing that i find absolutely lovely.  solnit doesn’t write like one who wastes words or uses them carelessly; she is, rather, careful about how she presents her ideas, observations, and thoughts, not in the control-freak, obsessive sort of way but in the way of someone who understands and respects the value of the printed word, of expression.

like plath’s unabridged journals, solnit’s the faraway nearby is a book i like to keep in arm’s reach at all times.  solnit makes me want to see the world in different ways, to be more expansive in my thinking, to seek connections and stories in places i might not have otherwise sought, and she feeds my desire to see the world, to get out of my bubble and comfort zone and explore different perspectives.  she makes me think about story and story-telling, why story is so essential, and that, in turn, makes me reexamine why i tell stories and why i tell the stories i do.

it’s not everyday that you find an author who challenges you to be better, to do better, to write and think and tell stories better.  if and when you do, it makes sense to keep him/her close.


to hear is to let the sound wander all the way through the labyrinth of your ear; to listen is to travel the other way to meet it.  it’s not passive but active, this listening.  it’s as though you retell each story, translate it into the language particular to you, fit it into your cosmology so you can understand and respond, and thereby it becomes part of you.  to empathize is to reach out to meet the data that comes through the labyrinths of the senses, to embrace it and incorporate it.  to enter into, we say, as though another person’s life was also a place you could travel to.  (193)
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like many others who turned into writers, i disappeared into books when i was very young, disappeared into them like someone running into the woods.  what surprised and still surprises me is that there was another side to the forest of stories and the solitude, that i came out that other side and met people there.  writers are solitaries by vocation and necessity.  i sometimes think the test is not so much talent, which is not as rare as people think, but purpose or vocation, which manifests in part as the ability to endure a lot of solitude and keep working.  before writers are writers they are readers, living in books, through books, in the lives of others that are also the heads of others, in that act that is so intimate and yet so alone.  (60-1)

&

writing is saying to no one and to everyone the things it is not possible to say to someone.  or rather writing is saying to the no one who may eventually be the reader those things one has no someone to whom to say them.  matters that are so subtle, so personal, so obscure, that i ordinarily can’t imagine saying them to the people to whom i’m closest.  every once in a while i try to say them aloud and find that what turns to mush in my mouth or falls short of their ears can be written down for total strangers.  said to total strangers in the silence of writing that is recuperated and heard in the solitude of reading.  (64)

&

sometime in the late nineteenth century, a poor rural english girl who would grow up to become a writer was told by a gypsy, “you will be loved by people you’ve never met.”  this is the odd compact with strangers who will lose themselves in your words and the partial recompense for the solitude that makes writers and writing.  you have an intimacy with the faraway and distance from the near at hand.  like digging a hole to china and actually coming out the other side, the depth of that solitude of reading and then writing took me all the way through to connect with people again in an unexpected way.  it was astonishing wealth for one who had once been so poor.  (65)
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nell, my favorite band in the world, released their 7th album, c, last week, and i think it’s a perfect segue from summer into autumn.  it’s an album i absolutely needed at this moment in my life, and it’s brighter in tone than nell’s sound usually is, but it’s just as comforting and reassuring as their music always is.

more on nell next time, though.  i can’t not write about nell and their new album.


after years in new york city, georgia o’keeffe moved to rural new mexico, from which she would sign her letters to the people she loved, “from the faraway nearby.”  it was a way to measure physical and psychic geography together.  emotion has its geography, affection is what is nearby, within the boundaries of the self.  you can be a thousand miles from the person next to you in bed or deeply invested in the survival of a stranger on the other side of the world.  (108)