most of us were from the south, most of us from some part of the bible belt. most of our stories sounded remarkably similar. we had all met with ultimatums that didn’t exist for many other people, conditions often absent from the love between parents and children. at some point, a “change this or else” had come to each of us: otherwise we would be homeless, penniless, excommunicated, exiled. we had all been too afraid to fall through the cracks; all of us had been told cautionary tales of drug addicts, of sex addicts, of people who ended up dying in the throes of AIDS in some urban west coast gutter. the story always went this way. and we believed the story. for the most part, the media we consumed corroborated it. you could hardly find a movie in small-town theaters that spoke openly of homosexuality, and when you did, it almost always ended with someone dying of AIDS. (conley, boy erased, 21)
i have this irrational dislike of ground meat — like, i have no problems eating food made with ground meat, but i hate — hate — cooking with it. i hate how it smells; i hate how it looks; and i hate how it feels. there’s no logical explanation for this, either, because i know the reason i hate it is that my mother hated it, and she didn’t have a logical explanation for it. (also, korean people don’t usually cook with ground meat?)
when i was thinking of making these turkey ricotta meatballs from julia turshen’s small victories (chronicle, 2016), i went back and forth about the meat. should i just go for the ground turkey the recipe specified? or should i go for one of the variations suggested and buy some sausages and remove them from their casings? or should i just go my usual route and buy meat and grind it myself?
in the end, i went with the ground meat. it seemed like a good week to get over something that made no sense.
‘all you can do, rosemary — all any of us can do — is work to be something positive instead. that is a choice that every sapient must make every day of their life. the universe is what we make of it. it’s up to you to decide what part you will play. and what i see in you is a woman who has a clear idea of what she wants to be.’
rosemary gave a short laugh. ‘most days i wake up and have no idea what the hell i’m doing.’
he [dr. chef] puffed his cheeks. ‘i don’t mean the practical details. nobody ever figures those out. i mean the important thing. the thing i had to do, too.’ he made a clucking sound. he knew she would not understand it, but it came naturally. the sort of sound a mother made over a child learning to stand. ‘you’re trying to be someone good.’ (chambers, the long way to a small angry planet, 213)
it’s been a dark week for america and a particularly dark year for the whole damn world, what with brexit in the UK, the passage of HB2 in north carolina, the political shit being uncovered in korea*, etcetera. i spent election night weeping for my country, partly because of the living cheeto and his monster of a VP-elect headed for the white house but mostly because of what this has exposed about our country.
if you’re a person of color, a woman, someone who identifies as LGBTQ, the results of this election aren’t entirely surprising. we’ve known that the “post-racial society” white people liked to claim existed was a big fat lie; we’ve known that racism is still alive and well; and we’ve known that sexual violence against women was already something that’s somehow been normalized. we just hoped this country would show itself to be better than it clearly is.
i’m not here to rage about politics, though.
pre-apocalypse, i started thinking a lot about narratives, whether they’re narratives we tell ourselves about ourselves, about other people, about other cultures. i’ve been thinking about how these narratives shape how we expect people to behave, the lives we think they should live, the ways we think they should act and speak and want, and how these narratives can do one of two things: close in on themselves and reinforce these same narratives or open up the whole world and the billions of people within it.
because the truth is that narratives matter. words matter. the things we say, the words we use form the narratives we tell ourselves, and these narratives say a lot more about us than we might want to think. they tell us about our worldviews, how we see and parse the world around us, and what is important to us. they tell us about our values; they tell us about our priorities.
they tell us how we think of and regard the people around us.
* seriously. google park geun-hye.
the first thing i ever cooked for my wife, grace, were these meatballs. i made the mixture at my apartment, then packed it up with a box of pasta, ingredients for sauce, and a pot (she told me she had only a skillet) and took it all to her apartment … which soon became my aparment, too. (turshen, small victories, 168)
i get this secret thrill whenever julia turshen refers to her wife in small victories, and it makes me thrill with how normal it is, how being gay is really just another human way to be and love and exist with each other. a few weeks ago, a friend on instagram sent me a link to an article about patricia highsmith’s the price of salt, which was sort of revolutionary because it’s a story about lesbians who don’t meet a gruesome end. that’s really what kicked off all this thinking about narratives, and i know that nothing i’m saying here is new or groundbreaking, but, after a week like this, it feels worth saying anyway.
about a month ago, i read garrard conley’s boy erased, a memoir about his time in conversion therapy, which is the practice of trying to “convert” a gay person to being straight (and something the VP-elect believes in). the memoir plus the article combined made me think that here is why the [white] heteronormative narrative is so dangerous in its prevalence. when you don’t see stories of other possibilities, you can’t empathize with the Other, and we can’t break down the barriers that create and enforce the Other. beyond that, though, when we don’t see stories of other possibilities, we learn to see ourselves as the Other, to hide in shame, to be afraid of the things that make us different, that put targets on our backs as we go on with our everyday lives.
we learn to try to hide the things that make us different, and the majority learns to pounce on these weaknesses, these fears, to use narrative as a means to enforce shame so we try to repress parts of who we are and become “normal,” aka acceptable and “good,” capable of living “healthy,” “regular” lives (aka the goal of conversion therapy). we learn to fear who we are because of these supposed consequences of how we’ll “end up,” of the things and people we’ll lose, of the ugly ends we will meet.
and so narratives, again, aren’t only stories we tell ourselves. they’re weapons, tools with which to suppress and excise “sin,” and they’re prisons and cages. they’re ways to create fear because, sometimes, they’re not so far from the truth because it can actually cost us everything to be out, to be black, to be muslim. they can be used to instill shame and guilt, to stoke that monster until it consumes us and drives us into corners, into darkness, to suicide.
at the same time, though, there’s the other side: narratives are hope, too; they’re the means through which we can heal. by offering our narratives, we offer others the ability to understand us, to empathize with us, to recognize themselves and realize they aren’t alone.
and, sometimes, i think, as creative people, we forget what we can do with our work. it’s easy to think of art as simply art, but we forget that a book is not just a book, a meal is not just a meal, that creating, too, is a way of fighting back, not only of finding hope again within ourselves but also of putting that hope back into the world. a story is a way of saying, here is one way of seeing the world, and all the great stories in the world come together with one message: be kind. be kind to yourselves, and be kind to each other. there is a multitude of us out here, and we are unique individuals to be valued equally, regardless of the color of our skin, the source of our faith, or the gender of the person we love.
we’re the unknown americans, the ones no one even wants to know, because they’ve been told they’re supposed to be scared of us and because maybe if they did take the time to get to know us, they might realize that we’re not that bad, maybe even that we’re a lot like them. and who would they hate then? (henríquez, the book of unknown americans, 237)
i flash froze most of my meatballs because i’m just one person and it’s nice to have things on-hand in your freezer. (i also keep biscuits and chicken stock and parmesan stock in my freezer.) (apparently, i always want to have the possibility for soup.) i ate the rest with homemade tomato sauce (which i also made according to the recipe) (this is weird; i modify everything), and i must say, these meatballs are SO good. they’re super flavorful, and they’re not dry, and they hold together very well — and they don’t use breadcrumbs, which i was very happy about.
and here, in the light of what is to come in the next four years, i leave you with some recommended reading:
- garrard conley, boy erased (riverhead, 2016)
- becky chambers, a long way to a small angry planet (hoddard & stoughton, 2015)
- cristina henriquez, the book of unknown americans (knopf, 2014)