sarah waters!

‘women do things today their mothers would have laughed to think of seeing their daughters doing, twenty years ago; soon they will even have the vote! if people like me don’t work, it’s because they look at the world, at all the injustice and the muck, and all they see is a nation falling in upon itself, and taking them with it. but the muck has new things growing out of it — wonderful things! — new habits of working, new kinds of people, new ways of being alive and in love …’ (tipping the velvet, florence, 210-1)

i have a bit of an obsessive personality.

for example: when i get hooked on a song, i listen to it on repeat hundreds of times. i’ve seen the same thirteen episodes of the same season of top chef more times than i can count. every few weeks, i go back to the same restaurant and order the same two dishes. i bake a roll of asian sponge cake every week. if i love an author and s/he is in town on tour, i go to every single event/reading.

like i said. obsessive.

it also means that, when i get hooked on an author, i work my way through his/her backlist until i’ve consumed the greater majority or entirety of it.

which is exactly what happened with sarah waters.

things to note:

i photographed these books in the order i read them, which is not order of publication, because i intended to write about them in the order i read them. as you will see, that did not happen.

i purchased and read tipping the velvet and fingersmith on ibooks. i borrowed the paying guests from the brooklyn public library (then had to return it, so the photo is of a cover on my ipad).  riverhead very nicely gave me the little stranger, affinity, and the night watch; thank you, riverhead, for supporting my sarah waters’ obsession! all thoughts, opinions, and content are my own.

also: i hate reading on my ipad. for one, my head starts spinning after staring at a screen so intensely for so long. for another, it’s a pain in the ass to photograph because it fucks with the light. for a third, there are no accurate page numbers; page numbers for tipping the velvet and fingersmith are, thus, approximate; please check them against the paper versions.

‘when i see her,’ i said, ‘it’s like — i don’t know what it’s like. it’s like i never saw anything at all before. it’s like i am filling up, like a wine-glass when it’s filled with wine. i watch the acts before her and they are like nothing — they’re like dust. then she walks on the stage and — she is so pretty; and her suit is so nice; and her voice is so sweet … she makes me want to smile and weep, at once. she makes me sore, here.’ i placed a hand upon my chest, upon the breast-bone. ‘i never saw a girl like her before. i never knew that there were girls like her …’ my voice became a trembling whisper then, and i found that i could say no more. (tipping the velvet, 25-6)

i’ve been crushing on someone for months now, and it’s no one i actually know (you could call it a celebrity crush of sorts), but it’s kind of been this intense thing simmering constantly in my head. before anyone’s like, oh my god, you’re fucking insane, yes, i know full well how to distinguish between celebrity crushes and real life, and i’m not psycho enough to give this more meaning than it needs. i am also, however, not one to dismiss celebrity crushes entirely; i think they’re (usually) harmless ways through which we sometimes learn about ourselves; the barrier and the lack of possibility (and probability) provide us the leeway to explore parts of ourselves we might be afraid of or hesitant to approach in real life.

you could roll your eyes at that and find it absurd, but i do think there’s something about pop culture and the ways we invest in it that say something about ourselves, about society overall. i mean, i have SO MUCH i could say about k-pop and korean culture overall … but that’s something for another day (or later in this post).

my whole point in bringing this up, though — i read tipping the velvet, my first novel by sarah waters (as well as her debut), as this crush of mine hit fever pitch, and i’ve no doubt that added new dimensions to my reading experience. would i have loved tipping the velvet less had i not had this thing going on in my head? would it have had a lesser impact? no, not likely; it is a powerful, remarkable novel — but did tipping the velvet come into my reading life at the right time?  yes, most certainly.

i do believe that, sometimes, books come to us in certain moments, that the same books mean different things to us at different points in our lives. my best example of this is kazuo ishiguro’s never let me go, a book i usually read at least twice a year and is a different book to me every time i encounter it. sometimes, it’s a story of loneliness; other times, it’s one of friendship; and, at other times, it’s about love, not just romantic love but love in all forms, that between a guardian and a student (the closest the characters get to parent and child), between female friends, between lovers, between carers and donors, even between donors and those demanding their organs. sometimes, it’s a story i read for the language, for inspiration, for encouragement when i’m feeling low on the writing front, but, whatever it is, it — this novel, this book, any novel, any book — is not a stagnant thing but a thing that changes, that takes on different faces, that absorbs the emotions i bring to it and remembers them and returns them to me with each new encounter.

that was kind of a tangent, but the point is — actually, i’m not quite sure what it was. let’s try this again.

i think the experience of falling in love is a universal one, that it doesn’t matter your gender, your culture, your sexual orientation — there’s something exhilarating and also something terrifying about it, this sense of possession, of not being able to remove someone from your consciousness and wanting to know more, to be with that person, to make him/her happy.

i’m not saying there’s only one way of falling in love, simply that there is something universally recognizable about it, something that has nothing to do with these societal constraints we try to create with our various social constructs.

this is something i loved so much about waters’ novels, that she so exquisitely captures the intensity of falling in love, the dizziness and headiness and craziness of that tumble into affection and want and desire. waters brings you into her characters’ heads in such visceral, raw ways that you’re right there with these characters, these people, these women as they fall in love and discover the wonder of it.

… as anyone will tell you who has been secretly in love, it is in bed that you do your dreaming — in bed, in the darkness, where you cannot see your own cheeks pink, that you ease back the mantle of restraint that keeps your passion dimmed throughout the day, and let it glow a little. (tipping the velvet, 43)


i went back to my narrow bed, with its sheets like pieces of pastry. i heard her turning, and sighing, all through the night; and i turned, and sighed, myself. i felt that thread that had come between us, tugging, tugging at my heart — so hard, it hurt me. a hundred times i almost rose, almost went in to her; a hundred times i thought, go to her! why are you waiting? go back to her side! but every time, i thought of what would happen if i did. i knew that i couldn’t lie beside her, without wanting to touch her. i couldn’t have felt her breath come upon my mouth, without wanting to kiss her. and i couldn’t have kissed her, without wanting to save her. (fingersmith, 128)


and that was all it took. they smiled at each other across the table, and some sort of shift occurred between them. there was a quickening, a livening — frances could think of nothing to compare it with save some culinary process. it was like the white of an egg growing pearly in hot water, a milk sauce thickening in the pan. it was as subtle yet as tangible as that. (the paying guests, 86)

waters writes love stories that aren’t plagued by saccharine sweetness, that don’t descend into superficiality or mere feel-goodness — she couldn’t, not with these stories she’s writing about women in the late-nineteenth, mid-twentieth centuries. these women are often caught in cages, trapped in societal expectations and/or the practical limits of their lives, facing real-life challenges and boundaries with which they have to make their lives work. waters doesn’t simply disappear these struggles; she writes within them, presents them honestly, frustrations, pain, and all; but neither does she lose herself or her novels to these struggles — she’s written six very smart, astute novels that show us the world for what it was and for what it still is, and she’s done it all through story, no moralizing or overt politicizing.

that’s why i think her novels resonated so strongly with me — like i said, i do think that sometimes books come to us in certain moments, and tipping the velvet walked into my life when i needed it. maybe it’s worth nothing that i’m at a vulnerable point in my life, struggling with a lot of uncertainties and fears, with a total loss and rejection of faith, with a particular breed of loneliness, and there was something about nan and her voice that i immediately connected with. she’s a girl who just goes running into things, following her heart and, yes, maybe being reckless and flinging herself headlong into situations without really thinking about next steps or consequences (usually to her heart), but there’s something to be said about that fearlessness, about her refusal to shrink away and live in the shadows.

i loved nan so much. i felt for her so much, and i wanted to protect her, to keep her from harm — i think readers understand what i mean when i say that. i loved being in her head as she fell in love, suffered heartbreak, cobbled herself back together, fell back into love (sort of?), got out of a shitty situation, and fell in love again, just as i loved her ability to be vulnerable and give herself over to her heart and make the changes she needed to survive, to better herself, to love again.

of waters’ six novels, i’d say tipping the velvet is still my favorite, the one that sits closest to my heart, and the one i’ll undoubtedly come back to time and time again.

i looked back to kitty butler. she had her topper raised and was making her final, sweeping salute. notice me, i thought. notice me! i spelled the words in my head in scarlet letters, as the husband of the mentalist had advised, and sent them burning into her forehead like a brand.  notice me! (tipping the velvet, 25)

i mentioned on instagram that i was working on this post, that it would be about sarah waters and love, sexuality, desire, womanhood, and someone asked that i also talk about sexuality and womanhood in korean culture, which is something i’m always happy to do.

sometimes, when i think about korea, i think about phobias. i think about xenophobia; i think about homophobia and transphobia; i think about patriarchy and misogyny and sexism. i think about prejudice against and the intense stigmatizing of and general lack of acknowledgement of mental illness. i think about psychotic academic pressure, and i think about trends and conformity and plastic surgery, and i think about suicide.

given that i can’t stop writing about korea, we’ll eventually get to all of the above, but let’s start with the patriarchy today because it pertains to these novels.

why do gentlemen’s voices carry so clearly, when women’s are so easily stifled? (affinity, 229)

i grew up with the korean patriarchy, the prioritizing of males, the silences pressed onto women. my extended family, specifically on my mother’s side, is as patriarchal as they come. i still remember holiday dinners when we’d gather at our house, and the women would cook and then sit silently at the table as the men* talked. after the uncomfortable meal was over, the women would clear the table, peel fruit, serve coffee and dessert, and do all the dishes, clean-up, etcetera — basically, to put it shortly, this is a family that fell very neatly into traditionally-prescribed gender roles.

and that’s where i sometimes think it’s bizarre to be a second-generation korean-american as a woman. we’re still expected to excel and do well in school and pursue highly professional careers, but we’re also expected to marry well, have children, and ultimately fall back into these traditionally-prescribed gender roles. it’s even more so the case when you throw in religion (usually christianity) and geography (let’s say california); as a woman, you’re expected to give up your career to stay home and raise your brood.

this is not something i have a problem with if this is what a woman wants for herself. there is nothing wrong with wanting to be a housewife and stay home with your kids and be a full-time mom — that’s a great thing to want, and it should be a choice women are able to make.

my problem with it is when that becomes the only option. this loops back to what i was talking about in reference to heteronormativity previously, in this idea that there is one way to be and that is it, that, if you don’t want a husband, if you don’t want children, if you don’t want that life, then you are an Other — you exist outside the norm, and you are to be shunned and shamed.  which seems so  psychotic in the twenty-first century.

and that’s something that struck me over and over again with each of sarah waters’ novels, that her novels are set in the late-nineteenth, mid-twentieth centuries, but these worlds are still worlds that exist today. we still live in a world in which same-sex rights, women’s rights, women’s reproductive rights are under threat. we still live in a world where queer people need to look and listen for tone and insinuation to ascertain whether or not someone is friendly or a threat. we still live in a world where it’s a danger for a gay couple to walk down the street in new york city, for gay people to congregate in their own clubs, for queer teenagers to come out to their families without risking everything.

and all of this is connected — the patriarchy feeds homophobia by enforcing heteronormativity, by saying that men must be this way to be men, that women must be this way because they are women, that relationships and families must be constructed by gender. and, even though we might recognize the harm in this, it is stupidly still the way things must be.

i gazed at her, and shook my head. oh, i said, i had heard words like that, so many times! when stephen went to school when i was ten: they said that that would be ‘a difficult time’, because of course i was so clever, and would not understand why i must keep my governess. when he went to cambridge it was the same; and then, when he came home and was called to the bar. when prix turned out so handsome they said that would be difficult, we must expect it to be difficult, because of course i was so plain. and then, when stephen was married, when pa died, when georgy was born — it and been one thing leading to another, and they had said only, always, that it was natural, it was to be expected that i should feel the sting of things like that; that older, unmarried sisters always did. ‘but helen, helen,’ i said, ‘if they expect it to be hard, why don’t they change things, to allow it to be easier? i feel, if i might only have a little liberty —‘ (affinity, 203)

i feel like it should be noted that korea is not quite the prudish culture some people make it out to be. it is a world of love motels and “booking,” a practice where men at clubs will point at women and waiters will drag said women over to have drinks with the men, consent and willingness be damned, and it is a culture where sex sells, though it is also a culture that’s rather hypocritical about it. just take a look at k-pop, at how the industry demands innocence from its female stars, viciously shaming them when they deviate from their image, all the while hyper-sexualizing them, their youth, their purity. essentially, they’re masturbatory symbols, which is nothing new or surprising in any media world, but it’s this combination of innocence/youth and sexuality that is just so profoundly disturbing, especially when you take into mind how young these girls actually are — or aren’t. young women in their mid-twenties should not be so simultaneously infantilized and sexualized; at one point, the demand for cutesy aegyo needs to stop.

and then there’s shipping.

k-pop is definitely something i will write about in the future, but, while we’re talking about sexuality in korea, we should also discuss how homoerotic shipping is.  take tvxq, once the biggest boy band in korea. fans loved to ship the members with each other, and i want to say that the biggest ship was probably that between jaejoong and yunho (commonly known as “yunjae”). fans would obsessively watch performances, interviews, videos, etcetera for interactions between the two, for any clothes they might share or jewelry they might wear or any goddamn thing that “proved” that yunjae was “real.” they’d also write explicit fanfiction and create online communities dedicated to this shipping, and none of this happened in a casual way but with the intensity that all of us koreans bring to, well, everything.

because this is how fandom works in korea. fans don’t want to think of their favorite idols as having relationships with other girls (and i specifically say girls) because that would destroy the fantasy of these idols existing solely for the pleasure and accessibility of fans. instead, fans put these idols together in these homoerotic ships with each other and cling to these ships like religion, with all the conviction that religion demands. it’s fucking creepy.

and it’s also sobering because, if any of these idols did come out as being gay, their careers would likely be over.

a spot of hope, though:

the shooting in orlando was the same weekend as seoul pride. it is (or was) common for participants of pride in seoul to wear stickers that tell the media not to publish photographs of them because that would be outing them, and to be out, to come out entails far too much risk, especially in a conformist, conservative christian society like korea’s.

that sunday night, i went online to a k-pop community and saw that someone had posted about seoul pride. i immediately felt my heart sink given what i know about korean society and its homophobia, and there had obviously already been enough horrific violence committed against the queer community for me to want to hear about any more.

instead, there was a video attached of a group of mothers (of LGBTQA children) who had a booth at pride and were giving out hugs and telling these kids that they were loved. it was a small group of them, but they were out there, hugging kids, crying with them, telling them hwaiting!, a direct contrast to other parents, other people who stood in protest, holding signs that said they would refuse or deny a child-in-law of the same sex. (not that same-sex couples can get married in korea, anyway.)

they were a small group of mothers in the larger scope of things, but, still, it’s huge, especially in a culture like korea’s. it’s hope.

sometimes, when i think about korea, i think about phobias. other times, though, when i think about korea, i think about love. i think about heart and the bahp-sang and how that is something created by women and offered by women. i think about how an invitation to someone’s table is like an invitation to be a part of this family, however this family has been created, and i think about how the heart of that are women and their loyalty and dedication and sacrifice.

sometimes, when i think about korea, i think about the best in people, the best of people.

i think about my paternal grandmother and her incredible strength. i think about how she spent her life as the wife of a first son, how she married off her husband’s brothers, how she raised six children — five girls, one boy — of her own. i think about how she made sure all her daughters were educated because she hadn’t been. i think about how she sent her children away one-by-one to seoul so they could study and be more than farmers’ children, how her pride was that all her girls and her boy went to the best schools, the best universities in the nation, that they would live better lives than she did. i think about how she spent fifteen years of her life caring for my grandfather after his accident, one that left him paralyzed from the waist down and dependent on her until he died.

i think about her love, and, sometimes, everything pales in comparison to that.

i think about my maternal grandmother, too, a woman with an incredible voice who should have gone on to study music and train her gift, who had that life taken from her because of war. i think about how she married a man who left her and her four children behind to start building them a life in america, and i think about how she brought her children to the states, lived her life as the wife of a conservative pastor, moving from city to city, congregation to congregation, forever in service to others. i think about how she never learned english, never learned to drive, never lived an independent life of her own, and i think about how she died, lung cancer, detected too late, the symptoms lost in church drama and religious bullshit.

i think about my mother bearing the burdens of her family, even though they always took her for granted. i think about her watching over her two younger siblings as her parents served their congregations, living under the shadow of her older brother, the prized son with a brilliant mind who would always be preferred over her. i think about my mother caring for her mother as she died, and i think about my mother caring for my paternal grandmother, her mother-in-law, as she was dying from alzheimer’s, how she would wash her, feed her, talk to her, when she could have said, no, let’s put her in a home, this is too much for me.

and this to me is what it is to be korean and why all of this hurts so fucking much. this is a culture, a heritage i fiercely love and am so incredibly proud of, shit and all, and it is a culture of strong, remarkable, resilient women who have carried their men and borne all their shit. the rule to live by is never piss off a korean woman because she protects her own — she will go to her grave protecting her own — but, sometimes, it’s true that that protection, that love, is misguided and driven by these phobias so entrenched into korean culture, that the fall-out, the damage is catastrophic.

and we are the ones broken by it.

how easy it was, she thought unhappily, for men and women.  they could stand in a street and argue, flirt — they could kiss, make love, do anything at all — and the world indulged them.  whereas she and julia — (the night watch, 126)

nan, sue, maud, frances, margaret, selina, kay, helen, julia — they’re just women … but what does that mean?

women sometimes seem like strange creatures to me, and i say this as a woman, recognizing that i am a weird, contradictory, intense being, filled with thirst and desire and passion. i don’t feel things simply, or maybe sometimes i do, it’s just that i feel them deeply, all the way into my bones, down into my marrow. maybe it’s the obsessive part of me, the part that doesn’t let go once i’ve latched on, the part of me that’s filled with wonder and curiosity and want, and maybe it’s just me — but, then again, if there’s something i’ve learned, it’s that we’re not all that unique, that there are people, women, out there in the world who are like us, however you define “us.”

maybe, though, there is something about women that makes us a mystery, that makes us so apparently unknowable — i mean, there must be a reason we’re constantly dismissed and reduced down to feelings and emotions, like it’s so unimaginable that we are thinking, intelligent beings — but, whatever it is, i think we recognize each other, just like i recognize the women in these novels.

they’re women who want to get out of their present circumstances, who want more liberty and freedom and rights, and they’re women who carry secrets and fears, remove themselves to the outskirts of society to live their “alternative” lives. some of them are women who thrived during the war then found themselves empty in a post-war world that reverted back to its gendered constraints, and some of them simply want the space to breathe, to be free of their gilded cages and societal expectations.

and all they want is so simple, though the world, the people around them don’t recognize it as such.

‘what a fight you’ve always made of everything, frances. and all i ever wanted for you were such ordinary things: a husband, a home, a family of your own. such ordinary, ordinary things.’ (the paying guests, mrs. wray, 540)

which is crazy to think about because the things they want are such ordinary things: the freedom to love who they love, to have families with the people they love, to live these banal, ordinary lives like every other banal, ordinary person out there. apparently, that is too much to ask for.

‘i wish — i wish the world was different. why can’t it be different? i hate having to sneak and —‘ she waited, while a woman and a man went silently by, arm in arm. she lowered her voice still further. ‘i hate having to sneak and slink so grubbily about. if we could only be married, something like that.’

kay blinked and looked away. it was one of the tragedies of her life, that she couldn’t be like a man to helen — make her a wife, give her children … (the night watch, 338)

i start out conceptualizing these posts, and, sometimes, they turn out as i expected, and, other times, they’re a surprise, the tangents i go on. there’s a lot more i could say about sarah waters, and i’d originally planned on laying this post out in a more straightforward manner, writing about each book individually and doing a general recap at the end — best-laid plans, though, eh?

i’ve never thought of myself as much of a straightforward book reviewer, though; i’m not particularly good at it; nor is it something i enjoy because i’m much more interested in the way things intersect, in how books reflect the world and add to the conversation, whatever that conversation is. i’m interested in how the things i’m passionate about intersect because, like i said, nothing exists in a vacuum. my trinity seems to be books, food, and korean culture, and i’m still trying to figure out what that looks like and how to integrate them more seamlessly. needless to say, this whole blog is an ongoing experiment.

going back to sarah waters, though: much of the pleasure of reading sarah waters was entirely visceral. i loved being in her characters’ heads, and i loved her characters, these vibrant women who wanted to love and live, struggling within the limits placed on them by a society that didn’t really think of them at all until they had to and then dismissed them as unnatural. i absolutely loved how she captured the act of falling in love, that rush and exhilaration, how we want such simple, ordinary things, but how, sometimes, that feels like chasing a dream.

and, like i said, there’s so much more i could say about sarah waters, but i suppose these are the things that really stood out to me and resonated with me this time around, given this moment in my life when i’ve been dealing with a lot of uncertainty. i recently walked away from faith and have been struggling with it more than i thought — when you’ve grown up with religion your whole life, when you walk away, it’s like the foundation of your life falling out from under your feet. and, then, when it comes paired with new realizations about yourself, with desire and want, not just for a human being but for the simple, ordinary things in life, it feels like standing amongst the wreckage that was everything you used to know and having no idea how to rebuild because you’re grasping at air and dust.

which is why i keep coming back to religion and heteronormativity and womanhood because waters’ novels did add to some of the intense sadnesses that have been weighing on me, the reality that these same-sex issues, women’s rights’ issues are not things of the past but issues that are still under threat today. we still have politicians trying to take away women’s reproductive rights, women’s rights to make decisions about their own bodies, and we still have church leaders, people, whatever threatening the civil rights and the lives of same-sex people, same-sex couples. we can’t take any of the rights we currently have for granted and pretend like we live in a equal world, no more than we can pretend we live in a “post-racial” world.

and this loops around to the point i was trying to make in my earlier post — that we do not exist in a bubble. we exist in this world, and that, essentially, is what i loved so much about sarah waters and her novels — that she sees this world and recognizes the wrongness, the fucked-up-ness, but, yet, even in all that, she shows us that there is still hope, there is still love.

she will laugh. the sound is as strange, at briar, as i imagine it must be in a prison or a church. sometimes, she will sing. once we talk of dancing. she rises and lifts her skirt, to show me a step. then she pulls me to my feet, and turns and turns me; and i feel, where she presses against me, the quickening beat of her heart — i feel it pass from her to me and become mine. (fingersmith, 231)

i do actually make and eat the food i post. or maybe scarf it is the more accurate term, given that i hop around, eating as quickly as i can (or dumping food onto another plate and then eating it later, for the sake of full disclosure), so i can get my photographs before the light changes.

and not to toot my own horn too much, but i do make a damn good carbonara.

thanks for reading! as always, all content has been conceptualized, created, and edited by me.