it’s been a while. let’s catch up.
when i first started planning this post, i thought i’d run through the books i’ve been reading these last few months. it’s not like i’ve been reading a whole lot of books; i have very little time or energy to do a lot of reading these days; but i’ve been reading a few truly stellar thought-provoking books i wanted to talk about. i’ve also been reading pretty much entirely from WOC — like, i’ve only been reading from WOC, except for jessica valenti’s the purity myth, which i read half of then stopped because i grew up in purity culture and don’t feel the urgent need to linger in that experience.
which is not to say that the purity myth isn’t worth reading. if you didn’t grow up within it, it’s an illuminating read. whether you grew up in it or not, it’s an important read. i’m glad it exists in the world, but it doesn’t mean i want to spend time submerged in it when i am intimately, personally familiar with so much of that bullshit mentality that does so much harm to girls.
it’s honestly when i think of purity culture that i’m almost glad for the body shaming that kept me so distanced from my own sexuality as an adolescent. i avoided much of it because none of my youth leaders felt they had to press it upon me with much insistence because i was so focused on school, on my SATs, on getting into a good university, and i wasn’t sneaking out to meet boys or go to parties and start drinking and/or dabbling with drugs — and that lack of attention sometimes alarms me because i think there are underlying issues when any adolescent becomes so fixated on one thing to an extreme, whether it’s boys or partying or, even, yes, academics.
then again, maybe i just played my part well. i played out my requisite crush on a boy. i was active in youth group functions. i guess, in ways, i seemed normal enough, and i went to all my discipleship groups, was close friends with the other girls in my class, attended every friday night youth group and every summer/winter retreat and all the fellowship dinners at people’s houses.
what was there to worry about?
i feel like i’ve gotten very dull and uninteresting in the last few months because all i do is work. i’m often too tired to do much on the weekdays after work, and my weekends have become very quiet, my saturdays often spent lolling around my apartment, doing some reading, some napping, some youtube-watching.
i’ve been watching a lot of youtube, a lot of the try guys, actually.
maybe my crush on eugene is cliché, platonic though it is, but there’s a lot about him i find refreshing — he’s korean american, openly queer, weird and brilliant and driven and exacting and open-hearted. he’s demonstrated maybe the most growth amongst the try guys. he doesn’t like babies. i wonder constantly how different public reception to him would be had he been a woman.
publishing still has a long ways to go as far as diversity is concerned, but it’s been refreshing and just so bloody nice to see more writing by asian american women not only being published but also being pushed more into the spotlight, their brilliance being more and more celebrated.
as has been the case with susan choi.
susan choi’s trust exercise (henry holt, 2019) reads on the surface like it’s a story about high school students at a performing arts school, but, really, at least the way i read it, it’s a novel about the ways we shape our memories to fit the narratives we want to tell about ourselves, about our roles in other people’s lives. maybe it’s instinctive for us to be revisionists; maybe it’s actually unavoidable because memory is flawed and malleable, anyway; and we’re all prone to nostalgia, to regret, to ego. maybe it doesn’t matter how we try to revise our narratives because our revisions will always run up against how other people remember us, how we fit into their revisions of their narratives.
we could go down some twisty turns talking about trust exercise.
i’m intentionally not giving many details about the novel because i think it’s a novel best approached with as little pre-knowledge as possible, even of its plot and its structure — honestly, the less you know, the more interesting it is, the shifts choi makes.
choi is often described as a writer’s writer, and i wonder sometimes if that isn’t a way to make a writer feel better about not having more mass marketable appeal. when i read trust exercise for the first time, i thought that i liked it very much — i liked how thoughtful it is, how smart, how complex — but i also think that trust exercise might not be a novel for everyone. it’s not a book i think a whole lot of people might typically enjoy; it’s more cerebral, more in your head, less action, even less character-driven.
to be clear, i don’t mean anything condescending or snooty when i say trust exercise might not be to everyone’s taste. it really is kind of a particular book, not one i’d go running to recommend to everyone, and that’s not meant to be a criticism or a negative point against the book — trust exercise is unique, i think, one of those books i’m still processing and thinking about, and it’s been over a month since i finished it. maybe that’s the best damn thing i can say about a book, that it has stuck with me, that i am still mulling it over, that i am still thinking about it because i found so much of it so interesting and thoughtful. that’s not something i can say about many books.
in no way am i holding eugene’s gender against him — i think he does phenomenal work, and i think he has an unfair burden to shoulder as a highly-visible queer korean american man, as one of very few highly-visible queer korean american men in media. white people love to make one or two POC representatives of their entire ethnicity or minority group or what not, and i often wonder if he feels the pressure of that, especially as the one try guy of color, as the one queer try guy.
gender roles do exist, though, and, even now, there are still strong gendered expectations of women. it is not as endearing or cute or funny not to like babies when you’re a woman, and i say this as a woman, as an asian american woman, who likes babies about as much as eugene does, possibly even less. i have held maybe two babies in my entire life. i do not find them cute, and i don’t like their baby smell, and i generally go out of my way not to have to interact with them. i have never wanted children of my own.
when i was an adolescent, the response to that was a condescending, oh, you’re still young; you’ll change when you get older. when i was in college, i was told i was just going through a phase. now, i’m constantly told that i just need to “meet the right man” — my mind will change then, and i’ll want to have babies with him because i’ll love him so much.
there’s a lot that’s wrong with that, but i don’t often stop to clarify that, no, i. just. don’t. like. babies. because, one, my plans to reproduce or not are none of anyone’s goddamn business and, two, i frankly don’t have the energy to deal with the wide-eyed, judgmental, but how could you not like babies?! what kind of woman doesn’t like babies?! don’t you have any maternal instincts?! besides, you don’t know what you’re talking about; how could you when you’ve never had a baby?, like i don’t know myself or who i am or whether or not i like babies. (also, i don’t think anyone needs to have a baby to know whether or not one’s a baby person. that’s a terrible gamble to make, to hope that, oh, your dislike of babies and lack of desire to get pregnant were a fluke.) it gets exhausting as a woman. it gets exhausting to be asked if i’m dating, when i’m going to get married and start having kids, like spawning is the only way for my life to be worth anything, for me to find fulfillment.
sometimes, i feel bad about it because my parents love kids — they’ve been waiting to be grandparents for as long as i think my brother and i have been of marriageable age, and, sometimes, i feel guilty because it’s been hard for them to watch as their friends have had grandchildren galore. i know they want to share in that, to go around showing off photos of their grandchildren, to have grandchildren to dote on and spoil and love. i fully understand how difficult it can be to have to swallow deep-seated longing and yearning that can sometimes turn into resentment, and, sometimes, i feel guilty because i can’t — or i won’t — give them what they want so much, especially after all they’ve done for me, all they’ve sacrificed for me.
guilt, though, is a terrible reason to reproduce. guilt, also, does not change who i am or what i want from my life.
this is not coming out in the order it was supposed to.
before i read trust exercise, i spent much of january and february slowly making my way through esmé weijun wang’s the collected schizophrenias (graywolf, 2019). graywolf was kind to send me the ARC way back in october last year, but i’ve a habit, sometimes, of sitting on books i’m really excited to read. i’m scared of disappointment; i’m scared a book won’t live up to my high expectations and standards. i’m scared, sometimes, that i expect too much from the authors i love.
but then there is also this — as a fast reader, i can get through books really quickly, and, at one point in my life, when i was younger, that was the goal, to read as much as i could, as fast as i could. recently, though, i’ve been trying to slow down, to stop inhaling pages, to stay with the writing instead of moving through it.
esmé’s writing is very much worth sitting with. in the collected schizophrenias, she talks about her diagnoses, the illnesses she lives with and how they have shaped and colored her life. she’s frank about her experiences, her hospitalizations, her fears of being perceived in certain ways and her ways of compensating for that, and she balances the personal with research and the scientific and medical.
the thing that constantly strikes me about esmé’s writing is that she writes with so much grace. there’s a lot in the collected schizophrenias that could have been laced (rightfully) with anger and resentment, anger at a judgmental, patriarchal, fearful world that doesn’t take women’s pain seriously and continues to malign and mistrust the mentally ill. she reminds us through these essays that the mentally ill are human, that they deserve to be treated with respect and granted dignity, that they shouldn’t have to dress stylishly or appear neurotypical or have a résumé that includes vaulted academic institutions like yale and stanford (that also routinely fail their mentally ill students and force them into indefinite academic leave instead of providing them support to help them thrive) to be treated as human. at the same time, she also gives credit to the work that nurses, therapists, social workers do. it’s often thankless work, and they’re only human, too, and they can get worn down by patients who slip off their medication, have outbursts, etcetera.
the collected schizophrenias is a reminder that it’s easy to approach certain groups of people with whatever set expectations we have already decided of them, whether it’s maternal instincts in women or certain behaviors in the mentally ill. it’s easier to see how that harms those of us who exist outside the “norm,” those of us who aren’t neurotypical or hetero or white, but i think, in ways, these essays help us see how it harms the people who hold onto these prejudices and these expectations. maybe they don’t see it, though, because they mete out the harm — they don’t experience it, and they certainly don’t carry the trauma — but, sometimes, i think about how narrow their worlds are, how trapped they are in their heteronormative, neurotypical, privileged bubble. i think about how much they will never know and how they will never be better people, and i think that that’s kind of sad because how wonderful we are, those of us who exist outside of the “norm.” how wonderful and beautiful we are. what a privilege it is to know us and to love us.
another person i watch a lot on youtube is lia kim — specifically, i watch a lot of her dance videos.
the chief choreographer at (and co-founder of) 1million dance studio in gangnam, she’s worked with prominent idols, including those from SME, YGE, JYPE, and here’s where i’d write more about her dance style if i knew anything about dance. as it goes, i do not know a thing about dance; i just know that i like to watch it, that i think it’s super cool what people can do with their bodies, that part of me wishes that i could do it.
i lack hand/feet coordination, though, but that’s been my easy excuse whenever the thought has crossed my mind. i’m not very coordinated. i don’t have a sense of rhythm. my body doesn’t move that way — and i know they’re excuses because, yeah, i’ll never be an incredible dancer or maybe never even a very good one, but the body can be taught and trained to do a lot of things. my body can learn to move sufficiently for dance to be a hobby. if i can learn to do the basics of boxing, i can learn to do the basics of dancing. and yet.
the character who stands out the most to me in catherine chung’s forthcoming the tenth muse (ecco, forthcoming) is a woman named henrietta, henry for short. she’s a friend of the main character, kathy, a friend who shows up far into the book when kathy goes to germany on a fellowship. a mathematician, kathy has left behind her long-time lover, a professor who is angry that she has even decided to go, disrupting the rhythm of their research. kathy, however, makes her decision to go to germany not only to study but also to look for her past.
henry is also in germany for research, and the two women quickly become friends. henry is the opposite of kathy, less buttoned-up, less guarded, and she is kathy’s first real asian friend. her vibrance jumps off the page, and i immediately pictured her as a woman who’s comfortable in her body, who occupies her body with ease, because she knows who she is — a queer asian american woman.
her queerness is really only brushed upon briefly and heavily implied, and the trajectory of henry’s life is a disappointment, not because of who she decides to take as a partner but because none of it makes sense when we think of henry as a character. she is alive, vibrant, confident, but then she kind of gets reduced down to a plot point to move kathy’s narrative along, and the funny — or maybe telling — part of my mini-rant is that henry comes along late in the book, is only a small part of the book.
the tenth muse is honestly about so much more than henry, but, damn, if henry isn’t the thing that’s stuck with me from the book. that maybe just goes to show how starved i am for queer asian women in stories.
it’s a strong novel, though, set in the 1960s when women are still being newly-admitted to higher education, and kathy unsurprisingly faces so much gendered bullshit as she tries to pursue an academic career in mathematics, having to juggle both the challenges of academia and the struggles of striking the right balance as a woman in a male-dominated world, one in which it is not matter that she is brilliant and competent because she’s a woman, she should be getting married and having children and supporting her husband. a feminist novel that doesn’t try to be a feminist novel, the tenth muse taps into questions of identity and belonging, and it’s a strong second novel from catherine chung.
i absolutely loved her first novel, forgotten country (riverhead, 2012), which was a total punch in the gut, hitting me in some of my softest spots because it tapped into one of my greatest fears, my parents getting sick, and the tenth muse is certainly worth keeping an eye on. i just choose to think of a different story for henry.
and then i spent all of march very slowly reading t kira madden’s long live the tribe of fatherless girls (bloomsbury, 2019).
in march, i went back to LA and spent four blissful days with my puppies, though i suppose gom isn’t a puppy anymore. he turned one on march 10, so he’s technically no longer a puppy, but he’ll always be my little baby.
i still worry that his personality changed when we brought som home.
som’s feisty and has no problem demanding attention or food or things. he wants whatever goms has, and goms doesn’t often fight to keep what’s his. he doesn’t bully soms or try to steal his things back; instead, goms will sit and whine and cry while soms doesn’t give a shit; and i’m always telling goms to fight back, get his bone or toy back, it’s his!
my mum’s main takeaway from our pups is apparently that i’d be great with children of my own because i’m great with gom, to which, if you’re a human with a child but no dog, you might be thinking, uhm, what? raising a puppy can teach you a lot about yourself, though. when we first got gom, he was a two-month-old puppy, and he needed to be taken out every three hours to pee, which meant i was getting up multiple times at night to take him outside. i’d often sleep on the sofa after taking him out the first time, and he’d sleep on my stomach or on my chest, curled up happily until it was time to go out and pee again.
we bonded intensely because of that, maybe, because i was the first human who spent a lot of time with him after he’d been weaned and taken from his mum and put in a dark garage all by himself. i opine that’s why goms has such strong separation anxiety, why he hates to be alone — he was the only puppy, no siblings in his litter, and he went from being the only puppy with his mum to being the only puppy alone, left to himself in a new, lonely space.
i come up with a lot of stories even when it comes to the lives of my puppies. like, i think goms has gotten quieter and more sensitive after we brought som home. goms was seven months old then, and, when we went to pick som up, gom spent the whole drive staring at the backseat, at this floofy puppy in my mum’s arms, wondering what this thing was, why it was coming to his home with his humans. he seemed to transition decently to having a younger brother, but goms still often looks more sad and quiet now, pushed aside by a younger, feistier puppy who has zero chill.
and then i, his human, left him because i got a job that brought me back home to brooklyn.
i still think constantly about dropping everything in brooklyn and going back to my puppy. i know — i can just bring goms with me to brooklyn, but i have so much anxiety around that, anxiety about my long hours, about goms having to adjust from a big suburban house to a small city studio, about having to “prove” that goms is my emotional support animal. i feel guilty about separating him from som, not because i’m worried about goms — goms and i are still very bonded — but because i’m worried about soms and how soms would take the separation.
i feel guilty and anxious about a lot of things. i already feel stressed thinking about the additional financial cost.
thinking about going back to my puppy, though, is thinking about going back to what feels like a simpler, safer life. life in new york is so much more expensive, and i’m alone in the city, even if i have extended family in cities close by. there seems to be greater risk here because i’m pursuing the thing that i want, and pursuing the thing you want often feels more fraught because it often feels like you have more to lose. going back to my puppy is to return to my safety net, to opt for what is more secure, so, yes, i do still think about it often even though i know i won’t actually do it — new york is home, and, here, i feel more myself, more my best self, and that is what keeps me here.
when it comes to children, i don’t necessarily doubt my ability to care for another human being — having goms has given me some faith in my ability to take care of another life. having goms has taught me, too, that i don’t necessarily need to doubt my ability to love another life, to be fiendishly protective of it, though having goms first then bringing soms home has fully made me doubt my ability to love a second child as much as the first.
i think a lot about bodies, which is why i’m currently working on three essays that have to do with bodies or things related to bodies, like plastic surgery and body shaming. it’s kind of strange to revisit that period of my life when i was being shamed so intensely and so intentionally for my body because i honestly don’t have much anger when i think about it now. i’m not interested in writing angrily about that experience, in cursing or even faulting the people who did it to me.
because, yes, body shaming is terrible, and it is something i have little patience or tolerance for, and, yes, i do still bear all the scars and trauma from the experience. at the same time, though, i can say i’ve grown enough that i can recognize that it wasn’t done out of malice or hatred, that maybe they had their own share of self-loathing and insecurities that fueled the body shaming, and i can also acknowledge that there have been remorse and regret after they finally understood what they did, how deep the consequences of their actions went.
i have spent the last seven years healing from the experience, and, honestly, i think it’s only because i have moved on fully from a place of anger that i can start to write about it. i’m glad for that, too, because i do think body shaming is something to talk about candidly, especially as, for me, it really goes hand-in-hand with severe body dysmorphia. i am also glad for it because, like i said above, one of the things that constantly strikes me so much about esmé’s writing is that she writes with such grace — and that is the kind of writing i aspire to.
halfway through my freshman year of high school, i started being body shamed because i had an overweight body and, apparently, it was unsightly and unseemly. until i started being body shamed, i wasn’t aware of my body as a thing i had to think about, whether in positive or negative ways. i had never really been into fashion or my appearance or anything related to the physical, and, from as much as i can remember from my patchy memory, i simply moved about the world as i did, unaware of how anyone external to me perceived me.
(there is actually little i remember from my youth; i have had several people close to me comment on how my memory is like a sieve, how there is much i do not remember.)
i suppose i should have known this body intervention was coming. in middle school, i got super into k-pop, in love with h.o.t, my adolescent boy band, which then led to a general love for k-pop, specifically for idols from SME. i wanted to dress like them, talk like them, act like them. i wanted to dance like them.
for a while, i tried. i wore wide, baggy white pants. i tried to watch interviews (pirated from someone at church who would record them for me onto videotapes) to mimic the ways they talked and moved and lip-synced. i tried to learn their choreography.
from what i remember, i wasn’t very good at it because, again, that lack of hand/feet coordination, but i tried. i really, really tried. i didn’t stop to think how people might think of me, this over-enthusiastic, chubby middle schooler who had no sense of how to control her body, because that wasn’t something i even knew i should be aware of. i didn’t stop to wonder if people were secretly making fun of me, laughing at me, mocking me — not until i was pulled aside one sunday during some fellowship event with my youth group, told to stop dancing, to stop making a fool of myself, to stop embarrassing myself and my family. i was told to stop looking like such an idiot when i didn’t even know what i was doing. it was the first time i realized i was someone to be ashamed of, that i was too much.
i never tried dancing again.
maybe that’s why henry stands out to me so much from the tenth muse, because she seems so comfortable in her body, in who she is. it doesn’t matter if she’s too much — she is who she is, until she pulls this totally out of character move that throws me off, that i still can’t reconcile to the henry i’ve already built up in my head.
she’s comfortable in her body.
sometimes, when i think about envy, that’s what i think about. i envy women who are comfortable in their bodies, not thin women, but big women, women who have probably been told over and over again that their bodies are grotesque, they should be covered up, starved until they’re thinned down. i see them all the time on the subway, on the street, and, every time i do, i can’t help but stare. confidence rolls off them, and i want to bathe in it.
in the hulu adaptation of shrill, aidy bryant is annie, a big woman who’s not at ease in her body. she’s been shamed for it, too, and discomfort means that she lacks the confidence to occupy space, to assert herself while having sex, to let herself go in public spaces.
there’s a scene in one of the episodes when she’s crossing the street when a woman crosses ahead of her. this woman is big, curvy, tall, but she strides ahead like she owns the world. she’s dressed in something form-fitting, wearing red lipstick, daring the world, look at me. look at how beautiful i am.
annie follows her with wonder, awestruck, envious. i followed along with her, awestruck, envious.
later in the episode, annie goes to a pool party for big women, and this is a scene that’s made its rounds on twitter — annie, standing at a table, watching this group of big, confident women in bikinis, dancing their hearts out, not caring if anyone is watching. these are their bodies, and they’re curvy and strong and beautiful, deserving of love and respect, and these women know — they are not monsters. they are not grotesque. they’re just women, and they are wonderful to behold.
annie watches enviously until finally she starts to move. she does a little shimmy, then another, then she’s in the center of this dance floor, her shirt still buttoned up, her jeans still on, but she closes her eyes, smiles, and keeps moving. she dances; she lets herself go; and she pulls off her top, her jeans, revealing a cute bikini. she dives into the pool. i’m crying because i understand her hesitation, her fear, her envy, and then i’m crying because i envy her for being able to let go when i still can’t.
the really stupid thing about all this? at my biggest, i was maybe a size 16, maybe 18, at 5’8”.
i still haven’t talked about t kira madden’s long live the tribe of fatherless girls. or about han kang’s the white book and my problems with deborah smith as a translator. or about eugene and why it’s so refreshing to see more asian americans out there, to see more asian american writers getting published.
i think this is long enough, though, so maybe we’ll leave things here for now. hopefully i’ll come back with another blog post picking up where i’m leaving off, but i think i’ve also learned better not to promise things like that.
thank you, as always, for reading. i am so grateful you’ve taken the time to do so.