[thursday recs] 그림자.

i can package a certain story as a dream and tell it that way. i can disguise my childhood, and as i disguise it i can make allusions, and as i reveal details about the allusions, i can make them appear fictitious, and in this way, i can deceive you all. but you won’t be deceived. (han, 148)

i always hated writing introductions — introductions and conclusions. in college, i’d always start with the stuff in the middle, oftentimes without even establishing a thesis first because the middle had to be worked through for me to discover what my thesis even was. once all that was written and done and good, i’d write the conclusion. then i’d write the introduction. none of this has changed.

coming back to korean literature-in-translation after some time away is one kind of homecoming, and i love how we’re getting more and more of it here in the west. i love that i’ve been reading more and more of it because, a few years ago, this was a wish of mine: to read more korean literature, to be able to know more of it, to be able to share more of it.

and i am so happy to be able to share more of it.

hwang jungeun, one hundred shadows (tilted axis, 2016)

one of the things that i love about korean literature is that it often seems to exist in a korea different from the glittery, technologically-advanced, prosperous, high-achieving state that korea seems to present itself as. hallyu shows off a romantic view of korea, with its cutesy, perky pop stars and shiny dramas, a lot of which has been the product of the government pouring resources into hallyu and generating an idol-making machine within its entertainment industry, while literature has gotten considerably less attention until recently.

i don’t want to go so far as to claim that, as a result of that, korean literature took on different tones (though i have heard that theory before), especially as there is also the question of what and how literature is translated. is it that the gatekeepers to translation just have a love for korean literature that tells narratives of those who exist on the fringes of society? who bear witness to the startling wealth gaps that exist in sometimes jarring juxtaposition in korea? 

regardless of whether it’s a translation thing or a trend in korean literature, i’m glad that this literature exists. i’m glad that there are writers out there who aren’t enthralled with this one depiction of korea, who write novels that go beneath the glossy veneer and explore the effects of prosperity, who write about people who exist outside the aspirational “norm.”

hwang jungeun’s one hundred shadows is one such novel.

the novel is set primarily in an electronics market in korea, and it’s a rundown market, one that developers want to tear down and build into something new. unsurprisingly, they use all kinds of means to try to bully the storeowners to leave, whether by convincing them to take a sum of money and relocate their shop in some unclear new location or by blocking off the main entrance of the market so customers believe they’re closed. it’s not that hwang focuses on this aspect of the story; one hundred shadows is largely a story about two characters who work at different shops in the market; and it’s a story, also, about the people in this market, these people who don’t have much, who exist on the outside edges of an upward society, who are trying to resist the shadows that rise and threaten to consume them.

i think that’s the strength of the novel, though, that hwang tells the story of these economic differences in korea without directly telling them. she doesn’t get into social issues or into the nitty-gritty of the conflicts that might exist between these shop owners and the developers — the details are there if you read for them in the way that these stresses and worries are present in and shape people’s lives without necessarily taking center stage.

… for me this whole area is inextricably tangled up with those memories and the way they make me feel, and when i hear people call this place a slum, well, it just doesn’t seem right to me. calling a person poor is one thing, that’s an objective fact in a way, but ‘slum’ … mujae trailed off.

i wonder if they call this kind of place a slum because if you called it someone’s home or their livelihood that would make things awkward when it comes to tearing it down. (hwang, 102)

sometimes, i read sentences and laugh a little to myself because i wonder how they must read in korean, how much of a tangle they must have been to translate. other times, i read sentences that make me wonder what the original korean is, what kinds of decisions the translator must have made and why, what kinds of liberties the translator may have taken. other times, i read sentences that make me sad because i’m sure a lot was lost in translation, that the korean must be achingly beautiful in the ways that korean can be, in the ways that english cannot.

i love the korean language. it’s lyrical and poetic, and you can run the language around in these exquisite loops that seem like they can go on forever without losing themselves. i love the lack of clear third-person pronouns, and i love the ambiguity you can create because pronouns aren’t necessary — in korean, the subject pronoun is often implied, a quirk about the language that is used to create ambiguity in quiet, powerful ways.

i love the words themselves, too, and, sometimes, when i think of korean and i think of english, i find myself thinking how limited a language english is. there are words in korean that cannot be found in english, that require a paragraph just to try to define; there are ways to feel in korean that do not exist in english; and there are ways of encompassing a national identity that cannot be so clearly distilled to be consumed and understood.

in general, i love how much language can reflect culture, and i’m fascinated by and interested in the act of translating, how it’s an act of loss, not simply of words but of culture and history and societal context. this is one of the reasons i love reading korean literature-in-translation, too, because the very fact of it being translation — crucially, of it being translation from korean, a language and culture i know to a certain degree of intimacy — alters the reading experience. in many ways, i feel like i am a much more active reader when it comes to translated korean literature, and that is something i appreciate.

i don’t really like people who go around saying they don’t have any debt. this might sound a little harsh, but i think people who claim to be in no debt of any kind are shameless, unless they sprang up naked in the woods one day without having borrowed anyone’s belly, and live without a single thread on their back, and without using any industrial products. (hwang, 18-9)

han yujoo, the impossible fairy tale (graywolf press, 2017)

choi mia had two fathers. she received twice as many presents as the other children received on birthdays and christmas. she had no siblings. the other children were jealous of her face, clothes, and school supplies. she has never been jealous of other children. choi mia was not given enough time to learn about jealousy. (han, 92)

there is a beauty to the way han yujoo writes violence in the impossible fairy tale — or maybe “beauty” is the wrong word because it’s not that she makes it beautiful or tries to render it so. she’s brutal about it, writes about it in ways that make you flinch, but she does it indirectly without giving way to sensationalism or even without putting it into clearly defined words.

i can’t even figure out a way to summarize this book, maybe that it’s a story about two children, one who has everything and one who does not. it’s a story about violence against children, about the violence children are capable of, about the way violence begets violence in the way that violence is trauma that is felt on every level. it’s a story about how we all must find outlets for our fear, our anger, our desperation — or that, even if we don’t, if we try to suppress everything, things will somehow escape, sometimes to catastrophic results.

somehow, that’s not even the most interesting part of the book, though, because han does a pretty damn stellar pivot with part two, bringing us into an i-narrative voice. it’s unclear who this “i” is, though; is she one of the students in part one? is she one of the two children? what are these dreams she keeps writing about? who is she? why are we suddenly looking at things from her perspective? why am i automatically assigning the female gender to her?

at first, i thought the dream sequences in part two were going on for too long, wondered if han weren’t falling prey to art for art’s sake, ambiguity for ambiguity’s sake, which is a particular peeve of mine. i don’t want to discuss any details because i don’t want to give any of it away, but part two unfolds in surprising, thoughtful ways that make the meandering worthwhile.

reading, after all, is an act of trust; to a certain degree, we need to be able to trust the author. we need to be able to trust that she’s taking us on a worthwhile journey (“worthwhile” being entirely subjective), that she is thoughtfully using language, that she knows what she is doing, the story she is telling. we need to be able to trust that she purposefully created this experience for us, that none of these choices is casual or lacking in deliberation. we need to be able to trust that she will raise questions that she will answer satisfactorily, that she isn’t abusing her position as author and creator to send us in circles without reason.

han asks us for this trust, and she asks a lot of questions about what it means to create. she asks what these lives are that we, as writers, as artists, create and give body to, these characters we build and into whom we infuse life and personality quirks and histories. she asks about the limitations of creating, of fiction, of story; she asks about the responsibility of these acts of creating.

she doesn’t necessarily give us any hard answers to any of these questions, though, but that doesn’t mean she leaves us dissatisfied. the questions she’s asking aren’t meant to have hard answers, anyway. they’re meant to get us questioning, to make us active readers, cognizant of the ways in which we might be complicit in the actions of these characters, because the point, as always, is to consider.

in this way, the sole objective of the stories i want to tell is to throw you into an unclear state, to make you believe while you’re not able to believe. (han, 150)

i feel like noting that han does some really interesting things with language in the impossible fairy tale, and i’m so curious (01) to read this in korean and (02) how the translator, janet hong, made some of the decisions she did. i don’t mean the latter in an accusatory way or to imply that she did a bad job; i’m genuinely curious because i love language and have dabbled in translation and regard it with a fair amount of wonderment.

bandi, the accusation (grove press, 2017)

i confess that i have yet to finish reading the accusation. that is not going to stop me from writing about it now, especially as it is a book i am certain to revisit in the future.

bandi is the pseudonym for a north korean writer currently still living in north korea, and the accusation is a collection culled from a manuscript that he has been writing for years. the manuscript was smuggled out of north korea, an action that put not only bandi’s life but also the lives of everyone involved in danger. it was bandi’s hope that his stories be published in south korea, but he never dreamed that they’d be translated and be read outside of korea.

the accusation was published in south korea in 2014. it is published by grove press in the US and serpent’s tail in the UK on tuesday, 2017 march 7. bandi, in korean, means firefly.

as may be inevitable, we give certain books more weight than others, and the accusation certainly is one of such book. as crucial as journalistic and investigative stories about north korea are, as important as memoirs by refugees are, there is a void when it comes to fiction, and i am glad to have this collection.

because here is where i get down to story: i often get annoyed by people who constantly try to downplay the humanities, sneering at books and literature and fiction like they’re mere child’s play. part of this is that i grew up in an environment that considers fiction useless; the korean phrase used to dismiss fiction is “쓸떼 없다,” which translates literally to “there is no use for that.” even now, i continue to be told that the books i read are pointless, that they’re making me see the world in negative ways, that i need to read more essays, more philosophy, more non-fiction, less stories.

and yet.

stories are the means through which we see the world. they are how we see ourselves in the world, and, similarly, they are how we see others in the world. stories are how essays, philosophy, and non-fiction are structured; stories lie beneath food, art, music. stories are part of our everyday lives as well — when we go home and talk to our family, our friends, we tell them stories from our days at work, at school, at wherever. when we meet new people, we tell them stories about ourselves — where we’re from, what we do, who we are. when we give a presentation, make an argument, think about our futures, we are telling stories, and, when we write, when we create, we are doing just that — we are telling stories, stories about ourselves, our obsessions, the circumstances of our lives.

you might ask, “if stories are in every part of life, then why do we need fiction?” the thing is that, sometimes, fiction allows us to go places that non-fiction doesn’t. sometimes, fiction opens up barriers that might exist in non-fiction that make some stories impossible to tell. sometimes, fiction makes it easier for us to explore darknesses and fears and truths that we might not otherwise confront.

similarly, sometimes, fiction opens up windows to communicate with others, to provide people opportunities to open their hearts in ways that non-fiction cannot. sometimes, fiction makes it easier to consider a new way of seeing people, to empathize in deeper, more personal ways, to realize that we are all people — we are all human, and we all exist on this planet, and we can work to make things better for each other.

by tapping into our empathetic selves, fiction challenges us to feel and, in doing so, hopefully challenges us to be better people and to do good. it hopefully challenges us to see the people hidden behind an oppressive regime and see them as people.

in the afterword to the accusation, kim seong-dong, a writer for the monthly chosun, tells us this: that bandi started by joining the chosun literature and art general league in north korea, that he was published in various periodicals but came to a realization that led to the stories in this book.

and yet, something began to weigh on him: the great famine of the early to mid-1990s, exacerbated by floods but stemming from the disastrous economic policies of previous decades, which the government insisted on referring to by the officially mandated code words “the arduous march.” witnessing scenes of misery and deprivation, in which many of his friends and colleagues perished, provoked him to reflect deeply on the society in which he lived, and his role there as a writer. a writer’s strength, he found, is best deployed within writing. and so he began to record the lives of those whom hunger and social contradictions had brought to an untimely death, or who had been forced to leave their homes and roam the countryside in search of food. now, when bandi picked up his pencil, he did so in order to denounce the system. (232-3)


rather than himself trying to escape from north korea, the writer bandi has sent his work out as an envoy, risking his life in the process. surely this is because he believes that external efforts can transform the slave society he lives in more quickly than internal ones. on handing his manuscript over, bandi said that even if his work was published only in south korea, that would be enough for him. this work should be heard as an earnest entreaty to shine a spotlight on north korea’s oppressive regime. (241)

i sincerely hope that the accusation is received accordingly. i will definitely be revisiting it in the future.

whether something is harmful or not is a matter of personal standards. (hwang, 57)

to be honest, while one of the reasons i started this weekly post series was very much to fight back against a toxic administration, another reason was purely selfish: to give myself a sense of purpose and something to fight for outside the brokenness in my brain and my body.

i live with what is called major depressive disorder, recurrent episode, and panic disorder, and i also struggle with suicidal thinking and hopelessness and general despair. i go to sleep at night hoping i won’t wake up in the morning, and i wake up in the morning disappointed to find myself still here. add onto that that i was also recently diagnosed with type 2 diabetes*, so there’s that extra dose of self-loathing added onto everything else, especially when food was that one last comfort i had, that one last lifeline i was holding onto to get me through the days, to get me out of bed and try to care for myself. all of that, with one blood test, is gone — or, at least, altered beyond what i am currently able to handle.

most days, i find myself helpless, unable even to make that effort to care. when i check my blood sugar and my meter gives me back that triple-digit reading despite it only being a week of monitoring and trying to bring my glucose down, i don’t know what to do, so i shut down, stop eating, hope this kills me. maybe it goes without saying that i’m still processing the anger and resentment that comes with this diagnosis, letting the mental temper tantrums run loose when the numbness wears off, and trying to tell myself that it’s not that big a deal, it’s manageable, it’s not life or death — but, truth be told, i hate that, i always have — it’s just another way for people to enforce shame via diminishing, blaming, belittling.

because here’s the truth: something doesn’t have to endanger your life to threaten it, and just because something is manageable doesn’t mean that it isn’t devastating. context matters. the whole of a person matters. and had this happened at some other point, when i wasn’t already so broken, so empty-handed, so hopeless, i might have reacted differently. i might have squared my shoulders and said, okay, and simply dealt with it. but it didn’t — it happened now, and, when all the pieces of my life are lying in shambles at my feet, it’s impossible to take this in stride and get on with it, even as i know that, given time, i will learn to live with it.

so that’s a long-winded way of saying that i won't be continuing these thursday posts. i won’t stop blogging and will continue posting regularly, but, as of this moment, i am not able to continue this once a week schedule. for one, i barely have the ability to focus these days, much less finish books at the pace i did before and write posts with such tight turnaround time, and, for another, even as i know that this is disappointment in myself speaking, a huge part of me, frankly, doesn’t really see the point. thank you for following along thus far; it means more to me than i can express.

* for anyone concerned, i made my kimchi fried rice with brown rice. also, i am new to this and still figuring out what works and what doesn’t.

[thursday recs] a case for reading.

i believe that literature flows somewhere behind order and definition. amidst all that remains unsolved. perhaps literature is about throwing into disarray what has been defined and putting it into order to make it flow anew for those in the back of history, the weak, the hesitant. about making a mess of things, all over again. is this, in the end, an attempt at order as well? is it now my time to look back? (shin kyung-sook, the girl who wrote loneliness, 58)

this week, i started reading tiger pelt (leaf-land press, 2016) by annabelle kim, and it’s a historical fiction set in mid-20th century korea. it follows multiple characters, one of whom is a young girl, who is kidnapped and pressed into service by the japanese during world war ii, and, as i read her section, i very much wanted to throw up, to put the book down and walk away.

basically, what the japanese did during world war ii was to recruit girls from korea, china, the phillippines, all over southeast asia, telling them that they would be working in factories and providing valuable contributions to imperial japan and its war effort. instead, the girls were forced into sex slavery, raped multiple times every night by soldiers, each of whom was given a set number of minutes — and, if the girls weren’t being tricked into signing up, they were being taken and abducted.

hildi kang gets into this in her book, under the black umbrella (cornell university press, 2001), a collection of oral histories from koreans who lived during the japanese occupation of korea, a time during which japan made the korean language illegal, forced koreans to take japanese names and worship at shinto temples, and tried simultaneously to cannibalize koreans by playing on their similarities and to keep koreans as the colonized other. in some ways, it is an interesting relationship to study now, decades removed, though the horrors of what imperial japan did to korea (and the rest of asia) aren't softened much at all, especially when you read an account like the one this woman, kim p. [anonymous], gives in under the black umbrella:

the men lined up outside the barracks doors where the women were, and took their turn. the girl just lay there inside. each man had a given amount of time, about seven minutes. if he wasn’t out in time, the next man went right in and yanked him out. each door had a long line of men waiting their turns. […]

the woman, on the wall near her head, used chalk or a pencil to make a mark for each soldier she served. she thought she would be paid that way, but it turned out they were not paid anything at all. (kim p. [anonymous], 135)

japan has continued to deny that this happened, claiming that the women were volunteers and taking some very deliberate actions in attempts to whitewash its history of this horrendous black mark, from trying to remove statues erected in remembrance of comfort women to trying to convince american textbook publisher mcgraw hill to revise text about comfort women in its history textbooks. these women and their supporters continue to show up every wednesday in protest in front of the japanese embassy in seoul.

the point of this post isn’t to get into japan’s war crimes, though, but this: as i was reading tiger pelt, i thought, this is why we need stories. we need stories that twist us up inside. we need stories that remind us of the horrors that humanity is capable of committing. we need stories that remember what happened, what a country and its people suffered, how that country and its people survived.

we need these stories as much as we need the stories that affirm the goodness, the generosity of humanity, because we need to remember that we all have monsters inside of us, that we are all capable of violence and grotesque behavior. we need to remember this because, if we allow ourselves to forget or pretend that we are above this ugliness and slide into indifference or apathy or a sense of moral superiority, we are more susceptible to making a farce of human brutality and, in a weird twist, letting it slide.

this post is kind of a cheat because i’m only 40-some pages into tiger pelt, so this isn’t an actual review of the book. it's also admittedly kind of poorly planned (these photographs, what?) because i actually had another author i wanted to recommend today (and had already shot the accompanying photos), but i unfortunately didn’t finish reading her book because i’ve been spending my week working on a personal essay and another blog post, which means i didn’t get to read as much as i’d have liked.

this is honestly something that’s been weighing on me these recent weeks, though, and starting tiger pelt simply triggered something in me. also, considering our cheeto president who does not read, i just really wanted to throw this out there: read. just read. read broadly. read intelligently. read intentionally.

read something that makes you uncomfortable, that makes you squirm and want to vomit because it twists you up and horrifies and outrages you. read something that challenges your worldview. read something that comes from another country, another culture, another language.

maybe you’ll find that this reading brings you back to your already existing worldview, your faith, your convictions, but the point isn’t to force yourself to change. the point is to consider. it is to take yourself out of your bubble (and we all exist in some kind of bubble) and ask yourself why you believe what you believe, why you think the way you do, why you see people the way you do.

the point is to question, to open yourself up, and to try to understand and love people in better ways.

(this post has not been sponsored by blue bottle. i simply went to blue bottle in downtown LA today and loved it. i also loved that the books on these shelves are for sale, and all proceeds go to the library foundation of los angeles.)

[thursday recs] look in the mirror; like what you see?

it’s hard to make a bad skillet of cornbread. just don’t add sugar. (120)

it’d be simple to call victuals (clarkson potter, 2016) a cookbook because, yes, there are recipes, and, yes, there are instructions as to how to cook said recipes, but i love the subtitle and find it more apt a descriptor: “an appalachian journey, with recipes.”

ronni lundy, the writer, grew up in appalachia, and victuals is a tribute to the “present-day people and places across the southern appalachain mountains” (16). lundy set off on an epic road trip to write the book, traveling over four thousand miles, driving through and around kentucky, west virigina, southern ohio, northern georgia, tennessee, virginia, and north carolina to bring us all these stories — stories from her own childhood and youth, from chefs and food people who have roots in appalachia, from people who live and work in the region, dedicated to cooking its food and preserving its history and traditions.

and, of course, there are recipes and beautiful — seriously, exceptionally beautiful — photography.

victuals hits at that intersection that i absolutely love — literary writing/journalism and food and culture. the chapters open with long-form pieces that focus on different components important to appalachian food and culture, and they’re rich with history and also steeped in the present. one of the things i appreciated most is how lundy doesn’t shy away from the uglier aspects of history; she readily acknowledges the role of slaves and indentured servants and doesn’t try to gloss over it or pretend it didn’t exist (79-81).

she also brings in the present, highlights the work that people are doing to preserve the food of appalachia as well as to reclaim land that has been completely stripped by big coal. she does all this without getting preachy, by focusing on the stories of the people doing the work on the ground, by helping us get to know them, who they are, why they’re doing the work they do. fundamentally, lundy understands that people, that stories, are a crucial part of any culture, including food, just as she understands that food does not exist in a void — these practices, these flavors and products and dishes all have origins somewhere.

how does victuals fit into this series, though? this series that is meant to highlight books by authors who are immigrants, POC, LGBTQ, women, etcetera? isn’t ronni lundy a white, american-born, american-bred woman?

yes, she is, and, yes, that is the underlying premise of this series, but the greater purpose behind this is to open up the world a little, whether for me or for someone out there who might have chanced upon this page, and victuals personally challenged me a lot.

last december, i posted this quote from becky chambers’ a closed and common circuit (hodder and stoughton, 2016):

’and here, AIs are just … tools. they’re the things that make travel pods go. they’re what answer your questions at the library. they’re what greet you at hotels and shuttle ports when you’re travelling. i’ve never thought of them as anything but that.

‘okay,’ sidra said. none of that was an out-of-the-ordinary sentiment, but it itched all the same.

‘but then you … you came into my shop. you wanted ink.i’ve thought about what you said before you left. you came to me, you said, because you didn’t fit within your body. and that … that is something more than a tool would say. and when you said it, you looked … angry. upset. i hurt you, didn’t i?’

‘yes,’ sidra said.

tak rocked her head in guilty acknowledgement. ‘you get hurt. you read essays and watch vids. i’m sure there are huge differences between you and me, but i mean … there are huge differences between me and a harmagian. we’re all different. i’ve been doing a lot of thinking since you left, and a lot of reading, and —‘ she exhaled again, short and frustrated. ‘what i’m trying to say is i — i think maybe i underestimated you. i misunderstood, at least.’


sidra processed, processed, processed. […] ‘this … re-evaluation of yours. does it extend to other AIs? or do you merely see me differently because i’m in a body?’

tak exhaled. ‘we’re being honest here, right?’

‘i can’t be anything but.’

‘okay, well — wait, seriously?’


‘right. okay. i guess i have to be honest too, then, if we’re gonna keep this fair.’ tak knitted her long silver fingers together and stared at them. ‘i’m not sure i would’ve gone down this road if you weren’t in a body, no. i … don’t think it would’ve occurred to me to think differently.’

sidra nodded. ‘i understand. it bothers me, but i do understand.’

‘yeah. it kind of bothers me, too. i’m not sure i like what any of this says about me.’ (chambers, 189-90)

this passage has sat with me since, and it’s a quote i kept thinking about as i read victuals. i’m just as guilty as anyone else of living in a bubble, having preconceptions of groups of people, and not wanting to look myself in the mirror because i know i won’t like what i see.

i readily admit that, when i think of the south and middle america, which are geographical terms i use very loosely to mean anywhere south of DC and west of philadelphia, my immediate reaction is to raise my guard. i automatically get wary and suspicious, and i start feeling uncomfortable. this isn’t a reaction limited to the south and middle america, though; it’s also my instinctual reaction when i think of christians, suburban white americans in general, korean-koreans.

victuals made me examine that part of myself, made me continue asking myself about these biases of mine. i thought a lot about this as i was driving across the country last month, as i made my way through the south, and i’d like to say that a lot of it has to do with being a woman of color and being queer and having faced discrimination simply for being who i am.

while i won’t say that all my apprehensions are totally unwarranted given that, yes, this country did put the cheeto administration in place, knowing it to be racist, misogynistic, and anti-LGBTQ, i don’t think it’s fair to use my queer WOC-ness as an excuse for my own biases, and it goes without saying that i don’t like this part of myself. i don’t like that i’ll let my fear color my perception of people, of places.

at the same time, though, knowing this, i refuse to let my fear define my perception of people, of places, and neither will i let it stop me from going into spaces that make me uncomfortable and let them show me how wrong i’ve been. sometimes, though, of course that’s easier said than done, partly because fear is fear and partly because it’s never a nice feeling to come face-to-face with my own prejudices and ugliness. i mean, no one enjoys that; no one wants to be called a racist or a bigot or a misogynist; but this is why toni morrison said that, to her, goodness is more interesting than evil — it takes work to be good. it’s a struggle to be good. as much as hatred and bigotry are learned things, we also must learn to be good, to be better people, and that, oftentimes, hurts.

i feel like, post-election, there’s been a fair amount of criticism directed at liberals, kind of like a “ha, fuck you! you in your liberal bubbles, totally clueless about the rest of the world! we showed you!” there’s also been a call to empathy, that liberals should be reaching out to conservatives — or maybe that’s making a much too clear-cut distinction, like it’s solely a liberals vs. conservatives thing or like it’s solely geographical. i don’t know.

regardless, there’s been a call to liberals to be more empathetic, to try to understand where cheeto voters came from, what might have compelled them to vote that way, how the rest of the country outside of our liberal cities is faring. a small part of me thinks, well, yes, maybe we should try to understand, in the way that i think we generally need to keep our minds and hearts open, but the other, greater part of me thinks that’s a pretty piss-poor attempt to rationalize racism, misogyny, and bigotry, to reinforce the continued straight white male-centered power structure.

here’s the thing: empathy is a two-way street. you don’t get to call for empathy and understanding without first extending it to someone else, and this whole fucking country could stand to tap into more empathy and understanding. republicans could stand to tap into their basic humanity and try to see women as independent, sentient, thinking human beings deserving of equal rights and the legal right to make decisions about their own bodies. christians could stand to tap into love for LGBTQ people, muslims, non-christians, instead of crying about religious freedom so they can continue to discriminate against people at will. queer POC like myself could venture out of our bubbles and try to see the america outside our cities.

that’s the thing, though — you can’t expect just one group to carry all the weight of being empathetic and open-minded. it doesn’t work that way. it’s not fair to place that just on liberals, like it’s necessary for us to be open-minded and accepting of people and ideologies that try to do us harm and take away our rights and treat us like second-class people, when those people and ideologies do nothing to try to see outside their narrow bubbles. it takes both sides to bring about change and growth, just like it takes at least two people to have a conversation.

and, you know, this is something i love about food, its ability to bring people together and create a space where maybe people can put aside their differences and just enjoy a meal. it’s not to say that food has this magical superpower or that this is always what happens — people fight plenty over dinner tables — but, when i think of food, i do think of that, its giving, generous nature that invites people in and agrees that, no matter where we come from, who we are, we all eat, we all taste, we all need and want and hunger. fundamentally, despite our surface variations, we are not all that different from each other.

one afternoon she [amelia kirby] looked up to see seated at adjacent bar stools an openly gay local artist and one of the staunchest conservative strip miners in town. “they were each just here [at summit city] to grab lunch, but they were sitting there and you know how we are in the mountains, we like to be friendly. so they started to talk, and not just talk, but it turned out to be an hour-long conversation in which they exchanged ideas civilly, even though they each were coming from different perspectives. and they left, laughing pretty easy, and i thought, ‘wow. it’s working!’” (116)

in short, bill [best] teaches that american culture has evolved to largely value the acquisition of things: cars, tech devices, supper from the latest chef to make headlines. appalachian culture instead places a higher value on connections. beans are a perfect example of that as we value them not only for taste and nutrition, but also for less tangible reasons. we pass seeds from generation to generation, sharing their names and stories to connect us to our origins. we plant our preferred pole beans in the corn so the former may use the latter’s stalks to twine up, a connection of crops. the bean plant replenishes nitrogen sapped from the soil, connecting us to the earth. we see the thick strings down the sides of the beans we prefer not as a nuisance, but as an opportunity to gather on the porch willing hands of all ages, the older women teaching children how to pull the zipper gently down one side, then the other. as we work, we share gossip and memories connecting us to our family, our community, and our history. bill notes that being intangible, such treasures of a culture of connection are virtually invisible to the citizens of a culture of acquisition and so mountain culture gets cast, at best, as quaint and anachronistic; at worst, ridiculous or perverse. bill urges us to look past such assumptions, to dig deeper for the truth. he also grows some mean beans. (141)

“aspirational eating” is a term used in the study of foodways that, in its most simplified explanation, means that we eat the foods of those we aspire to be. the theory suggests that the movement that began in the region in the mid-20th century toward convenience foods and commercial products, toward pop-tarts for breakfast instead of homemade biscuits and mamaw’s jelly, is not simply about availability, convenience, inexpensive price, or taste preference, but is also largely fueled because people from this part of the country, who so often are portrayed as “other,” aspire to be instead “the same.” like those they’ve seen selling foods on billboards and tv.


i thought about my mother, who i remember working tirelessly most days of her life, cooking, cleaning, washing clothes and hanging them on the line, washing pots and pans in an old porcelain sink. what did grocery canned goods mean to her? she relished the home-canned goods that we were gifted, adjusted the store-bought ones to suit her rigorous standards of taste. i thought that she loved her aunt’s jams as much for the memory of place and people they evoked. but what meaning might those commercial jams and vegetables have also held? did those grocery jars and tins represent a different life? perhaps an easier one; perhaps one she desired?

was that aspirational eating? (211-3)

[thursday recs] for all refugees, everywhere.

in a country where possessions counted for everything, we had no belongings except our stories. (“black-eyed women,” 7)

continuing on from last week, here is recommendation number two! for context, please check out this post!

the refugees (grove, 2017) is viet thanh nguyen’s follow-up to his pulitzer prize-winning debut novel, the sympathizer (grove, 2015), and it’s a collection of 8 stories written over 2 decades. they’re all stories about refugees, told in the present (or, at least, in contemporary times, years removed from the war), most of these characters now resettled in different cities in america, some returning to vietnam as an adult after fleeing as children.

it would be easy to attach the label of “refugee narrative” onto these stories, a label that i find hugely problematic, this general idea of a “[blank] narrative” as it is applied to minority stories. you might walk into the collection thinking that you’re getting stories that focus on war, the act of fleeing, but you don’t — these are stories of people who carry this trauma and have learned to live with it, to carry it, in different ways.

most of my criticism of nguyen has to do with his prose, i think — and i say "i think" because i'm not quite sure if that's what makes me tilt my head. i can't honestly say that i find his prose all that moving in one way or another; it doesn't sweep me off my feet or wow me with brilliance or cleverness or particular adroitness; but neither does it offend or irritate me with its plainness. i also find that he hits all the right notes in his stories but doesn't always deliver the full emotional oomph i'm hoping for, and a lot of his endings feel abrupt, not necessarily rushed, just a little clunky and awkwardly arrived upon.

and yet.

i love what nguyen tries to do with his fiction. i love the way he thinks things through. for instance, here's a confession — i might have dropped the sympathizer last year, but i loved how he thought through that narrative voice, thought about what he was trying to do with his novel, not only narratively but also within the context of asian-american literature and how it is often perceived and read by the general literary audience. i love the way he approaches his fiction.

what i liked most about these stories is that nguyen doesn’t try to make heroes or saints out of his characters. he also doesn’t reduce them to capital-R-Refugees, by which i mean that nguyen presents his characters as human beings who carry this trauma, this loss, and are defined by it in ways but not in entirety. they may be refugees, or they may be the children of refugees, but their experience, their history, is not the whole sum of who they are.

in the four months since he’d fled saigon, he’d been asked for his story again and again, by sailors, marines, and social workers, their questions becoming all too predictable. what was it like? how do you feel? isn’t it all so sad? sometimes he told the curious that what had happened was a long story, which only impelled them to ask for a shorter version. (“the other man,” 26)

i think that, sometimes, it gets lost that refugees are people who are fleeing from something, who are seeking sanctuary from something horrific that is out of their control. there sometimes seems to be a blurring of “immigrant” and “refugee,” like the two are similar enough to be seen as the same, simply because both immigrants and refugees are coming from one country into another.

it’s important to remember that immigrants and refugees are not the same. there is agency and choice in immigrating. there is no better option for a refugee than to seek refuge elsewhere.

it’s also important to remember that refugees don’t simply come into another country and forget the violence or the journey that brought them there. they live with that, with every decision they had to make, with every loss they suffered, ever loved one they lost, every wrong they endured, and they come into these strange places and learn new languages and ways of life, sometimes (often times) in spaces that regard them suspiciously and/or condescendingly — and they survive.

i liked that nguyen shows us this, that these characters, these refugees, have survived. they get to america, and they adapt. they find each other and create vietnamese communities around the country. they take jobs they’re overqualified for; they make their living selling fake luxury goods; and they get involved with their bosses and lose their jobs. they’re haunted by the literal ghosts of their pasts, and there will always be that before and after, just like there will always be the saigon before the war, before they became refugees, and the saigon that exists now with its different street names, with its new name altogether.

and they are just as much a part of america as anyone else.

favorite stories:

  • "the other man"
  • "the americans"
  • "someone else besides you"

thank you, grove, for sending me the book. this does not impact my thoughts, nor does it influence my decision to include as part of this series.

later, his arm thrown over marcus’s body, facing his back, liem wasn’t surprised to discover how little he remembered. his habit of forgetting was too deeply ingrained, as if he passed his life perpetually walking backward through a desert, sweeping away his footprints, leaving him with only scattered recollections of rough lips pressed against his, and the comfort of a man’s muscular weight. (“the other man,” 42)

she wondered if he remembered their escape from vung tau on a rickety fishing trawler, overloaded with his five siblings and sixty strangers, three years after the war’s end. after the fourth day at sea, he and the rest of the children, bleached by the sun, were crying for water, even though there was none to offer but the sea’s. nevertheless, she had washed their faces and combed their hair every morning, using salt water and spit. she was teaching them that decorum mattered even now, and that their mother’s fear wasn’t so strong that it could prevent her from loving them. (“i’d love you to want me,” 107)

he remembered her infancy, when michiko insisted on sleeping with claire in between them, he so worried about rolling over in his sleep onto claire that he lay awake restless until he could worry no more, whereupon he climbed down to the floor and slept on the carpet. not so many years later, when claire was walking but barely potty-trained, and still sleeping in their bed, she would wake up, slip off the edge and land on his chest, and when he opened one eye, demand to be taken to the bathroom. the trip alone in the dark was too frightening. he would sigh, get up, and lead her down the hall, step by careful step, her hand wrapped around one of his fingers. (“the americans,” 148-9)

[thursday recs] can't we make the world a bigger place?

i came from méxico, but there’s a lot of people here who, when they hear that, they think i crawled out of hell. they hear “méxico,” and they think: bad, devil, i don’t know. they got some crazy ideas. any of them ever been to méxico? and if they say, yeah, i went to acapulco back in the day or i been to cancún, papi, then that shit don’t count. you went to a resort? congratulations. but you didn’t go to méxico. and that’s the problem, you know? (236)

hi! ok, so, we’re a week into this presidency, and our cheeto president is already doing some truly heinous, insidious shit, continuing on his track of xenophobia and racism, of lying and fear-mongering, of thin-skinned egomaniacal tweeting.

i’m sure i’m not the only one waking up to nausea, dealing with anxiety and fear on a daily (or, dare i say, hourly) basis, and, like i said last week on instagram, i’ve been thinking a lot about the different forms of activism and resistance take as well as what it is i can do. i can’t march; i’m not someone who feels comfortable putting myself out there; and i struggle with suicidal depression that often saps me of everything. in many ways, i feel like i am not “qualified” to be an activist, that i do not check off the “right” boxes, even though i know that’s bullshit. there are many ways to resist.

what i do have are books — books and words and stories — so here’s a little something: every thursday, i will post a book by an author who is an immigrant and/or a POC and/or LGBTQ and/or a woman. sometimes, it will be a book by a non-american author, someone who’s been translated who writes about another culture, another people. sometimes, it might be a book by someone else who falls into completely different categories altogether. the point is simply that i will share a book that hopefully opens up the world a little more and reminds us that humanity is a universal thing, and there is no need to fear and discriminate against entire swaths of people simply because they appear different from us.

maybe i’m preaching to the choir here, but i think most of us, myself included, can stand to challenge ourselves more. for example, for myself, i know i’d like to start reading outside asian-americans, outside east asians more. and i hope this will produce a good archive that’s easily sharable with anyone who might be curious, who might want to read more diverse books but feel unsure about where to start. i’ve been there before, and i know it’s sometimes intimidating to try to find what’s worthwhile amidst all the books out there.

ultimately, i do believe in books. i believe in stories. and i believe in the greater importance for stories over the next four years — and i’m going to repeat myself here (from instagram) — we are going to need stories that affirm and reaffirm and reaffirm again and again and again the difference faces of humanity, that say/shout/scream to a hostile administration that we are here, we are alive, we will outlast you, and you will not silence us.

so let’s get started.

these people are listening to the media, and the media, let me tell you, has some fucked-up ideas about us. about all the brown-skinned people, but especially about the mexicans. you listen to the media, you’ll learn that we’re all gangbangers, we’re all drug dealers, we’re tossing bodies in vats of acid, we want to destroy america, we still think texas belongs to us, we all have swine flu, we carry machine guns under our coats, we don’t pay any taxes, we’re lazy, we’re stupid, we’re all wetbacks who crossed the border illegally. i swear to god, i’m so tired of being called a spic, a nethead, a cholo, all this stuff. happens to me all the time. i walk into a store and the employees either ignore me or they’re hovering over every move i make because they think i’m going to steal something. i understand i might not look like much. i work as a photographer, so i’m not in a business suit or nothing, but i have enough money to be in a store and even if i didn’t, i have the right to be in any store. i feel like telling them sometimes, you don’t know me, man. i’m a citizen here! but i shouldn’t have to tell anyone that. i want to be given the benefit of the doubt. when i walk down the street, i don’t want people to look at me and see a criminal or someone that they can spit on or beat up. i want them to see a guy who has just as much right to be here as they do, or a guy who works hard, or a guy who loves his family, or a guy who’s just trying to do the right thing. (236-7)

maybe cristina henríquez’s the book of unknown americans (knopf, 2014) is the obvious first choice, but i really couldn’t recommend this book more, especially given this week with trump’s ordering of the border wall and the muslim travel ban. 

in an interview with the LA review of books, henríquez summarizes her book thusly:

it’s really a story about two parents, devastated after their only daughter suffers a brain injury. they bring her to the united states [from mexico] so that she can attend that specialized school to help her recover. they end up in delaware, in an apartment building with residents from all over latin america, neighbors that become something like a family. and while they’re there, one of those neighbors — this 16-year-old boy from panama — improbably falls in love with their daughter. it’s a story about tragedy and guilt, but also about hope and about what it means to belong somewhere, to find a place to call your home.

the book of unknown americans is told in multiple narrators, each telling his/her story. henríquez deftly handles each voice, giving each its own character and distinctness, and it’s a testament to her writing that the voices don’t become muddled, carry their own individual strengths instead.

i won’t go into each character here, but, overall, henríquez doesn’t obviously try to speak against the stereotypes that latin americans face, that they’re rapists, criminals, drug dealers, here to terrorize our women and corrupt our societies and steal our jobs. she simply lets them tell their own stories, and, by doing so, she allows them their humanity in all their three-dimensional ways. it’s not that she ignores the political or the social; she recognizes that everything is political, that even having the last name she has is political; but she isn’t bashing anyone on the head with her novel or slamming her fist on the table and shouting, “you’re racist; you’re horrible.”

instead, she simply asks that you sit down and consider these stories, these people.

she asks that you see them as who they are: human.

i wish just one of those people, just one, would actually talk to me, talk to my friends, man. and yes, you can talk to us in english. i know english better than you, i bet. but none them even want to try. 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? (237)

i think this is the thing with fear: we fear what is unknown, but, most of the time, when we actually encounter our fears, we learn that they are not what we expected — they are not actually that unknown. we learn that our fears say more about us than about the people, the decision, the place we’ve been fearing, and, sometimes, that’s what makes it so hard for us to “conquer” our fears because then we’d have to give ourselves a long, hard look in the mirror, and a lot of us would not like what we see.

and the thing with people is this, that no one is unknowable, that all it takes is to sit down and listen to someone’s story to realize that, hey, s/he’s not that different from me. s/he isn’t someone for me to fear and hate.

this is why i believe in stories, because stories show us that, at heart, we are not all that unique. regardless of the color of our skin, our sexual orientation, the god we worship, the condition of our bodies, we all essentially want the same things. we want to love and be loved. we want to be safe. we want to have families and raise them in open, loving communities. we want to live good, meaningful lives.

and the unfortunate truth is that, sometimes, some of us have to leave our countries to find safety and opportunity elsewhere. some of us have to flee because of unrest, instability, and/or war. some of us have to leave home in the hopes that our children will lead better lives, receive better educations, live without fear.

and that doesn’t make them people to be hated, to be feared. that simply makes them people, people who have suffered, people who have gone through all kinds of hell and survived, people who have lost their homes and loved ones and countries. they are people who don’t come here empty-handed either, bringing with them their skills, their cultures, their stories, and, if this administration thinks that those are things to be feared and not welcomed, then all i can say is this: do not forget how this country was founded. do not forget that this is land you came in and took, land you built on the backs of slaves, land you developed with the contributions of immigrants. do not forget what makes this country great.