in the car pool with peter, on our way back from choir rehearsal, i try to read and not look only at him. the other boys in the car cluck and shove at each other, ask loud questions about things that have just happened at school. the mother driving us regards the traffic ahead. on the pages in front of me, the words dissolve a bit, the letters thinning until i can see, on the other side of them, like spying through a wire fence, the pictures of peter i have collected inside me: peter laughing as he falls on the ice at lake sebago, peter walking through his dark house, his dog fluttering at his leg, peter asleep in my basement, trying to escape it. occasionally i look up, and the real peter flares beside me. i try to place the smell of him. he smells of carnations and, very faintly, cigarette smoke. like a corsage someone left in a bar. i am in love with you, i think then. that’s what this is. (8-9)
mi-yeok-guk is seaweed soup is birthday soup. it’s the soup that’s given to women right after they give birth because seaweed contains a lot of iron and is considered to be good for new mothers, and it is, thus, the soup that you’re supposed to eat on your birthday. my mum wonders out loud why it’s the children who eat seaweed soup on their birthdays; shouldn’t it be the mothers?
my mum makes me my seaweed soup a few days early because i’m sick and seaweed soup is also my go-to sick-day soup. when i’m living out in new york and get sick, i go eat pho and i make seaweed soup because it’s an absurdly easy soup to make, and who’s so inclined to do any intensive cooking when ill? it’s an interesting soup, too — different regions in korea make theirs differently. like, my mum makes hers with beef. her mum, who was from busan, made hers with clams. others make it with anchovy broth. i make mine with beef because my mum makes hers with beef.
the funny thing about korean food? which i know isn't unique to korean food? we all believe we (or our mums) make it best. i fully believe i make the best kimchi fried rice, the best kimchi jjigae, the best ka-rae. my mum marinates the best kalbi and makes the best kalbi-tang and samgye-tang and name a soup, she makes it best. she also makes the best bin-dae-ddeok and kong-na-mul and jahp-chae. how ever you eat it at home, that style korean food is the best.
love should be about making you want to live. (156)
i read alexander chee’s edinburgh for the first time last year, and it’s haunted me since. the prose is sparse and beautiful, the story melancholy and thoughtful, the characters ones you want to wrap in your arms and never let go. i read the ibooks copy of it last years, and it was one littered with copy errors, and i mentioned that in an instagram caption, and chee commented, saying he’d pass that along to his team.
(i love that about getting a book out into the world — the fact that it’s a team effort.) (i want a team of my own some day. soon. please.) (my book is still out for agent consideration.)
when i was in portland last month, i went to powell’s and bought one book — a hard copy of edinburgh. i’m not sure why that was the book i picked up, maybe simply that i saw it and it was a book i’d earmarked to buy since i’d read it, and it’s one of those books i wish everyone would read.
(i also had a lovely interaction with chee at a reading once. he was at the UES barnes and noble for an event with jung yun, and i got shelter, yun’s debut, signed and decided i wanted to get the queen of the night, chee’s second novel, signed as well, so i bought a copy and asked him to sign it. i’d seen him a few weeks prior at AAWW for a reading and panel about queen as well. he asked if i was a writer. i said, yes. he wrote an encouraging inscription. i always appreciate those, especially when they come from writers of color. for me, at least, they usually tend to come from writers of color.)
edinburgh is a good cold-weather book. it’s something you can curl up with because it’s a book that compels you to sit with it even while the story is not the lightest — the novel follows fee, a korean-american boy who’s a soprano in his boys’ choir and learns exactly what the choir director does to his section leaders. the boy he loves, peter, is also a section leader in the choir and a victim, and peter takes his own life, leaving fee to carry his grief and the self-hatred and guilt for his silence until he has to confront it all later in his life.
(i’m sorry; i’m really bad at writing summaries.)
even with such heavy subject matter, edinburgh isn’t weighed down. it’s not a book that wraps itself around your throat like a chain with trauma; chee tells fee’s story gently, with generosity; and i find that “generosity” is a word i use often to describe work i love. i don’t know how quite to explain what i mean when i say that an author “writes with generosity,” and it has nothing to do with prose or language or narrative and everything to do with a certain kind of heart upon which the book is written. it has everything to do with how i feel an author is approaching the work, the intent with which she/he/they is trying to tell the story at hand, and it’s everything to do with warmth and kindness and love, not only for the characters in the book but also for the reader who might be coming into the work with trauma and pain of her/his/their own. a writer who tells a story with generosity is one who wishes first to comfort, to recognize, to meet the reader wherever she/he/they may be because that writer know that they are equals, both the one who gives the story and the one who receives.
we find each other because we need each other. (215)
have i previously stated that i love eggs? i also love foam.
there is a saying in korea that you know who your god is when you think you are about to die. hello, god. i pray to be able to carry peter, to carry him off to where he belongs, way above this earth. well above what could ever touch him. but wherever that is, i instead set him down at the entrance to the dining hall, where we go inside and sneak a soda from the fountain. (17)
i think of my grandparents, the listening quality they always seemed to have whenever i saw them. what were they listening for? when they had decided to leave korea, they did so and then left quickly. it was difficult but not impossible, and they never seemed to express remorse. their whole difficult lives seemed not to weigh on them at all. taken as mornings and meals, suppers and evenings, all of the world could be carried, both the sad and the delicious, their lives seemed to say. (202)
why did lady tammamo take her life instead of living forever? love ruins monsters. she didn’t need the spell of a thousand livers to become human. she just had to love one man. feel the change come over her: the fur recedes across her brow, the fangs flatten to a smile. the paws turn to feet and say good-bye to flight. the danger of her hides itself in shame. (227-8)
i totally botched this potato brioche because of lazy technique. i don’t own a kitchenaid, and i don’t plan to change that any time soon, and it’s been a while since i’ve made bread that required kneading and, thus, forgot exactly how much you need to knead bread. it tasted fine, but the texture was completely off. this is what i get for being lazy.
this is also what i get for deciding to bake bread when i’m still feverish and low energy.
oh well. i’ll bake it again in the next few weeks when i’m feeling better. i still have almost a whole bag of potato flour to use, anyway.
do you remember what it was like, to be young? you do. was there any innocence there? no. things were exactly what they looked like. if anyone tries for innocence, it’s the adult, moving forward, forgetting. if innocence is ignorance of the capacity for evil, then it’s what adults have, when they forget what it’s like to be a child. when they look at a child and think of innocence they are thinking of how they can’t remember what that feels like. (193)
today was the brooklyn book festival, aka one of my favorite days of the year! unfortunately, i didn't make it to all the panels i'd hoped; a weekend of little/bad sleep and the humidity drained me by mid-afternoon, especially because i started when the festival started, bright and early at ten am! here are some photos and panel recaps.
no attempts at introductions today; i'm pooped.
10 am: unsung heroines
alexander chee (the queen of the night, hmh, 2016), desiree cooper (know the mother, wayne university press, 2016), irina reyn (the imperial wife, thomas dunne, 2016), moderated by clay smith (kirkus)
- alexander chee: this novel (the queen of the night) was my attempt to write about these women i would see at the edges of things or mentioned in a sentence in other works, where the line would be something like "she was a favorite of the emperor's" [or ...] "she could walk on her hands," and the narrative would move on from there — and i was like, wait a minute, can we go back to the woman who could walk on her hands?
- AC: i was a boy soprano — but, when you're a boy soprano, you know your voice will leave eventually. i think female sopranos know this, too, but they have longer than 3-5 years.
- AC: women had to become these supernatural women [...] to be seen as more than normal women.
- desiree cooper: women [hold] a lot of dimensions of their lives in secret, and it's sort of like a giant well-kept secret. [know the mother]'s not an autobiographical book, but it's definitely mined from the experiences of my friends.
- DC: detroit is not the kind of town where you can go very far without meeting people who are not like you. it was the gift that i got, to be able to step into different lives.
- DC: the stories hang together around the issue of what happens when gender asserts itself when you least expect it, when those roles come down on a woman.
- DC: i used to be a lawyer and worked in a corporate setting, and there really was a bathroom with two stalls [for women] in this office of 150 people. [she was pregnant at one point while working here.] when you can't even talk about a happy event, how do you talk about a loss? you hide every aspect of your womanness just to survive.
- (the story she read from is written from the POV of a woman who miscarries while at work.)
- irina reyn: the 18th century is no joke; there's not a lot of information about that. it's a lot of things to negotiate with the historical narrative.
- IR: i think what's interesting [about writing historical fiction parallel to contemporary fiction] is that we get to ask "have we come a long way?" putting those side by side really asks those questions — "where are we now?"
- DC: women's rights are human rights. when you humanize women, everyone can relate to them.
11 am: culinary comfort
julia turshen (small victories, chronicle, 2016), andie mitchell (eating in the middle, clarkson potter, 2016), pierre thiam (senegal, lake isle press, 2015), moderated by helen rosner (eater)
- andie mitchell: in my cookbook (eating in the middle), i talk about how losing 135 pounds doesn't mean you stop loving food. i had to shift my thinking of what is comfort food and how do i remake not only my mindset of comfort food and what i think those are.
- pierre thiam: senegal, our culture, is comfort food. we eat around the bowl, so anyone can come and mix in. there's always room for someone, a new perso, around the bowl. and for me that's comfort food, because of the love that's in it.
- PT: food is healing; it's love. in senegal, that's my inspiration and that's how i wanted the hook to be translated for american readers. i didn't want it to be just about recipes but about comfort and sharing.
- julia turshen: for most of my career, i feel i've been very tuned into other people's comfort.
- JT: i studied poetry in college, and i think of recipes as these poems, and they're [things] to translate what i did at home and condense them into instruction. i try to be as encouraging as possible. i think the biggest thing i try to do with recipes is try to answer questions before you ask them. it's sort of giving all these clues, and, within that, i find there to be opportunities for descriptive language.
- JT: i think food is the best thing to write about because there's so much to describe.
- JT: telling the stories that are true to you — that's what makes a cookbook successful.
- JT: the thing i love about cookbooks is that they're a means to tell stories [but then people take them and cook from them and these new stories come from them].
- PT: i don't think the cookbook should be approached as the bible because i don't cook that way. it's always an evolution, and i think that's how food works. it evolves, but you recognize the same dish even if it's not the same dish. cooking should be a personal, intimate affair, so you come with your own contribution to the recipe.
after my first two back-to-back panels, i moseyed around a little, browsed a little, snuck into a store to use the loo, then i managed to catch half of a poetry panel and hear ocean vuong (night sky with exit wounds, copper canyon press, 2016) and monica youn (blackacre, graywolf press, 2016) read — they're both so good.
1 pm: witches
robert eggers (the witch), robyn wasserman (girls on fire, harper, 2016), alex mar (witches of america, FSG, 2015), moderated by jaya saxena (the daily dot)
- alex mar: paganism as an actual movement is now a phenomenon in this country.
- AM: there's a lot we see in film that's real; it's high drama. there's a specific reason for all of it. the reality is that a lot of things we associate with horror films is now actually — we should start to be more open-minded about how we view what these things are, which are part of a religious movement.
- AM: part of this [fear] is that paganism is related to radically independent women. we were joking about this earlier — about girls and how dangerous they are — but it's true.
- robyn wasserman: [...] these girls are children, and they're nice innocent little kids, but, somewhere, there's a turn, and it's like something has colonized this child, and this thing is a sexual impulse. and we as a society are so afraid of acknowledging sexuality and sexual feelings in adolescent girls [...] that we talk about it as a sort of colonizing. like the devil has taken over.
- RW: witchcraft [is] a tool you deploy against powerful women — but also, this idea that women can't be magical in their own right? if they have some kind of strong power, they must have been taken over by some greater power.
- RW: we're so terrified by female sexuality that we [make it this other thing].
- robert eggers: i think the misogyny of the early modern period was so great that they actually thought these girls were witches. witches were real.
- RW: there's something so threatening about girls doing something beyond the male gaze.
- AM: there's no evidence that anything we recognize as witchcraft was being practiced in salem.
why is there a photo of an apple cider doughnut? because i traded my email address for a doughnut, aka i signed up for a newsletter because it meant i could have a doughnut. which goes to say that enticing people with food? it works, folks. (heh, joking; i would've signed up, anyway.)
and that was the brooklyn book festival for me this year! thanks for reading!
2016 march 23, UES barnes and noble: i've been raving about jung yun's shelter since i read it last year, and i'm glad it's finally out in the world for everyone to read. if you haven't read it yet, read it; it's amazing; and it will wreck you.
jung yun: i used to live in new york city but left fourteen years ago with this vague idea of being a writer.
JY: i started writing [shelter] in 2010, but it's set in 2008.
[the scene they discuss below is the one she read -- pages 12-17 from the novel.]
alexander chee: i think the incredible power that you give the mother as she approaches is just one of the moments when i knew that i loved this novel because you allowed her the dignity of her suffering, in a sense, amid the humiliation that was happening. and the misunderstanding of the son -- it's so heartbreaking. that's not a question. how did you come to this idea?
JY: so that scene -- i was an MFA candidate, it was 2004, and, at the time, my parents were getting older and heading toward retirement. you know, my parents are fantastic and they're loving people, but i was thinking [...] [about how you can love someone, but it can be inconveniencing].
that was sort of the beginning, then i put it away in a drawer, then, in 2007, there was this high-profile home invasion in cheshire, connecticut. [two men broke into a home of a family of four; the mother and two daughters were brutally raped and murdered, while the father survived.]* i became really obsessed with that case, but i didn't understand how this man was ever going to have a life. i didn't know how this man was going to recover knowing that his loved ones had all died in fear.
that particular crime that happened in real life was the connecting thing between the scene in the field and everything else.
* wiki page here
AC: the parents are also remarkable characters, and i think that was part of what moved me about the novel, this sense that i was reading characters i'd never really seen in a novel. and, to some extent, that includes your portrayal of kyung. it's hard for someone like to understand that there is a great deal of love in all of the demands placed on him, and yet that's also part of the heartbreak. so this is a kind of crisis in which crisis happens -- this gap. what were the biggest challenges in structuring that?
JY: i think, in not making it overly sentimental. i wanted kyung to be kind of unlikable from the start but also for readers to understand him. there are times my husband would be like "he's so frustrating," and i was like, "good!" i wanted to capture some of the tension and expectation of someone who came to the country with his parents and has felt the weight of having to do just as well or better than his parents did.
JY: i tried to avoid delving into too much sentimentality but tried to subvert expectations and to avoid stereotypes and make him more three-dimensional.
AC: how much did you research the family and kyung? maybe the expectation would be that you're korean so you wouldn't have to, which is ridiculous.
JY: i did a lot of research into domestic violence in immigrant communities.
AC: what surprised you in what you learned?
JY: i don't speak korean very well myself, and one of the most messed up things i learned was about the korean language. in english, you can say, "you hurt me," but you can't say that directly in korean. but you can say, "it hurts."*
* i had to sit and puzzle over this for a good five minutes there. it's kinda blowing my mind ... but not. sounds very korean.
Q: did you purposely want to write about korean-americans?
JY: i write a mix of characters, but i did want this character to be korean-american, and i wanted him to be married to someone who wasn't korean-american because i wanted that question.
JY: when i was doing press, i'd get the question, "are these people based on real life?" a lot.
AC: the most boring question.
JY: taking care of parents -- taking care of lousy parents -- that's not a korean-american problem; that's a universal problem. struggling with money, having financial problems -- that's a universal problem, too.
JY: [explained how she gets up at 4:30 in the morning to write before work because she realized that, after the work day, she has no wherewithal to write. writing is the most important thing to her, though, so she'd start getting up at 6, then 5:30, now 4:30 to write, and now she wakes up without an alarm.]
JY: when i don't write, i'm terrible. it's better for everyone if i start my day doing the thing that's most important to me.
JY: there's a whole lot in my life that i can't control. i can control what's on the page, and that's about it.
AC: i think the thing that's so frustrating about the autobiographical question is that you put all this energy into creating something and the thing people want to talk about is the thing you didn't write about.