perhaps when we find ourselves wanting everything it is because we are dangerously near to wanting nothing. there are two opposing poles of wanting nothing: when one is so full and rich and has so many inner worlds that the outer world is not necessary for joy, because joy emanates from the inner core of one’s being. when one is dead and rotten inside and there is nothing in the world: not all the woman, food, sun, or mind-magic of others that can reach the wormy core of one’s gutted soul planet. (sylvia plath, the unabridged journals, 193-4)
i don’t remember when i first read plath, but i know i was in my twenties. i didn’t start with her poetry either or with the bell jar — my first exposure to plath, as i remember it, was with her journals. i read them slowly over the course of a year-and-a-half, and i loved her language, her words, her thoughts and ambitions and struggles, but the thing that struck me most was that intense sense of recognition that strikes you sometimes and resonates within you. i see you. i know you.
i recognized her — i recognize her still because, in her, i see myself.
it’s not just the shared literary ambitions or frustrations with being a woman in a patriarchal world, carrying the burden of a specific set of expectations she’s to fulfill, and it’s not just that we’re both plagued by sinus colds. it isn’t just the depression, the suicidal tendencies and actions, the mental illnesses. it’s all of it.
it’s her rage, her desire, her hunger. at times, it’s her despair and hopelessness.
it’s how she’s so alive and vibrant and humming with want.
saturday exhausted, nerves frayed. sleepless. threw you, book, down, punched with fist. kicked, punched. violence seethed. joy to murder someone, pure scapegoat. but pacified during necessity to work. work redeems. work saves. baked a lemon meringue pie, cooled lemon custard & crust on cold bathroom windowsill, stirring in black night & stars. set table, candles, glasses sparkling crystal barred crystal on yellow woven cloth. making order, the rugs smoothed clean, maple-wood tables & dark tables cleared. shaping a meal, people, i grew back to joy. (310)
the night before i fly up to portland, i clumsily make tortelloni for the first time. i caramelize onions on low, low heat for two hours, and i make my dough, cracking my eggs into my well of flour, storing unused egg whites in a container in hopes that i’ll figure out some use for them in the future so as not to waste them. (i end up making a lot of mostly-egg-white omelettes. i still have egg whites to use.) my dough is stickier than it usually is, maybe the stickiest pasta dough i’ve made yet, because i thought i’d outsmart my previous attempt by adding a third whole egg because this is cooking, too, experimenting, thinking you’re smarter than you really are, making dough that’s too sticky it won’t come cleanly off the plastic wrap when it comes time to roll.
sometimes, i think it’s cooking that’s taught me best that it’s okay to make mistakes. it’s okay for things not to turn out perfectly, especially the first few times around. it’s okay as long as you keep trying because you will get better.
plath has an appetite as a child, often listing everything she’s eaten at camp in letters home to her mother. it’s pretty impressive, the amount she’s able to consume, and this is something that doesn’t change much as she grows older — if anything, it starts exhibiting, also, in the meals she cooks, once, even, on a tiny little burner stove when she’s honeymooning in spain with hughes.
i love that. i love that she’s expansive not only in her literary ambitions but in every sense. she wants to travel and experience the world. she wants to love, be loved, have sexual adventures. she wants to live her life, and she wants to have a family, and she wants to be published, and she wants this and that and this and that — she wants everything.
the last few weeks have been an exercise in hating myself and trying to talk myself out of that spiral. i’ve been hating myself for not being more level-headed, for having zero chill, for being effusive and open and unbridled about the things and people i love. i’ve been hating myself for having opinions, high standards, expectations and for having the outsized whatever-ness that makes me express my criticism instead of just shutting up and playing nice.
i’ve been hating myself for not being able to network, for being awkward with people, for not being personable, likable, desirable.
i’ve been hating myself for wanting.
i want so obviously, so desperately to be loved, and to be capable of love. i am still so naive; i know pretty much what i like and dislike; but please, don’t ask me who i am. “a passionate, fragmentary girl,” maybe? (165)
the days leading up to portland aren’t filled much with excitement, more with weariness than anything else. i think about hurrying from the office to the airport on friday night, of taking the light rail downtown, of arriving in cold and wet and hunger. i think about waking up at 3:30 am on monday morning, hurrying to the airport, then from the airport to the train station to the subway to the office. i haven’t even left los angeles yet, and i’m already exhausted.
i think about want, about wanting to be a part of something, instead of constantly on the outside looking in. i think about wanting to connect with people, to be friends with them, to be someone more than a casual hello or on-line comment or like. i think about wanting to create something of meaning. i think about wanting to be seen.
recognition, visibility, relatability — these aren’t things i thought about often, at least not conscientiously. i’ve never been the kind of reader or film-watcher or media-consumer who’s wanted to see herself reflected in the culture she inhaled, but the more i think about that in relation to my youth, the more i realize that that was because i was a young person who came up on korean pop, korean dramas, korean media culture, despite having been born and raised in the states.
because i didn’t feel a lack of recognition in my media, i didn’t feel the need to seek it in my reading. i grew up on the “classics,” that bastion of white, predominantly male figures celebrated as figureheads of greatness, of writing to aspire towards, and i never questioned that. i never questioned what i was reading, who i was reading, because the “classics” were safe, they were “classics” for a reason, tested through centuries and maintaining their staying power. i never learned to examine that, not until around 2004, 2005, when i stopped reading, found myself bored with these books i’d loved so much all along, and didn’t read seriously for around a year.
and then i picked up ian mcewan’s atonement. and then daphne du maurier’s rebecca. and then kazuo ishiguro’s never let me go.
this, maybe, is a tangent from where i started, but we’ll stay with it, anyway, because i think it’s important that we remember to question what we read, who we read, and why we read. we need to step out of our comfort zones from time to time, try to see the world another way through another person’s eyes, and, if we only stay within the safe, mainstream zones, we not only do ourselves a disservice but we also do nothing good for publishing at-large.
i don’t believe in living in bubbles, and i don’t believe in abstaining from the world. i don’t believe that things are apolitical — food is political; books are political; and they can’t help but be because policy is influenced by politics and policy determines what people can eat, what they can or cannot have access to. to deny that food is political, to deny that books are political, is to be so shielded by your privilege that you can pretend you aren’t complicit in the system when you’re contributing to the problem.
and this is why i love going to events, to festivals, why i love participating in the conversations swirling around. it’s why i love interacting with people, talking to them, hanging out. it’s why i love spending time with other writers.
because all of it reminds me that this is something. i come from a world that’s always dismissed (and still casually dismisses) literature as being pointless. the korean word often applied is “쓸데없다,” which literally translateㄴ into, “it has no use.” literature is cast off as something for young people; we’re supposed to “mature” into essays and philosophy and non-fiction, leaving the world of make believe for adolescence.
if we are to write fiction, we should write children’s books because those, at least, serve a purpose.
here’s the thing, though: we build our lives on stories. we build our identities on stories. we build our faith, beliefs, worldviews, practices, principles on stories — and many of these stories are fictions that we write in our minds of other people. that’s where prejudice comes from. it’s where stereotypes come from. it’s where bigotry and homophobia and racism and sexism come from.
just because we don’t all write them down in novels doesn’t mean we don’t spend every day spinning them in our minds.
and here’s where fiction, as it is written, comes in — that all fiction is true, that it reflects someone, some part of the world, some set of beliefs, that it has the power to take us away from the tiny little bubble of the world that we know and maybe make us see something new. fiction often gives us the space to say things we can’t say otherwise for whatever reason, and it allows us to imagine an alternative, whatever that alternative may be. it makes us sit in horror, sometimes, because good fiction is a mirror that reflects us back to us, and, sometimes, often i dare say, what we see isn’t pretty.
a brief recounting of wordstock? it was incredible to hear ta-nehisi coates speak; he’s just as eloquent, smart, and funny as you might imagine. a few soundbites i noted from his talk with jenna wortham:
- re: “the cult of smartness”: the art of being an intellectual obscures the actual work.
- i think about not embarrassing black people a lot.
- the guilt of power and recognizing that guilt of power is being used in an unjust way
- re. w.e.b. du bois: what [he] [an african-american congressman] didn’t get was that what white south carolinians were afraid of wasn’t bad black power. it was good black power. bad black power would reinforce white supremacy, but good black power …
- they hate the fact that [obama’s] the embodiment of everything a black person is not [supposed to be].
- i think a lot of writers think their credibility is rooted in being right. i think people expect me to be sincere.
- chief among all of those is curiosity, and, when you’re chasing your curiosity, you’re going to be wrong.
- every human life ends badly, but what happens in-between matters.
- you have to figure out how to angle the thing you love toward the things you care about.
- people want their king. when people vote, you see who they are.
anyway, that’s all for this part. two more portland posts to come, with more about plath, more about writing and social media and stories.