looking back, looking here. (10 books i loved in 2016)

‘kizzy, i am scared of everything, all the time. i’m scared of my ship getting shot down when i have to land planetoid. i’m scared of the armour in my vest cracking during a fight. i’m scared that the next time i have to pull out my gun, the other guy will be faster. i’m scared of making mistakes that could hurt my crew. i’m scared of leaky biosuits. i’m scared of vegetables that haven’t been washed properly. i’m scared of fish.’


‘i never thought of fear as something that can go away. it just is. it reminds me that i want to stay alive. that doesn’t strike me as a bad thing.’ (chambers, pei, 243)

january 2017 is almost at an end, and i’m a week into being back in california, and i feel like a ghost, just floating here, going through the motions of living but severed from everything — from home, from purpose, from hope. as the bleakness and homesickness set into my bones, here are attempts to anchor myself to something, to food, to books.

of the 60-odd books i read last year, these are the 10 i loved, that stuck with me over the months. they’re listed in the order i read them, starting with kleeman in january and ending with lee in december, and, if i were to sum up 2016 in reading, i’d say that 2016 was a year of bodies, and it was a year of silence. all ten of these books have to do with bodies in some way, whether it’s the value placed on bodies, the diminishing of people to only their bodies, the utility of bodies, the killing of bodies, the domination of bodies, and there’s a lot of silence thrown in there, too, silence in secrets, silence from god, silence as survival.

it was a year of asking myself how it is we define ourselves, how societies define us in accordance with the role they need us to play. it was also a year of asking myself who i was, what i believed, who i desired. like i wrote in my previous end-of-year post, 2016 is the year i walked away from faith and outed myself, and, in many ways, these are the books that carried me through much of that heartache and fear and anxiety.

and, so, without further ado:

  1. alexandra kleeman, you too can have a body like mine (harpers, 2015) [review]
  2. park min-gyu, pavane for a dead princess (dalkey archive press, 2014) [review]
  3. becky chambers, the long way to a small angry planet (hodder & stoughton, 2015) [review]
  4. esmé weijun wang, the border of paradise (unnamed press, 2016) [review]
  5. endo shusaku, silence (picador, 2016) [review]
  6. krys lee, how i became a north korean (viking, 2016) [review]
  7. sarah waters, tipping the velvet (riverhead, 2000) [review]
  8. garrard conley, boy erased (riverhead, 2016) [review]
  9. sady doyle, trainwreck (melville house, 2016) [review]
  10. corey lee, benu (phaidon, 2015) [review]

i kind of don't know where to start with this.

“humans can be so foolish. they don’t realize the light comes from themselves. they think the whole world is lit by a single lightbulb, but in fact a myriad of small lightbulbs must be lit for the world to become a brighter place. they keep themselves buried in darkness while continuing to envy the ones with light. seeing the darkness in everyone else around them, they give all their votes to the ones who are lit. this explains why poor people give their votes to dictators and why average people love the actors on screen. they don’t believe in their own light. they don’t believe

in each other’s light. they don’t hope; they don’t attempt to discover. and that is where the source of the world’s darkness lies.” (park min-gyu, yohan, 128-9)

i suppose, then, here is this: my favorite book of the year was park min-gyu’s pavane for a dead princess. park gives us three twenty-somethings who work in a department store and become friends, and they’re three young people who exist on the fringes of capitalist korean society, outside the desired standards of beauty and wealth. park essentially takes korea to task for its materialism and its singular standard of beauty, and, maybe, there’s a little too much politicizing, too much blatant criticizing, too much theorizing, but there’s also a lot of empathy and humanity in this novel.

korea is a funny topic for me, and my parents ask often if i hate being korean because i seem to hate korean society so. i counter that, no, i actually love being korean, and i take a lot of pride in korea’s history and the strength of her people and the vibrancy of her food and food culture. however, at the same time, korean society is one that is tremendously flawed and heavily patriarchal, toxic and narrow-minded and causing a great deal of harm to its people, to its children and youth. as i keep telling my parents about my relationship with korea and about everything else, the existence of one does not negate the truth of the other, and my heart aches for korea because i do love her, and, in many ways, for reasons both obvious and not, i will always be drawn to her.

corey lee’s benu, titled after his san francisco restaurant by the same name, reminded me of this. lee brings korean flavors and traditions into his food in thoughtful, creative ways, and i was blown away by the care he exhibits for food overall and korean food and culture particularly. he draws inspiration from other foods and cuisines as well, so it’s not like his cooking is solely korean-inspired, but there’s something about the way he’s negotiated his relationship with his korean ethnicity that i found so relatable.

one thing i love about asian america is the sheer breadth of it, how we all have different ways of being asian-american, of identifying with (or not identifying with) our asian heritages, and one effect of that is that i appreciate when i come across people with whom i can relate. i am not trying to say that my way of being asian-american is the “right” or “good” way to be; i don’t believe at all that there is a “right” or “good” way to be asian-american, just that is right and good for us individually; and i’m honestly not one to place that much importance in having to relate to someone. i often think it’s given more weight than necessary and, when applied the wrong way, used to justify a kind of narrow-mindedness, and i rarely ever seek it out, but i do admit that there is a comfort there sometimes — there is something nice about familiarity, after all, and i am not one to deny that.

anyway, benu is this lovely blend of personal history, korean history, and northern californian sensibility, and it is one stunning book. i’d expect no less of phaidon.

my mouth hurt from speaking english. the muscles around my lips and my cheeks ached. in my dreams, voices stretched into long, silly words that meant nothing, and i woke up saying “milk” or “glass” before tumbling back into the sleep of nonsense dreamers. soon i vomited over and over at the side of the road while david reached over and rubbed my damp neck, and then i craved all kinds of things: hot buns filled with pork, cold and briny seaweed, red bean popsicles. the sudden craving was monstrous, like a thing already in my mouth that could not be tasted or swallowed and just between my frozen teeth with a jaw stuck open, and my longing for these foods was not a longing in my stomach but something jammed deep in my throat. (wang, daisy, 58)

while we’re talking northern california: there’s esmé weijun wang’s the border of paradise, which delivers so gloriously on the “holy shit, what?!” side of the spectrum. i love a book that serves a good mindfuck because it doesn’t happen as often as i’d like, and i love it even more when the author does so in beautiful prose.

i also just personally love how i even knew of the border of paradise, so here’s a story, that i somehow stumbled upon esmé and jenny zhang at the same time a few years ago, somewhere on the internets, and i’ve been following them both since. i remember reading esmé’s journal entries about finishing her novel, signing with an agent, trying to sell the novel, etcetera, etcetera, so i was excited when her novel was published last year, preordering it at mcnally jackson and scuttling over once i got the email that it had arrived and was waiting for me behind the desk.

this is the thing that makes the internet a cool place to me, and there’s something really awesome about seeing something through its journey, especially when it’s a book, especially when you’re a writer yourself and this is a dream and ambition of yours as well. it’s also more the case when the writer is someone as vibrant and generous as esmé; she has a book of essays, the collected schizophrenias, that will be published by graywolf in 2018 after winning the publisher’s nonfiction prize.

(none of this has any bearing on my thoughts re: border or its inclusion on this list. i was actually a little nervous going into it because i didn’t actually know what the book was about — there’s a reason i’m not trying to write a summary; it’s kind of awesome to go into it blind — and there’s always the chance that a book will disappoint. luckily, i genuinely loved it.)

(also, if you’ve never heard of or read jenny zhang, please, please, please do; you will be the better for it. she’s written for rookiehere is a favorite piece; here is another — and she also wrote this fabulous piece for buzzfeed after the michael derrick hudson scandal. she has a book of short stories coming out from random house this spring, and i am so fucking stoked.)

so, there are authors you follow for years who write lyrical prose, and then there are authors who are able to create these wonderful lethargic, sticky moods — and i’ve yet to find another writer who does that as deftly as alexandra kleeman. i love the weird places kleeman takes us, and i love her voices and moods — and i say “voices and moods” plural because i also read her short story collection, intimations (harpers, 2016), last year, and i’m telling you: kleeman’s knack for atmosphere is exquisite. her stories are just as interesting and moody as her tones, and i like her as a human a lot, too. there are some authors you just want to be friends with, and kleeman happens to be one of mine.

and now to switch gears a little.

the world, to me, seemed utterly transformed since kitty butler had stepped into it. it had been ordinary before she came; now it was full of queer electric spaces, that she left ringing with music or glowing with light. (waters, 60-ish)

park’s pavane may have been my favorite book of the year, but garrard conley’s boy erased and sarah waters’ tipping the velvet may have had the biggest personal impact.

boy erased is conley’s memoir of his time in conversion therapy after he was outed to his parents (by the boy who raped him, no less). conley grew up southern baptist to a very religious family (his father is a pastor), and he writes poignantly about being gay and christian, about not only the fears and anxieties that come of being gay in a christian community but also about the personal clashes that occur within you when you’ve grown up with god woven into your life and, suddenly, he’s not there anymore.

unlike conley's, my faith is fully dead, and, when i read endo shusaku’s silence, i thought that here was a novel that explained to me why. silence tells the story of portuguese priests who sneak into japan in search of a fellow priest, and this is during a time when japan was brutally suppressing and excising christianity from itself, torturing people into renouncing god and killing them when they didn’t. the narrator struggles with god’s silence to the suffering of japanese christians, to the brutality they must endure in god’s name while god sits silent and does nothing and allows such violence and pain to continue, and, in the end, the narrator, too, must decide whether he will renounce god or not.

no, no! i shook my head. if god does not exist, how can man endure the monotony of the sea and its cruel lack of emotion? (but supposing … of course, supposing, i mean.) from the deepest core of my being yet another voice made itself heard in a whisper. supposing god does not exist …

this was a frightening fancy. if he does not exist, how absurd the whole thing becomes. (endo, 72)

when i think about silence, i think there is a cost for everything, and there is a cost for silence. silence breeds doubt, and it locks you inside your head, with your own fears and anxieties and insecurities. silence leads to brokenness, too, to broken relationships, to loss of faith, and silence is what cost me my faith, years of crying out to god and hearing nothing.

eventually, you start to feel like you must be mad, yelling at the skies and expecting an answer — and, even if there is a god, what’s the point if he won’t deign to engage with you? a world without god, then, is better than a world with a silent, cruel god.

in the end, in 2016, i did have to confront the frightening reality of a world without god — and it is a frightening reality, especially when you’ve grown up with god, when he was built into the foundations of your worldview. god is the basis of hope; it is his existence that allows you to see beyond this life, to “store your treasures in heaven”; and it sounds absurd to those outside faith, outside religion, but, when you grow up in that, when you believe it, live it, practice it for three decades of your life, the sudden absence of that leaves you bereft.

this is what i loved so much about boy erased, that conley gets this. and here is my favorite passage from everything i read this year:

“how do you feel?” my mother said. her hands were firmly fixed at ten and two at the wheel. this vigilance, this never taking a risk when you didn’t have to.

“i’m fine.” we’re all faking it.

“we can stop again if you need.”

“that’s okay.” it’s just that some of us are more aware of it.

silence. my big toe toggling the vent open and closed. with mark’s number in my pocket, i suddenly knew that what i was thinking was true. keeping a secret, telling a lie by omission, made it much easier to see all of the other lies around me. an expert liar was’ merely an expert on his own lies, but those of others as well. was this why LIA’s counselors were so good at challenging their patients, at calling them out? was this why smid and the blond-haired boy didn’t fully rust me?

“are you hungry?”

“no.” i can tell all of this to you later, after the ceremony. i just have to wait for the right moment.

“are you sure?”

“are you hungry?” but i’m afraid you’d be disgusted with me. i’m afraid you’d vomit again, right here in the car.

“a little.” the car turned a sharp curve, a stray pen tumbling out of the cup holder and rolling across the floorboard, a ping as it hit the metal bar beneath my feet. i could have picked it up, uncapped its top, and written my confession right then and there, had LIA’s rules permitted it.

“let’s stop, then.” i realize this now, that all of it might come down to me being afraid. that all of this supposed change is just to please him, to please you.

“i’ll pull into sonic. what do you want?”

“just some fries.” but i’m afraid of losing you. i’m afraid of what i’ll become if i lose you. i’m afraid because i think i’ve already lost god. god’s stopped speaking to me, and what am i supposed to do without him? after nineteen years with god’s voice buzzing around in my head twenty-four hours a day, how am i supposed to walk around without his constant assurance?

“an order of fries, please, and a coke.” beneath the speaker’s static, the clanging of metal in an invisible sink. “and a sonic burger.”

“can i get tater tots instead?” i don’t even know what i would look like to be gay. i can’t even imagine a life where my friends and family would want to talk to me if i was openly gay.

“make that tater tots instead of fries.”

“i’m not really that hungry.” i can do this. i just have to fake my way through until i can take my big risk, whatever that will be. (conley, 222-3)

and then there was tipping the velvet. (oh, tipping the velvet!) i’m slowly rereading it now, and it’s still tugging at my heartstrings in such aching ways. i wrote a giant post about sarah waters in august, though, so i’ll just link to that here.

i also did a compilation of quotes from sady doyle’s trainwreck a few months ago, so i’ll link to that here as well.

i also wrote about krys lee’s how i became a north korean, so i’ll link to that here, too. and i never really wrote about becky chambers’ the long way to a small angry planet, so i can’t link to that, but i loved it and keep recommending it, and i hardly ever read science fiction, so …!

you needed a vision of the future in order to get anywhere; you couldn’t live life thinking you were always about to fall off a cliff. i didn’t want to tell him i would never go back with him to the church: i would be going forward, forward by way of getting back to the kind of life i used to have, only this time i’d live it better. (kleeman, 281)

making pasta is something i’ve wanted to do for a while now, and one of the definite pros of being back at my parents’ in LA is counter space. marble(?) counter space. lots of marble(?) counter space.

i’ve always loved working with dough; it’s one of the most relaxing things i can think to do; and i love the physicality of it. i’m not one who likes using gadgets in the kitchen (i won’t even use a crock pot or a hand mixer), so i do everything by hand, kneading, rolling, cutting, and it has been my saving grace this past week. cooking, after all, has always been the best therapy.

like i said above, i feel like a ghost, and this is how i’m getting through these days. i cook. i think about what i’m cooking, how to get better, what to try next. i think about how i can challenge myself in the kitchen because, for some reason, i don’t doubt that i can try new things, new techniques, more complicated doughs and succeed (or, at least, not fail totally). i believe i’m capable of this, of learning, of practicing, of improving, in ways that i cannot yet believe that i will write fiction again, that i will feel whole again, that i will learn to live with my suicidal depression — that i can be loved, despite all the ways in which i am broken. i don’t have that faith, but, at least, i have a kitchen to turn to, hands to work with, hunger and curiosity to feed — and, above all, i have food.

about narratives. (take heart.)


most of us were from the south, most of us from some part of the bible belt. most of our stories sounded remarkably similar. we had all met with ultimatums that didn’t exist for many other people, conditions often absent from the love between parents and children. at some point, a “change this or else” had come to each of us: otherwise we would be homeless, penniless, excommunicated, exiled. we had all been too afraid to fall through the cracks; all of us had been told cautionary tales of drug addicts, of sex addicts, of people who ended up dying in the throes of AIDS in some urban west coast gutter. the story always went this way. and we believed the story. for the most part, the media we consumed corroborated it. you could hardly find a movie in small-town theaters that spoke openly of homosexuality, and when you did, it almost always ended with someone dying of AIDS. (conley, boy erased, 21)

i have this irrational dislike of ground meat — like, i have no problems eating food made with ground meat, but i hate — hate — cooking with it. i hate how it smells; i hate how it looks; and i hate how it feels. there’s no logical explanation for this, either, because i know the reason i hate it is that my mother hated it, and she didn’t have a logical explanation for it.  (also, korean people don’t usually cook with ground meat?)

when i was thinking of making these turkey ricotta meatballs from julia turshen’s small victories (chronicle, 2016), i went back and forth about the meat. should i just go for the ground turkey the recipe specified? or should i go for one of the variations suggested and buy some sausages and remove them from their casings? or should i just go my usual route and buy meat and grind it myself?

in the end, i went with the ground meat. it seemed like a good week to get over something that made no sense.

‘all you can do, rosemary — all any of us can do — is work to be something positive instead. that is a choice that every sapient must make every day of their life. the universe is what we make of it. it’s up to you to decide what part you will play. and what i see in you is a woman who has a clear idea of what she wants to be.’

rosemary gave a short laugh. ‘most days i wake up and have no idea what the hell i’m doing.’

he [dr. chef] puffed his cheeks. ‘i don’t mean the practical details. nobody ever figures those out. i mean the important thing. the thing i had to do, too.’ he made a clucking sound. he knew she would not understand it, but it came naturally. the sort of sound a mother made over a child learning to stand. ‘you’re trying to be someone good.’ (chambers, the long way to a small angry planet, 213)

it’s been a dark week for america and a particularly dark year for the whole damn world, what with brexit in the UK, the passage of HB2 in north carolina, the political shit being uncovered in korea*, etcetera. i spent election night weeping for my country, partly because of the living cheeto and his monster of a VP-elect headed for the white house but mostly because of what this has exposed about our country.

if you’re a person of color, a woman, someone who identifies as LGBTQ, the results of this election aren’t entirely surprising. we’ve known that the “post-racial society” white people liked to claim existed was a big fat lie; we’ve known that racism is still alive and well; and we’ve known that sexual violence against women was already something that’s somehow been normalized. we just hoped this country would show itself to be better than it clearly is.

i’m not here to rage about politics, though.

pre-apocalypse, i started thinking a lot about narratives, whether they’re narratives we tell ourselves about ourselves, about other people, about other cultures. i’ve been thinking about how these narratives shape how we expect people to behave, the lives we think they should live, the ways we think they should act and speak and want, and how these narratives can do one of two things:  close in on themselves and reinforce these same narratives or open up the whole world and the billions of people within it.

because the truth is that narratives matter. words matter. the things we say, the words we use form the narratives we tell ourselves, and these narratives say a lot more about us than we might want to think. they tell us about our worldviews, how we see and parse the world around us, and what is important to us. they tell us about our values; they tell us about our priorities.

they tell us how we think of and regard the people around us.

* seriously. google park geun-hye.

the first thing i ever cooked for my wife, grace, were these meatballs. i made the mixture at my apartment, then packed it up with a box of pasta, ingredients for sauce, and a pot (she told me she had only a skillet) and took it all to her apartment … which soon became my aparment, too. (turshen, small victories, 168)

i get this secret thrill whenever julia turshen refers to her wife in small victories, and it makes me thrill with how normal it is, how being gay is really just another human way to be and love and exist with each other. a few weeks ago, a friend on instagram sent me a link to an article about patricia highsmith’s the price of salt, which was sort of revolutionary because it’s a story about lesbians who don’t meet a gruesome end. that’s really what kicked off all this thinking about narratives, and i know that nothing i’m saying here is new or groundbreaking, but, after a week like this, it feels worth saying anyway.

about a month ago, i read garrard conley’s boy erased, a memoir about his time in conversion therapy, which is the practice of trying to “convert” a gay person to being straight (and something the VP-elect believes in). the memoir plus the article combined made me think that here is why the [white] heteronormative narrative is so dangerous in its prevalence. when you don’t see stories of other possibilities, you can’t empathize with the Other, and we can’t break down the barriers that create and enforce the Other. beyond that, though, when we don’t see stories of other possibilities, we learn to see ourselves as the Other, to hide in shame, to be afraid of the things that make us different, that put targets on our backs as we go on with our everyday lives.

we learn to try to hide the things that make us different, and the majority learns to pounce on these weaknesses, these fears, to use narrative as a means to enforce shame so we try to repress parts of who we are and become “normal,” aka acceptable and “good,” capable of living “healthy,” “regular” lives (aka the goal of conversion therapy). we learn to fear who we are because of these supposed consequences of how we’ll “end up,” of the things and people we’ll lose, of the ugly ends we will meet.

and so narratives, again, aren’t only stories we tell ourselves. they’re weapons, tools with which to suppress and excise “sin,” and they’re prisons and cages. they’re ways to create fear because, sometimes, they’re not so far from the truth because it can actually cost us everything to be out, to be black, to be muslim. they can be used to instill shame and guilt, to stoke that monster until it consumes us and drives us into corners, into darkness, to suicide. 

at the same time, though, there’s the other side: narratives are hope, too; they’re the means through which we can heal. by offering our narratives, we offer others the ability to understand us, to empathize with us, to recognize themselves and realize they aren’t alone.

and, sometimes, i think, as creative people, we forget what we can do with our work. it’s easy to think of art as simply art, but we forget that a book is not just a book, a meal is not just a meal, that creating, too, is a way of fighting back, not only of finding hope again within ourselves but also of putting that hope back into the world. a story is a way of saying, here is one way of seeing the world, and all the great stories in the world come together with one message: be kind. be kind to yourselves, and be kind to each other. there is a multitude of us out here, and we are unique individuals to be valued equally, regardless of the color of our skin, the source of our faith, or the gender of the person we love.



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? (henríquez, the book of unknown americans, 237)

i flash froze most of my meatballs because i’m just one person and it’s nice to have things on-hand in your freezer. (i also keep biscuits and chicken stock and parmesan stock in my freezer.) (apparently, i always want to have the possibility for soup.) i ate the rest with homemade tomato sauce (which i also made according to the recipe) (this is weird; i modify everything), and i must say, these meatballs are SO good. they’re super flavorful, and they’re not dry, and they hold together very well — and they don’t use breadcrumbs, which i was very happy about.

and here, in the light of what is to come in the next four years, i leave you with some recommended reading:

  1. garrard conley, boy erased (riverhead, 2016)
  2. becky chambers, a long way to a small angry planet (hoddard & stoughton, 2015)
  3. cristina henriquez, the book of unknown americans (knopf, 2014)