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.


let me be candid. if i had to rank book-acquisition experiences in order of comfort, ease, and satisfaction, the list would go like this:

  1. the perfect independent bookstore, like pygmalion in berkeley.
  2. a big, bright barnes & noble. i know they’re corporate, but let’s face it — those stores are nice. especially the ones with big couches.
  3. the book aisle at walmart. (it’s next to the potting soil.)
  4. the lending library aboard the u.s.s. west virginia, a nuclear submarine deep beneath the surface of the pacific.
  5. mr. penumbra’s 24-hour bookstore.  (mr. penumbra's 24-hour bookstore, 14)
penumbra sells used books, and they are in such uniformly excellent condition that they might as well be new. he buys them during the day — you can only sell to the man with his name on the windows — and he must be a tough customer. he doesn’t seem to pay much attention to the bestseller lists. his inventory is eclectic; there’s no evidence of pattern or purpose other than, i suppose, his own personal taste. so, no teenage wizards or vampire police here. that’s a shame, because this is exactly the kind of store that makes you want to buy a book about a teenage wizard. this is the kind of store that makes you want to be a teenage wizard. (12)

robin sloan’s mr. penumbra’s 24-hour bookstore (FSG, 2012) might be the obvious book to turn to for quotes on bookstores, but i loved this book, so whatever, here we are, even if the book itself is not featured at all in this post.

i read penumbra in 2014, so maybe it’s a little stupid for me to try to write about it when i’m two years and a hundred-something books removed from it. i may be hazy on the details, but i still remember the delight i felt when reading penumbra — it’s like this rollicking, tech-savvy, book-loving adventure that takes its characters from san francisco to new york city and back, and it’s filled with laughs and unapologetic geekery, whether in the way sloan writes about coding or type or google.

thinking about a book i read so long ago, though — i don’t know about you, but my memory is pretty shit. i don’t necessarily retain everything (or a lot of things) from the books i read, unless i’m writing things down and/or taking notes, and, given that i’ve been averaging roughly 60-some books a year for the last few years, that’s a lot of books to read and essentially forget.

so why read if i’ll just forget?

when i think about books, i mostly recall how i felt when i read them. i might recall specific scenarios or situations in which i read certain books, or i might recall the experience of reading, the emotions i felt, the reactions i had. like, i might not remember all the details of salman rushdie’s joseph anton (random house, 2012), but i distinctly remembering thinking fondly of (and wishing i had) the literary community that flocked around him and protected him while he was under the fatwa. i might not remember all the details of shin kyung-sook’s please look after mom (vintage contemporaries, 2012), but i’ll never forget crying on the shinkansen, in a japanese mcdonald’s and starbucks, in a hostel in fukuoka because i missed my grandmother, because i saw her in those pages. 

like, i might already be losing some of the details of sarah waters’ tipping the velvet (riverhead, 2000), but i’ll never forget how that book twisted me up inside, that heady rush of falling in love and the pain of want. (good lord, tipping the velvet did a number on my heart.)

and this is how we tie this back in with bookstores — because, sometimes, books come to us at certain moments of our lives, and, sometimes, a lot of the times, bookstores are the treasure troves that give. and here’s a small celebration of them.

(heh, this post comes courtesy of:  (01) i take a lot of photos of bookstores; and (02) i’m almost almost almost done with a complete draft of my book, which means that i haven’t been reading that much these days and haven’t been doing much thinking/writing outside of book stuff, so here are photos to fill the silence.)


there is no immortality that is not built on friendship and work done with care. all the secrets in the world worth knowing are hiding in plain sight. it takes forty-one seconds to climb a ladder three stories tall. it’s not easy to imagine the year 3012, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. we have new capabilities now — strange powers we’re still getting used to. the mountains are a message from aldrag the wyrm-father. your life must be an open city, with all sorts of ways to wander in.

after that, the book will fade, the way all books fade in your mind. but i hope you will remember this:

a man walking fast down a dark lonely street. quick steps and hard breathing, all wonder and need. a bell above a door and the tinkle it makes. a clerk and a ladder and warm golden light, and then:  the right book exactly, at exactly the right time. (288)


sarah waters!

‘women do things today their mothers would have laughed to think of seeing their daughters doing, twenty years ago; soon they will even have the vote! if people like me don’t work, it’s because they look at the world, at all the injustice and the muck, and all they see is a nation falling in upon itself, and taking them with it. but the muck has new things growing out of it — wonderful things! — new habits of working, new kinds of people, new ways of being alive and in love …’ (tipping the velvet, florence, 210-1)

i have a bit of an obsessive personality.

for example: when i get hooked on a song, i listen to it on repeat hundreds of times. i’ve seen the same thirteen episodes of the same season of top chef more times than i can count. every few weeks, i go back to the same restaurant and order the same two dishes. i bake a roll of asian sponge cake every week. if i love an author and s/he is in town on tour, i go to every single event/reading.

like i said. obsessive.

it also means that, when i get hooked on an author, i work my way through his/her backlist until i’ve consumed the greater majority or entirety of it.

which is exactly what happened with sarah waters.

things to note:

i photographed these books in the order i read them, which is not order of publication, because i intended to write about them in the order i read them. as you will see, that did not happen.

i purchased and read tipping the velvet and fingersmith on ibooks. i borrowed the paying guests from the brooklyn public library (then had to return it, so the photo is of a cover on my ipad).  riverhead very nicely gave me the little stranger, affinity, and the night watch; thank you, riverhead, for supporting my sarah waters’ obsession! all thoughts, opinions, and content are my own.

also: i hate reading on my ipad. for one, my head starts spinning after staring at a screen so intensely for so long. for another, it’s a pain in the ass to photograph because it fucks with the light. for a third, there are no accurate page numbers; page numbers for tipping the velvet and fingersmith are, thus, approximate; please check them against the paper versions.

‘when i see her,’ i said, ‘it’s like — i don’t know what it’s like. it’s like i never saw anything at all before. it’s like i am filling up, like a wine-glass when it’s filled with wine. i watch the acts before her and they are like nothing — they’re like dust. then she walks on the stage and — she is so pretty; and her suit is so nice; and her voice is so sweet … she makes me want to smile and weep, at once. she makes me sore, here.’ i placed a hand upon my chest, upon the breast-bone. ‘i never saw a girl like her before. i never knew that there were girls like her …’ my voice became a trembling whisper then, and i found that i could say no more. (tipping the velvet, 25-6)

i’ve been crushing on someone for months now, and it’s no one i actually know (you could call it a celebrity crush of sorts), but it’s kind of been this intense thing simmering constantly in my head. before anyone’s like, oh my god, you’re fucking insane, yes, i know full well how to distinguish between celebrity crushes and real life, and i’m not psycho enough to give this more meaning than it needs. i am also, however, not one to dismiss celebrity crushes entirely; i think they’re (usually) harmless ways through which we sometimes learn about ourselves; the barrier and the lack of possibility (and probability) provide us the leeway to explore parts of ourselves we might be afraid of or hesitant to approach in real life.

you could roll your eyes at that and find it absurd, but i do think there’s something about pop culture and the ways we invest in it that say something about ourselves, about society overall. i mean, i have SO MUCH i could say about k-pop and korean culture overall … but that’s something for another day (or later in this post).

my whole point in bringing this up, though — i read tipping the velvet, my first novel by sarah waters (as well as her debut), as this crush of mine hit fever pitch, and i’ve no doubt that added new dimensions to my reading experience. would i have loved tipping the velvet less had i not had this thing going on in my head? would it have had a lesser impact? no, not likely; it is a powerful, remarkable novel — but did tipping the velvet come into my reading life at the right time?  yes, most certainly.

i do believe that, sometimes, books come to us in certain moments, that the same books mean different things to us at different points in our lives. my best example of this is kazuo ishiguro’s never let me go, a book i usually read at least twice a year and is a different book to me every time i encounter it. sometimes, it’s a story of loneliness; other times, it’s one of friendship; and, at other times, it’s about love, not just romantic love but love in all forms, that between a guardian and a student (the closest the characters get to parent and child), between female friends, between lovers, between carers and donors, even between donors and those demanding their organs. sometimes, it’s a story i read for the language, for inspiration, for encouragement when i’m feeling low on the writing front, but, whatever it is, it — this novel, this book, any novel, any book — is not a stagnant thing but a thing that changes, that takes on different faces, that absorbs the emotions i bring to it and remembers them and returns them to me with each new encounter.

that was kind of a tangent, but the point is — actually, i’m not quite sure what it was. let’s try this again.

i think the experience of falling in love is a universal one, that it doesn’t matter your gender, your culture, your sexual orientation — there’s something exhilarating and also something terrifying about it, this sense of possession, of not being able to remove someone from your consciousness and wanting to know more, to be with that person, to make him/her happy.

i’m not saying there’s only one way of falling in love, simply that there is something universally recognizable about it, something that has nothing to do with these societal constraints we try to create with our various social constructs.

this is something i loved so much about waters’ novels, that she so exquisitely captures the intensity of falling in love, the dizziness and headiness and craziness of that tumble into affection and want and desire. waters brings you into her characters’ heads in such visceral, raw ways that you’re right there with these characters, these people, these women as they fall in love and discover the wonder of it.

… as anyone will tell you who has been secretly in love, it is in bed that you do your dreaming — in bed, in the darkness, where you cannot see your own cheeks pink, that you ease back the mantle of restraint that keeps your passion dimmed throughout the day, and let it glow a little. (tipping the velvet, 43)


i went back to my narrow bed, with its sheets like pieces of pastry. i heard her turning, and sighing, all through the night; and i turned, and sighed, myself. i felt that thread that had come between us, tugging, tugging at my heart — so hard, it hurt me. a hundred times i almost rose, almost went in to her; a hundred times i thought, go to her! why are you waiting? go back to her side! but every time, i thought of what would happen if i did. i knew that i couldn’t lie beside her, without wanting to touch her. i couldn’t have felt her breath come upon my mouth, without wanting to kiss her. and i couldn’t have kissed her, without wanting to save her. (fingersmith, 128)


and that was all it took. they smiled at each other across the table, and some sort of shift occurred between them. there was a quickening, a livening — frances could think of nothing to compare it with save some culinary process. it was like the white of an egg growing pearly in hot water, a milk sauce thickening in the pan. it was as subtle yet as tangible as that. (the paying guests, 86)

waters writes love stories that aren’t plagued by saccharine sweetness, that don’t descend into superficiality or mere feel-goodness — she couldn’t, not with these stories she’s writing about women in the late-nineteenth, mid-twentieth centuries. these women are often caught in cages, trapped in societal expectations and/or the practical limits of their lives, facing real-life challenges and boundaries with which they have to make their lives work. waters doesn’t simply disappear these struggles; she writes within them, presents them honestly, frustrations, pain, and all; but neither does she lose herself or her novels to these struggles — she’s written six very smart, astute novels that show us the world for what it was and for what it still is, and she’s done it all through story, no moralizing or overt politicizing.

that’s why i think her novels resonated so strongly with me — like i said, i do think that sometimes books come to us in certain moments, and tipping the velvet walked into my life when i needed it. maybe it’s worth nothing that i’m at a vulnerable point in my life, struggling with a lot of uncertainties and fears, with a total loss and rejection of faith, with a particular breed of loneliness, and there was something about nan and her voice that i immediately connected with. she’s a girl who just goes running into things, following her heart and, yes, maybe being reckless and flinging herself headlong into situations without really thinking about next steps or consequences (usually to her heart), but there’s something to be said about that fearlessness, about her refusal to shrink away and live in the shadows.

i loved nan so much. i felt for her so much, and i wanted to protect her, to keep her from harm — i think readers understand what i mean when i say that. i loved being in her head as she fell in love, suffered heartbreak, cobbled herself back together, fell back into love (sort of?), got out of a shitty situation, and fell in love again, just as i loved her ability to be vulnerable and give herself over to her heart and make the changes she needed to survive, to better herself, to love again.

of waters’ six novels, i’d say tipping the velvet is still my favorite, the one that sits closest to my heart, and the one i’ll undoubtedly come back to time and time again.

i looked back to kitty butler. she had her topper raised and was making her final, sweeping salute. notice me, i thought. notice me! i spelled the words in my head in scarlet letters, as the husband of the mentalist had advised, and sent them burning into her forehead like a brand.  notice me! (tipping the velvet, 25)

i mentioned on instagram that i was working on this post, that it would be about sarah waters and love, sexuality, desire, womanhood, and someone asked that i also talk about sexuality and womanhood in korean culture, which is something i’m always happy to do.

sometimes, when i think about korea, i think about phobias. i think about xenophobia; i think about homophobia and transphobia; i think about patriarchy and misogyny and sexism. i think about prejudice against and the intense stigmatizing of and general lack of acknowledgement of mental illness. i think about psychotic academic pressure, and i think about trends and conformity and plastic surgery, and i think about suicide.

given that i can’t stop writing about korea, we’ll eventually get to all of the above, but let’s start with the patriarchy today because it pertains to these novels.

why do gentlemen’s voices carry so clearly, when women’s are so easily stifled? (affinity, 229)

i grew up with the korean patriarchy, the prioritizing of males, the silences pressed onto women. my extended family, specifically on my mother’s side, is as patriarchal as they come. i still remember holiday dinners when we’d gather at our house, and the women would cook and then sit silently at the table as the men* talked. after the uncomfortable meal was over, the women would clear the table, peel fruit, serve coffee and dessert, and do all the dishes, clean-up, etcetera — basically, to put it shortly, this is a family that fell very neatly into traditionally-prescribed gender roles.

and that’s where i sometimes think it’s bizarre to be a second-generation korean-american as a woman. we’re still expected to excel and do well in school and pursue highly professional careers, but we’re also expected to marry well, have children, and ultimately fall back into these traditionally-prescribed gender roles. it’s even more so the case when you throw in religion (usually christianity) and geography (let’s say california); as a woman, you’re expected to give up your career to stay home and raise your brood.

this is not something i have a problem with if this is what a woman wants for herself. there is nothing wrong with wanting to be a housewife and stay home with your kids and be a full-time mom — that’s a great thing to want, and it should be a choice women are able to make.

my problem with it is when that becomes the only option. this loops back to what i was talking about in reference to heteronormativity previously, in this idea that there is one way to be and that is it, that, if you don’t want a husband, if you don’t want children, if you don’t want that life, then you are an Other — you exist outside the norm, and you are to be shunned and shamed.  which seems so  psychotic in the twenty-first century.

and that’s something that struck me over and over again with each of sarah waters’ novels, that her novels are set in the late-nineteenth, mid-twentieth centuries, but these worlds are still worlds that exist today. we still live in a world in which same-sex rights, women’s rights, women’s reproductive rights are under threat. we still live in a world where queer people need to look and listen for tone and insinuation to ascertain whether or not someone is friendly or a threat. we still live in a world where it’s a danger for a gay couple to walk down the street in new york city, for gay people to congregate in their own clubs, for queer teenagers to come out to their families without risking everything.

and all of this is connected — the patriarchy feeds homophobia by enforcing heteronormativity, by saying that men must be this way to be men, that women must be this way because they are women, that relationships and families must be constructed by gender. and, even though we might recognize the harm in this, it is stupidly still the way things must be.

i gazed at her, and shook my head. oh, i said, i had heard words like that, so many times! when stephen went to school when i was ten: they said that that would be ‘a difficult time’, because of course i was so clever, and would not understand why i must keep my governess. when he went to cambridge it was the same; and then, when he came home and was called to the bar. when prix turned out so handsome they said that would be difficult, we must expect it to be difficult, because of course i was so plain. and then, when stephen was married, when pa died, when georgy was born — it and been one thing leading to another, and they had said only, always, that it was natural, it was to be expected that i should feel the sting of things like that; that older, unmarried sisters always did. ‘but helen, helen,’ i said, ‘if they expect it to be hard, why don’t they change things, to allow it to be easier? i feel, if i might only have a little liberty —‘ (affinity, 203)

i feel like it should be noted that korea is not quite the prudish culture some people make it out to be. it is a world of love motels and “booking,” a practice where men at clubs will point at women and waiters will drag said women over to have drinks with the men, consent and willingness be damned, and it is a culture where sex sells, though it is also a culture that’s rather hypocritical about it. just take a look at k-pop, at how the industry demands innocence from its female stars, viciously shaming them when they deviate from their image, all the while hyper-sexualizing them, their youth, their purity. essentially, they’re masturbatory symbols, which is nothing new or surprising in any media world, but it’s this combination of innocence/youth and sexuality that is just so profoundly disturbing, especially when you take into mind how young these girls actually are — or aren’t. young women in their mid-twenties should not be so simultaneously infantilized and sexualized; at one point, the demand for cutesy aegyo needs to stop.

and then there’s shipping.

k-pop is definitely something i will write about in the future, but, while we’re talking about sexuality in korea, we should also discuss how homoerotic shipping is.  take tvxq, once the biggest boy band in korea. fans loved to ship the members with each other, and i want to say that the biggest ship was probably that between jaejoong and yunho (commonly known as “yunjae”). fans would obsessively watch performances, interviews, videos, etcetera for interactions between the two, for any clothes they might share or jewelry they might wear or any goddamn thing that “proved” that yunjae was “real.” they’d also write explicit fanfiction and create online communities dedicated to this shipping, and none of this happened in a casual way but with the intensity that all of us koreans bring to, well, everything.

because this is how fandom works in korea. fans don’t want to think of their favorite idols as having relationships with other girls (and i specifically say girls) because that would destroy the fantasy of these idols existing solely for the pleasure and accessibility of fans. instead, fans put these idols together in these homoerotic ships with each other and cling to these ships like religion, with all the conviction that religion demands. it’s fucking creepy.

and it’s also sobering because, if any of these idols did come out as being gay, their careers would likely be over.

a spot of hope, though:

the shooting in orlando was the same weekend as seoul pride. it is (or was) common for participants of pride in seoul to wear stickers that tell the media not to publish photographs of them because that would be outing them, and to be out, to come out entails far too much risk, especially in a conformist, conservative christian society like korea’s.

that sunday night, i went online to a k-pop community and saw that someone had posted about seoul pride. i immediately felt my heart sink given what i know about korean society and its homophobia, and there had obviously already been enough horrific violence committed against the queer community for me to want to hear about any more.

instead, there was a video attached of a group of mothers (of LGBTQA children) who had a booth at pride and were giving out hugs and telling these kids that they were loved. it was a small group of them, but they were out there, hugging kids, crying with them, telling them hwaiting!, a direct contrast to other parents, other people who stood in protest, holding signs that said they would refuse or deny a child-in-law of the same sex. (not that same-sex couples can get married in korea, anyway.)

they were a small group of mothers in the larger scope of things, but, still, it’s huge, especially in a culture like korea’s. it’s hope.

sometimes, when i think about korea, i think about phobias. other times, though, when i think about korea, i think about love. i think about heart and the bahp-sang and how that is something created by women and offered by women. i think about how an invitation to someone’s table is like an invitation to be a part of this family, however this family has been created, and i think about how the heart of that are women and their loyalty and dedication and sacrifice.

sometimes, when i think about korea, i think about the best in people, the best of people.

i think about my paternal grandmother and her incredible strength. i think about how she spent her life as the wife of a first son, how she married off her husband’s brothers, how she raised six children — five girls, one boy — of her own. i think about how she made sure all her daughters were educated because she hadn’t been. i think about how she sent her children away one-by-one to seoul so they could study and be more than farmers’ children, how her pride was that all her girls and her boy went to the best schools, the best universities in the nation, that they would live better lives than she did. i think about how she spent fifteen years of her life caring for my grandfather after his accident, one that left him paralyzed from the waist down and dependent on her until he died.

i think about her love, and, sometimes, everything pales in comparison to that.

i think about my maternal grandmother, too, a woman with an incredible voice who should have gone on to study music and train her gift, who had that life taken from her because of war. i think about how she married a man who left her and her four children behind to start building them a life in america, and i think about how she brought her children to the states, lived her life as the wife of a conservative pastor, moving from city to city, congregation to congregation, forever in service to others. i think about how she never learned english, never learned to drive, never lived an independent life of her own, and i think about how she died, lung cancer, detected too late, the symptoms lost in church drama and religious bullshit.

i think about my mother bearing the burdens of her family, even though they always took her for granted. i think about her watching over her two younger siblings as her parents served their congregations, living under the shadow of her older brother, the prized son with a brilliant mind who would always be preferred over her. i think about my mother caring for her mother as she died, and i think about my mother caring for my paternal grandmother, her mother-in-law, as she was dying from alzheimer’s, how she would wash her, feed her, talk to her, when she could have said, no, let’s put her in a home, this is too much for me.

and this to me is what it is to be korean and why all of this hurts so fucking much. this is a culture, a heritage i fiercely love and am so incredibly proud of, shit and all, and it is a culture of strong, remarkable, resilient women who have carried their men and borne all their shit. the rule to live by is never piss off a korean woman because she protects her own — she will go to her grave protecting her own — but, sometimes, it’s true that that protection, that love, is misguided and driven by these phobias so entrenched into korean culture, that the fall-out, the damage is catastrophic.

and we are the ones broken by it.

how easy it was, she thought unhappily, for men and women.  they could stand in a street and argue, flirt — they could kiss, make love, do anything at all — and the world indulged them.  whereas she and julia — (the night watch, 126)

nan, sue, maud, frances, margaret, selina, kay, helen, julia — they’re just women … but what does that mean?

women sometimes seem like strange creatures to me, and i say this as a woman, recognizing that i am a weird, contradictory, intense being, filled with thirst and desire and passion. i don’t feel things simply, or maybe sometimes i do, it’s just that i feel them deeply, all the way into my bones, down into my marrow. maybe it’s the obsessive part of me, the part that doesn’t let go once i’ve latched on, the part of me that’s filled with wonder and curiosity and want, and maybe it’s just me — but, then again, if there’s something i’ve learned, it’s that we’re not all that unique, that there are people, women, out there in the world who are like us, however you define “us.”

maybe, though, there is something about women that makes us a mystery, that makes us so apparently unknowable — i mean, there must be a reason we’re constantly dismissed and reduced down to feelings and emotions, like it’s so unimaginable that we are thinking, intelligent beings — but, whatever it is, i think we recognize each other, just like i recognize the women in these novels.

they’re women who want to get out of their present circumstances, who want more liberty and freedom and rights, and they’re women who carry secrets and fears, remove themselves to the outskirts of society to live their “alternative” lives. some of them are women who thrived during the war then found themselves empty in a post-war world that reverted back to its gendered constraints, and some of them simply want the space to breathe, to be free of their gilded cages and societal expectations.

and all they want is so simple, though the world, the people around them don’t recognize it as such.

‘what a fight you’ve always made of everything, frances. and all i ever wanted for you were such ordinary things: a husband, a home, a family of your own. such ordinary, ordinary things.’ (the paying guests, mrs. wray, 540)

which is crazy to think about because the things they want are such ordinary things: the freedom to love who they love, to have families with the people they love, to live these banal, ordinary lives like every other banal, ordinary person out there. apparently, that is too much to ask for.

‘i wish — i wish the world was different. why can’t it be different? i hate having to sneak and —‘ she waited, while a woman and a man went silently by, arm in arm. she lowered her voice still further. ‘i hate having to sneak and slink so grubbily about. if we could only be married, something like that.’

kay blinked and looked away. it was one of the tragedies of her life, that she couldn’t be like a man to helen — make her a wife, give her children … (the night watch, 338)

i start out conceptualizing these posts, and, sometimes, they turn out as i expected, and, other times, they’re a surprise, the tangents i go on. there’s a lot more i could say about sarah waters, and i’d originally planned on laying this post out in a more straightforward manner, writing about each book individually and doing a general recap at the end — best-laid plans, though, eh?

i’ve never thought of myself as much of a straightforward book reviewer, though; i’m not particularly good at it; nor is it something i enjoy because i’m much more interested in the way things intersect, in how books reflect the world and add to the conversation, whatever that conversation is. i’m interested in how the things i’m passionate about intersect because, like i said, nothing exists in a vacuum. my trinity seems to be books, food, and korean culture, and i’m still trying to figure out what that looks like and how to integrate them more seamlessly. needless to say, this whole blog is an ongoing experiment.

going back to sarah waters, though: much of the pleasure of reading sarah waters was entirely visceral. i loved being in her characters’ heads, and i loved her characters, these vibrant women who wanted to love and live, struggling within the limits placed on them by a society that didn’t really think of them at all until they had to and then dismissed them as unnatural. i absolutely loved how she captured the act of falling in love, that rush and exhilaration, how we want such simple, ordinary things, but how, sometimes, that feels like chasing a dream.

and, like i said, there’s so much more i could say about sarah waters, but i suppose these are the things that really stood out to me and resonated with me this time around, given this moment in my life when i’ve been dealing with a lot of uncertainty. i recently walked away from faith and have been struggling with it more than i thought — when you’ve grown up with religion your whole life, when you walk away, it’s like the foundation of your life falling out from under your feet. and, then, when it comes paired with new realizations about yourself, with desire and want, not just for a human being but for the simple, ordinary things in life, it feels like standing amongst the wreckage that was everything you used to know and having no idea how to rebuild because you’re grasping at air and dust.

which is why i keep coming back to religion and heteronormativity and womanhood because waters’ novels did add to some of the intense sadnesses that have been weighing on me, the reality that these same-sex issues, women’s rights’ issues are not things of the past but issues that are still under threat today. we still have politicians trying to take away women’s reproductive rights, women’s rights to make decisions about their own bodies, and we still have church leaders, people, whatever threatening the civil rights and the lives of same-sex people, same-sex couples. we can’t take any of the rights we currently have for granted and pretend like we live in a equal world, no more than we can pretend we live in a “post-racial” world.

and this loops around to the point i was trying to make in my earlier post — that we do not exist in a bubble. we exist in this world, and that, essentially, is what i loved so much about sarah waters and her novels — that she sees this world and recognizes the wrongness, the fucked-up-ness, but, yet, even in all that, she shows us that there is still hope, there is still love.

she will laugh. the sound is as strange, at briar, as i imagine it must be in a prison or a church. sometimes, she will sing. once we talk of dancing. she rises and lifts her skirt, to show me a step. then she pulls me to my feet, and turns and turns me; and i feel, where she presses against me, the quickening beat of her heart — i feel it pass from her to me and become mine. (fingersmith, 231)

i do actually make and eat the food i post. or maybe scarf it is the more accurate term, given that i hop around, eating as quickly as i can (or dumping food onto another plate and then eating it later, for the sake of full disclosure), so i can get my photographs before the light changes.

and not to toot my own horn too much, but i do make a damn good carbonara.

thanks for reading! as always, all content has been conceptualized, created, and edited by me.