i was going to post a series of blog posts from my weekend back home in new york two weeks ago, but i’m still not quite sure how i want go about doing it. do i want to go day by day, so it’s like a series of daily blog posts that go through my days in order or do i want to do one giant recap post or do i want to do this or that or this or that — and part of this dilemma has to do with finding myself in a creative rut, and another part has to do with my desire to keep evolving.
last year, when i was last home, i did a series of daily recap-like blog posts. i have a history of struggling (or just flat-out being unable) to do the same thing twice.
usually, when i think about blog posts, i think visually first. i think about the visual story i want to tell as i go through my photographs and edit them, and i lay the post out first, creating a draft with a title and arranging my edited photos. sometimes, the first draft works, and, then, i can go about drafting the words to go with it, but, sometimes, i need to mess around with it, rearranging things, removing some photos and adding others, etcetera etcetera etcetera, until i’m happy when i scroll through it and have an idea of the words i want to write to accompany it.
this time is weird. i lay out my visual drafts for all five days, and i’d normally be happy with them, but i want to do something different.
so i’m typing out these words first, hoping this post coalesces somehow as i vomit words onto this google doc.
being home was great, and it was so, so freeing because a literal weight lifts off my shoulders every time my plane lands at JFK. this time was a little weird because i had so much anxiety and nervous energy and stress leading up to my flight, and i took a red-eye, which i swore never to do again, so i landed at JFK at 4:30 in the morning, got a shitty bagel and even shittier coffee (more like coffee-flavored water) at dunkin donuts, and sat around, catching up on the korea summit and waiting for a more sane hour to head over to my friend’s apartment.
i knew i was home because i could feel that lightness, that ease in my body, in my bones, but my brain was so groggy, it was like, whaaaaat, where are we again? are we even awake?
it took a two-hour nap for my brain to catch up with my body.
maybe the flipside to being home when home isn’t where i currently reside is that i have to leave home after my allotted time, and leaving is always hard. i’m not shy about my loathing of los angeles, and i’m not apologetic for it either because, sometimes, some of us have cities that belong to us, just like some of us have cities that have meted out so much damage and harm and pain that it is impossible for us to be there.
los angeles is the latter city to me. it’s the city where i was broken down, my sense of self and identity reduced to my weight and size, the city where i learned to hate and despise myself because i wasn’t thin, and, if i wasn’t thin, i couldn’t be pretty, i couldn’t get a job, i couldn’t be loved. it’s the city where i learned that thinness was first and foremost, that i couldn’t be good or wanted or acceptable as long as i wasn’t a size 0 — or maybe that’s unfair of me; maybe no one expected me to be a size zero, exactly, but my size 14, my size whatever-i-was-before-i-started-thinking-about-my-body was not okay.
i was not okay.
i spent much of my adolescence and young adulthood wanting to disappear my body and, in connect, disappear myself, and maybe that sounds like nothing of much consequence to you, but that kind of toxic shit bleeds into everything. i didn’t date. i couldn’t apply to jobs. i avoided social settings and meeting new people who might look at me and be repulsed and i didn’t want to see that on stranger’s faces when it was bad enough to see that repulsion on the faces of people i knew, people who were supposed to love me. i wore a uniform of long pants and long shirts and dark colors, all day, every day, and i grew up in the valley where temperatures hit triple digits during the summer. i wore long pants and long shirts and dark colors even then.
i avoided any and all kinds of conflict, and i never sent back a wrong order, and i always apologized, always, always, always. i hated flying. i always sat in aisle seats, so i’d never have to ask someone to move or have to crawl over someone. i avoided concert halls, auditoriums, anywhere with that tiny-ass stadium seating and non-existent aisles.
i never gave myself the permission to write or to pursue the things i was actually interested in, like a grad program in comparative lit. i repressed all my interest in and love of food. i learned to count calories instead, hate myself when i didn’t work out, beat myself up mentally whenever i ate something i “shouldn’t have.” i feel so freaking lucky i didn’t suffer from bulimia; i don’t know how i avoided that fate; but, somehow, i did.
there was all that, and then there was my inability to stand up for myself in the workplace, to say, i want this position, and i am fully qualified for it, to express interest and speak up. i’m lucky i never had any employers who took advantage of my spinelessness, but, sometimes, i stop and think of all the opportunities i lost simply because i didn’t have the confidence in myself to believe that i deserved this job or that, to put myself forward as a capable person instead of shrinking back in silence and self-deprecation.
you could argue that that isn’t just because of all the body shaming, but i’d tell you to stuff it and shut up when someone’s telling you about her damage. maybe she knows it’s complicated. maybe she knows it better than you because it’s the life she’s lived.
maybe she knows better than you because she knows who she was before the body shaming started and she knows who she’s become after she fled los angeles and started to heal.
part of me wonders often if maybe i shouldn’t be turning some of this into personal essays and submitting them to publications, but i’m also at a point where i’m wearied and bruised with the whole process. i’ve got an e-mail sitting in my inbox right now, and i should open it, but i’m 99.9% certain that it’s another rejection from another agent because the preview is too formal, too distant, and i recognize that tone. thank you for submitting this, but. you’re a strong writer, but. i like your writing, but.
i don’t take it personally because i know not all writing is for everyone and not all writing is for everyone, anyway. i know that rejection is part of the process. i know writers have walls of hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of rejection slips.
at this point, i just want something. it’s been ten, lonely-as-hell years of working on a book, trying to find it a person and a home, and it’s been ten years of thanks, but. and maybe this is where being plugged into a community of writers might be helpful or to have some kind of mentor or something — but i don’t know. i’m starting to think, wow, what a colossal waste of ten years. where do you go from here when this is all you have???
two saturdays ago, my parents and i drove down to riverside to get a puppy. i’ve been looking for a dog to adopt for over two years now, more seriously in the year or so i’ve been back in los angeles, and i finally found this puppy on craigslist, a two-month-old bichon that an older couple was trying to rehome. we had no idea if we’d be coming home with this puppy, but we got all the basic essentials — a crate, bed, food, toys, bowls, snacks, a collar — and drove down two hours, our fingers and toes crossed.
we brought him home that night, and i cradled him as we drove back up, and he was calm and curious, alternating between napping peacefully in my lap and climbing all over me to see out the window, to sniff behind my head, to curl up against my shoulder. my father played some yo-yo ma, and the pup perked his ears and looked around, wondering at the sound. we were stopped in traffic, and the pup sat up, watching the lights from opposing traffic bouncing off the car ceiling. he didn’t pee or vomit or cry, and he didn’t shake either, bouncing up for kisses and demanding more scratches.
we named him (gom, with a long O), which is korean for “bear” because he looks like a bear and because my father’s nickname as a child was “bear” and the pup is technically for him. technically, gom’s supposed to be a companion for my parents. of course, though, gom’s become more and more mine, that right thing at the right time.
what a colossal waste of ten years.
i’ve been thinking about bodies a lot because, while i was in new york, i thought a lot about why i love it so. new york is a city that has always been kind to me, yes, but it’s a difficult city, one that wounds and wounds deeply. i had to leave because i couldn’t “make it,” because i couldn’t find a full-time job or enough (better) freelancing gigs, and it’s an anxiety that’s a constant source of stress, that i’ll somehow find my way back but, still, be unable to “make it.”
that requires the faith, though, that somehow i will find myself back.
the truth, though, is that i ran out of faith a long time ago, and i still don’t have much of it at all. i don’t believe things will change, just like i don’t believe that anything i’ve worked so hard for will come to anything — and maybe all this currently feels dangerous because i’ve been thinking of deleting all my book files, just to put some kind of final end to all this stupid endeavor, except that does make me feel bitter, all this time, all these years, all the sacrifices and reckless decisions just to end up nowhere.
except no one forced me to make said shitty decisions, and thus the cycle of self-loathing continues.
it’s all connected, though, writing, bodies, life, hopelessness, my state of mind. some people like to connect my depression with new york, like it was new york that wrecked my brain, and even i can’t deny that the financial stressors of the city contributed to my descent in 2016. that’s a grossly and condescendingly simplistic correlation, though, because my brain was one that knew suicidal depression long before i moved back to new york, and i clearly remember the first time i thought i’d take my life. i was in middle school. i was kneeling in the middle of my room, leaning on my chair. i didn’t know much about anything then, thought a x-acto knife could do enough.
i’d carry this through college, gain back a ton of weight my first year in college because that was the only way i could cope, could pretend i was okay, and, then, in december 2009, i’d try again, hate myself for not being able to cut past the pain and for that sliver of hope inside me that said, stay. stay alive. just stay. and then there would be spring 2013, in my second semester of law school (my mother still doesn’t seem to get it; i withdrew from law school to save my life), and then may 2015, december 2016 … and then, who knows, the longer i stay in california, the greater that threat becomes.
because i fled los angeles in 2012, broken and damaged with no sense of self and no ability to speak up for myself and who i was and what i wanted. i spent five years in new york, slowly, slowly, slowly healing, slowly and painstakingly piecing myself together and learning to be kinder to myself, to value myself, to be okay with myself, and, by 2016, even with the suicidal depression and anxiety fraying the threads of my entire self, i was at least a human being then, one who was maybe splintering and falling apart but knew, at her core, at least, who she was, what she was capable of, what she wanted from her life.
and then i had to come back to los angeles, back to a place that continues to make it clear that i am not good enough, not thin enough, not soft-spoken enough, not hetero, christian, gracious enough, and all i can say is that there’s a lot of shit in the world and a lot of shitty people, but, still, nothing makes me angrier than people who berate girls and tear them down for their looks, for their weight, instead of building them up and teaching them to stand tall — their bodies are good enough. they are good enough.
i don’t know why i wrote all that. i don’t actually have that much anger about my past, about what i was put through, because it’s the past and what’s done is done. that doesn’t mean that i stop carrying the effects of such intense, intentional body shaming, though, and that doesn’t mean i no longer have to deal with all the consequences from it. and the fact that i am the one who has to carry the damage means that i want to (and get to) speak out about it, in the hopes that, maybe, if you’re body shaming your kid or your friend or your whatever, even if you have “good” intentions, maybe you’ll take a second to pause and think about what you’re really doing to that person you claim to love, and, maybe, just maybe, you’ll stop before it’s too late.
in new york, i try to see everyone i can. i inevitably can’t because i’m there for five days and i also need time and space for myself, but i see everyone i can, getting meals and coffee and drinks, talking, laughing, catching up. i miss this. i miss having people. los angeles has always been and still is a supremely lonely town.
the first time i cried in therapy, we were a few months in, and i’m surprised it took so long for me to cry. my therapist and i have talked about a lot of crap, too, from body shaming to identity to the stagnancy of my life, but it’s when we start talking about people that i crack.
i think you’re lonely, she says.
sometimes, i wonder, if i weren’t lonely, if i hadn’t grown up lonely because that’s also a natural by-product of wanting to disappear your body, if i hadn’t been so lonely through my college years and early young adulthood, would i even be writing here?
there are a lot of cautions when it comes to writing so personally in a public space. i, too, wonder about this, and i worry about it, too, the kind of impact such stupid honesty might have. i wonder if this space isn’t an additional reason i can’t get a job, but, then, i think that, and that annoys me, this idea that i should hide or be ashamed of this shit i’ve gone through, the shit i live with, like you haven’t gone through shit or live with shit, either. what makes you so much better? you’re no better or more a human because you don’t take meds or get around without assistance or deal with normal levels of depression and anxiety. actually, i kind of think people who look down on people who take meds, need assistance, and live with mental and/or physical illness are kind of shitty people, and i don’t want them in my life.
because that’s related to shame, isn’t it? we’re made to feel like we should be ashamed because we’re not in “perfect” health. and maybe that’s the thing about love — it’s impossible (or, at least, very difficult) to believe in love when there is shame attached to it. like, my cousin is getting married in korea this summer, and no one’s enthused about going because it’s july and korea in july is hot and humid hell, but i’ve volunteered to go because i can swing by japan on my way and because, well, i have my reasons.
i’m not going, though, and it’s not because of financial reasons or work reasons or anything.
my body is too big for korea, and i don’t speak deferentially, demurely, and i don’t eat prettily, and, thus, i would bring shame on my family.
how can you believe in love when that supposed love is so ashamed of you?
what is love even then, and is it worth much at all?
i did open that e-mail, and it said exactly what i thought it would.
on my first day in new york, i get my hands on an ARC of crystal hana kim’s forthcoming novel, if you leave me. it’s a sweeping historical novel set in korea, starting during the war and spanning into the early aughts, and we follow a few characters, though the main character is haemi. she’s a first daughter and an older sister to a sick, much-younger brother. her father has died in the war. she is to be married and have children, and she isn’t educated because she’s a girl, no matter the fact that she has a sharp brain and a desire to learn.
she marries a boy her mother approves her, and he’s a boy from seoul, but he isn’t the boy she loves. she marries him, anyway, and they have children, all daughters, and they’re not exactly hurting, not financially, after the war. her husband is a landowner; she’s a housewife; and one of the things kim gets at so well is the toxicity of an intensely patriarchal culture, one that represses its women and embeds toxic masculinity in its men.
the scary part of all that, maybe, is how all of it is still so relevant today. while i was reading if you leave me, i knew it was a historical novel, but i never stopped thinking about korea today, about the patriarchy today, about the expectations placed on women to marry and breed and defer to their husbands and give up their ambitions and wants for the sake of their families and accept their husbands’ infidelities and egoes and violences because men are men and what are men to do when their wives are pregnant or nagging or demanding? all women have to do is care for the children and cook meals and stuff. that’s nothing like going to work to provide for the family.
women’s work isn’t "real" work.
that sounds like antiquated thinking, but the thing is it’s really not.
maybe one thing that’s changed this year is that i’ve learned to hold my sadnesses close to me again. i’ve never really been the confiding sort, never really prone to open up directly to people, and i’d made a few shifts in recent years to become more open, less closed up.
over the last few months, though, i’ve felt myself retreating, and part of that was very conscious but another part instinctive. when i hurt, i bristle, and the truth, maybe, underneath my reticence, is that i don’t trust anyone to hold my sadnesses for me. i don’t trust anyone not to turn that hurt, weaponize it, and use it against me.
the other thing, though, is that i’ve grown fatigued of being questioned all the time, of having to explain why i’ve got so much fear and anxiety or why i hate los angeles so much or why this, why that, and then being talked down to. i need god, i need to get over it and just learn to like where i am and just this or just that, like it’s all so simple, so easy, as basic as snapping your fingers and voila — everything is sunny and bright, and i’m not having nightmares of being trapped and unable to go home most nights.
and i don’t trust people to hold my sadnesses for me when their lives are progressing just fine, and that’s on me. i remind myself all the time that what we see, whether on social media or even of the people in our lives, is only a sliver of a person’s reality. some people look like they lead perfect lives on the surface — a supportive spouse, a home, a career — and we can never know what’s going on behind that veneer — but, even knowing that, even telling myself that every single freaking day, it’s hard not to look up from my sinkhole and think, how nice. how easy it must be for them.
and i know — i’m sure some people must look at the surfaces of my life and think the same.
what kim does so phenomenally well in her novel is get at the nuances of how a patriarchal society affects its people. she hasn’t written a book that’s screaming about toxic masculinity or misogyny or gender inequality; she’s simply written a book about a part of the world, painting a picture of these people’s war-torn lives; and kim does it all with a lot of love.
she doesn’t judge her characters even when they behave badly, reactive to their culture, maybe, some might argue (oh, that was normal back then), but that doesn’t mean she withholds criticism of the society that allows for such behavior. if you leave me doesn’t make bad male behavior okay, and neither does kim use culture as an excuse for said behavior — and maybe this is something i liked so much about the novel, too, that she’s able to do this without writing an overtly socially aware, socially critical book.
that’s not always the easiest thing to do.
and maybe part of that is to do with the fact that misogyny isn’t just about gross acts of violence. gender inequality isn’t just about a pay difference. it’s also in the quiet comments that maybe go unheard, the snide little putdowns that, on their own, might roll off you, the very idea of gender roles, that a woman is meant to be a mother and a wise and a man can do whatever he wants, so long as he provides for his family in the most basic ways. it’s in the desperate desire and continual attempts for a son.
and kim gets at all that, and you might miss it if you’re breezing through the book, if you don’t know what to look for — and, hey, isn’t that kind of like misogyny/gendered crap in real life? if you aren’t keeping your eyes open, if you aren’t willing to look, you can gloss over it like it’s just a natural part of culture, too.
i also love how the story is told; we hop between narrators but move forward in time; and kim maneuvers us deftly over decades.
maybe my main criticism might be that the first-person narrations aren’t really that varied, that all the characters really kind of sound like the same person, even haemi’s daughter, her voice more an imitation of a child’s voice than a child’s voice itself. in another novel, this lack of differentiation might have (and has, in the past) bothered me tremendously, but i can’t say it did all that much in if you leave me.
which does make me wonder a lot about reading and how subjective it is and how that subjectivity varies even book to book, even if the reader is the same. i think about how i can’t quite pinpoint what it is that i look for most in books; my answer tends to be vague — strong narrative voice, fully-fleshed characters, interesting story — or maybe that’s not vague at all, leaves a lot of room for details and difference. a book with plain prose and fully dimensional characters will generally always be more compelling than a beautifully written book with flat, cliched characters. a compelling story will outweigh weak writing. a unique, vibrant narrative voice will bring out different, interesting notes in the most common story. maybe the rule about good story-telling is … there are no rules.
if you leave me is published by william morrow books on 2018 august 7. this ARC was not sent to me by the publisher.
this post is all over the place, and it’s not the post i intended to write, though what i was intending to write, i don’t really know. in some ways, it’s kind of been a way to process the devastation i feel churning quietly in me, to mourn, in ways, the death of me, of my ambitions, of my dreams. i’m still thinking about deleting all my book files. i’m thinking about not even backing them on an external hard drive first. i’m trying not to feel the empty void in me — the loss of my faith in my book is infinitely more devastating than the loss of my religious faith in 2016.
what a colossal waste of ten years.