The Ropes Have Been Unbound

Category: Books

On Life and Death and Pain Again

I deeply respect and appreciate A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara but I fundamentally can’t bring myself to enjoy or recommend it. It details the history of Jude St. James, complete with the extreme abuse he undergoes at an early age that cripples and expressly traumatizes him for his entire life. I cried so much reading the book, I would read a few pages and then scrunch up into a little tiny ball hiding my face in my knees because I couldn’t deal with the prospect of Jude being hurt even more than he already had been. The explicit descriptions of abuse that Jude undergoes and enacts on himself were side by side with depictions of extreme love and affection between Jude and his friends, his found family, and I felt a feeling of real whiplash reading it because I didn’t always know what I was supposed to feel at a particular time. But despite my love for the book, I couldn’t help but think, what if Jude had been Judy? It irks and frustrates me that the trauma of women, rape victims and sexual abuse victims and everything in between, is almost commonplace, as if it’s just what we should grow to expect being female. It’s as if the suffering of being a woman is a common coming of age narrative we all ought to come to terms with and it’s ultimately not worth writing about because somebody has probably done it before and probably done it better than we ever could.

There’s something very notable about being a woman who’s been in a lot of public pain- you start to realize that you can’t really escape the identity. I want people to take me seriously despite my experiences but at the same time, I want them to be valid portions of my past, things that I can bring up and discuss without fear of social retribution. I want people to stop asking me “Has your condition returned?” but I want them to be aware of its existence, not judge me but to understand me for what I’ve been through. The balance that has to be struck when writing about the wounded woman is between acknowledging the voyeurism associated with female pain but also realizing that no matter how reductive the image may seem, we must acknowledge the various needs and sufferings that yield pain and attack them at their cores instead of focusing on the unsavory ways they may be displayed. It’s almost as if my pain makes me all the more feminine, as if it’s a constraint for my womanhood to be in deep and unforgettable pain. I think about Ernest Hemingway’s Nick Adams and the continual trauma he witnesses and how it changes him, how he swears to God as a little boy that he will never die. I think about Hemingway himself and how much I can’t help but relate to him, his inability to escape from his own mind that eventually led to his sorry suicide. I deeply empathize with him and I love him in a way feminists on the Internet would scorn me for doing so but at the same time, I can’t help but think that men in pain are allowed to be more than their pain. Hemingway is still a great writer who committed suicide, Sylvia Plath is that woman who stuck her head in an oven and was probably a terrible mother to boot. Her writing is almost an afterthought despite its extensiveness and nuance. Men are allowed to be more than how they’ve been hurt, as women it feels like we’re scarred by what we’ve been through in a way that makes us anathemas. But the thing is, we’re never alone in our sorrow.

What I’m trying to say is that I can’t really deal with the lack of female characters in A Little Life despite its many merits. I have some questions about the book itself and the implications about literary fiction that it raises. Hanya Yanagihara is female but what does it say about literature that for a woman to be so lauded she must write about men? Are female issues and characters not enough? The Neapolitan novels are resolutely female but to what extent? They are about economics and social mobility as much as they are about the relationship between the two female protagonists. Moreover, I’m somewhat uncomfortable with the depiction of male versus female pain in the novel. We all know that I’m a huge proponent of “The Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain” but I’m just fixated on the portrayal of Jude’s pain compared to that of women in other sources. It just feels so extreme and I didn’t even read the whole thing, I just felt this overwhelming dread and I couldn’t bring myself to read something that I knew I would hate. I read the reviews, and I completed about 400 pages of the book but I stopped right before the bulk of the detailing of Jude’s abuse.

There’s also something strange about how the love that Jude inspires feels almost as a reward for the pain that he’s been through which I really fundamentally dislike and disapprove of. It’s really not a no sum game, it’s real life and it doesn’t work like that. Pain doesn’t make one a better or worse person, it just is and it’s horrific obviously but I don’t need the unequivocal lauding of Jude to tell me that. He didn’t bother me as a character but rather what he represented. I felt as if his pain was more important than that of other people and I dislike that notion. I compared his experiences to that of Theon Greyjoy in ASOIAF because the both of them undergo horrific torture and are forced to live with their pain. But the difference is that Theon was forced to compartmentalize his torture in order to survive, to help Jeyne Poole, while Jude wasn’t required to do so. In other words, I felt that Theon’s narrative was more blatantly truly feminine while Jude’s was almost a male impression of a female narrative if that makes sense. I got the impression that Yanagihara was trying to inspire empathy in her readers but it didn’t feel as if they’d truly have to try to care for Jude simply because of how abjectly pitiable he is. It wasn’t like Theon who committed such heinous sins and had to be truly forgiven in order to understand his storyline.

As for me, I’m conflicted in my pain though because on one hand, I believe it makes me special that I can see and feel such profound things about the world I live in. I know things about people that they never told me, I know who they’re sleeping with and why they hate who they hate even though they never told me. I can see it in their eyes, the way they move around and play with their hair, and I can’t be rid of the pictures in my mind no matter how much I might want to be. I can relate to other people who I have no overt connection with because pain is universal, I can empathize in ways that aren’t taught in the schools even though they ideally ought to be, and I have so much to give in a world that clearly needs it. But at the same time, I feel spent; my emotional labor is going unpaid and I feel like I’m suffering more and being rendered more pain than any I might cause or heal. I feel the pain of other people and it doesn’t feel remotely fair because honestly, I’m burdened with enough of my own. Am I being punished for what I’ve done to others? Am I being punished for how I’ve hurt myself? Nowadays, unlike in my past, I sort of deal with my pain in the ways that I’m supposed to, I read and I smile and I sleep, I dance and I laugh and I cry, but only in secret where nobody can see me rather than on public buses like I used to, yet nothing really takes it all away.

Despite everything I have forced myself to endure, my pain belongs to me because I have claimed it like no other, because I have resolved to take ownership of it for all that it’s worth. And I don’t know if Jude has that same frame of mind. I know it’s wrong to impose my ideas on how to deal with trauma onto others but sometimes I can’t really help it because it doesn’t feel natural or real. I don’t think the book was tragedy porn per but at the same time, it was too much for me. Maybe some day I will be able to handle it but right now, I’m too hurt on my own self to be able to stomach the ways that somebody else has been viscerally destroyed.

I think about the ugly ways we deal with pain, cutting and inhaling and breaking hearts, allowing our hearts to be broken in return. The faces of the people I’ve hurt flit rapidly through my mind, and I physically feel the lingering consequences of long-standing pain that I caused myself. I think at the end of the day, pain and trauma are neither transitive nor sustainable, but are bitingly human in their very existence and we cannot live without them. Every relationship is bolstered by pain, the remnants of what we used to be and what we are today, and what remains to be understood. Kendrick Lamar raps “A fatal attraction is common/and what we have common is pain” and he’s right in his assertion. It brings us together, it tears us apart, and it ultimately defines us with regards to who we are to be.

 

Hazy Rotten Musty Evenings

I guess I think a lot about girlhood and portrayals of it. Currently, I’m en route to India to see the family, and I just finished Emma Cline’s The Girls and Megan Abbott’s You Will Know Me, and I have a lot to say about them both and not all of it is good. I feel a lot about the state of young girlhood because I’m finally, finally growing up past it and at the same time, I’m a little hesitant to critique any aspect of it because I don’t want to take away from what girls enjoy and take pride and joy in. It’s a thin line between critiquing something in a misogynistic manner and coming across a truly misogynistic piece of media and in these two books, I found myself exploring that line.

The Girls was honestly underwhelming. I was reading it on the plane and my mother was reading over my shoulder and we had the same reaction: “Why is this book so celebrated?” In particular, there’s this scene involving two underage girls having a threesome with a middle aged man and I literally couldn’t stomach reading that scene and I’m not somebody who regards herself as squeamish. That being said, the prose was absolutely lovely and it pains me to criticize it in such a manner because I truly believe that Emma Cline is capable of writing something much more original and much less sensational. She writes about love better than she writes about sex in my opinion or rather writes about the absence of love in people’s lives.

“The world fattens them on the promise of love. How badly they need it, and how little most of them will ever get. The treacled pop songs, the dresses described in the catalogs with words like “sunset” and “Paris.” Then the dreams are taken away with such violent force; the hand wrenching the buttons of the jeans, nobody looking at the man shouting at his girlfriend on the bus.

But as for the rest of it, I’m so tired of reading about sex and drugs to be blunt about it. I’ve been around and I’ve seen it all, I’ve had sex, I’ve done drugs, and it isn’t all it’s cracked up to be but at the same time, it’s not the end of the world either. I’m not looking back on my days of rebellion with a dewy eye of “what could have been” but then again, I didn’t almost commit heinous acts of murder.

I got to thinking about why the book is being so celebrated among literary circles. I think it’s partially the prose itself is absolutely glorious that it’s easy to forget the plot is well, forgettable. There’s the wannabe stepfather and the rebellious teenage daughter and the well meaning but disgustingly oblivious mother and for what? There’s not a single person in the book I feel remotely positive towards and that includes Evie herself and I’m not one to disdain unlikable protagonists. She is unlikable in a pathetic way which well, isn’t appealing whatsoever when I look back on it, and I literally couldn’t stop myself from blaming her for the events that occurred although I know I’m fully wrong in doing so. Perhaps it’s my own biases that prevent me from truly empathizing with Evie, perhaps it’s that we aren’t intended to empathize with her as a rule. I just became increasingly angry with her that she still looked back on her days with Suzanne and Russell and the rest of them with almost a dewy eyed mentality and that fundamentally frustrated me. Then again, the end of the novel was a dead giveaway (no pun intended) so the suspense was almost nonexistent.

What personally most interested me about the book was the idea of sex as kind of this gross entity to be done solely for the sake of men. I mean, I never got the impression that Evie or really any of the girls in the book ever wanted to engage in any sexual activity except perhaps with each other and yet, it was a commonplace occurrence in their lives. The quote “All the books made it sound like the men forced the girls into it” is well and good, but the whole novel came across to me as if the girls really were forced into sex and I don’t know what to really believe. Is Evie an unreliable narrator unable to see when she’s really being taken advantage of? Or is sex to girls really just something to be done? Personally, I’m inclined to believe it’s the former but at the same time, I can’t shake the impression that it’s truly the latter and I’m just fooling myself.

Megan Abbot on the other hand, makes me believe in the concept of real adult novels about children, if that makes sense. I read the entirety of You Will Know Me in one sitting on an airplane and I well, I liked it. I mean like, liking a book to me is slightly an ambiguous concept because it’s impossible to say what you really like or dislike about it in such a simplistic statement. I found this particular novel far more predictable than her other works but I don’t think that’s really a bad thing. It was far better organized and plotted than The Fever although I think that both it and Dare Me were stronger novels in some way, in terms of how compelling they were. But, You Will Know Me had its charm. There were notable turns of phrase and it reminded me of a Jodi Picoult novel in the best of ways, the artistic decision to write the book from Katie’s perspective and the focus on adult politics when the subject or rather the object, Devon, is a young girl. I found the focus on family interesting because I’m very close to my family but I’d like to think we’re not nearly as toxic as the families explored in the novel. I am slightly proud to say that my parents value me too much to allow me to focus so wholeheartedly on something no matter how much I may love it.

And, while reading this book, I got to thinking about the sexualization of female gymnastics as well when I was reading this book and I don’t know, it fundamentally frustrates me. These are little girls whose bodies are being focused on to an almost extreme level and there’s literally no excuse for the way that people talk about them, the way that even their own parents discuss the girls and the progression of their lives. Their bodies don’t belong to them anymore, they’re a collection of limbs and muscles and skin and bone, glitter and sinew and satin leotards, and well, there’s a reason women’s gymnastics is one of the most watched sports in the Summer Olympics. But I think that I should refrain from commenting on it in detail because I am not part of the inner circle of competitive sports and I don’t and will never know the true details of it.

The only real criticism of the novel that I have is that the characters weren’t nearly as fleshed out as in Abbott’s other novels and it hurt the book in some ways. It was less scandalous, less dramatic, less “OMG” and I strangely enough could predict the twists long before they occurred. Perhaps I’ve read too much fiction, maybe I just know too much about the world as I see it for anything to truly be a surprise to me so I’m possibly biased. Katie in particular was very much a Jodi Picoult protagonist and again I say, I don’t mean that in a bad way. Thankfully there was no dramatic legal trail with background romance to distract form the main plot because I honestly don’t think I could have dealt with that. In particular, Dovon herself served as more of a symbol of a prodigy, of perfection, of something to be strived for and simultaneously feared rather than a character in herself. Even with regards to her relationship with Ryan, it didn’t feel as the sheer tragedy of the affair was about her, a teenage girl involved with a grown ass man but about how everybody else around her was affected by it. Although, perhaps that’s the point that Abbott was trying to make in including it.

I call this piece “Hazy Rotten Musty Evenings” because both these books encompass that part of adolescence we don’t really like to talk about. As I said, I think The Girls is a bit of overkill and overemphasis on the scandal element of it, but that doesn’t change the fact that it covers embarrassing, disgusting aspects of youth that nobody likes to consider even when looking back at their own lives. Everything is sort of vague and I think that is ironic given that You Will Know Me is about competitive gymnastics, which is such a precise sport. It reminded me of Abbott’s The End of Everything rather than The Fever or Dare Me, and I think it was all the stronger for it although as I pointed out, it does have its drawbacks. It has more of a crossover appeal, to adults as well as teenage girls and it didn’t hurt to read in the way I think it was supposed to. But again, I’m not a typical reader which I suppose is why you’re reading this blog in the first place.

With a Little Help From My Friends

I’m a girl who wouldn’t be where she is without the unconditional support from my female friends. I can’t bring myself to list them all because it hurts me to think about some of them and there are too many of them to count, but I wanted to write about Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels and Rufi Thorpe’s The Girls From Corona del Mar because those relationships have been some of the most formative in my life. I’ve been very much in love before but when that went south it was the girls (and boys) who I platonically love who got me through it all.

Elena Ferrante is regarded as the foremost writer of female friendship today. I’ll be honest though, I read My Brilliant Friend and simply wasn’t driven to read the other novels in the Neapolitan series. I mean don’t get me wrong, I loved Lila but at the same time, I found Elena herself almost mundane in comparison. People who are wiser than me love these books because apparently that’s reality- there are women who write and who get things done and there are the women who are written about. And I don’t know how I feel about that sentiment. Elena sometimes didn’t seem real to me, not a caricature exactly but rather a construction of what Ferrante believed a relatable protagonist was like. But I didn’t, I couldn’t relate to her. Instead I kept on wondering what was going on inside Lila’s head because she was both more ambiguous and yet, made more logical sense to me.

Ferrante writes:

“Although she was fragile in appearance, every prohibition lost substance in her presence. She knew how to go beyond the limit without ever truly suffering the consequences. In the end, people gave in, and were even, however unwillingly, compelled to praise her.”

I’m not going to come out and say that I’m a “Lila” and not an “Elena” because I’m not interested in simplifying the very complicated nuances of my personality to that degree but perhaps I am not the target audience for these novels or really for any novel. I’m too much, too intelligent, too self-aware, too beautiful to be thinking so much, or at least that’s what the boys say. The thing is, girls like Lila aren’t supposed to waste their time reading novels written about them because they’re like Chuck Bass, “People like me don’t read books, they’re written about.” But as somebody with such a profound level of anxiety, I can’t help but be obsessed with what people are saying about me. Do they want me? Do they love me? Do they understand me? Sadly enough, the answer to all those questions is usually no, but at the same time, they love watching me because I’m entertaining, funny without meaning to be. I’m a show, not a person and that makes me strangely sad but I’ve learned to embrace it to some degree.

I think that the value in the Neapolitan novels isn’t in the characterization itself though but on the observations that Ferrante makes about society and its structure. Italy in the 1970s is a different world than what we live in today but some things remain the same. My favorite quote from the novel is as follows:

“They were more severely infected than the men, because while men were always getting furious, they calmed down in the end; women, who appeared to be silent, acquiescent, when they were angry flew into a rage that had no end.”

I really value women’s anger but Ferrante is unequivocally right. We have been stifled and put down for literally thousands of years we’ve been forced to learn to fight in different ways. Addison Montgomery says it in Grey’s Anatomy: “Oh I intend to fight like a girl. I’ll let them kill each other and then I’ll be the only one left standing.” Things are different if we want to be successful and well, alive and thriving as women. We don’t want to abandon our gender but at the same time, we want to be taken seriously. It’s a conundrum faced by our foremothers and unfortunately, I’m no closer to finding an answer to the problem than they were.

The Girls From Corona Del Mar is in a way an answer to the Neapolitan novels but it’s different, and in my opinion, simpler but harder than them as well. I mean it’s possible to sum it up as two girls’ coming of age story but it’s also just wrong to do so. I preferred the beginning of the novel to the end but at the same time, looking at the novel as an entity I become much sadder than I was as I read it. I don’t really know why that is. Mia and Lorrie Ann are both relatable in different ways and at times, as the reader, I wanted to grab them both by the shoulders and shake them because what they were doing made no logical sense. I’m especially referring to Mia’s abortion but also the events leading up to it. As with many other books featuring young girls, I wrung my hands at their life decisions because in my mind, so much of their pain could have been avoided if they just sat down and thought about what they were going to do before doing it. But then, on retrospect, their age played such a huge role in the events in their lives I was perhaps judging them too harshly.

Lorrie Ann in particular though struck me as somebody who was old from a young age, someone who never got the chance to grow up properly. As it says,

“It wasn’t that Lorrie Ann was becoming a Goody Two-shoes. It wasn’t that she wanted to be perfect or loved or approved of. No.

She wanted something much more dangerous. She wanted meaning. And she thought it could be gotten by following the rules.”

That particular passage was something I marked because I’m the same way although I’m disinclined to respond the same way. I became self-destructive in my search for meaning. I drank a lot, I smoked cigarettes, and I didn’t love myself because I didn’t see the point of it. Nowadays, I’m different, more solid and safe but not the least bit complacent and I like who I’ve become. But I had the chance to grow up because I didn’t do anything unfixable like Lorrie Ann did; I could erase my past mistakes and start all over, which is what I’m in the process of doing. The fact remains though, I’m still in search for meaning and I’m scared that if I think too deeply again like I used to, I will revert to my past antics and so, I refrain from thinking too deeply. I put my nose to the grindstone, I work and I work and I work, I don’t think if I can avoid it about what I can’t understand, and things are okay. They have to be.

Female friendship is such a complicated topic and it’s been discussed to excess in recent times. Everybody and their mother has an opinion on Taylor Swift’s squad (I couldn’t care less who she chooses to be friends with and I refuse to put effort into evaluating whether her friendships are calculated), on the nature of cliques and what it all means for feminism. But I’ve been watching Grey’s Anatomy lately and in my opinion, nothing exemplifies true friendship more than the relationship between Meredith Grey and Cristina Yang. They’re each other’s person, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health. Real friendship is simple, like real romantic love is as well. Everything else than isn’t real friendship, or real love is what’s complicated and what makes us fixate and obsess to an extreme degree. In the words of Jacob Clifton,

“Real love doesn’t make you act crazy. The reason we act crazy when we are infatuated is because we want it to be real so badly — we want to jump over the distance of time that makes real love what it is. That’s the trick of romance: The crazy infatuation love is so much brighter and turns so many more corners so quickly. Much more exciting than the real thing. But real love, at its finest, makes you feel like you are bursting open, like this: Like hearing a beautiful song, or reading a beautiful poem, or hearing a wonderful story, and the tears come and you don’t know precisely why. It doesn’t hurt; it hurts in a way that isn’t hurting, that we don’t have a word for. Largeness. Enormity. It takes a real strength, a real grace, to stand up straight in the face of that. Especially if you’re not familiar with it.”

If I remember right, Clifton is talking about Blair Waldorf and Serena Van Der Woodsen, another example of true love. Or friendship or whatever, since they’re basically the same thing when it comes down to it. But honestly, what I’m trying to say here is that as a species, we seem to overcomplicate this whole friendship thing, and I’m including authors like Ferrante and Thorpe in this. There can be relationships between complicated women that are simple, rooted in love and in nothing else. And I don’t know why everything has to be analyzed to death in order to be considered valid.

But I ask you to consider, what makes female friendships tick? From Meredith and Cristina to Carrie and Samantha to Blair and Serena, why are they so important to us and why do we believe that they say so much about society as a whole? Even Jane Austen said that friendship is the only balm to the pangs of disappointed love but is that what all our female friends are good for? To bitch about the boys who don’t love us? I’m over simplifying but you know what I mean.

All I know is that I love my girls to an extreme degree. I can tell them anything, their approval is more important to me than the approval of men, even men whom I love, and my relationships with them are forever. We can not talk for months on end, and it’s all okay in the end and I have faith in those relationships. But I feel as if I need to be more complicated sometimes as a woman, as if I’m behaving more like a stereotypical guy. To me though, it’s simple: love and let love. And that’s that.

I Can’t Stop Watching You Watching Me

For everybody that’s been following my writing for a while, you know that I write about love in a very literarily cohesive manner. There’s the protagonist, the antagonist, but no heroes or villains in the stories that I tell because I’m so intent on avoiding bias when I recount what occurred. I read through what I’ve written and I’m not embarrassed by it but I feel sad looking at it, as if I was in such a deep hole of my own sadness that couldn’t have ever been fixed by another person no matter what I believed at the time. I thought I was compromised in my strength, in my feminism by the depth of my emotionality but I learned as I grew up, that unequivocally wasn’t the case. My activism is more nuanced than anger- it’s rooted in nothing more or less than love. And so, I am considering Jenny Han’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and P.S. I Still Love You, a far cry from the heavy and harrowing writing of Lidia Yuknavitch but neither less important or less meaningful to me.

The books tell the story of Lara Jean Song, a Korean American teenager, whose life goes from dull to dramatic when a hatbox of letters she writes to boys she was enamored by goes missing, when they’re mailed out to the boys in question. It’s not that I related to Lara Jean in particular, she’s much younger than me, and I’m more reckless in love but there was something heavy about the lighthearted romances Han writes that drew me in and kept me reading. Lara Jean’s main love interest is Peter Kavinsky, who remains one of the few young adult love interests I don’t want to roundly slap on the face. Lara Jean writes her letters for when she’s no longer in love and I wrote letters to boys for when my love wasn’t enough and I felt obligated to prove it. As if writing down thousands and thousands words of my feelings was enough to validate my love, as if it ever was. But reading the books got me thinking about the letters I wrote to boys, the ways in which I was affected and how I affected others. Was it manipulative to send them those letters? What was I ever trying to achieve in writing such long missives? I don’t honestly know the answers to those questions.

There’s this boy who I was involved with whom I wrote two long letters to over a period of three years. The first was unsuccessful and pensive, sadder than anything I ever want to write in my life and resolutely didn’t work (let’s just say he called another girl while we were in bed together as revenge), but the second was an extended essay about everything that we were and could be, originally intended to be for a book of essays. However, in retrospect I’m reluctant to include it to be published because of how personal it is, for how vulnerable it makes me look, for how young and fragile and even hopeless it makes me look at times. I don’t want the world to realize that I was so bereft at one point because even though it’s so relatable, it also gives up a part of myself that I don’t want to forgo. I value my privacy to such an excessive degree I’m not sure I want to let the world in that much. I did send it to him though, and I don’t honestly know how he reacted to it because I never bothered to find out. I’d be simultaneously flattered and … something else I can’t fully articulate if I was in his position though. In it, I wrote:

I still worry when I see him these days though because some old habits die hard- he looks haggard for 22, slightly heavier than is natural for his frame and he very obviously drinks too much. We are not a tragedy because I refuse to be a tragedy, although he still might be one. It’s not all his fault – he’s not a devil or a saint or a harlequin romance hero, he’s just a boy, a man now I guess, but it’s not all mine either and I refuse to take full responsibility for it. We’re not children anymore and all stories don’t have happy endings; sometimes they just conclude, vivid memories blurred hard with the passage of time and we learn to live with the pain.

And I meant every single word of it. I am no longer hopeful the way that I used to be but I’m more realistic in how I hope. With him, I forgave in a way that I never thought I would have to, at least not at such a young age. All he had to do was stay with me, talk to me and love me, but he couldn’t do that and so, I had to let him go. The last thing I sent him was a row of sad faced emojis (we’re the typical millennial pair) and that’s all I’m ever going to say, except maybe “Happy Birthday” someday far away when we’re both beyond how we’ve hurt each other, if that day will ever come.

Lara Jean thinks, “Why is it so hard to say no to him? Is this what it’s like to be in love with somebody?” And she’s so young in her love; I sometimes believe it’s truer than anything else I’ve ever encountered. It’s not to say she has no emotional or romantic history or anything, but there’s a weird sense of realism to the whole story and the feelings that it evoked that I fully appreciated, especially on reading the books as somebody that’s no longer a teenager. The relationships with the Song Sisters are extremely well fleshed out, their heritage as half Korean is given appropriate weight, and their father seems like a real parent, worried about his daughters’ welfare but not interfering, rather than the conspicuously absent adult figures of other young adult books. Even with Genevieve, the so-called mean girl, she never came across as ridiculously nasty but unfortunately was far more realistic than that. She is both romantic competition and everything that Lara Jean isn’t, sort of the antithesis of Lara Jean and she can’t help but admire her for it.

“It’s hard not to get caught up in her spell. She’s the kind of person you want to like you. You know she can be cruel; you’ve seen her be cruel. But when her eyes are on you, and she’s paying attention to you, you want it to last. Her beauty is part of it, but there’s something more—something that draws you in. I think it’s her transparency—everything she thinks or feels is written all over her face, and even if it wasn’t, she’d say it anyway, because she says what she thinks, without thinking first.”

Lara Jean is envious of Genevieve and it’s obvious but her jealousy never is irrational or untoward but merely what one would expect in a 16-year-old girl in her first real relationship. I felt the same way with my first boyfriend, and honestly, I still sometimes feel the same way today when it comes to people I like. However, I tend to be far less gentle in my sentiments than Lara Jean is but I would give her a few years. But none of the characters is shamed in their emotionality and it all feels genuine despite a profound lack of explanation on the part of Jenny Han. They simply make sense and that’s something that’s definitely lacking in young adult literature.

But most of all, what made me love these books so much was the hope they inspired in me. I’m notoriously cynical these days because as I’ve said, I’ve been hurt in love before, brought down to my knees metaphorically and physically. There’s a Taylor Swift song called “Begin Again” from her album Red that I thought of when reading these books, not to mention “How You Get the Girl” from 1989, both songs that I previously disdained as saccharine, too stupidly euphoric for someone like me to relate to. “Begin Again” is about letting go of people from the past that don’t deserve us and allowing ourselves the strength to start over while “How You Get the Girl” is about forgiveness, most of all of our own selves and about abject joy, of the kind that’s never written about because nobody really knows how to articulate it. Nobody that is, except Taylor Swift.

And I’m okay again, you know. I finally have somebody that makes me keep listening to both those songs on a loop and who makes me smile when he uses emojis in texts and scrunch up in a little ball and smile into my knees. I used to not believe that this day would come but I’m wholeheartedly excited for what the future will bring and rightfully so because I’m still so very young. I deserve to anticipate, I deserve to be loved and wanted and appreciated for all that I am and ever was, and so do you.

I Was Brought Up As A Baby

Pain is something I know a lot about. I spend my days attempting to ignore the searing ache inside of me that threatens the regularity of the life I have carefully cultivated for myself and my nights dreaming, dreaming terrible things that evoke the worst of what I can imagine and cannot stifle in my slumber. I think what drew me in so conclusively into the work of Lidia Yuknavitch is that she is a woman who understands what it’s like to be irrevocably hurt and moreover, to have be forced live with it. See, for some of us, death is an escape of the highest degree, an escape from conflict and heartache and despair but for some reason, it refuses to come. In the last two days, I read both “The Chronology of Water” and “The Small Backs of Children” by Lidia Yuknavitch and I feel like something inside of me has changed. I feel understood and fulfilled in a strange way although compared to Yuknavitch, I’m nothing more than a soft, spoiled little girl.

“The Chronology of Water” is an autobiography of sorts but “The Small Backs of Children” is similarly memoir-like at times. There are recurring events in the two works, a stillborn child, malignant yet occasionally ambiguous abuse, and most of all, the sense that everything is roundabout and comes back to haunt us in the end of things if it isn’t adequately addressed and put down. I think the two books ought to be read like I read them, in quick succession so that when attempting to write about them, I can’t keep them straight without the notes that I meticulously took. In a 2015 interview with the Rumpus, Yuknavitch said,

““I think our identities—the ones we live in the real world—are really made partly from stories that we build up around ourselves—necessary fictions—so that we can bear the weight of our own lives. We like to call these “truths” or “facts” or “selves,” but I maintain that they are fictions. Fictions for instance called “mother” or “wife” or “lover” or “teacher” or “writer.”
I think we understand our own life experiences in narrative terms. If you consider that idea for a moment, we are walking novels. No one has a pure identity. Everyone has an identity made from everyone they’ve ever known and loved or hated, and from every experience they could process and withstand, happy or sad, arranged in memories, otherwise known as stories.”

In other words, the line between fiction and supposed reality is thin in her works, and as the reader, I’m not precisely sure where it’s drawn but I don’t think it matters. I personally keep telling my own personal story as I go along, I write in my diary, in my blog, in my mind and it keeps me sane and I prove to myself that it once was and could be once again.

But as for her writing itself, Yuknavitch is a revelation. The details of her life are strewn about her books but at the same time, the specifics are far less important than the messages that they convey. Despite the lurid nature of the life she led, promiscuity and drug use and alcoholism, there’s something grounded about her, perhaps because she’s looking back upon it as an established writer and mother rather than telling the story as it happened. I’m obsessed with her prose, with the way she words things because she writes as I wish that I could. There’s no sense of cloying self-pity in the most horrifying of events she recounts, there’s no condemnation of either herself or those who have hurt her; she writes with simple candor but maintains a distinct sense of privacy. It was as if she was saying to the reader, “I am inviting you into the depths of my mind but there’s a line and you may not cross it.” She especially isn’t explicit about her father’s abuse, which I found interesting because she was direct and unvarnished about so much else but as I said, it seems as if there was a line and I respect her for maintaining it.

To simplify it greatly, “Water” is a memoir about swimming, more accurately about drowning and the ways in which we prevent ourselves from doing so, drugs, alcohol, men, and everything in between. I would go as far to regard it as the ultimate novel of the wounded woman. I hate the concept of being post-wounded like the girls of Girls as Leslie Jamison detailed in her now classic essay “The Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain” and I’m not good at being that woman. I’m too fragile, too breakable, too inclined to crumble not because I’m weak but because lying to myself about who I am has never done me well. My story is not as long or as intense as Yuknavitch’s but I’m only 21 and thankfully, I have the family and medical support she so desperately lacked.

The last few months, I’ve been having a recurring dream. I am married to the person whom I love, we’re beautiful and successful and after a saga of not being okay in so many ways, I am finally okay. But the image that keeps on repeating itself in my mind, as if it’s a broken film, is of me kneeling at my oldest son’s hospital bed; he’s dying, sometimes from a car accident, sometimes from a premature heart attack, sometimes from a drug overdose, but at the end of the story, he always dies. In some versions of the dream, he has a baby sister, other times, he’s a golden only child but always, he doesn’t deserve to die even if his parents deserve to be punished for the way they’ve hurt others in order to come together. My husband is watching my vigil, and he’s looking at me not as if he blames me for our son’s condition but as if I should have warned him in the first place that I bring about death in this manner. The picture I’m painting in my headspace is technically beautiful and for some reason, I’m fixated on this element of it, the colors I see in my head, the light blue crispness of the hospital room, the red of the shirt I am wearing, the dark of my husband’s eyes. I don’t think my husband stops loving me even if he believes I ought to have warned him about who I am but as Yuknavitch says, “Sometimes it’s difficult to tell rage from love.” I kept on thinking about this dream when I was reading these books because I’m so fundamentally afraid that I’m going to bring about pain to those I love wherever I go because of the nature of my past, because of my history of violence against myself.

“The Small Backs of Children” is a sister to “The Chronology of Water” but different in a way, so perhaps more of a half-sister. It’s structured around a small Eastern European girl in the depths of warfare and it’s a survival story like no other, about eking out a life when everything is going against you and refusing to abandon hope since the body refuses to give up long after the mind has done so. Yuknavitch writes the novel is a reflection of the self and I grow to think, who is the narrator of the novel at hand? Is it Yuknavitch herself, or the unnamed writer, are they the same person, and does it really matter? My favorite passage in the novel is one of self-reflection of the highest degree.

“Who are we in moments of crisis or despair? Do we become deeper, truer selves, or lift up and away from a self, untethered from regular meanings like moths suddenly drawn toward heat or light? Are we better people when someone might be dying, and if so, why? Are we weaker, or stronger? Are we beautiful, or abject? Serious, or cartoon? Do we secretly long for death to remind us we are alive?”

I believe that we ought to constantly be checking ourselves before we wreck ourselves, to resort to a cliché. My personal favorite line in the entire novel is that last question, “Do we secretly long for death to remind us we are alive?”

I appreciated that Yukavitch was similarly fixated on the concept of death because it made me feel less weird, like I was actually human rather than some distinct aberration from normality. My mother once upon a time, in the words of Taylor Swift, accused me of losing my mind because I lost the will to live when I was barely 17 years old. I sort of like to think that I was too human in a world that preferred robots, more content, more inclined to settle and to not question the status quo because that’s a better perspective than believing I was simply too weak to take it. Yuknavitch says that perhaps it’s an internal desire of all those who can hold life in them to end it, but I can’t help but ask, why am I subjected to it more than others? There are women who don’t feel this way, I know there must be. Was I terrible in a past life? Am I terrible in a way I don’t understand in this one? It doesn’t seem to be fair. Maybe I got it from my parents the way Yuknavitch got it from her mother.

“I didn’t know how wanting to die could be a bloodsong in your body that lives with you your whole life. I didn’t know then how deeply my mother’s song had swum into my sister and into me. I didn’t know that something like wanting to die could take form in one daughter as the ability to quietly surrender, and in the other as the ability to drive into death head-on. I didn’t know we were our mother’s daughters after all.”

I love my parents deeply and without major complications but I sometimes hate them for the mind I inherited from them. I feel overwrought, too much of a person yet simultaneously too little for this world we live in. Something in my head seems to be missing and I don’t know where I’m supposed to find it.

Lastly, Yuknavitch is writing about love. Like Maggie Nelson’s “The Argonauts,” Yuknavitch writes about real love, true love that highly diverges from the two person nuclear family and rightly so. I think about the love in my life, the love that I have experienced, and I believe it’s true, “We accept the love we think we deserve.” Love is wild. It consumes, it devours, it takes apart and puts back together in quick succession and we don’t have any control whatsoever over it. I’ve been in love and it scares me. I become a person I don’t know and don’t particularly like when I’m in love, volatile at best and destructive at worst, most of all to myself, so I’ve resolved to avoid it to protect myself. But I want to write, I want to create art and I ask, does love make art?

Sandra Cisneros once said, “I want to make art beyond rage” and well, I want to make art beyond my pain. There has to be more to me than what I have gone through, than how I’ve been hurt and how I’ve hurt others and I refuse to believe that isn’t the case. I always have acrylic nails these days because I haven’t been able to shake the habit of biting my nails and currently, the nail on my right pointer finger has broken off. I bite that particular nail down to the skin as I write this, and I can see it bleeding but I can’t stop. Perhaps we’re all addicted to pain, obsessive about writing it down in order to validate it, to prove that it’s both real and worthy of being observed. Or maybe that’s just me and there’s something irrevocably wrong with me. I don’t think I’m ever going to know for sure.

Love Me, Love Me, Say That You Love Me

I was born in 1994, with my Pluto, Venus, and Mars in Scorpio. For those of you who don’t believe in or aren’t versed in the language of astrology, this means that I’m pure water, emotional and volatile and inclined to hold onto things long after I should give them up. I think about love a lot, platonic love and filial love obviously, but obsessively, chronically about romantic love. I’m not theoretically inclined to be obsessed with marriage, since I’m a Modern WomanTM, I’m educated and well brought up and definitely going to work for a living. But when I lay in bed at night, I think about love- who loves me and who I love, the people I used to love and the people that used to love me. Do they still love me? Why did they love me in the first place, what about me was intrinsically lovable? Why do I love the people, or rather the person whom I love? Why, for all his numerous faults and fallacies do I still love him? I’m a reader of diverse books, of memoirs and fiction and of science fiction even, but lately, I’ve been reading Romance novels, of the kind that make it on the Best Romances of 2015 list on Goodreads. The last book I read was “Kulti” by Mariana Zapata and it made me think about the ultimate question is: why do we read Romance?

As I said, I’m not inclined towards gushing about the beauty of love and marriage. I’m rational in the stereotypical way, I don’t doodle boys’ names in my journal and I never did, I wear flowery dresses but I counteract it with coding in Java and Python and C# because that’s the way I have to be in order to keep myself balanced and sane. The reason I disapproved of Romance novels for so long, reading them in secret under my covers, is manifold. First, I was embarrassed about the sex in them because young women aren’t taught to enjoy healthy expressions of sexuality in media. Not that all the depictions of sex are ideal in Romance, but on the whole, they are catered to the female gaze in a way sex scenes in mainstream media are not, focused on the mutual pleasure of both partners. The men regularly go down on the women, bringing them through orgasm with their hands and their mouths, and the women reciprocate obviously because that’s the expectation in mutually beneficial relationships, but it doesn’t feel like an expectation or an obligation. Plus, of course, romance is a typically female dominated genre, and like everything that women love, it’s scorned as pathetic, disingenuous, and inherently inferior. “It’s not real literature”, “Why do women read porn?”, “Anybody could write it so only dumb people would read it.”

“Kulti” is about sports, quite possibly my least favorite topic in the universe. I’m the kind of girl who snapchats her best guy friend if basketball is the sport with the touchdowns almost 100% genuinely, who refuses Superbowl parties in order to get my nails done in bright gold because I’m a real life Disney princess or something, who told my ex-boyfriend I would go to a baseball game with him if he attended a Fashion Week show, complete with black tie after party. But I liked “Kulti” because it was about people who characterized their sports rather than sports that characterized people. There’s a reason as a human race we’re invested in sports, in our fraternities, in our unions- they unite us and bring forth the most elemental characteristics we possess, teamwork, responsibility for others, and the quest for individuality while attempting to bolster a team. Sal and Kulti were both multidimensional characters and not in the way that was contrived, constructed to further a plot or to give the reader some juicy scenes. The progression of their relationship felt natural and their romance felt realistic because it wasn’t really a love story; it was a story about love in life, a life story if you must call it that.

Often in romance novels, the plot is sidelined in order to overemphasize the innate sexuality of the protagonists, their dashing good looks, their long, long legs and perfect faces, but doing so often entirely misses the point of why people, women to be more exact, read romance novels. I might be generalizing and attributing my own qualities to the masses but I don’t read romance novels for the sex, for the fantasy. I’m not represented in these novels, my 5’2” 90 something pound self who worries about breaking nails and self-describes as neurotic and not in the sexy way where I relax and let go through orgasm with some generic looking guy, and for the moment, I’m okay with that- I’ve learned to compromise with the media I consume. I read romance novels for the belief that things will turn out all right, that there’s hope for me to find true love, the kind people write about in the books and immortalize in sonnets and sketches, despite and because of my flaws, and I want proof that happy endings exist. The world is a terrible, miserable place, so I smile when I see things like that imam in Turkey who opened up his mosque to cats because it gives me hope that people are kinder and smarter and more loving than I ever expected in my 21 years of being let down, and romance novels give me that feeling. The sex is simply a bonus. I liked “Kulti” because the novel wasn’t intent on rendering perfect people in a perfect relationship, who go rom bickering sexually to fucking on sheets of Egyptian cotton in 200 pages or less. It was a longer book, over 700 pages and I wasn’t bored with the progression of Kulti’s and Sal’s relationship, from enmity to reluctant friendship to genuine affection to love because I felt validated and rewarded in their romance.

I think love is weird because it’s so miraculous in its very being, the concept that two entirely different people can come together and feel such unity and respect for each other. It requires maturity and understanding and nobody can define or designate it except for the parties involved. I look at the declaration of love in “Kulti” and I feel the same way I do when I listen to “Holy Ground” by Taylor Swift: “Spinning like a girl in a brand new dress/We had this big wide city all to ourselves”: hopeful and young again because I feel ancient in the way only 21 year olds who feel like 40 something divorcees do, and I revel in it.

“What would I gain from telling you the first moment I realized you were meant to be mine? Nothing. You’re supposed to protect what you love, Sal. You taught me that. I didn’t wake up one day and know I didn’t want to live without your horrible temper. I saw so much of me in you at first, but you aren’t like me at all. You’re you, and I will go to my grave before I let anyone change any part of you. I know that without a doubt in my mind. This,” he pointed between us. “This is what matters.”

Love is beautiful, and it’s everywhere if you know where to look for it. I maintain that romantic love is like a unicorn, that it can eradicate any evil in this world if it’s honest and true, and it’s beautiful and people lose their minds over it which is obviously unhealthy, but I’m understanding more and more why they do it. Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie once said that only real romantic love can remove racism and that it barely exists and I don’t know if I agree with her but that won’t prevent me from eternally being on the lookout for it. I believe in love, I believe in genuine affection and respect, and I believe that I’m deserving and worthy of it and that’s due in part to my vociferous reading of romance novels.

In the Name of Being Honest

On my last birthday, I tore off all my black acrylic nails one by one; my nailbeds were bleeding and I could barely text or type or hold a pencil for a week until I got them redone. The reasons for this fit of self-harm are layered but ultimately mundane: a boy didn’t love me, a boy loved me too much, my statistics class was disgustingly difficult, and I was fed up. But what I remember the most from that evening is wanting to be hurt because I couldn’t feel anything else and I didn’t even feel any real pain when I tore my nails off which frustrated me even more. I was bleeding so why didn’t I want to cry, why didn’t I care that blood was getting on my cognac leather jacket, why didn’t I want to stop doing it to myself? I share a birthday with Oscar Wilde who wrote “A sentimentalist is simply one who desires to have the luxury of emotion without paying for it.” Very clearly, I have paid for my emotionality and I’ve been trying to find a purpose to it except to validate my humanity and I don’t know how successful I am.

Taylor Swift released “1989” this year and the most disturbing reaction I’ve seen is “I like Taylor Swift so much more now that she’s jaded and not singing about love.” I find it telling that what we deride Swift and her fellow female singer-songwriters like Tori Amos, Ani DiFranco, and Fiona Apple as being too much: too emotional, too sad, too angry, too much of an open wound, to use Leslie Jamison’s phrase whose collection of essays, The Empathy Exams, inspired this piece. I remember that a lot of the so-called feminist criticism of Swift was concerning the song “Fifteen,” which details the events of her freshman year of high school and includes the line “Abigail gave everything she had to a boy who changed his mind.” The internet blogosphere went wild, “Taylor Swift thinks that young women are worth nothing more than their virginity.” I believed these critiques when I first read them because I internalized what society had told me about what it meant to be an emotional woman: your feelings are silly, your pain is unimportant, so grow up and stop being sad about things that don’t matter. I conveniently ignored that when I lost my virginity at 15 years old, the day after I took the SAT for the first and only time, I didn’t get out of bed for three days, so traumatized I couldn’t even cry even though the act was fully consensual, convincing myself it was because I mixed up rancor and rumination on the verbal section and would have to take the exam again. When I got my scores back three weeks later, I missed one math question in all, scoring a 2370 which was 99.96% percentile, and the only thing I could ask myself was “If I’m so smart, why did I have sex and why am I so weak that I feel bad over it?”

I’ve realized that the issue isn’t necessarily about Taylor Swift but with society as a whole: we hold emotionality and rationality as mutually exclusive entities and we find it difficult to respect those who are affected by their emotions and for better or worse, so many of us are driven by them. But in order for humanity to progress, we have to care. We must commit ourselves to a set of behaviors and sentiments greater than the sum of our natural inclinations because for all the talk about politics and ideologies, to quote Che Guevara, the revolution is an act of love. We must actively force ourselves to love what we aren’t instantly attracted to; it’s not necessarily romantic but it’s imperative in order to become more ethical than the society we were raised in. There has been so much uproar about the validity of rape victims’ claims, in Steubenville, in UVA, and no matter how many times detractors are given the statistics regarding rape versus false accusations of rape, the structure of the legal system forces us to have these arguments ad nauseum. It frustrates me that while so many people can acknowledge that rape is bad, and that rape victims have suffered an unspeakable crime, we’re so reluctant to condemn rapists since we don’t trust the source of the accusation. The empathy we feel towards rape victims doesn’t come across as truly genuine because we want them to prove that their suffering is real, and even when there is concrete proof of the crime such as in Steubenville, instead of extending our unwavering support to the victim, we go through the motions of “if she hadn’t been doing _____ this wouldn’t have happened” or worse, simply gain a voyeuristic pleasure in punishing the perpetrators, reveling in the fact that “well brought up boys with promising futures” lost the game of life. It disgusts me as a young woman, it disgusts me as a person, and most of all, it disgusts me that it doesn’t disgust people the way it disgusts me.

My friend asked me a while back what the bravest thing a guy I know had ever done, and my answer was a half-serious, “Me.” Don’t get me wrong, on some level I’m utterly a coward: I broke up with someone our one year anniversary because he told me loved me and I dragged him through the dirt for another year and a half until our relationship was unsalvageable;  I haven’t replied to a text for four months now that will eat me alive until I achieve a semblance of closure on it. In a twisted way, my blatant acknowledgement of my vulnerability and my weaknesses makes me braver than those who brush them to the side and those who externalize it. I’m not Hannah Horvath or April Ludgate or the character Taylor Swift plays in the “Blank Space” video, “Darling I’m a nightmare dressed like a daydream”, but in some way, my acceptance and embracing of “the girl in the dress who cried the whole way home” inside of me, to continue the Swift-isms, is a bravery of its own. The balance that has to be struck when writing about the wounded woman is between acknowledging the voyeurism associated with female pain but also realizing that no matter how reductive the image may seem, we must acknowledge the various needs and sufferings that yield pain and attack them at their cores instead of focusing on the unsavory ways they may be displayed. With regards to Taylor Swift, “Dear John” and the image of the girl in the dress, I can understand how the refrain “Don’t you think I was too young” may come across as petulant or cloying, but at the same time, that doesn’t invalidate the sheer nerve shown by a teenage Swift in calling out John Mayer by name as emotionally abusive and singing that song in front of millions since she’s absolutely right: 19 is too young, he should have known better, and it’s a testament to her own strength and growth that she held herself over him, fireworks over his sad empty town.

My favorite line from Jamison’s “The Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain” is “Keep bleeding but write to something beyond blood.” In some way I guess that’s my purpose in this essay because I want there to be record of the pain I’ve endured and moreover, I want it mean something.There are two kinds of pain, pain that you can grow from and that makes you a better person and pain that cripples you. Sometimes, I am bolstered by negative experiences and want to do better, whether academically or interpersonally, and sometimes I’m so run down that I can’t do anything but cry on the phone to my father asking him unintelligibly why I don’t deserve to be loved and at that point, I have to metaphorically walk away. Put myself back together, uncrumple the mess of papers I’ve allowed myself to become, accept that I won’t ever be the person I used to be but also allow myself to grow.

On some level, I think my personal experiences are universal and my take on them is objectively accurate but they also feel private and shameful because I still haven’t fully been able to cast off the sexist idea that a woman who believes her feelings are valid must be crazy and not living up to some imaginary Gestalt Whole. In reality, the self, both male and female, is contradictory and discordant, rife with sharp edges that cut anyone imprudent enough to probe it. I don’t think I’ll ever be in full control of myself because let’s be real – I’ve run on anxious death drive since the day I was born, but I’m coming to terms with the mortal coil I live by. It’s a work in progress.

She’s the Only Evidence of God I’ve Ever Seen

I’ve never considered myself a “not nice” girl. In fact, I never even considered nice as an obligation to femininity until my boyfriend when I was 13 years old told me I wasn’t very nice for a girl but he was okay with it because I was pretty. I’ve read a lot about likability politics in literature and I’ve observed people my entire life and done a lot of analysis about personality types but the fact remains: likability is a hugely gendered issue. The rule has been that when a man is unlikable, he’s deemed an antihero, showing the depths of his humanity and when a woman is unlikable, she’s an anathema. It’s something I’ve played with in my own constructions of identity, how far can I go in my snark, how much does my socio-economic status and my physical appearance give me the privilege to act like a white man instead of deferring to them, and it’s complicated. I was raised on Anna Karenina and Ellen Olenska and Becky Sharpe, and Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Scarlett O’Hara, women who aren’t likable and aren’t easy to love and anybody that said otherwise was lying but I related more to them than I ever did their “likable” counterparts. But today, I want to talk about teen girl books, in particular “Dare Me” and “The Fever” by Megan Abbott and “Cracked Up to Be” and “Some Girls Are” by Courtney Summers. I regard the young women in these four novels as in the same vein as my childhood literary heroines, sometimes mean and petty and cold and hyperemotional on varying intervals but afforded the depth of emotional range usually only granted to men. The most important lesson I want to bestow on girls as a 20 year old who just left adolescence is that  they are allowed to be human, as funny and brave and intelligent and sexy as they want to be and they are not obligated to be anything more or anything less than they are.

Both “Dare Me” and “The Fever” are written by Megan Abbott, who adapts noir tropes from the Golden Age of Film to teenage girls who are as hungry as the hard boiled antiheroes of the original films. Her books are about girls wanting validation in both masculine and feminine manners, from their friends and loved ones and most of all from themselves, because in some twisted way, they can’t love themselves unless they are first loved by others. “Dare Me” has that oft misunderstood line “There’s something dangerous about the boredom of teenage girls.” It’s no secret that I loathe the trope of the Reverse Lolita, the teenage strumpet that deserves to be abused or manipulated because she totally has the capacity to be so much worse than her abuser, not to mention the overt romanticization of Hades Persephone Narratives. (Sorry, but you really can’t reclaim a rape myth as subversive and empowering when somany real girls are being mistreated in such a manner to this day.) The thing is that these girls are made dangerous by that wanting but most of all to themselves and any other victims are simply caught in the crossfire. They aren’t sadistic or cartoonishly mean but their machinations are subtle, driven by ugly emotions and deep rooted insecurities that they often don’t even realize in themselves and that behavior is so realistic it’s terrifying.

“The Fever” is more fantastical than “Dare Me” because it uses natural symbolism to evoke the depths of female desire. I’m not solely referring to sexual desire but obviously, the expressions of sexuality represent the possibility of an emotional backlash there’s no coming back from, and that’s why the acknowledgement of that empty wanting that exists in so many young women is important. Personally, I never played it safe growing up no matter what image I tried so hard to convey; I’ve been told I’m subconsciously manipulative because I’ve had so much practice balancing what I have to risk to get what I want and whether the opportunity cost is worth the reward that it’s become second nature. Yet, I wasn’t ever told that bargaining with God or rather myself as God was normal, and I don’t think the level to which I acted was healthy, but the feelings which drove my behavior were as human as they come, and honestly, if I was given that validation growing up, I would have saved myself a good deal of actualization if I was actually as crazy as people said. Spoiler alert: I definitely was not.

On the other hand, “Cracked Up To Be” and “Some Girls Are” are about girls that aren’t exactly unlikable, or the sort of mythic that characterizes Megan Abbott’s protagonists and antagonists but are more grounded in their construction as well as their motivations and implications. I had this conversation with Courtney Summers on Twitter about Parker and Regina and I think it’s very interesting how people respond to the two girls. I think it’s telling we condemn Parker far more than Regina, genuine meanness versus a very valid and realistic response to trauma. Regina encouraged an eating disorder in another girl and was a direct catalyst to another girl’s suicide attempt, and those actions definitely don’t excuse Donnie for attempting to rape her or the abuse she endures from her former friends but like she’s told when she begs for forgiveness: “You’re not sorry you’re guilty. That’s why Liz didn’t forgive you. Because you just feel sorry for yourself.” I’ve noticed that as human beings, we obsess over suffering as redemption in a way that’s not conducive to true progress; we want people to be punished for their sins but we neglect to take the steps to ensure those sins aren’t committed again. Feeling annoyance and anger and resentment for how we are treated doesn’t mean we’re remotely sorry or guilty for what we’ve done and those we have hurt, either by intent or inadvertently. But, it must be noted that Regina is bluntly informed that she isn’t forgiven for her past actions while we bend over backward to excuse men who have committed crimes as having learned from their mistakes and truly changed their ways. Let’s talk about Sean Penn, who literally broke into Madonna’s house when he was married to her, tied her to a chair and physically and emotionally abused her for nine hours, hitting her with a baseball bat, until she managed to escape but who is lauded as a “good Liberal” for appropriately condemning the Iraq War and campaigning for marriage equality and awarded two Oscars in the 20 years since. The world isn’t fair and adulthood is coming to terms with this inequality and fighting the battle upright instead of becoming resigned to it.

There’s a quote by Catherynne M. Valente from “The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There” that I think is applicable when discussing forgiveness: “For there are two kinds of forgiveness in the world: the one you practice because everything really is all right, and what went before is mended. The other kind of forgiveness you practice because someone needs desperately to be forgiven, or because you need just as badly to forgive them, for a heart can grab hold of old wounds and go sour as milk over them.” One of the things I most hate about myself is how quick I am to forgive those that decidedly don’t deserve it and hold unreasonably strong grudges towards those I ought to forgive but who hurt me in a way that exposed my flaws and insecurities in ways that I wasn’t able to arrange as remotely positive aspects of my being. I almost instinctually hurt others when I see the possibility of being hurt and I have to actively stop myself from wondering who has and who hasn’t forgiven me because that sort of thinking is detrimental to my own psyche and doesn’t achieve closure. Another aspect of adulthood: accepting that things don’t have pretty ends a lot of the time and moving on without regressing to our past selves but also being willing to regress when need be. But personally, I forgave Regina for her actions not because of her suffering but because I believe she developed the empathy she previously lacked but I never even thought Parker had anything to forgive, perhaps because I resemble Parker far more than Regina. Parker wasn’t nice, but her ambition and reclusiveness aren’t things I see as terrible, and while Regina was more active in her awfulness, Parker was reactive and I found myself going: “Well if you didn’t go touch the fire, then you wouldn’t have gotten burned.”

Anyway, I’m biased because I’m a lot more Blair Waldorf than Katniss Everdene but I want you to read about teenage girls since humanity is complicated and these four novels express every ugly facet of it. And if we can accept and even laud it in men, we can stomach it in girls.

I’m Not Staying In My Play Pretend, Where the Fun Ain’t Got No End and Thank God For That

I don’t like being vulnerable, which is something you can probably glean about me within a very short period of time. Leslie Jamison wrote one of my favorite essays “A Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” the last essay in her collection of essays called “The Empathy Essays,” and she touches on a type of woman that’s become almost stereotypical in modern discourse, the “post wounded” woman. I’d recommend the whole article to everybody, and the whole collection to be quite honest, but the passage that most struck me on reading it was this one:

“These girls aren’t wounded so much as post-​wounded, and I see their sisters everywhere. They’re over it. I am not a melodramatic person. God help the woman who is. What I’ll call “post-​wounded” isn’t a shift in deep feeling (we understand these women still hurt) but a shift away from wounded affect: These women are aware that “woundedness” is overdone and overrated. They are wary of melodrama, so they stay numb or clever instead. Post-​wounded women make jokes about being wounded or get impatient with women who hurt too much. The post-​wounded woman conducts herself as if preempting certain accusations: Don’t cry too loud; don’t play victim. Don’t ask for pain meds you don’t need; don’t give those doctors another reason to doubt. Post-​wounded women fuck men who don’t love them and then they feel mildly sad about it, or just blasé about it; they refuse to hurt about it or to admit they hurt about it—​or else they are endlessly self-​aware about it, if they do allow themselves this hurting.”

I’m barely 20 years old this passage resonated with me more than it ought to because I’m just so very done with being hurt. I’m done with crying over silly things that don’t matter and profound things that do, I’m done rubbing salt into wounds that were rent a decade ago when I first came to this country, and I’m very done with being open and warm and nurturing towards others when I’m disinclined to believe people ever had anything resembling sympathy towards me.

It might have been why I started reading Sandra Cisneros again, because for all the pretenders, nobody does post wounded like Sandra Cisneros. I was forced to read “The House on Mango Street” as a freshman in high school and it exhausted me; I wrote my third quarter paper on Esperanza’s rape and since this was also the time I discovered Sylvia Plath, I ended up quoting Sylvia: “Being born a woman is an awful tragedy.” Sandra and Sylvia and Esperanza and all of them were what I was conditioned to loathe because I was raised in a world where the concrete semblance of science, technology, engineering and mathematics was prized over all; but what attracted me, even more than math which I’m admittedly fantastic at, was the ugliness of it, raw emotion and embarrassing feeling. The thing is, I’m still not inclined to express these sentiments directly, and I discuss it all in a detached, borderline clinical way. “Emotion is healthy!” “Feelings are natural” but god forbid, I ever tell somebody how I feel about them without covering it up with a splash of Latin and insulting them where it hurts the most in the process. Maybe that’s because I’ve made myself too guarded, and yet as someone who has the potential for deep emotional pain, I feel like I have to be.

With regards to Sandra Cisneros, in the last few weeks, I read “Woman Hollering Creek,” a collection of short stories, “Loose Woman,” a poetry anthology, and “Caramelo,” a novel. As far as form goes, I adored Cisneros’ poetry; I found it vicious and emotional in Bronte manner, while I saw The House on Mango Street and Caramelo as “Austen-esque” so to speak. And, I am about as far from a fan of Jane Eyre as can be (husband who locks up his mentally ill wife who’s a woman of color to be seen as the romantic hero no thanks) so when I say Bronte, I’m primarily referring to Wuthering Heights. It’s not to say one is more valid than the other, but as a rough estimate, the Austen sort of literature is what I’d discuss at tea with people my grandmother’s age, and what I feel comfortable saying I like in “good” company. Bronte works are what I turn to when I’m not inclined to be rational, and when I more resemble these women who we’re inclined to loathe, the wound walking out of the hospital, the wound that we’re giving up on. I would gossip with Jane Austen over skim peppermint mochas, and talk shit about girls who aren’t smart enough to rationalize their love affairs but I’d run out into the moors on five shots of Jack Daniels mixed into my Diet Coke (never regular) screaming my love for some broken emergency, and Emily Bronte would probably cheer me on.

My favorite lines in Ciseneros’ anthology are from “One Holy Night,” a story in Woman Hollering Creek, and the eponymous last poem in “Loose Woman,” and they’re both similar in meaning. “I am a woman without shame” and from the poem, “I am the woman of myth and bullshit/(True. I authored some of it.)/I built my little house of ill repute/Brick by brick. Labored/loved and masoned it.” To be quite honest, I regard the first as a life goal, and in my opinion, so should every one. It’s very tiresome to eternally be apologizing for aspects of our being we cannot control, for things that other people think are wrong with us, and we have to live with ourselves so we might as well revel in it. But to expand on that concept, we write our own fairytales; nobody else is responsible for the reputation we covet, our loves and our hates and the myth we become is in our control and we should make ourselves people that we are proud of. It’s the manifesto of the woman who’s post-wounded and aware of it; she’s saying “I have made my mistakes and commited sins if you want to call them that and they are a part of me.” To us, the goal is to make a joke of it, laugh about it, and the secret is that we all know it’s a joke, and we’re here for your wounds, even if everybody else is going to be fooled by your nonchalance. But perhaps I’m projecting.

I said at the beginning of this piece that I hate being vulnerable and I think people misunderstand my definition of vulnerability. I write about the literature I read and I respond to it in what may come across as overtly personal but full disclosure: this is the myth of myself I am comfortable with people telling. And when I say people, I mean my parents, my family, my old teachers, my boyfriend, my long list of ex-lovers who’ll tell you I’m insane. This brand of not possessing artifice is an artifice in itself; I claim that I’m an emotional being but all you see is a girl who writes as if she’s a doctor analyzing the concept of deep pain and you search for signs that it’s all real but they’re as murky as the ocean green and blue.

Maybe someday, I’ll be as brave as Sylvia Plath who wrote “At twenty I tried to die, to get back, back, back to you”, as doggedly determined as Elizabeth Grant to be the image of Lana del Rey, how you get that way, who covers up what very clearly is deep depression, suicidal tendencies and a chain of abusive relationships in a pretense of extreme Americana that so many of her fans miss, as Taylor Swift who called out John Mayer in “Dear John” to the ridicule of millions as that crazy ex-girlfriend who couldn’t deal with her boyfriend moving on. I’m tired of women who are brave enough to be that vulnerable in the public eye being scorned as making victims of themselves, which is nothing more than gaslighting.

Or maybe, I’ll find some sort of balance. I taste like nectar and salt, and pollen and stars and for all the bitterness I may hold, I still taste of hope, which I’m unreasonably proud of.

Can You Give Me the Sky?

As a rule, I’m disinclined to trust public opinion on things. I don’t read YouTube comments, I seldom go on tags for Tumblr and Twitter and I avoid Reddit like the plague because to put it simply, I don’t like it when my opinion is disagreed with and it often is. I fully ignore reviews for works of literature apart from those in official publications because it viscerally upsets me to see any piece or character I have an emotional connection to torn apart without restraint. But I made the mistake of checking out the Goodreads reviews for “White Oleander” by Janet Fitch.

It was chosen by Oprah Winfrey for her book club in 1999 and was the subject of a great deal of “coffee table” talk for the next few years for its controversial subject matter as well as the lucidity of its prose. Oleander is a toxic shrub that provides the catalyst for the plot of the novel, which is the coming of age tale of Astrid Magnassun who is shunted through a series of foster homes after her mother Ingrid murders her former lover Barry by smearing the surfaces in his apartment with a combination of Oleander sap and DMSO, an arthiritis drug. In short, the reviews for the novel praised Fitch’s writing style, although a large portion of them didn’t hesitate to label it as visibly “feminine,” (whatever that means) but entirely derided both Astrid and Ingrid as confusing, contradictory, unbelievable, and unlovable.

I’m not claiming that either Astrid or Ingrid are paragons of virtue but to claim that their actions don’t make sense indicates a profound misunderstanding of basic psychology and honestly, a lack of basic empathy. The paradox of human emotion is that sometimes, the rational explanation for an emotion is that there is no rational explanation. On occasion, there is no reason for an individual’s response to trauma, and there is a certain uniqueness in the construction of the human psyche. In this case, I’m responding to the claims that Astrid’s fixation on Ray, the middle aged man who she sleeps with as a 14 year old, is unnatural since she was also shot by Ray’s girlfriend Starr, her foster mother, and was bitten by a dog and had much worse things happen to her. Perhaps a 14 year old girl focuses on the parts of her life she believes she has a modicum of control over (although there is no way a girl that young can give consent to a grown man since she lacks the emotional maturity to be capable of it) instead of the parts that are so far out of her realm of comprehension she suppresses them. And in any case, to believe that children are to blame for the actions of adults (“She seduced him and he had no way to resist”) is disgusting.

Astrid was a hard character, all jagged edges that cut if you get too close to her, but it was a hardness that many teenagers possess and one that she wasn’t allowed to grow out of. Her mantra was survival and it’s admirable but also borderline terrifying the amount she was willing to sacrifice, her innocence, the prospect of love, money, whatever she had. I think I had a harder time connecting with Astrid than with Ingrid because I’m not as strong as Astrid and I’m not as unscrupolous. I have a deep rooted optimism that I can’t eviscerate the way Astrid does at such a young age because I was loved in a way that Astrid wasn’t. I believe in its existence because I still maintain that child’s logic “if my parents could love me this much, and do this much for me, that means I’m lovable and I obviously deserve to be loved romantically as well.” At one point, Astrid gives a boy a blowjob for a gram of weed which was the only place I stopped and put the novel down; it disgusted me so much and made me sad because at the end of the day, it feels like Astrid’s pragmatism regarding the selling of her body for goods is the fate all women are doomed to. Whether it’s the cold hearted near prostitution of Olivia, Astrid’s erstwhile neighbor or the more nuanced manipulations many girls perform on a daily basis, it feels like we’re just bodies and bones, buried at adolescence and never returned unless we dig ourselves out and render ourselves vulnerable to those who would gladly raze us to the ground.

Ingrid on the other hand, Ingrid made me laugh first of all, and I think Ingrid reminded me of what my mother would have been like with Ingrid’s upbringing. Ingrid rejects love the way Astrid hungers for it because when she allows herself to succumb to it, it destroys her to the point she kills a man who didn’t love her back the way she wanted to be loved which is why she was so wary of it in the first place.

“Isn’t it funny. I’m enjoying my hatred so much more than I ever enjoyed love. Love is temperamental. Tiring. It makes demands. Love uses you. Changes its mind.” Her eyes were closed. Beads of water decorated her face, and her hair spread out from her head like jellyfish tendrils. “But hatred, now. That’s something you can use. Sculpt. Wield. It’s hard or soft, however you need it. Love humiliates you, but hatred cradles you. It’s so soothing. I feel infinitely better now.”

“I’m glad,” I said. I was glad she felt happier, but I didn’t like the kind of happiness it was, I didn’t believe in it, I believed it would crack open sooner or later and terrible things would come flying out.”

The prose of this novel is poetic and it’s smooth in a way that renders it still relevant decades after its publication but it’s also sharp when you least expect it such that it made me pause to collect my thoughts. The strange dichotomy between Ingrid’s out loud discourse and the truth behind it which Astrid states in her monologue intrigued me because my instant response to any form of turmoil is to pretend nothing is wrong, almost to Ingrid levels, even if my inner Astrid knows the truth.

And of course, Ingrid wasn’t a good mother, and she wasn’t a good person even if she did love Astrid in her own way. I loathe parents who abandon their children and parents who don’t love their children properly and Ingrid checks off both those boxes but I didn’t hate Ingrid because I understood why she was the way she was. But, my take on parenting is, if you have a child, you are committing to that child. Parents explain the universe to their children and more often than not, the universe has patterns which they’re responsible for teaching them; if there is no consistency in a child’s upbringing, you can’t blame the kid when they lash out because they deserve better.

In short, White Oleander deserves to be read, and it deserves to be understood because it speaks to the part of human nature that craves understanding more than love and has come to the realization that they’re not the same thing. The most dangerous thing is to abandon who we are for other people to love us because they still may leave us for simplicity, because they realize the night magic has been consumed. And don’t fall in love with another magician because the magic doesn’t work when you know where it comes from and if your lover can’t give you the sky, then don’t stay, because they can still cause a natural disaster inside of you, eviscerating everything in its path.