I am writing this addressed to you as many voices are rising and being part of this “conversation”. It’s a conversation among people, mostly women, women of colour, but not you. You are not in it. I have not been either because I am still struggling. The anger towards you is so warranted, and I hope you sit in that and see where it takes you. After Zinzi Clemmons went public with your sexual misconduct towards her, I have had this urge to tell a story because that’s what we writers do, no?
I want to tell you about my mother. My mother is the biggest fangirl know. I have photos of her as a teenager in Hong Kong with socks printed with the Beatles’ faces on them. As early as I can remember, my mom would read the Hong Kong celebrity magazines with me. We would look at the photographs of those beautiful men and women in our sad little house in the suburbs in Canada where our people were not considered beautiful. She would read the articles and excitedly tell me their latest news. Everybody had a story. So and so was just a poor girl from the housing estates, but she won Miss Hong Kong and now she’s dating the son of the construction tycoon! This canto-pop star went to Hong Kong as refugees with his mother from the mainland. They survived through her hard work selling hand bags in the market stalls in Mongkok. When he got his first gold record, he bought her a house on the peak. That’s how much he loved his mother!
These were the kinds of narratives she wove, and she was most loyal to the ones she felt most deserving, the hardest working, ones that were most “good”. I loved these stories, and I learned to be a fangirl from her. We were devoted to our stars, especially the men. The sadder their story, the more loyal we were. We spent hours talking about them, and discussed seriously if so-and-so was good enough to be their wives. I used to think I was just like my mom. Talking about movie stars and popular singers with her are some of my most cherished moments. I love the brightness in my mother’s eyes and her animated voice while storytelling about our favourite celebrities. I went on to love John Travolta after seeing him in Grease. I had a poster of him above my bed and prayed to God every night that I would have the chance to meet him in real life one day. I felt the same about Wayne Gretzky. I was just your everyday suburban Chinese girl in the diaspora of the 70s and 80s.
I began to identify as a feminist in my late teens. I started seeing things differently than my mom and started to challenge her over her obsession with these pretty boys. I pointed out that most of them were probably players with a good front. They probably left a wake of women behind them. She pushed back and told me to leave her alone. She was upset by my attempts to poke holes in the plot lines of her stories. It was a bigger deal than maybe she or I knew. I reeled back my strident gendered politics and regretted it immediately. This was her fun, her fantasy. My mother did not have enough happiness in her life, as far as I was concerned and if she derived so much joy through it, who was I to say it was wrong?
And anyway, these faraway men were unlikely to hurt her, right? Right?
I think I get it now. The men in her family have not been stellar. My multi-talented, smart, beautiful mother has never been loved enough or adequately by a man, and it is no fault of her own that they never had the capacity. I will not tell my mother’s story here because it isn’t mine to tell, but I understand now, her need to love those celebrities. Her devotion to them grew in proportion to the disappointment in her own life. But the insistence in loving men is the thread, see? The continual search for the holy grail - the exceptional man who gets it, loves women, lives clearly an ethical and reciprocal engagement with the world with all its fucked up conditions. (Oh wait. That's not my mom. That's me.)
Even now, when I feel too distant from my mother, I ask her the latest gossip on her favourite celebrity crush, just so I can watch her be happy. Her eyes get really big and shiny and her voice takes on that staccato quality of Cantonese storytelling that I love so much. I observe my funny, beautiful mother.
Here’s the hard part. I adored you, Junot. I was your fangirl. Your words gave me oxygen and because of that, I was loyal. I know there have been posts on social media that declare if anyone had read any of your books, they would not be surprised that you were misogynist. Your characters were misogynist, but I saw that they were also vulnerable. I could have compassion for them because I was experiencing them from the distant relationship of being a reader. I felt their pain too, their entrapment in toxic masculinity. Perhaps within the text, I saw you struggle with your own?
I am conditioned to love men, especially men of colour. I know what racism and white supremacy have done to them. I see the scars even if they deny them. I love them, so that they can better love themselves. So, unwittingly, I have allowed myself to be a vehicle to their own transcendence and not mine. I see it’s a lot more entrenched in me than I even knew. I still love men, and have men who love me. So what to do? Is this the only way I know how? I am afraid of that.
I even named my first novel as an homage to yours, The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. When you visited Toronto, I was there and so excited. I felt I owed you such a debt of gratitude that even though I was nervous and actually quite shy, I was the first at the mic for Q and A. I publicly declared my deep respect and admiration for you and gifted you a copy of my novel, The Wondrous Woo. Am I, was I, that terribly naive? I feel foolish, like some teenager except I’m not. I’m a grown ass woman who have thrown herself in various fires and burned but survived. Maybe I am too old school. Maybe younger women of colour would judge me for my perceived floundering and romanticism, as I've judged my mother. Maybe, maybe… It’s hard not to internalize that stuff right now.
A friend called me “tender-hearted” recently, and I really struggled with that. I thought maybe she meant I was a wimp. Too soft. Too much. She didn’t mean that at all. She meant that I had a capacity to feel and understand and have compassion. I should be proud of that trait, but it’s hard to be so complicated when the world just wants 140 characters. I don't have the most astute political commentary. I am just here treading water feeling all the feels, thinking all the thoughts, deeply stirred with everything I know.
I am tender-hearted, but I am not adverse to throwing down and fighting when I need to. I am not a natural born fighter. I had to learn to do it for my own survival. Negotiating troubling terrain, sidestepping danger, confronting enemies when my or people I care about had their safety compromised. I am tender-hearted because I can’t bear injustice and the suffering it brings. I fight because I am tender-hearted. It is royally fucked up, and it fucks me up, truth be told. I want to forgive but I can’t. I want to heal, but I have to leave things and people behind. I want to believe men, but I believe women. More often than not these days, I work with things that are irreconcilable. You are irreconcilable.
Sometimes I believe that my women ancestors haunt me. I know intuitively that I come from a line of women who have regrets, have been told their place and had to stay there. I come from women who were greater than what others thought them to be. I feel like I am a sum of this pain, but I am also the culmination of their beauty. I sometimes feel like I am racing against time, so I can live all their lives in this one.
Do you know that I don’t give myself enough credit. I never have. Friends who know me and love me best tell me to take the time and be proud of myself. I have written 2 books of fiction. I earned a PhD. I am raising a brilliant child. I am kind. I am brave. I have done my work, and yet I do not rise up to my tallest height. After all these years of being politicized, trying not to fall into traps, I find myself reeling that I placed this faith in someone that I really didn’t know. That’s a betrayal of sorts because I thought you were FOR me, and now, I see you couldn’t possibly have been for me if you were against them.
So here is the thing that I realize: I took what I needed from your words and did it myself. I DID IT. I did what I had always done – taken the scraps, the crumbs, the small junky pieces and shaped them into beautiful things. I will not miss out on beauty in my life. I will not allow myself to be diminished. I will continue to write myself outside the boundaries and conditions of this time and place. I will not be Madame Butterfly or Miss Saigon or the countless Chinese films I have seen of sacrificial women. I will have joy and power too. I insist on it.
When my mother tells me next time about her celebrity crushes, I will hold her. I will take her in my arms without speaking and hope she understands.
As for you, Junot. I hope you find your way. As a childhood survivor of abuse, I can have compassion for your pain. As someone who has hurt others who loved me from that place of trauma, I still have space for that hope for you. But the much bigger space will be for those women you hurt and to whom you have not yet apologized or made amends. I don’t think I need you anymore. Like all epic love stories, it is saddest to leave understanding that I don’t need you and maybe, I never really did.
I had a strange dream about my upcoming book launch. My friend, Jenny asks me to go for a drink before the event, and i say sure. Jenny and I are on a motorcycle with a sidecar. She puts me in the sidecar. Like picks me up and plops me down. We ride around what looks like Tokyo and have all these drinks in these tiny bars. Tiny drinks, but so many tiny bars. We get to Lula Lounge but it looks like a Vegas showroom with those plushy velvet half-moon lounge tables. There is a martial arts conference happening. It is all very pepto bismal pink and people are high-kicking everywhere. They say they will get out and let me in, but it goes on and on. Then, I am frantic because I realize I have lost all my Fenty make-up. My hair is also wind-blown from being in the side-car. It is standing straight up on one side and flat on the other. Jenny is nowhere to be found and can't help me in this beauty crisis. Someone grabs me and pushes me on stage, but none of my people are in the audience, only the kung fu folks. I do not know if I should be showing my wing chun moves or reading. Confusion. That's all I remember.
(ummm. no, i'm not nervous about it all. not at all.... )
Coming at you.