Author: barkakatil

Thoughts on the Tensorate Series

BTOHSo my partner recently handed me the Tensorate series by Jy Yang and…Wow! That was a great decision.

The Tensorate Series consists of 4 novellas written by Jy Yang. They follow a loose timeline around the lives of the Sanao twins, Akeha and Mokoya. I love the world Yang created as a backdrop to these stories. Yang lives in Singapore, and their surroundings seem to influence their writing. Throughout each novel, we see a country, the Protectorate, that is an actual melting pot: people of various Asian backgrounds, religions, classes, all roiling together in the same stew, rubbing up against one another. There is still stratification in the Protectorate–for instance, the Kuanjin ethnicity seems to be privileged over Kebangilans and Gauris–but there is also an awareness of this in Yang’s writing that I rarely see in fictional novels. If anything, they bring the differences to the forefront to be commented upon. Characters are not shy about noticing one another’s differences and are not frowned upon for bringing it up as much as people would be in the United States. I enjoy hearing the Asian-ness in the writing.

While Yang’s writing style remains impressive throughout the series, I think the soft spot in my heart is always for Akeha’s story, The Black Tides of Heaven. This title comes from a saying that Akeha’s lover says, “The black tides of heaven director the courses of human lives…but as with all waters, one can swim against the tide” (166). Yongcheow says this to Akeha when Akeha claims his mother believes he is a mistake. Akeha is a lovable brute. Perhaps this says more about me than him, but I relate to him greatly. As a child, he is dauntless, reckless. It is interesting to watch him navigate his bond with his sister when they are children. At the time, both Mokoya and Akeha are non-binary. They live in a society that confirms gender later in life than at birth. Mokoya is clearly a controlling factor in Akeha’s life. He seems to put her wishes and desires before his own. I actually felt proud of him when he yanked the reins of his life out of Mokoya’s hands. He confirms his gender as a man (an unexpected move–none of the Protector’s other children were men), and promptly leaves the Protectorate for 18 years. To, you know, grow up and shit.

My heart breaks for him when he leaves Thennjay. Sadly, I don’t have much sympathy for Mokoya in the first book. She seems spoiled and a little ungrateful. Maybe also, it’s queerer for Thennjay to love Akeha than to love Mokoya. (I have no biases here at all, obviously). He gets just one kiss for all those feelings he has. Then he wanders into the woods to become Yongcheow’s honey and a Machinist. All in all, I think Akeha does pretty well for himself. I love a good rebellion, and it seems like a good choice to put our endearingly grumpy murderer twin in its waiting hands.

My heart breaks for him again when his niece dies. The irony of the century is when Akeha finally comes home after she dies. I remember reading that part and thinking, dammit Keha, couldn’t you have stopped being a butt-hurt little shit some time before that moment? There is something about stories that are both beautiful and sad, though. They are always the most memorable to me.

The other three novellas take us on a roller coaster of narrative styles. The Red Threads of Fortune tell us about Mokoya’s perspective after her accident. I like that Yang chose to write her in that way. She becomes a much more approachable character as a slightly broken, grieving mother than as The Prophet Of The Protectorate Married To The Head Abbot. Things I like about this book: Rider does really cool things with the slack. Mokoya fights with Thennjay Sometimes. Good to know. Mokoya and Akeha love each other. Yay. There’s a background thread of how the Machinists, the Monastery, and the Protectorate are kind of all at odds with each other, but it gets a little lost. The plot that I was most interested in was the one of intrigue and betrayal between Rider and Mokoya, and what they find out about Wanbeng.

In the third book, The Descent of Monsters, Yang takes a turn into darker secrets of the Protectorate. Of the four novellas, I thought this was the darkest one. I don’t know if it was meant to be hokey, but there are times when Chuwan Sariman is so oppositional to authority that it’s over-the-top. Granted, she does seem justified. The authorities are kind of gross in this book. They seem totally cool with sweeping the deaths of several people under the rug, not to mention the torture and abuse of several children. Maybe this was one of those Star Wars things: make really hard political themes easier to swallow with goofy and lovable main characters. The narrative style was also great, but presents a few pacing problems. For example, since we gain information through reports, interviews, and journal entries, the big reveal about the prophet-children does not feel as big as it possibly could have been. We only really know it is true at the very end. We spend a lot of time wandering around the lab, but some of it is repetitive. This is fair, since a number of the characters experience the same crime scene, but perhaps it could have been done just once–in Rider’s journal, for example–and the reader would get a feel for why covering up what happened at the lab is so horrific.

Lastly, The Ascent to Godhood takes us on a more intimate, sentimental journey. In this novella, we learn about Lady Han’s relationship with the Protector. After reading this book, my thoughts were that the Protectorate has seen some shit! Also, the Protector’s family is a riot. I’m not sure why, but I felt like pacing was again slightly off. Granted, it is a drunken monologue by Lady Han. Perhaps questionable pacing is the point. I feel the story could be improved if pacing was done more intentionally. For example, if Lady Han kept going back and forth in time, then the lurches might make sense. Again, Yang seems to skip over the parts that are truly revealing. A lot of groundwork was laid for Hemana’s betrayal of Hekate, but there didn’t seem to be as much for Hekate’s betrayal of Han. The reason is there and justified, but it comes as a small revelation, followed swiftly by the arrival of Xiuqing and Han’s escape. The end is actually more interesting to me than the beginning–and in other stories about rebellion leaders, such as Lawrence of Arabia or even The Empire Strikes Back, we get to see more of a before-and-after turning point that makes a rebellion leader. Then again, a novella is a rather different art form than a feature-length film. Perhaps the beginning–Lady Han and Hekate as young women–was all Yang wanted to get across.

In short, Yang has done some stunning work with this series. There are deep insights about gender, resistance, and being human embedded in each novella, and Yang does a great job of not hitting you over the head with some tired message. The characters in the series experience development and honest emotions like grief, fear, resentment, jealousy, and triumph. They also get to have secrets, which I feel makes them even more human and engaging. I deeply appreciate the world Yang created. Even with magic, it’s a reflection of a world that feels more real to me than that of most other books.

Thoughts on Wordslut

wordslutSo I recently read Wordslut (2019) by Amanda Montell. I have mixed feelings about the book. On the one hand, the writing is very good. Montell has a great sense of humor and keeps my attention throughout the entire book. This is an impressive feat–my attention span is pretty short and my next blog post would have been 6 months from now if it had not been interesting. But after reading through the whole thing, I think it also has some glaring shortcomings.

I do appreciate that Montell is a Millenial who really has her generation’s back. It’s refreshing to find a non-fiction, academic book that is written by someone who was born after 1985. It is rare for someone that young to write non-fiction that is significant enough that it’s on the New Non-Fiction shelf in the library. Montell’s tone is prosaic, which I think is a strength; she really isn’t trying to impress academia by showing how much linguistics jargon she knows. Her writing is accessible, and that’s really fucking important. It can reach a wider audience because it is not trying to be a textbook. In addition, she is very affirming of young women (111), queers (229) and Black folks (95) and how they all use language. Indeed, the claim could be made that these are the people who invent new language all the time. This is a notable quality–all of these populations have a significant impact on our country. Just look at how much Democrats start crying when they don’t show up to vote.

One of the more important points made is that men and women fundamentally use language differently. Men mostly seem to use it to put forth ideas, or request or exchange information. Women seem to use it for SO much more. Women use language to create trust, to enforce relationships, to reach consensus, and to navigate a myriad of fluctuating social dynamics (125). On a sarcastic note, this makes me wonder why we allow men to speak at all. Their use of language is so limited. Though I also realize, this is probably what we condition both genders to do. Women have access to the fullness and richness of language, while men are encouraged to eschew it. This would account for why women, and not men, are adept at communicating feelings. To me, this is sad. We systematically set men up to fail at the things that bring people closer together. Their violence betrays the isolation society conditions them into.

One of the shortcomings of Wordslut is that it is so English-centric. Montell does use examples from other languages to explain certain things about English, like how people who speak Yoruba explain siblings (143) or how in the Native language Kwak’wala, you can’t pronounce certain words without vocal fry (117). But much of the book focuses on English-speaking media and how non-mobile, older, rural men (NORMs) (127) treat young (white?) women. I feel like the feminism of the book could have really been strengthened if there was any information in it about folks who are bilingual, multilingual or people for whom English is a second language. How do those populations conceptualize gender and sex using the English language? In what ways are their accents and butcherings of English actually radical? I realize that since linguistics is still so young a field, this information might not exist yet. But diluting the whiteness of any non-fiction work is definitely something I encourage by any means possible, and it feels like it could have been possible in this case.

I also feel like a weakness of the book is that it does not talk about how English has been a colonizing force in the world. What does colonization have to do with feminism, you say? Well, it played a huge role in subjugating women, frequently forcing them to become even more objectified since they were able to give birth and thereby produce a labor force. Colonizers like their labor forces because their lazy asses don’t like doing work themselves. What contributions have those years of colonization (and it’s like, a good 500 years) had on the language? We know language changes in as short a time as 50 years. Surely this process has affected the English language, the language spoken by what was once one of the largest colonizing nations on the planet? Yet nothing is said on this subject.

All in all, Wordslut is a fun book that scratches the surface of what feminism in the English language could look like. However, I find the premise on which it is written to be a little naive. The truth of becoming a gender-equal society requires looking at the ugly history of what English has been used for. Should the dominant language of the world be one that came to dominate through unparalleled violence? Should we expect we will gain gender equality by continuing to speak this language? Sure, these were not the questions Montell set out to answer. But in the world right now, where the governments of large and powerful populations are leaning far enough to the right to be called fascist, can we afford to ignore these truths? Can we afford to think that we should focus only on our own (very wealthy and very powerful) country? I think the spirit of optimism is important to carry out our hopes for a better world, but not without looking critically at the English language.

Thoughts on 9 1/2 Weeks

9.5 weeksWow, so I watched 9 1/2 Weeks (1986) yesterday after this friend suggested it. Sometimes I question this person’s sense of normal, so I was hesitant to watch the movie at first. The description on Google contains some hints of kink and that alone puts me on edge. But I found the movie easily enough on Netflix and I had nothing to do on a Tuesday night, so I figured why not?

The movie stars Mickey Rourke as John, a Wall Street trader, and Kim Basinger as Elizabeth, an art gallery assistant. It is set in the 80’s. Admittedly, I kinda both hate and love the 80’s. I hate that nearly every male protag of that era is a white Wall Street guy. I also hate that it is around the time when being worryingly skinny becomes quite stylish for women. In all the scenes where Elizabeth is in her underwear, you can totally see her hip bones. Basinger wears preteen-sized panties in which my South Asian thighs would probably tear a hole. But also, it’s a great decade for fashion. Basinger is often dressed to the nines in lacy tops, translucent camis, flowy skirts, garter straps, high heels, lipstick, heavy gray eye shadow, and heavy dark eye liner. Then on top of that, she’ll wear a giant shaggy man-sized coat, or something with shoulder pads the size of the Empire State Building. It’s fantastic. In one scene, she’s literally in men’s clothes. I love the androgyny, and also the extreme dissonance of masculine and feminine aesthetic in the same outfit.

I also love the music choices in this crazy movie. The brilliance of using a Eurythmics song, a band that conjures images of disillusionment about love, to a scene where Elizabeth is masturbating. I think the opening song is “I do What I Do” by John Taylor–another great choice. Those haunting questions–“Do I touch the way you want to be touched? Have you heard the words you wanted to hear?” And I think “Bread and Butter” for a kinky food scene was really funny.

I love the gorgeous long scenes that focus on the female lead. The masturbation scene comes to mind (holy shit, the fact that they put a masturbation scene in this movie. A person with a female body giving herself pleasure in major motion picture?! Even by 2019 standards, that is groundbreaking). I really liked the dance scene, too.  Basinger is fantastic in this sexy dance number. She isn’t touching Rourke at all–in fact, while you can tell she’s doing this for him, she also seems to be enjoying herself, doing something that she thinks is funny. It’s as much about her. In fact, if we pretend he isn’t watching, Basinger almost just looks like she’s had slightly too much to drink and is letting loose for a bit. It’s so much less contrived than music videos of this decade, and the focus is not on women giving pleasure to men. To me, it’s more about how a woman chooses what she wants to do with her body–if she wants a man to enjoy it, that’s her choice. If she wants to show it to the whole world, that’s also her choice. But this other human doesn’t have a say in what she does with her body. In fact, John seems to derive enjoyment because Elizabeth is doing what she wants.

I actually thought the scene where Basinger is dressed as a man is very radical. John buys Elizabeth men’s clothes and “suits” her up so she can see what it’s like to be a man for a night. He also kisses her openly while she is still wearing a fake mustache. John doesn’t seem to give a fuck about the fact that Elizabeth passes for a man in this moment. In addition, when they are walking home, two men attack them because they believe they are “faggots”. In the fight scene that ensues, Elizabeth gets them to back off by picking up one of the attackers knives and, I kid you not, poking the other attacker in the ass with it. They run off screaming. In my experience, women rarely get to have a proper fight in an action movie, let alone a romance movie. This one was humorous, but effective.

I would argue the movie does not focus solely on sex, either, though it is a romantic drama. There are no sex scenes. There are intensely sensual moments. Rourke portrays a man who enjoys deeply physical experiences. There is a scene where John asks Elizabeth to stay in his house, and when he comes home to find she has been snooping in his things, he says he is going to spank her. She becomes enraged, and they have sex. I know in this decade, people would argue about whether or not that scene was a rape scene. My theory is that John is trying to get Elizabeth mad on purpose. He wants that heightened state because the sex is more intense that way. I’m not sure I’d say the ends justify means in this case–how do you consent to being made to feel angry for sex? Is John showing that he cares for Elizabeth in that moment, or is it a selfish act? I actually really appreciate older movies for including scenes like that. It shows that the rules for consent are not as black and white as contemporary academics want them to be, and that there is way more to discuss than the modern thinkpiece might suggest.

There are moments in which John still comes off as a little creepy–like that moment when they first meet and he’s just staring at Elizabeth while he’s right next to her. But I also think it is radical that he usually names what he is going to do before he does it. This allows Elizabeth to express when she is uncomfortable and she can leave the situation. For example, when he brings her to his apartment for the first time, John makes a comment about how she is taking a risk because she doesn’t know what he will do. Elizabeth realizes her discomfort and says she wants to go home. In another scene, he blindfolds her before rubbing a cube of ice on her body. Elizabeth gets kind of a “warning” of what’s to come–he shakes the glass filled with ice before he begins. I haven’t seen many other movies about kink (I’ve heard a little too much about how 50 Shades of Gray is an insult to human intelligence to want to see it), so I don’t have much to compare this to. But I will say, this is more communication than I see happening in the average post-2000s rom-com. Those sex scenes usually go like this: lots of kissing, suddenly the protags are having sex. There is no build-up to the moment. I like that Adrian Lyne really took a lot of time to lead up to a sex-related moment. It is as if foreplay is the climax of the movie.

The second John fails to provide adequate information, Elizabeth decides to end the relationship. The scene where John attempts to add a prostitute to their sexual encounters sends Elizabeth into a jealous rage. She leaves John a few days later, claiming they both knew neither of them would stop seeing the other unless one of them explicitly said to do so. I think that’s a profound thing to propose. It is a reference to something Elizabeth tells her friend, Molly, earlier in the movie. She says that usually, you can tell what will end a relationship, and you store it in the back of your mind until it resurfaces one day, and you cannot pretend you are happy any more. She says she cannot figure out how her relationship with John will end. Molly suggests that perhaps it is true love in this case.

I would disagree with Molly. I think the fact that women will so frequently put up with people who they know they don’t want is because society sets them up to think this is the only way they will be happy. The world gives women messages about how they must accept whatever man floats their way because apparently, a woman is most valuable when she is kind to men, regardless of how horrible and selfish the man is. Having men look at you is the pinnacle of being a woman. But perhaps if you can truly say no, if you can walk away and not encounter some kind of social backlash, this indicates you are actually on equal terms with the other person. Maybe that is why it is a strange feeling to Elizabeth–she feels she is on equal terms with John. She is not choosing to be with him out of pity or fear or boredom. She genuinely wants to be with him. Thus when she leaves, it is not because she has been pretending to be happy the whole time. She was happy, and he crossed her boundaries too many times. It was an honest end to a relationship.

Thoughts on Exit West

exit westI recently finished reading Exit West by Mohsin Hamid. Like the meme about toilet paper, this book only picks up the pace right toward the end. However, I think it is a beautiful novel. I like how it starts in the microcosm of a couple falling in love in a city, and eventually gets to the macrocosm of two whole lives lived in the aftermath of a war. Though the novel is about migration, I think Hamid’s most powerful messages are actually about human relationships and how closely people are connected in spite of violence.

I actually find Hamid’s tone to be surprisingly similar to that of Suzanne Collins in The Hunger Games series–very even-keeled, though he is talking about heavy subjects. Perhaps that is the point. To dramatize violence is naive; it is so much a part of people’s lives everywhere in the world. Only in the Western world do we believe the lies we are told about how safe we are.

Against this backdrop, the kernels of truth Hamid offers are especially poignant. The way he talks about how Saeed and Nadia move from one country to another borrows somewhat from magical realism. We do not actually know how they get from one place to another–the two protagonists are said to go through “doors” (p.83) that take them from one place to another. The sinister implications are that, in the modern world, where borders are heavily policed, poor and desperate people will take huge risks to travel, and to ultimately survive. In fact, the novel could be arguing that migration is necessary. Lack of resources or lack of security forces people to take whatever route necessary to leave a country, often leading to massive, technically illegal migrations of people. I think here, Hamid begs the question of why we need to police borders with such fervor. What are we really “keeping out”? What does it say of our humanity that we would not allow other human beings to just live peaceful lives? Was there not a point in precolonial history when migration and exchange helped humanity thrive?

I’m intrigued as well by Hamid’s decision to intersperse throughout the novel anecdotes that at first seem to have nothing to do with the plot, but one realizes are like trail stones on the path that Saeed and Nadia travel. The anecdotes in the beginning are terrifying and quite violent–like the one about the Japanese man who is incensed to find Philipina women walking in his territory (I cannot remember the page for this). And then after a while, the stories become softer, with more connection among the characters. Perhaps my favorite is about a Dutch man and a Brazilian man who at first have not much to say to each other, but eventually fall in love (p.175).

The protagonists travel from their city–which sounds like it could be somewhere in the Middle East or North Africa–to Mykonos and London, and finally end their journey in Marin, a suburb of San Francisco. While they travel, their relationship to each other changes from that of two young lovers to…something else. And perhaps that is the more interesting transition than their physical journey. While they migrate, they get to know each other intimately, but the romance declines. They sometimes experience the annoyance of two people who are close out of necessity, but they do not hate each other.

Eventually, Nadia and Saeed part ways (p.220), which seemed inevitable from the start. They have wildly different personalities, in some parts truly only getting along because they have to. Hamid comments on what we change about ourselves when we move to other places because of culture, because of necessity, or just because we finally can. Though she does not come to terms with her queerness until near the end of the novel, Nadia may always have been attracted to women. She just had never lived in a place where it was socially acceptable to admit. She claims she wears a robe so men won’t fuck with her (p. 16). Of the two, she is better conditioned for survival after living alone for a long while before migrating and navigating without the support of her family. In contrast, Saeed is like a pampered mama’s boy at the beginning of the novel (p.9). He lives in a comfortable middle class home with both his parents. As the novel progresses, he learns to understand life from more perspectives than his own. Often, it is Nadia who points out these perspectives to him, like she does when they talk about the differences between migrants to England and to their home country (p.162).

I like the implications about faith and humanity that Hamid makes. In the novel, Saeed never loses faith, though his relationship with religion changes. Near the end, he prays “as a gesture for what had gone and would go and could be loved in no other way…he touched a feeling that we all lose our parents…and we too will be lost by those who come after us and love us, and this loss unites humanity…” (p.202). It reminds me of Antonio, of how strongly I still remember him. And of my grandfather and how the family I have that is part of my generation is at peace with the fact that he is dying because he was already so old when we came into the world, but my mom and her siblings are maybe less accepting because he was not old when they were born, and for so long he was not old. And that for them it is so hard to accept that they won’t even look at the reality that one day, Koka will leave us because that is the natural way of things. They don’t accept yet that we will be okay, we are still here for each other. And I will experience losing all of them as well. And one day, hopefully a very long time from now, other people will experience losing me.

I think what I like best is the very last sentence of the novel–that they do not know if that evening will come. I like that it leaves the door open for possibility, and that there is this hope that something good, something beautiful and pleasing, is on its way, perhaps. It might take its time coming to us, and maybe we have to get through hardship on the way to it, but it is there, waiting.

Visiting the Homeland

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Snowfall at Holyoke Community College

I am at work right now, and one of my naughtiest students is trying to cheat on a game again. She always tries this with every game. She is a cute little girl. Somebody does her hair very nicely every day. She’s gonna be a little heartbreaker when she grows up.

This has been a semester, y’all. I have never in the history of my life had a semester like this. I’m exhausted.

The people at Holyoke Community College are charming. Absolutely charming. They are so sweet and kind and just nothing at all like the people at any other college I have ever been to. Every conversation I start with an 18-year-old boy ends with me actually wanting to be friends with him. The professors are so adorable. Perhaps I was just lucky and ended up with the most adorable ones. Everything my math professor does makes me fall more in love with him. He draws beautiful things. He says beautiful things. Even the way he makes fun of us seems beautiful.

I love how easy it is for them to show their love for me, whether or not they are aware of it. Without hesitation, people will ask me if I’m free to hang out, or to get dinner. They tell me they know how smart I am. They notice when I’m not there. They ask me if I need help. I feel attractive and good and appreciated.

I wish I could always remember these things about myself. Because heading into this holiday season, I am once again doing something emotionally exhausting.

This year over the holidays, I am going to India to visit my grandparents. My grandfather has dementia that has progressed quite far. I have not seen him in 4 years, but he has had dementia now for my last few visits to India. I remember when I went alone at the age of 12, he was just starting to forget things. He couldn’t remember when his birthday was. Slowly, the number of things he’s forgetting is increasing. I remember once when I was in college or maybe after I had graduated, he was asking for me on the phone. He said he wanted to hear his first grandchild. I think that’s the reason why he knows I exist. I was there before the memory loss.

I’m supposed to stay with my mother’s family, a group of people who are not good at showing their love. Or perhaps more accurately, they can, but you have to know what you’re looking for.

My mom says that my grandfather was a very strict man with his three children. He was the one who enforced discipline. His children were scared of him. But I never experienced that side of him. By the time I was born, he was retired. I first visited him when I was 11 months old. I learned to walk in front of him. He visited me in Florida when I had grown a little older. I was 3 or 4 years old. My brother had been born by then. He liked playing ball with me. He would bounce a beach ball off his head for me to catch, like a soccer player. He gave me a little red stuffed rabbit. I still have it in one of my bureaus.

He liked explaining things to me when I was younger. I remember we used to take walks around the garden and he would show me different flowers and fruits and butterflies.

My brother is very hesitant to go. He’s anxious about how seeing Koka will affect my mom. He is already trying to be detached. I have every intention of treating that man like my grandfather. That is who he is.

I just wish my other relatives could remember I want connection with him, too. I know they will clamor, create lots of noise because that is what anxious people do in my family. They are not the only ones who lose him. When he’s gone, I lose him, too.

I try to remain optimistic about how this trip will go. I hope I will be able to take lots of photos and videos of good times because that’s how I want Koka’s last years of life to go, with lots of fun and laughter. These are some of the last years, though. I try to share that with the people who can hold it with me, so that I can hold some of my family’s feelings even if they can’t do the same for me.

Re-Evaluation of a Memory

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So aesthetic pretty wall to remind you of rustic old places. Location: Poet’s Seat Tower, Greenfield, MA. Credits: Me

I do a type of counseling where I am encouraged to look at a lot of my early memories, and I recently had a re-evaluation (what, in other counseling methods, may be called a “breakthrough”) in a very important place. I felt like putting it here because maybe this would be helpful to someone.

My early memories indicate that my father was a very happy person who made it clear that he wanted me very much. Every day, he came home from work and was eager to play with me. He was the one I asked to push me on the swings and let me run around outside and play games with me. He was a lot of fun! Oftentimes, when I have a crush on someone, it is frequently because they remind me of my dad. The thing is, they often have his shortcomings as well. He left every day for work, often before I was even awake. I spent most of my mornings and afternoons without him. I spent that time with my mom.

I don’t remember my mom well from that period and that told me something about my relationship with her (this is before my brother was born, so before I was 3 years old. Most people are shocked I can remember that far back in my life, but I can). At first, I thought it was because she didn’t want me. I thought she was upset about the career she did not get to have. Or perhaps because she had immigrated to the United States. But neither of these explanations really made much sense. She had me 3 years after she moved to the country. I have seen photos of her from before my birth, and she looks happy. She and my father used to travel a lot. They went to lots of theme parks, had many friends, and visited many states. It is only after I was born that I remember my mother sleeping for long periods of time in the middle of the day, which is what initially made me think she didn’t want me.

I have worked on this memory dozens of times, and it never made much sense to me until recently, when a few important things happened. First, I recently broke the crush I have had on my math professor for the last two months. A counselor of mine said precisely what I forgot was true: it is nice to focus on a crush when everything else is going wrong. It provides escape. And I realized something else when she said that. I feel as though he (my crush) gives me something that few other people are giving me right now: he is not asking anything of me. And that is why I have fallen so in love with him. My father was not asking anything of me either, all those years ago.

Yesterday, I also got a good direction from a counselor that helped me figure out the other half of the puzzle with my mom. My counselor said “she was doing the best she could.” I was also working on other family matters at the time, talking about my cousins, who all live very far away. I was talking about how I wish I knew them more intimately, and I was thinking about how well I now know my math professor. I know what he likes, I know what he smells like, I know that he likes to dance. I don’t know any of those things about my cousins. That is why it is sometimes hard for me to understand why my mother thinks those relationships are important. My cousins are strangers to me, and I know I could change that, but I just don’t believe the internet is enough for me to really feel their presence.

I then had to connect that feeling with the time when I was pregnant. In the weeks leading to my abortion, I really wanted to carry my child to term, but every time I asked myself how I would make it work financially, I knew I couldn’t do it. I got an abortion. I thought about mom being pregnant 27 years ago, and what it must have felt like to realize that her baby girl would grow up with none of the people or things that she was familiar with. I would not have my cousins, aunts, uncles, or grandparents. It would take a much greater effort for me to learn and maintain speaking Assamese. I would know nothing but what she taught me about the place where my ancestors are from.

I imagine all those things weighing on the mind of a 29-year-old immigrant woman. And I realized the reason why I cannot remember my mother from all those years ago is not because she didn’t want me. She wanted me very, very much. She was sad after I was born, but I was not the problem. The problem existed long before I did. She was sad, is probably sad still, because every time she looks at me, she thinks of all the things her little girl had to grow up without. My counselor said, if anything, this is a gift. My mom loved me so supernaturally that she is sad she cannot give me the things she really wants to give me.

And the thing I have to keep in mind is that I cannot give her what she wants. It is something I want so badly to do even now. When someone senses my hyper-responsiveness and latches on, draining me of all my energy, I still think I will be the one to give them what they want. I couldn’t make sense of what was missing as a child, and I thought I had the power to give my mother what she wanted. Again and again I would try. Her responses never made any sense. If I was doing well, the activity was too easy. If I wasn’t doing well, it was my own fault. She was impossible to satisfy. Eventually, I learned to shrug her off, to cut her off even, because after a good amount of time, I could identify her duality for myself. It still confused me. I have spent years trying to figure out what she could possibly want.

I love her, and it is not my responsibility to fill that gaping hole for her. I know now that the reason I could feel my father’s happiness is because somehow, he sees what I have, and what I am. I don’t know if it makes sense to hope for that from my mother. On a physical, material plane, I know she will retire some time in the next 10-15 years and perhaps after that her mind will settle enough to lead her to what she wants. In the spirit realm, who knows how to fill that abyss of hers. It comes out of her in every way, especially toward me. If anything, without knowing it, every time I pull away, every time I reject her, I make it worse for her by reminding her strongly that I am not like her. What I am making of my life here is not at all what she made of hers, nor is it something she ever could have made of hers. How many years of counseling would it take for her to unravel over twenty years of feeling inadequate, of feeling she couldn’t provide, of feeling I should have had more that she could never give me?

That I wasn’t asking for.

That I don’t know, and will never know.

I wonder which is better, having the mother that wanted me to know, and therefore told me everything, setting expectations I could never reach, or the mother that chose to never tell, bottle the truth, and let her child continue in blissful ignorance.

Thoughts on an Event: Women in STEM Fields

women in stem

credits: Jenna Reyes, 22 News

I feel that, perhaps out of a selfish desire to seem a little better than I actually am, I ought to preface this commentary a little. If the friend of mine who invited me to this event were ever to read this post, I feel she would be rather hurt, or that her opinion of me might change for the worse. Maybe at best, she might think I’m a little judgmental. I do care about her opinion to some degree. But you have to understand, this was my first introduction to people who are pursuing jobs in the same field as me and face some of the same challenges. I could not possibly spare them my critical lens at such an opportune moment.

Last Wednesday, I went to an event for women in STEM fields. The guest of honor was Prasha Dutra, who started the blog Her STEM Story to connect women in STEM fields all over the world. Dutra interviewed three women on a panel about their experiences in STEM fields (I arrived an hour late, so I missed a lot of the panel, but managed to catch the last 20 minutes or so). I think the purpose of the event was to give the attending women a sense that they are not alone and to get a chance to network a little. For me, however, it was far more interesting as a sociological study of The STEM Field Woman. She is a fascinating species, not one to disappoint at all if I am to dissect her critically.

(It should be noted, there was a comment made at some point during the event that women in STEM fields have a tendency to “bring each other down”. I would frame that observation entirely differently. I believe women in any field bring each other down. Women who don’t even work bring each other down. This is a result of living in a sexist society: the oppressed perpetuate their own oppression. Anyway, I am also aware that in this commentary, it will seem as though I am doing precisely this–I am “bringing other women down” by judging their idiosyncracies. In my defense, I would argue that if women in STEM fields, or any field for that matter, are brought down by something so flimsy as the commentary of a first-year, community college student, they didn’t have much power to begin with. And the latter is not true–women have power, as much as any human being does, but that is for a whole other post. I would say the problem is, they have been told lies their whole life, which they now believe to be true.)

Anyway, I found most of the advice and/or concerns expressed by the women present to be rather boring. It was the kind of surface-level, “how do I life?” stuff that (condescendingly, I know) I am either good at or if I am not, I choose not to be for specific reasons. It was interesting to compare this crowd to the social activist crowd. At this point, I have attended so many gather-ins, seminars, rallies, and events centered on social justice issues that the discourse that takes place in them tends to bore me as well. The questions are all “This gargantuan, systemic institution sucks. How do we powerless students make it better?” And the answer is always, “with hope and charisma!” Gag. But there’s a pattern present there, is there not? I feel like people at social-justice related events feel they have a right to complain about how much society sucks. They feel the because institutions do very little to address identity politics (or validate them), they ought to be condemned, and that their condemning of institutional politics is a Very Good Solution.

Not this crowd. Oh no. Women in STEM fields often start their stories very similarly to the social justice crowd: with We Are At The Bottom. The pattern takes a very different trajectory, though. Soon, we hear the person in question’s illustrious school career (first I was failing, but then I went to all the tutors and all the TAs and all the office hours, and then I passed! And I passed again! I got all the good grades!). You will note the lack of vulnerability in this story. We completely skip over the pain and embarrassment of being a struggling student, which so many people in STEM fields are, and where I think the true potential of community building lies. So many STEM students are international, speak tons of different languages, and come from working class backgrounds. No one takes the opportunity to bring that to the forefront of the conversation, nor do they talk about the challenges of assimilating (or, perhaps not assimilating as the case may be) to the American workforce as an educated professional.

The women would then typically progress to talking about overcoming all odds and landing a great job with a good company. Then they talk about how even though they seem confident and sparkly, they still have gaping self-esteem holes that they “still struggle” with to this day. They also give the impression of being very, very type A–they may not have been consciously aware of it, but the amount that coffee is talked about (not to mention the amount of wine being consumed in the room, or the number of times I have walked into a class and smelled cigarette smoke) indicates a tendency to be workaholics. I get the impression that even if a woman in a STEM field acknowledges she has struggles–whether they are career-related or social–she either self-medicates in order to cope or ignores it by throwing herself at her work.

And I have to admit, that makes me more than a little sad. I want better for my fellow women in STEM fields. I forget sometimes that I have access to an incredibly supportive community in RC that would not allow me to wallow in self-doubt even if I wanted to. I wish every woman working in STEM had that. Maybe she wouldn’t be so transparent to me, then.

I suppose I could go on. There were a few irksome dynamics in the room, such as the way white women address the concerns of Asian immigrants in the room. I could tell I was also in a very straight crowd by the amount people talk about having supportive “boyfriends and husbands”. But I honestly feel like even those concerns go right back to the root that I was talking about earlier–none of these women want to be honest with each other. None of them wants to talk about how it is hard to speak up in a classroom of mostly men. It is hard as hell to feel confident asking questions when you’re scared of being judged and there is an overwhelming power dynamic in the room. And it is sad that women feel they need partnership with a man in order to overcome obstacles. It was obvious to me that the women who were single felt they had some kind of shortcoming–they kept talking about how they are used to being alone, comfortable even, being alone. But when someone talks about being alone a lot, to me it usually means it is something they think about a lot, and why should that take up so much of anyone’s focus? Would a man focus on it that much?

I don’t have the answers to those questions. I do think that adequate support for women in STEM fields requires a psychological component: women need to believe in their brilliance and creativity. I think people ought to be able to talk about when things are truly challenging without feeling as though admitting to mistakes will define who they are. I want for all women to be able to do that.

The God of Small Things: A Review

41iffjvqdQL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_In honor of the publication of Arundhati Roy’s second novel, I decided to read her first one. I was very impressed with The God of Small Things (1997). Roy tells a story in a way that I’ve never heard a story told before. It is as though she has invented her own language for the novel; she has written not in English, but in a playful, pleasing gobbledygook that describes how bilingual children think and communicate. It is also clear, from the way the story is structured, that this is the predecessor for Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel, The Lowland (2013). The God of Small Things is not chronological, starting with an assortment of details spread out through time and space, and ending with the driving incident of the plot. This creates a sense of timelessness, a feeling that facts and memory are interchangeable and are rarely affixed to time. It also frequently creates an abrupt tone shift at the end, as though the incident on which the novel centers is a buried treasure at the end of a map.

You all should know by now, I include spoilers.

I deeply appreciate Roy’s sense of humor throughout the novel. I feel as though she would understand me when I say I have laughed in classes about genocide. She tells the story of a miserable family whose members (at some point or another in their lives) live in the town of Ayemenem in the state of Kerala, India. The novel takes place in 1969, when Communism was on the rise and gaining ground in India. In this setting, 9-year-old Sophie Mol dies. Rahel and Estha, who were 7 when she died, deal with the fallout of this incident well into their adult lives.

I love Roy’s sense of humor throughout the novel. She uses it as such a great vehicle for satire. For example, Roy likens Kochu Maria, the house maid, to “a bottled fetus that had escaped from its jar of formaldehyde in a Biology lab and unshriveled and thickened with age” (p. 162). This is hysterical. I think the formaldehyde is a great detail. Who goes that deep into detail to convey how ugly a person is? Apparently Roy does. Kochu Maria was basically the accomplice who helped Baby Kochamma lock Ammu in her room and falsely accuse Velutha of rape. The description of Kochu Maria is that of an antagonist, but perhaps also of someone who has so deeply internalized her own oppression, it has corrupted her very image.

I also like the radical potential of what Roy says about adults versus children. Many of the adults in the novel are hypocrites. For example, Chacko claims to support the Communist movement, but is a wealthy landowner. And Comrade Pillai, who leads the Communist party, is amicable to Chacko. Pillai compartmentalizes his ideas of Chacko by reasoning that “Chacko-the-client and Chacko-the-management were two different people. Quite separate of course from Chacko-the-Comrade” (p.115). Chacko reminds me of Yuri Zhivago of Doctor Zhivago (1965). Yuri, too, supports the communists and their movement in Russia during World War I, though he does not realize that if the revolution succeeds, it will have disastrous effects on his life. Chacko also naively supports communists from his ivory tower. Arguably, it is a Marxist (Velutha) who overthrows the balance of Chacko’s life. He loses his daughter after a chain of events that starts with Velutha and Ammu “breaking the Love Laws” (p. 311).

The children, by contrast, are transparent and logical in their belief systems. This is most clearly illustrated in the chapter when Sophie and her mother, Margaret Kochamma, arrive at the airport. Ammu repeatedly tells the adults to ignore Rahel, who she says wants attention, and gets mad at Estha for being shy (p. 139). However, these seem like perfectly reasonable reactions for children to have when meeting strangers for the first time. In Harvey Jackins’ theory of re-evaluation counseling, one would say this shows how little capacity parents (or any adult, really) sometimes have to think about children in healthy ways. The adults are so caught up in their own desires for how things should go, they forget that they are caring for very intelligent, observant young people.

As cruel as it may sound, the fact that Sophie Mol is the character who dies actually makes sense. Sophie Mol surprises Estha and Rahel because she is so not the perfect angel that all the adults make her out to be. She tells Chacko that she loved Joe more than she loves him (p. 180). She refuses all of Baby Kochamma’s advances (which pleases Estha and Rahel–she seems to be their least favorite relative) (p.180). She is also arguably the person who is most in the role of the observer, the “witness” so to speak. She watches the adults force the children to play roles in a ridiculous “Play” (p. 139). She watches Velutha display incomparable kindness to the twins, unlike any of the other adults (p. 181). Thus, when she dies, it is as though Roy is commenting on the nature of observers of injustice. The contradictions we need in order to believe that race, caste, and the hierarchies we enforce are not real exist right in front of us, if we just choose to examine them. Oftentimes, we choose to ignore them, and societal institutions are set up to get rid of the people who choose to look.

It is also interesting to compare the deaths of Sophie Mol and Velutha. A commentary seems to be made here, too. Sophie Mol is simply an observer of things she shouldn’t see, and thus goes quietly into the night, disappears, so to speak. Velutha is not only an observer, but is actively resisting hierarchy. He marches in the streets with the Marxists, he has learned skills that other Paravans have not, and he falls in love with Ammu. He is in turn actively stomped out by several police, society’s rule-enforcers and hierarchy upholders.

The only part about this book that I don’t digest completely (or perhaps I have truly become a curmudgeonly old person in my mid-twenties) is when Ammu and Velutha finally have sex. While it is described as the “fumble and rush of unfamiliar love” (p. 317), it’s very pristine. There is no awkwardness. I suppose one could argue that perhaps Velutha and Ammu are at an age where sex is no longer awkward, but I don’t believe that either. I think people who are unfamiliar with each other are always a little awkward, especially if they are dealing with each other physically. Human beings do not touch each other nearly enough in civilized society to understand their bodies well. Oddly enough, I think it is the description of how Velutha navigates that puzzles me the most. Perhaps this is my own prejudice coming through. It is not actually his class background that makes me think this–I am sure poor and working class men, especially men as gentle as Velutha, know exactly how to give women pleasure. It’s actually simply the fact that–at least as far as the novel is concerned–Velutha is a man. A straight man. And at least in my experience, men are clumsy. So self-hating and self-conscious that they couldn’t possibly be as deeply attentive as Velutha is to Ammu. That too, on their first night of sex. It was a bit of a stretch for me to believe.

Velutha is the most compassionate character, though. I think even I fell for him a little when he was playing with Estha, Rahel and Sophie when they dressed up in saris. Although they look like raccoons, Velutha treats them with the utmost respect, gives them coconut water, and talks about the weather (p. 181). As an adult, Rahel observes “It is after all so easy to shatter a story…To let it be, to travel with it, as Velutha did, is much the harder thing to do” (p. 181). It is both sad and beautiful that he was a much better parent to the twins than their own parents. It was a good thing he was in their lives. They had at least one kind, respectful adult looking after them. I think that is the real tragedy of the novel. That with Velutha, the twins had so little time.

 

Thoughts on Crazy Rich Asians

My apologies to y’all for being on hiatus for so long. I am actually undergoing some major changes in my life, specifically a career change. I am going back to school to become a civil engineer. I start school again in September. It’s gonna be an adventure.

craAnyway, a good friend and I recently watched Crazy Rich Asians (2018). Neither of us had read the book beforehand, but I thought, listen, we’re getting a movie with an entirely Asian cast. Clearly we cannot miss this.

There is a lot about Crazy Rich Asians that makes it really different from other romantic movies. The friend I saw it with is Korean and is familiar with Korean soap operas, and she says the movie is “basically a Korean soap opera, but in a 2-hour movie instead of a 20-hour television series”. I understand what she means; the film does a much better job of character development than the average romantic comedy.

First of all, I think both Constance Wu and Henry Golding deserve better than the roles they were put in. Wu is such a badass. She could easily play a lead role in a Marvel movie. In this film, she plays kind of a sappy, second-wave Asian girl who somehow doesn’t know who the richest family in Singapore is even though she’s an economics professor at NYU. Is anyone else not a little bothered by this? Isn’t it supposed to be harder to fool a woman of her caliber? Purportedly, the novel is based on some truth, but I feel like there was a way to portray Rachel Chu that makes her look less silly.

My friend and I also had problems with Nick Young (Golding) as a character. In my friend’s words, “He seems dumb. He has no empathy for Rachel. When she’s being destroyed, he offers her sushi.” I do see her point. My critique comes from how Nick doesn’t seem like a real character. The story focuses so much on Rachel and her experience of the family. Nick barely does anything, which makes him look like a mama’s boy who gets whatever he wants. Maybe that was the point. I was just hoping for someone more complicated. Hasn’t Golding played Oscar-nominated roles before, or am I getting my Asians mixed up?

My other problem with the film is that the supporting characters are FAR more interesting than the two leads. My god, where do I begin. First, I’m in love with Astrid Young (Gemma Chan). According to my friend, there is a character like this in every Korean soap opera: a beautiful model-girl/lawyer/CEO who is modest and kind to everyone. She reminds me a little of Raina Amin (Yasmin Al Massri) from Quantico. I love that moment when she tells her husband, Michael (Pierre Png), that she can’t give him something he has never had, and walks away. Seriously, the supporting women in this film carry the entire movie.

Eleanor Young (Michelle Yeoh) is also such a fierce bitch. I love all of her outfits. When I’m an old Asian woman, I want to be that gorgeous. Honestly, I was a little bored with the fact that the future-mother-in-law is the antagonist because if you observe what she says, Eleanor is not actually working against Rachel. She is just brutally honest. When she says Rachel could never measure up to the family’s expectations, she speaks from experience. As a first generation child of immigrants, I can relate to that sentiment. I try to be honest with my white partner about what my family will expect from them. If anything, Eleanor is doing Rachel a favor.

On a tangent, I thought the story would have been more interesting if Rachel and Nick did not end up together, but perhaps were brought together by circumstance later on in their lives, perhaps after a child or two and a divorce or two. I think that would have been a more realistic story. But I guess the movie had to appeal to an American audience, and Americans are hardly realistic.

In addition, Goh Peik Lin (Awkwafina) is fantastic. Her family is fantastic, too. She and Oliver T’sien (Nico Santos) are the gay best friends that everybody needs to have. I love how she shows up to the Young’s estate in dog-print pajamas and changes in their house like it’s no big deal. She is also a fucking good friend to Rachel (women, take note: this is how to be there for one another in the most feminist way). She gives her the outfits she needs to fit in with these crazy rich people. She gives her a place to stay when she’s bummed and has no will to do anything (because she thinks she’s not going to end up with Nick. Women, take note: this is a stupid way to be. Being with a man is not everything. They should have gone to the mall and been fabulous.) She knows how to have a good time and not take herself seriously. Best character.

I do enjoy the cast of goofy men in this film, too. Ronnie Chieng as Eddie Young is perfect. Ronnie does a great dickbag impression. I also very much enjoyed Jimmy O. Yang as Bernard. In the words of my friend, “there’s always that one guy who wears ridiculous things and is a huge asshole.”

While the plot is a bit contrived, I do enjoy the absolutely beautiful shots of Singapore. My mother has been to that country and I greatly envy her for it. I love the implication that Asian countries can and do compete with the U.S. as beautiful places. I have always contended with the idea of a “first world” and the rest of the world, and while this movie perhaps does not contradict that (it is about rich Asians, after all), it does challenge the notion that all Asian immigrants were escaping communist dictators or abject poverty. Now someone just make a movie about crazy rich Arabs, and I shall be satisfied.

All in all, I would say Crazy Rich Asians is a visually stunning piece with some notable supporting female characters. Though I wish the same could be said of the main characters, I am impressed by the level of detail that was given to the supporting characters. There were so many, but I did feel as if each one was a whole person. A work in progress, I hope to see more in this vein, but bigger, more fireworks!

Impressions of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

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So today, after a two-month-long romp with Junot Díaz’s novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, I finally finished it. I am left with more questions than answers. For example, why did Díaz choose to write the novel the way he did? The lengths of some sections are curiously long, others curiously short, and I wonder if the emphasis or lack thereof are significant (they probably are, and I am left with the task of finding the answers for myself. That may actually be the point).

It is a curious novel, to be sure (“curious” in this context signifies “mysterious” and “peculiar”). I do love that Díaz chooses to begin the novel with fukú and zafa. It gives the entire novel that lovely magical-realism feel that I am so enamored of, à la Isabel Allende and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I might say the resemblance ends there as far as the genre goes…I could argue Díaz does it in his own way. I also love his frequent footnotes, which are so long at times it feels as though I am reading two novels for the length of one. The act of physically separating the history of the Dominican Republic by footnote gives the novel a duality that isn’t usually present in narratives. One gets a sense of how much is going on politically in the macro-environment of the country, even while the main course of the book focuses on the trials and triumphs of one family, the De Leons. One could, in theory, choose to completely ignore the footnotes if they wanted to, and it would be a completely different novel. Being a complete dork, this was not the route I took.

There is a lot I love about Díaz’s insane descriptions of the Trujillo-era Dominican Republic (and subsequent Balaguer-ruled D.R. as well). Admittedly, I did not know much about the DR before I picked up this book, but Díaz makes Trujillo sound so scary, I fear retaliation from him even though he’s been dead for 60 years. This dude sounds like a classic fascist (no freedom of speech, violence against anyone who speaks against him) with the added perk of misogyny (rape, stalking, being a general asshole). It’s fascinating how Díaz connects this all-powerful dictator with the De Leon’s (Belicia’s affair with The Gangster, who was one of the Trujillo sisters’ husband). It makes the DR feel like a small place. Even orphan girls are just 6 degrees from the ruler of the country.

The novel felt oddly elastic sometimes with regard to what was easy to read and what wasn’t (perhaps this is because it took me 2 months to read, but perhaps there is more to it). Personally, “The Three Heartbreaks of Belicia Cabral” was one of the hardest sections to get through. Belicia is one of the most difficult characters for me to relate to, and I wonder if that’s just my feelings or if Díaz wrote about her that way on purpose. Young Belicia seems hard-headed and illogical in ways that seem to compliment her future son’s illogical passiveness. As a teen, she is belligerent to La Inca, the one person who really has her back, and seems to take the Aries approach to falling in love: be an asshole to people you have a crush on. It’s hard to watch her fawn over The Gangster, someone who is obviously so bad for her, and then brag to her friend Dorcas about how good he is to her. After she miscarries, it’s difficult for me to feel anything other than pity for her.

This is not unlike the pity I feel for Yunior, though for completely different reasons. Díaz does a great job of portraying Yunior as the fuckboy of the century. Yunior comes off like one of those dense dudes who only cares about the gym and screwing girls, until something actually serious and meaningful happens in his life. It’s interesting that he is the narrator and that he doesn’t appear until mid-novel or so, and the book is a manifestation of this sort of awakening he has after Oscar’s death–about how the experiences he has gone through have meaning, that the people in his life had meaning. After the events that happen, he seems to have the hindsight to wish he could change things, but he also seems surprisingly accepting of himself, explaining that he did in fact love Lola, but knowing he doesn’t deserve her nor could he give her what she really wants.

I love Díaz’s tone throughout the novel, the mixing of both Spanish and English throughout the story. He speaks in a familiar way (perhaps to me), that way of immigrants, which involves hilarious exaggerations, sarcasm, crassness. Perhaps one of my favorite lines in the novel is when Lola is crying over the death of Max. On the plane, “When the woman in front turned around and said: Tell that girl of yours to be quiet, [Belicia] said, Tell that culo of yours to stop stinking” (210). I swear, the first time I read that sentence, I put the book down and guffawed for a whole minute. Admittedly, old Belicia is also a much more compelling character in my opinion than young Belicia.

The run-ins with death are also compelling, not least because of the symbols. When Belicia is caught by Trujillo’s goons, and when Oscar tries to commit suicide, a golden mongoose appears for both of them. The mongoose is said to be a symbol of courage and protection, so it makes sense to me that it appears when these two are at their lowest point, and in need of guidance (both literally and physically. Both need to find physical safety and also to not succumb to the spirit world). The faceless man also appears any time a character is about to have a near-death experience. I didn’t feel like looking up this symbol because honestly, sometimes it’s more fun to leave it up to the imagination, or to try to interpret it myself, which I will attempt to do here. There’s something about the facelessness that suggests two things to me: a fucked system in which people can disappear without a trace, or becoming so much a part of a group (dead or alive) that faces don’t matter (this is an idea that’s kind of toyed with in Code Geass, no?). Both kind of apply. During the Trujillato (and arguably afterwards as well), humans lose some of their humanity. In the chapter about Abelard, we learn how people could be handed over to the government by their own friends. Disappearing is not unusual in the Trujillato, nor is losing things like one’s identity or sense of self, which is symbolized by the faceless man. The self-effacing aspect of national identity is kind of the other side of the same coin. To be able to do the sorts of things the Trujillato needed regular citizens to do, turn their backs on friends, snitch on one another, people had to forget the things that connected them to other people. The faceless man could also be a symbol of that dehumanization process.

Compared to the rest of the novel (these gruesome near-deaths and this tumultuous family history), Oscar’s death is very quiet, almost anticlimactic. It’s almost as though there was a degree of inevitability to it. I would even argue Díaz does this on purpose. I suspect that actually, Oscar had planned to die. Earlier in the novel, his suicide attempt fails, but we know that Oscar is not doing well. He isn’t happy. So instead of continuing to live in New Jersey and suffer, he plans to die for something he believes in–his love for Ybon. Arguably, his last days aren’t so bad, if Yunior’s account is to be believed. He finally gets to spend time with Ybon alone, he finally has sex. I would argue he knows he is going to die for it.

I think the last thing Oscar says is actually really deep and resonant. Díaz writes, “He told them that what they were doing was wrong, that they were going to take a great love out of the world” (321). If you think about it, it’s a pathetic thing to die for. Oscar dies because he has the feel-feels for a ho with a fucking mean boyfriend. That’s, like, really not what you want to see on your kid’s gravestone. But the meaning he gives it is so noble. It is wrong, killing someone who loves another person, so arguably, murder is always wrong. But you know, who is to say that one person’s love is any greater or less than any other person’s? Who is to say that Oscar’s affair with a taken woman is not as valid as any other person’s love? Oscar seems to intuitively know this. He seems to know that to break people’s connections with each other is cruel, to separate them by death is a crime. I think we need more Oscars in this world, at a time when institutions are hell-bent on deporting people, building walls, making it hard for the poor to live, and making sure military-grade weapons are easy to come by. I think an Oscar would know how sad that all is, and would at least have the words to help us name the problem.