relationships

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!

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Ode to the First Woman I ever Loved

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Credits: Leonie Barkakati. Swollen River, Montague, MA

I guess the ugly truth I know now is that nobody, not even women, cares about women who love other women. I don’t even have to look too hard to find the apathy. Literally everyone I have come out to so far has responded with “I don’t care”. It has not occurred to them to congratulate me on finding a good person, the best person I have had a relationship with so far. It has not occurred to them to tell me they are happy for me. It has not occurred to them that this is what I really want.

I guess I ought to have expected nothing more.

I guess, more for my own sake more than for anyone else’s, I have wanted to write about the first woman I ever fell in love with for quite a while. I can’t quite explain the reasoning. My brain has been rather foggy these days, either with seasonal depression or just with bad food. I think on one hand, it’s about proving something. I think people in my life suspect I am going through a “phase,” like all the other ones they have seen Leonie go through over the years. I guess they think I will soon see the error of my ways and yield to other people to make decisions for me, like I have so many times in the past.

On the other,…and that’s the thing, I don’t know. I waited ten years to come out properly, but I knew I was queer when I was 15 years old. And I guess I can start my story there.

For the sake of privacy, I have changed her name, but the first girl I ever loved was Wendy Chau, who I met when I was a freshman in high school. She was a year older than me. We knew each other from the Speech and Debate team and from the newspaper staff.

I knew I admired her, but it was a different admiration than the people I usually used the word “admire” for.

I think queerness was this question that I knew, but I refused to ask myself. I knew it was an inconvenient time for me to have these feelings, and although I had never seen anything overtly violent, I knew it was dangerous for me to be queer. No one ever suspected it about me, never brought it up or asked directly, so the only person who could ask me was myself.

I put it off for a long time, the asking of the question. But my fondness for Wendy grew every day. I liked her very much. She was wildly intelligent, but not arrogant, unlike many of our peers. She was a brilliant math student, debater, musician, and writer, and everyone had great confidence in her ability to teach. I think I liked how silly she could be. She would laugh at things I said and call me ridiculous in jest, but I took such pride in being able to make her laugh. I liked that I was close enough to her that she let herself be vulnerable sometimes. She once told me I ought to do things that make me happy, not things I felt needed to be done out of obligation. I have held on to that thought ever since.

It amuses me somewhat that nobody figured it out the entire time that I loved her. I talked about Wendy all the time, tried to make every conversation about her somehow, how much I admired her, how smart she was, how kind. I suspect most people just didn’t think I could be queer. They thought I was an innocent little Indian girl who does everything mommy tells her to do. I guess that’s not what queers look like.

One year, we went with the newspaper staff to a conference in St. Petersburg across the bay. On the first night, at dinner, she was wearing a shade of pink lipstick that I don’t think I have stopped thinking about since the day I saw her wear it. I wanted to kiss her, though I never acted on the impulse, and finally the question had to be asked. Was I in love with her, a girl? And the answer was yes, I most undoubtedly was.

I was surprised, shocked even, that that was the answer. I did not think I was capable of loving women, had never considered the possibility that queer was a word that could apply to me. There was no gay-straight alliance at our high school (I don’t think there is even now), and the only queer person I knew was a gay white guy who hung out with one of my friends.

I thought I should detach myself from her. Who knew how Wendy would feel about me if she ever found out? I didn’t want to know. I knew keeping my distance would keep my heart safe.

I never told her. I watched her give a truly magnificent speech as the valedictorian of her class. Her last interp performance at the Speech and Debate banquet my junior year was also excellent, and one I will always remember. She was a good friend and a kind person, and I have remembered her that way.

I thought perhaps that was some quirk of being in high school, some flaw in my system which went away after Wendy graduated. My hope was short-lived. Not even two years later, I fell in love with another woman, one who had a boyfriend so I wouldn’t act on the feelings with her either. I’d get to grad school in Massachusetts and fall in love again.

I am queer, whether or not I like that about myself, whether or not I think it is good. I remember telling this to a co-counselor of mine the other day, that it’s not something anyone would choose. Statistics for queer people of color are abysmal. (I can’t find any links at the moment, but honestly, read a book, they’re not hard to find.) They apparently can’t keep jobs, can’t get housing, can’t access healthcare or education, and are at high risk for mental health illnesses. I don’t think anyone looks at a life like that and says, yes! That sounds like a wonderful way to live!

And here I am, giving testimony that I have, in fact, been this way for a very long time. Life has not been peaceful since this process started, but the thought that pacifies me somewhat is that I have not done anything wrong. It is not wrong for me to love someone who was assigned female at birth. Our love story is as beautiful as any epic ever written, even if no one will celebrate it with us. We are not doing anything wrong.

Things I would not trade

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Evening in Tampa

I read this really great article on elephantjournal today that I think is a good way to process how jealous I am. I’m going to put the thoughts it provokes here.

I’m in my first ever queer relationship with the most adorable non-binary human. We’ve lived very different lives. They’ve been out for almost ten years and have dated several women. I’ve been out for…well, it’s debatable, but I’d say about 4 months, even though I have known I was queer for ten years, and they’re the first person I’ve ever dated who wasn’t a cisgender man.

And I am always jealous. I feel it all the time. ALL. THE. TIME. I have never been jealous like this before. Every time it comes up, I feel every second of those ten years. I feel as though I wasted all that time.

I think the article asks this very important question, one that I have to remember in those moments when I’m blinded by my own anguish. Would I give up everything about me just for that one thing I am jealous of? Because that is what those feelings point to.

I can’t possibly name all the things about myself and my experiences that I wouldn’t give up, but I’ll try to name at least a few of the important ones.

I wouldn’t give up my mom, my dad, or my brother. I wouldn’t give up my grandmother and grandfather. I wouldn’t give up trips to India, not the blazing heat of summer or the damp cold of winter. I wouldn’t give up being able to speak Hindi and Assamese. I wouldn’t give up Kaziranga, the elephants, the rhinos. All my cousins. All my aunts. Gold earrings. Cheap trinkets. Mekhlas. Praying with my grandmother early in the morning, the ritual of it, the flowers, the incense, the water. The things she taught me. The lychees, the jackfruit, the jammu. The fruits which I don’t remember the names of. Running around in the garden with my brother and the young people who help in the house. The smells. The dust. The bats. The insane driving habits. The pouring rain, and sailing little paper boats in the gutter.

I wouldn’t give up my first bhangra team. How we didn’t have outfits yet, so we just wore whatever old salwars were lying around in the house. The cheesy choreography. The way Paradis would tell us not to flail and would then flail continuously himself. How Charles’s hair was always stupid. All of Aditi’s photographs.

I wouldn’t give up Dr. Barnet. I can’t remember the name of the class I took with her, but I remember how she loved when I talked in class. She loved that I wanted to go to graduate school, and she helped me get there. I will always be thankful to her for that.

I wouldn’t give up Leah, the first person I would ever consider a mentor. I remember how kind I thought she was to apologize when she made a mistake. She would make food for us at staff meetings. She used to wear such colorful things. And she was such a beautiful person. Supportive of every endeavor anyone wanted to undertake, even if it seemed outlandish. Helped me establish the APIA Affairs anthology. I miss her.

I wouldn’t give up Alex, another mentor. How deeply I fell in love with him, and how funny it is to me now that I even admitted it to him (after a long time). His beautiful speeches. I remember he was the person who taught me that our weaknesses are an opportunity to connect with other people. He put me in charge of a team, gave me responsibilities. Structure. I was so annoyed with him. I had no idea what I was doing. He took me to conferences. Asked me to plan events. Gave me the closing speech at the end-of-the-year ceremony. At the end of it all, I still cannot believe how much I accomplished. I could not have done it without Alex.

I wouldn’t give up all that crazy shit I got up to at the University of Florida. Poetry classes with Professor Logan. I felt he always chose my poems on either the days that they sucked, or the days they were stellar. And when they were good, he was so generous with praise. The residence halls. The days I spent as a resident and then a Resident Assistant. Duke and Chelsea and Nicole. Brandon. Taxidermy. Poop in the oven. The kid who didn’t know how to do laundry.

The dance teams, the dance teams! Punjab di Asli Pehchaan. I never actually got to perform but, goddamn! Did they teach me some good form. Gator Bhangra. So much fun. Huddling in the cold under the stadium. The insanity of coordinating for performances in other cities. Shumaila’s 21st birthday. Laal ghagra. VISA talent shows. Diwali. The Asian student assembly. Such pride. Then joining the Chinese American Student Association team. Practices that were also chaos, but so much fun. Mid-autumn festival. Garba for the very last VISA show.

My littles. My Alicia and Maria and Amy and Narayan. How fiercely, fiercely proud I am of all of them. How fondly I remember all of them. How I met them (APIA affairs or AASU, every last one). Lake Wauberg. Reading groups. Late night talks. Surprise visits after I graduated. Getting drunk and then hungover. ECAASU. Horrible bangs. Pretty dresses. Big plans. Bigger dreams.

All the things I love about Gainesville. Micanopy. The Devil’s Millhopper. Downtown. Flaco’s. Las Margaritas. Spanish moss. Foggy nights. Midtown. Casadega. Moonlight on the beach. Love. Loss. Gatorship. The courage of all these people who tell their stories.

I would not trade Eun. Or Will either, but I wouldn’t tell him that. I wouldn’t trade Oriental Flavor or Crazy Noodles or that house where Rob lived. I wouldn’t trade Rob. I wouldn’t trade Rick and Morty with Rob. Or Quarg.

I wouldn’t trade all of RC. Ya-Ping and Rebecca. Kara and Amy. Vivian. Maya and Sujata.

I wouldn’t trade Hinduism. I wouldn’t trade that car ride up here with Dad. Or helping Roktim move. I wouldn’t trade discovering my city by myself. Driving alone to beaches and parks. Discovering Western Massachusetts by myself. Walking down country lanes. Walking up green hills. Finding winding rivers and craggy rocks. Tall trees. Old bridges. Tiny towns. Farms. Icicles. Perfect snowflakes. Crunchy snow. The way snow coats tree branches. Watching it fall deep in the woods. The silence. Beauty.

Sunsets.

All of the love and laughter. I wouldn’t give it up.

I love my sweetheart. I am happy if they are happy. I will not be small when they are happy. I will try to be me for them.

You Remind Me

Y’all know my man Usher.

Who can bear this agony?

You know what’s fucked up? I’m not talking about being alone or breaking up. Both of those things actually seem fairly bearable. I’m talking about being with someone.

I found my sweetheart…at an aikido class. No, I’m not making that up. And uh…I can’t believe they agreed to date me. I quite literally mean. I cannot. Believe. They’re mine. Like, every time they call me “dear”, I kinda look around wondering…are they talking to me? I mean, because my sweetheart is. Beautiful. Intense in this wildly attractive way. And it’s not like there aren’t other people who are attracted to them. From what I can gather, they’re quite popular among these queers of Northampton. So when I stop and think that literally all I did for them to like me is ask if I could spend time with them, I think this can’t be real life. No tricks? No hit it and quit it? They don’t just want arm candy? They’re not a douchebag? They’re not trying to steal my money? Or use me as an emotional crutch? Like, what’s the catch here?

I guess on some logical level, I can understand there is no catch, but I can’t seem to focus on them. Instead, I seem to be focusing, through them, on everything else. And there is A LOT of everything else, y’all. A lot. I never realized that in my first queer relationship, I would be wildly protective. I refuse to tell my best friend their sun sign because I know she’ll tell me everything about them that I know but don’t want to hear. I refuse to talk to straight men about them because they seem to want me to treat them the way straight men have treated me, and that disgusts me on a molecular level. My very molecules are disgusted by that idea.

They’ve dated a bunch of women before me, and the jealousy is just insufferable. I thought that both of us being ace would make this easier for me, but if anything, it seems to make things worse. The only other person about whom I remember feeling this way is my (current) best friend when I was in love with her, but she rebuffed my advances every time until I no longer felt romantic interest in her and became her best friend instead. We were never together (I can’t imagine what being jealous of her if I was with her would have felt like). But this, this human, my sweetheart, my torturer, they don’t get jealous too frequently (must be nice. That might be slight sarcasm), thus they’ll share things about past relationships that make me want to tear out my organs and set them on fire. The things they’ve said about the most recent ex makes me want to hunt her down and kill her. I probably wouldn’t even feel remorse for it.

Obviously, I’m working through all of it because I really, really want to be there for my sweetheart. I really want to enjoy every moment with them instead of…dealing with whatever stupidity is going through my head when I’m with them right now. How the fuck does one do that, though?

I think the thing I fear most is not that the jealousy will manifest. Deep down, I know that would never happen. It never has in the past. No, what I do best is something I have perfected. I’d abandon them, if it gets to be too much for me. Give them no way to contact me, no way to see me. It will be as though we never met. I suspect that might be very painful for them, a person who has kept in touch with several exes. I’m not a hero. I guess it doesn’t matter to me whether or not people think I’m a good person after I break up. The way I am right now, I’d walk out on them the second I feel like it’s too much for me to handle.

And that would be sad because in truth, they wouldn’t be the problem. I’d be the problem. I’m that tragic human who, I guess, didn’t get enough validation at some critical point in the past and now can’t accept when other people like her. Romantic comedies are written about cliche shit like this. Now you know a real life version.

I’ve been told that a good way to deal with feelings is to think of what this current situation reminds me of. More often than not, the things we have encountered in the past have conditioned us to react similarly in the present to situations that we think are the same. In truth, the situations could be completely different, and thereby deserve to be given unique responses.

That’s where Usher comes in. My sweetheart reminds me of another person. My first friend, we’ll say. (Technically, I think my brother takes that title, but he was also a boy, and he was family. So that’s different.)

For the sake of this post, we’ll call her Divya, though if she were ever to read this, she’d probably know exactly who I’m talking about. Yes, my first friend and I met…come to think of it, 20 years ago. It’s 20 years ago this year.

We met in summer of 1997, right after her birthday. I was so mad I missed it. I loved birthday parties. Looking back, my mother trusted Divya’s mom because she was also an Indian immigrant, and needed a place to keep her kids while she and my dad worked. Divya’s mom needed similar support. So I’d argue it was more of a political alliance. But I was an innocent kid. This girl, she looked like me. We’d get confused for each other at school. We were both little brown girls. I thought it was pretty apparent that we should be best friends.

We did everything together. Everything. We joined Girl Scouts together. We went to the same elementary school. We both got into the gifted program. In second grade, we both wanted to become dolphin trainers when we grew up. We bought the exact same orca plushies and played together with them all the time. We made blanket forts. We would bike together. We’d play tennis together. In high school, we would join band together.

But as the only two brown girls most people knew, we were pitted against each other a lot as well. There was an unspoken competition in everything we did. Everyone knew she was the more athletic of us two. I was the better writer. She could sight-read music better, but I had been playing an instrument for a longer time. I was better at math. She was better at physics. She became a tomboy. I guess I became…the brown girl next door? It seemed that way to all the boys I was always hanging around with.

I was very protective of her. I remember there was this time in Girl Scouts when we were putting on a play, and our parts were assigned randomly (we picked them out of a bag). Everyone was mad that Divya received the lead role. They kept complaining about how somebody else (themselves) would’ve been better for the role. I told them to fuck off (or like, the 9-year-old version of that).

She was in all of my stories, the ones I used to write as a child. She was a main character in every single one. I shared all of them with her. In real life, we never told each other we cared for each other. We never really expressed our affection for each other. To be honest, it has been a long enough time now that I wonder if the affection was real. It may have been one-sided this whole time. I might never know. In the stories, though, my character and hers would always express it somehow. Some way. Usually some grand gesture. If I could put an emoji here, it would be the one rolling its eyes. It’s painful to acknowledge how obvious it was that I wanted those things to happen.

I cared so much for her that I would turn my back on people I cared about for her. To this day, I do not know if those were the right decisions I made. There was a Bosnian girl who lived next-door to me. I knew Divya didn’t like her, so I might have been a little distant from her intentionally because I cared about Divya’s approval. I liked the Bosnian girl, though. She was an Aries, kinda wild and very stylish. Another time, in high school, I liked this boy that played french horn in band, and Divya knew. One day, this girl in Divya’s homeroom died of pneumonia. French horn guy was in her homeroom. Divya thought he had said something insensitive about it. She told me what he said, her disapproval quite apparent. I didn’t admit my feelings to him for three years after that. By then, it was too late.

I thought nothing of it at the time. She meant a lot to me.

So when she chose some white girls in band over me, of course I confronted her about it. I told her they seemed shallow. That their interests were completely different from ours (one of my less creative moments, as we were all in band). That they were such phobics (our mutual term for people who were “popular,” a group of humans we Did Not Like). I think on some deep, inner level, I was imploring that she pick me instead. Or tell me she cared about me as much as she cared for them. I didn’t know how to ask it of her. I was saying it wrong, but that’s what 14-year old Leonie meant to say.

She said she didn’t understand what I was talking about. I think that’s literally what she said, too. Just straight up—I don’t get it. I didn’t believe her for a second. I might be wrong. She might genuinely not have understood. But I felt in that moment that she was choosing to play dumb to avoid conflict rather than validate my feelings. I think that was the moment I started to let go of her.

The next three years would be some of my most painful, and some of the ones in which she was either most in denial, or that she actually enjoyed, and I begrudge her for it if it’s the latter. She let me suffer. Never once offered consolation. Why not? Oh well, I was always with some boy or another. As if boys are what I asked for. As if theirs is the attention I wanted.

And in those three years, evidence that I had let go was apparent. I quit band one year. I claim it was “to study for the SAT”. It might have just been that she was getting on my nerves, like she did on those weeks when we were little kids and we saw each other for 5 days in a row because my mom had to work late some weeks.

Perhaps she had not let go at that point, I do not know. For two school projects, she asked me to be her partner. I agreed both times, feeling both times as though I did a lot of the work, though perhaps secretly pleased she would still think to ask me to work with her. I branched out. I joined the newspaper staff. I joined a dance team.

I think the abandonment culminated on the night of prom. My boyfriend and I were supposed to take Divya home from prom that night. Her white-girl friends were having a co-ed sleepover afterwards, and her mother did not approve. It strikes me now to wonder, why was she hanging out with friends who would do things that she couldn’t take part in? Perhaps the thought is irrelevant.

Anyway, we got to prom. My boyfriend at the time promptly decided to make a stink because I was having fun dancing and he wasn’t. I tried entertaining him on his phone, but he wasn’t really having it. Finally, I told him to just take me home. I didn’t speak the entire ride home. For the short time that I had been in attendance, I had quite enjoyed being, as another friend put it, “one of the best-looking girls at prom”. He was very anxious about how annoyed I was. He kept asking me what was wrong and trying to coax me into talking. It wasn’t until we had nearly reached his house—near Divya’s neighborhood, that I suddenly realized we had forgotten Divya.

My mom chewed me out really hard because of that. If I’m being honest, it wasn’t really the chewing out that surprised me (my mother’s favorite pastime is reminding me that I’m a little shit). It was that I had forgotten Divya for that long. Prom was nearly an hour away from our homes, and it took me nearly that long to remember she wasn’t there. That too, when she needed me.

She wasn’t upset, surprisingly. She had found another ride home. But it felt as though, whether or not I had meant to, I had ended our friendship.

Again, I don’t know if she had let go of me. In truth, she might not have. Years later, when I unfriended her on Facebook, she texted me. She said “did you unfriend me?” I said, “Yes.” She said, “Sad.”

Even now, I do not know if she has let go of me. The one time we actually saw each other intentionally after leaving college (we both went to the University of Florida), she was the one who reached out. I’ve let the whole thing lapse. Perhaps it’s because I know our parents are friends, and will either always be friends or will continue pretending to be until they die. She is never truly gone from my life as long as our parents are friends. Our mothers always know what’s going on with both of us. Why should I bother, then? It’s not like I’m ever really lost. There are days when I crave being lost, I crave disappearing. I wish my past would stay in the past.

My sweetheart knows that I am capable of abandoning them, but they don’t know why. I hesitate with telling them the reason. They remind me of Divya. They’re athletic in the same way as she was. They argue in the same way. Even the way they so ambiguously request information reminds me of Divya. It would certainly explain my protectiveness of them, and the jealousy.

I struggle with separating the two of them in my head, and perhaps that is why I have to name those distinctions now. Divya is someone I have a lot of history with and, realistically, I am probably too biased to be able to judge her fairly any more. Those choices we made, we made at a point when we were both young, uninformed and ignorant, but I struggle with forgiving myself. I blame the younger me for not being wiser, for not being able to express herself fully without other people’s permission. And it is hard not to blame Divya either, even though at some level, I know she was doing what she thought was right at the time.

My sweetheart is not her. We are older people, hopefully with slightly more sense in our heads, capable of disagreeing without destroying each other or our relationship. We do not require approval from each other to be with other people or to take part in things we like. We are not competing either. Their well-being does not come at my expense, and vice versa.

I will tell them how much I love them, instead of writing stories and blog posts about it and never expressing it in words. I will tell them how much I love spending time with them, how much I love their voice and their softness that they try to hide. I will tell them they are graceful like a cat and beautiful like the silhouettes of trees in the evening, like the smell of the sea. I will tell them everything, the way I should have told Divya. Love them the way I should have loved her. I will not leave my sweetheart until I have left everything on the table, every kiss, every embrace. I will caress their cheek until I memorize the shape of their face. I will not leave it unsaid and incomplete, the way I did to Divya all those years ago. If the Universe is willing, I will not keep to myself a single thing I mean to give them, not hold back even one touch, not waste even one second.

On Gross Parasites of Masculinity

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Muddy grass, bank of the Connecticut River. PC: me

I wonder if perhaps I spoke too soon in my last post. In the height of eclipse season, I did indeed experience the possibility of a bad job, and just how awful that might have been. By some miracle, that conflict is getting better (personally, I think it’s because Mercury was retrograde until this past Tuesday).

I digress. There is a green, spongy algae that blooms along sidewalks where standing water is not properly drained. It is an attractive, eukaryotic organism, sometimes appearing in variations of blue or yellow, and while algae are often depicted in mainstream media as indicators of death and decay, they are actually a sign of quite the opposite–of excessive fertility. Algae can cause many pond and water organisms to die because as algae deteriorates, it causes oxygen levels in the water to rise, making it a toxic environment to live in.

Why is this the topic I start with today? To be honest, I have no idea. Maybe you can draw the connections, instead of me.

My white boy has got to go. He has crossed too many lines, placed one too many straws on my back. In the course of knowing him, I have discovered he is the kind of person who surrounds himself with women who will cater to his needs. He doesn’t realize it because, as these women have only ever catered to his needs, he has never met a person who has told him to his face that he is a gross parasite of masculinity. Furthermore, he broke up with me and refuses to stop communicating. Granted, I haven’t yet either, but I didn’t want to break up. He did. I find this to be a suspicious way for a person to behave.

He has told me in no uncertain terms, without any thought to how it might make me feel when I am so attracted to him, that he is pining for another woman, one who is already with another man, and who is planning to move to Seattle for said man. My white boy wants to move to Seattle, too. Yes, he is that stupid. Did I mention, he has been pining for this woman for 5 years? Yes, he told me that as well. In fact, there was a period in the beginning when he wasn’t pining for her. In that period, he was pining for another woman, then this current woman got together with a man, and then my white boy “realized” he had missed out on her. Do I sense a pattern? Might my white boy realize, somewhere down the line, that he missed out on me the second I am with some other worthier, stronger, wiser person? My intuition tells me yes, and my intuition predicted that Trump would win the presidency in July of 2016 (there were at least 3 eyewitnesses to this testimony).

I suppose he thinks this is a grand, romantic gesture, moving from Florida to Seattle for her. I have dated a great many morons who think the same way. I even had one try to do that to me when I was starting graduate school in Massachusetts. Sadly, perhaps that is why I fell for my white boy, because when I am attracted to straight men, I have a bad habit of dating morons. I’m sure it doesn’t even occur to him that his white girl never asked him to do that for her, that she isn’t even thinking about whether or not he likes her, and just because he is present in her life, that doesn’t mean she will date him or even think of him in a romantic way even if her relationship does end. (Let me not get into how boringly monogamous and linear and heteronormative this behavior is either). Gross. Parasite. Masculinity.

This, this is what I fell in love with several months ago. What I gave my heart to and bled out for, what I made myself vulnerable for. These were the kinds of sad, pathetic people available to me in Tampa.

I will not attempt to convey the kind of shame I feel. I suspect you already know. Too familiar to me are the flaws of the human heart. I recall from high school a similar sort of shame, the kind I felt from having to hide from my mother, who conditioned me to think my romantic feelings were wrong, my seemingly endless propensity for attraction to human beings. I would have gladly forfeit my ability to feel romantic feelings at that age. Sometimes now, the idea still appeals to me.

I think sometimes, I moved back up North just to realize these things. Not that I’m a sad person for having fallen for this dude. But that I deserve better. I surround myself with people who I trust to tell me the truth. It took all of them to get me to this point, where I am capable of overcoming loneliness, capable of letting go when it is necessary. Because I trust them to tell the truth, I believe them when they tell me I am brilliant, kind, and good. If they leave me, I know it’ll be for a damn good reason, not to chase some stupid romantic notions all across the country. Some people go their whole lives without knowing stability like this.

 

The Politics of Relationships

bogolis

Storks grazing in suburbs. I want to be a stork. Or perhaps I just don’t like my life right now.

CW: not for little kids

This is going to be some weird shit. I’m fucking a white boy, and you know shit is always weird when I’m fucking a white boy.

Probably not surprisingly, lately, I have been contemplating this question. Should I be with a person whom it makes sense to be with politically, or should I date a person who agrees with my politics? Ten times out of nine (Beyonce Carter Knowles, 2016), these two things do not occur simultaneously in the same person.

I’ll explain what I mean by that. I’m a woman of color, right? I try to praxis in a way that centers marginalized folks. However, I’m also educated and upper-middle class. If I was with a person who politically makes sense for me, I’d probably choose a man of color, probably also someone educated and raised upper-middle class, if we’re going with a traditional partnership which my family would find acceptable. If I’m thinking of personal satisfaction in my romantic and sexual partnerships, I could also see myself with an educated woman, most likely of color as well, though class background may vary (in my experience, I seem to get along with women of color across various class backgrounds).

In a strictly political sense, these categories of people make sense for me to partner with. In practice, partnering with people like this is a whole. Other. Experience. I firmly believe that our first experiences with people of a certain identity sort of “stick” in our brains. They create patterns that we fall into again and again, if we are observant enough to notice. The first men of color I ever dated were very abusive people. There was much behavior-monitoring and slut-shaming in those relationships. Since then, I’m not sure I have rationally been able to trust men of color. The ones I am attracted to seem like surprisingly sub-par people, and I suspect these attractions originate from those early abusive relationships, where my brain now has connections between men of color and abuse. Because that is a familiar dynamic, one which I even romanticized, my brain is wired to be romantically attracted to abusive men of color. This is probably a pattern I need to dismantle if I ever hope to be with a man of color.

With women, while the dynamics are certainly less problematic, they seem vastly more nebulous. There were three women in my life that I ever felt attracted to romantically. For the first, I was so puzzled by my feelings that I never told her. She was a kindly mentor sort of person who I greatly admired in high school. She promptly went off to Harvard, never to be heard from again. The second was quite friendly, though she had a boyfriend and I never told her as well. The third is now a good platonic friend of mine, for whom I do not feel romantic attraction any more. I am not certain what kinds of patterns this sets me up for, or if indeed, a pattern is even in place for women I am attracted to.

This brings us to the second part of the question: instead of a person who seems like my political counterpart, what about people who agree with my politics? Let’s examine that, shall we? First off, very few people seem to truly “agree” with how I see the world. The ones who really do are usually my good platonic friends. I keep those relationships platonic because these people are few and far between, and the relationships are more important to me than some fleeting romantic or sexual experience.

Thus, the options I am left with are varying levels of political compatibility with another person. Even there, the data is somewhat ambiguous, as I have not devised an actual method for measuring how closely my politics align with my romantic partners’. For some problematic reason (and I think this says a lot about how we are conditioned to feel about race in America, as well as how men of different races are conditioned to present themselves as masculine people), the partners I choose are more closely aligned with me around gender politics than around racial politics. This, too, could be inaccurate because I measure the alignment, at least initially, based on what men say, and not always what they do. (The latter usually presents itself later in a relationship, and I find myself disappointed more often than not). Perhaps not surprisingly (again), this means a lot of white men. I speak entirely from experience when I say, the white men I have dated are less defensive around topics of gender. Frequently, they will agree with me about the circumstances of women. Men of color, at least the ones I have been with, are surprisingly resistant to talking about gender. I don’t think this means that men of color cannot be trusted to talk about gender, but it certainly says a lot about intersections of race and gender. I think men of color are usually so targeted with racism that to have to admit they actually have a kind of power in gender structures is actually threatening. After all, it must be confusing to be both targeted and have power. Theorists like Kimberle Crenshaw, bell hooks, and Patricia Hill Collins do a much better job than I do talking about why this occurs. There are a great number of social and political factors that make men of color defensive. I don’t have much to say on the subject besides, it sucks that these systems take so long to dismantle. It really does.

Anyway, after being told in a rather roundabout fashion by said white boy who I’m fucking that he cares more about the white women in his life than he does about me, I promptly find myself running out of faith in romance once again. I feel I have been swindled again, as I always am, and I become progressively cynical, deadened, hopeless. Stubbornly unwilling. I suppose this wheel grinds rather slowly. Just as I gradually discover what I will not tolerate in a professional setting, and what I am willing to suffer for, it seems that my romantic life must follow the same path. Though, uh, I think in the professional sense, I am the more willing creature. I have discovered I would much rather be in a bad job than in a bad relationship. At least a bad job still pays. A bad relationship is just a lot of bad memories clogging the sacred inner world.

The Phantom, Heart-Draining Menace

bc

*This post is shaped by my ace cis femme brown woman lens

As I’m writing this blog post, I’m looking next to me at (among the rest of the detritus on my desk) a pack of birth control pills. There are two sugar pills left in this month, and then I’m supposed to start a new pack, but most likely, I will not. The new box of pills is small, green and unopened, and sits next to the current pack. My logic is that it will come in handy later if I find occasion to use it before July 2018, when it expires. Fat chance of that happening, though.

A good friend of mine recently told me about this really good sexual experience she had. It sounded to me like it was good because the two people involved actually asked each other what they like, and they did things with each other that they both enjoyed. I was happy for her because this friend hasn’t always had great experiences where sex is involved, and I was glad that this experience went well.

But sometimes, being happy for someone else doesn’t always mean you are happy yourself.

I think, to my great embarrassment, I have to admit that I’m jealous. Which, for me, is shocking because I actually don’t experience being jealous too frequently. Stupid people I know think they can tell when I’m jealous, but they are usually just misinterpreting my anger or sadness. I am jealous so infrequently that I think I can actually remember every single time I have ever been jealous and why I felt the way I did.

It’s not that I’m jealous of my friend, or of the person she had sex with. No, I’m jealous because they got to have that conversation that I have been waiting to have for what feels like eons–the one where someone asks me what I want. You know, without expecting anything in return.

God, it feels good to admit that.

Because now that I have, it’s pretty obvious that the problem is not between me and my friend, but has everything to do with patriarchy.

If I am being honest, at the age of 25, I have never had a sexual interaction in which I did not feel as though I was shortchanged. As I have only ever had sex with heterosexual, cisgender men, this may come as no surprise (at least, it doesn’t to me). Even when sex was consensual (because there are times when I did not consent, but I’m not talking about those), I found myself going through the motions more so to please my partner than out of enjoyment. And I do not think I ever felt as though my partners wanted to give me pleasure. The things my heterosexual, cisgender partners would claim they “gave” me were always conditional; I was expected to give what felt like far more than what I was given in return.

At this point, I have to admit, that sounds, uh, sad. It does, it sounds rather sad, even to me, which I don’t like to admit because I don’t like to think of my life as “sad”. I think it is hard sometimes, and certainly not perfect, but definitely not “sad”. And if this is what all of my sexual experiences amount to, well, clearly something needs to change.

Maybe the sadness comes from shame, which is not logical. This is not an uncommon narrative. I know because other women have written about this same experience again and again. What is it about a patriarchal society that forces women to have to accept really sad sexual experiences? Isn’t that pathetic? We live in a world where, if you are a cisgender, heterosexual woman, you can more or less expect to feel emotionally drained, empty, and hollow after sex.

To preface this next statement, I have nothing against women who have sex with no emotional attachment. If I was capable of doing that, I would. It would make my life so much easier, not to have to think of my past relationships feeling, at best, like I was used as a sex object, and at worst, like I would like to do some really vindictive things to get back at these men. I think it’s really problematic that I have always given both physical and emotional affection in a relationship, and I have only ever received one of the two when I have always wanted both.

This realization has suddenly forced me to contend with how much I value my own heart. How many times has RuPaul told us that if we can’t love ourselves, how in the hell are we going to love somebody else? How many times did Professor Harris say that if there are too many people draining our love, there will be none for ourselves? How could I have forgotten the first rule of being an empath? Everything I do comes with a side of emotional investment. Every person in my life gets emotional nourishment from me without asking. That is the benefit of being friends with someone like me, and also, that is the thing I have to be most careful of. All of my good friends know this about me, and they also know not to take advantage of me.

So you never know, maybe I will start that second pack of birth control pills. But I feel like the better choice would be to hold myself accountable so that I don’t need them in the first place. I’m a little sad that I live in a world where I have to be this cautious. I wish I could have had a great experience with every partner I had sex with. But the fact is, straight men aren’t expected to be like me at all, and thus are usually incapable of giving me what I need unless I explicitly tell them. I’m waiting for that person who asks, and not just because they want to get into my pants. I’m waiting for the person who is willing to take responsibility for this tender and giving heart that is drained all too easily by careless, unfeeling people.

 

He Breaks Me

fatfish

Taken at Durfee Conservatory, UMass Amherst, MA, home to cute, fat, orange koi fish. These fish are much happier than I am right now. A photo worthy of the end of Pisces.

Well y’all. I know it’s been a hot second. This is a direction I never thought I’d go in, or more accurately, not a direction I ever thought I’d go in again. By that, I mean, there are some people, some incredible, wonderful people, who theorize love (shoutout to bell hooks, Cheryl E. Matias, and Durryle Brooks). As in, they spend time in the academy talking about love, like a bunch of warriors. Those people are some badass motherfuckers. I’m just a simple broad, so I wrote a poem.

Not gonna lie, I’m trying to act like I’m cool and like this poem is not about some man-human who I definitely lost my shit over. I have this brilliant friend who tells me that people have to know the difference between things that are actually good for them, and things that make them feel good. Maybe that’s why things ended so, so badly. Like, it wasn’t a clean bad, you know? I like when it’s obvious that the man is an asshole, and then turning my back is nothing. But I can’t write him off like that because I’m not convinced he’s an asshole. I feel like that’s worse than a clean bad. It’s a messy bad.

If he ever finds this, I bet he’d say something like “I didn’t say that” or “you’re totally misrepresenting me”. And I wouldn’t say it, but I’d be like, why can’t you just tell me you’re hurt? Why is that so hard for you? I write my first poem in 3 years and you still can’t be satisfied. Man-humans, I’m telling you. Learn to name your damn emotions. It’s not like I don’t know. I just pretend not to so that I don’t embarrass you and your stupid man-feelings.

Anyway. I totally did not plan to tell y’all that much. But here’s the poem.

He Breaks Me
by yours truly

I can tell he thinks he loves
me while he watches my
every move. But I do. I
tell him one secret after
another, hoping he’ll say
the words I long to hear, “I’m
wrong, you’re right. I’m sorry.”

He tells me I am pretty,
attractive, intelligent
yet also that my rape
is like his murder, that my
pills are the same as his
paternity test. My ravaged
body he likens to his.

Death would be a luxury
for women like me. Death frees
her from her body, leaving
spirit. Death removes the
thing to ravage. Death takes
away the object, reduces
fault to dust, corpse to earth.

I leave him before he is
aware. He tries so many
words. It is his silence I
crave. No reasoning consoles him;
he is closed. He tells me I
am mistaken, that the love
I know I see is not real.

He breaks me. Our bodies know
no solace, nor did those of
our ancestors. Before lips
could meet, before we could
touch, history opened a
chasm that neither of us could
cross, that neither of us could cross.

Illicit

Oh Lord, I crave him. This summer has brought a lot, a bit too much perhaps. Now I am crazy in addition to everything else.

People say that time is not linear, and slowly, I begin to understand why. Feelings I thought I had long forgotten suddenly come back to haunt me. I felt this way about him before the abortion. That fall semester was when I felt this way about him. I had forgotten those feelings, and they were not something I was willing to revisit, not after the other feeling, that I had killed my own child.

Attraction is hard to go back to. I did not feel attraction for some time. It eluded me for all of spring semester. Granted, that didn’t stop me from having sex, but it was that sordid, corporeal kind that makes you feel emptier than you did when you began. It took me only a matter of weeks to see my then-lover for who he really was: a needy, sanctimonious person who would use me to hold his emotions, but took every chance he got to quash my own. Admittedly, abortion-trance was a convenient antidote to my former guilelessness; it was the shortest amount of time it had ever taken for me to come to my senses and leave a man.

He deserved to be left as well, though, the one from fall. That is what I tell myself. Not left entirely—left by me. For making me hope that I could be his, for even the second that I believed it, even when he knew there was not a chance in hell that it would last. I blame him because surely, he must have known. He had to have known how it would end, and he let it play out anyway because he had to have me just that much, had to have my hand in his, have my kisses, my endless hair, the way secrets poured from my lips without him ever needing to ask.

See, he already had a partner. And at that point, I still had the pre-abortion-trance guilelessness, so I believed him when he made me feel like I was safe, made me think his partner was sane, made me think nothing would ever go wrong. Maybe that is my own fault for being so guileless.

If you all ever hope for a love story, I wish you one like this (though with perhaps a happier ending). We were co-teachers, he and I. I don’t think either of us much heeded how obviously illicit our affections were. He was endearing—he embodied that word entirely—for me there could not exist a more-perfect Achilles heel. Look how even now I wax dramatic for him.

See, he was an artist. Not on the surface, but I suspect that is what he is deep down. I don’t know how else he would get me to say such ridiculous things to him, things I have never said to anyone else, that he turns me on so hard, that I want to push him over onto a bed, that I would like to kiss him until he is limp in my arms. I flirted with him like I did with no one else. We would sit together in the study of my apartment, dimly lit by just desk lamps in poor-graduate-student fashion, to put our lesson plans together. His eyes, which caught the light so easily, would glow a lovely amber color. He would always ask me if there was anything else I wanted to talk about (I might be forgetting the wording at this point, I always just wanted to look at his face). I never did, but his eyes always lingered just a little longer than what was reasonable, holding my gaze, even in the days before I started flirting with him.

And after I made my feelings apparent to him, it could not be helped. We were like children in middle school, embracing each other in empty classrooms and holding hands when we thought no one was looking, except we were the teachers and middle schoolers are half our age.

These are all memories that I thought I had forgotten, that I have not had access to in seven months. They come back now with shocking clarity. I did not think I could feel like this again, ever.

I remember the first time I kissed him, and all the kisses that came after the first. I would say that the most romantic experiences I have ever had never involved sex. It was certainly true of this relationship. Admittedly, that first kiss was slightly naughty of me. We had just finished our last class of the semester. I had only just asked him how he liked to be kissed, and he had only just finished answering, but I couldn’t bear not being able to give that to him for even a second longer, so I kissed him. I could sense his hesitation and I thought that perhaps I had taken things too far, but then he kissed me back so softly, so demurely. He used to love the way I would moan.

This is unexpected. Now I am crying. All the websites I went to after my abortion said I might cry for no reason from time to time. For the life of me, I can’t understand why I am crying. Maybe, I suspect, I want my child’s father to be like him. So cute. So silly and well-intentioned. Maybe I would forgive someone like him for all his flaws because he would care so unfathomably.

See, he is already a father. He was a father long before I came into his life, and he will be long after I have left. We’re not so different, he and I. At almost the same point in our lives, we both found out we could become parents. Except I didn’t become one and he did.

I wake up like I’m waiting for infinity these days. Day stretches long and worthless, night comes mercilessly too soon. In those moments when I feel that crazed consciousness that has stayed with me since I was pregnant, I know she will come back to me one day. I wait for her eagerly, my future child.

An Analysis of The Last Illusion by Porochista Khakpour

lastillusionContent warning: child abuse, sexual assault, suicide

My most recent read was The Last Illusion by Porochista Khakpour. I chose the book from this list of Asian American authors (and you’ll find I will probably read a few more from that list before summer is over). The list implies that Khakpour is on par with some authors whom I really admire, like Jhumpa Lahiri and Amy Tan, so I had pretty high expectations, which I am not sure the novel lives up to.

It should be noted, this book is based on a legend from the Persian epic, the Shahnameh, the Book of Kings. I personally have never read the Shahnameh, so there is a certain point of reference missing in my analysis.

To give her credit, Khakpour is a talented prose writer. The beginning of the book reminds me of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children:

His hair and skin were the color of–no use to sugarcoat it, Khanoom would snap–piss. He was something so unlike them, unlike all of nature. (2014, p.3)

This first description of the protagonist, Zal, reminds me of Saleem and his gargantuan nose from Midnight’s Children. I have always had a soft spot for ugly-baby descriptions. It thrills me that many writers of color do not want to portray their protagonist as attractive, that in some cases they are downright scary. It supports the idea that ugly people deserve to have their stories told, too.

Khanoom’s distinction between her birds and her son also reminds me of an excerpt from Clive Barker’s Abarat series. There is a story in Absolute Midnight about a mother who gives birth to two sons: one that is the embodiment of all of her good, and the other that is the embodiment of her evil. The good son is a homely thing that resembles a worm. The evil son is a beautiful creature, colorful and charming.

Similarly, Khanoom is enamored with her birds, which she refers to as her children. She cuddles them, sings to them, and makes sure they are fed and clean. She abhors Zal, whom she keeps in a cage with the rest of the birds. She calls him “White Demon” (p.5) and prays for his death. It is as though Zal, scrawny and pale as he is, is what little good Khanoom is capable of, and her numerous, glorious birds epitomize her cruelty.

Khakpour does a great job of commenting on the hypocrisy of able-bodied people and the mental health profession throughout the novel. I feel as though every time she wants the reader to think about what we are taught about disability, she uses the italicized word, considering. For example:

His father had set it all up…and would not have created an abnormal environment for his son…whom Hendricks so badly wanted to grow up as normal as he could, considering. (2014, p. 82)

These were Zal’s thoughts when he took Asiya into his apartment for the first time. The “considering” piece always refers to his history as the Bird Boy, and  how he made the “miraculous” recovery from a squalid, screeching boy to a relatively well-adjusted adult. Hendricks thinks it would be so great if Zal was just like everybody else, implying that the way Zal lives is such an inconvenience to able-bodied people like Hendricks, as though being “normal” is such a wonderful way to live. Khakpour invites us to question whether or not our “normal” is really as wonderful as we think it is. Is Zal better off as a harmless, insect-eating, asexual, bisexual person who is a little strange? Or is he preferable as an alcoholic, sexist man who passes for “normal” by our standards?

I think it also invites us to question the well-intentioned people who frequently live with, or are guardians of, people with disabilities. Is it really for Zal’s good that Hendricks is hell-bent on making him “normal”? Or is it more so to prove that he is a good father? Why doesn’t Hendricks approve of Zal when he behaves in a “bird-like” manner?

I also love Khakpour’s commentary on love. When Zal first meets Willa, he describes his feelings.

He felt, he though, maybe what they called love–THEORY NO. 4: Love?–but of course it wasn’t, he quickly told himself, love did not come so illogically. It did not do that at-first spell that was just a human joke…(2014, p. 92)

Perhaps my cynicism is showing, but I love how Khakpour gives voice to my skepticism toward “love at first sight”. I think Americans thoroughly exaggerate the role of physical attraction and infatuation in “loving” relationships. I personally believe the exaggeration is a natural by-product of capitalism, in which sex becomes a spectacle that people are willing to pay for, and which people then fervently rush to sell as per the laws of supply and demand. “Love at first sight” is not a truth, but a platitude we tell ourselves to pretend we are satisfied in mediocre relationships. Actual “love”, the act of caring for flawed and petty human beings and understanding they are not obliged to us in any way, is a lot of hard work.

In reaction to this first response, Zal gives us another description of Willa the second time he meets her.

He wanted to be nestled against her bosom. In what way? Like a child, he thought. Like a lover, he thought again. She confused him to no end. (2014, p. 119)

In a digital story I created last year, I said “love is unfathomable. If you understand it, it is not love.” Zal’s experience illustrates this sentiment. He doesn’t seem to know what he wants to be for Willa, or what he wants Willa to be for him, but it is more than just being a lover. He also mentions wanting to be a friend or guardian. His feelings resonate with me. I think it is more accurate for me to say I have felt love towards friends and family more than I have to lovers, or whatever you want to call them. Acting within constructs in relationships has obstructed love for me more than it has bolstered it.

Khakpour, however, does not use her strengths to her advantage. She makes great commentary on disabilities and traditional relationships, yet that is not what she focuses on. She instead turns her focus to the 9/11 attacks and tries to make a really cliché allegory about life. While I think her commentary on 9/11 itself is actually quite interesting, she takes a huge, wandering portion of the book to finally get there.

First, I think Khakpour makes the mistake of establishing the premise of the story too early. As soon as I found out Asiya is clairvoyant and the dates begin to seem very important about one third of the way through the book (with the Y2K New Year featuring as a prominent incident), I already knew to expect the book to end with 9/11. It literally takes the other two thirds to get there. After the New Year party, The Last Illusion seems like a long story about people who do nothing–the repetition is tedious. Asiya and Zal break up several times. Each time, Zal goes to Hendricks, who tries to pull him out of his misery. Then Zal makes the decision to go back to Asiya, and Hendricks tries to dissuade him because he doesn’t like Asiya. Zal leaves anyway, giving some platitudes about establishing independence. This occurs two or three times in the novel.

Toward the end, I really feel Khakpour is trying too hard to make a point. It starts to sound like a college application essay. Silber starts asking himself “What does it all mean?” (p. 254) over and over again, as if anyone needs to be reminded to find meaning. On page 267, Silber literally thinks, “Maybe money is the key.” She really loses me there, as if we need anyone else to point out any more cliches about greed and avarice and money. And then we have Manning calling Asiya a terrorist on page 270, and I just about gave up. Here is a book about 9/11 and the word “terrorist” is in the novel. How compelling. So original.

Asiya is one of the most grating characters in the novel (though honestly, Zal himself can be quite grating at times). I would almost be willing to forgive Asiya for her behavior (she has to put up with so much sexism from Zal–he doesn’t believe her even though she is right (p. 260), and he can be quite manipulative. Having sex with her just to prove he is normal (p.152)?) except, except, except, she is a white girl with an Arabic name. On top of throwing all these tantrums because she wants people to believe her and they don’t (what does she honestly expect? She’s a skinny little artsy woman. People are not kind to women in general, let alone strange ones) she gets arrested, and when asked if she has a Muslim name, responds, “Absolutely” (p. 279).

I suppose this was supposed to show how defiant and brave she is, but for me it rings so hollow. Asiya McDonald was born Daisy McDonald, and she got her name by dating a Muslim guy at one point in her life and then converting to Islam. At the end of the day, she is still a white woman, and still has all the privilege that that identity confers. When I think about the Muslim women of color I know, the hijabis, the ones who are told again and again to go back to their country, the ones who have cried over the things people yell at them, the ones who literally have eggs thrown at them, Asiya McDonald is like a bad joke. I’m still waiting for the punch line. I’ve said this before, but I have a hard time believing white women ever truly show “resistance”. They only ever seem to echo all that women of color have already done.

Of course, Khakpour might have portrayed Asiya this way intentionally. You never know.

Another piece that irked me to no end is the description of Willa’s sexual assault. On p. 124, I find out that the reason why Willa overeats and is obese is because she was kidnapped as a young girl and repeatedly raped by her kidnapper. This is actually a common response that women have to sexual trauma (as reported by the Atlantic). Yet, Khakpour is surprisingly euphemistic about it, describing only how he “hurt her again and again” (p. 124). In context, this is how Willa is explaining herself to Zal, so I suppose this conveys how hard it is for Willa to talk about it, but I felt this portion would have been so much stronger if the incident was referred to as “rape”, or “sexual assault”. Since she is 20, it is reasonable to assume Willa knows what these words mean. This was an opportunity to shed light on a really important issue, and instead of naming the problem, Khakpour hides it.

I was further irked by the explanation for Willa’s suicide. On p. 292, it is said that “Apparently only in depression was she losing the weight that had made her depressed in the first place, most likely.” This angers me to no end. It was Willa’s rapist who forced her to feel she needed to eat all the time, and it was her rapist who made her feel suicidal. However, Khakpour takes the route of blaming Willa’s weight for her suicide, which not only body-shames Willa, but also lets her rapist off the hook instead of holding him accountable. It’s a depressingly conservative stance to take.

Khakpour slightly redeems herself with her description of 9/11, the Last Illusion, though she makes me wait entirely too long to get to that point. It turns out like a dream, Silber’s last illusion.

The illusion had not gone right, but it had not gone wrong. It had gone real. (p. 315)

I remember the day, and it was quite dreamlike. I was 9 years old on 9/11/2001, just starting my first days of fourth grade. I remember coming home from school with my brother and my mom to see the image of the Twin Towers falling, on channel after channel, again and again. It was strange how easily I believed it was real, how there was no skepticism at that point in my life about CGI or Photoshop, that I knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that I was seeing something real.

 

Zal realizes, after the illusion, that just like so many things, a smile is just another human trick (p. 319). There are some implications there about constructions, how even the ways our body is supposed to react to things are social constructions. Zal smiles on the day of 9/11. It would certainly explain why I sometimes laugh in classes about genocide.