Early learning and identity building occurs within a person’s childhood home. Home facilitates the discovery of behaviors that proffer currency, favor and personal assets fueling an expansion of the social self which readies a person to wander out into the weird, wild, world.
This issue of Bookisshh examines works by two authors who interrogate and contend with identity. Michelle Zauner and Ling Ma explore external factors impacting, enhancing or impeding on a person’s identity and comfort therein whether alone, socializing, career developing, or the more tender matter of tending to an ailing parent. Both authors send their characters on visits to homelands and readers are privileged when witnessing the experience of displacement, or worse ostracizing, when a person’s authenticity is challenged by cultural outsiders and insiders.
Readers, I challenge you to read either with care or concern. We all belong and don’t belong at some time or another and we all have parents we love and unfortunately lose. Saying “Enjoy” seems flippant so I’ll part with “Consider.”
Crying In H Mart by Michelle Zauner / Memoir
In life it’s challenging to wear and change hats when one wears too many hats. The hats stack up and become a teetering tower and one spontaneous reaction can topple them. Author, Michelle Zauner manages SEVERAL hats or signifiers of identity. Foundational hats that center Zauner’s narrative are being Korean and “white” (though it remains unclear what flavor of white— specifically the geographic and cultural origin of the paternal branch in her family). Zauner also stacks and juggles hats represented by musician, writer, cook, child, partner, business person and daughter, and it is the constant pressure to change or wear all hats that keep her coursing through the challenge of being confident and knowing herself while doing so many things especially tending to her ailing mother who is retreating more deeply into her Korean space.
Michelle Zauner is first generation on her Korean mother’s side and much of the cultural transmission rooting one’s identity, language, tradition, and culture of origin, has been lost on Michelle. Michelle possesses language mostly confined to conversation stemming from parent/child intimacy and food. Food is where the narrative seeps deeply into readers and the emotional impact of food on memory and experience is parlayed through the granular descriptions of lovingly prepared meals paralleling her mother’s escalating cancer. Zauner is frustrated by her limited ability to prepare food for her mom who is unable to enjoy the labors of Michelle’s love and her cursory knowledge of authentic Korean food.
I’m not gonna sugar coat it for you—this is a painful read and I found myself having a cry here and there. The catharsis Zauner invites forward did not gut me per se, in fact it made me admire the beauty possible in caring for loved ones and knowing how/when to bring in support if it’s too difficult (though it doesn’t make it easier but space is granted to process one’s feelings on the matter). It is in these moments readers meet Korean sisters in immigration stories from near and far in her mother’s life. It is these sisters from the motherland that facilitate the dignity, silence and painful challenges that come with death and dying.
Zauner brings readers to Korea, California, New York as she collects hats, grows and changes. One trip occurs post Mortem after the loss of Michelle’s mother. Zauner and her father go to Vietnam with different agendas. Michelle desires to repair and her father in avoidance of guilt and pain to let go of the past and move forward. What readers discover is that there is no escape from history (even in death) and breakdowns happen that feel far more personal in faraway places too.
Death brings conclusion and in this work it’s a slow burn and a long simmer to that moment. I feel better reading this book. It reminds me to cherish the few things that are written on notecards that our family called tradition and I prepare from time to time. It also reminds me to accept what I know and don’t know about me and where I come from and to cherish the days with my mom that I have left with her.
Bliss Montage by Ling Ma / Short Story Collection
This collection of works interrogates aspects of life in dire need of change. Using the short story Ma looks at the experience of women in the institutions of marriage, family, academia and work and dramatizes the challenges and frustrations endured by women in this late moment of the world. Additionally, Ma points to the discriminations and stereotypes aimed toward Asian American Pacific Islanders both in the United States and to motherlands upon visit and/or hopeful return.
Ma employs the Frame Story in which a story is embedded within a story to unlock deeper meanings or bring attention to reference points and boundaries on behalf of reader, writer, character, setting, etc.. In this instance, Ma interconnects micro aggressions experienced both by women and women of Chinese heritage. Uniquely, Ma mentions, that when it comes to a return to one’s homeland, there is never a real return because the past they left behind no longer exists and the altered present experienced by a returnee can leave them feeling displaced or disconnected without a sense of wholeness.
Silent feminism guides female characters through living independently post marriage or just for the sake of their own choices BUT it’s never easy and women who choose independence for themselves are often viewed internally by culture as unfit or unwell. Regardless of the behaviors of husbands, boyfriends or bosses women’s lives are represented as contingent upon men even when they choose to live independently of men.
The standout story for me was during the MFA writing class during which degrees of cultural appropriation, racial stereotyping, and degrees of offensiveness occur during a class discussion on craft and authenticity. The finger pointing as should be was toward the emphasis placed on whiteness is dramatized in a crystal clear way though there is usually someone in the room who is non-marginalized who witnesses and agrees with the perspective of those who are persecuted and Ma didn’t make space for this person. While this is her right and perspective it makes me wonder: how many generations have to occur in order for everyone and no one in the room to matter and when will polarization as a basis of analyses evolve into something more pressing? Does culture, race and religion need to disappear completely in order for us to agree to disagree without conflict or legal provocation?
Ma’s creates detailed, meditative settings. It is very calming for readers to explore where cognitive complexity and emotional breakdown are occurring which is an interesting aspect in her prose. The worse things can happen but it’s very relaxing to read which neutralizes trauma and keeps readers dialed in and concerned.
Overall I liked the collection, but I feel like this book was a place card holder to keep Ma relevant until her next work comes forward. Likely this book should have come out before “Severance” so readers can experience the political, creative, and technical aspects of Ma’s writing. Ling Ma challenges the civilization we’ve nurtured in the Western world and makes us laugh at the capitalist by products Westerners work so hard for, covet and place their judgement on. Before you read, “Bliss Montage” consider “Severance” which I have graciously reviewed in previous editions of Bookisshh.
The thing that keeps me being a performer is my interest is society’s interest with identity, because I’m not sure that identity really exists. -Tilda Swinton