The Little Prince just came home from a friend’s house.
ME: Oh, hi. How was it?
MY SON: It was okay. They didn’t have a pump for the soccer ball, but I hung out to talk with X and Y.
ME: *trying to place the name with a face* Y…is that the girl who was here the other day?
I think I remember her. Tall, coltish, shy, hair over the face.
MY SON: Transgender. So…yeah. It? *glances at me for confirmation*
ME: Well, do they identify as a girl now?
MY SON: Yeah, male to female. So, a girl.
ME: Okay, so then she.
MY SON: Okay. We hung out. They might be over later. *goes to unload the dishwasher, since it’s finished*
I stood there, a great swell of pride and love breaking inside my chest.
Okay, so then she. To him, it’s just that simple.
This is how our children teach us; this is how they crack us open. This is how they give us hope for a better world.
I read a review of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian not so long ago, and was intrigued enough to pick it up. I read it all in one sitting–well, mostly, with only a short break to make and consume dinner with the Little Prince–and, when I had finished, felt as if my interior space, physical as well as psychic, had been violently pummeled and made larger by the experience. The writing, translated by Deborah Smith (who also translated Kang’s Human Acts) is stunning, simple, and incandescent.
The book centers on Yeong-hye, a young Korean wife who has a disturbing dream one night and consequently refuses to eat meat. But that’s a little like saying The Metamorphosis is about bugs. The Vegetarian is densely layered and extremely brutal in the way only true things can be.
The structure of the book is interesting–three interlinked novella-length sections, each told from a different point of view. The first is told Yeong-hye’s husband, the second by her brother-in-law, and the third by Yeong-hye’s sister In-hye. If that seems odd, you’re right–we are given almost nothing from Yeong-hye’s point of view except two very short passages that might or might not detail the “disturbing dream” that sets the entire book in motion. Those passages could be read as her husband Mr Cheong’s imagining what the dream might have been, and that’s only the first of several layers of contrasting interpretation, meaning, and allegory.
At first, The Vegetarian seems to be about the dissolution of Yeong-hye’s marriage, since she not only steadfastly refuses to eat meat but also to wear a bra. She simply Bartleby the Scriveners her way out of both things, simply, quietly refusing to ingest what she doesn’t want to or confine her breasts. Mr Cheong, having married her thinking she was absolutely ordinary Korean housewife material, is alternately ashamed of and infuriated by his inability to “control” her the way Korean society thinks he should and he has come to expect. Mirroring his fury is Yeong-hye’s father, who at one violent family dinner tries to assert a right over what his (until now passive and obedient) daughter will do with her body. Young-hye’s resistance is largely passive and turned inward–since patriarchal strictures hem her in so thoroughly, the only way she can opt out is through refusal and, eventually, self-harm.
The middle third of the book shifts to Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law, a visual artist who allows her sister In-hye to support him while he’s “blocked” creatively. He’s obsessed with using Yeong-hye’s body as a canvas for one of his works, and the attempt to do so destroys his marriage as well. Paradoxically, his obsession gives us an insight into what Yeong-hye might actually want, although in the following section, we find out she may have still been heavily medicated all during the interactions and thus robbed of even that small measure of consent or agency.
The last third of the book is where everything is truly ripped open and The Vegetarian ascends to the level of a masterpiece. Everything leading up to it has been filtered through male perceptions and a patriarchal search for control of a female body, as well as the violence that ensues on several levels when said female body (not to mention the female owning it) refuses even tacitly. Yeong-hye’s sister visits her in a psychiatric hospital, and the unflinching examination of the stripping away of Yeong-hye’s bodily autonomy by the medical personnel is only part of the agonizing pain. In-hye has done everything “right” and been a model child, wife, and mother, and yet she’s in desperate agony. In-hye is forced to examine her relationship with her sister, the cruelty of their upbringing, and the pressures on women in Korean society. Wondering if her sister’s methods of coping with said cruelty and pressure are any better or less self-destructive than her own is a powerful question, one In-hye can barely bring herself to articulate, much less face.
The complexity of In-hye’s emotions around the caretaking of her sister and her son, the utter betrayal of her husband, and the emotional labor she performs for her family, all hit me right in the solar plexus. Realizing, once I had finished, that I had identified so thoroughly with In-hye that I had come to regard her sister as a symbol just as Mr Cheong and In-hye’s husband had was a nasty shock. Colluding in the strictures that attempt to rob women of bodily autonomy is almost impossible to avoid in most of the world, and Kang deftly performs the almost-impossible trick of implicating everyone, even the reader, in the violence of trying to make Yeong-hye conform. Not only that, but the allegory of the pressures on women in Korean society is so stunning that it also eclipses her, implicating the reader even more thoroughly.
I suspect I have not done this book half the justice I want to. It went straight back on my to-be-read pile for another go once my head has cleared, which is not at all usual. I feel like I have to go back and reread, maybe to try and find Yeong-hye under all the differing perceptions of her, maybe just to marvel at the sheer effortlessness with which Kang piles on and pulls away different layers of meaning. I also want to find Kang’s other work and devour it whole, which will either have to be through interlibrary loan or maybe selling some plasma to pad out my book budget next month.
TL;DR: Simply amazing, completely savage, and well worth buying in hardcover.
This past weekend, the Princess graduated from high school. (Good Lord, I feel old.) Yes, I cried. That seems the only appropriate response when you’ve successfully managed to get a tiny dependent being through the eighteen years of childhood and early adolescence. The ceremony to mark such a thing, while boring, is still important because it’s a ritual, drawing a nice bright line between the phase of “public school” and the entry into young adulthood. I rarely have the patience for communal rituals, but I recognize their import.
My baby, growing up. *sniffles a bit*
She’s handling the transition better than I am. You get into the habit of feeding, caring, listening for their breathing, constantly blocking traffic for them, guiding, watching, loving them so hard your very bones ache when they’re in any kind of pain. It leaves an imprint. Learning to let go, bit by bit, as they grow, is hard. You wake up one day, and they’re doing things like BEING ALL GROWN-UP. And the feelings get so big they leak out of your nose and eyes and mouth.
The other thing I did this weekend was run a writing workshop for teens. It was interesting. I have often thought of running online writing workshops, and it was fun to do sort of a dry run and see what kinds of questions people ask, how a workshop is structured, and how to keep an audience interested. I think it went rather well.
Still, all the emotion, and the public speaking, left me drained down to a bare shadow of myself. I suspect I’ll need another day or so to recover, then it’s on to Cormorant Run revisions. I planned to start them at the beginning of the month, but the zombie apocalypse story grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. I think I was using the zombies to decompress, or just plain to escape.
…yeah, my wiring is weird. But then, if you’re reading this, you quite probably knew that already. I’m retreating, also, because the news is so terrible, and I am old enough to realize it’s very likely nothing will be done. People simply love their fear and their hatred too much to change; it terrifies me that my children will be going into such a world.
So I’m off to refill my creative well, and to go back into a world I built a while ago. If there’s hope, it lies in creating. Or at least, so I tell myself. It’s all I have to fight the fear.
Once I had written Cami and Ellie’s stories, well, Ruby couldn’t be far behind. I had only foggy idea of what her story entailed. It was one of those situations where I just had to trust that the Muse knew what she was doing and it would turn out all right.
Red Riding Hood has never drawn much of my interest. I suspect Freud ruined it for me. “Don’t go into the woods, little girl. Those are huge… tracts of vast dark sexuality!” As a slut-shaming or even a cautionary tale, I found it objectionable. Even the violence in it didn’t move me. It took me a while to figure out that I didn’t have to listen to the (mostly male) academics (or the male-gaze dominated cartoons or movies or TV shows or or or) winking and nudging about how the wolf was a guy hanging out at the corner to lead a virginal girl astray and RUUUUUUUUIN HER.
Fortunately, my little Red didn’t have to buy into such bullshit.
Instead, her story became about different things. The pressures of love and obligation, for one. Ruby has something I never did: she was born into a tightly knit, loyal clan. It took me a long time to realize not all families were like mine, minefields of pain and degradation. I did go through a phase where I went the opposite direction and assumed other families were perfect, and mine was fucked-up because I was poisonous. (After all, I’d been told for most of my life that I was a mistake, that I made everything worse, that I was a problem.) It took a long time before I realized there was a continuum of family fuckedupness–like much else in life, there’s a gradient. Even a good, loving family is full of pressure. (Even good stress is still stress.)
Ruby spoke to me of things I hadn’t thought of since my own teen years. Boyfriends with quick fists and how they move you bit by bit through a maze until you’re trapped. Hated, necessary duties, and the feeling of being cheated upon learning which things were not necessary. The fear of adulthood, the massive change that hits once school’s over. Suddenly being on your own in a world they’ve told you is worse than what’s at home–because how would they get you to stay if you thought there was a chance of a place where you wouldn’t be beaten or screamed at by rageaholics?
The longer I wrote, though, the more I realized Ruby’s story wasn’t so much an exorcism for me as a synthesis. The structure of Little Red Riding Hood was an alchemist’s set-up, and I was distilling.
Ruby, Cami, and Ellie save each other. Sure, there are princes in their fairytales, but it is the friendship between these three young women that brings them through. It is the friendship that keeps looking for each of them when they disappear, that breaks well-meant (or not so well-meant) rules in order to keep searching, that brings each of them back from their abyss. Each of them is a reflection of the others (those doubles and triples again) and the message they carry is the same.
You’re strong enough. You’re good enough. You matter.
That’s another thing about fairytales–you can choose to find hope or despair in them. Cautionary or elevatory tales, it’s up to you.
Life is dangerous, and when you’re young, there’s a certain lack of proportion. You haven’t lived long enough to understand some things are molehills, not mountains. If you survive (psychically or physically, or both) you can eventually learn. Survival, like telling stories, is most often a bloody process. Even in the best situations, with people who have the best of intentions or who are doing the best they can, blood can be drawn and pressure can mount.
Ruby was always the character who seemed the most “together.” Even Cami and Ellie expected her transition into adulthood to be seamless. One of the more surprising things about her was that she was just as uncertain as either of her friends, she just coped differently. It’s like Madame told me once about ballet class–nobody is looking at you, everyone is worrying about their own dancing. But you don’t know that when you’re young. You don’t know everyone is faking it. You don’t know that everyone around you is as uncertain as you are; it takes a long while before you begin to suspect that everyone is stumbling along in the dark no matter HOW seamless their confidence appears from outside.
All these things came together while I wrote Ruby. All these things went into the cauldron and boiled, and the soup surprised me.
The exhaustion that hit at the end of the trilogy was some of the most severe I’ve ever had. I’ve talked before about snapback–the exhaustion that hits at the end of a book. It happens exponentially at the end of a series. The massive flywheel in your head that’s been powering yo along, pushing this boulder uphill, has too much momentum to stop right away. It has to spin down, and while it does that, your head can feel like the inside of a bombed sieve.
When you set out to tell a fairytale, you’re opening the door to forces bigger than yourself, an accumulated lightning-charge that will teach you all sorts of lessons, painful or not. I’d made it through the woods, to the castle, past the gate. I’d told the stories I needed to tell, the stories that needed me as an outlet. It was exhausting, and I grieved a little, because I knew Cami, Ellie, and Ruby had other mountains to climb as their lives unreeled. I had to say goodbye to them, because they were different people now. It’s a good feeling, but also a painful one. There’s no birth without that pain, no creation without that discomfort. Even the stories that tear their way out, red in tooth and claw, heal over.
If there is a balm to be found in the ending of fairytales, in that happily-ever-after, it’s that even the worst things can heal. It doesn’t have to be ever after, it can just be for now, and that’s okay.
I’ve never liked Cinderella. The idea that one must be patient and submissive even under the worst treatment and someday, someday you’ll be rewarded strikes me as damaging at best and a culturally approved way to groom people to be abuse victims at worse. I was always faintly uncomfortable with the endings of different versions–the stepsisters cutting parts of their own feet off, shoes full of blood, casks full of red-hot nails rolled down a hill with the stepmother inside. It wasn’t the violence that made me uneasy, I knew from a very early age the world is a brutal place and safety largely an illusion. It was the feeling of righteousness welling up when I read about abusers getting theirs that made me queasy. I often wondered if those feelings made me just as bad as the stepmother and sisters–or just as bad as the people who beat me.
So when I realized Ellie from Nameless needed her own story, it irked me. I didn’t have the trouble in choosing the tools to excavate it; they came easily to hand for once.
That should have been my first clue that the exorcisms weren’t over.
I wrote Wayfarer during the Great Casa to Chez situation. About halfway through, I deconstructed under the stress, and for only the second time in my life, the words refused to come. I had no emotional energy to spare and yet the urge to write tormented me with spurs under my skin. I would sit down, look at the files open on my desktop, and slide straight into a panic attack because I was too burnt out to feel my way from word to word. Having the urge and being unable to scrape together even a single syllable was a very special kind of hell.
Buying a house is not for the weak.
Anyway, that passed, and as if in payment for keeping the faith, I fell into Ellie’s story as soon as I turned on said desktop in the new house. It occurred to me, now that I’d achieved some distance from the story (not by my own will, but still) that I wasn’t really writing about someone else.
I was writing, in some ways, about myself.
The fairy godmother doesn’t show up when Cinderella is being beaten for not cleaning something properly, doesn’t show up when she sleeps in the cinders, doesn’t advocate with her when her inheritance is stolen. Instead, she arrives before a goddamn ball. Which has always seemed to me like she’s not really very invested in dear old Cindy-Rella, but has an agenda of her own. You find out when you survive a bad childhood that escaping carries a price and risks all its own. Those who offer to “help” you often have their own agendas, and your wellbeing may be only a small (or nonexistent) priority. A few harsh lessons from that quarter and the devil you grew up with starts looking like a marginally safer bet. Some kinds of help aren’t really helpful at all. In other variations of the tale, it’s the dead mother and a Giving Tree who step in to send Cinderella to the ball, and if that doesn’t make a false dichotomy between the dark and passive feminines, I don’t know what does.
Ellie understands very well she’s trapped because she’s a minor. She puts a brave face on at school and doesn’t invite her friends further into her problems than she is absolutely forced to. “Help” isn’t something she feels is possible, it isn’t something she feels she can ask for. When she is finally driven to a certain cottage, the “safety” there is just as perilous as “home.” She does well in school until she can no longer go, understanding it’s one of her few ways out. When you’re that young, and that under siege, isolation begins to feel like your only and safest bet. You cannot trust anyone else, even those who really do want to help you. You fight even the best support, because trust is a liability you can’t afford when you’re holding together your psychic integrity under assault 24-7.
Not only that, but one can often feel…corrupted. Being told over and over that you’re worthless, evil, the worst thing that ever happened to your parent, that it’s your fault they do these horrible things to you, fucks up every sense of priorities, perspective, and worth you might have. The effects go on for years, and even therapy cannot completely erase the stain or the sting.
It can take a long time to piece yourself back together. Therapy has helped me immensely, as well as medication to get the anxiety under control. (Just give me a stick!) I have found people who can be trusted, and I have allowed myself to trust. There was no fairy godmother, even though I wished for one. In the end, it’s Ellie’s own strength, and her bonds with people who are willing to give the right kind of help, that saves the day. The latter is never guaranteed, and the former isn’t either, but I’ve spent my life betting on the latter and am, incredibly, still breathing.
I found out I was stronger than I ever suspected. Ellie’s survival is in part mine too; this is part of why fairytales stick around. Even under the trappings I care very little for–the prince, the ball, the dresses pulled from a nutshell or bibbity-bobbity-booed into existence–there is a hard kernel of truth that can ignite the bonfire I burn all the pain and rage and helplessness in. I don’t sleep in those ashes anymore, I have difference sources of warmth.
But when I go into battle, I paint my face with them, because I’ve survived. That was the story I needed to write, and I think–I hope–I did.
One does not simply walk into fairytales. Not without an axe and a pocketful of breadcrumbs, anyway. And when you are inside, you must look carefully at every face, because it carries an echo of its opposite.
Nameless started with a single image: an injured little girl in the snow in front of a gleaming-black limousine. I was about sixteen when the image came to me, and it occurred periodically for years afterward. I didn’t write the book that went with that image for almost two decades. I wasn’t ready, and I knew I wasn’t ready. Still…the story stayed inside me, closed up on itself.
When I was ready to begin excavating, I chose a shovel. It broke, and I had to choose another. (As one does.) Over and over, every tool I wanted to use kept breaking, it took about six before I found the one that would work and settled into a rhythm. About a third of the way through–thankfully, the pickaxe was still holding up–I realized I’ve absorbed, by dint of sheer cultural saturation, the fairytale laws of twos and threes.
Snow White and the Queen are two sides of a coin, the Prince and the Huntsman (Nico and Tor) likewise reflect each other. Once I realized that, the structure of the book almost built itself. The difficulty was stepping into each character. Camille’s terror, and the abuse that robbed her of easy speech, was heartbreaking, but it was something I was familiar with. The White Queen’s fear of old age and death, and her selfishness, was arduous in different ways. It’s a lot harder to feel empathy towards a nasty, self-centered villain.
Actually, I take that back. The empathy is easy. The hard part is suspecting there’s some part of oneself that reflects the villain’s awfulness. We are large, we contain multitudes, and every archetype casts a shadow. To tell stories is to delve into those dark patches.
A character can function as a double more than once. For example, Papa Vultusino (the widowed king) and the White Queen express different conditions of authority. And the old Vultusino and the new (Papa and Nico) are in creative tension with each other, just as Cami’s own shadow-side is reflected in her acceptance, through most of the book, in her persistent feeling of being nameless.
When I was younger, the variations of Snow White filled me with a sort of antagonistic loathing. I hated that she was passive, that she bit the damn apple, that someone else had to save her. Then I went through a period of considering the entire story an allegory, with each character a part of the psyche. There was a time I thought it was about “found family” and how you could be helped by people you could trust when your own flesh and blood betrayed you.
Writing Nameless, though, became about something even more personal. I went into a jungle full of mirrors and shards of other things I’d thought the story meant, in order to answer a deep, almost-unarticulated question from my own childhood–how can a mother injure her own child? I didn’t understand it then, and as a mother myself I don’t really understand it now. It’s utterly foreign to me, but at least writing the story, with each character refracted through its double or split into threes, helped me achieve some sort of tenuous peace.
I have come to believe that retelling a fairytale is similar to performing an exorcism. If one isn’t prepared, it can go badly. The accumulated charge of these stories, told and retold, repeated in threes and sevens, is great to plug into but dangerous as well. Under each variation is a core of something halfway between emotion and truth, taking the strength of both and reflecting. Two mirrors facing each other, and a candle between them to light up the labyrinth. The glare can blind you if you don’t have a ball of thread, or pebbles to drop in each intersection, or…you get the idea.
No matter how old they get, they still want Mum when they get sick. Today the Princess is laid low by an extremely vicious cold. She insisted on going to school yesterday, but this morning I overrode her objections and put her back in bed. Today I will be playing Flo Nightingale, fetching ice water and Benadryl, making easy-to-digest snackies, and just generally doing all those things mums (hopefully) do.
She’s eighteen this year. My God. I would say I feel old, but I actually just feel…grateful. She is an amazing human being, almost fully an adult, and if something happened to me tomorrow she’d make it in the world. She has the tools and the drive. (Not that I’m planning on exiting, I still have deadlines. Har har.) Which is really comforting, but the most comforting thing of all is that I did not do what I feared most–I seem to have avoided messing her–or her brother–up irreparably.
I had to build my parenting philosophy from the ground up, since I knew I didn’t want to do what had been done to me. It was hard. When you are working against the things acid-etched into you since childhood, it can seem insurmountable. I was forced to think very deeply about unspoken assumptions about parenting, about what exactly my responsibilities to tiny squalling bundles I’d calved were, and what rights I did and did not have to or over them. I did not like being beaten, threatened, emotionally abused, or terrified during my own childhood, I should not ever inflict that on anyone else. That’s pretty straightforward, but when you’re near a psychotic break from lack of sleep, suddenly responsible for a small thing that can’t feed, clothe, or wipe itself, and essentially abandoned in favor of drugs by the guy you married because everyone said you should–being knocked up and all–well, things get a little muddled.
I am extremely thankful they did not get muddled enough that I did what my childhood “caregivers” did. Instead, the first (and only) time I was tempted to commit a physical act of frustrated cruelty, I had one of the few incidents in my life I would outright call “religious”, where a voice I’d heard only twice before–both times warning and protecting me–spoke up in no uncertain terms, telling me to just walk away, shut the bedroom door, and let the baby cry for a few moments while I got a goddamn hold on myself. Whether it was simply my own conscience forced to radical neurological measures or a guardian spirit is academic, because the end effect was the same and I don’t give a damn anyway.
After that particular incident, I never again felt an overwhelming temptation to be an asshole to my kids. Sure, there were smaller moments of frustration, but those were normal and somewhat easily clamped down upon. I admitted to myself that I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, but as long as I remembered this tiny squalling bundle was a person, things would more than likely work out in the end.
They seem to have.
I hear a lot of bad shit about teenagers and parenting them. I hear it’s supposed to be a conflict-laden time, what with hormones and negotiating the passage into adulthood. Certainly my own teen years were a life-or-death struggle on my part, trying to preserve some psychic integrity and emotional wholeness in the face of overwhelming odds. I sometimes ask my kids, “So…are we supposed to fight, with you being a teenager and all?”
The Prince just widens his eyes and says “Let’s not, okay?” The Princess normally gives me a baffled look and says, “What on earth is there to fight about?” Or they come home after school and say some version of, “X was talking about their parents today, and oh my God I am so glad you’re my mother.”
Of course there have been times when they’ve thought I was crooooool and unjust. (Especially during their toddler years.) There have been periodic cases of them needing to bump their noses against a boundary or two just to make sure the safety net is still there and though things may be changing rapidly in their lives and bodies, Mum is still on watch and ready. There have been Consequences For Your Damn Actions, usually arrived at with input from the consequence-sufferer. (They often suggest much harsher punishments than I end up giving. But not always.)
In a way, I’m glad my own childhood forced me to consciously think about and decide what kind of parent I wanted to be. Not much of a silver lining, but there it is. The whole point of parenting is to get one’s offspring to reasonably ethical and compassionate adulthood, to a stage where they can take care of themselves and won’t be dickwads. I think a lot of people get so used to being The Authority in their children’s early years, they forget that the endpoint is a rational, independent adult. Consequently, when Being The Authority starts to take a backseat, they do what other challenged dictators do–tighten the iron fist.
And that rarely ends well.
So. I am reasonably confident that should Miss B succeed in putting me in my grave during a morning run, or if an airplane part falls out of the sky onto my head, both my spawn have a better-than-fighting chance of surviving in the harsh world. (Yes, my will is up-to-date. Just because I have no intention of shuffling off the mortal coil yet doesn’t mean I’m stupid or unaware.) I am also reasonably confident that when my children reach my age, I will not be such a toxic influence they have to cut off contact with me just to survive emotionally.
I am, finally, pretty sure that both of them know I love them more than anything else in my life or on earth, and that no matter how old they get, they can still count on me to bring ice water and Benadryl and smooth their foreheads and say, “it’s all right, baby bear. Mum is here.”
Even if I’ve accomplished nothing else, I can be proud when Ma’at weighs my heart at the end.