BY ELLEN CHAI
On October 5th, 2012, when I was a senior in high school, I drove to the Mississippi River for the first time in my life. I parked at a meter along the riverfront, walked down a craggy rock cliff, and slid, resolutely, into the river.
As a sharp chill shot up my legs, my eyes filled with tears. Unstoppable, surging tears. My clothes clung to my shivering body like delicate strips of seaweed. The twilight glow seeped through the dark gray clouds, streaks of pale red, as far-off and cold and benignly indifferent as Camus’s stars. The sky looked like it had cracked open.
In the opening of Ying Chen’s 1995 novel Ingratitude, the 25-year-old narrator Yan-Zi commits suicide as an act of revenge against her domineering mother. The rest of the novel is her devastating postmortem indictment of their relationship.
I have not read Ingratitude, nor do I want to.
I heard a man calling from the distance, his voice growing louder, shakily urgent. "Hey, what are you doing? Come on up, I’ll help you out."
He had been fishing farther down the riverbank and saw a girl half-submerged in the water.
"What’s your name? Tell me what’s up. Tell me everything."
And I almost did. I told him, first, about the strained relationship I had with my parents, the alienation I felt, the tyranny they imposed. Quietly, I added that I was gay and wanted to be a writer: the two most unforgivable sins. At the time, I was also recklessly, desperately in love with an older woman I met online, who (for good reason) did not reciprocate my affections.
Most of all, I talked about—and felt most acutely—à la fragments of a suicide note "their shame and my shame and their confused venomous eyes with that heavy disappointment and I’m a hopeless daughter a fucking failure." I talked about—and felt most acutely—the shame of being a misfit of epic proportions.
"Misfit" is one of Lidia Yuknavitch’s favorite words. In her beautifully harrowing, unabashedly celebratory TED talk, she says that she likes the word because it’s so literal: "it’s a person who sort of missed fitting in. Or a person who fits in badly." The weight of her past, of her string of conventionally framed failures (e.g., reeling from the effects of growing up in an abusive household, having two failed marriages, flunking out of college twice, her daughter dying the day she was born) could be assembled, isolated, symbolically deployed with one word: "misfit."
A misfit who had failed in being a "daughter, wife, mother, scholar." A misfit who convinced herself that she was undeserving of love and recognition. A misfit who somehow, miraculously, found a letter in her mailbox saying that she had won a top literary prize for a short story she had written, and sat at her kitchen table in her underwear, staring at the letter in stark disbelief. Yuknavitch gently reminds us about the radical potential, the beauty, of being a misfit.
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I wish that I had heard this talk when I was younger. Growing up, being a misfit was an ugliness, a deformity, a kind of scar tissue that I tried—and usually failed—to hide, especially from my parents. Yet I was also strangely proud, even protective, of my inability to "fit in," tending to it like a garden, a seedbed of rotted roots.
Within my family, my identity as a misfit is inextricably tied to my queerness and flagrant disregard for normative cultural scripts. This is to say: my identity is constantly at war with the identity they try to impose on me. Though, oddly enough, my interest in the verboten humanities has its roots in their exacting expectations, only to morph into something monstrous and uncontrollable.
My first exposure to philosophy was through a Duke TIP online course I took the summer before high school. My reasoning for taking the course was, I admit, embarrassingly callow: I wanted to impress a girl I liked (the precocious writerly type), and "philosophy" had an erudite ring to it (she was not impressed, though she remains a close friend to this day). My parents’ reasoning, even more predictable: whatever philosophy meant to them, taking an advanced-level course would propel me farther ahead in the rat race to top universities. The only thing that mattered, really.
The course itself was disappointing. We covered only the pop cultural aspects of philosophy (many of our assigned readings were from House and Philosophy) when I wanted a firm grasp of the subject itself. Being the stubborn, self-serious rebel that I was, I convinced my mother to take me to the local library, where I checked out stacks of philosophy books from Plato to Sartre, telling her that they were for my class. I ended up failing that class for not submitting my final paper. I was too busy reading about death and nothingness.
Reading, for me, was a form of passive rebellion. Those days, as long as I assured my parents that those books were for my classes, I had free rein on what, when, and how long I could read. Those days did not last. Soon they began to suspect that reading was making me crazy, that I was exposing myself to corrupting influence, and that I needed to stop reading to focus on math and science and things that "mattered."
I remember distinctly the day they tore down the printed pictures of writers and philosophers on my wall, the way they hissed, "No normal teenager likes the things you do." (Note: the "normal teenager" for them occupies her days exclusively with SAT practice, Science Olympiad, and household chores. The "normal teenager" for them does not have an identity.) I stood there silent, screaming internally, as they disposed of the shreds in my trashcan. As the lid slammed on Simone de Beauvoir’s face, I could hear the synthetic skin of a movement tear apart.
Thus: I read in secret, under the glow of my bedside lamp when they were asleep, quickly shoving the book under my pillow when I heard shuffling feet; sitting on the bathroom counter, door bolted, flushing several times to give them the impression that I had reason to be in the bathroom. I skipped class to go to the local used bookstore, stuffing a paper bag with books by decadent French poets, modernist giants, transgressive writers, unapologetically queer voices.
I read to escape, to cope, to carve out the tiniest inch of freedom in a prison cell.
Shortly before I took the philosophy course, I began to discover how not-straight I was. I found myself inexplicably aroused by the sway of a woman’s hips in music videos, the rise and fall of her half-exposed breasts, the fragrant softness of her skin. My heart fluttered when pretty girls smiled at me.
I did not know, then, that there were words to articulate my feelings.
Part of my ignorance, I suppose, was due to the lack of queer visibility in the community I grew up in. I didn’t know any queer people personally, nor had I heard queerness being discussed in any meaningful way besides "gay" being thrown around as a pejorative or rescinded with a qualifier (classic variations of "That’s so gay," "Faggot," "No homo"). After hours of Internet research, starting with typing the words "what is lesbian" into Google, I came to the frightening, looming, yet undeniably tantalizing realization that I would hurt my parents in unimaginable ways.
Shortly after I took the philosophy course, I chopped off my hair and took on an androgynous self-presentation—the timing, I believe, was purely coincidental. In Gender Trouble, Judith Butler describes gender not as something one is, but as something one does, as "the repeated stylization of the body, a set of repeated acts within a highly rigid regulatory frame that congeal over time to produce the appearance of substance, of a natural sort of being."
By this she means that gender is socially constructed and constituted, culturally inscribed through mundane, performative acts. Sexed bodies, rather than preceding gender, are products of discourses about gender, often conforming to hegemonic heterosexual standards. Though I didn’t know anything about Judith Butler then, I knew that I wanted to "do" my gender in ways that disrupted the gender binary. I knew also that I wanted to feel less invisible as someone who was queer—and achingly lonely.
My small rebellions were not without consequences. When my family and I went to dinner parties at other Chinese homes, the parents would gossip to each other about my hair, my clothes, my unselfconscious (to them) weirdness, jeering that I was damaged goods, my body a scratch pad for the claws and teeth of their fears.
When we came home, my mother would have me sit down on the sofa, refusing to look me in the eye, and snarl, "What is wrong with you?"
She would continue, "Do you have no self-respect? Do you have no respect for your family? Do you not realize the things they say to me behind your back?"
I would be tempted to say, "I am not responsible for the things they say to you. It’s the sickness of this fucked-up capitalist-patriarchal-heteronormative world, the sickness of limitations, but you will never understand."
But instead, I would mutter, "I’m sorry, I don’t know" and feel a dull throbbing in my chest.
I came out to my parents involuntarily. I had been institutionalized after my suicide attempt, and my therapist hinted that the only way I would be deinstitutionalized was to be honest with them about my sexuality, since, to her, that was the root of all my problems. That wasn’t the case, of course, but regardless, I came out to them during a family therapy session.
I still remember the heaviness of the air, the pregnant, unbearable silence, until—possibly to save face—my father mumbled, "I don’t support this, don’t believe I can ever support this, but I will accept it." They simply wanted me to come home.
Weeks later, my mother screamed through her tears that she wished I had never been born. My father added, gravely, that they would never accept me as their daughter if I ever had a female partner. They would erase me from their minds, their memories, their existence. In place of my body would be a daughter-shaped space. A permanent striking-out. An unperson. I broke down in tears.
By a strange twist of fate, I was in my first relationship soon afterward, with a girl. It was a well-kept secret: conducted through passing notes in the one class we had together, sitting at the steps in a near-vacant parking lot at lunchtime so I could slip my hand into hers, stealing kisses in the girls’ restroom between classes, and pouring our hearts out in lengthy Facebook messages.
Her parents were no more accepting than mine. They were fundamentalist Christians who instilled in her a guilt-lashing revulsion at her sexuality. She told me how she squirmed while reading about sodomites in Dante’s Inferno for English class, the sinking sense of dread she had in church with friends-turned-strangers in her imagination.
I sensed it in the way she jerked her hand away when she heard footsteps on the pavement. The way shadows crept across her gray-blue eyes, slowly colonizing her irises. Her body trembled and shook the day I played for her Nick Cave’s Into My Arms:
"I don’t believe in an interventionist God
But I know, darling, that you do
But if I did, I would kneel down and ask Him
Not to intervene when it came to you
Oh, not to touch a hair in your head
Leave you as you are
If He felt He had to direct you
Then direct you into my arms"
It’s true: our love was a yearning born of grief.
A few years ago, a friend of mine asked, innocently enough, why most of my idols (writers, artists, musicians, filmmakers) seemed to be white. She asked whether I found whiteness, or European culture, more beautiful, whether I loved all of myself as much as all of myself deserved to be loved.
I remember giving her a reflexive, half-assed answer about how my idols happened to be white. I stopped to consider it more, recanted that statement, and painfully saw, in full view, my problematized relationship with my Asian-American identity. On the one hand, I spent my entire life trying to escape what I experienced in a small Chinese community—I described my feelings then as one part of my identity having "elongated spurs closing around another’s neck." On the other hand, "being Asian/Asian-American" is, no doubt, irreducible to tales of intergenerational conflict, to the deeply flawed "model minority" myth, to the monolithic representation of immigrant parents as unfeeling—in my case, viciously homophobic—oppressors.
In Immigrant Acts, Lisa Lowe cautions against "interpreting Asian American culture exclusively in terms of the master narratives," which essentializes wide and varied lineages: lineages tracing the scars of colonial trauma, rippling across the seas of cultural diaspora, bleeding through layers of memory and mythology, kinship and love.
To dispel master narratives means also to create a space for resistance, for counternarratives to flourish.
I think of Ren Hang, Bernice Bing, Yayoi Kusama, Qiu Miaojin, Evelyn Lau, Ocean Vuong, Wong Kar-wai, Tsai Ming-liang, Yuri Kochiyama, Eileen Chang, Can Xue, Yiyun Li, Maxine Hong Kingston, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Janice Lee, Chad Shomura, Jess X. Snow, Jenny Zhang, Lia Incognita, etc.
Together, these writers and artists, filmmakers and activists, queers and provocateurs, misfits galore, tell me: we exist. There is a place for you to belong. No more dying.
Ellen Chai is a recent graduate of Washington University in St. Louis, where she majored in Philosophy-Neuroscience-Psychology. Her work is forthcoming in Prairie Margins.