It’s morning, so I’m on the internet. And like any other morning on the internet, a bunch of people are arguing on Facebook. So what’s new; it’s just another day. Just another poet who’s published a piece online that everyone’s all up in arms about. This time, the culprit is an Asian American woman. I don’t know her well, but there’s an affinity there. I like her work; I respect her. Even so, when people put us next to each other, it’s the way they go about it that irks me. Like, omg, you’re both Asian and you both write about complicated girlhood? Wait, so you guys must know each other, right, like you’re basically just the same person! Her poem appears on Buzzfeed, the font large and trendy against the white background. The subtitle reads “it happened to me: / I dated a white anarchist / who made me do all the dishes / while he crowdfunded his trip to Rojava.”[i] A caricatured account of the Bad Anarchist Boyfriend archetype, the poem is a too-easy criticism of the left, sure, but I also know men who fit that description, so I don’t think much of it. I click out of the screen. But by the time I get to work, there’s been a minor internet scandal, and I can’t help reading every word: the poem, the related commentary, the outraged Twitter threads, the multiple tags. No coffee, scrolling on my phone.
I’m falling asleep. I dreaming, I can’t remember what. When I wake, my nose is bleeding. No surprise, since I am a defective and sickly child. Alongside my asthma and vertigo, I have inherited weak blood vessels in my nose. My mother had hers cauterized, a red-hot rod prodded deep into her nostrils so the delicate, veiny frills would flatten and cease to bleed. I was a replicative mistake, the blood gushing out of my nostrils. I’m kicking and screaming. My grandma’s pulling my head back by my hair, her pudgy fingers strong against my scalp. I remember projectile vomiting, miles and miles of red. I’m dying. I swear it. I pass out from the panic. The next morning, my grandma shows me the basin I remember choking the contents of my body out into. On the pink plastic, there sits only a single tiny blood clot, shriveling in the morning air. I can hardly believe I’m still alive, or how wrong my own experience can be. I can barely believe the lesson I’ve just learned—that what I’m certain I know will rarely be perceived by others as real.
I’m on the internet and it turns out that this poem is based on the real-life story of a Bay Area punk activist who went to fight in Rojava. It’s a loosely fictionalized account, written from the point of view of his partner, of him behaving like a misogynist fuckboy, even though the poet doesn’t know either of them. It seems little of it is true. To say people are upset about this poem is an understatement. Some things I read about it from friends, and on social media:
It’s irresponsible, hostile, and unethical.
It’s liberal red-baiting under the guise of pop-cultural feminism.
I mean, it’s dangerous how it’s erasing the work of queer anti-capitalist activists of color while repeating clichés about how radicals are all sexist straight white men.
It’s honestly so boring that its critique is just based on “gender stuff.” I mean, implying that radicals are uniformly ignorant of these sorts of feminist struggles might score you a bunch of points with the “I’m With Her” crowd, but the point of writing about the personal is to actually do something about it and not just complain.
Like, if your boyfriend’s telling you to do the dishes, then just don’t fucking do them, just get off your ass and leave him, you know what I mean, like who cares, she’s just after the fame anyway, she’s just in it for the glory.
Because aren’t the stakes always just so high? If the internet is a microcosm of real life and its microcosmic issues of race, art, and politics are doubly intensified, we just have to have something to say about it. People trade witty barbs that are as full of camaraderie as they are potentially vicious. Others accidentally reveal their understated affiliations with power. We all get lost on a tangent. We’re all still online. It’s all in the “spirit of the discourse,” duh, and if you’re going to make problematic art, you have to be willing to take it, but even though I hate this fucking poem, too, it starts to feel like everyone’s just making sure they don’t get caught not joining in.
It’s Friday morning, my day off. Claire texts me and asks if I want to go the Martin Wong show at the Berkeley Art Museum with them, maybe after we get bagels? I do. When we meet, Claire is carrying a very gay tote bag with pornographically realistic Tom-of-Finland leather daddies on it, each of their tiny cocks straining through their pants. The server at the bagel shop clocks it and casually mentions how much he regretted not going to the Folsom Street Fair this year. I’m reminded of the time Claire went out with one of the bagel girls and then promptly ghosted her, meaning we couldn’t get bagels for months after. You don’t shit where you eat, I said. But we’re in the gay Bay Area, so that’s what happens—and I can’t help but love it.
I’m at the Berkeley Art Museum, learning about Martin Wong, a queer Asian American painter raised by immigrant parents in San Francisco’s Chinatown. He was active in the Lower East Side arts scene from the eighties through to the nineties. Refusing to adhere to traditional ethical limitations—in fact, refusing to adhere to the racial themes of his own Asian experience—Wong instead employs a wide range of identity markers in a way that betrays his own psyche’s complex and problematic web of cathexes. Some of the paintings combine the influences of graffiti and sign language with Chinese calligraphy. Others employ kitschy stereotypes of Asian culture in a series of glamorized and distorted tableaux, calcifying it into a style that subtly critiques the way Chinese culture has been grotesquely adapted in America, from yellowface in Hollywood to the lurid red buildings of Chinatowns in every state. In an oddly naïve style of collage, Wong’s paintings manage to locate, even celebrate, the romantic ideals embedded at the heart of each identity category while simultaneously exposing the artificiality of any assumed qualities associated with them.
Perhaps the most compelling paintings in the show are the eroticized portraits of young, muscular black and Puerto Rican men in prison. They’re reclining in their cells, wearing gleaming tighty-whities. They stand shirtless next to heavily barred doors and metal walls, alongside placards that proclaim prison names such as “Paco” and “Cupcake.” Painted in a style reminiscent of Mexican religious icons, these portraits fetishize rough trade along racial lines, and are beautifully difficult to encounter. Claire tells me they had invited someone else along to the show, but reading the description of the show made them hesitate. Didn’t it seem a little fucked up? “But I love problematic gay art,” Claire laughs. “I know, me too,” I say before I go back to tearing up at a video of Martin Wong’s white-collar parents caring for him as he is dying of aids. The three of them laughing with his friends, crooning off key at a karaoke Christmas party in Chinatown, the green and red tinsel piercing the stage.
But back to that fucking poem. When I point out to people that some of the critiques of this poem seem low-key racist and misogynist, I’m told I’m just splitting hairs. When I point out that any statement suggesting a woman just “leave her abusive boyfriend” isn’t exactly validating victims of domestic violence, I’m told that the accusations leveled in the poem were fictional in the first place, so they don’t exactly count—after all, they’re more incriminating to the punk activist whose experience is being appropriated. Either way, I can’t seem to coax my opinions into an allegiance with either side. And when I get upset, I wonder if it’s just because, like Oki says, this Asian American woman is acting as some presumed mirror for myself, and I feel implicated. But honestly, it feels pretty shitty that people keep assuming I’m defending this poem when I’m not. I’m trying to critique the responses to the poem as well as the poem itself, I just want to be mad at more and not less.
I’m looking at this poem and it mostly feels shitty because when I get upset, I know it’s not even about the fucking poem. I’m upset because it feels like you can’t write the personal without it fitting neatly into some larger cause. These days, there’s no room to make art unless its loyalties are straightforward, like how we want identity to be.
Whatever. Sex and revolution. Destiny and doom. I guess they make things simple when there are so many moving parts. It’s why we have the cinema. Other times, things aren’t that complicated – and that’s why they seem real. It’s why we have identity. But it’s all just a story we tell ourselves nonetheless. Something imaginary. Something to believe.
I’m thirteen. I want to be loved, but I don’t know how to ask for it. I solve this problem with simple solutions, anorexia and cutting, because I am a fairly simple girl who finds it satisfying when she does what’s expected of her—even when it comes to the forms her rebellion takes. I shred the flesh on my arm and hide it under the neat silence of a single Band-Aid because I am unhappy. I stop eating. I’m thirteen, and what stops me from destroying myself is going to church. I hear a pastor speak about parables. You know, the prodigal son, the good Samaritan, all the stories Jesus would tell his followers, all the stuff I learned in Sunday school as a kid. The pastor says something interesting. He believes that what’s significant about parables is not their content, but the counterintuitive form they take. In other words: a parable is not a story designed to convert someone to Christianity. In fact, it is rather the opposite. It is made to affirm one’s faith—a parable can only be truly understood by an actual believer. Mark 4:11–12: “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; in order that ‘they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand; so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.’” A parable is code. It is designed to be obtuse so its lesson remains obscured to those who do not believe but clear to those who do. And like a parable, the pastor tells us, God’s unconditional love is not to be discovered. It can only be experienced if we first believe it exists—if we first believe that we are worthy of it. If we do not, it will forever remain unseen; we will be blind to it. But if we simply believe, we will feel His love. It will flood over us in waves.
After I hear this, I begin to believe that God loves me unconditionally. I believe that He will love me no matter how much I weigh. He will love me whether or not I am wounding myself; He will love me despite this pain that I feel. I begin to pray every day. I take comfort in the idea that I have no control over what will happen in the future, but I trust that God’s will shall be done. Somehow, I want for nothing. Somehow, the pain is gone. I begin to eat again, especially food that’s sweet. I stop wearing Band-Aids. I wear leg warmers on my forearms to hide my red and healing scars, the synthetic wool soft and comforting against the keloids on my skin.
When I start eating again, my mother is delighted and relieved. She buys me pain aux raisins from the bakery near my school, greasy and sweet, with crème pâtissière baked into its spiral. When I stuff the soft pastry into my mouth, I think about how much God loves me. When I lick the orange glaze from my fingers, I think about how even when I look disgusting to everyone else, He will still love me. When I savor the pain aux raisins, one minuscule bite after another, when I hide even the last crumbs inside my standard-issue school desk, I think about how much God still loves me. So much. I believe it.
The weekend that I’m upset about the Rojava poem debacle, Staiti drives me to Fort Mason Center for Arts and Culture, out by the sea, to see Sophie Calle’s show Missing. We get there late. It’s a cold and cloudy day, so we panic when we realize the pieces are spread out in different rooms, over a large area. Composed of documentation and ephemera from some of Calle’s classic performances, Missing is a wide-ranging exhibition that feels casual and intimate in its dispersal. We power walk from gallery to gallery, sweat streaking the smalls of our backs, turning clammy in the salt breeze. My favorite of the pieces we see is titled Voir la mer, and aptly, it’s installed in an old fire station by the ocean. The wall text explains simply, “I went to Istanbul, a city surrounded by water, I met people who had never seen the sea. I filmed their first time.”
We find ourselves in the middle of a dark room. We’re surrounded by screens on which bits of film flash intermittently—depicting close-ups of Turkish strangers whose faces change as they encounter the ocean for the first time. A woman who breaks into a joyful smile. A man whose brows furrow slowly, overcome by its watery immensity. As viewers, we’re voyeurs to this intimate experience. We’re reminded we’re in distant America, made too aware of our physical location, our privileged circumstances. We become subject to a simple dilemma: we cannot watch one person’s experience without turning our backs on another. The questionable act of looking at the Other, pulled apart: a torturous dissection that happens so gently that when its consequence hits you, its force is winding.
I love Sophie Calle because even if her pieces are easily categorized as “performance of the personal,” they are never contrived or theatrical. Even if they’re staged, their framing is merely incidental; they’ve grown spontaneously out of what’s already in her life. A single gesture tacked on to what is already occurring. Sophie finds an address book and calls the numbers, she sees a handsome man and follows him, she goes to bed and invites others to join her. In other words, if Calle’s art doesn’t appear to serve anything beyond herself, it’s because it’s not intended to; it’s usually simpler than we think. To me she is less capital-A artist or inventor of self-as-critique than curious and incisive curator of her very life.
Seeking the last exhibit in the show, Staiti and I climb a series of steep stairs, we careen around a grassy knoll, we follow a strange path into a cul-de-sac full of dumpsters. It’s a while before we find the tiny chapel, high up on a hill, where the installation is. Stepping in is a bizarre experience. Entitled Rachel Monique, it’s dedicated to the memory of Calle’s mother, and projected on the wall above the altar is a video of her final dying moments, Calle’s own aging hands arranging beloved stuffed animals next to her wizened face. The rest of the chapel is haphazard—lace curtains etched with her mother’s last word: souci (French for worry), giant photographs of tombstones installed across the floor. Pages of her diary are printed out on flimsy paper, strewn across the floor, and pinned to the walls, their amusing aphorisms recited over tiny speakers installed in the pews. Her mother’s namesake, a taxidermied giraffe head that Calle purchased right after her death, hangs awkwardly on the wall, an ungainly transitional object. Its face is bemused. After we leave, Staiti and I sit on a park bench. It’s drizzling. They hold me, and I weep.
In an article for the art publication Momus, Sarah Burke writes, “Missing successfully illustrates Calle’s enduring ability to rend our hearts, like the composer of a well-written pop song. . . . And at a moment when it’s increasingly necessary to be invested in a collective reality, the performance of the personal can appear like an unconscionably saccharine escape.”[ii] She makes a good point. I don’t disagree, but there is not much more I can say in defense of this show apart from that it lacked pretentiousness. It was a modest intimacy, it moved me.
Sometimes, I hear people say that after the revolution, there will be no need for art.
Do I really believe that? I don’t know.
What I do know: some parts of the revolution are not so unlike art.
What I do know: it’s too delicious to love art so simply.
I hesitate to compare art to direct action or even to revolution in the abstract, especially when the latter affects people’s lives in real, empirical ways. And even I will admit that art may just be a compulsion, a reiteration of tired forms that we know can produce pleasure. I might not have any belief in art apart from in its power to move me.
But I can’t help but think that both art and action can produce effects in their participants that, although decidedly different, can in fact serve the same function: to give us some belief that we are sharing in something that is happening, whether internal or external. A recognition of, or recognition by, something bigger than ourselves.
I’m crying at church with my mother when the music swells. When it happens, it is a transient psychic disturbance. Belief. It’s a moment when all the ingrained inhibitions of my upbringing, embarrassment, education, and social behavior are simply cast overboard, and natural impulse, like a mountain torrent, sweeps everything before it away with nostalgic force. Tears are welling up from somewhere, I don’t know.
Sometimes, when I talk about religion I ask my love if it makes them feel uncomfortable. They shrug. They like to tell this joke, “If you end up being Christian like your mom, maybe it wont bother me. You know I’m friends with a bunch of communists, right?”
It’s true we like to believe that doubt and questioning are crucial to finding one’s faith, but it’s a blinder belief that’s the basis of any action. It’s the fragile pinpoint of any resistance. I’m at church, watching my mother as she prays. She has tears streaming down her cheeks. There’s something about it I can’t access. There’s something here I can’t understand. I feel a twinge of jealousy. I want -- I don’t know. In the face of everything, I’m small, like a child. I feel weak and powerless. I want something to save me. Will it? Will anything? I haven’t started crying yet.
[i] Jenny Zhang, “Poem: ‘Follow Him’ by Jenny Zhang,” BuzzFeed News, BuzzFeed, August 4, 2017, https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/jennybagel/read-this-very-short-story-by-jenny-zhang#.ciQaJj3kv.
[ii] Sarah Burke, “Post-Confessional: The Aging Intimacies of Sophie Calle,” Momus, August 2, 2017, http://momus.ca/aging-intimacies-sophie-calle/.