Jan 27, 2009

Girls, Girls, Girls...

This past weekend we received a movie from Netflix that I was looking forward to watching. To find a film boring or slow is one thing, but watching this film actually made my blood boil. I’m speaking of “The Duchess,” an Academy Award nominated British film starring the talented Keira Knightley. Although well-acted, this film portrayed a female character whose main virtue and value in the eyes of not only society, but also of herself, was her intangible (unrealistic) beauty and obsession with fashion.

I’m so tired of female characters in film and television whose only value as leading ladies is to be beautiful, extremely thin (to the point where you can see their ribs sometimes!), and fashionable. We, as modern women, have to struggle to have a healthy body image because our role models and heroines are ridiculously skinny with picture perfect hair and porcelain skin.

But I’m not just disgusted by the extreme, socially-imposed perfection that so many actresses have to attain in order to get roles. I’m also tired of seeing female characters that neither look nor act like myself (nor any of my female friends for that matter). In much of the entertainment world, women are only seen as stereotypes, damsels in distress, or—more recently—completely obsessed with fashion and “finding a man.” In most films, women are only powerful and meaningful as seductresses or manipulators. And forget about being an actress if you don’t have the ideal look or if you are a normal, healthy weight. And curvy girls can only be comic relief.

I don’t want to simply whine. I want to note the female characters that are fantastic and beautiful and quirky and fun. In no specific order, I’d like to mention Margaret Cho (who had a short-lived sitcom called “American Girl” that everyone should watch) and Alyson Hannigan and Cobie Smulders as the intelligent, yet hilariously flawed women in “How I Met Your Mother.” I must mention the lovely ladies of “The New Adventures of Old Christine” (even though I think Julia needs to eat a bit more also, she looked healthier in “Seinfeld”): Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Emily Rutherfurd, and Wanda Sykes, whose relationships with each other and men are realistic and beautifully flawed. The best portrayals of women in television that I know of were in “Northern Exposure,” which aired for several seasons in the 90’s. They were realistic as individuals and beautiful people without being starved and air-brushed.

I was racking my brain to think of good female characters in film recently. Sadly, most of the movies I’ve enjoyed had complex and daring male characters but only fake or shallow female characters. A few movies did come to mind. “Stranger Than Fiction” with the striking and talented Queen Latifah, the elegant Emma Thompson, and the ever-amazing Maggie Gyllenhaal (with her tattoos and messy hair—she is so sexy!). It is uncommon for there to be so many relatable female characters in one movie and especially for it to not be a “chick flick.” “Notes on a Scandal” portrayed an eerie Judi Dench and a tragic Cate Blanchett. It was a disturbing and engaging film with unique, literary female characters. I also must mention “Ghost World,” “Little Miss Sunshine,” and “Juno,” because these films showed girls and young women as they really are: lovely, silly, and completely distinctive.

Jan 20, 2009

amazing day

"i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes"

-e.e. cummings

Jan 13, 2009

Little Things (a short story)

Wendy Chan walked into the classroom full of round, blue eyes and light hair. There was only one student who didn’t have pinkish, pale skin and pimples. He sat alone, in the front row. His skin was the color of dark chocolate. There was an empty desk on either side of him. Wendy sat down in the right one. It pinched her classmate in the waist, she noticed immediately. He was a round kid with a shaved head.

He turned his face toward her, then ducked his head quickly and went back to reading a comic book. Wendy leaned over. It was the newest X-Force comic. Wendy smiled. She loved comic books even though there were very, very few Asian heroines. She envied the taunt, strong yet feminine bodies, large eyes and flowing hair, which was always blowing upward.

The teacher was thin, with a pinched mouth and steel eyes. She had closely cropped gray hair but her skin was free of wrinkles. She introduced herself as Mrs. Beckman and then asked Wendy to stand up front.

“We have a new student joining us this year. Her name is Wendy Chan. Her family just moved here from Los Angeles. Since she’s entering in the middle of the semester, please be patient as she catches up.”

Wendy stared down at her shiny black shoes and bleached white socks. The shoes pinched her feet, but they were her nicest ones. Her navy blue dress—starched and stiff—was two sizes too big for her slim frame. Wendy felt like she was wearing a cardboard box. The dress, one of many, had been passed down to her by an older cousin. When Grandmother moved in with them, she mailed boxes of used clothing from the Hong Kong relatives to their home. The clothes may not have fit exactly right, but Grandmother made sure that they always looked brand new.

Grandmother picked and poked at her constantly. She was always yelling in Cantonese: “Stand up straighter! Eat more, eat more! You look like a praying mantis.” (You look like a stick-bug, she actually said.) “Why do you always bite your nails? You will never get married if you bite your nails.” Wendy wished her mother would intervene, but she was working odd hours and never seemed to be around.

Wendy’s family moved to Ohio because the air in L.A. had been bad for Grandmother’s condition. She was prone to respiratory infections and other numerous ailments. Wendy’s father now had to drive an hour to work in Columbus, but he said it was worth it to care for his mother. Her mother was a pharmacist and she quickly found a job about twenty minutes away.

Wendy had attended the public school for the first month, but her parents found it to be understaffed and ill-prepared to teach their daughter. So they enrolled her at New Covenant Christian School in October.

The classroom stood for the Pledge of Allegiance. She knew the Pledge by heart. She had moved to California from Hong Kong when she was four years old. She had only vague memories of her home there.

Wendy remembered little things, like the spicy smell of the marketplace and the open air balcony of their apartment on the twelfth floor. It was always full of green and growing plants. She used to play on the balcony under the watchful eye of her grandmother, pretending that she was Poison Ivy.

Wendy’s parents had left Hong Kong without her. She hadn’t understood that they were coming back for her. She cried for weeks. After Wendy’s father secured employment and her mother enrolled in pharmacy school, they came back for their only daughter. Wendy didn’t recognize them when they walked through the door. It had been six months.

Wendy didn’t know the second Pledge that the classroom recited. They faced a different flag with a white cross on it. She felt her face become hot as she moved her mouth wordlessly. The class sat down. Mrs. Beckman told everyone to bow their heads as she prayed. The words made no sense to her. What did that mean, “In Jesus’ name, amen?” She chewed on her fingernail. Her mother had promised that if Wendy would stop chewing her nails, she would take her to get her nails done. Wendy remembered this and sat on her hands.

When they finally opened their books, Wendy expelled a deep sigh of relief. She had covered this grammar stuff last year. She completed the first assignment in ten minutes.

The boy beside her was tapping his pencil on the desk. Tap, tappity tap, tap, tap.

“Morgan, stop that,” said Mrs. Beckman.

Morgan put the pencil down. His eyes were blurry. His left leg started shaking. Up and down. Up and down. Faster and faster. Wendy was mesmerized. This boy never stopped moving.

“Wendy, are you finished?”

Wendy looked up to see Mrs. Beckman’s pointed face mere inches from her own. She opened her mouth but no words came out. She nodded quickly.

“Then why don’t you come up here and read the answers aloud.”

Wendy tried to stand but her legs were weak. She bumped into Morgan and flew backwards. Trying to catch herself on the desk, she gripped only the edge and pulled the whole thing on top of herself. The class broke into an uproar.

“Stickgirl can’t stand up,” someone in the back of the room shouted.

“Help! I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.” Laughter pierced the air.

Mrs. Beckman called for silence.

Morgan shimmied out of his seat, lifted Wendy’s desk off of her, and offered his hand. She held it. It was surprisingly steady and firm. Wendy dusted off her skirt and straightened her knee socks.

“Thanks,” she whispered.

Morgan shrugged, but his eyes lit up. He turned away and shoved his plush body into the tiny desk.

Wendy walked up to the front of the class and placed her textbook on the podium. Some of the children were snickering. Mrs. Beckman clapped her hands twice. “Enough.” She motioned toward Wendy. “Proceed.”

Wendy cleared her throat. Her voice came out in a whisper. “The answer to number one is adjective. An adjective describes a person, place or thing. The answer to number two is noun.”

Morgan glanced up at her and she lost her place on the page. He was erasing furiously. Little beads of sweat formed on his forehead. Her gnarled fingernail found the next question. Her mouth was dry. Too dry to speak. Finally, Mrs. Beckman spoke up.

“Thank you, Wendy. Let’s let someone else answer the next five questions.” Mrs. Beckman called on a blond girl with turquoise-colored, plastic glasses, who was raising her hand as high as she could.

Wendy sat down very carefully. She arranged her pens and pencils in order of size. She folded her hands in her lap. After class, she thought, I’ll ask Morgan if I can borrow his comic book.

Jan 9, 2009

The Sticky Perception of Others

I wonder sometimes at how important the perception of others is to the vision I have of myself. How important is the assumption I have of the perception of others toward me?

All through my school years, I wouldn’t try anything new. I had to already excel at something before I performed in front of others. Others could mean my teachers, my parents, classmates, etc. Anyone except my brothers. They alone knew how silly I could be. (We liked to play poker at the kitchen table, pretending that our long pretzels were cigars and getting “drunk” off of fruit punch.)

I learned how to read before I started school. I learned the basics of Spanish before I took Spanish in high school. I would read ahead. I listened to my classmates give opinions and ask questions before I raised my hand.

After hitting puberty, I stopped playing sports because I wasn’t as fast as I had been before. I had curves to contend with by the time I was twelve. I wasn’t good anymore so I just stopped playing. I dropped guitar and piano lessons because I couldn’t get it within a short period of time.

But I never gave up on my writing. I wrote stories compulsively, like the physical need to eat. I wrote stories without any thought as to whether they were good or not. I wrote stories without the slightest idea that I might not be a very good writer. I wrote because the characters were alive in me and they were begging for a universe to live in.

Then I went to college. I learned about good literature and bad literature. I got scared. What if I was writing bad literature? What if I was a bad writer?

So I worked on one single story idea, two characters, and the beginning chapter of a novel for years. I rewrote the first sentence at least twenty times. I tried writing it in all lowercase because I thought that might be avant-garde. I wrote it in third person. I wrote it in second person. I felt like I would never finish the story. It was never going to be good enough.

For who, you ask? Good enough for who? The pre-conceived perception of others that I had concocted in my head was more important than listening to my gut. What if they didn’t think it was a good story? What if they didn’t think I was a good writer?

Fortunately, I was the recipient of a good kick in the ass. I was handed a silly, little kit called “No Plot, No Problem,” a new laptop, and time to write. I had a plot. I had just lost the childlike joy of writing for the pure thrill of creating something out of nothing. Writing a story was a wild adventure because even though I was the author, I was continuously surprised by my characters.

I peeled and pried off the thick, sticky film of anticipatory embarrassment, then dove headfirst into the deep, liberating river of utter and honest conception.

Two years later, Cast the First Stone was born.

Now, here I am holding my first, complete novel and I’ve come full circle. I wonder how much I’ve grown emotionally because I’m still contemplating: what are others thinking? If I get very quiet though, shush the imaginary voices that whine “maybe they won’t like it” and “what if they say it’s no good,” and listen to the dark places of myself, I hear the characters and I know. There are more stories to be told.

Jan 7, 2009

Buon Capodanno (that's Italian!)

Well, it’s the new year. I’ve spent the last two weeks pondering the last year and planning what I wish to accomplish in 2009. If you’ve been following my blog, you know what a hectic year it’s been. In the last twelve zany months, I got a new job, started tutoring ESL, took classes at NU, finished my first novel, helped design my website and the look of the pre-publication edition of Cast the First Stone, hosted a variety of cool cats and visited family, celebrated my grandfather’s 90th birthday, and participated in my first neighborhood festival. (Yay, Rogers Park!)

This next year already promises mystery and momentary laps of sanity. I’m applying to the graduate program at Northwestern for creative writing. I’m planning on participating in the Pilcrow Lit Fest in May. http://pilcrowlitfest.com/ I’m working on what will be a collection of short stories called Invisible Elephants. During all of this, I’m trying to get an agent/publisher, submit to journals and contests, and do more readings in the Chicago area. I’m also going to see if some local bookstores and artistic venues will sell CTFS in its current form. Whew.

This is just what’s on my immediate, personal agenda. Then there’s the organized lunacy of David’s schedule, his upcoming art shows and projects, and our goals as a couple. http://www.artprimadonna.net/

I’m reminded of the "Pinky and the Brain" (two lab mice who break out of their cage every night) cartoon shorts from the 90’s.

“What are we going to do tonight, Brain?” asks Pinky.

“Try to take over the world,” answers the Brain.

Stay tuned.

Jan 5, 2009

Review of CTFS

"Just wanted to let you know I finished your book last night. I could not put it down, it totally sucked me in. I absolutely loved Denny and really wanted her to get the heck out of Oklahoma. And Haley reminded me so much of myself in high school. It was kind of frightening, but reassuring at the same time. My favorite part by far was the time she spent in San Fran. Your description of the city was so vivid and raw -- it really made me want to go back there."