Spokespersons and Empathy

“I’m coming at you live frostbitten & thinking / Language is for losers.… / One day my song / will be called ‘Language Is for Lovers.’”—Terrance Hayes in “Shakur”

New Romantix

In Terrance Hayes’s title poem “Lighthead’s Guide to the Galaxy” of his book "Lighthead," the first poetry book I ever owned, he writes “I wish I could weep the way my teacher did as he read us / Molly Bloom’s soliloquy of yes.” Molly Bloom’s soliloquy is found in James Joyce’s Ulysses and is exactly one sentence: It’s five pages long, has zero punctuation, and choruses the word “yes.” I guess part of me always knew I was the type of girl who’d love the soliloquy, even before I reached any semblance of sexual maturity. Molly Bloom’s world seemed attainable, because I had a suspicion that I was almost there, that if I waited, I could be beautiful, and if not beautiful, I could be wild, and if not wild, I could be free. More than any other person I ever encountered, Molly Bloom felt things as if she were alive.

I was plagued with the distinctly feminine, distinctly modern, distinctly middle-class issue of choosing what type of girl I wanted to be. Later, I realized the model I had chosen—Molly—was problematic because she thought about men too much, was too sexual and submissive, and allowed herself to be constricted by the patriarchy. She was written by a male; a dead white male writer, canonized by other dead white males.

In his hour-long HBO special from 2000 entitled “Killin’ Them Softly,” comedian Dave Chappelle says, “The only thing in our society that bothers me the most is the way that men and women don’t get along no more.” He proceeds to talk about magazines killing chivalry and the different things men and women desire (women: material goods; men: a woman). I would agree with him if I wasn’t so heterosexually female in my experiences and my counterparts weren’t so heterosexually male. There are slips in our empathetic abilities that this newly-justiced society requiring correctness and inclusion and respect does not forgive, because even if we try, we will always imagine the other wrong.

To what extent can someone appropriate an experience, and does it matter how much that person cares? In fiction, writers are in this constant state of appropriation, of conscious bias. Jamie Stewart wrote in his last column, “What scares me is the potential for writers, including myself, to influence and guide discussions.”

I always, in some way, knew I was a spokesperson or representative for my race and gender. But I didn’t know there was an ethic to it. “The Hubei Boys” in The Adroit Journal was the first story I ever published. It was based on the three sentences my father told me about his childhood and five year-old faded memories of what his hometown was like. A review on the journal in Litbloom said, “The story, ‘The Hubei Boys’ by Christina Qiu is the most striking to me. I love its meditative tone and how it gives insight into the daily life of Chinese schoolboys and peasants.” I hadn’t meant for it to give any insight, because there was no research process. My fact base was solid as air. It’s been years since I revisited that story, but now that I have, I realize that Hubei is to me what Molly Bloom was to Joyce. My Hubei was imagined and loved. My Hubei was not the Hubei of dirt, but the Hubei of dreams. It was accepted instead of ridiculed because of the yellow of my skin. It was an objectification regardless.

A boy in my fiction-writing class asked why, in our class’s stories, guys mansplained and cars groaned like boys and men left their wives, and when I tried to blame my characters’ machismo on society, I remembered that I could be cruel too. At one point, I realized that most girls I knew had written or tried to write poetry, and most boys I knew didn’t. A lot of boy poets I met were either gay or wrote about impregnating their girlfriends in short, Hemingway-style phrases. They couldn’t imagine boys in real life being as cruel as they were in my stories, but maybe they were poets for a reason. I couldn’t imagine girls in real life wanting anyone as much as the girls in their stories, but maybe I just had a kind father.

At one point, I realized that all the girls I wrote about were prettier and cooler and dumber and sexier and badder and poorer and tougher and harder than I was, but it didn’t really matter because I wrote them pretty. My high school best friend asked if it was okay for an upper-middle class yellow girl who spent her Friday nights in SAT class, Saturdays in neuroscience classes at Columbia’s high school program, and other days on a piano bench, to write about a yellow girl who worked full-time at her parents’ restaurant.

Still, I am older now and less critical of the old me than I was even months ago. There is something to be said about the writing of the story itself, about a yellow-American girl incorrectly yet enthusiastically describing her father’s pre-immigrant life, the beauty and care and kindness in that. There is something to be said about a man describing his wife’s lovers in a way that makes her more beautiful than manipulative, more alive than demonic. There is something to be said about what we do when we love, when we let people occupy that space, when we think about them until we think them wrong. The bad boys in my stories, or the sweet girls in theirs.

Maybe it’s wrong to be angry at Joyce because Molly Bloom is caricatured and false; maybe it’s wrong to think of my Hubei as illegitimate. Maybe that’s the tragedy, those incongruities after empathy, after we have considered and wrongly considered the other side. But maybe this was what made Molly Bloom so beautiful to me. She was alive. She took things easy. She was powerful the way only dreams can be.

Christina M. Qiu '19 lives in Matthews Hall. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.


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