The first time I took a fiction writing class, I was surprised by how many systems it took to make falseness believable, how many differences there were in being real and pretending to be real. I questioned anything that cut too perfectly, that ended with someone being just right. I hated characters that grew to be functional rather than deep, that were able to say how exactly they became better people. They were formulaic. They sang clichés.
Yellow men have historically been emasculated in the United States; here is a story. Ko Shigeta is 17 years old and arrives to work on a Hawaiian sugar plantation in 1903. Years later, he remembers this: bathing in the same place as other yellow men’s wives and feeling them step over him “as if [he] were a dog or cat in their path.” He remembers their indifference to his nakedness. This story describes a difficult emasculation, one created but not directly imposed by a white presence. It feels tragic because it speaks of helplessness. It is one thing to be hurt by someone who is supposed to hurt you. After a while, you build resistance to that kind of hurt. You find yourself. You learn to shrug.
But once I asked a yellow-American friend if she’d march in a Black Lives Matter protest, and she hesitated before saying no, she wouldn’t. I got mad and waxed colored solidarity like no one’s business because she let me. I told her we weren’t just talking about stupid representations in media or taking too many AP classes, we were talking about lives, blood on the street, and a system built to hurt or criminalize, which was the system of white supremacy, which was the same system that made sure Jet Li never kissed Juliet, our SAT scores were mad high, and that we were still asking if we were Asian or if we were American. She said it was cute I carried around a Helen Zia book and could spit Tumblr back to her, but I didn’t get it, none of the un-cute, scary stuff. Because even if my parents were yellow, immigrants even, they didn’t look at the Red Apple Boycott in Brooklyn with Robert Carson saying “in the future there’ll be funerals not boycotts” and become completely afraid, like her parents did. They didn’t own beauty shops and restaurants. They didn’t know how to use guns, because I never had to see someone break into my parent’s store and hold a gun up to my father’s head. Or to learn, after a decade, that no one would trust them if they had protested, at least not with their accents, at least not with their children looking effortlessly, happily successful. But she did.
Before I was in love with Toni Morrison, I was in love with this one phrase everyone associates with her, her style, her characters, her plots, her thinking: dangerous. No. Not just dangerous. Dangerously free. As in can’t be contained, as in dying young, as in nothing to lose. I think I had an idea of what “dangerously free” would look like, and it always involved this raw, breathless, windswept intensity that could only be described as tragically beautiful. Like getting so skinny from meth you could drum your ribs like a guitar. Like laughing, but not because it’s funny. Like cigarette smoke and the skin beneath your knee. I was thinking about a girl, bound by no one, nowhere, nothing but her body; a girl so broken that norms don’t matter; a girl, from no place, going nowhere. It all seemed like straight poetry.
But Lauryn Hill wasn’t just beautiful. Just slick, or deep, intellectual. Lauryn Hill made my heart ache, and that’s why I loved her, not just the cute parts but the bad parts too. When MTV Unplugged flopped. When she was jailed for tax evasion. When Rohan Marley said “I feel sad that I loved her so much and I faltered in expressing it to her somehow.” I wonder if what she’s expressing in “Neurotic Society” and “Consumerism” is less preachy than it sounds because I know how easy it is to think macrocosmically if you feel broken and disjointed inside. Sometimes talking about the world is easier than talking about yourself. Sometimes you say what you mean, but mostly, you don’t.