CULTURE

Playing God on the Page

by Mary H.K. Choi

Photo by Aaron Richter

The best-selling author, cultural commentator, and journalist Mary H.K. Choi's third book, Yolk, (out March 2 from Simon & Schuster) tells the story of two Korean-American sisters and their struggles with family, identity, cultural erasure, and intergenerational trauma.

People always ask me, why do you write YA? Part of it is writing stories that I wish I had access to when I was younger, not only from a representation standpoint. The truth is, a lot of what I do is publicly workshop my own baggage for money. There's this weird thing about writing fiction where, even if you wanted to be wholly divorced from your own life and experiences, that's what you end up drawing from. It's pretty irresistible, especially as a new writer, cannibalizing my own life and putting a little fake nose and glasses on it and trotting it out into the universe saying “No, this isn't my story at all. This is a totally different person who incidentally happens to be Korean and has issues with her mother.”

There's also an aspect of it which is more fantastical. So many of the conversations in Yolk that take place between family members—especially mothers and daughters or siblings—were conversations I wish I had in my own life. Part of that is egomaniacal and juvenile. I'm basically saying, here are my lines and here are your lines, and these are the lines I wish I could hear from you. (That level of manipulation and control doesn't work in the world; people don't seem to like when you give them a script for the sole purpose of allowing you to heal.) You're playing God. Some of the subject matter is true to your own past, and some of it you hope to be true in your future—some magical day when you're so wise that you can have these conversations from a truly organic place.

Beginning work on Yolk was really thorny. The book is about sisters, health, sickness, intimacy. I knew it would be a difficult book because at the outset, there was a small voice in my head saying, “Hey, when are you going to write your eating disorder book?” I knew it would be this one. In it, I wanted to talk about how there's a hierarchy for what sickness looks like, to explore this quality where I understand how severe or hardcore something like a cancer diagnosis is, and how easy that makes it for me to discredit how sick I was when I was really active in my own eating disorder. One feels like something that befalls you, and the other is really shameful because it's something that you continually do to yourself.

When I was writing Yolk—about eating disorders, and Texas, and New York, and cancer, and siblings and mothers—my mom was diagnosed with lung cancer. This was a month after everything was locked down in New York in April 2020. That time almost felt as though the city was disintegrating. I felt obliterated by sensory overload, so much so that I shut down, loaded by vigilance. This was back when everyone was being so cautious and understandably alarmist about just how new this pathogen was, how dangerous, enduring and seemingly powerful it was—designed, in a way, for us to be powerless against it. Plus, there is the fact that my mom was diagnosed with lung cancer during a respiratory pandemic. Since I was writing about cancer, it felt so surreal. In all of my egocentric, playing-God-as-a-writer, making-up-my-own-things myopia that can take over when you're inside a story, I thought, I invoked this. I invited this, I created a portal for this to come in. (That sounds so delusional, so immature and fabricated; I can imagine it being the inciting incident to some sort of very twee, partly animated, magical realism, intolerable, mumblecore movie.) But that was the head space that I was in.

Then, everything became copy. I couldn't stop narrating my real life and narrating what was happening, practicing what would happen if this book came out and I would have to say that, God forbid, something awful happened to my mother. Thank God that's not how it panned out: my mother had surgery and is, for this moment in time, cancer-free. But last year, it was hard to be present for the very real people in my life who were going through something, because it was so much more preferential and comfortable for me to play cancer in this other world. It both paralyzed me and caused me to work myself to a bloody nub. My eating disorder kicked in and I was convinced that I needed to start smoking again, or start drinking again. It was the only thing I thought at that time would soothe me. And I couldn't stop writing, while simultaneously not being able to write at all. I ended up writing 20,000 or 30,000 words I didn't use; I started ruining chapters I had already written so that I could graft on all this nonsense. I broke myself and then when I couldn't write at my computer anymore, I started writing longhand. It was so much work to un-book this other book I was doing. But it wasn't cathartic, and this isn't a story of perseverance. I don't know if you've ever written something when you're high or when you wake up in the middle of the night and you write down your dreams because you're like, “Oh my God, this is the million dollar idea. This is my Eat, Pray, Love.” And then you look at it in the morning and it's basically a drawing of a foot. That's what all those words were. In that moment, I was like, “Oh shit, I get it. This is how you burn out on work without doing any work.”

I put everything down for a few weeks, and started going in on advocating for my parents' care. My father had been diagnosed with ALS. To remove a cancerous part of my mother's lung was considered an elective surgery when she was diagnosed. Nothing was happening in hospitals other than COVID stuff. My mom needed a pulmonary expert but, you know, the lung people were busy. I threw my focus into: who do I call? How do we find a surgeon? How do I spend six hours researching? There was a frenetic, anxious need to throw myself into activity, which encapsulates the early mood of the pandemic in New York City as well. There was this weird belief that if you read the news fast enough, you would somehow catch up and then overtake reality until you could predict or read about whether or not your parents would die. It felt like I was feathering a nest or building a brick-and-mortar house with all of these little headlines. And you cannot sustain that kind of vigilance or metabolism.

I realized I was isolating. Understandably, it had been a really long time since I'd seen anyone, but it also had been a really long time since I'd gone outside or even talked to people on the phone or via text. It really looked like depression—the kind of depression where you can't move—except it was overshadowed with anxiety. Then I realized—as I do, because I am part of 12 step groups—I know there's a group for this. I went to codependents anonymous and Al-Anon. Then I landed on this other place that looks at the roles you played as a child, and the ways in which you're emotionally stunted because of the dysfunction that you grew up in. That was really helpful.

I realized the pandemic, my parents' sickness, the book, weren't going to just go away. It would be a marathon. And so all of that stuff had to calm down and then I able to distinguish between what was real and what wasn't and just let the book be the book that it was instead of it being the never-ending story where I'm rewriting or, you know, some sort of movie with will Ferrell and narrated by like Emma Thompson or whatever, where I think that I'm writing into my own future.

Now, the book is coming out at a time of unprecedented hate crimes against elderly Asian and Asian-American people. When you're reading about the targeting of our most vulnerable members, it's the most disembodying thing, especially because we've been vigilant for so long about being fearful that we will accidentally kill our parents because of the nature of COVID transmission and the way it targets older people. The truth is, being Asian—because of the way we're brought up, because of our collectivist views, because so many things innate to our individual disparate cultures does have bedrock in: don't make trouble, don't make too much noise, just take what you were given—it's difficult to take up enough space and say “This is our pain,” especially given the urgency of other racial experiences in this country. Through these events, and throughout history, we've seen that racism against Asian people is somehow more forgivable. It's not as bad because we didn't have to undergo X, Y, and Z. The thing we all shared, we all talked about in our personal group chats from Jay Caspian Kang's story in the New York Times Magazine with Steven Yeun was when Steve said, “Sometimes I wonder if being Asian is thinking about everyone else and having no one think about you.” Sometimes, it feels like we are negative space. And in me, there is a fight or flight, freeze and withdraw until you're completely invisible, tendency. It's passed on through generations of Asian people; it is inherited. But at the same time, it's nice to know it's not just me.

As a woman, and more specifically, as an Asian American woman, I am so quick to diminish the aggressions against me and people like me. I'm constantly taxonomizing, doing the math: well, my problem is bigger than this, but smaller than this. I was taught that if you are quiet, you endure, work hard, you're palatable and you're sleek and you're elegant, then you're going to get a huge prize. I really thought it was a transaction—if I do all these things, then something marvelous will happen, I'll be doing my Sandra Oh acceptance speech. The thing is, nobody gives prizes to disappeared people. No one is going to invite you, for being so quiet, to the inner sanctum where all the gifts live. No one is going to give you an award for diminishing your own pain. I can imagine believing that forever, getting angrier and more bitter and more resentful—that could have been the life I led. Thank God that is not what my story is now.

As told to Maxine Wally.