Discover more from warm cups of tea
catch me in the air
many questions + one hundred days
Okay. Full disclosure that I was not keeping up with days of the week at all. Still I wanted to keep this exercise going, etc. Have an orange hand-peeled by me because I was too lazy to cut it with a knife, and lemonade to go with it.
It’s August (slipped away into a moment of time). I have been reading The Chosen and the Beautiful which is set in hazy New York summer and I think I will probably talk through it later. Mostly, I want to share this line, which feels applicable even with the inversed seasons: “…for the four weeks that took us out of July and into a sullen and ferociously fevered August, I could barely catch my breath.” Truly do not know what happened to my July but now it is August. Wild.
i’m not the moon
Look. Representation alone does not make media ‘good’. Not a super controversial statement. Identity bingo cards lead to calls to ‘read diversely’ as if that in itself is some sort of praxis; on the other hand, It Is Okay To Work At A Company Manufacturing Weapons For Western Empire If Trans Access To Healthcare is a real opinion that people seem to have. And yes, I support the existence of trashy, mediocre media with diversity in the characters and creators and experiences. It’s enjoyable! Let people have fun! Let baby gays watch Heartstopper! On any level, it is lovely to see people like you exist, and affirming to experience that thrill of recognition and understanding whilst reading.
Even so, I do sometimes consider whether I am hypercritical of media that is supposed to represent me in some way or another. Usually I conclude that I am just critical to a normal extent, and always the equal/opposite argument arises, which is that I have no obligation to like media solely because it centres my ethnicity or race or sexuality or even my problemissues. It does feel easier to pass judgement on books and movies claiming to ‘represent’ an entire group of people, starting with the absurdity of that claim in the first place, but 90% of the time that is a marketing issue. (Anybody remember pre-Crazy Rich Asians movie discourse though? Yet I still remember that movie fondly.) But sometimes it comes down to personal taste, like the fact that I never managed to finish The Half of It, despite it being a whole moment of a Chinese lesbian protagonist in a Netflix movie. That’s also okay! There are works out there that do move me and in this case I still got my #moment (Last Night at the Telegraph Club you will always be famous, my earnest little review for student media to prove it). Also putting into writing that I will someday watch Everything Everywhere All At Once, main problem is that I am repressed and thus will need to be in the correct state of mind but I do strongly believe it will come through for me.
Being me (triple gemini, always having thoughts and thoughts about thoughts) I do feel compelled to unpick this thought when it comes to me unbidden, and it really does come down to the internalised idea that we the traditionally marginalised should be grateful for what we have. Which obviously does not hold up, because if the number of stories available to us is limited (especially in a Western media landscape, especially ‘Australian’) then that is the problem of the structures. A lengthy prelude not to justify what is to come, more to set the stage.
oh dear. This is about One Hundred Days by Alice Pung. Throughout the reading process and ever since finishing, my main response has been: Who was this for? I have expressed the criticism that this book is full of internalised racism and classism, and then ends in an unsatisfactory way that conflates genuine abuse with generational misunderstanding.
On a textual level, the writing is vivid and claustrophobic, creating an effective atmosphere that traps us in teenage Karuna’s head just as Karuna is eventually trapped in her apartment. I saw this described as Pung’s first book for adults, and the Readings website seems to agree so now I am questioning whether I really saw it sold as YA, or if I just think that because it reads as YA. It reads as YA because it is so entrenched in Karuna’s narration (c.f. Marchetta’s books which move from YA to adult through the maturity of the characters and their perspectives). Specifically, One Hundred Days takes the form of a letter from Karuna to her unborn, eventually newborn, with tension rising over a period of one hundred days when Karuna’s mother — only ever referred to as ‘Your Grand Mar’, in relation to the baby — locks Karuna in an apartment for one hundred days in an attempt to keep Karuna safe.
Your Grand Mar is not the only one who says I am stupid. They look at me like I’m a caged bunny that escaped and got myself into a bad state, all soft paws and silent yowls. But your father was not a criminal. He was just a boy I liked, and then he left, but by then you were here.
It’s the set up for a mothers-and-daughters book, and on some level, it delivers. Their relationship fractures, the miscommunications are clear, and by the end they begin tentatively moving towards each other, both having opened up to the other. It’s the conflict itself that lacks nuance. Or that is to say: it is nuanced, but none of this is allowed to come through with Karuna’s lack of perspective. As the book unfolds, the audience can quite quickly piece together the facts of Karuna’s upbringing — her mother, speaking poor English, always overbearing, always fussing over Karuan’s health and physical beauty and proximity to whiteness. Projecting onto Karuna, leading to asides such as, “Filthy, your Grand Mar had said, which meant that I was at least fifty per cent filth as well, which was presumably why I’d gotten myself into this mess,” and eventually turning this onto her granddaughter, “hoping that this time things would work out and you would make her proud by being the ideal girl”. There is the added layer of Karuna gravitating towards her white father over her Chinese-Filipino Asian mother before their divorce, and then the economic struggles that further strain Karuna and her mother’s relationship.
As narrator, Karuna is too busy trying to survive and figure herself out to ever begin to assemble and address the implications of every detail of her upbringing. What is frustrating is how Karuna describes her culture; it fluctuates between dismissive and exoticising, and it gets tiring very quickly. Her attitude towards food epitomises this. From different chapters:
“No cold drinks!” she yells, yanking it away and replacing it with a steaming bowl. “These are the only liquids you need right now. Soups.” She also won’t let me eat bananas, coconuts, figs, rockmelons, watermelons. They are all “cold” fruits. I thought all fruits were cold, but if I don’t follow her rules apparently I will have backaches, headaches and joint pains later in life.
True to her word, your Grand Mar made me lots of herbal soups with weird combinations of ingredients: red dates and fish, pork bones and lotus roots
I didn’t tell her that your Grand Mar also wanted me to eat a nest made from the saliva of small birds, but fortunately for me she couldn’t find that particular delicacy in the Asian grocery stores.
In the end, your Grand Mar ate the balut. She just popped the whole mass of feather and claw into her mouth and chewed it a few times and swallowed. I gagged just watching her.
This isn’t even going into how she regards working-class labour, which is again internalised but lacks any sort of attempt to do anything apart from lash out via both thoughts and actions and is frankly difficult to read. Maybe I’m just irked because I know the difference between cold and hot fruits. It’s just hard to have sympathy for Karuna the person, which is so at odds for the obvious sympathy we are meant to feel for her situation. In real life, Karuna would probably be able write and submit a longform personal essay on how she used to hate her culture and then grew up to understand and wish she had embraced it, writing her way into authenticity. In the book, she does submit to a writing competition, with writing transforming into a way to access autonomy and freedom of expression (and money, however little). Walt Whitman’s ‘Song of Myself’ becomes somewhat transformative; as the novel concludes, Karuna tells her daughter, “You are the song of yourself”. Basically Pung does that fun metatextual thing that YA authors sometimes do where they make reading and/or writing a life-affirming activity for their protagonist to either connect to or influence an audience of (young) readers. Interesting choice to associate Karuna’s personal growth with emotional attachment to the English literary canon.
Still, the cynical feeling that readers are meant to agree uncritically with Karuna about her mother’s ‘weird’ foods and cultural habits, and be taken on a journey of ~understanding~ alongside her. A book for white people and other sixteen-year-olds with internalised racism, then. Which is hard to escape! It’s a hard growing up situation, hence the aforementioned proliferation of essays on the topic! I just don’t know what depicting this mindset is meant to achieve, when maturity and expanded understanding is the only/ideal real-world and One-Hundred-Days-world solution, and instead it’s hundreds of pages of lack of understanding.
“Huh, those Ghosts,” your Grand Mar scoffed. “This is why they are so poor.” But those girls, I knew, weren’t poor at all. Their parents owned modest furniture stores or worked as accountants. “Small by small we save up, and we can get a house, move out of crappy flat.”
I poked my head around the door. “Little by little, you mean,” I said, but they had no idea what I was talking about.
And then, the fact is that the reliance on cultural difference as the main source of conflict throughout means that misunderstanding is blurred with moments of genuine abuse, which I won’t detail here. Awful treatment fuels Karuna’s resentment and recklessness, a self-fulfilling cycle. It’s not great given the extremities of her situation, both the pregnancy and her entrapment. The understanding that
Your Grand Mar may not give a toss about my wants, but she tries to meet all my needs. She provides for me, she cares for me, she does things that she thinks are for my own good. This is what she knows to be love – a verb, not a feeling. And as much as I hate to admit it, she meets all your needs too.
is callous moving towards tender, gesturing at a nuance rare for the text. Grand Mar shares more of her history (I feel like it is quite common for parents of colour to not tell you anything about themselves until you are like seventeen at least), providing explicit, concrete explanations for her actions and behaviours even though these causations feel quite obvious to a reader observing the situation. Karuna and her mother begin to see one another as people, and Karuna can have hope for herself and her daughter, “that she might realise, this second time around, that love is not all about control”. It’s a warming ending that does not do enough acknowledge the power dynamic between them; one is an adult and the other a child, and even if Karuna is troublesome, even if her abrasive attitude and narration are highly uncomfortable to read, it does not quite cancel out the love-as-control factor which is left unresolved. The ending lands at messy rather than profound.
The book comes with book club notes, which I am not going to unpack in depth because I am not here to critically evaluate book club questions, except one: “What does Karuna’s story say about class and the migrant experience in Australia?”. I will answer: Karuna’s story says that class struggles worsen the already difficult migrant experience and that the two are often interlinked. I would think that we know these things without her story, and not in a way where the book can be read as cleverly constructed satire either. As an insight into the lower-class migrant experience, it is a ‘story worth telling’, however you want to define that, but it handholds readers to conclusions that seem obvious to all but perhaps a select few. Maybe I am giving people too much credit? Or being uncharitable? The question reminds me of when I took a subject called Literacy, Power, and Learning that was all about how literacy and language help maintain dominant power structures i.e. an attempt to explain something that felt quite obvious to me and then the problem was wrangling it words for assignments.
I don’t begrudge Pung the story that she wanted to tell, and it’s an interesting one in theory. The trap of avoiding retelling the same diaspora stories of abuse, cultural shame, struggle, etc for (white + Asian) audiences comes back to the struggle for ‘realistic’ vs ‘good’ representation which is another conversation with no good result. Especially with a paucity of representation to begin with and the unfounded pressures that come with that, and then the chances of Me being like Well I didn’t like that. Rather, the focus should be complexity, which in this case means the idea for a complex mother character who is never fully realised, cast as the villain for most of the book by an adolescent narrator with what boils down to internalised racism.
Stepping out of Karuna’s head would make One Hundred Days a very different book. Probably something more like Everything I Never Told You enjoyer, where Celeste Ng utilises third-person omniscient narration to draw us into a similar story about families and cycles of abuse. I read The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling by Wai Chim a year or two ago, another book about mothers and daughters with a premise that is a bit like Saving Francesca but with a Sydney Asian teen protagonist, which suffers a little from teenage melodrama and over-explanation but is otherwise effective and enjoyable. And to broaden to books about the migrant experience — which One Hundred Days is — then yes, Saving Francesca and Looking for Alibrandi as foundational texts, though I read both when I was still a teenager. Being a teenager is messy and dramatic, wish I’d been a teen idol, and so I try to extend patience to teenager protagonists and their readers and why I respect Good Dumpling even though I didn’t love it. What I’m trying to say is that I was quite literally a Lara Jean Song girlie, so I do get it. That degree of perspective on the teeangeisms do not make One Hundred Days any easier to read.
Others do not agree because it was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award; an achievement that doesn’t make me any less cynical re: audience, whether or not Pung intentionally wrote the book for a specific audience as well. Large (book, movie, television, music, etc) prizes generally tend to make me cynical even if/when they go to endorsing work I enjoy. That is because of the unavoidable relationship between prize/market in most cases, leading to the real, if elusive kind of book “deemed by the market competent enough to court prizes, or, worse, deemed by prize committees competent enough to court the market.”
It all brings me back to the question of whether I am being too harsh, maybe only criticising Pung because she is the industry’s favourite Asian-Australian YA author and I want to be different. And I genuinely enjoyed Laurinda when I read it. Still, the unshakeable feeling that people only read what One Hundred Days was about, and the technically proficient prose, and the former fear, that white adults reading this book genuinely bought into Karuna’s perspectives throughout. Sorry but find a better way to learn about + connect to migrant struggles. This cannot be the only way. I am reminded of ‘Who Sold me This’, the incredibly thoughtful essay by Oliver Reeson, which I privately think of as a companion to this piece that I shall also link because I might not know if I agree with all of it but the writing! In particular:
A book doesn’t necessarily need to be good, it needs to be programmable, which is to say it needs to be live-tweetable, which is to say it needs to appeal to internet discourse, which is to say it needs to emanate from lived experience and speak to non-specific feelings of trauma. Not that this is what all books in Australia have become, but there is a palpable sense that when publishers are considering the market, this is the thought process.
Bleak. The resulting books are the symptom, not the cause, but they then do their part in uplifting the literary markets we find ourselves in. Because yes, I get this ‘palpable sense’ from reading and considering One Hundred Days, that it responds to what the market both demands and rewards. An uncomfortable book to read that ultimately conveys rather simplistic messages about the migrant experience, the sort of book that can and — seemingly has — been elevated into a teaching moment that can be achieved these days just by reading a diverse book(!). One Hundred Days being intended for an adult market bewilders and eludes me, but I do think that any teenager who might read this book / find themselves in any part of Karuna’s story / benefit from reading it would be let down by the resolution. Then there is the fact that the book both is and isn’t #ownvoices; the characters are Chinese Australian but Karuna’s mother’s trauma is quite rooted in her experiences as a Filipino woman, Pung is Cambodian Chinese and grew up in Australia, I’m not even going to unpick the epic highs and lows of own voices discourse at this point. I also doubt anybody approaching this book as a Representation Moment really cares about the distinctions, because they would also have to care things like care and nuance in said storytelling. Brings me back to ‘Blunt-Force of Ethnic Credibility’, which I linked in passing earlier and specifically the idea amongst diaspora writers and readers of diaspora writers that cultural identity = ‘authentic’ ‘representation’ = (somehow?) good writing, both generally and specifically on diasporic expreiences.
I can’t speak to why this book has its critical and popular success, I don’t know who compiled the Franklin shortlist, how widely those people actually read. I’m not going to survey everyone who has bought or borrowed or otherwise read or intended to read this book. I don’t want to say it was designed in a lab for the market/prize intersection and/or white people (even if it seems that way) because I want more faith in people. Again, maybe people genuinely like this without being told to, without the pull of the market and the fact that this is the Asian Australian Book we are elevating this year. Maybe I am just a complainer, I do not mind that. To complain: Can we not do better than a book with perspectives built off internalised racism and classism? Or diaspora as suffering? In 2022? Where is the nuance? Who is this for? Who is getting anything out of this? Must the rest of us deal with this? Of everything for big auslit to latch onto? This is the best offering? Is there no other way at all? What does that last question refer to (whatever you want it to)? Literally stream ‘Catch Me in the Air’ instead. Actually, I didn’t even know what to name this specific section because I don’t feel as though the book has enough of anything to be reflected in any of the many mother-daughter songs out there. Relevant because I love sharing my thoughts and processes and also didn’t want to end with such despair.
watch it shatter
Onto real life. What even is going on. I’m doing a lot and somehow still not much at the same time. I have started a new course at uni / still thinking about the fact that I would like steady paid employment / resolutely not thinking about things like HECS debt. This does feel like the start of post-lockdown which is an adjustment that will probably keep jolting me in new and strange ways.
I like the new Maggie Rogers album, ‘Shatter’ being a strong contender for song of the year. I liked her debut album but Surrender is really rotating in my brain and I can’t wait to listen to it over the summer. ‘Beautiful Monster’ by Stayc is similarly up there. RENAISSANCE is spectacular, faves off that are ‘Cuff It’ + ‘Virgo’s Groove’. Me and everyone else. And the new Alex the Astronaut album!!! 2022 a real year for music and we love to see it. I’m finally reading the ‘dangerously psychically charged object’ (George) that is Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis with an introduction from Otessa Moshfegh. Really my physical tbr pile is going bonkers so I won’t even try to plan that out. Started Cool for the Summer on my phone which I am hoping falls into the category of fun, quick, gay romance that I dabble in. Oh + I am excited to be in my film era, if only for eighteen days during MIFF / maybe the same time frame every year, we will see. Neptune Frost is utterly unique and such a joy. What vision! What music! What design!
And that’s me! I don’t usually unpick books I didn’t enjoy / it’s not my strength, my strength is rambling a lot and saying little. I did do that.
As always, thanks for being here xx