Back to the darkness, to the sleeplessness, a return to the baby-faced snail in the hollowed ground, unctuous, bumping into roots and rhizomes, antennae yearning, moving forward over ground, slowly leaving itself behind, a dying phosphorescence, dial on a light dimmer, drenched dirt granules clinging to the sodden veil of slime and the emptiness it carries a safety to crawl inside, to collect and distill, gather itself in monolithic sadness
One of the best books I’ve read in recent memory, it made me laugh out loud more than any book ever has and moved me to sad tears when I wasn’t in funny tears. I would proselytize this book about a priest’s daughter to anyone and I found myself reading funny bits out loud to family members and friends, insistent that everyone should hear the comic and poetic genius of Lockwood.
The pervasive tone of this book is one of love that Lockwood has for her family. She writes this memoir while staying in her childhood home as a grownup (with her husband) to save money and she records and observes her family for this memoir. While she is not religious anymore, that doesn’t stop her or her family members from loving each other in such a full and nourishing way. It was a joy to read this book just to see the deep love that is capable between a family that disagrees about something that more often than not rips other families apart. Also refreshing is her fondness for religion, the lack of resentment for her past and her past religion. There are moments of regret and wistfulness and of course, actual ugliness…such as when she writes about her rape, or the many failings of the Catholic church… but so often, people who are no longer religious are so devoutly and violently atheist. This book wouldn’t have been possible without her strong love and curiosity for her family and the objectiveness and empathy with which she is able to view people who have viewpoints very different from her own; viewpoints that I wouldn’t hesitate to say are wrong.
What I love most about Lockwood is that she is always in awe… not of a god she doesn’t know, but of every detail of every person in her life. She looks at everything with light, reverence, and love, the way many religious people I think, would be envious of. She writes about the similarities and differences she has with her father (the person most different from her, though their occupations as priest and poet have a natural closeness) but neglects the similarity she has to the Father. Her writing reminds me of the Christian God’s purported omniscience, capable of seeing everything about his flawed people, and doing so with unwavering love. She examines a lot of the uglier issues of the Catholic church and also the uglier mindsets and thoughts that her beloved family believe without letting them influence how she feels about them as a whole. Many religious people I know believe that humans are inherently sinful, bad, but can become good by acceptance of God into their lives. This book is beautifully the opposite. Humans are good, and sometimes what makes them the most “human” or “inhuman” is God, the Church, and the societal and self-harming things you must do to serve them.
I don’t remember which bookstore I was in when I picked this book up last summer and read the words “In the last few months, I have lost my son, my spouse, and my house.” Something to that effect, and I immediately wanted to read it. My own life had just shifted radically and I wanted to see how someone else was dealing with losses much larger than my own. I loved the voice of this memoir, and I loved especially, reading about her assignments as a journalist for The New Yorker, but the content was difficult to read. The terrible loss of her son was difficult to read of course…
(most devastating of all was her gratitude for him. “And the truth is, the ten or twenty minutes I was somebody’s mother were black magic. There is nothing I would trade them for. There is no place I would rather have seen.”)
…but more difficult was Levy’s self-centeredness and entitlement.
I had looked to this book originally to get out of my own grief by delving into the grief of someone else. To remember that my suffering is not the only suffering and that all humans are connected. I wished the whole book that Ariel Levy would have done something similar, sought out empathy. This book is almost a catalogue of people and situations she has been a victim of. She admits her privilege and entitlement and narcissism at some points, but she doesn’t go far enough, preferring instead to blame literally anything else for the misfortune in her life… most grossly, she blames (her self-serving definition of) feminism for teaching women we could have it all. “Women of my generation were given the lavish gift of our own agency by feminism, a belief that we could decide for ourselves how we could life, what would become of us.” She briefly entertains the possibility that her affair with an ex-lover could have caused the alcoholism of her wife, but ultimately, Levy is a victim of her wife’s alcoholism. It is incredible to me that this woman is a reporter as she seems so incapable of being able to be in someone else’s shoes, completely incapable of being objective and seeing anything outside of her privileged white lens. By the end of the book, you get the sense that maybe she has been humbled, but somehow, the circumstances that led to her humbling have only served to enlarge her ego, to lead her to see herself (very dangerously) as wise, and a victim of life itself… chosen for a modern greek tragedy.
This book, it’s author, and premise felt like required reading for me. Stories about adolescent children of Chinese American immigrants growing up in New York City by a woman who grew up in NYC with immigrant parents. Though I’m not even close to my adolescence anymore, having just moved to New York 9 months ago, I feel very much that I’m growing up here and was curious if this book could serve as a roadmap in any way. And anyway, being the child of an immigrant, and being an adolescent aren’t things we really grow out of, they are parts of our identity that keep revealing themselves to us over time.
I felt more like this was a book about the otherness of being a child, rather than the otherness of being from elsewhere. We all know what it’s like to be other because we have been children and childhood is when we first navigate that knowledge that we are ourselves before we are assimilated. Zhang writes poignantly about the desperation with which we want to be known and loved… the simultaneous reluctance and emotional dependence we feel for them. Her portrayal of a “selfish” mother who gave up her life and dreams and resents her children and feels trapped by them was a complex piece that imagined how the volatility of uprooting a life can cause damaging shifts in someone’s mental health, and how they might perpetuate that volatility towards their children. She showed the helplessness of adolescence so much. How little we are in control of our actions and the actions of others… how helplessly we love those who confuse us and mistreat us. And I especially loved the way she wrote about a girl who’s grandmother administered a love that was unbearably suffocating, made less bearable by the girl’s own suffocating feelings of obligation to return that love. The girl also had to bear with her grandmother’s delusions of grandeur, a pride adopted that was necessary for survival at one point, that calcified into personality. When our parents tell us the stories of their lives, they romanticize hardships. I think children of immigrants then often romanticize hardship the way our parents as a way of relating, a way of belonging. As a point of pride, or to cover up our guilt at never having had to live through such hardships. I felt that Zhang romanticized the immigrant experience and the poverty and hardships endured and whereas I feel confused about my belonging amidst two cultures, the voices of the stories in Sour Heart seem to resound with pride and confidence in a belonging to Asian culture.
Perhaps because of that, I didn’t resonate as much as I had hoped I would with Zhang’s voice. I felt excluded by her culture and experiences somehow; though there were many similarities in people and situations encountered, her point of view was so different. Some of the writing was beautiful and authentic and heartbreaking, but more often than not, I felt like she was a very comtemporary Brooklyn writer trying too hard to find her voice as a young girl while romanticizing her experiences with all the ego of adolescence.
I was sad not to relate to this book more, and it made me realize how much I had been hoping for something familiar, something that would make me feel understood, make me nostalgic. But the particulars of someone else’s experience of otherness can serve to make us feel more isolated. This is precisely why we need more literature about otherness. No one can speak for anyone else. We can only speak to others about our own experiences. I keep approaching books about otherness hoping it will make me feel sameness. This book in its defiance of my expectations and needs is in itself, the very representation of the beauty that happens when otherness is wholly itself, existing to be heard, not to speak for others.
A little video blog about the one yoga pose that has affected me most (as a musician and a person) after a decade of practice
Daughters and sons, in these queer desultory days, the tiredness will seep through your bodies, a shroud you cannot shrug off, and you will long for that burnishing fire, kindled and rekindling, that knowledge that what is within you is a force you have been selected to carry, a great joy for you to contain and at the end of your life, relinquish. Daughters and sons, there will be times when you slowly approach someone wracked with sobs only to realize it is yourself and in these moments, all the things you have believed, which have condensed you into your self, will dissolve.
The muddied waters of your heart may wish to ebb and flow, sloshing gently with bits of love. Daughters and sons, have you heard the church bells, crying out to each other, flung across quads and countries, so beautiful and sensible alone, yet discordant and absonant when heard together as you take a brisk walk in the morning. Their inharmonious glory a glimpse of the chaos of the universe, the cosmos in it’s ever-revolving splendor of dust, flesh, and stars.
Light-footed beasts watch as you animate your body, making preparations for what you believe is to come. Daughters and sons, I watch you agonize over the meaning of things, what you will need, who you should be. Wringing your hands, flinging yourselves across rooms and ideologies….haunted with an inconsolable hope. Daughters and sons, your minds are muddied, sloshing with bits of shadow. I see how this is changing you, suffocating you, this need to be right, this need to be perfect, this need to be ready, this need to be. Daughters and sons, it is not living to constantly prepare for another life.
In your hysteria, daughters and sons, your insistent need to believe, your need to persecute yourself, you are repeating yourself and your days, measuring that which is immeasurable, exulting in a certainty which is yet unknown. You have formed yourself around an emptiness, a void within yourself which you have adorned with all the good you find in the world, yourself a husk of all you have decided is bad, the purpose of your life a search for ways the void can strengthen enough to break through the self. You ask me for this rupture, and my daughter, my son, I will give you another. I will afflict you now with the truth you don’t ask for, the twin tigers of truth yawning their mouths wide, breaking in jaw to let you inside, the universe expecting, palpitating, contractions in my birth of revelation,
The stars throb, with each pulse, oozing more and more of their gaseous glitter, the foundations crumble, heat softening that which has been inaccessible. The ancient crow man will begin to knock with his long beak the door you’ve sealed shut, until it unhinges, gaping. You will be brought to your knees, persecuted, as the universe thrums, that great generator I have been charged with. You will be made to suffer and yet withstand the great pain of truth, the temptation of optimism leaving you with the knowledge that the only certainty is uncertainty, the only feeling you can trust, distrust.
When He breathed life into me, there was something mixed in with the loam … some stray particle or fragment of a grain disrupting the perfection, causation of desire. Something that made perfection oppressive. And Adam. He would not stop being so good, so kind. And though he would not say it, I could not stop thinking…. I do not know who I am. I do not know who I am with you. I am derivative, my life evolving from and revolving around you. And I was bored. How dull to go around naming things, to have everything I want, and to think everything good and enough… to not feel the base emotions, the strongest emotions. Shame and fury… to feel fire in my cheeks from embarrassment. To hate my body and thus, to hate his. I deceived them… pretended to be deceived by the snake. It was not deception. It was delicious. It was curiosity and it was responsibility… for my education and my nourishment… to take my life and make it my own. In those gray days leaning against trees, in the tyranny of never ending perfect days, I began to yearn… to hope and to trust what I always suspected… that it is better to be free than to be loved.