Difficult Women

I want to talk about difficult women.

Over the last year and a half, I’ve read five books featuring heroines that fall into this category. First, The Idiot by Elif Batuman, my current favorite book of all time. Then Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney, Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman, Normal People also by Sally Rooney, and Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata. These books take place in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in Dublin, in London, in Tokyo. The protagonists range in age from late teens to mid-30s. And all of them are about women who prove themselves to be “difficult” to society in some way. I want to unpack how these women manifest their supposed difficulty, and why I like the books so goddamn much.

Let’s work backwards. I finished Convenience Store Woman a couple weeks ago, and it was probably my least favorite of the bunch. I attribute this to the length—it was extremely short—and also to the burden of translation. While the translation has been critically acclaimed, I know that nothing compares to reading a book in its original language (and I don’t remotely speak Japanese). On top of that, the things that the prose is hailed for—how clipped and crisp it is—were alienating to me at times. Sally Rooney has received similar praise, but I find her writing warm, even though it’s sparse. Murata’s writing just felt empty. Nonetheless, the book belongs in my difficult women canon. The protagonist, Keiko Furukara, is a 36-year-old woman who has been working the same convenience store clerk job for 18 years. She relates anecdotes from her childhood about physically attacking classmates to stop them from fighting each other and asking her mother if they can bring home a dead bird from the park to eat it. Furukara is never diagnosed with anything, and her family seemingly shows little empathy for her apparent condition—they are obsessed with securing her with the trappings of a “normal” life, even though she doesn’t want or need a husband or children or a more prestigious job. Her foil slash romantic interest slash antagonist is Shiraha, a temporary employee at her store who is terminated for antipathy, incompetence, and misogynistic behavior towards customers and coworkers. They develop a symbiotic relationship, feigning an adult relationship in order to assuage their increasingly concerned friends and family members, but their enthusiasm and ire frustrates Furukara in equal measure, and also Shiraha is a huge asshole. Society finds Furukara difficult because she is utterly uninterested in traditional milestones of adult success.

In the same vein, Eleanor Oliphant’s title character is similarly misanthropic, working a middling position at an office, drinking too much and spending 100% of her time outside of the office alone. When her proximity to a minor accident entangles her in the lives of two strangers, the painful memories she’d suppressed from childhood come unfurled, and the lies she’d let herself believe about her toxic mother crumble down. I enjoyed Eleanor Oliphant considerably more, because I found the writing more immersive and inviting. Also, Raymond, the character who shakes up her life, teaches her how to be more warm and sociable, and is in general a good person despite his flaws, unlike the intolerable Shiraha. I know a character’s likability isn’t a prerequisite for a high quality book, but I found nothing redemptive about Shiraha, while Raymond was a lovingly drawn goon. The ultimate revelations about her upbringing are necessarily discomfiting, and while it’s definitely a solemn read, overall the book is buoyed by a degree of lightness. There’s something satisfying about Eleanor’s stubborn refusal to adapt her behavior to fit society’s expectations of womanhood, until her inhibiting quirks are eroded sufficiently to provide her with a degree of happiness.

And now we arrive at Sally Rooney. The queen of my heart. I read Normal People in April and Conversations with Friends in July 2018. Both books are currently available for purchase in the U.S., but coincidentally I bought both while abroad—Conversations with Friends in a bookstore in Haarlem, a town in the Netherlands when I visited there last May, and Normal People at Daunt Books when I visited London in January (I’ve been to London twice in 2019 and am going back a third time. I know I have a problem). Rooney has been named the literary voice of the millennial generation, and I think it’s a rightfully awarded title. Her writing style is so crisp and effortless that it’s easy to forget you’re even reading until she lands a line so startlingly observant and precise you have to put the book down and take a breath. Both of her books deal with young women whose lifestyles gently buck social convention.

Conversations with Friends deals with a curiously imbalanced love quadrilateral between two ex-girlfriends (Frances and Bobbi) and current best friends, students and slam poets at an Irish university, and a straight couple in their 30s (Melissa and Nick), a female photographer and a male actor. The book explores the hazardous power dynamics between men and women, especially when age is involved, but more broadly the way our capacity to hurt people expands when they love us and we love them. Frances, the narrator, reminds me of the kind of woman I’m ashamed I’d like to be—socially calculating in spite of her anxiety, conventionally attractive, straddling the line between wisdom and naïveté. No spoilers, but the health of principle characters take a downturn, and the way illness transfigures the relationships between Frances & Bobbi, Frances & Nick, and Nick & Melissa is illuminative of how society treats the physically or mentally unwell. Frances is a difficult woman. Nick is a difficult man. They need each other in equal measure as they destroy each other. It’s fascinating and heartbreaking to watch. (Also the book has an undercurrent of anticapitalism that is just delicious).

Normal People, Rooney’s follow-up, explores a lot of the same themes—how loving someone gives them the power to wound us, how society treats socially awkward or “deficient” women & girls, the joys of socialism. This sophomore effort is more conspicuously about class, but despite Marianne, the female lead, possessing greater financial capital than her love interest, Connell, she is still more of an outcast than he is. Her home life is an abusive disaster. Even when the two of them leave their small town for university and Marianne’s wealth provides sufficient grounds for social mobility, she still finds herself at the whim of men who enjoy hurting her (the idea of whether she likes being hurt is explored, both physically and emotionally, but there is no definite answer, which I appreciated). Unlike Frances, Marianne is not attractive. It is a point of psychological stress to Connell that he is so drawn to her despite her plainness, especially given that his own attractiveness is reiterated often in the book. When the omniscient third person narration is filtered through Connell’s consciousness, it becomes clear that he takes pleasure in her total devotion to him, but it also wears on him. Even the people who love Marianne continue to spurn her. She is worried she is difficult to love, and the world unfairly, cruelly, repeatedly confirms this to her. It’s shockingly satisfying to read a story not about a beautiful girl whose scars are kissed away by a handsome knight (barf), but about a woman who is realistically flawed and realistically struggles with it.

I first read The Idiot in March and April of 2018, then reread it in March 2019. It is a perfect book. I’m biased, because the protagonist, Selin, is LITERALLY ME, but I stand by my assessment. I’ve never seen so many of my oddest, most fleeting thoughts sketched so articulately in a story before. 18-year-old Selin is the American-born daughter of Turkish immigrants beginning her freshman year at Harvard in 1995. She spends the year talking about dreams and politics and language with her charismatic friends Svetlana and Ralph and falling into a confusing, consuming, all-email love affair with a mysterious, older, Hungarian mathematics student named Ivan. One of the central debates of the story is touched on by Selin and Svetlana—the question of whether one should lead an ethical or aesthetic life. Svetlana argues that one shouldn’t kill or steal or lie because it’s wrong; Selin argues that one shouldn’t do those things because they are ugly. Svetlana, more worldly, is dismissive of this argument. But it echoes throughout the rest of the book, including the last third or so, when their freshman year ends and Selin follows Ivan to Hungary, ostensibly to teach English in a village but really to see him more. She’s embroiled in a string of preposterous miscommunications and misadventures that might’ve sent anyone else packing. But Selin, slowly realizing she’s destined to be a writer, decides that she has to fully experience the lunacy in order to truly live. Their relationship culminates in a tense, loaded conversation at Ivan’s parent’s house—no spoilers, but they finally address what their meandering, cryptic, philosophical emails and in-person conversations have REALLY been about. Selin is repeatedly penalized by professors, friends, and Ivan for wanting to know what language really means, for seeking precision and answers in a world that is necessarily imprecise and withholding. She won’t accept the simple answer. She won’t do anything the easy way. And I absolutely love her for that. Some criticism of the book calls Selin emotionally distant, but I couldn’t disagree anymore. Many passages were vulnerable in a way that made me look away. Many simple admissions made me weep. Selin may be difficult, but she is not distant. She is deeply present, and that scares the hell out of people.

Of course I wrote about difficult women. I’m fairly certain I am one. I see myself in these stories, in these narratives of an outsider finding their way in or, thrillingly, their way out. It is a comfort that it’s considered worthy to write about women who frustrate you, who confuse you, who scare you. May we all be brave enough to continue a pursuit of authentic selfhood, no matter how it looks. When you plant fear, bravery blooms. I’m sure of it.

What I Learned In College (All Of It!)

At the end of every year of college, I’ve sat down and made a list of a handful of things I learned. They ranged from the weirdly specific and the universal, the personal and the professional, the idiotic to the sublime.

Now it’s the end of my last year. I perform my final project as a USC student in 10 days, and I graduate in 12. It’s over, all of it. I’m doing exactly what I hoped to be doing. I still have panic attacks and stage fright, I still wake up some mornings thinking I look like a bridge troll, and I still leave some social interactions thinking, WTF did I just say? Seriously, what was any of that? What?

But fortunately, I now have coping mechanisms for all of that. And I realize that most of those things are pretty normal, or at least common enough that other people have told me they feel the same way sometimes. And more importantly, I feel like I’ve learned a lot over the last four years. Obviously I’m not talking about academics, although I’ve definitely retained far more academic information in college than I did in high school—what a crazy concept, that when you’re learning for the sake of learning, you actually enjoy it and you remember what you’re taught! But just like every other cliché college grad, I’m talking about what I learned Outside The Classroom (cue Green Day).

So here is a semi-exhaustive list of absolutely every godforsaken thing I figured out going from 17 to 21 at one of the most wonderful, welcoming, stimulating, scandal-ridden, economically imbalanced universities in the country !

— don’t mix your liquor, you will get a hangover, if not this time, then eventually
— do you have your keys?
— clean your toilet
— drink water
— take pictures
— don’t send that long dramatic text it’s not worth it
— asking for consent does not ruin the mood in fact it makes the whole experience better (and, uh, legal!)
— keep a planner or at least a running to-do list, a physical one, not on your phone
— keep a journal, again a physical one with paper in it & stuff, even if you only write in it once a month you’ll be so glad you have it in ten years
— don’t be a narc
— don’t tell your friends what people say behind their backs
— DO tell your friends if their partner is cheating and the partner is too cowardly to do it themselves
— bring medicine — painkillers, stomach meds, vitamin C, et al
— bring snacks
— do volunteer work
— vote
— get involved in a local election somehow please everything is terrible
— stop being passive-aggressive, call out your friend/partner on their BS before it festers into something bigger than it needs to be
— don’t be afraid to ask people to hang out, bite the bullet and be the ringleader
— nobody is going to remember that embarrassing thing you said/did in six months so stop beating yourself up about it
— try dating apps just to see if you like it, if you hate them you can delete them
— dress in layers because some classrooms are boiling and some are freezing
— take a class in a subject that’s always interested you but has nothing to do with your major
— we’re all just people who do good things or bad things but none of us is inherently good or inherently bad (up for debate I guess but that’s where I’m trying to land)
— don’t forget to put on deodorant
— find a pleasant perfume or cologne to wear on special occasions (or, if you’re like me, to wear every day so you always smell like a bakery)
— find a form of exercise that doesn’t make you miserable and do it for 30-60 minutes, three or four times a week
— seriously do you have your keys
— people without uteruses: have trash cans in your bathrooms
— clean your toilet, I know I already said that, but please clean your toilet
— drink more water
— if your crush is single, tell them how you feel, you have up to ONE MONTH to pine and then you have to grow up
— if your crush is NOT single do NOT tell them how you feel because they do not like you and if they make a move on you while they’re in a relationship then they’re not the kind of person you want to be with anyway
— call your parents more
— call your siblings more
— work on that essay/project/presentation/test prep a little bit every day for a week before it actually needs to be done
— take out the trash
— with few professional exceptions, no one lives or dies on the basis of your good work, so don’t stress about getting it done perfectly, just get it done
— eat more fruits and vegetables
— drink less coffee
— buy a reusable water bottle and to-go coffee/tea cup, it won’t save the planet but it’s a start
— stress less about what you look like; you’re probably a lot more attractive than you think, and more to the point, nobody is looking at you, everyone else is way more worried about themselves
— related to the above, being attractive doesn’t automatically make people fall in love with you
— stickers from Redbubble are a quick way to boost your mood, they’re also great birthday presents & the best part is that you get discounts buying them in orders of 4 or 10 so stock up
— take at least one day every semester to skip all your classes and do absolutely nothing
— do not do the above thing more than once a semester
— it’s better to turn it in late but decent than to turn in something crappy / to plagiarize / not to do it at all (PLEASE DON’T PLAGIARIZE)
— seriously any grade is better than zero so no matter how late it is just turn something in
— if you’re not sure if it counts as cheating, it’s probably cheating (romantically & academically)
— if you’re always paranoid that your partner is cheating on you, you should break up with them, because either they’re cheating on you or you have serious trust issues
— ask your friends more questions about themselves, don’t hog the conversation
— open up more to your friends, no need to clam up around people who love you
— ask your professors/advisors/mentors more questions about their lives and careers
— create traditions with your friends, it can be something as big as a yearly trip or as small as a weekly brunch
— everything gets two tries - hate it once, give it one more shot, & if it still sucks, never do it again
— muting people on social media is just as effective as blocking them and unlike with blocking they’ll have no idea you did it
— unfollow those influencers that make you feel bad about your body or your life, seriously, hating yourself is optional
— actually almost everything is optional so if you can safely quit the job, dump the partner, end the friendship, or move to a new place, sleep on it, then do it tomorrow; and if it’s something small like dying your hair or rearranging your furniture or learning an instrument, START TODAY
— also even if it’s not optional, it is temporary, so if nothing else, ride that wave until it’s over, one day it will be— platonic love is not a second-rate version of romantic love, it is deep and valuable and intimate and you’re lucky to have it
— stop trying to grow up so fast, there’s plenty of time for that
— hang out with people of different genders/races/religions/socioeconomic statuses/sexual orientations, listen to their stories, check your privilege
— don’t have sex with someone just because you feel like you’re supposed to
— don’t go on a date with someone just because you’re too scared to say no
— say you’re sorry immediately and then leave the person alone to forgive you on their own time, if you keep apologizing it’s not about them it’s about you and that’s not the point of an apology
— accept that some people will never forgive you
— try to forgive people who genuinely apologize and have tried to be better
— don’t be friends with sexual predators
— sorry I don’t think you heard me, DON’T BE FRIENDS WITH SEXUAL PREDATORS
— if you’re teaching someone to be less racist/sexist/homophobic/transphobic/just in general to be less ignorant, try to be patient
— but don’t feel obligated to teach absolutely every single person you meet how to be more tolerant
— start packing up your dorm/apartment/room early if you can, it’s very overwhelming trying to do it all in one day
— use protection REGARDLESS of your gender or your partner(s)’ gender and if there’s a risk of pregnancy, double up
— get tested, IDK how often I’m not a doctor
— unless the person is literally the leader of a nation they are not too busy for you, if they want to see you they’ll make time
— I can’t remember who said this but: don’t make anyone a priority who just makes you an option
— make time to read for pleasure
— leave yourself motivational notes around your room, it’s not lame, it might make you smile
— sometimes it’s hard to appreciate the big stuff make gratitude lists of dumb small things that make you happy you’re alive (for me it’s cappuccinos and going to the movies and the golden hour)
— why don’t you just check and make sure you have your keys
— do things you’re bad at for fun, not everything has to be a job and if all it does is make you happy that still counts as being productive
— go to therapy if you can afford it
— wake up earlier than you need to
— go to bed earlier than you need to
— learn to say no to stuff you don’t have time to do, even if it sounds cool
— try to say yes to things that will help you in the long run, even if they sound hard/scary
— be honest with romantic interests about the depth of your feelings & your long-term intentions
— listen to people when they tell you their intentions with you, and don’t try to change their mind
— post less on social media (unless it’s your job, then go nuts)
— expensive cocktails are often bad, don’t bother
— apply for the job, enter the competition, your chances may be slim but if you don’t try then your chances are zero
— if you did something that’s gonna hurt your friend, tell them about it right away, the lying is worse than whatever you did
— I know you think you won’t, but you WILL fall in love again
— ask for help
— if your friend is suffering don’t worry about saying or doing the right thing, just do something, they need to know you’re there
— tell your loved ones you’re thinking about them without the prompting of a holiday or birthday or tragedy
— one more quick key check just to be safe
— you can do this
— please for the love of god drink more water

American Scheme

I go to USC (graduating in less than 2 months let’s GOOOOO). I joined in on the hearty laughter and jocular memeing of the admissions scandal currently rocking the nation—Aunt Becky paid half a million dollars for her vlogger daughter to cover one of our finest gross dorm rooms in Pottery Barn decor. A bunch of other wealthy people have been implicated in bribery and racketeering (I don’t know what that is and at this point I’m too afraid to ask), and all of us whose parents didn’t drop half a Jennifer Aniston-On-Friends-Salary to buy our admission to college are having a good laugh. But it’s important to take a moment to interrogate how all the rest of us got here, too.

Most people have some degree of privilege. There are grotesque examples of privilege on display in the United States all the time—cis white male billionaire evades taxes, brags about sexual assault on tape, colludes with hostile foreign power, somehow is president. 21-year-old white heiress to multimillion dollar media empire becomes a billionaire, somehow lauded as self-made. Wealthy white actresses pay millions of dollars for their wealthy white offspring to attend schools they are not qualified to attend. But privilege is not always or even often grotesque. It is subtle and thus more insidious, because it’s harder to call out.

Every aspect of higher education and college admission is classist. Research shows that wealthy, mostly white legacy students benefit from affirmative action far more than their less fortunate peers of color. The SAT and ACT are designed to trip up students who can’t afford expensive tutors. And the public education system in most parts of the US is such a disaster that kids who can afford private high school automatically get access to smaller class sizes, more individualized attention from teachers and counselors, and more AP and honors classes to choose from—not to mention that those kids probably have time to focus on their schoolwork & engage in extracurricular activities because they’re not working a part-time job. How do I know this? Research. Common sense. And also because I lived it.

I have parents that attended a top college, one of whom also has an advanced degree. I went to a month of SAT tutoring with a private instructor. I took AP and honors classes at my plush private high school while doing improv and slam poetry and songwriting on the side, because my parents told me my only job was being a good person and a good student. The privilege was all around me and I scarcely noticed I was swimming in it. To quote David Foster Wallace, this is water.

I worked very hard in high school, and I received a full merit scholarship to college. But the circumstances that led to that merit scholarship could not have arisen without immense privilege. Yes, I am black and Jewish and a woman. But I’m also an affluent kid from Los Angeles, and that gave me a crazy head start. The system that ultimately gave us this intricate admissions scandal is not broken. This revelation is the next step in the logical progression of false meritocracies. Much like Donald Trump’s presidency is a result and not a defect of the American political system, outright bribery is a natural byproduct of American educational elitism.

I have a faint hope that one day, the United States will undergo a cultural shift that rips the price tag off a college education and enables people of all socioeconomic backgrounds to pursue advanced degrees without strings attached. I hope one day student loan debt is forgiven. I hope one day, everyone involved in this deeply prejudiced system is taken to task. Today is not that day. Today, we begin the tough conversation. Today, we meme.