Recent Work By TNB Nonfiction

The Walk Home

(after Julian Schnabel’s “The Walk Home”)

I may be wrong, Dad, but I think that you think I don’t think about you. I can sense it when you leave that rare message on my phone, as if I choose not to pick it up, and your voice goes tinny and far away: “Well, I’d like to hear how you’re doing. I love you, son,” with a lilt in your voice right at the end, an ellipsis, as if you think I would hesitate to say those words back to you.

What are you afraid of?

Don’t Go Crazy Without Me is partly about being raised by a father who taught you and your brothers to be hypochondriacs. What’s it like living during a pandemic?

At first, I felt like an expert at handling the anxiety because I’d been worried about diseases taking me out all my life. But this is  a hypochondriac’s nightmare: a disease that behaves capriciously, that causes no symptoms in some and total organ breakdown in others, a virus that is so tiny it can float in the air for hours or linger on an innocuous looking surface. Just the words CYTOKINE STORM — when your own immune system goes into overdrive and kills you — puts my nervous system into overdrive. 

Prologue

Present, UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute, Tuesday, 1:00 p.m.

The three psychiatrists and I sit at the conference room table writing trauma case studies. As the professional writer in the room, my job is to smooth out the prose, prune the jargon. We’re writing about children to whom awful —sometimes unspeakable things—happened. The psychiatrists would say these case histories are factual, but I know they are stories and, like all stories, have inciting events, climaxes, and resolutions. Readers long for epiphanies and revelations, redemption, and happy endings. But shift a few words or reorder paragraphs and epiphanies  evaporate, redemption erodes to reveal darker currents.

37 year old me checked in with my past selves, and these are the questions they asked me. 

This is 28. Do we ever stop sleeping with people who treat us badly?

Oh babe, you are in the wasteland right now! It’s a nightmare, isn’t it? I hate to tell you this, but we don’t really learn how to say no to bad sex until we’re in our early 30s. It’s one of the terrible by-products of having lacked any comprehensive education about desire and intimacy. We were taught all the mechanics of reproduction and birth control (not that it always worked – hi 25 and 26!) but not a lot about how to have actual conversations about what we wanted from sex. Couple that with the general self loathing that women are socialised into from girlhood and it’s just really fucking hard to figure out how to tell a dude he sucks (and not in the right way).

I hear that. Why do so many of them have such filthy bedrooms?

Mother’s Day

One of my favorite things to do in Vietnam was shop at the fabric market. Even though I could barely thread a needle, I felt a great connection to my mother when I was surrounded by fabric. I could spend hours fingering through bolts of brightly printed cotton and rich, jeweled-toned silk, trying to imagine how it would look as a dress or a skirt. I loved to hunt for just the right buttons and zippers and “notions” like my mother and I used to do at Hartmann’s in Arlington.

Hartmann’s was primarily a clothing store, but there was a room in back with big metal cabinets full of Simplicity patterns. My mother and I would often settle in, searching first for the right pattern, then selecting the perfect fabric from the ninety- nine-cent table. To this day, there’s nothing more comforting or more hopeful to me than the sound of cloth cut fresh off the bolt: the soft thud as it’s laid upon the table, the crisp metallic opening of the scissors, the definitive chop into the fabric, and finally the last soft pats of cloth as it’s folded into quarters.

So, you’re trans. Don’t you think the obvious first question is: When did you know you were a boy? Did you always feel “born in the wrong body”? And, while we’re at it, was your family cool with your transition? And how wild is it to know what it’s like to be BOTH genders?

I don’t think that any of these are obvious first questions, no. 

Wait–but you write about being trans. Don’t you?

Sort of! Did you read Amateur?

I did. 

What would you say it’s about?

Congrats on publishing your first book, The Electric Woman: A Memoir in Death Defying Acts. How exciting! It must be wild to walk down the street and have people recognize you and take pictures with you and stuff!

That’s never happened.

 

Hm. Even when you stand in a bookstore and hold the book up in front of your head so a passerby can see that your face matches the face on the back of the jacket?

Right. Not then either.

Rock, Paper, Sister

Private Practice: 30 Years Later

June 8

Nick had presence. He was a tall, solid bodybuilder. Sharp, chiseled angles defined his jaw and shoulders. He wore a worn green T-shirt and jeans to his first therapy session. The muscles in his chest and arms were more defined than on anyone I’d ever seen. When he shook my hand, it felt like he wore a catcher’s mitt. I could barely get my hand around his.

I don’t intimidate easily, but I felt humbled by his size. He seemed a yin-yang blend of power and stillness.

American Snake Pit is a powerful title for your memoir-but the subtitle is even more intriguing: Hope, Grit, And Resilience In The Wake Of Willowbrook. Can you tell us where it came from?

The title came from Bobby Kennedy in 1965, after he toured an unannounced visit to Willowbrook, a large institution in Staten Island, New York. He stood shaken in front of the cameras and said: “We have a situation that borders on a snake pit.” That film clip really grabbed my interest and American Snake Pit was born. But in spite of this ominous image of a “snake pit,” this is a book about hope. The tremendous courage, bravery, and hidden skills of the people I helped move into the community by way of this experimental group home is astounding. It’s what’s possible when people are given the right opportunities.

What’s up with this book?

I had no capacity to take new clients and I turned down everyone who reached. There was no one to even refer them to. I am the only person (that I am aware of) who does this specific set of services for artists with my precise training. I thought if I wrote it all down in a book, I could be of service to more artists.

Then the 2016 presidential election vomited all over America. I quickly wrote up a pamphlet called Making Art During Fascism as a toolkit to help artists think about how to maintain their lives, their practices, and their (probable) increased activism. My friend, the writer Michelle Tea, asked if I wanted to expand this pamphlet into a short volume for Feminist Press where she’d recently launched the imprint Amythest Editions. I both expanded that pamphlet and incorporated a written account of what it is I do with artists. That’s how this all went down!

You’re an Artist, Keep Making Art

The realization that art could first save and then expand my life came when I was a teenager in a troubled home. Life with my mentally ill mom and alcoholic dad near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, before the Internet, was difficult. A smart, queer feminist without the language to talk about any of it—let alone identify with those lineages—I was profoundly depressed and mostly miserable. I ached for art and counterculture (remember that word?), but they were really hard to come by in small Rust Belt towns in the nineties. I read books, made zines, bought 45s, and ordered Sub Pop record catalogs out of the back of SPIN magazine, which at the time was a wonderland filled with mysterious ads for things like The Anarchist Cookbook.

Why did you write Not My White Savior?

Somedays I’m not sure. I’m a very private person so being public about anything has been, well, interesting. Sometimes I want to close my eyes and pretend I don’t see anything public about myself. When I started to read my poetry at open-mics, other adopted Koreans wanted a copy or wanted to talk with me about my poems and I wasn’t ready for that. I just wanted to read because it was therapeutic. Now I’m ready to share and talk and if it’s helpful to someone, then it’s worth it.

Return to Sender

*Since the Korean War, over 150,000 children have been sent to the USA via inter-country adoption. Due to a loophole in the Child Citizenship Act, there are an estimated 35,000 inter-country adoptees living without US citizenship. Some have been deported to their country of origin.

Korea exported me to America
Before I could speak my name.
Minnesota, Land of 10,000 Lakes
Better Life, education

Formation

There are four stages of interrogation; the first is called Formation. Before the interrogation comes the need for it to occur and the mandate to undertake it. At this stage, the framework is established for how the interrogation may be determined, including the level of coercion that is permitted or not allowed.

 

What happened in the library?

My affair with California begins long before we meet. I am nine, tucked between stacks in the school library on the second floor. For years after, decades, I will have dreams about the second floor of this school. I will wrestle in my sleep to remember what the hallway looked like as it hooked a sharp right, to the farthest reaches of the building where only the sixth-graders went. I will smell the disinfectant wafting off the floors and hear the squeak of untied sneakers. I will remember, without knowing if it is real, a tide of anxiety about the girls’ bathroom—dirty stalls, cold tile, donut-shaped communal drinking fountain into which one could easily fall, or be pushed.

Where were you on the evening of December 3, 1979?

I was in a living room with a brown shaggy rug, tangled curls flying, rag doll clutched under my armpit, enormous headphones clamped around my toddler ears. I was dancing, my mouth plugged by my right thumb. A stretchy black coil connected the headphones to a cord, which ran to the wooden wall unit, which held my father’s record player. A 45 spun round, the needle’s gentle connection to the grooves sending the sound—maybe the Eagles; the Bee Gees; Earth, Wind and Fire—back through the wire to my ears. My parents sat on our nubby couch smiling, looking on. This is where everything begins, and where everything ends.

 

Where will you be on the morning of March 1, 2018?

Probably hiding. My book, California Calling: A Self-Interrogation, comes out that day.