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Recently viewed: Buffy, Angel, The Guernsey Potato Peel Pie Society, and Black Panther

Well that’s a mouthful. And I even truncated two of the titles!

This past December through February, besieged by the chaos of holidays and recurring illness, I indulged in a lot of screen time. I wouldn’t say it was the best use of so many hours… but I always try to make my “creative consumption” productive — i.e., learn what I can about good storytelling, character development, dialogue, etc. Plus there’s something to be said for keeping one’s finger on the pulse of our culture, right?

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

I remember watching Buffy as a teen when it first came out. I only made it to Season 3 or 4 before junior year of high school started kicking my butt and I made the radical decision to cut out TV, go to bed at 10 PM, wake up at 5 AM, go for a run, and then finish whatever homework I had left before school.

(That was a remarkably healthy period of my life that I have never again been able/willing to replicate.)

So I did get to witness Buffy’s “golden years” in real-time, but what I learned from completing the series now is that while Seasons 1-3 were the best overall, Seasons 4-7 actually had the best individual episodes. (The worst too, though. The highest of the highs, and the lowest of the lows.)

Also, without getting into potential spoilers, I’ll just say that I loved how the show addressed the theme of the Chosen One being a lonely, thankless position (throughout the series, but especially in the end) as well as how Buffy empowered girls and women, both in the audience and in the actual story.

Takeaways:

  • Sarah Michelle Gellar is immensely watchable.
  • Even when you’re writing about imminent doom and recurring gloom, you can be funny. In fact, that’s probably the best way to tackle tough stuff.
  • Swing for the fences. Sometimes you’ll miss, but when you hit a home run, boy will it be worth it. Infamous episodes like “Hush,” “The Body,” and “Once More With Feeling” were big risks, because they were so different from the show’s normal style, but they are brilliant and beloved.

You’re not friends. You’ll never be friends. You’ll be in love till it kills you both. You’ll fight, and you’ll shag, and you’ll hate each other till it makes you quiver, but you’ll never be friends.

Love isn’t brains, children. It’s blood. Blood screaming inside you to work its will. I may be love’s bitch, but at least I’m man enough to admit it.

Spike in “Lover’s Walk” (S3E8)

Angel

As a teen, I loved Angel’s character in Buffy — to the point that I sporadically watched Bones out of lingering loyalty to David Boreanaz — but when Angel left for his spinoff show, I let him go. Fast forward to now, when friends heard I was finally going to finish watching all of Buffy, most of them urged me to binge Angel as well.

I can’t say I loved it, but I can see why it has faithful fans. Maybe even more so than in Buffy, the character arcs in Angel are astounding, for how significantly and yet organically many of the main characters change. Wesley in particular.

Season 4 was a disaster, though. Gina Torres just barely saved it. The soft reset in Season 5 was clever and enjoyable. And although Fred was my hands-down favorite, Illyria was pretty cool too.

Takeaways:

  • Amy Acker is great in everything.
  • Don’t force the hero into an ill-suited love story just because you’re worried the audience will lose interest without some sort of hook-up. Give people more credit than that.
  • Related: Sometimes romantic tension is better than romance.
  • You can pull off some wacky ideas if you do it with conviction. For example, puppets.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society

Honestly I went into this movie expecting a meaningless but sweet romantic drama that I could just pay half attention to while I did other things. Instead I found myself sucked into the heartfelt — and heart-wrenching — story of these islanders and the bonds they forged during the most difficult of times.

Takeaways:

  • Matthew Goode is painfully handsome and charming.
  • It’s okay to be sentimental and/or predictable as long as you do it well.

Black Panther

I think this is the best superhero movie I’ve seen in ages. Maybe ever? It’s big and fun and yet full of depth. It fits into the genre, but it’s different enough to stand out too.

(Disclaimer: I am not a big superhero movie buff. In fact, I find myself fairly fatigued by how many have come out in the past few years. I cannot keep up and at this point, don’t particularly care to.)

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed Wonder Woman — especially the first part with just the Amazonian women, and by the way, Gal Gadot might be human perfection — but Black Panther is several cuts above. The writing, the cast, the visuals… Everything was phenomenal.

I especially appreciated how elements repeated, tied in. Nothing was wasted. Each scene was important in the moment, then even more important later. And the themes of the story were both timeless (a son trying to live up to his father’s legacy, yet also do better) and timely (do we wall ourselves off to protect our treasures, or share our resources to enrich everyone?).

If I’m nitpicking, there are a couple moments that felt a bit Lion King-y to me… but that’s truly trivial.

In one scene, as the camera pans around several different Wakandan tribes, I found myself in tears, overcome with emotion just like when I watched Crazy Rich Asians. Because I know that Black Panther meant to so many black people what CRA meant to so many Asian people. Representation. A movie about people like us that wasn’t only meant for people like us. It was meant for everybody. And it kicked ass.

Takeaways:

  • Wakanda forever.
  • Use specificity to get at universality. It’s the details that people connect to.
  • A story can both fit the mold and break out of it at the same time.

“In times of crisis, the wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers.”

T’Challa in the post-credits scene
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Seen on screen

On Friday, I indulged in two movies, one on the big screen, and one on my iPad mini. Both filled my heart with joy, and made me cry several times, because of the stories themselves, and also because of what these stories mean. I haven’t stopped thinking about them all weekend, and I can’t wait to watch them again.

Based on the novel of the same name, Crazy Rich Asians is part rom-com, part fish-out-of-water story, part family drama, and part extravagant party.

It’s also the first Hollywood production to feature an all-Asian cast since 1993’s Joy Luck Club. (Which is one of my all-time favorite movies, by the way.)

When the movie started, I was overcome with emotion. Seeing all those Asian faces — faces like my aunts, my cousins, my friends, their parents — and for them to be the stars? For them to be the focus of a lighthearted contemporary story, as opposed to something historical or niche? It was just so…

It was everything.

Crazy Rich Asians is not perfect, but it’s genuinely enjoyable. Henry Golding is a gem, and Michelle Yeoh is great as ever. The last third of the movie is especially strong, which is significant, because endings are hard. (The wedding reception! The mahjong scene! The plane scene!)

The more I look back on the movie, the more I appreciate both the big things (romantic love vs. family love; mother-child relationships; self-sacrifice) and the little things (Araminta with glasses and no make-up at the night market; Rachel and Peik Lin going barefoot through the Goh family mansion; everyone making dumplings together and sharing family stories in a mix of English and Chinese).

To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, now streaming on Netflix, is also based on a novel, and features a half-Korean main character. The whole cast is charming, but especially Noah Centineo (Peter, one of the love interests) and Anna Cathcart (Kitty, the younger sister). To be honest, I was just expecting this to be a bit of fluffy fun, and it was, but it was also much more.

This piece does a great job explaining how TATBILB manages to succeed within its genre, while also setting itself apart:

The story plays out with familiar beats and set pieces, bits I remembered from beloved predecessors like “A Walk to Remember,” “She’s All That” and “10 Things I Hate About You,” movies designed to make you remember, viscerally, the terrifying thrill of first love.

But damn, does “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” stick just about every landing, in part by reshaping misogynistic and shallow tropes of the genre in ways that make it feel more honest and yet also more optimistic.

Specifically: The dad is not stodgy and oblivious; When couples break up, they don’t instantly hate each other, because that’s not how first love usually works; And maybe most importantly, the heroine doesn’t require a sexy makeover in order for the hot guy to fall for her.

[It’s] a gentle, witty, nuanced movie about family, grief and growing up, wrapped around a love story that’s both believably bumbling and an irresistible fantasy.

Also: That hot tub scene.


My daughter IB is too young to watch these movies with me at the moment, but I hope when she’s old enough, she’ll want to. Because if seeing them healed pieces of my own 30-something-year-old heart, then I can only imagine what they might mean to her growing up. Maybe she’ll watch them dozens of times, like I did with Mulan and Joy Luck Club. Or maybe, if we’re lucky, she won’t have to, because there will be so many stories with good Asian representation that these won’t stand out like they do now.


I would like to be a part of that. Like many writers of color, my earliest work defaulted to whiteness, but as I’ve matured, all my best writing has reflected my mixed race identity, in one way or another.

Sometimes I wonder whether the world really needs my stories or not. I ask myself, What can I add? Why does anything I say matter?

This weekend, Crazy Rich Asians and To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before reminded me that you don’t have to change the world, or be perfect, to make a difference.

#RepresentationMatters

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Stuff worth reading

“Writers Aren’t Who They Think They Are” by David Ebenbach

What the novel says, I think, is that any single event is the result of many, many things. That’s why you have the hundreds of pages leading up to the climax; those pages suggest the philosophy that you can only fully understand that climax and its significance if you know a whole lot about all the things that led up to it… The short story says something different—not contradictory, but different. The short story suggests that any single moment or detail, in some sense, contains everything: the characters; their problems and promise; the significance of the events; human nature, more generally; the past, the present, and the future.

Here’s my point: Writers rarely know who they are as writers. Well, if you grab hold of one of the most insightful ones and ask them, they might be able to articulate who they are in that particular moment. At that moment they’re obsessed with coming-of-age stories, maybe, or they only believe in first-person narrators, or everything they do is stream-of-consciousness. But that’s only who that writer is for that one particular moment. That one fleeting moment. And only a fool would decide that that’s how things have to be forever.

Actually, each one of us can do anything. We are not limited to one defining thing.

“To Understand Rising Inequality, Consider the Janitors at Two Top Companies, Then and Now” by Neil Irwin

In the 21st-century economy, many millions of workers find… Rather than being treated as assets that companies seek to invest in, they have become costs to be minimized.

“Beesting, Kneecap, Lozenge” by Dan Murphy

I write for two hours every day. When I burrow into an uninterrupted state, and succeed in ignoring the infinite distractions at my fingertips, the practice of it makes me better for it. Seems obvious. But the locked in time plus repetition is what produces. Reading, of course, helps too. I know that when I am reading I want to write more. I know that when I’m writing I want to read more. Words beget words. You’ll never get through them all, and thus you’ll never run out. I find a great deal of comfort in that.

“The ‘New York Times’ Books Desk Will Make You Read Again” by John Maher

“I am ever bullish on the book industry, because I think that people like to hear stories, and books remain one of the great ways in which to tell them. And as everything else gets faster, quicker, shorter, smaller, people look for balance in their lives and want to turn to books for a broader context, deeper context, a sustained narrative.”

“Things That Are Not Failure” by T.S. Bazelli

Failure in writing is not:
Still having a lot to learn.
Reaching a certain age and not being published yet.
Unexpected things getting in the way of writing.
Watching other people succeed while you don’t.
Needing a break now and then.
Finding this hard. It is hard.

“You Aren’t Lazy — You’re Just Terrified: On Paralysis And Perfectionism” by Jenni Berrett

“I think the problem here isn’t the writing – it’s you. You’re expecting a product without respecting the process. I’m not interested in getting something perfect from you, and you shouldn’t be either. Just do the work. Write the story. And then write it again, as many times as you need to.”

Mistakes are essential to human progress and personal development, so why do I keep telling myself I’m not allowed to make any?

“A Constitution for a Young Artist” by Maxime Kawawa-Beaudan

Work until the work speaks for itself.

There is only the pen, the excuse you make not to pick it up, and the reason you find to pick it up anyway.

“On Star Trek: Discovery and Michelle Yeoh’s Accent” by Swapna Krishna

As a young girl of color, Star Trek was the first place I can remember seeing myself represented. Through characters like Uhura, Sulu and Geordi LaForge, I saw people that looked a little like me — that shared the first thing people notice about me, a darker skin color — and for the first time understood that I could achieve anything, even serve on a starship. I, and people who looked like me, existed in this future. It was one of the major forces that shaped my childhood and the adult I have become.

But still, nothing could have prepared me for the moment when Yeoh utters those first words. I personally do not speak English with an accent… But my parents, immigrants to this country, speak with an accent, though they’ve lived here the bulk of their lives.

It’s hard to put into words what it feels like to watch a thing you so badly want to love and, all of a sudden, being emotionally devastated (in the best way possible) because they included you in such a seemingly effortless way. When you’re used to having to fight for every small morsel of representation you get, having it granted without even having to even ask, and in such a thoughtful way, is overwhelming.

“Let’s Talk About the Fantasy of the Writer’s Lifestyle” by Rosalie Knecht

It’s easy to forget that Hemingway and the rest went to Paris because it was cheaper than staying at home, and that it was cheaper because a catastrophic war had just laid waste to the continent. These writers produced so much material about each other, in fiction and in letters, that they accidentally crystallized a specific time and place in the American imagination as the essence of what a creative life looks like.

This fantasy image does us a disservice. It leaves us with no model to follow when we try to integrate art-making with functional lives. That period when a person could make a living writing fiction for periodicals was a blip, and it’s over; we’ve long since returned to the baseline, which is that the vast majority of fiction is written around and beside a whole lot of other work, and it’s the other work that pays the rent. As such, there is no writer’s lifestyle; your lifestyle is determined by what that other work is.

Those of us who are lucky enough to be living this fairly obvious reality can feel at times like we’ve failed. I have the pleasure of my work, but where’s my glamor? Why doesn’t it look the way I thought it would when I was 14? The cruel edge on the bohemian fantasy is that it pretends that leisure can be had for free. As every adult knows, leisure takes capital.

Setting aside the catalog fantasy means being able to interrogate the idea that the writer is always observing, standing at the edge of the party, never unpacking all his suitcases or renewing his lease. Most writers are, in fact, as deeply rooted in their communities as anybody else. But that’s hard to picture. … How would it look if we pushed that rootedness to the center, valorized it, acknowledged it as the norm?

If I were speaking to my 14-year-old self, who had already fully assimilated the writer-lifestyle-fantasy from various sources, I would say this: First of all, good news. You’re going to write books. Second, you’re going to spend very little time on terraces or piazzas of any kind. … The important thing is, though, that you will get to write.

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Recently viewed: Hidden Figures and Gifted

“Recently” might be too generous of a term, in the case of Hidden Figures, which I watched several months ago. But I really enjoyed this movie and have been intending to post about it ever since.

Although I no longer watch Empire, I will always be drawn to Taraji P. Henson — and of course Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae are rock solid too. Together, they play three black women who, in real life, were geniuses and pioneers within the NASA program. I loved how each woman had her own professional and personal storylines, but also intersected with one another in tender, humorous scenes of supportive friendship.

Though it is all presented in a relatively palatable way, the movie’s themes of feminism and racism are, unfortunately, still quite relevant.

Speaking of Octavia Spencer, she must be one of the busiest women in Hollywood, because it seems like she is in everything I watch! Or maybe she and I just have similar tastes in stories? That wouldn’t be such a bad coincidence.

Gifted tells the story of a family at odds with itself. In the aftermath of his sister’s death, Frank is raising his niece Mary (with some help from his neighbor, played by Octavia Spencer). When Frank’s mother discovers that Mary is a math genius, she swoops in and tries to take custody away from him. The ensuing battle brings up a compelling knot of love, ambition, sacrifice, and blame.

Without giving too much away, I’ll just say that the theme of a mother’s ambition driving her relationship with her daughter is something that I plan to explore in the near future. As a mom myself now, I can see how easy it is to fall into the trap of projecting your hopes and dreams onto your children.

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Week in review (Jan 31, 2018)

Opening credits

Several months ago, I wrote a column for my dad’s newspapers about life as a new mother. Now I’m working on another one, about the part that technology played in our first year of parenting.

Recently I read my friend Jasmine Warga’s second book, HERE WE ARE NOW. On the surface, it’s about a daughter reconnecting with her long-lost father, who has become a rock star. But on a deeper level, it’s a love letter to music, to immigrants, to artistic ambitions, and to the messy ups and downs of relationships of all kinds. I adored it.

I also found a very pleasant surprise at the end: my name in the acknowledgments!

Feel-good funny

While This Is Us and The Good Place were on winter break, I needed some well-written, light-hearted TV. I decided to try Brooklyn 99, and it did not disappoint. Like Michael Schur’s other creations (Parks and Recreation, The Good Place), the show focuses on characters that are basically good people, who care about each other, their work, and the world at large. That’s not necessarily a great setup for comedy, but the characters are so quirky, and they play off each other perfectly.

Rosa is my favorite — for some reason I am often drawn to the “tough chick” — but even as I say that, a part of me wants to take it back and make a case for each of the other characters. I love them all, and can see pieces of myself in every one.

A voice for the voiceless

The Shape of Water is not a feel-good funny movie, but there were, to my surprise, several moments where I laughed. (“No, no, don’t play with the kitties.”)

I did not love The Shape of Water the way so many people seem to, but I did admire its beauty, its ambitions, and its themes. I find myself thinking about it a lot, which is just as significant as loving it, I think, but in a different way. It’s a story about outcasts, and how hungry we all are for love. Sally Hawkins was tremendous in the lead role, and Michael Stuhlbarg sneakily wormed his way into my heart as Dr. Hoffstetler.

Speaking of tough chicks…

I’ve been a Taylor Swift fan from the beginning, but I’m not against an artist evolving with the times. (I hope to be given that opportunity myself, after all.) Overall, I’ve enjoyed her progression over the years.

That said, I was pretty wary of her latest album, Reputation, after hearing the first couple of songs. It’s not that they were bad, but… The heavy-synth sound is not my thing, and the petty, repetitive lyrics did not impress me.

I’ve now had the chance to listen to the entire album on Spotify, and on the whole I’d say it’s fine. Not great, but fine. The Old Taylor is, contrary to reports, still alive and well (particularly in “Don’t Blame Me” and “Getaway Car”) and the New Taylor is, if not excellent, at least interesting.

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