Stuff worth reading

Madonna’s “Billboard Woman of the Year” speech

“As women, we have to start appreciating our own worth, and each other’s worth. Seek out strong women to befriend, to align yourself with, to learn from, to be inspired by, to collaborate with, to support, to be enlightened by.”

Cheryl Strayed interview for Scratch the magazine/book

Did you aspire to be a famous writer?

I want to be recognized for beautiful work, for good work, for real work. I really want to be recognized for that. Which is different from saying I want to be famous.

If you want to be famous, don’t be a writer. When I was first thinking of myself as a writer back in my teens, the shorthand for that was fame. But then I started to really understand what writing was and who writers were. Who were the writers I valued the most as a young woman learning to write?

So pretty quickly, to me it wasn’t about fame—it was about accomplishment. Once you let go of that fame thing, it’s the first step in really being able to focus on doing good work. Because you can’t fake it. That’s the deal with writing. You can’t fake it.

“Growing Up Unreflected: How Diversity Saved Me” by (my brilliant, beautiful friend!) Tria Chang

What started as curiosity and some confusion about how I fit in with societal beauty norms gradually became insecurity and disappointment in myself. I couldn’t see myself as worthy of compliments, admiration, or love. I concluded I had no worth.

There was not really one good reason for this, but many silly little ones that, in a teenager’s mind, can arrange themselves to resemble the truth.

When young people look for themselves in entertainment, they’re not thinking about network ratings, or even racial inequality. They’re simply seeking a sign of acceptance. That who they are is someone worth aspiring to be.

Stuff worth reading

“No Indian Friends” by Priya-Alika Elias

I’m thinking of answers to questions that we’re embarrassed to ask, like why we’re so quick to describe ourselves as “white on the inside.” I’m thinking of answers we don’t have yet, ways we can tear the roots of internalized racism out of little brown kids. I’m thinking of Toni Morrison explaining how she embraces the title “black woman writer,” because she didn’t consider it reductive to be writing as a black woman. It isn’t a place of weakness, she said. It’s a place of strength.

“The Fire and the Snow” by Jennifer Tseng

Writing a convincing story is like setting fire to your own hands using only the match of your imagination. Success seems unlikely but it is possible. In both scenarios, no one really goes anywhere and yet in both scenarios, with practice and concentration, hearts beat faster and bodies grow warmer.

“What Makes a Woman Is Less Important Than What Makes a Feminist” by Jill Filipovic

Part of the work is to push ideological boundaries, to listen to each other with respect even if that doesn’t translate into agreement, and to face injustice head-on while building the foundations of a kinder, more flexible, more expansive society.

“Hi. I used to be transphobic. Here’s a story about that.” by Sara Benincasa

I’ve come a very long way in this regard, and I feel good about that. Not proud, exactly – I don’t think one deserves a pat on the back for realizing, “Hey, I’m a hateful fucking asshole. I should stop being one of those.” But I’ve shown myself that people can change, if they want to. Person to person contact is the most important aspect of change. It is hard to look into another person’s eyes and hear their honest story and still fear them, or hate them, or see them as less than you.

Straight Outta Compton


On Saturday night, Andy and I went to see Straight Outta Compton, the biopic about (primarily) Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, and Easy-E, who together founded one of the biggest, most influential, and most iconic rap groups in history. Upon returning home from the theater, I immediately jumped on Twitter to sing the movie’s praises. I had to. The movie energized me in a way that would not be contained. I can’t stop thinking about it.

Those are my thoughts in a nutshell, but I wanted to discuss a few things in more detail:

F-bombs and n-words. I suspect that a lot of people will be turned off by the “vulgar” facade of Straight Outta Compton. The movie showcases a side of American culture that many look down on, and it’s easy to use the profanity as an excuse to dismiss the film, the music, and the many artists who created it all.

But as a writer, as a lover of words, I think it’s important to recognize that profanity is just a mode of expression, as valid as any other. So is “street” speak. So is broken or accented English.

Things do not have to be comfortable or pleasant or polished to have merit. Furthermore, who gets to define comfortable and pleasant and polished anyway?

Hip hop as a voice for the marginalized. Eddie Huang, the celebrity chef whose memoir inspired the TV show Fresh Off the Boat, talks openly about his love for rap music. He has said that as a chubby Chinese kid growing up in the suburbs of Orlando, he stuck out in pretty much every way, and he connected to hip hop because it is all about the hardships of being in the minority. It is angry, empowering, unapologetic social commentary set to music that makes you move.

Growing up, I knew a lot of Asian guys who were into rap. Coincidence? Maybe.

Maybe not.

Not just for black people. “Conventional wisdom” says that only black people will read/watch/pay attention to black stories — and thus, that black stories are “niche” and can’t be blockbusters. But I have never been convinced of that. I certainly don’t want it to be true.

Personally, I have read and admired books like Their Eyes Were Watching God, The Bondwoman’s Narrative, Beloved, Things Fall Apart, and Pointe. I have been a fan of shows like Sister Sister, Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper, black-ish, and Empire. I have watched and loved movies like Bad Boys, Dream Girls, Precious, Beasts of the Southern Wild, and Beyond the Lights. And I have never once thought, “This story was not meant for me. I cannot relate. These are not my people.” Just the opposite, in fact.

I know I’m not alone in this.

Straight Outta Compton’s screenwriter was a middle-aged gay Jewish man. Clearly he connected with the story of these young, impoverished black musicians, because he did a fantastic job with their story.

Of course, he didn’t do it alone.

Oscar contention. As I said, I think Straight Outta Compton is worthy of a Best Picture nomination. Probably Best Director and Best Actor (for Jason Mitchell, who plays Easy-E) too. Every aspect of the film was top quality, and the subject matter was a perfect balance of personal and political, historical and timely.

Skepticism and hope keep battling inside me. Last year Selma got nominated, yes, but it lost out to a movie that I couldn’t even finish watching. Plus, Ava DuVernay and David Oyelowo were horribly snubbed. A few years earlier, Ray was also nominated and lost, but at least Jamie Foxx won for his amazing performance.

That’s not a lot of precedence to go on, though. And those movies focus on black heroes who are actually accepted and embraced by the mainstream.

Regardless, I have more optimism for Straight Outta Compton right now than I did Saturday night when I was tweeting. I just read about the film’s screening for members of the Academy Awards, which apparently went quite well. Fingers crossed that they prove me wrong. Fingers crossed that we really are progressing. Fingers crossed that we can recognize and reward excellence even when it comes in a less familiar package.

Police brutality. OK, this one doesn’t really segue well, but I need to talk about it. Sunday morning, I woke up with swollen eyelids. I had cried that much during Straight Outta Compton.

Throughout the movie, we see Dre, Easy, and Cube experience multiple conflicts with law enforcement. Not once are they treated with respect, or even basic decency. It’s very hard to watch. Even harder when you remember that it’s real.

The film also includes brief but harrowing footage of the Rodney King beating. In 1991, I was only 5 years old, so I don’t remember much of anything about the incident myself. But 25 years later, I’m very aware of the world around me, and it’s disheartening to see the same thing happening now. So much has changed, and yet so much hasn’t.

Treatment of women. Given the role women tend to play in hip hop culture, I had low expectations for what I would see in Straight Outta Compton. But I was pleasantly surprised. It’s a story about the men, yes, but the women who figure prominently are portrayed with a fair amount of respect. The mothers, the wives, even Dre’s baby momma. We see them as strong, savvy individuals, who play significant roles in the lives of these men.

The background women may not get as much respect, but I felt that they weren’t used gratuitously. There were plenty of bare body parts, but without the unnecessary lingering that I see in so many music videos and cable TV shows. It was more like set dressing, for authenticity.

Note: In real life, a few of these guys have reputations when it comes to misogyny, and even violence against women. I am in no way condoning that. But I do understand the decision to leave that out of the movie given that (A) these guys were producers on the film, and (B) it’s not relevant to the arc of their music careers or friendships, which is the heart of this story.

Update: Dre addressed his past mistakes. Ice Cube made new ones.

Last but not least, here’s a link to the original Straight Outta Compton album, free to stream on Spotify. Several of these songs were familiar to me already, but I definitely have a greater appreciation for them now.

Stuff worth reading

“Newsflash: Sometimes It’s Okay To Not Follow Your Dreams” by Kelton Wright

Maybe it’s brave to quit your job to go paint in Peru for a year, but it’s also brave to work two jobs to help pay for your mom’s medical bills. It’s smart to stay at the law firm until your loans are paid off. It’s OK to only tolerate your job but love your hobbies, because as soon as passions are turned into careers, you risk turning love into work.

So you don’t love your job — who gives a shit?

Are you happy with yourself? Are you happy with the way you treat people? Are you happy with your life?

“An Interview with Finalist Isabel Quintero” at YALSA’s The Hub

Living on the hyphen is a complex cultural existence at times, and we’re often pulled in many directions where allegiance is always demanded. It is a fractured state of being, though I don’t think it’s necessarily bad.

“Is Being a Writer a Calling or a Job?” at the NYT Sunday Book Review

No young writer can know how rare inspiration is — or how, in its place, the real talent turns out to be sitting down, propelling oneself, day after day, through the self-doubt surrounding our nebulous enterprise, trying to believe, as when we began, that writing is important. Not to believe that literature — other people’s writing — is important. But to believe that our own writing, imperfect, unfinished, inevitably falling short, might matter to anyone else.

We need to talk about Empire


Let me start by saying: I am not going to be able to do this show justice. There is too much to unpack. But I can’t not talk about it! It’s too entertaining — and too important.

If you want to read something more comprehensive, here are two really good articles:

As for me, I just want to mention a few specific elements that hooked me as a viewer and impressed me as a storyteller.

The All-Black Cast

This shouldn’t be a big deal, but it is. I mean, “racism is dead,” yet we still have separate sections of the greeting card aisle for “Mahogany” cards. The truth is that we live in a society where non-white, non-heterosexual, non-able-bodied people are automatically designated as “other,” in ways both big and small.

So the fact that millions of viewers — of every demographic — were tuning in each Wed night to watch the Lyon family? The fact that Empire has absolutely dominated the ratings this season? And the fact that it is the first show in at least 23 years — maybe the first drama ever — to increase its viewership with every single new episode?

That’s huge.

Because it’s proof that black characters are not “niche” by default. It’s proof that American audiences are willing and able to identify with protagonists who might not look, sound, or act like them. (And not just identify with those protagonists, but be riveted by them.) It’s proof that stories do not require white, straight, able-bodied characters in order to make them financially or critically successful.

Empire isn’t the first show to tell us these things. From my childhood, I can remember Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Family Matters, and more recently, there are shows like Black-ish, Jane the Virgin, and Fresh Off the Boat. But Empire is the biggest, loudest, and most impossible to ignore. I have no idea if it can sustain this momentum or for how long — but I don’t think that matters. Nothing can erase the accomplishments of this first season.

I think Empire could be a watershed for mainstream American culture. I hope so.

The Social Commentary

One of the show’s many strengths is its audacity. Empire goes where most stories are afraid to go, and it does not tread lightly.

One gay son. One with bipolar disorder. One with mommy issues that lead to dating inappropriate women. And then there’s the racism, sexism, wealth, creativity, religion, and more. Empire doesn’t shy away from anything.

What I think is most significant, though, is that Empire is tackling these topics from the “hip hop gaze,” so to speak. Political correctness is not a priority. Keeping it real is. Which means that even the family members who have no issue with Jamal’s homosexuality refer to him in ways that would make most liberals cringe. And when Andre experiences a mental health breakdown, his concerned, loving mother still has a hard time believing that he could be afflicted by “white people problems.”

The Lyons are not intended to serve as role models. The things that they say, do, and believe are not always kind or pretty. But the Lyons are not our court jesters either. This isn’t like a trashy reality show where the viewer is meant to laugh at the contestants, to watch from a safe and comfortable emotional distance, to feel superior. When you watch Empire, you are a Lyon.

That’s why the social commentary is so impactful. Would I say that? Have I done that? Do I think that?

Cookie and Her Sons

With a book, good writing needs only the reader to make it come alive. But for the screen, good writing needs good acting to really shine.

The entire cast of Empire is top-notch, but Taraji P. Henson is divine. Her Cookie Lyon is everything. Fierce, fresh, and foul-mouthed — yet also vulnerable, sensitive, and savvy. Music may be the heart and soul of Empire the company, but Cookie is without question the heart and soul of Empire the show.


Terrence Howard does a fine job as Lucious Lyon, but Lucious to me is just the engine for the story. His ambition and his selfishness are what create all the conflict. In some ways, he’s more like a force of nature than one of the heroes. I’m certainly not rooting for him.

So after Taraji/Cookie, I would say that the Lyon sons (collectively) are the next best part of the show. No matter how many times they are pitted against each other — either directly or indirectly by their father — Andre, Jamal, and Hakeem keep coming back to their brotherly bonds. Hakeem and Jamal are particularly close, since they share a talent and passion for music, on top of everything else. But even Andre, the business-minded tone-deaf “black sheep” of the family, can put aside his resentment at being left out and offer a hand to his brothers when needed.

Edited to add: The depiction of Andre’s bipolar disorder is perhaps not entirely medically accurate, but I think there’s an emotional truth to it. Also, Trai Byers does an incredible job with the material he’s given.

More than anything else, I hope the relationships between Cookie and her boys will stay strong over the course of the story. That fierce family love is what’s most powerful and universal in Empire. It’s what got us through the scheming, murders, betrayals, and countless other twists of this first season. I can only imagine the storms it will have to weather next year.