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EVERYONE KNOWS YOU GO HOME by Natalia Sylvester

It has been months since I read this book, but I can still vividly recall so much of it. Beautifully written without being overwrought, the story is full of insights about family, love, immigration, aging, and more. My copy is littered with Post-It flags marking favorite passages. 

This book also happens to be written by my friend Natalia Sylvester, who I greatly admire for her talent, her intelligence, her kindness, and her advocacy.

“You’ll grow slowly, and then all at once.”

“Remember how you used to blow bubbles into your drink through a straw? That’s how the first few kicks will feel.”

“After you give birth, every inch of you will be exhausted and in pain except for your heart.”

“When he cries, remember your body used to be his whole world. Cherish the moments he cries for you, but let him go a little more each day.”

This rings so true to my experiences with pregnancy, birth, and motherhood. A good reminder, as I approach the arrival of my second child.

“Who do you think he’ll be like?” he had asked Elda that day at the hospital. “More you or me?”

“Both. And neither. I think that’s the whole point,” she’d said.

So many people — including myself — like to play this game with children. Who are they more like, mom or dad? Well she’s got mom’s eyes, but dad’s nose. Or dad’s stubbornness, and mom’s fondness for sweets.

But what I find so amazing now — watching my own daughter grow up, as well as my friends’ kids — is how the combination of two people creates something entirely new and unique. IB is not a mini-me or a mini-Andy. She’s herself. More and more each day.

“‘Some people have holes in their hearts not even time can fill, but that doesn’t mean they’re broken.'”

Beautiful and true.

Isabel wondered if wanting to be happy for someone counted as being happy for them.

Intentions versus reality. I’m necessarily not proud to say, I’ve felt this gap in my own emotions many times. Less so, the older I get. But still.

“Decisions are not the same as choices.”

I don’t know if I ever contemplated that distinction quite so clearly before, but I thought about it a lot after reading this line.

Sometimes you have to make a decision even when all your choices are bad. Sometimes you have to make a decision even when you have no choices at all.

“I’m proud of you,” he said.

“For what? I haven’t done anything yet.”

“You’ve done everything. You are everything.”

In a society that often seems obsessed with accomplishment, this feels like such a radical expression of love and worth. It really affected me.

Grief is never really gone; it is just a darkness you eventually adjust to.

Grief is one of the themes of my work-in-progress, so I’m always interested in how other people experience and describe it.

“Life is shit, but it’s fucking beautiful.”


I also really enjoyed this: “Can You Just Trust That We’re Human? The Millions Interviews Natalia Sylvester”

There is so much responsibility to writing. Even when you’re saying, I just want to write a book that’s fun for someone. A book can have the power, while being entertaining, to change how a person thinks or lay the groundwork for it or make them say, “I never thought of that before. Let me delve into that a little more.” So, it’s something that needs to be done very carefully. I know there’s some resistance to that, as if it’s telling someone what to think. People tend to react against it as if it’s censorship.

This is art, but it’s a powerful art, and so how about wielding it well? It’s about the craft, too. It’s going to make all of the book stronger. In the revision, it’s a step back, of thinking, what am I trying to say and what have I said? You can never know completely, obviously, because people are going to interpret everything a lot of different ways, but you try to do your best.

On her exploration of immigration, both as a writer and as an immigrant herself:

You leave a whole country, you leave your home. Immigration also means a death. You’re leaving one life for another. You’re ending this whole life and existence that you had in order to hopefully live this new one. So, what’s the tradeoff. What’s lost in that trade?

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Books, motherhood, and time

From “Boyhood on a Shelf” by Barbara Mahany:

That’s what reading together in childhood does: It forever binds us. My two boys, born eight years apart, played with their toys alone. Reading was where we nestled, where we sank in deep, side by side. Books are where our hearts did so very much of their stitching together. And they were my guideposts as a mother; they whispered the lessons I prayed my children would learn: Ferdinand, the gentle bull? Be not afraid to march to your own music. Harry Potter? Believe in magic. The tales of Narnia? Defend what is good. Tom Sawyer? Roam and roam widely. And never mind if you tumble into a slight bit of mischief.


I remember my mother reading to me. For some reason, Sylvester and the Magic Pebble and A Castle in the Attic stick out the most in my mind. But I know she started our nighttime reading years before either of those, with classics like Goodnight Moon and Dr. Seuss. My memories are hazy flickers of a candle’s flame. It’s not the sound of her voice that lingers decades later, but the feeling of being read to, and cared for. The feeling of shared discovery, as the stories unfolded before both of us at the same time.

It is interesting, and wonderful, to be on the other side of that now.

We started reading to IB almost as soon as she was born. Ridiculous, maybe, but oh well. First, it was simple board books with black and white illustrations. Then, little stories with cute rhymes. Now, we can tackle more complex picture books, with layers of meaning for all ages to appreciate.

I imagine we will do the same with RB, when he gets here. (Oh, by the way, I am pregnant again.) I very much look forward to reading to him too, and to her and him together.

I wonder which stories they will remember the most when they’re adults. I wonder what shape their memories will take.


From “How I Rebuilt My Childhood Library, Book by Book” by J. Courtney Sullivan:

When you’re dealing with used books that once belonged to children, even those listed as “like new” are worn. A stray crayon mark or a torn page is not a sign of neglect, but of love.

With the arrival of every volume, I’d get a thrill, remembering. Not just the book itself, but what it meant to read it under the covers with a flashlight, or on the back porch of our house…


In the publishing industry, there’s a lot of talk about how books are not in competition with other books — at least not truly or solely. They are in competition with movies, TV shows, apps, social media, etc.

Now that I’m a mother, and my time and energy feel much more limited, I understand this more than ever. At the end of the day, after I’ve put IB to bed, and daytime’s obligations have either been finished or saved for tomorrow, I have about an hour or two to myself. I typically spend the first thirty minutes “resetting” the house — cleaning dishes, putting away toys, etc. Then it’s my time to “relax.”

Relaxing should be easy, right? And what could be easier than surfing the internet or watching TV? Or scrolling through my Facebook and Twitter feeds? So those are the places I turn to first. The places where my mind can go a bit blank, usually.

But I don’t find fulfillment there. I don’t gain much if any nourishment from those things. Mostly when I close my laptop or put down my phone, I feel as if I’ve lost more than I’ve gained.

I don’t like that feeling.

Maybe “easy” isn’t always worth the tradeoff.

I want to read more. I want to write more.

And what’s stopping me?

Nothing at all.

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This is 33

Last month, this little turkey turned two. Yesterday, I turned thirty-three. And of course, today is Thanksgiving. Lots of occasions for reflection. It’s easy to say that what I’m most thankful for is her — because it’s true. Like any toddler, she does cry and whine on occasion, but on the whole, she’s such a joyful little creature. And now she can talk, she can sing, she can draw, she can imagine. She fills us with awe every day.

This is 33: Holding my daughter in my arms at the end of each night, telling her “just one more minute,” and then counting to 100 instead of 60, because sometimes I just want to savor the moment a little bit longer.

She’s in full-time daycare now, and while I miss her terribly when she’s away, I also revel in having my whole day back. I love the quiet of the house while the sun is shining through the windows. I appreciate the ease of running errands, scheduling appointments, and doing all the other tedious things adults have to do, without worrying about how to bring her along. Even though I am honored by my role as a mother, I enjoy feeling like my own person for a few hours. I live for sitting at the table with my journal and my pen and actually writing again.

This is 33: Returning to my roots, just a girl with some time and some blank pages, and stories simmering inside her. 

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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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Work-life “balance” lately

WORK

“Mother Courage” by James Wood

In Offill’s original book: a young mother and ambitious writer, committed to her daughter and to her writing, tries to find energy and ambition for both; she must claim for writing the authority of necessity that usually attends parenthood. Art-making, unlike the great bourgeois panoply of family life, comes without society’s automatic sanction, and is in some ways hostile to it.

But her plan “was never to get married. I was going to be an art monster instead.” … The “art monster” lament is a recurring theme. In a way, it is the novel’s true subject, and a steady source of pain: thwarted aspiration, a sense of life as a slow lapse from high ambition. The narrator was twenty-nine when she finished her first book, and now the head of the department where she teaches creative writing is asking her where the second one is.

I’m lucky to have part-time childcare, and every time I get to go to a café, or close my bedroom door, and sit down at my laptop to work, I have the highest of aspirations. But all too often, when those precious hours have ticked away, I have little more than half-starts and disjointed scraps to show for it.

It is difficult, and it feels unfair, and I worry about sounding like a broken record, when I talk about not having enough space for myself and my art now that I’m mother. It is not actually my intention to complain. I fully recognize and appreciate that I am in a better position than most. But still, this is my reality. That’s all I’m saying.

I should also clarify that even before motherhood, I was not the best at managing my time. Motherhood is not to blame for my lack of discipline. But it hasn’t helped, either.

Anyway, I am currently at work on a Young Adult novel about family secrets, architecture, and falling in love. I started this story just before becoming pregnant with IB. Who knows when I will finish. Last year I had a sort of crisis of faith, and so I took a break from the book, experimenting with other ideas in my queue, giving myself permission to write “just for fun,” partly to see if I even knew how to do that anymore. I did. I do. And reminding myself of it allowed me to see that there could be fun in this story too. My faith was renewed, and I recommitted to the manuscript.

LIFE

On nice days, we take IB to the zoo. That’s our thing now. We’re definitely getting our money’s worth out of our membership.

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She walks all over the zoo grounds like she owns the place. Not bossy, but confident, curious, exploring. Tireless. It makes me so happy.

She likes to people-watch, and I wonder what she thinks about everyone.

She also waves and says hi to the animals. It’s painfully cute.

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Though the weather started trending warmer in April, we still got a few random snow days, and on one of them, I made a tiny snowman for IB. She wasn’t sure what to think of it. But she really enjoyed tromping around in her boots.

Later, Andy made her this snow bunny. She kept saying, “Hop hop,” whenever she saw it. And then, after it melted and collapsed, “Uh oh!”

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Now spring is truly here, and while I’m not looking forward to the heat, I do love spending the afternoons and evenings outdoors with IB, picking wildflowers, splashing in water, and just generally kid-ding around.

BALANCE

“How Motherhood Affects Creativity” by Erika Hayasaki

The competition between raising children and creative output is real. It may be impossible to balance in the ways society expects us to. But I don’t believe that parenting is the enemy of the work.

“The Ambition Collision” by Lisa Miller

The lesson of The Feminine Mystique was not that every woman should quit the burbs and go to work, but that no woman should be expected to find all her happiness in one place — in kitchen appliances, for example. And the lesson for my discontented friends is not that they should ditch their professional responsibilities but that they should stop looking to work, as their mothers looked to husbands, as the answer to the big questions they have about their lives. “I think possibly work has replaced ‘and they got married and lived happily ever after,’ and that is a false promise,” says Ellen Galinsky, co-founder of the Families and Work Institute. “Everyone needs to have more than one thing in their life. We find people who are dual-centric to be most satisfied. If people put an equivalent stress on their life outside of their job they get further ahead and are more satisfied at their job.”

“The Time It Costs to Write” by Natalia Sylvester

We forget that time is not just a ticking clock but a life constantly filling with experience that we bring, like gifts and offerings, to the page.

Relish the words, the story, the process. Be kind to yourself and your fellow writers. It costs so much to write, and for each of us it costs something different, but we keep doing it because we are proven, time and again, that it is worth it.

“Are Kids the Enemy of Writing?” by Michael Chabon

Once they’re written, my books, unlike my children, hold no wonder for me; no mystery resides in them. Unlike my children, my books are cruelly unforgiving of my weaknesses, failings, and flaws of character. Most of all, my books, unlike my children, do not love me back.

Before getting pregnant, I worried that motherhood would take away from me. Take away time, take away energy, take away ambition, take away creativity. Now, eighteen months in, I know that motherhood does indeed take a lot — but it gives a lot too.

I truly believe that motherhood can make my work deeper and richer. And on top of everything else, I want to make IB proud.

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