Eve Babitz and the Obscuring of a Cult Figure

What goes into the making of a “cult classic?” To hear Nicole Cooley tell it when she lectures about Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictée, about the way the women of her college passed laminated photocopies of the pages of the then out-of-print book back and forth, circulating the text and keeping it alive among themselves, one can get a clear picture of how a book gains a cult following. Perhaps the idea of scarcity also has something to do with it – Cha was raped and murdered a week after Dictée’s publication, and Dictée had since gone out of print so another Cha book would never be forthcoming – and so the women of Prof. Cooley’s college laminated their sole photocopy, ensuring the pages would survive being handed off from student to student, everyone clambering to read it but no one being able to go out and purchase her own copy. The story of this group of women and their preserved copy of Dictée just adds to the cult status of the book every time Prof. Cooley introduces her history with and love of the book to a new audience of graduate students who have just read Dictée, usually for the first time, and are more than a little lost in Cha’s genre-breaking work. As Zan Romanoff describes it, Eve Babitz biographer Lili Anolik had a similar experience when reading an out-of-print copy of Slow Days, Fast Company and she then became obsessed with wanting to talk to Babitz about her writing style, spending years trying to develop a relationship with Babitz’s family and her friends in order to gain some foothold in Babitz’s circle, and Anolik eventually succeeded in endearing herself to Babitz. Babitz herself was also touched by near-tragedy that pushed her out of the spotlight and led her to stop writing, but like the life she had documented in her semi-fictionalized autobiographies, even the circumstances of her accident were extraordinary, “a freak accident – a lit cigar, a convertible with the top down, a highly flammable skirt” (Romanoff).

Anolik’s profile of Babitz in Vanity Fair in 2014 was the first time Babitz had given an interview in decades; in it, Anolik questions why Babitz’s status never left cult and her work remained under the radar. Babitz’s agent theorized that it was because Babitz captured the time of Los Angeles in the 1970s in her writing, but the next decades were not kind to Babitz: too much cocaine in the 80s and then her accident in the 90s which pushed her out of public life. Matthew Specktor, who writes the introduction of the 2016 edition of Slow Days, Fast Company, indicates the tendency of readers to hyperfocus on Babitz’s lovers and her nude photo with Marcel Duchamp, both of which obscure her work, and Babitz then becomes “a party girl spattered with genius instead of (this distinction seems important) an actual genius who happened to, y’know, like to party” (Specktor). While Anolik writes that Babitz exploited herself knowingly to give the outer appearance of a pinup girl with the inner life of an artist, it does seem that the glamorous life Babitz catalogued in her books did ultimately overshadow discussions about her craft. Personally, I think that Babitz’s work had a cult following without being able to break into mainstream success was because her books could not easily be categorized as fiction or nonfiction. Book reviewers still can’t seem to decide how to define Slow Days, Fast Company – is it a novel, a collection of short stories, an essay collection, fiction, semi-autobiographical, memoir – and so a reader doesn’t know how to orient themselves in the world of the book. (Cha too defies simple classification; Dictée was initially labeled an “art book.”) Babitz in many ways seems unreal, to me she could have been plucked out of one of Taylor Jenkins Reid’s historical fiction novels about complicated and influential women published in the past few years, and I don’t know how much to trust Babitz’s narrator. How much does she embellish and how can you tell? Like Babitz trying to be both pinup and artist, her work trying to be both fiction and nonfiction puts readers on unstable ground trying to understand Babitz and her body of work, leaving it to the most devoted of fans to spend the time to actually analyze her craft.

 

Works Cited

Anolik, Lili. “All About Eve – And Then Some.” Vanity Fair, March 2014, https://archive.vanityfair.com/article/2014/3/all-about-eve–and-then-some. Accessed 19 November 2021.

Babitz, Eve. Slow Days, Fast Company: The World, The Flesh, and L.A., Kindle ed., NYRB Classics, 2016.

Cha, Theresa Hak Kyung. Dictée. 1982. University of California Press, 2009.

Romanoff, Zan. “Meet the Writer Who Chased Even Babitz All Over Hollywood: How Lili Anolik Finally Got Her Subject to Talk.” Literary Hub, 10 Jan. 2019, https://lithub.com/meet-the-writer-who-chased-eve-babitz-all-over-hollywood/. Accessed 19 November 2021.

Specktor, Matthew. Introduction. Slow Days, Fast Company: The World, The Flesh, and L.A., by Eve Babitz, Kindle ed., 2016.

Who Reproduces Cultural Memory? Who Remembers?

In the Afterword of I Remember, Ron Padgett quotes Michael Lally’s review of the book in The Village Voice (this quote is also featured on the book’s back cover), “Joe Brainard’s memories of growing up in the ‘40s and ‘50s have universal appeal. He catalogues the past in terms of fashion and fads, public events and private fantasies, with such honesty and accuracy and in such abundance that, sooner or later, his history coincides with ours and we are hooked” (170). Coincidentally, I read Matthew Salesses’ Craft in the Real World right before reading I Remember, and Salesses discusses how fiction, specifically how fiction is workshopped and by whom fiction is workshopped influences the reproduction and transmission of cultural norms. After finishing I Remember, I saw a post from the Instagram account @impact called “Stop Romanticizing the 1920’s-1950’s,” which pointed out that these were times of oppression for women and people of color, particularly black Americans. All of these texts coming together immediately raised red flags at the notion that I Remember could have “universal appeal” given the period Lally identifies as his and Brainard’s youth. For white men like Lally and Brainard, their experiences of childhood in the 1940s and 1950s would be drastically different than those of children of color in the United States experiencing the social turbulence of World War II and its ripple effects, including but not limited to Japanese internment, lack of federal funding for services on Indian reservations, the Zoot Suit riots, and the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement. In the text, Brainard periodically makes unflattering remarks about “Negroes” and “Orientals” which consistently snapped me out of whatever rhythm I fell into while reading. Early in the book, I was shocked by, “I remember my father in black-face. As an end man in a minstrel show” (33). It is one thing to internalize racist ideas that are insidiously embedded in American culture and to reproduce it (perhaps unknowingly), but it is another to remember – and in the words of its collaborators and initial reviewers, I Remember is an honest accounting of Brainard’s memory – how one’s father actively participated in the reproduction and transmission of racist ideas. Later, I was again more shocked by, “I remember feeling sorry for black people, not because I thought they were persecuted, but because I thought they were ugly” (Brainard 133). While the point of the book is not to reflect on the memories and to critique or address the writer’s upbringing or challenge the beliefs of the younger self, I have found through browsing casual book reviews that the focus is largely on the craft of I Remember, and not the content of the remembrances so neither the writer nor the reader is engaging in the work of examining exactly what kinds of things Brainard remembers and why it’s these memories that he chose to immortalize in published writing.

Thinking of Salesses and the way homogenous groups of writers continue to perpetuate the same cultural ideas in fiction until it is the norm, I really have to question Lally’s claim of I Remember’s “universal appeal,” that goes unchallenged even in Padgett’s 2001 Afterword, and if what Lally really means to say is that the book’s appeal is for white readers only. I think the craft of the book distracts readers from questioning what kinds of cultural memories are reproduced within, and that this book too contributes to the rosy view of American history that obscures the truth and prevents white Americans from coming to terms with the reality of America. When the people doing the remembering and immortalizing the remembrances are not remembering the realities of prejudice and oppression, they are producing cultural memory that continues to obscure the truth of history.

 

Works Cited

Brainard, Joe. I Remember. 1975. Granary Books, 2001.

Impact. “Stop Romanticizing the 1920’s-1950’s.” Instagram, designed by Tania Velin, 14 October 2021, https://www.instagram.com/p/CVBVgW6B1NU/.

Padgett, Ron. Afterword. I Remember, by Joe Brainard, 2001, pp. 169-176.

Salesses, Matthew. Craft in the Real World. Catapult, 2021.

Singing on the Borderline with Lee Sunmi

On February 24, 2019, Lee Sunmi, former member of the massively famous girl group the Wonder Girls turned solo artist, kicked off her Warning world tour in Seoul. Since the Wonder Girls disbanded in 2017, Sunmi had become one of the group’s most famous alums, with her first three post-disbandment singles becoming hugely successful on the Korean music charts. On her personal Twitter, Sunmi tweeted the lyrics to two unreleased songs from the first night of the tour, including the English language track Borderline. In March, during her New York City tour stop, Sunmi sat for an interview with Pop Crush where she mentioned that Borderline was “about [her], but [she thinks] it’s a song everyone can relate to when they hear it.” She continued to perform Borderline until the tour’s conclusion in June 2019.

In late August, Sunmi released the single LALALAY and in November was the first guest on Studio K’s new segment, Talking Lyrics, where she discussed the meanings behind LALALAY and Borderline. When asked why Borderline was unreleased, Sunmi simply answered that the song was “too raw.” She further explained that while Borderline’s lyrics were things she wanted to say, since she debuted with the Wonder Girls at such a young age, she felt like she had grown up feeling pressure to present a good public image to not incur hate from the public.

On August 19, 2020, Sunmi released a special performance video of Borderline featuring new choreography. During the tour, Sunmi had sung the song directly to the audience standing at a microphone and walking back and forth across the stage, while in the new music video, she and two backup dancers perform contemporary dance, and Sunmi acts from a filled bathtub. A week after the release of the music video, Sunmi posted an interview on her YouTube channel about the stylistic decisions behind Borderline, explaining the bathtub represented a small space in which she expressed extreme and dynamic emotions. She also stated that Borderline was “[her] story that [she’s] hidden for a long time.” A day after the music video was released, Sunmi tweeted on her personal Twitter, “I was quite afraid to reveal my injury from the past bcuz all the words in this song are true and honest feelings of mine. I realized that many people, not just me, were struggling with this feeling.” Some fans began to speculate that the singer had borderline personality disorder, but at the time nothing had been confirmed.

It wasn’t until December of 2020, when Sunmi was appearing on the reality program Running Girls, that she revealed she had been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder five years prior and had been receiving treatment for it, including medication, ever since, and her condition had improved to the point where she felt secure enough to speak about it openly. In August 2021, Borderline was finally officially released as the final track on her newest EP, 1/6, and she performed an abbreviated version of the song with a live band on Naver.

Borderline personality disorder (BPD) is a condition characterized by difficulty regulating emotions and long-term instability in moods, interpersonal relationships, and self-image. It is among the most highly stigmatized mental health conditions; a 2013 literature review of several small surveys of various mental health professionals in Western countries revealed that a majority of mental health professionals studied viewed patients with BPD negatively and admitted to treating patients with less empathy, and believing they were dangerous and therefore more difficult and time-consuming to care for (Sansone & Sansone). Although this literature review did not include surveys conducted in Asia, mental health has been a taboo subject in South Korea until very recently, especially mental health conditions that require treatment with medication. Former member of 2NE1 and now soloist Park Bom was embroiled in a massive scandal when her prescription Adderall – illegal in South Korea but filled legally in the United States by her mother – was intercepted at Korean customs in 2014, leading to accusations from the public that Park Bom was a drug addict and drug smuggler, when she was only treating her ADHD (Benjamin). The culture surrounding discussing mental health has changed since 2014; at the beginning of 2020 there was a wave of announcements that a number of kpop idols were going to take breaks from activities due to being diagnosed with anxiety disorders (Yonhap).

Sunmi has revealed her battle with BPD in stages, speaking little and vaguely about it after Borderline’s unveiling in 2019, and primarily through her personal Twitter where she often interacts with fans in English and in English language publications, before linking the song more explicitly to her own story in mid-2020 with the release of the performance video on her YouTube channel where she also discussed the song in a Korean language interview. In March 2021, a few months after she finally publicized her BPD diagnosis, Sunmi appeared on the music program You Hee-yeol’s Sketchbook and You Hee-yeol praised the lyrics to Borderline and said he felt like he was peeking at Sunmi’s diary and remarked viewers at home were probably crying listening to her words. Sunmi’s castmates on Running Girls, all fellow female kpop idols, also praised Sunmi for her strength and bravery when talking about BPD.

It seems Sunmi waited for Korean culture to become more receptive to celebrities talking openly about their mental health to share her story. Korean audiences have praised Sunmi for her bravery and efforts to destigmatize discussions about mental illness, and fans worldwide with BPD have expressed their admiration for Sunmi talking about BPD openly and how they related to the song. At the end of her interview about the Borderline video, Sunmi is asked if there are any last words she wants to say, and Sunmi answers that although she does not think Borderline has a grand message because she wrote it as her own story, she hopes that through it she can tell people, “You are not alone.”

 

 

Works Cited

Benjamin, Jeff. “Park Bom Opens Up About How Controversy, Insomnia & ‘A New Family’ Led to her Triumphant ‘Spring’ Comeback.” Billboard, 14 March 2019, https://www.billboard.com/articles/columns/k-town/8502609/park-bom-spring-interview-how-controversy-insomnia-and-a-new-family-led-to-her-comeback/. Accessed 23 September 2021.

“[ENG] [2회] ‘사랑받고 싶다는 마음’ 경계선 인격 장애로 힘든 시기를 보낸 선미의 이야기 #달리는사이 | Running girls EP.2 | Mnet 201216 방송.” YouTube, uploaded by Mnet TV, 16 December 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WsHTwXOmjBE

Frances, Lai. “Sunmi on K-Pop’s Global Expansion, Her Solo Career, and ‘Glowing Up’ (Interview).” Pop Crush, 27 March 2019, https://popcrush.com/sunmi-warning-tour-new-york-interview/. Accessed 23 September 2021.

@miyaohyeah. “Borderline.” Twitter, 24 February 2019, 9:34 a.m., https://twitter.com/miyaohyeah/status/1099679050799362049?lang=en

@miyaohyeah. “When I started making Borderline, I was quite afraid to reveal my injury from the past bcuz all the words in this song are true and honest feelings of mine. I realized that many people, not just me, were struggling with this feeling.” Twitter, 20 August 2020, 7:14 a.m., https://twitter.com/miyaohyeah/status/1296405125943173122?lang=en

Sansone, Randy A, and Lori A Sansone. “Responses of mental health clinicians to patients with borderline personality disorder.” Innovations in clinical neuroscience vol. 10,5-6 (2013): 39-43.

SUNMI. “Borderline.” 1/6 – EP, Abyss Company, 2021.

“Sunmi – Borderline [Yu Huiyeol’s Sketchbook Ep 532.]” YouTube, uploaded by KOCOWA TV, 18 March 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nC6B_vJW338.

“Sunmi explains the meaning of ‘LALALAY’ and ‘Borderline’ | Talking Lyrics.” YouTube, uploaded by KBS Kpop, 3 November 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qe492FRFPac&t=1s

Yonhap. “K-pop stars temporarily leaving music scene over anxiety disorders.” The Korea Herald, 13 January 2020, http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20200113000709. Accessed 23 September 2021.

“선미 (SUNMI) – BORDERLINE Interview.” YouTube, uploaded by SUNMI, 27 August 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kk46q2IOgXQ

Cooking and Crying with Michelle and Maangchi

Koreans in the diaspora, mixed race Koreans (like Michelle Zauner), and Korean adoptees (like myself) can have a difficult time claiming our Koreanness, especially when it seems there is no shortage of people gatekeeping who gets to be considered “Korean enough.” Zauner’s palpable grief over losing her mother – and making me and all of my friends who have read the book also cry in H Mart – is compounded with the loss of a part of her identity. Without Chong Mi, the last person who could share with and tie Zauner to her Korean heritage, Zauner questioned whether or not she had any claim to her Koreanness left. The loss is multiplied: losing not only her mother, but also an integral part of her identity. Zauner expresses this when she goes to a jjimjilbang; “It was ironic that I, who once longed to resemble my white peers and desperately hoped my Koreanness would go unnoticed, was now absolutely terrified that this stranger in the bathhouse could not see it” (226). How can Koreans like Zauner and I claim, or reclaim, our Koreanness? Is it enough to be born in Seoul if you aren’t raised there and don’t grow up speaking Korean? When the lessons hangul hakgyo didn’t stick? Can you be an authentic Korean even if you can’t cook real Korean food, especially when there is no one left to teach you? That’s where Maangchi comes in. For Zauner, Maangchi’s YouTube channel became a haven to learn Korean cooking and reconnect with memories of her mother after her passing. In the essay that later became Crying in H Mart, “Love, Loss, and Kimchi,” Zauner writes about the healing experience of cooking along with Maangchi’s videos, and how finally after a year of cooking with Maangchi, and a year of dreaming of a sick and ailing Chong Mi, Zauner began to dream of her healthy mother preparing kimchi. Starting with the jatjuk that Kye refused to teach Zauner how to make, instead “Maangchi had supplied the secrets to its composition step by step, like a digital guardian I could always turn to, delivering the knowledge that had been withheld from me, that was my birthright” (Zauner 191).

In 2019, Zauner sat down with Maangchi and Sarah Lee of Kimbap Lab to talk Korean food, and Zauner said to Maangchi that she is her viewers’ “surrogate digital mom” and that many people learn how to cook Korean food by following her videos. With over five million subscribers on YouTube, Maangchi teaches Korean cooking with an abundance of warmth and openness, and welcomes her viewers to adapt her recipes to suit their tastes and dietary preferences. To celebrate the publication of Crying in H Mart, Zauner and Maangchi prepared a recipe from Maangchi’s first cookbook – sagwa ssamjang – together over Zoom and then answered questions from viewers, including if Maangchi would ever create a completely vegan Korean cookbook; Maangchi has considered it but added that she has had vegan viewers tell her how they have managed to veganize even her Korean chicken dishes. The last question was about what Korean food meant to Zauner and Maangchi in regards to connections across generation and culture, and both answered that cooking and eating Korean food was a way to remember family members especially because, as Maangchi explained, Korean food is meant to be eaten together in community. Although it is only a small part of Crying in H Mart, Zauner’s brief descriptions of finding Maangchi’s YouTube channel and beginning the therapeutic process of cooking Korean dishes resonated with me because I can personally relate to that feeling of watching Maangchi and feeling connected to my culture. (Unfortunately, my own endeavors in Korean cooking have been much less successful than Zauner’s because I lack any culinary talent.)

 

Works Cited

“Maangchi & Japanese Breakfast Explore Effects of War on Korean Cuisine | Close to Home.” YouTube, uploaded by Munchies, 14 May 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q7OqC0qtJYc.

“Michelle Zauner & Maangchi make sagwa-ssamjang and discuss CRYING IN H MART.” YouTube, uploaded by Knopfdoubleday, 26 April 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sFXUlqUv4DU.

Zauner, Michelle. Crying in H Mart. Alfred A. Knopf, 2021.

—. “Real Life: Love, Loss, and Kimchi.” Glamour, 13 July 2016, https://www.glamour.com/story/real-life-love-loss-and-kimchi. Accessed 24 September 2021.