An Introduction to How To Get into the Twin Palms by Anya Ulinich
This essay is excerpted from this month’s issue of the Emily Books Reader, our iOS app that includes each of our books plus interviews, essays and other extras. It’s free to download, $9.99/month or $99.99/year.  (You can still subscribe and buy the books online and receive the books via email, too.) 
A Facebook friend who’d moved to the U.S. from St. Petersburg in his thirties recently posted a frustrated status update in which he complained about a younger writer. This writer had immigrated from Russia as a child, and now wrote an overwrought (in my friend’s opinion) essay about her conflicted identity. His basic point was that since she’d grown up in America, she was essentially American. Her memories of the old country were childish and vague or, perhaps, even second-hand, based on photographs and stories. Not only did she speak English without an accent, she was more comfortable expressing herself in English than in her first language. The only experience of adulthood she’d had was an American experience. Most importantly, Americans didn’t perceive her as “other.” Because of this, my friend said, her identity issues, if not entirely made up for the sake of her readers, were greatly exaggerated. She didn’t face the daily oppression of being treated like a foreigner, of having to distinguish herself from a stereotype that rose like a wall in people’s minds whenever they heard accented speech. She didn’t experience the difficulty of navigating around cultural knowledge gaps that persisted in older immigrants long after they mastered the vernacular of everyday life. So why, my friend wondered, why was she being such drama queen about the difficulty of her bifurcated identity? My friend found it unseemly. Nabokov, he argued, had never made a peep about his identity troubles.
I’m not saying that Nabokov had it easy in general, but he had it easy in a certain way. He was so very clearly a Russian exile. He did not need to defend the notion that his outsiderness defined him. But assimilated immigrants, members of the 1.5th generation, carry their foreignness like a secret. It’s a very real part of them, yet somehow illegitimate. (I want to argue with myself here: “America, the country of immigrants, is made up of outsiders! There is no such thing as an ‘American’!” So, let’s forget the national specifics and talk generally about people who carry a phantom reality with them—not just a set of memories, but an alternate self. Let’s use the word “American” to mean someone who belongs and the word “foreigner” to mean, more generally, an outsider.) The alternate, foreign self of an assimilated immigrant is woefully incomplete, vague, half-alive. So when such a person travels to their country of origin, they feel like foreigners there, too. It’s often culturally, morally, and politically unappealing (there was a good reason for leaving the old country!) Yet it’s undeniably present. It’s not as finite as “baggage,” and it’s not as tangible as a “skeleton in the closet.” It’s more like a sinkhole that shrinks and expands unpredictably, triggered by emotion or circumstance—by a bout of insecurity or a period of loneliness, by a failure to communicate.
I have to switch into first person here, because I’m a member of the 1.5th generation myself. Or, more precisely, of the 1.3rd generation—I was almost an adult, but not quite, when I moved to the U.S. So anyway, occasionally the sinkhole gets big enough that it threatens to swallow our tangible, American selves. In those times, our residual selves seem like our most authentic ones. The sinkhole devalues our reality, undermines us, from the inside. We fear those moments, and we take appropriate measures.
We may try to brightly label the sinkhole, playing up our origins, placing ourselves inside the traditional immigrant narrative. But ethnic and cultural self-labeling makes us cringe, because these labels don’t really describe what’s going on with us. We are not the same as our parents. We don’t have a right to the classic immigrant story. Our nostalgia is for American high schools we attended, for the American TV of our childhoods. Sometimes, we try to pave the sinkhole with self-hatred. For example, Russian immigrants in New York love to talk about how much they hate Brighton Beach. But we can’t help coming back to Brighton Beach Avenue, to eat borscht under the train tracks and to just make sure we really hate it, just one more time. Waclawiak’s heroine, Anya/Zosia, is repulsed by the Polish restaurant, which reminds her of a roadside brothel. She looks at the proprietor and his young wife and speculates about their sordid pasts. Waclawiak’s writing harshly amplifies sour tastes and smells, tacky décor and painful history. It’s a stressful scene to read, and it’s my favorite one. At the end, Anya/Zosia looks around at the non-Polish patrons of the restaurant and thinks: “I’m sure they were laughing at this version of us, with all its kitsch and old-world charm. I was embarrassed that the owner pushed it this far. I felt a sense of pride and shame all at once. I felt like I had to tell them how it really was, but then, I didn’t really know at all.” This last sentence describes, very precisely in my opinion, the existential state of the 1.5th generation. Anya/Zosia doesn’t enjoy the food at the restaurant and can’t wait to get out of there. Yet later, she makes one of the dishes for her boyfriend. She makes it wrong, and it’s inedible.
Anya/Zosia isn’t a heroine in a traditional sense, and How to Get Into the Twin Palms isn’t really a book about a girl’s life. Anya/Zosia doesn’t make any sense as a character moving through plot. Why does she pretend to be Russian, why does she swim in an ash-littered pool, why does she hurt her hands, why does she drive around aimlessly? Eventually, you give up trying to make sense of all this, and just listen to Anya/Zosia’s voice. It’s the voice of a homeless soul, unmoored and increasingly panicked. The real plot arc of How To Get Into the Twin Palms is that of an existential crisis, and the book is set in Los Angeles, a classic setting for stories of alienation. Zosia passes for an American, to everyone but herself. While LA remains quite abstract and conceptual (the fires, the grid), the writing in the parts set in Poland is visceral and concrete—Zosia has best emotional and sensory access to it, yet she can’t even pass for Polish. So the homeless soul looks of a bit of neutral ground by pretending to be a third thing—a Russian, and changing her name to Anya. (I tried not to read this as political or historical allegory— what does it mean for a Pole to pretend to be Russian?—as a reader, I wanted to remain focused on the existential message of the novel.) But Anya/Zosia’s Russianness is a flimsy, temporary landing pad. As she crashes through it, she grasps at tangible things, spending a lot of time in near-forensic contemplation of body and skin, tub drains and soap scum, hair and blood, shit and chemicals. Alone, in an empty apartment, having literally lost everything, she searches for some firm ground to stand on. She doesn’t find it, but perhaps she doesn’t have to. The end of the book feels like a sudden burst of sunlight on a gray day. It describes a state of transition as the most hopeful, happiest one. It’s the only authentic state for the likes of Anya/Zosia—and, in an increasingly mobile world, more and more of us are like her. We’re escape addicts, compartmentalizers, chameleons. Living on a sinkhole, we pack light.
Anya Ulinich is the author of Petropolis and the forthcoming Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel, a graphic novel. She lives in Brooklyn.

An Introduction to How To Get into the Twin Palms by Anya Ulinich

This essay is excerpted from this month’s issue of the Emily Books Reader, our iOS app that includes each of our books plus interviews, essays and other extras. It’s free to download, $9.99/month or $99.99/year.  (You can still subscribe and buy the books online and receive the books via email, too.) 

A Facebook friend who’d moved to the U.S. from St. Petersburg in his thirties recently posted a frustrated status update in which he complained about a younger writer. This writer had immigrated from Russia as a child, and now wrote an overwrought (in my friend’s opinion) essay about her conflicted identity. His basic point was that since she’d grown up in America, she was essentially American. Her memories of the old country were childish and vague or, perhaps, even second-hand, based on photographs and stories. Not only did she speak English without an accent, she was more comfortable expressing herself in English than in her first language. The only experience of adulthood she’d had was an American experience. Most importantly, Americans didn’t perceive her as “other.” Because of this, my friend said, her identity issues, if not entirely made up for the sake of her readers, were greatly exaggerated. She didn’t face the daily oppression of being treated like a foreigner, of having to distinguish herself from a stereotype that rose like a wall in people’s minds whenever they heard accented speech. She didn’t experience the difficulty of navigating around cultural knowledge gaps that persisted in older immigrants long after they mastered the vernacular of everyday life. So why, my friend wondered, why was she being such drama queen about the difficulty of her bifurcated identity? My friend found it unseemly. Nabokov, he argued, had never made a peep about his identity troubles.

I’m not saying that Nabokov had it easy in general, but he had it easy in a certain way. He was so very clearly a Russian exile. He did not need to defend the notion that his outsiderness defined him. But assimilated immigrants, members of the 1.5th generation, carry their foreignness like a secret. It’s a very real part of them, yet somehow illegitimate. (I want to argue with myself here: “America, the country of immigrants, is made up of outsiders! There is no such thing as an ‘American’!” So, let’s forget the national specifics and talk generally about people who carry a phantom reality with them—not just a set of memories, but an alternate self. Let’s use the word “American” to mean someone who belongs and the word “foreigner” to mean, more generally, an outsider.) The alternate, foreign self of an assimilated immigrant is woefully incomplete, vague, half-alive. So when such a person travels to their country of origin, they feel like foreigners there, too. It’s often culturally, morally, and politically unappealing (there was a good reason for leaving the old country!) Yet it’s undeniably present. It’s not as finite as “baggage,” and it’s not as tangible as a “skeleton in the closet.” It’s more like a sinkhole that shrinks and expands unpredictably, triggered by emotion or circumstance—by a bout of insecurity or a period of loneliness, by a failure to communicate.

I have to switch into first person here, because I’m a member of the 1.5th generation myself. Or, more precisely, of the 1.3rd generation—I was almost an adult, but not quite, when I moved to the U.S. So anyway, occasionally the sinkhole gets big enough that it threatens to swallow our tangible, American selves. In those times, our residual selves seem like our most authentic ones. The sinkhole devalues our reality, undermines us, from the inside. We fear those moments, and we take appropriate measures.

We may try to brightly label the sinkhole, playing up our origins, placing ourselves inside the traditional immigrant narrative. But ethnic and cultural self-labeling makes us cringe, because these labels don’t really describe what’s going on with us. We are not the same as our parents. We don’t have a right to the classic immigrant story. Our nostalgia is for American high schools we attended, for the American TV of our childhoods. Sometimes, we try to pave the sinkhole with self-hatred. For example, Russian immigrants in New York love to talk about how much they hate Brighton Beach. But we can’t help coming back to Brighton Beach Avenue, to eat borscht under the train tracks and to just make sure we really hate it, just one more time. Waclawiak’s heroine, Anya/Zosia, is repulsed by the Polish restaurant, which reminds her of a roadside brothel. She looks at the proprietor and his young wife and speculates about their sordid pasts. Waclawiak’s writing harshly amplifies sour tastes and smells, tacky décor and painful history. It’s a stressful scene to read, and it’s my favorite one. At the end, Anya/Zosia looks around at the non-Polish patrons of the restaurant and thinks: “I’m sure they were laughing at this version of us, with all its kitsch and old-world charm. I was embarrassed that the owner pushed it this far. I felt a sense of pride and shame all at once. I felt like I had to tell them how it really was, but then, I didn’t really know at all.” This last sentence describes, very precisely in my opinion, the existential state of the 1.5th generation. Anya/Zosia doesn’t enjoy the food at the restaurant and can’t wait to get out of there. Yet later, she makes one of the dishes for her boyfriend. She makes it wrong, and it’s inedible.

Anya/Zosia isn’t a heroine in a traditional sense, and How to Get Into the Twin Palms isn’t really a book about a girl’s life. Anya/Zosia doesn’t make any sense as a character moving through plot. Why does she pretend to be Russian, why does she swim in an ash-littered pool, why does she hurt her hands, why does she drive around aimlessly? Eventually, you give up trying to make sense of all this, and just listen to Anya/Zosia’s voice. It’s the voice of a homeless soul, unmoored and increasingly panicked. The real plot arc of How To Get Into the Twin Palms is that of an existential crisis, and the book is set in Los Angeles, a classic setting for stories of alienation. Zosia passes for an American, to everyone but herself. While LA remains quite abstract and conceptual (the fires, the grid), the writing in the parts set in Poland is visceral and concrete—Zosia has best emotional and sensory access to it, yet she can’t even pass for Polish. So the homeless soul looks of a bit of neutral ground by pretending to be a third thing—a Russian, and changing her name to Anya. (I tried not to read this as political or historical allegory— what does it mean for a Pole to pretend to be Russian?—as a reader, I wanted to remain focused on the existential message of the novel.) But Anya/Zosia’s Russianness is a flimsy, temporary landing pad. As she crashes through it, she grasps at tangible things, spending a lot of time in near-forensic contemplation of body and skin, tub drains and soap scum, hair and blood, shit and chemicals. Alone, in an empty apartment, having literally lost everything, she searches for some firm ground to stand on. She doesn’t find it, but perhaps she doesn’t have to. The end of the book feels like a sudden burst of sunlight on a gray day. It describes a state of transition as the most hopeful, happiest one. It’s the only authentic state for the likes of Anya/Zosia—and, in an increasingly mobile world, more and more of us are like her. We’re escape addicts, compartmentalizers, chameleons. Living on a sinkhole, we pack light.

Anya Ulinich is the author of Petropolis and the forthcoming Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel, a graphic novel. She lives in Brooklyn.

emilygould

emilygould:

"I don’t like reading ebooks because I just love the way old books smell." If I had a nickel for every time I heard this one, Emily Books would be a lot closer to its goal of eventually publishing all our editions in physical as well as ebook format! Alas, no nickels. But I do have some solutions…

IMPORTANT ADDITION TO THIS LIST: 

Dzing!, L’artisan perfumeur, $145

This is supposed to smell like the circus but … what even? The circus smells like cotton candy and elephant poop. The perfume smells like old books. Paper, musty library in a good way, sweet and woody.  

jamiatt
Beyoncé isn’t Beyoncé because she reads comments on the Internet. Beyoncé is in Ibiza, wearing a stomach necklace, walking hand in hand with her hot boyfriend. She’s going on the yacht and having a mimosa. She’s not reading shitty comments about herself on the Internet, and we shouldn’t either. I just think, Would Beyoncé be reading this? No, she would just delete it or somebody would delete it for her. What I really need to do is close the computer and then talk back to that voice and say, Fuck you. I don’t give a shit what you think. I’m Beyoncé. I’m going to Ibiza with Jay-Z now, fuck off. Being criticized is part of the job, but seeking it out isn’t. That’s our piece to let go.

Kathleen Hanna 

I endorse this philosophy.

(via annfriedman)

bitchinville

bitchinville:

image

Between working on various writing projects – some fill-in scripting for Batman ’66 (issue 13, out this July!) a few back-up stories for a different comic book based on a TV show, a new graphic novel, and a bananas monthly book/webcomic with the tougher than leather Nate Doyle – I’ve…

pinnacle of internet’s goodness/usefulness right here

katespencer

Some men I’ve known

katespencer:

[This is something I’ve had saved in my drafts for a couple of months. In light of #YesAllWomen I am just going to post it, even though it gives me heart palpitations to do so. I’d only told two people about the guy who sexually harassed me at work before tweeting about it the other day. I go into a little more detail about it below. I don’t know. I am so tired of living in fear, and so tired knowing that’s how I will have to live my whole life. My daughters too. I encourage everyone to read #YesAllWomen, #YesAllWhiteWomen and #CisGaze on twitter. Lots of illuminating, informative and heartbreaking commentary there.]

*******

When I was in my early 20s I was sexually harassed by a co-worker. I was a feminist and a women’s studies major and had volunteered for a sexual assault response line, and yet when my co-worker commented on my breasts, when he started touching my back inappropriately at work and offering massages and talking about my breasts again and how they looked good in that shirt I was wearing and how I could pull off one of those pointy Madonna bras, I completely shut down. I didn’t report it to HR, even though I knew and liked our kind, quiet generalist. I didn’t tell my boss, who was a woman I admired. I didn’t tell my boyfriend, not for two years, not until we were two bottles deep at a wine bar and it all came up hot and fast like vomit.

I quit that job. It’s been almost ten years. I think about the harassment almost every day, and the shame I still feel over not telling anyone.

I know now why I didn’t tell anyone: I thought people would not believe me. I thought they’d be mad at me. We were all friends, my co-workers and I and him and I thought they’d think I was making it all up, misreading things, imagining stuff that wasn’t really there. He use to come up to me at my desk, in plain view of everyone, and do these things. I use to think I was crazy. How was no one else seeing this? And how was he not doing this to anyone else (or maybe he was?)? Why did he pick me?

And even worse: Why was I letting him? Why didn’t I tell?

When I was in fifth grade my best friend and I wrote a letter to our elementary school principal because we felt our gym teacher was sexist. He only ever picked boys to demonstrate athletic moves, treating them like experts when the girls were just as physically gifted. We delivered it to the principal, who promised not to name us to the gym teacher. But then a few days later the teacher ranted furiously about our letter in class and pulled us aside after, and was offended and rude and belittling. So maybe that is why I kept my mouth shut again, years later. Because we learn at a young age that when girls tell, we get in trouble.

I did say something to that guy at work once. He came over to my desk, and put his hands on my back like he always did. It would make my entire body burn and my stomach would rocket around my insides and my heart would pound. God I fucking hated it. It made me sick to my stomach. And so that time I said “Stop it. I don’t like that.” And boy, did that scare the shit out of him. He immediately began apologizing and talking about how he had kids and a wife, like that somehow meant that his actions weren’t completely creepy and wrong. That was the moment I realized my harasser was a coward.

When I was in college there was a 3-mile loop everyone would run along the road, and every time I was out there huffing along I would get honked at and cat-called, even in the dead of winter in Maine. My male friends looked at me with open-mouthed disbelief when I told them about it. They ran the same route and never heard a peep.

Yesterday the same thing happened while I ran around the Silver Lake reservoir.

Recently my husband forwarded me an email from an elderly neighbor. It was one of those list of safety tips that 80-year-old alarmists send - don’t park next to vans at the mall, etc etc. My husband thought it was hilarious and insane, which it was, I guess. “But,” I said to him, “I do a lot of these things all the time.”

I wrote a list on my phone recently, of all the times I’ve been touched, followed, hollered at, screamed at, threatened and chased by men. All the penises I’ve been shown without giving permission. It is overwhelming to look at. One woman’s life, as told through sexual harassment. I thought about listing it all out here; I saw Maureen Johnson do something similar recently and it felt empowering and depressing to read. I thought about writing out each experience in detail, but honestly I don’t know if I have the energy.

Just know that one time a man followed me on a beautiful sunny morning and tried to pull me behind a building on the University of Cape Town campus while I was carrying a bunch of library books, and so I dropped the books and ran. One time I was kayaking with my friend Susan on the Charles River and we paddled under a pantless man standing on a bridge above us jerking off and shouting. One time I took a walk through New York City a few months before we moved to LA and guys in a giant SUV circled by me a few times yelling and then followed me down a side street before they drove away. Once in high school a guy I met in DC at a National Young Leaders Conference starting sending me harassing emails and would call my house relentlessly and kept threatening to come over to where I lived so I called the cops and they looked at me like I was crazy. Once a man screamed “cunt” at me over and again at a subway station and followed me and the other people on the platform just stood around and watched. Once a guy sitting next to me on the subway groped my thigh while covering his body/my leg with a giant coat and pretending to sleep. Once a man flashed his balls at me through his shorts and then got off the train hiding a huge erection behind a gym bag. Once a guy said “smile” to me on 7th Avenue and when I told him to fuck off he followed me down the street, screaming at me and calling me a bitch.

One time in college my best friend and I were walking to our dorm at night, and a car kept circling by us over and over again. Terrified and certain that something bad was about to happen to us, we took off sprinting. We made it to our dorm out of breath and terrified, and the car pulled up next to us. I felt a wave of vomit spill over me. This was it. The bad thing I’d feared and dreaded my whole life was finally here.

The car door opened, and a delivery guy got out with a couple of pizzas.