Sunday, March 6, 2011

A Short Essay on Being With Jenny Boully's "A Short Essay on Being"

I have a special kind of respect for things that bother me in ways I don’t understand. Another way of saying it might be that there are times when I find myself unable to ignore things even though I’m sure I don’t like them. It’s annoying when people say something’s “compelling” when they mean “good.” There should be a space for things that compel us but we don’t like. I don’t mind an occasional burr in my ass or fart in my temple. I don’t mind the occasional off remark. I still think about how there are enough jokes about dead babies that the dead-baby joke is actually a genre, and I still wonder why I am interested in these jokes even though I really like babies.

I’ve been having this feeling lately with Jenny Boully’s essay, and the fact that I’m still having it even though we’ve already discussed the essay in class has precipitated a need to exorcise Boully from my spiritual universe, or at least come to terms with the fact that I can never, at this point, un-read “A Short Essay on Being.” You could say I’m compelled to write this post.

Several of my classmates liked this essay. “Sophisticated” was one word, “subtle” was another. Toward the end of class, Ander said something to the effect of “well, I think there’s more to say about it than ‘Plastic Bag,’ and I think that’s a strong-enough endorsement” (and if I’m misremembering or mischaracterizing that, Ander, feel free to air me out in front of my peers). His assessment sort of sums up the feeling I was trying to explain a couple of paragraphs ago: Can I respect something I don’t like? Can I be compelled by it in a positive way?

Anyway, my classmates have already been subjected to my tense body language and vaguely combative comments, but I still feel a drive to boil down my issues and present them to you here—a tray of small, ugly food.

In the essay, Boully presents a series of scenes in which people say boorish and ignorant things to

her and she sits back like a bad dog and takes it. She doesn’t correct the mistakes of her friends and associates, who come off as dim, culturally insensitive people more interested in talking than listening—a strawman of the American individual. She doesn’t correct because it’s not the Thai way—a “way” she solemnly adopts even though she makes a rather big deal about how she’s from Texas, and what’s so hard to believe about that (you bigot). (The metatexual irony here—which I’m not suggesting Boully is unaware of—is that the whole essay is a correction.)

Later, she makes a point that pot Thai is poor folk’s food, but manages to find a place in Brooklyn where she can spend thirteen dollars on it. (I lived in Brookyln for six years and ate what was probably pad Thai every month or so. It was $7. I was the guy who ordered it at the “Native Thai” spice level, which usually forced me into the uncomfortable position of having to say, “I promise, I can handle it”—and I’m still sure they turned it down a little, which is sorta racist if you think about it).

Presumably, the place Boully went to was advertised as “authentic,” otherwise the anecdote deflates even further. And why, I wonder at the end, does Boully make the effort for transitive-property friends who seem so unbearably lame? In my more frustrated moments, my answer to that question is that if she didn’t, she wouldn’t be able to write this cool essay.

I’ve long been aware of the fact that people say they want “authentic” experiences and then don’t want them once they’re actually confronted with them. I’ve also long been aware of the fact that humans are, seemingly by nature, full-on operas of self-contradictory behavior and belief systems. But are those Boully’s “points”? (And I put “points” in quotes to acknowledge that my approach here might be skewered as regressive and masculine and indifferent to the fluidity and immorality of raw experience itself—I point it out because I know I’m being old-fashioned, but, like Boully, I can’t help who I am.)

If they are her points—or, if that’s what this essay illustrates—I’m skeptical. The instability of Boully’s cultural identity is so beautifully performed that by the end of the essay, I don’t trust any of her opinions or experiences. As a result, I find it easy to ignore her arguments about authenticity. I find it easy to think that Boully might just be a slightly timid—but also slightly mean—person with odd tastes and standards. (I even find it sort of easy to ignore her pain in these difficult situations, which is not a nice thing to say, and I’m struggling with that.)

I agree with Ander and my Boully-supporting classmates that the essay is very cleverly arranged. (If there’s subtlety and sophistication, that’s where I see it: In the essay’s leanness and balance, in the way it seems like Boully has found an electron for every proton.) But is that—to invoke a fiction workshop trope that I feel a sort of queasy bond to—what’s really “at stake”? I don’t necessarily need a struggle from Boully. I don’t need a skyscraping moment of revelation. I don’t need her to be standing on one side of the river saying, “And from that moment on, I was never the same.”

But shouldn’t I be able to ask for those things, especially when what we’re dealing with is presumably of active and real importance to Boully as a human being traversing the wilderness of identity? Isn’t this “important stuff”? I wonder what she thinks the sum of these anecdotes and experiences are (again, realizing that this is an old-fashioned concern, but one I’m willing to defend). What direction is her thinking moving in? Is it even thought in motion, or is she just presenting a series of sad misunderstandings? Is she really problematizing the nature of identity in ways that are novel? Is there morality here? Is she frustrated by all this free-range insensitivity? Is she, as my colleague and pal Justin Yampolsky suggested in his post here, presenting a farce? If so, for whose benefit? And if not… well, for whose benefit? And if for nobody’s benefit, then why?

I’m taking calls on this. I’ve been bothered by this essay since I read it the first week of class. I’m still bothered. There’s a lot of merit in that. Re-invoking Ander, I do feel like I could talk about it for a while and I do think that means something. I think I’m just having a vaguely Emperor’s New Clothes moment: I’m hearing good things, but not understanding them, or they’re just not clearly stated enough for me yet, so I’m starting to wonder if maybe we’re just being smart people who like to talk and are lending this a lot more weight than it has. (Not to demean writing that relies on ambiguity and ellipses of consciousness—despite how buttoned-up I’m sure I sound here, I like freak music and nonlinear art and I’m perfectly happy watching David Lynch movies without making any attempt to “solve the puzzle,” a laissez faire mindset I might’ve inherited from my Dad, who frequently tells me that he thinks plot is for suckers.)

Surely this could be chewed on a little more though. Aren’t we writers? Articulators? [Thumps chest, stares at the ocean.] Again, that might be me being old-fashioned—I’m neurotic by birth and driven to hermeneutics by training. I don’t know why I’ve laughed at dead-baby jokes and I probably never will. It’s working at a level that, like Boully’s essay, is probably so complex that we’re just not built to get it. That won’t stop me from thinking about it though. I’ll be here with a chisel, chiseling.

Mike Powell


  1. Mike,
    I'm glad you wrote this post, because it speaks to my own feelings about Boully's essay in a far more eloquent and thoughtful manner than I've been able to present them. I like to imagine how our two classes might look on a split-screen, as I get the sense that we may be engaging in two very different conversations each week. Our conversation about Boully was heated and at times divisive! I certainly played a role--by the time I arrived in class I had read the essay multiple times, growing more frustrated each time, and my frustration boiled over and I ended up saying some things I didn't really mean. Your post articulated the sentiments I did mean and wish I'd said in class.
    For as much as I tried to avoid this, I did read her essay as "a series of sad misunderstandings". Her friends felt like caricatures, and in some ways they commanded my sympathy (for their obstinate but arguably accidental ignorance) more than Boully did herself. I found myself attempting to defend them as I read ("If Jenny had just explained to her friend, as she does to the reader, that the Thai word for "fried" actually sounds more like "pot" than "pad", her friend might've stopped mispronouncing it, right?"). Then I disliked myself for sympathizing with the dumb whiteys. I felt guilty because I cannot relate personally to the relentlessness with which Boully faces the questioning of her American-ness in her own country. And so I can read her essay as an accretion of "sad misunderstandings" and slights and vapid assertions by outsiders about her perceived inauthenticity, and I can feel her rising frustration and anger…but I wish I had a clearer sense of how those moments have been processed, or as you put it: "What direction is her thinking moving in?"
    I'm fairly confident that Boully is as aware as her readers of the irony in "acting in the Thai way" by not correcting her friend and then issuing a relatively lengthy essay-as-correction. One theory raised in our class was that in the writing of this essay, Boully is performing her American-ness just as her character within the essay performs her Thai-ness. I think that's an interesting way of reading the piece.
    On the subject of authenticity, one of my classmates brought up the irony of Boully's claim that she knows what "authentic pizza, made in the Neapolitan style" is—when to a native of Naples, an "authentic Neapolitan pizza" procured in America is likely just as artificial as the "pad Thai" Boully finds in American Thai restaurants. Is Boully being purposefully ironic here? My classmate suggested that she may again be "performing American-ness" here by taking her own turn claiming (wrongly) to know the cuisine of another culture "authentically". That would be an interesting move, but if it's happening, I don't see the wink of self-awareness that would help me to believe it.
    I suppose a large part of my problem may boil down to the idea that we—or at least I—give Boully a lot of credit for being Boully here. If I came across this essay in a workshop, it would be easy for me to say that it's not working for me, that the characters are too cartoonish, that the grievances are not met with enough self-reflection, that the unreliability of the narration doesn't always seem as purposeful as I need it to be. But Boully is a writer whose other work I admire enormously, and as a result I'm inclined to feel that the problem has more to do with my own failure as a reader—to borrow your words again, that the essay is "so complex that we're just not built to get it". Does this essay deserve all the benefit of my doubt because it was written by a writer I admire? How much does a writer get to ride on the strength of her name? I'm still not sure where I stand on that one. Anyway, thank you for your thoughts.


  2. ariel,

    i agree that "performance" is probably a better word for what's happening here than, well, a traditional kind of "explanation," but my question still stands: to what end? to re-state, i have no problems being frustrated by art (and i sort of prefer an incline to a lubed-up slide), but i guess i like to feel like at least *i've* arrived at some sense of greater understanding once i've worked through something, and i'm just not there yet with this... and i'm not sure the collective "we" is either.

    and re: boully's reputation/name: i'd never read her before, but i'd have to agree-- it does seem like at least some of the interest in this essay comes from the "THE jenny boully? HOW?"

    anyway, thanks for responding. and yes, i think split-screen classes would be a good idea. surely someone at A/V here or there can facilitate that.


  3. Joint class on Skype!!

  4. I’ll weigh in here since I’m the student in Ariel’s class who brought up the irony of Boully’s claim that she loves “authentic” Napolitano pizza. I loved that her essay asked questions surrounding food and identity. More specifically, on the issue of American-style Thai food (pad Thai, paht Thai, or pot Thai) I wish she had dug deeper. I feel like the essay misses a chance to nod at an experience common to all immigrants: they become hybrid, their foods change. No one’s kitchen is the same in America as it is in their homeland, perhaps because the recipes don’t translate where the ingredients are not easily grown. I’m especially aware of this as my partner is an immigrant from Milan, Italy and when his parents visit us in the United States they smuggle ingredients over in their suitcases. They bring ‘quality’ ingredients that we can’t find in the United States i.e. parmigiano reggiano (they drive long distances to the 'best' producers). Apparently even ‘authentic’ parmesan is graded: good and better. They bring mostarda (a fruit and mustard concoction that requires mustard oil from Bergamo). They lament the fact that too little ‘durum’ in American white flour makes our pizza too soft. (Barilla opened a plant in Ames, Iowa in 1998 and they are importing better durum flours so maybe this is changing.) I’m not saying that Boully doesn’t know her food! I’m simply saying that many immigrants feel upset about their recipes in America, perhaps because America isn’t ‘home.’

    Finally, the word ‘authenticity’ is difficult for me, especially when it’s applied to an idea of fixed culture. Does hybridity really cheapen a pure state? I would argue that languages and foodways are living, breathing entities that are always moving forward and developing. For example, an immigrant from a remote area of Italy who relocates to the U.S. might teach his child Italian, might teach his child Italian customs. The child can grow up in an Italian subculture and believe that he is keeping his traditions alive, but the day he reaches adulthood and goes back to the village that his father grew up in he will see: the villagers have added vocabulary words due to new inventions, changed idioms, colloquialisms, and pronunciations over time. The ‘child’ will speak an Italian of times past, not of times present. Which is more authentic? The language and foodways of then or now? Permanence is an illusion. In many ways so is authenticity.