by Mimi Khúc
I’m teaching a class on second-generation Asian Americans at the University of Maryland this semester. My first time teaching this class. So much hope, so much at stake. My story. The story of so many of my students. Our stories of life, and of death.
I started the class with two days on suicide.
Those are the stakes. I needed to make the students see, make them feel, the stakes, the urgency. We are dying.
I selected two texts to reveal the depth, the facets, of Asian American suffering: Lisa Park’s essay “Letter to My Sister,” a letter written shortly after that sister’s suicide, and a recording of a play by queer performance artist Kristina Wong, Wong Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, a tragicomedy about the high rates of depression and suicide among Asian American women. I hadn’t read or seen these pieces in 4-5 years, but I knew they were important, knew they dealt with mental health and suicide and race and gender and sexuality in complex and gripping ways, knew they would be great ways to introduce these topics.
I had forgotten how powerful they were. And had no idea how it would feel to encounter these texts now after surviving postpartum depression, after contemplating suicide (this is still incredibly hard for me to admit), after entering a new world where the threat of depression is ever-present, a monster that I try to keep locked away in recesses that inevitably spit it back up like undigested food.
I’m not crazy. Something I tell myself a lot. But what I often really mean is, Please, someone, tell me I’m not crazy.
Lisa Park tells her sister she wasn’t crazy. Even for committing suicide. That the madness that drove her to suicide is a madness born of violence, madness as a condition of life under siege as a second-generation Asian American woman, madness that is evidence not of her personal failure but the failure of the world around her to keep her safe. A world that shaped her immigrant parents into both “accomplices and victims,” investing in the civilizing terror that is Americanization, model minoritization, driving themselves and their daughter(s) to shattering heartbreak. All in the name of the American Dream.
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Those of us living (and dying) under conditions of structural violence; those whose vulnerabilities are exploited to the point of premature death, as Ruth Gilmore defines racism; those whose queer bodies, queer hearts, queer lives, struggle under the brutal(izing) reign of what Dean Spade calls normal life; those who Lord(e) knows were never meant to survive — we know that we are trying to be sane in an insane world. We know that madness boils around us, seeping into our pores, our veins, the crevices of our minds, to the point where we go mad, we are gripped by madness. By despair and rage and heartbreak and fear and loss and exhaustion and exhaustion and exhaustion. Madness is the psychic and affective life of living under siege.
And suicide is not the failure of strength, of the will to survive. It is a heartbreakingly compromised act of resistance, “a refusal to carry on under such brutal conditions.” Park knows: her sister’s suicide marks these conditions as unlivable and not herself as maladjusted. Her suicide is the very proof of the unlivability of her world, the very proof of the existence of unbearable violence. Look at me, look at how I am dying, LOOK AT WHAT THE WORLD IS DOING TO ME.
My postpartum depression, and even now the depression that hovers at the edge of my vision, of my psyche, of my life — they are mine, they are my proof of what I have to endure, as a queer woman of color, as a mother, as a second-generation Asian American daughter, as a person with sustained commitment to living life outside the bounds of normal, to living dangerously, bravely. My depressions are battle wounds that mark the struggle that is daily life for those of us at the margins. They prove the existence of war, trace the paths of loss, take stock of the toll of living under siege. And so I hold them up to be seen, scream them out to be heard: LOOK AT ME. LOOK AT MY PAIN. The wounds I carry externalize in these ways SO THAT YOU WILL SEE.
I am not crazy. Lisa Park’s sister was not crazy. Please, someone, everyone, tell us we’re not crazy.
Lately, I don’t have enough people telling me I’m not crazy. And so the depression lurks, stalking me in shadows that grow and pulse with every stressor. Every microaggression, every little and not so little way society says I am not enough, do not deserve, should not be here, never meant to survive. And every time someone refuses to see the stressors, dismisses the vectors of violence that striate my life, participates in that violence. This, this is maddening.
What I need is shared madness. To be mad with others, to have others be mad with me. And love. I need love that can jump the fuck in with you when you’re drowning, love that reflects back to you both your madness and the fact that YOU ARE NOT ACTUALLY CRAZY. Love that holds your hand, and walks with you, and changes the world with you. Love that sets this mad world on fire, with destruction and rebirth.
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Mimi Khúc is a qwoc Viet Am writer, scholar, mother, doula, and foodie, based in the DC area. Find some of her writings on Asian American (post)academic life and cultural politics at not that kind of asian doctor.
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