Angela Garbes in conversation with Alayna BeckerSpring 2022
If we’re ever successful in any kind of revolution, I’m certain it will be in part because of the words and ideas of Angela Garbes. Her book Essential Labor: Mothering for Social Change came out this year on Mother’s Day and has already made a significant cultural impact with her stunning prose and resonate message: we have a massive care problem in the United States. Garbes expands the definition of essential labor to parents and caregivers of all kinds. This work of maintenance, of wiping and washing, cooing and disciplining, of feeding and scrubbing is the labor on which our society actually depends. Mothers deserve more support, care workers, in particular care workers of color, must be paid a wage commensurate with the importance of their work.
Essential Labor is a generous invitation to do things differently. To listen to and love our bodies. To dance and sweat and hold each other. To show up, and to be shown up for. To eat and taste every bite. To be honest with the people we love. To show the care workers we depend on solidarity. It’s an invitation. Garbes is showing us what we could have: how will we take care of each other? –AB
Maybe we can start by talking about abortion, before getting too much into your book itself. You and I were both involved in the anthology Shout Your Abortion, which was published back in 2018. That project pulled me into writing and was so pivotal in my path to embodied work and embodied writing, and I learned so much from you, specifically. It was amazing to go back and reread your essay from that anthology now, almost four years after it came out. There was this line near the end of your essay where you say, “How many stories do the people who care for us hold?” It was just so striking to see there the same thoughts and feelings about caregiving that you’re exploring in your new book, Essential Labor—to see how that story really centered the provider.
Yeah, it’s interesting. I did an event recently for this organization called National Advocates for Pregnant Women; they provide on-the-ground legal support for people who are being prosecuted for having miscarried. I was in conversation with this amazing woman named Mimi Niles, who’s a midwife, and she talked about how she decided to become a midwife because she had an abortion and she never felt more cared for. She just felt so held, like she never had a health care provider pay that much attention to her… I might start crying.
It was the day we all found out about the leaked Supreme Court opinion in Dobbs. We were all crying at the event. They were sort of scrambling, like, how are we going to frame the event? And I was thinking, “I don’t know that we need to frame it.” You know what I mean? We’ve been living in this moment for a long time, and I want to hold space for people, but I need to tell that story again, the story of that woman and that abortion care provider.
Thank you for bringing this up, because I hadn’t read or even thought about that essay in a while. Care is a thing I have been thinking about for a long time. And it has everything to do with my parents and the work that they did. And then even when I was working primarily as a food writer. To me, food is nourishment, and care is an important aspect of cooking, especially in the home. Home cooking, particularly, has always interested me more than restaurant cooking, despite the fact that I had to write restaurant reviews. It’s about how we take care of each other, how we take care of ourselves. I got a little chill when you said that line: “how many stories do the people who care for us hold?” I was thinking of it so specifically in the context of that care provider who I would see out and about after my abortion. And she just never betrayed that confidence. What struck me most of all was that she does this for so many people. Care providers like her are so skilled. It takes so much to do that. I’ve been thinking about that and her for a long time.
Yeah, man. When I was a teenager, I took a ceramics class from this woman named Casey, and I didn’t know it at the time, but she also worked at Planned Parenthood as a nurse. And then when I went for my abortion, there she was. At first, I was embarrassed. And just like in your case, she met me, and it was like, “Oh, wait, but you’re here, right? We’re all here. So, it’s all fine.”
There is just so much generosity on the part of caregivers. It makes me think about the generosity of memoir. In your book, you write into so many areas of your personal life that are, I think, areas for shame in our colonized world of white supremacy. There are all kinds of uncomfortable conversations with your kids and with your community on topics that we aren’t supposed to write about. That we aren’t even supposed to talk about. There are so many things in this book. And it resonated so deeply. So, my question is this: You could have written a theory book. Like, you could have written a very smart, capital-S, smart ass book, and you wrote Art, you made art. How does that art-making process intersect with the capital-S smart theory behind it?
Thank you for saying that. I think of myself as a creative person, and I know that I’m creating art. I’ve never really named myself as an artist. For me, writing is certainly creative, but there’s also just a component where… I don’t know, I think maybe it was that growing up, I was never told it’s okay to be an artist. My parents are very supportive, but they were never like, “yes, be an artist.” They were like, “you should go to college so that you can get a business degree.” You know what I mean? The idea was that I was going to become a professional in some way. First, I had to come to a place where I could think of my writing as a creative outlet for myself. But writing is also an act of service for me. It’s very clarifying. I want to write the books and the essays and the pieces that I didn’t have growing up. The starting point is, what do I need from this? And writing is certainly where I work out a lot of my thoughts and feelings. Like, how do I know what I think until I write it? One way that I approach this service component of writing is by giving people permission to question the framing of certain things. There’s this idea, as you point out, that we’re not supposed to talk about certain things. But, says who? Says everyone who wants to control us, everyone who doesn’t want us to speak our truth, to be embodied, to feel powerful. And so, a part of that service is rejecting these ideas. There’s no shame in being a person. There should not be shame attached to that. There should be shame attached, I think, to deliberately hurt someone, though, right? But I don’t really think there’s anything else in the human existence that is deserving of shame. This is something that I’ve been growing into and learning as I’ve gotten older.
But the thing I will say is this: the idea of writing a capital-S smart book is scary. For most of my life, my biggest fear has been that someone would meet me and think I wasn’t smart, because the way I was raised, there was a sense that you had to prove your value as a person of color. My parents are immigrants. To be smart was to be useful, to be valuable, to be assimilated—and thus legible to white people. And I think deep down inside I doubted whether that path was really for me, but you just sort of do as you’re told, and you learn what’s modeled for you. At the same time, I always had this part of me that felt wilder and sort of shadowy—and probably a little scary to my parents. I didn’t really understand it. Even though I was getting straight As in school and really trying to succeed, there was part of me inside that was always asking, “So why are we Catholic?”
Or I would ask my parents things like, “Can you explain colonialism to me?” And they were like, “What are you talking about? Why do you care? This is just who we are, all right?” But I had all these other questions.
So writing was not a thing that I thought I could do for a living. I knew I was good at it, and that I liked it. But that doesn’t mean… you know, how many people swallow their dreams? My parents did that. You know what I mean? They came here. They were essentially forced here for economic reasons. I don’t think they got to really be the people they wanted to be. And so, I was like, “Why would I get to be the person that I really wanted to be?” Love is sacrifice. Life is hard. You don’t get to do all those things. I has this sense that I wasn’t entitled to my dreams necessarily. Later, when I started getting opportunities to write professionally, it was mostly food writing, which was very servicey, very practical. But being legible and smart and eloquent is something that’s always been important to me. And as I’ve gotten older and become more comfortable with myself, that inner part of me that is like, “I am a human animal who just wants to eat all the time and lay around and touch people and sweat on them and roll around.”
I’ve just become much less interested in hiding, and much more interested in cultivating and nurturing that person. Becoming a mother just physically opened me in a way—and after that, I couldn’t deny that I was a body, an animal. And so, to think about writing a book that was purely intellectual, all research and theory, seemed at odds with that identity. I love everything I do at this point, and maybe it’s internalized whiteness, but now, at almost 45, I can’t fundamentally change who I am. But speaking of internalized whiteness, there’s this other feeling, too. I never would have guessed that I would write memoir. The idea is something that I was always really afraid of. Even though I believed in my inherent value as a person, and in the importance of my story, I never thought that other people would be interested. Like, memoirs are for white ladies, right? Who have anorexia or who went to Paris and figured out food and love or something. I just felt like: if I’m going to write a book, if I’m going to tell my story, I have to make it useful to people.
I’m opening an emotional portal by telling you about something that happened in my life, but I’m not doing that because I think my story is more important than yours. I’m telling you because I’m trying to create an access point where you can slip in, and then I’m like, “So let me tell you about the statistics of domestic laborers and how bad their wages are.” It’s just how my mind works. No one teaches you this as a genre. This is just where I feel most comfortable. This is the best use of my talents, and my desire to be of service—the best use of storytelling.
I think about Filipino American women like myself, and in some ways, what I want to do is give us all permission to tell our stories however we want to tell them. That’s a long answer, but I guess that’s what we’re here for.
Well, as you’ve been talking about desire and specifically the idea of following your desire in writing, it makes me think of the way you talk about the body. I mean, this whole book is about the body and embodiment. It’s about how alienation from the body is what makes capitalism possible. And the only way to halt it is for everybody to wake up in their bodies because your body simply cannot be against desire. I really love how, early on in the book, you bring in Audre Lorde’s definition of the erotic. “We tend to think of the erotic as an easy, tantalizing sexual arousal,” Lorde writes. “I speak of the erotic as the deepest life force, a force which moves us toward living in a fundamental way.”
I’m curious about how embodiment influenced your actual practice of writing. And then there’s the relinquishing of control that you talk about in parenting, the idea of creating more space for things to go wrong or for uncomfortable things to be said. How have those two areas had an impact on your writing practice?
I’m going to start with this idea of letting go. For so many of us, one thing that causes a lot of misery in life is feeling like you’re not living up to some sort of standard. And I think I knew from an early age that I was never going to meet anyone’s idea of what, like, a “good girl” was. I was never going to meet the idea of what a fine, upstanding young woman was. And a lot of that has to do with whiteness.
But also, a lot of other things. I was never going to meet the standard of what a “good mother” was. There has been pain and grief in processing that. But also, there has been a tremendous amount of freedom. And what I realized, I think, is that marginalized people are more in touch with this idea. I think sometimes for white people, it’s harder because you’re closer to that standard. And so, you could spend your whole life almost getting there. Whereas for a lot of us, we’re like, “Well, fuck it. We’re never going to be that. So, what do I want to be?” That realization can come with some turmoil. But another goal of this book is, I just want people to let go of any idea of an ideal person or ideal mother, ideal caregiver, ideal daughter, ideal any kind of person. Because if we let go of that, we could just freely be the people that we are. That idea is so beautiful to me.
Because perfection is just so unrealistic. It’s not what people are. Humans are so messy. We fuck up all the time. By focusing on perfection, we’re just setting ourselves up to feel terrible all the time. And that’s not to say you shouldn’t work to improve yourself. But we’d feel so much happier if we were pursuing ourselves as opposed to some ideal. We could just be us. And in parenting specifically, like, mistakes will be made. There’s no way around that. What I’d rather do is make the mistake and come to my children and tell them, like, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Mommy was thinking about something else entirely. And that’s why I yelled at you, because I was feeling sad about something else.” In the last few years, especially, there’s been so much of that because we’re all just in this pressure cooker, and there was no place to get away. There was no place to process. I mean, I was clinically depressed, and I couldn’t go be social. I couldn’t go do things.
It was all happening in my home. One way of coping was by trying to hide myself. And in some ways, I’m a master of trying to hide myself from even the people who know and love me the best. But it made so much more sense to be who I was and talk to them about it. Because then also, by doing that, I’m modeling what wasn’t modeled for me. There’s a song by Melissa Manchester called “Don’t Cry Out Loud.” Do you know it? It’s this 80s song, and it goes, “Don’t cry out loud. Just keep it inside.” I was told to not to have emotions. And I realized like, oh, this is an opportunity for me, too. One thing you’ll find a lot of in this book is me mothering myself. And it’s not because it’s not because my mom failed at anything. It’s because my mom is a human being who had her own needs and couldn’t provide me everything. There’s no way that I can provide everything for my children. I know that no matter what I do, mistakes will be made, and they’ll probably have something to talk about with me when I’m older. But there was so much silence and suppression in my family, and that was also, in a way, their cultural inheritance. A lot of this book is me trying to understand that, but I want to model those things, so my children won’t have to learn that on their own. I want them to see me having emotions and see me processing those emotions so they will feel free to do that. I want them to know that they can talk to me about anything. We have so little control over things.
So, all of this has been a great thing that’s happened, especially since, like, my mid-30s, before I had kids: I’ve just been sort of letting go of this need to control everything. It still shows up in a lot of ways. The other part of that question, which I love, too, is about the physicality of writing as work. I have spent so much time thinking about writing as a physical practice because, until I have a final product, there’s a voice in my head that’s, like, “all you’re doing is sitting on your ass. You’re just sitting here having your little thoughts—your stupid fucking life of the mind—when there are people out there doing actual work, actual physical labor, which is so much harder and so much more draining.
It was dance that really helped me to see this from a new perspective. I would step into a dance space—a studio, a dance floor—and it was very strange. I was doing things just for me. And people seemed drawn to me. People seemed appreciative of my energy. At the same time, I also felt like I was working so much shit out that talking could never do—and that writing could never do. I could feel that I was communicating with people and forging a closeness with them. And none of it fit into the rubric of what I understood communication to be. That dance practice and movement practice really brought me into a deeper relationship with my body where I can listen to it, where I’m thematically clued into my feelings. When I have a feeling now, I feel it in my body more, or I’m at least cultivating an understanding of that. And so part of that, too, has been thinking a lot about how to make writing a physically pleasurable practice for me. I haven’t figured it out yet.
For one thing, I move a lot more in my space. I take breaks. I walk around. I sometimes walk around with my phone or type little notes. And so, I try to encourage ideas to happen by physically moving my body. I mean, it’s true that there’s no escaping sitting down and having to do that. There are people like Melissa Broder, who wrote The Pisces, who write on their phones or through dictation. But like, I can’t. I like the idea of that, but that’s not going to be me. I’ve tried to engage my body more in my practice of writing. But the way the physical pleasure of writing has shown up more is that I’m thinking about it as a reader. I read my book aloud to myself multiple times during the editing process. I don’t want to privilege the mind over the body. That’s what I think we’re taught to do.
I’m just figuring it out. I’m fucking around because I don’t know the answer to this. But I’ve been trying to find a way to have both mind and body be present. In my own writing, my goal has been to make the body undeniable, so that when you’re reading it, you have physical sensation—so that you might feel some of those things in your body. I’ve been making a list of personal words that I feel in my body when I read—and that I think other people might feel in that way, too. And this is something that stems, in a way, from when I was working as a food writer. I used to get beautiful feedback from people who said, “When I read your articles, at some point, I feel the physical experience of eating, or at least some aspects of that.” I’ve been trying to figure out how to translate physical experience into language. I love that you ask that question, because it’s totally something that I’m actively trying to do.
Same, actually, which is why I ask. Right before the pandemic, I took a modern dance class for the first time, thinking it would be, like, hip hop. But instead, they were like, “What does your body want to do?” And I was like, “Oh, shit. I have no idea.” I’m still looking into finding out what that is. It reminds me of the way you write about all of this in the “Mothering Toward Movement” chapter of your book. You just bring so much to the writing. And it is so clear throughout this whole book that it is focused so intently on the body. In this chapter, you write a lot about food. The way you write about food is healing, to give that much love and reverence to building scenes around food where the table is full in this chapter. It is a fully sensual experience of food.
Yeah. Which is what food is. It’s a sensual experience. It’s a physical experience. It engages with multiple senses. I feel like I was in touch with some kind of magic when I was writing that chapter—it made me so happy because I haven’t been writing about food for the last few years. And it really is sort of like my first love. It’s what brought me into writing—the food I grew up with and that I love so deeply. Food also for a long time was my strongest connection to my cultural identity. I wanted to lovingly paint those pictures and let myself do that because no one else was going to give me the space to do it. I had to make that space for myself, and it made me so happy. It was a deeply emotional experience. “Healing” is a good word. This book, to me, is healing. But that chapter, in particular, was very pleasurable. It’s really me making sense of so many things in my life that I’ve been grappling with, like appetite, identity, and pleasure. All of these things are really tied up in a way that I don’t think I fully understand yet, but I was just trying to unbraid them and re-braid them in a way that made sense to me.
Yeah, absolutely. Food is also so interesting in the context of American empire, because for an empire, food is a matter of great importance. “We need all these workers. We need all these bodies doing labor, and we need to feed them all as cheaply as possible.” And I think that sort of mentality really cleaves the physical experience you’re talking about from one’s relationship with food. It becomes, as you say, a matter of efficiency, eating for efficiency. You talk about eating 50% Filipino food and 50% American growing up.
Yeah. And that was a great split, you know what I mean? It saved my mom and dad’s asses. My mom, sometimes she’ll talk about Hamburger Helper, and she gets this sort of feeling about it as her helper. I think as someone who was working full time and raising three kids, she needed a helper. She fucking loved Hamburger Helper. I think she also liked it when we ordered pizza.
But to tie this back to the idea of domestic labor—as I was recently saying to my husband, we are not meant to cook three meals a day, seven days a week. On top of our jobs. You just can’t do it. We have a little more money these days and we’ve had for a while so it’s okay for us to get takeout because we’re not meant to cook all those meals. Like, it’s okay for us to have the Mandarin Orange chicken from Trader Joe’s. I know they don’t allow unions, but we’re going to do it. I know there’s no ethical consumption under capitalism, but it’s okay because I’ll lose my mind if we don’t. The other interesting thing is that when I first met my husband, he was totally the kind of person who was like, “I just eat for calories. I just eat so I can get through the day.” And I was like, “I am so sorry.” I didn’t understand that at all. But at the time, I didn’t know that he grew up basically on welfare.
And his mom—this is amazing—she used to place bulk orders for food. She would call, like, Sysco—you know, the wholesale restaurant food distributor? She would place quarterly orders for things like the deli meat that was sliced really thin. And she would have it rationed out, like down to individual Ham sandwiches. So first of all, I think about the tremendous amount of labor, and especially mental labor, that went into doing that. But then also, that’s just a very different way of eating. I was so fortunate to grow up eating the way that I did. And then he is still affected by that experience in some ways. And I am too, actually. I’ve learned from him, for example, that not every meal has to be a long, sensual experience. Sometimes, I just need to shove egg roll in my mouth. But it’s a balance. I don’t know. I’m going to stop talking because I feel like you have a better question than what I’m going to say now.
I just can’t imagine that’s true. I wrote down questions earlier and now they just completely don’t exist anymore.
We’re just talking.
We’re just talking about all these things like food and eating, mothering as encouraging appetites. It is like such an inheritance from our mothers, our relationships to our bodies. And I just so completely relate to what you experienced as your inheritance from your mother, your relationship to your body. And having a mother who is smaller than you, which I also have.
Yeah. I can feel like there are certain things about how this resonates with you. And you don’t have to include this if you don’t want to but I would love to dig into that a little bit more. The first reader for my book was Jen Graves, who used to be the arts writer for The Stranger. She and I have remained really close friends. But as she was reading, she would say things like, “you need to pull out this moment.” And I didn’t realize it at the time, but of course, I was thinking of my pain as my own personal pain. I think a lot of women have this feeling of, “where did I come from?” And I really thought it was just me. But Jen—she was like, “no, it’s not just you.” She said, “I think you need to give that space because it’s going to hit people in different ways.” And so I wonder if you wouldn’t mind telling me a little more about that. Is that what you felt? Like, “who am I? How do I place myself in the world if I can’t see myself in this person whose body I literally came from?”
This is so interesting because it has been an issue for me recently in a way that it hasn’t been maybe in a few years. Partially because my body has been changing, and I’ve been struggling to kind of reconcile those changes with myself—and then there’s also being closer to my mom, who’s a nurse, and smaller than me, so a lot of her language around the body is very clinical, and can feel like facts about “how it’s supposed to be” or “how you’re supposed to eat.” I mean, I have a memory from when I was ten years old, and I was eating an Easy Mac. This is a painful memory. And she came in and was like, “you need to stop eating that or you will get fat.” And in retrospect, I look at that moment and know it wasn’t about me. She was repeating what she had been told, what she told herself. She was repeating something that I can now choose to accept
But to get back to the book, part of the remodeling process for me is like finding my own truth and my own narrative. So, what of this inheritance is fact? And what do I get to choose for myself? Do I get to choose to be happy in my body? Because that feeling of fatness is like, “oh, then I am unlovable.” Like, active people will see that you’re less healthy. We all know what fat phobia is, right? But it’s also couched in health, and becomes a form of moral policing, but under the guise of health.
And just none of it—simply none of it—is real. My body and brain are kind of like working on making my version of truth in my body the one truth I feel.
Thank you for sharing that. I also want to be clear: the ending of that chapter is a way of saying, “I’m still working on it.” I am very much working on it. I feel like I’ve come to a place—and I had already gotten to this place before I had children—where I like my body. But then I was like, “oh, let me just fucking destroy my body, change it in every possible way, and have no real control over what it’s going to look like. Oh, and then let me do it again.” I’ve been on this journey working to get to a place of acceptance. It’s not even, like, full on love, but just acceptance and neutrality. And then what’s really hard is, once you get there and you realize, like, “oh, I don’t get to stop doing this for the rest of my life. I don’t get to take the rest of my life off. I have to keep doing this.” And that’s really, like… I’m tired. Do I get nothing? No props, no points? In another part of this book, I talk about the satisfaction of taking care of yourself. It is work, but it’s the work that really matters. More and more, I feel that investing in myself is going to pay dividends I can’t even begin to see yet. I don’t think I’m ever going to regret it. I know I’m never going to regret it.
At the same time, I want to be really clear in this book that, like, yes, I have some thoughts, which I am sharing. I have some ideas toward an ethics of care and some values that we should be centering or recentering. But I’m not saying, “you should do this.” It’s not as though I’ve figured something out. I think this book dwells a lot more, especially its second half, on questions rather than answers.
I think the generosity of memoir—both generally, and in this specific instance—is that it’s in no way prescriptive. It is an invitation to engage with the same questions you’re grappling with. And it feels that way the whole way through.
Good. I like that it feels like an invitation. That’s right. That feels right to me.
I want to read this quote because it is so stunning. You’re talking about doing physical care labor, and you have this incredibly beautiful line about your initial resistance to doing the thing because you’re being taken away from something else, your work, your time, and the physical work becomes sort of a meditation. I’m going to read it to you, I guess.
Okay. No, great. It’s fun. You don’t often get to hear other people read your words to you.
“It is draining, tedious, and repetitive, but the work keeps us close to one another, returns us, again and again, to our own corporeal forms. Physical labor exhausts me, but it makes me more tender. More empathetic, more sensate, more porous. In touch with all the emotions.”
So that really feels like a devotional, even just like a living, physical devotion meditation of love, of your community and family.
Yeah. I know I wrote them, but the two parts in there that jumped out to me are, “more sensate” and “more porous.” I feel like I wouldn’t have been able to write that five years ago. I don’t fear a sort of overwhelming sensation anymore, because now I have better tools, like the ability to ask myself, “what am I feeling?” That porousness is so beautiful. Like, when you feel yourself to be permeable to other people and you feel the power that you physically have to affect each other and comfort each other without words, that’s some of the most beautiful shit out there, to me. That’s what life is for. I could just hold the people that I love. I can hold them for hours. That’s what I want to do all the time.
Especially coming out of the pandemic when we were all so divorced from one another. I don’t want to police myself, but I have definitely been in situations where I saw this guy, like, at a protest, and he was a very handsome guy. It’s not like I had a thing for him. But like, I just kept touching him. I was like, “How are you? Oh, my God. I touched his beard, and I was like, “What are you fucking doing?” to myself.
This is unhinged, but I just wanted to touch people. I have missed that. And I have thankfully not gotten tired of touching. At times, I felt exhausted by my children and my husband—well, actually not by my husband. I felt dead inside for a long time to the extent that when I did experience touch, I felt nothing. It wasn’t enough. You know what I mean? And that’s again where I missed dance. I missed bumping into people in a bar, incidental contact. I realized that a lot of how I satisfied some of my big desire to be physically close to people had been just being in crowded places. That’s just part of life, and when that went away, I felt that I was missing a huge part of my life. Going back to that quote, though—to be fair, it’s about labor, and that’s what care work is fundamentally about. It’s the inescapability of the body. Even if we’re not talking about care or mothering or children, it’s just what you have to do as
Like, if you don’t, you have to take a shower eventually, right? You have to feed yourself. You’ll have to cut your nails. And that’s all that stuff that we’re not supposed to talk about, but it’s so important. It’s the only work you can’t get away from. While writing this book, something that’s been so clear to me is that care is the work of humans. Care is the only real work. I don’t need to have a job. I need to keep myself alive, to define myself outside of work and to fully inhabit my body. I think that’s like a challenge for a lot of people. It’s a challenge for me.
To go back to our parents, your mother sounds very similar to my mother—the way they learned to survive under these challenges. And my mother in particular, she believed that her shortcomings were her fault. That’s the power of those narratives.
Yes. And I think that that’s true of a lot of women—especially women of certain generations, like, boomers, I guess. I don’t know how old your mother is, but I feel like there was the civil rights movement and all of that hippie shit. Like, that happened for some people, but it also didn’t happen. That was counterculture. Just as many women of that generation had a different experience, of trying to “have it all”—have a job, have a family, do all these things to seek fulfillment, take care of everyone else, show your love through sacrifice and being of service to other people. Yeah. I have a deep empathy for that because it’s so fucked up. And I feel really fortunate that I grew up knowing that there were more options.
This might be my last question, but I really want to talk about the second to last chapter, the chapter about sex. This is another instance where your writing is just phenomenal. I’m obsessed with the passage where you talk about making out when you’re 14 and trying to extend that experience of desire without a specific end in mind. I totally know what you’re talking about. You then dive into a scene where you are camping with your husband without kids. The scene is stunning and unlike any sex scene I’ve ever read. I’ll quote you here, “It had been a long time since we had just touched each other for a sustained period of time, without knowing almost exactly what would happen. Hours were lost on that blanket, and my skin felt fuzzy, like the polar friction between two magnets that are attracted, in relationship, though they won’t quite come together.” The scene extends into unscripted intimacy. “We converged on that trip, but something broke too: any preconceived notion of what might happen, what should happen. There was only the moment, only the universe and warmth that happened as we touched, we were swimming in it, coming up for air, diving back into it, floating on our backs, treading—did it matter, really, where we were going or where we would end up?”
And I think it is so important and true that we think of sex as a means to an end in our culture. That’s what it is designed as. I guess I would love to hear from you about the process of writing that chapter, because nobody’s ever done that before.
Yeah. I guess I’ll start by saying that in my mind, when I decided I was going to write a chapter on sex, I wanted it to be mainly about the sex education system in America and how only, like, 14 states require sex ed to be medically accurate, and how it’s all preventive. Then I was starting to write, and I realized, “well, I’ve played myself again.” There was no way that was going to be it, because… I’m me. And the way I write necessarily means that I’m going to have to talk about myself. I avoided it for a long time. And then I was doing this thing. This relates to something you mentioned earlier, which I wanted to get to, but didn’t. In writing this book, I just completely reinvented my creative process in a lot of ways. One of the main things is that I’ve always line edited as I go. I could spend, like, hours on a paragraph, which is just painful. But with this, I had such a tight deadline, and I had was so limited on time—like, personal time—to do it that my mantra just became, “embrace urgency and imperfection.”
And it was really a process of just vomiting words onto a page. The writer Jami Attenberg does this thing called “1,000 Words of Summer,” where you write 1,000 words a day for two weeks. So, I did that. And then I just kept going. I was getting up early. It was fortunate that I tried this during the summer because it would have been hard in the winter. But I was getting up at, like, 5:30 a.m., before my family got up, and trying to write a thousand words a day. At that point, I was thinking, “it’s very possible that I will do nothing else in terms of book writing during this time, but at least I’ll have done this.” At that stage, I wasn’t thinking about what chapter I was writing or even about what the book as a whole was going to be. It was more like, “here’s an idea that I have, and I’m just going to write and see what happens.” I sort of tricked myself into writing about sex because I had this hesitation, like, “I’m going to need to write about my own experience and what is it that I want to say?” And so on some of those mornings, for like a solid week, I was just seeing what would come out.
Because it was just for me. And I told myself it didn’t have to end up in the book. Anyway, the sort of stuff like what you mentioned, about making out, arose out of that. And like, God, I honestly wish I could go back to being a 14-year-old and making out for fucking hours, right? It’s just… that’s what I want. I want to be lost in that total, amorphous crazy. It’s so insane. And I don’t think I can get it back. I mean, you could do, like, molly—and I have tried that to sort of recreate the experience. It comes close, but it’s just not the same. Even so, I think people should try that. I’m not against it. In fact, I’m very for it. So that scene emerged from my practice of writing just for myself, and I started to wonder, like, “why does my body remember that experience and that boy?” It was crazy. I didn’t know it was there. And again, I wasn’t necessarily going to put it in the book. This was just to see if I could do it.
In the second half of the book, I was trying to boil everything down to neat chapters, and to identify the fundamental elements I’m thinking about when it comes to mothers and children. And basically, there’s just no way around sex. We never talk about it, but it’s the reason we’re all here. Why do we want to have sex? Because it feels good, right? I mean, it should. That’s what it’s for—pleasure. And especially, like, a female body is designed for pleasure. So then after I wrote the scene with the making out, I wanted to try some other things.
And then I think it was a year after that camping trip that I described in the book. It was really amazing because that moment was so powerful for me, and it was a total paradigm shift. And I knew it when it was happening. And it was like a year later, I was like, Let me just try and remember that, because I think it also like, it just improved our connection, our relationship. It made me feel better in my body. It made him feel better in his body. And so then I was like, See? And then I wrote it, and I was like, I might see, right? That was in my first draft that I sent to Jen Graves. I was a little anxious, but she said I pulled it off, which was reassuring. I was like, OK, but there are no guidelines, right? I had read an essay by Melissa Febos in the Sewanee Review called “Mind Fuck,” which is all about writing better sex, and that was something that gave me the courage to not use certain words.
You can describe it in any way. So, I decided, “I’m just going to write it how I want to write it.” Febos totally gets a shout out for making me feel like I could try. And the whole time I was writing, I was thinking, “there’s no rule that I have to include this,” but at the same time it just felt so… true. You know what I mean? And it was so real to me that I started to think, “how can I not include this?” Like, “this is probably some of the realest shit that I’ve written for this book.” I kept telling myself that I could take it out at any time. But then also, one thing that I have heard from so many people is that my writing has made them feel less alone. It’s a great gift to hear that. But knowing that made me think there was value in sticking my neck out here. And it does feel like a risk in some ways, but I just knew that there would be people out there who are dealing with this.
The idea that we have a static sex drive or a static sexual identity is just such bullshit. So too is the idea that we have to follow some sort of script when it comes to sex. Getting rid of those constraints, I think, can be so liberating for people who, say, can’t always get it up. Or people who might have sexual problems stemming from antidepressants. We all go through these things, and it’s very disorienting, and it’s private in many ways, but it affects how we show up publicly and how we feel about ourselves. And I think it’s so important, that idea of letting go again and just being the people we are, and being free to define sex however we want—because sex is whatever the fuck we want it to be. Yeah. In the end, it seemed it was worth it to include all that. I knew I had to do it, and I’m glad that I did.
Yeah. I’m incredibly grateful that you did. And were you saying about Melissa Febos, that essay made you feel like you could try? I just feel that about both of you so much. Like, the two of you, specifically, are people who make me feel that what I want to do is possible.
Yeah. And it is. You just have to keep trying. I mean, that’s the other thing. I have to keep working on it, too. There were some other sex things that did not make it in the book. When I read them later, I was thinking, “well, that’s bad.” But then for other things, I was like that’s not bad. The passage I’m thinking of was something about the pandemic, about feeling this urgency I didn’t realize until afterwards.
A lot of this book is really about me defining myself, to myself. That’s what I was doing. It’s definitely the most free I’ve ever felt in writing anything. I was like, “let me just try things.” I had been living under these conditions where I wondered if I would ever write again. So, I just felt like, if I’m going to do it, let’s just fucking do it, you know? Let’s just fucking go for it and see what happens. And that’s a lot of the spirit of the book. That’s how the book was written. If I had been holding on to ideas of what I thought I could or couldn’t do, then I’m not sure I would have been able to write it.
I was kind of writing myself free. The book is, in many ways, a love letter to my Filipina American heritage and identity. And I decided really early on in the writing process that I’ve been explaining myself to white people forever, and I’m just not going to do that anymore. Like, the things that are part of my culture, they can stand on their own. There will be no explanatory commas. There will be no italicization. And it’s just like, if people want, they can still look it up. And isn’t that beautiful to engage someone in that way?
Yes, it is. Well, I think we’ll wrap it up there. Thank you so much for this incredible conversation.
Oh, my God, you’re so welcome. Thank you for wanting to talk to me. Let’s keep talking.
Originally published in Moss: Volume Seven.
The Boys of Boise 1955, Alex Vigue
Little North Fork , Joe Wilkins