Friday, December 21, 2007

sisters, blisters

a combined response to Sonia Shah's 'Tight Jeans and Chania Chorris' and Dennis Coopers's 'Jun Togawa's Incredible Basics'

Navigating one's cultural landscape in the midst of sexual metamorphosis, and after the fact, is always a challenge, but here I examine interactions with specific landscapes coupled with having a sister. Now, I'll briefly sum up the pieces I'm responding to. Sonia's essay recounts her experience, in the context of her Indian-American family in the early 90s USA, as a budding-post-budding college girl feminist being brought in from the sidelines to help reel in her blossoming foxy little sister before she gets sent off to India. The little sister gets sent off to India anyway and returns in a backless chania chorris, and in the end Sonia learns that the ideas she's adopted about sexuality and feminism need some adapting to her specific reality in light of her little sister's success in navigating her world and expressing her sexuality. Dennis Cooper's piece on Jun Togawa is a blog posting with video clips, discographies, critical commentary, photos, extracts from interviews and more to give his readers an overview of this wonderful artist whom most outside of Japan aren't familiar with. We learn about Jun's amazing music, her concept of fiction within her music, what she thinks of being an actress, her relation to metamorphosis, after Kafka perhaps, in her lyrics – such as a woman turning into a cicada chrysalis out of desperate love. We also learn that Jun's younger sister, who had also grown up to be an actress and a singer following in her sister's footsteps, committed suicide in 2002, hanging herself in her bedroom. Jun, via interview extracts, explains her and her sister's childhood to us as one that was abnormally harsh, or her in words, “extremely strict.” For her and her sister it was not only a problem of becoming an adolescent, but even going out to play with friends was a no-no.

I don't know what happened to Sonia and her sister, but from what I gather they both turned out fine, with Sonia still a bit damaged from her formative sexual expression experiences. Sonia is still a writer, and lecturer, and her sister most likely leads a normal private life. Sonia was an intellectual, of sorts, but her landscapes influenced this. Personally I think it was Sonia herself that lead to her little sister being able to navigate the metamorphosis better, which is ironic because Sonia couldn't do the same for herself since she was experiencing adolescence alone at that very time. On the other hand, her experiences allowed her to see the world in a different way, and gain insight, becoming a more sensitive, if confused, soul. Which if followed through on, has much promise for the writer.

In Jun Togawa's song “Suki Suki Daisuki” she sings a line that goes something like, “If you don't say you love me, I'll kill you.” The song is from the early 80s and has a poppy-compressed sound in the chorus contrasted with echoey operatics in the verses and bridge, and is perhaps a good example of Jun's fantasy world contrasted with Sonia's real navigations, aligned via Jun's real life imagined from Sonia's. Well that's a bit mazey, but nonetheless I think it's quirky feeling which comes off with real emotion is genius, though I'm not sure Jun would ever actually say what she says in the song to someone, and for all I know she might only see it as a simplistic line from a character. Either way, there's a palpable quality to it that I sort of relate to. As an idol Jun would sometimes dress in military garb on stage, holding the microphone like a curse, like the most nihilistic militarist with a heart that I've ever seen.

Well, space is running out but I wanted to contrast Jun's background (miserable childhood) with Sonia's, and Jun's sisters death contrasted with Sonia's lil' sis – actress and singer vs collegiate and teenager; the idols lives as a study in contrast of reality and fantasy, with the subtext leading insight to their feminine world. I wanted to contrast the adolescent experience in 60s Japan with 80/90s USA, including schools, contrasting American schools with Japanese. I wanted to explore Sonia's mixed feelings on sexual objectification of the self via Jun and Kyoko's careers as idols in the context of their fucked childhoods. Oh yeah, I also wanted to touch on Jun's love of the Meguro Parasitological Museum, I hear it's popular for dates.

In my response to Shah's essay I stated that navigating ones cultural landscape is a difficult thing to do. Here, Sonia's little sister seemed to do it in the most socially acceptable way whereas Jun's didn't (i.e. killing herself). Though, this is all conjecture. However, I can speak from experience when I say that navigating one's social landscape after an abusive childhood is perhaps the most difficult thing an individual can do. My heart goes out to Jun and her sister (R.I.P.), Sonia too.

Sexual Amnesty in the Early Nineties

a response to Sonia Shah's 'Tight Jeans and Chania Chorris'

Navigating one's cultural landscape in the midst of the sexual metamorphosis of adolescence is difficult but possible, even though it might be hard for outsiders to understand what you're exactly doing. In this somewhat brilliant essay Sonia Shah, herself past adolescence, is precisely one of those outsiders, witness via telephone calls at first to her younger sister's sexual coming of age. Sonia and her sister are first generation Indian Americans, their parents having immigrated to New York in their 20s. While her little sister is just blossoming into a sexually confident teenager, Sonia (who never quite made that metamorphosis successfully) is off at college. The girls' mother worries, her own sister, back in India when they were both just girls, was taken out of school simply for writing a love note ended up ruining her life because of such behavior. So, she calls Sonia for help. Sonia sees herself in her sister's actions, and is reminded of her own problems trying to express herself at the age, how she was mistreated by the white boys at school. Sonia's little sister wears sexy outfits, accessories and makeup – and is adored by boys at school, at the mall, anywhere. Sonia, whose trying to find her footing as a feminist, and even with encouragement from her feminist boyfriend, doesn't know what to do. She doesn't want to discourage her sister from being sexually active, but she also doesn't want her sister to objectify herself – or end up hurt and maligned along the way. She sees herself in her little sister, as I said, which is obviously misguided. Sonia's little sister eventually gets sent off to India, only to return in a backless chania chorris, surprisingly to meet with approval from mom and dad. This shock leads to Sonia to deconstruct her taken-on feminist philosophies and recontextualize them in language that not only makes more sense to her, but to her parents as well. Finally realizing that her sexuality is not bound to her Indian or American cultural identity but simply has to navigate and work within those landscapes, and bodies, including hers; she's free to be a bit more natural in her body.

Sonia's little sister isn't her – she isn't Sonia. Though one could say she's almost like an improved Sonia, able to express herself and her sexuality in ways Sonia never could, and within a family structure Sonia thought she understood. Her sister's behavior conflicts with Sonia's identity as the older girl, the authority, and with her concept within that as being a forward-thinking feminist who should be guiding her little sis' mind to the light. Seeing her sister dressing so provocatively, and confidently reminds Sonia of her own efforts at that age, and all the tragic, horrible life-defining experiences that lead to, but it doesn't click at first that maybe her sister knows what she's doing, and is happy.

Sonia's little sister is sent on a parental-enforced exile in India – they aimed to deter her from sexual activity (it's never touched on but my guess is they hoped that she'd see the out of whack child to parent ratio there) – Sonia guesses they also want her to absorb, internalize, the authority structure so she'll listen to them, but when she returns to America she only shows off her new dress. It's a chania chorris, an outfit described as “sets of midriff barring blouses and long full skirts worn under saris”. The interesting thing is, that when she turns around while modeling it to Sonia and mom and dad, it's backless. Sonia is shocked, and knows this will only be bad. But, mom and dad love it. They love it because their little girl's sexuality is now recontextualized in the framework of a culture they understand, transcribed for late 90s American puberty. This is where the essay really comes together as Sonia finally sees that the blending of ideas works – and while Sonia still sees things in boxes (Asian, American, and so on) she realizes her sister just might know what she's doing and that her own thinking does need a bit of adapting to reality.

I loved this essay, I thought it was a fascinating look into the lives and minds of Indian American girls and young women. The seemingly insurmountable problems Sonia faced when trying to express her sexuality as a teenager made me want to cry. The harassment at the hands of white boys, the pressuring for sex just because they gave her the time of day, and her crushed sense of self worth are all points worth keeping in mind when criticizing teenage girls for how they're dressed, but also simply a sad experience for Ms. Shah who obviously deserved better. When her little sister exhibits what Sonia sees as the same budding sexuality that was beaten in her, she doesn't know what to do, and everything she tries fails. But, as is obvious as a reader, her little sister is not her. This is best underscored by a scene that occurs while Sonia is home on break from college and she's standing with her sister, whose in front of the mirror, and trying to counsel her on non-self-objectification. Sonia tries to explain that the foxy clothes her sister's donning are wrong and her sister replies, “Sonia, you wear your clothes because you like them and you like how you look in them – not just because they are comfortable.” Sonia can't argue with that – and her sister knows what she's doing, and she likes it.

To close, I loved how the essay worked, how Sonia tried to speak from feminist ideas she didn't really understand (or hadn't accepted) and how that failed as her little sister had already learned from Sonia something deeper than mere intellectualized socio-political philosophies. She had learned the deeper lesson of cultural navigation that her older sister had given her through her own actions and had greatly benefited from it. All in all a great little essay that had me thinking about reinterpretation, feminism, and just how much all these Asian American girls have to put up from us white boys, their parents, and even their older sisters (if they have any).