Broken By Those Nights by Jessie Tseng

By Hannah Lillith Assadi

Hannah reading her essay at the Burn The Book premiere on April 19. Photo by Bridget Haggerty.

Hannah reading her essay at the Burn The Book premiere on April 19. Photo by Bridget Haggerty.

There was a crew my girlfriends and I became attached to at fourteen and fifteen who were years older than us and we liked them so because they had cars and because they would pick us up in the middle of the night and drive us to abandoned lots in the dark mountains where they fed us schnapps and forced blow jobs. Their parties usually entailed a larger group of boys, and two or three of us girls—booze bought by the 26 year old among them—where they took turns deciding which among us was the most desirable for the night, and when they were done, leaving us drunk and in tears without means of getting back into our childhood homes before dawn broke and our parents awoke to our empty beds.

In the video, I took a bold stance, an imagined stance wherein the younger version of me had the audacity to destroy one of those phantom boys who had taken advantage of my innocence, my lack of tolerance for alcohol, my youthful desire to fit in and impress. In reality, it took years for us to disentangle ourselves from that crew. And when we finally did, there was no ceremony. They likely believed they had done us no harm. There were plenty of girls, after all. We were dispensable. We were becoming boring. Their enthusiasm for alcohol and pot teetered into an enthusiasm for hard drugs. I chopped off my hair. We never saw them again. We believed it was only us girls that carried those nights with us into other nights, with other men.

On a whim, recently, I visited the Facebook page of the boy—now man—among that crew I had, for whatever reason and despite everything, believed I loved. In his profile picture, his face appears to have shrunken. He became a man I would not now look twice at. On the screen before me, after all these years, here he was. And behind him on his cover page was a memorial photo of one of the other boys of that same crew who passed away this last fall. I scrolled down through his wall looking morbidly for the cause of death and saw post after post featuring pictures of that crew when they were still boys, the boys we knew, smiling with the mischief of boys, accompanied by nostalgic captions of all the wonderful parties. There were no pictures of us, of me and my girlfriends, who were there many of those nights. Why would there be? We had not seen them in decades.

Finally, after reading through all the comments, I found it: the cause of the death of the one among them who had died so young. The one among them who last I saw him left us without a ride in the middle of the night so that we had to call a cab in the rising dawn. I can still hear his laughter and the laughter of the boy I believed I loved as they retreated from us, smoking, and spitting, and downing the last of the liquor, when they told us they were done with us. I puked violently that morning, not from the alcohol but from a primal disgust, an emotion I had never experienced before in my short fifteen years on the planet.

But that was then…here I was fifteen years later, and the laughter had vanished. The boy I liked and then hated had lost his best friend to a “long battle with opiate addiction”, one individual among the 115 on average, according to the CDC, who die daily from the epidemic. Their party was over. But, the seeds of it started there on those deserted mountaintops, for us all. Despite my lingering distaste for the boy, his dead friend, that entire crew of boy apparitions on behalf of my younger self, my empathy has always trumped my thirst for revenge. Perhaps we were all broken by those nights, each in our own way, each in our own time.

Hannah Lillith Assadi received her MFA in fiction from the Columbia University School of the Arts. She was raised in Arizona and now lives in Brooklyn. Her novel Sonora was a finalist for the PEN/ Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction. This essay was written as a part of the Burn The Book project. Read more about it here

Women Should Not Be Smarter Than Their Husbands by Jessie Tseng

By Patricia Park

Patricia reading her essay at the Burn The Book premiere on April 19. Photo by Bridget Haggerty. 

Patricia reading her essay at the Burn The Book premiere on April 19. Photo by Bridget Haggerty. 

Women with Oscars don’t keep their men. Or so I read in the Journal of Investigatory Studies in Popular Culture (JISPC). Or maybe it was TMZ. It is a question of shifts in power and dominance, questions of ego. The opposite phenomenon is not a phenomenon.

My mother used to say, Women should not be smarter than their husbands. Or maybe that’s my perfect English translation. What she’d actually said was this: Smart ooh-mahn, husband go running away.

Over cinnamon-scallion tea, she’d cite examples of smart, unhappily married women to support her evidence:

-Look at your aunt. She make your uncle depress.
-Look at Mrs. Kim from church. She make husband have no choice but follow younger women who say, Oh, you #1! and make man feel like he some kind of bigshot.
-Look at Mrs. Lee. She have big nail salon and make husband no power and now they have all kind of problem.

Having a big nail salon is not the equivalent of winning an Oscar. Or maybe it’s not all that far off. For women of my mother’s generation, for women in our community, this might be the highest they could soar. Or maybe the ceiling is so low—for immigrant women, for female actors in Hollywood. And as much as talent and hard work come into play, perhaps real success trades on a woman’s looks.

Ooh-mahn can be either smart or pretty, my mother would say. I think of these women with their Oscars. Of their limo rides home, basking in the glow of their win, slender fingers with their lovely painted nails clutching the broad chest of that golden statuette. I think of their husbands sitting opposite them: sulking or happy or feigning happiness, pondering their newfound positions, these shifts in power.                                                                  

I think of their husbands, weeks maybe days later, finding the sorts of younger women who say, “Oh, you #1!” and make them feel they are some kind of bigshot.

I think of their divorces that flash as news alerts on my iPhone before the year’s end.

Ooh-mahn must choose, my mother would say. But they cannot be both.

Patricia Park is the author of acclaimed novel Re Jane, a modern-day reimagining of Brontë's Jane Eyre. She has written for The New York Times, Guardian, Salon, and others. She received fellowships from Fulbright, Sewanee, and the Center for Fiction. She is Assistant Professor in the MFA program at American University. 

My Existence Doesn’t Require an Explanation by Jessie Tseng

By Kyle Lucia Wu

Kyle reading her essay at the Burn The Book premiere on April 19. Photo by Bridget Haggerty.

Kyle reading her essay at the Burn The Book premiere on April 19. Photo by Bridget Haggerty.

I am from Here, I often respond. In my mind, there’s a capital H: it’s a proper noun. But you don’t know what it means. You ask me for more.

Here might mean: I was born on this patch of sidewalk where my feet are planted as I check my phone. I’ve never lived a day off of this bench in the park where I was trying to read. I haven’t yet lifted my heels from this barstool in Brooklyn I’d like to sip water on.

Here might mean: I’ve lived in New York for ten years and they say that’s when you can claim residency. Yes, a parent of mine was born somewhere in the continent of Asia, you with the clever and perceptive eyes, but that doesn’t mean I have to tell you what hospital I was born in.

Here might mean: how few words can I say to get past this? How can I be simultaneously invisible and yet so on display? How can I stop hearing: So where are you really from?

There was a predecessor to this question. Back when my head reached just to my mom’s thigh, my forehead below her pants pocket, she’d answer stranger after stranger as she buried her fingers into my dark, short hair.

Where did you get her from? they said.

When you’re young, you don’t yet know what makes you different. I didn’t realize that it was strange that people would come up to my mom, a blue-eyed woman with glinting yellow-gold hair, and act as if I were an acquisition she’d scouted from abroad. She was the parent I lived with, who took me to school and to the pizza parlor and to buy new ballet slippers, and these kinds of questions were new to her—new to her flaxen hair and those sea-glass eyes and her pale, freckled skin. She couldn’t quite grasp their intent.

She’s mine, my mom would say. This would puzzle them; of course I was hers. She paid for me, didn’t she? But where had she adopted me from?

When you don’t look the same as everyone else, your origin story is public property. It is their right to be entertained. They want to hear about orphanages, political dissidents, roofs made of straw, seven siblings in a bedroom, or a mail-order mom. The one asking the question will always have an excuse. He (and it’s usually a he) was just curious! He was just trying to be friendly! He just wanted to know which parent was the Asian one –– oh, my dad? Wow, it’s usually the other way around! He normally can tell what kind of Asian a girl is, but I had stumped him, so he had to ask! He thought he heard an accent (even if I hadn’t opened my mouth)! He was about to tell me I was really pretty, but never mind now. Where am I from with these manners?

I’m from Here, like I told you. It’s a wild dream, this lost city of allowance, a place where I don’t have to explain myself, be cross-examined at the grocery store, or justify why I walked into a room. I’m no longer a backdrop for you to shine stereotypes on. I’m able to just exist. You know, the way you are.

Kyle Lucia Wu is the Programs and Communications Manager at Kundiman, a nonprofit dedicated to nurturing Asian American literature, and the co-publisher of the literary journal Joyland. She was awarded the Asian American Writers Workshop Margins fellowship in 2017y. She has an MFA in fiction from The New School and teaches at Fordham University. Her work has appeared in Literary Hub, Guernica, Electric Literature, Vol 1 Brooklyn, The Rumpus, and Interview Magazine.

Why I'm Childfree by Jessie Tseng

By Jenny Williamson

Jenny reading her essay at the Burn The Book premiere on April 19. Photo by Bridget Haggerty.

Jenny reading her essay at the Burn The Book premiere on April 19. Photo by Bridget Haggerty.

I don’t want to have kids because I don’t want to disappear.

Even in childhood, I couldn’t picture myself as a mother. But I remember the day it came to me clearly that having a child would mean being erased.

I was in English class, discussing a short story in which the narrator—a teenage girl—finds clips of old articles her mother wrote, buried in a closet. The mom had been a journalist before having a child. Until this moment, the daughter had never seen her mother as anything but a mom.

The professor asked us our reactions to the story. The girl sitting next to me said “that will happen to me someday,” just as I said “that’s never going to happen to me.” 

Other women in class read that story and saw the trade-offs they might have to make at some point. I saw a kind of death. I’d always wanted to be a writer too, and I couldn’t imagine anything worse than having my teenage daughter discover my old novels in a closet someday. Like discovering an old me in there, packed away and thoroughly dead, long since suffocated under the weight of other people’s needs.

And as I grew older, I saw this story play out over and over in the lives of my female friends. I can remember so many of my driven, educated, newly-pregnant friends swearing they wouldn’t let this baby derail everything else they’d worked for.

But it seems that so many of us don’t get to choose. I’ve watched brilliant, ambitious friends struggle heroically to keep their careers before eventually letting them go in favor of motherhood. And I’ve seen otherwise independent women crushed with anxiety when separated from their babies for just a few hours.

It’s always been put to me as mandatory—that having kids drastically changes your priorities and outlook, and there’s nothing you can do about it. I’ve even heard some people put it down to hormones—your body makes you give up your old self; you don’t have a choice.

It seems to me that when you have a baby, you don’t get to choose what parts of yourself you get to keep—if you’re a woman. I am not seeing most of my male friends struggle so hard with this. There are exceptions—but by and large, it seems that in many hetero relationships, the woman’s ambitions and goals are disposable and the man’s are not.

Weirdly, I can understand it. As progressive as your politics are, sometimes it makes sense for the lesser wage earner to stay home, and that’s frequently the mom. And sometimes when your baby won’t stop crying at 4 AM, it’s easier to fall back on the gender roles you know than negotiate something new.

Now is the point where I feel the urge to reassure you. To add that I don’t hate children, and to acknowledge that some women get to live big, free, ambitious lives even as they become moms, while some men sacrifice a lot to be primary caregivers. All those things are true. But in my experience, they don’t seem to be the norm.

And I’ve always felt awkward about this urge to reassure. As if I’m agreeing that there’s something inherently wrong with how I feel, and it’s my job to make it less upsetting to others.

The truth is, like adults, children are situational for me—I like some more than others. And sure, some couples are exceptions—but it’s far likelier gender roles and hormonal changes and brutal economic reality would push me down the more well-traveled path eventually. I’d rather opt out of that fight.

If I could picture stepping into motherhood without it swallowing me completely, I might have different feelings about being a mom. But I don’t want my goals and priorities and outlook on life to change. I love my life, and I want to stay who I am. For me, that means being child-free.

Jenny Williamson is a poet and fiction writer living in Brooklyn. Her work is published in journals including 24cc, East Coast Literary Review, Burningwood Literary Journal, and Vox Poetica. Her poetry chapbook, Collection of Flaws in a Black Dress, was published by Finishing Line Press in 2016. 

Prescribe Me A Problem by Jessie Tseng

by Kat Quinn

Kat reading her essay at our Burn The Book premiere on April 19. Photo by Bridget Haggerty.

Kat reading her essay at our Burn The Book premiere on April 19. Photo by Bridget Haggerty.

When I was seven, I discovered I was lactose intolerant. So the doctor gave me a pill to ease my discomfort as I ate every ice cream cone in sight. When I was a teenager, I had irregular periods. So the doctor gave me a pill (the pill) and assured me “that would fix it.” When I was twenty, I got acid reflux. So the doctor gave me, you guessed it, a pill. One that I washed down with chocolate bars, lattes, and other triple offenders.

There I was, popping prescriptions and doing whatever I pleased, until one day when my hairdresser informed me I was “losing A TON of hair.”

Well. If you ever want to see a twenty-five-year-old cry, really lean into the word “TON” when you tell her all her hair is falling out. That way she’ll understand it’s officially time to panic. And that it’s apparently not normal to find what looks like a wig from a Snow White costume in her shower drain every morning.

Naturally, I ran to the dermatologist like someone was chasing me. He told me I had an inflamed and infected scalp, and gave me a series of topical creams and steroids that should zap it back to normal. As I had spent my whole life blissfully abiding by the ease-symptom-with-pill model, I rubbed them right on top of my brain and awaited a miracle. For months. But no miracle came.

Time passed, I saw more dermatologists, and somewhere along the way, I lost my mind. Maybe it was the steroids-on-the-brain thing, or simply a twenty-something’s terror, but I became obsessed; studying my scalp, monitoring (and imagining) changes with rulers and photo logs, until one night when I just about shaved off my hair so I could properly view whether or not I was going bald. That’s when I realized I was no longer sane. And had no choice but to question my methods. Was this condition caused by something I was doing? Or eating? Could this be a sign that something was off inside my body? Does anything really “just happen?”

I asked my general physician these questions, and she answered no, no, no, and yes, respectively. But this only spurred me further. I scheduled an appointment interrogation with the most impressive dermatologist Google had to offer. She also insisted it was an entirely external problem, and no internal action would help. But I pressed until she finally said I should try an antibiotic pill. “But if it’s not internal, how could taking a pill internally help?” I asked her. That’s when she snapped, “You know, I’m really not trained to think this way.”

I’m not trained to think this way. Not trained to understand how the human body works? I suddenly understood. My whole life I had been going to doctors, assuming they were trained to make my body well. But *they were actually trained to match a pill to ease my symptoms and give me comfort, rather than heal my body.

Because the truth is, healing is not a comfortable process. It’s a long and grueling one that requires a strong will, and it’s something many people are not interested in enduring. Most of us, however, are not even presented with the option. I have a **friend who was diagnosed with high cholesterol and the doctor told him to start taking a pill for it. He asked if instead he could modify his diet, and the doctor responded, “You could, but that’s really hard to do, so the pill is probably your best bet.”

The problem with this is that humans innovate faster than we evolve. And our internal organs have spent thousands of years developing to work together as an assembly line. So even though a pill might be intended to target just one organ, it will actually effect the whole system. This can create havoc and dependency.

I would know. I finally found my way to holistic medicine practitioners, and they understood that the state of my scalp was a result of internal issues. They ran a series of tests and discovered the culprits were SIBO, leaky gut, and allergies to pretty much everything besides air (except in late summer, when I’m allergic to air too). And each issue could be traced back to pill-caused damage.

So I changed my life. And I’m happy to report that I’m typing this as a drug-free lady with a scalp that is stronger than mush. Getting off the pills and healing these ailments is taking years. I’ve had to say goodbye (for now) to so many foods and activities that I find comfortable and convenient. And there are days when it’s really hard, and I could swear the ice cream trucks of New York City have rerouted their fleet to follow me around. But I believe I’m moving toward a long and vibrant life, and that is worth the temporary lifestyle sacrifices.

So come find me in 80 years, and I’ll tell you about all the adventures I had in my balanced, thriving body.

(I’ll be the one with the full head of hair. Dancing on the table.)

*I’m not speaking for all doctors here. Only the seven who tried to heal my various symptoms with prescriptions alone.

**He did adjust his diet, and now has normal cholesterol and a new-found appreciation for produce.

Kat Quinn is an indie-pop songstress based in New York City. Originally hailing from Marblehead, Massachusetts, Quinn found music at a young age with drums, piano, and guitar. But it wasn’t until college when she discovered the piece the tied them all together: writing. She has released three EPs, that got notable outlets such as American Songwriter, PopMatters, and Hello Giggles buzzing, and her songs have been featured in film, TV, and ads.