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Women We Read This Week

Esmé Weijun Wang’s “Fashioning Normal” in Catapult

This is a beautifully written, painfully self-aware essay about the ways we try to mask our true selves. The author has bipolar type schizoaffective disorder, but as a former fashion writer, she uses nice clothing and makeup in an attempt to disguise the true nature of her condition. Her ability to lead a relatively normal life is such a success story that she goes around to clinics and schools telling the inspirational story of her life to students, patients, and doctors. She feels that by not looking how people typically expect people with schizophrenia to look, she can pretend to herself and the rest of the world that she is not one of them; she is on the other side of the podium speaking to the patients, not a member of the support group.

If the conversation winds its way to my diagnosis, I emphasize my normalcy. See my ordinary, even superlative appearance. Witness the fact that I am articulate. Rewind our interaction and see if you can spot cracks in the facade. See if you can, in sifting through your memory, find hints of insanity to make sense of what I’ve said about who I am. After all, what kind of crazy person has a fashionable pixie cut, wears red lipstick, dresses in pencil skirts and tucked-in silk blouses? What sort of psychotic wears Loeffler Randall heels without tottering?

When I browse the virtual aisles of La Garçonne, I am considering a uniform for a battle with multiple fronts. If schizophrenia is the domain of the slovenly, I stand outside of its borders.

But she also realizes that all the makeup and designer dresses in the world didn’t fool anyone during the period in her life when she was ducking and darting away from hallucinated demon attacks. One of the most important parts of this essay is how she describes the shift that occurs when she “outs” herself to someone. The admission is at odds with her appearance, so it often comes as a surprise to others. But looking put-together can’t protect her from people’s preconceptions of schizophrenics, and this confession permanently alters the nature of every relationship. Because of the stigma, I imagine this shift is something many people with mental illness experience after admitting their diagnosis.

Alison Kinney’s “The Uses of Orphans” in The New Inquiry

I knew there were a lot of orphan stories in literature, but as Kinney examines one instance after another, things start to get pretty uncomfortable. When seeing all the many times this cliche is utilized laid out one after the other—from Anne of Green Gables, Cinderella, Oliver, and Annie to Frodo Baggins, Harry Potter, and the Lost Boys—by the end of this piece I felt embarrassed for our society that we can’t think of anything more original to “tug on the heart strings.” As Kinney puts it, “They … employed literary orphanhood because it works. It’s instantly, insistently dramatic, a shortcut to narrative tension.” As a transnational adoptee herself, the author examines how our tired literary orphan trope has shaped our modern-day ideas and expectations about real-life orphans. Literary orphans are expected not only to overcome their own unfortunate circumstances, but to rescue all those around them and often times transform the world, too. Of course, life rarely affords such tidy narrative arcs of resolution and overcoming adversity as fiction, but it must be especially exasperating for Kinney to read SO MANY stories about people supposedly in the same situation as her that feel so fantastical.

At the age of seven, I knew an awful lot about Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Japan, China, and the Philippines so that I could correct adult strangers about conflicts from which they assumed I’d been salvaged. From the time I was 10, strangers wanted me to discuss my adoptive parents’ fertility, the cost of my adoption, the imagined poverty, sexual habits, and mortality of my birth mother, my genetic relationship to my sister, my wise advice to potential adopters, and my gratitude to parents and idle bystanders for my welcome in this country. They’ve used my “success,” for which they also claimed credit, to shame the supposed failures of the less fortunate.

–Olivia

Nikole Hannah-Jones’s “Conscience of the Nation” in The New York Times Magazine

The recent special issue on “Collegeland” resonated for me, as I make my way through the woods of adjuncting this academic year. The article that most impressed me was Hannah-Jones’s longform piece on Xavier University, America’s only black Catholic university. Hannah-Jones focuses on Xavier’s retiring president, Norman Francis, and his immense, 40-year-long effort to send more African-American students to medical school. The reporting managed to surprise me (really, to horrify me) in every paragraph, as I learned about how our inadequate K-12 segregated school system has lead to a dearth of African-American doctors…and how Francis and Xavier’s heroic attempts to fix this problem have both succeeded and failed. It’s a masterpiece of contemporary reporting.

–Shannon

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