Shelby Shaw on Lily Hoang’s A Bestiary
“How many versions of this essay will I save? Command Shift S.”
The eternal risk of losing yourself begins when you throw your value into the ranks of another’s hierarchical desires: Here I am, what do you think of me? We are all in this changing room together but nobody fits into any of the clothes they’ve pulled by their own eye’s appraisal. To see ourselves in the self-portraits we paint from the impressions of others is to learn to see the angles we cannot see of ourselves alone. Like stepping before the fitting room’s paneled mirror, creating a triptych of yourself without ever having to look yourself in the eye. Seeing our flaws as if we are an other.
Why do we bother with being bothered about our appearances at all? We are only as valuable as our own opinions of ourselves. Nobody will see the price tag after it is cut off, but a comment from someone else will always remain priceless. Snide, respectful, envious, disdainful: The other is the eternal scorecard in the game of risking the loss of ourselves. The other dictates the rubric by which we measure ourselves.
By risking the loss of yourself, I mean to risk being rejected.
By risking rejection, I mean to risk being wrong when you believe somebody cares about you.
By risking being wrong about believing somebody cares about you, I mean to risk being appraised as less valuable to someone than you thought you were originally.
Risk is a gamble and you must always be ready to lose.
When I have gambled with my value by misinterpreting the close proximity of him standing next to me, or catching his glance from across the room, or reacting to his kindness as if it were interest, I have safe-guarded my doubts and brushed them aside into an internal lockbox.
The thing about lockboxes is that they’re stupid: You can pick up the whole thing and walk off with it—who cares if you picked the lock first or not? A lockbox makes it convenient to identify and carry items worth stealing. The proof is in the fool.
I carry my value as a secret that appreciates interest and loses shareholders with every interaction I have and don’t have, with every message he sends me and with every one I don’t receive. Every time I recall a flirtatious throbbing or slap-happy interaction, I chastise myself for remembering how every memory erodes with retrieval; like buying a knock-off Italian product with a Made In China label unhidden on the inside. My value is an assessment of whether I think I am foolproof to others—even when I do not hide the fool from the proof, from the others.
“‘Pretend,’ I remind myself, ‘and it will all be OK.’”
Through the rejections of third parties we learn what it is about ourselves that is less than the popular opinion, or our very own single-channel, first-person perspective. We learn by our disagreements with subjection what it is that deviates us from the standard, from the norms of what others desire and seek. A subject can become any object if the former submits to the qualities prescribed by the latter’s definition, if a subject can remold itself like plastic.
Areas of your life to consider appraising include:
The price of your self-worth. (does not require others)
The price of your reputation. (does not require facts)
The price of your desirability. (does not require feelings)
I do not know the price point of my value.
Lily Hoang does not know the price point of her value.
We do know the suggested retail price of A Bestiary new, in paperback is $16.
The other is the eternal scorecard in the game of risking the loss of ourselves. The other dictates the rubric by which we measure ourselves.
The unraveling of A Bestiary in the memoir format is laid out by memories, aphorisms, facts, and text messages. Like a deeply abridged email chain with herself, the history progresses to double-back on characters or incidents in flashes of memory. The brevity of most sections, lines like post-it notes, resemble a to-do list not for executing but for merely remembering to write down, in order to remember at all. I think of the grocers who, eyeing an item you’ve picked up with no price tag, assess how much you really need it, how much you are willing to spend, and prophesize a price for profit. Usually they are correct.
Do we need someone with more experience to tell us the value of what we can’t see?
“A year ago, I was still paying Chris alimony. He wrote me an email entailing all the reasons I should take him back. He suggested long-distance polyamory.”
Lily’s ex-husband, Chris, is a controlling white male who finds pathetic solace in belittling Lily as his Vietnamese wife, making inferences to her inferiority, abusing her physically, emotionally, and verbally. How many forms of abuse exist? Is one more painful or more affective than the others? Is one preferred? There is no compliance between an abuser and his wife, there are no checks and balances except for the undrawn line of which crossing would represent pushing the limit and going over the edge. Being a victim replaces the role of lover. Obeying to avoid punishment is not submitting to please someone. Lily is a fiercely observant woman, intelligent not just through education but through experience, her observations blunt without mercy. The morals of her fairy tales are not always meant to be uplifting: That silver lining is really made of jade, and jade is meant to break you. As Lily points out, a jade bracelet is meant to be worn on a woman’s wrist as a symbol of delicacy. To remove it is to break it. To be delicate is to be praised for the strength of discipline.
Sometimes it is less about what to do and more about what not to do, to tailor our own behavior based on others. Remember, desirability is essential for our own value. It is from others that we learn what is not working about ourselves.
“I understood then the function of alimony: I was paying him not to be in my life.”
We do know that Lily’s scrolling essay, A Bestiary, is a 2015 collection winner chosen by Wayne Koestenbaum. Its $16 suggested retail price holds true even on the ubiquitous online retailer Amazon, but only if purchasing the book using a Prime Membership, which will ship it to you for a guaranteed arrival two days after check-out. The cost of a new one-year Prime Membership is $99, but the two-day shipping is free as a benefit. The cost of A Bestiary remains the same. The abuse in Lily’s memories will remain there printed on the pages, the description of the bruise, the verbal attacks, even when the second edition is printed. The morals will not change even when the stock market does. Lily will remain the same as well: She will always have seen it in the three-way mirror for what her essay really was, a story worth sharing for the benefit of artifact, a fact that she knew long before a suggested retail price was printed over a barcode.
By printing the artifact of her story, Lily made the art fact—the art of deflecting discrimination, racism, mistreatment. The art of digesting placement in the form of consenting to enter marriage with a condescending man. The art of taking lessons learned from having been disrespected and applying them to new men, who continued to arrogantly spurn her attempts at being loving and caring and loved and cared for in return.
“My abandoned Geography dissertation: how second generation immigrants imagine a homeland they’ve never been to.Brilliant, I know, and forsaken.”
Lily’s parents upheld her to their Vietnamese traditions and expectations. Her ex-husband pinned her to fulfilling a domestic role caged by oppression and inferiority. Her boyfriend after him became indifferent to her passion to care for him. Her lover, meanwhile, dominated her in hotel bedrooms as she wanted it.
The morals will not change even when the stock market does.
“When does otherness dissolve?”
Like a traveler through foreign lands, Lily is a visitor to each person’s disappointment of her, a guest in the house of submission, where she is told to take off her power and put on a jade bracelet. Where in this essay is the speaker in power? Where in this story does the heroine save herself? To dissuade her parents’ disappointments in her, to dissuade her disappointment in the men she has chosen as partners, to dissuade is a form of selling one particular vision that pretends not to see the others in the same light.
“He asks me how much capital I have, how much student debt, and I think this is a sign that we are becoming more serious, but he just wants to know that he’s better than me.”
At the time of my writing this piece, a “New” copy of A Bestiary can be purchased from a third-party seller on Amazon’s Marketplace starting at $11.89 plus $3.99 for shipping, arrival time not guaranteed. The most expensive copy of the book being sold as New through a third-party on Amazon is listed for $45 plus $3.99 for shipping. The seller, “Any Book,” is based in Florida and has a rating of 4.5/5 stars and a 94% positive rating based on 700,807 customer reviews from the past year.
“Any Book” is quoting a significantly higher market value than suggested retail price—and therefore elevates the value of what it is to own A Bestiary by charging almost three times the price point.
“Mono no aware translates as ‘the pathos of things’ or ‘an empathy toward things’ or ‘a sensitivity to ephemera.’ A thing’s pathos is derived from its transcience.”
To own this particular copy of A Bestiary is to not purchase a $10 lunch for one work week, to cancel Netflix streaming for six months, to defect a membership to the New Museum at the level of Student, Artist, Senior, or Teacher.
“Any Book” describes their $48.99 “New” copy of A Bestiary as “Brand New!” and “Huge seller with millions of transactions!” and “Satisfaction Guaranteed!”
“Desire is striving, the unfulfillment of a mathematical limit.”
Declining to purchase a copy of A Bestiary from a bookstore or online marketplace does not decrease the value of the book itself. Declining to purchase the book does not decrease or increase one’s personal price point, either. Purchasing a book that goes unread is a loss of one’s personal capital, but raises inflation of ambition and promise.
“I imagine Harold bringing this girl he fucked into his apartment, how she makes some banal compliment about the paintings, how her panties are already at her ankles. Where am I? I’m probably waiting for him to call me.”
Curiously, the “Used” copies of A Bestiary listed on Amazon start at a price of $14.82 plus $3.99 for shipping. It costs more to buy what has been experienced already by someone else, before it has been decidedly discarded or traded in for a smaller, less-than-original reward.
“She showed my parents her husband’s paycheck as proof of her happiness. She smiled and I recognized her misery.”
There is something not as painful about someone lesser rejecting you, compared to the pain of someone you admire telling you no.
What comes into play between lovers and ex-lovers is the struggle not of power but of value, and don’t they say that less is more?
To choose to purchase a less-expensive used copy of A Bestiary is not to choose the lesser copy than the one detained in Florida by “Any Book.” Stockholm syndrome of a relationship does not give the captor more power, but ultimately subverts the self-negation of the captive.
“The guilt of our difference.”
A Bestiary remains the same book if it is Used or Like New or Prime. If defaced by highlighters and marginal notes, ripped covers and warped pages, dog-eared creases: Lily has committed her appreciation of being Vietnamese, a woman, a guardian, a daughter gaining weight, a sister who buries her sister, an abused wife, an independent divorcée, another body in the dating pool who enjoys getting to know other bodies even if 800 miles away by car and said body does not remember her birthday.
“Love is a desire of contracting friendship arising from the beauty of the object. (Cicero)”
Your value does not appreciate without action. Investing in order to understand is the only deed due to your account.
“My assumption, now, is that every man has an Asian fetish.
This is born out of low self-esteem – and fact, it’s born out of fact.”
The beauty of A Bestiary is that we know there is a happy ending to the tale we hold in our hands—published, a winner—even if along the way our heroine is lost, alone, put down, corrected, and has not yet found anyone to be a Prince let alone Charming.
“We are so safe we are practically invisible.”
The price of the book does not matter. The story will always be used and deemed as critically acceptable because Lily has lived through it already in the first person. To the rest of us her winning essay is a gift like new, for which we are thankful, because gifts do not charge money.
Shelby Shaw is a writer in New York and Managing Editor of the art and literary journal Storyfile.
A Bestiary by Lily Hoang • Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2016 • 156 pages