Wednesday, June 30, 2021

BOOKS! (If I Dont Have You + If I Had Your Face)

I'm closing out the month of June (and the first half of 2021) with a new book review! First up is a novel about a one night stand that becomes an unlikely long distance relationship between two Black artists, who operate on separate coasts and in separate countries. And then, a novel about five 20 and 30-something Korean women living in the same apartment building in Seoul, weathering the beauty standards and competitive social hierarchies that dictate their survival. My only reasoning for pairing these two books together is that both of their titles start with the conditional "If". 
If I Don't Have You by Sareeta Domingo

Who would've thought that reading Jasmine Guillory's The Wedding Party back in 2019 would have the impact on me that it's had? Certainly not me! I wouldn't say that I'm a dedicated romance reader now, but I've become more open to giving certain romance novels a chance when they do genuinely interest me (and especially when they focus on Black people in love). Case in point: If I Don't Have You. I believe I discovered this novel through following Kelechi Okafor and/or Bolu Babalola, two Black British writers who are acquainted with this book's author, Sareeta Domingo. I can't remember what exactly sold me on this book in particular, but when March came around this year and I finally decided how I wanted to use the Amazon gift card my stepmom gave me last Christmas, I chose two works of romance written by Black British women and If I Don't Have You is one of them.
When Kayla (a writer and multidisciplinary artist from London) interviews Ren (an Afro-Brazilian indie filmmaker from New York City who's pivoted to being a blockbuster director) during the New York press junket for Ren's new film, the two artists feel an immediate and undeniable connection. The pair are mutually stunned by each other's presence, physical beauty, and sense of artistic integrity. They discuss Ren's filmography, Kayla asks him a few extra questions and snaps Polaroids of him for an independent project of hers, and then they part ways, each on their way out of the city; Kayla's temporarily heading home to London, and Ren's heading to Toronto for work. Luckily, they run into each other at the airport, and weather-related flight cancellations lead to them sharing the only available room in the hotel that the film studio had previously booked for Ren's press junket. After wandering around the city together that night, they return to the hotel and have what they think will be a one night stand. But after spending the following morning together and struggling to bid farewell at the airport, Kayla and Ren agree to reunite in New York in three months' time and see how far this new relationship might go.

However, what Ren doesn't know is that Kayla is already engaged. She's spent years building a career as an artist in New York City, and marrying an American citizen has become her only viable option for staying in the States. Her business partner and Columbia art school friend Cole (who fancies her but respects Kayla's boundaries enough to keep their relationship platonic), has agreed to marry her so she can remain. While in London waiting for everything to be arranged so she can return to the States and marry Cole, Kayla receives an unexpected postcard from Ren, who'd taken her up on her challenge to "find" her instead of exchanging contact information when they last parted. What unfolds, through messages and phone calls and video calls and emails, is a long distance relationship that both lovers are deeply invested in, even as much as they're unsure of whether they can maintain it. But Kayla's never been in love before, and a combination of fright and cowardice prevent her from telling Ren the truth about the lengths to which she's going to protect her ambitions. And Ren—who was effectively abandoned by his mom when she moved back to Brazil after divorcing his dad, and who's still hurting after his ex-girlfriend recently cheated on him with his best friend—certainly won't take kindly to being betrayed and possibly rejected again. When Ren unintentionally crashes Kayla's wedding party in New York, he's the one to walk away from the relationship altogether. But can they still find their way back to each other?

This novel is a movie. The whole time I was reading it, I felt like I was reading a movie. Especially during Kayla and Ren's first night together (before the sexcapades), when they're eating at a favorite diner of Ren's, then meandering around the city, even pausing to pull each other close and dance in the street? And the whole time they're vulnerably spilling their guts, while still being somewhat bashful because of how strongly they're attracted to one another? A movie, I tell you! I also appreciate that no matter what's going on in Kayla and Ren's individual lives, the focus always returns to their relationship. While in London, Kayla braces herself to be judged and interrogated before telling her family about her upcoming wedding, but then there's no big ordeal once her family hears the news (her mom and sister, the ones whose reactions she was most worried about, are shockingly accepting of her decision). So then most of her time in London is spent thinking about and communicating with Ren. Special circumstances force Ren to interact with his ex-girlfriend and his ex-best friend again when the hurt and anger is still somewhat raw, but that gets resolved, and Ren's not even remotely interested in trying to get his ex-girlfriend back because he's concentrated on the new possibilities he has with Kayla. While they're broken up, Kayla and Ren each start dating other people, but once those other people aren't a factor anymore, they disappear from the story. Plus, the novel's leads can't resist thinking about each other when they're broken up anyway. The book stays on track, moving gradually toward the obvious goal of bringing the lead couple back together somehow, and I appreciate Sareeta Domingo's steadfastness in writing it that way. Getting to the point while also taking her time.

The conflict between Kayla and Ren boils down to miscommunication and misjudgments, which seem to be the main obstacles in most modern romantic stories. But once they do finally hash out their differences, the way they talk through their fears, confusion, hurt, and insecurities is almost unbelievably honest. People sometimes criticize the dialogue that's in books, films, and TV because the characters don't talk like real human beings would, but the dialogue in If I Don't Have You is the opposite. It actually makes me question if the real-life conversations I'm having are truly as "real" and honest as they could be! (I tend to resist being vulnerable with people, so I already know the answer to that question is no. But I digress.) And the way Domingo writes body language and physical intimacy between this couple is just... Lawdhammercy. I had to take breaks to collect myself! Kayla and Ren make me want to believe in fate and love and second chances again, even though I've never had a relationship to make me disbelieve in any of those things in the first place! That's how much I bought into their love story.

If I Don't Have You is undoubtedly the best romance book I've ever read (so far), and is my favorite thing I've read in 2021 (again, so far). The cover, header, and footer font is loopy and pleasing to the eye. My only gripe about the book is that its cover illustration doesn't make clear that Kayla's devastatingly-long and beautiful hair is in locs. As far as reading romance goes, I wholeheartedly believe in the precedent that If I Don't Have You has set for me and I'm excited to explore more, both in the romance genre and in Sareeta Domingo's bibliography. If you're into Black love, the artist's quandary of succeeding without selling out, top tier sex scenes, self-deprecating humor that's actually adorable and not annoying, or supporting one of the 20 Black British books that Jacaranda Books published last year ("Twenty in 2020") then read this book!

Favorite quotes:
"Do your dreams feel real? 
What is it you most admire about the person you admire most? 
How often do you look up?
Why is that song your favourite?
When did you last get goose bumps?
Why do we create?" (31-32).
"Maybe sometimes you just have to live in the moment, take what life gives you... Like maybe there's a plan... A blueprint for your life that you don't know about—certain things that are meant to happen, people you're supposed to meet. When you think about it, how much do we really need to know about another person to get their essence, anyway? To understand if they're... significant? No time at all, right? I'm only just starting to understand how important it is to not take things like that for granted." (95)

"'Kayla.' He says my name like it's a complete sentence, packed with meaning" (223).

"I think as creative people, you, me, any of us, create because it's inside and needs to come out. Because we're human beings, and making art is what defines us as such. Like making love, without necessarily the intention of making life... But as much as I think creating is a need, I also think sometimes we create for the hell of it. Because we can, you know?" (230).

If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha

I learned that this novel existed last year through reading an article about Korean feminist literature, but I can't remember which article; it was either this one or this one. And so I added this novel to the book list I keep on my phone, but wasn't in a rush to read it anytime soon. Then at the end of May this year, I went with a friend to Cleveland to visit an independent bookstore she'd been raving about for months: Loganberry Books. Normally when I go book-browsing I will something to "speak" to me, and wait to feel that unmistakable connection that compels me to buy a particular book at that particular time. It's even more the case at independent bookstores, where I'm usually expecting something special and/or conveniently cheap to stand out to me. And as beautiful and full of options as Loganberry is, I just wasn't connecting to anything that day. I spotted If I Had Your Face in the fiction room, remembered I had it on my list, and bought it just to say I didn't leave the store empty-handed. But then I started reading it this month... and I couldn't put it down! I was flying through it! So it turns out I did make the perfect find at Loganberry, I just hadn't realized it yet. Five relatively young women are at the center of this novel, which is narrated by four of them in alternating chapters. They all live in the same apartment building (office-tel) in the wealthy Seoul neighborhood of Gangnam, but none of the women are wealthy themselves, and they each initially moved to Seoul from elsewhere. 
Ara, a hairstylist from Cheongju, has been mute since her teens and is heavily-involved in the fandom for her favorite male K-pop star. Ara's best friend and roommate Sujin, also from Cheongju, grew up in an orphanage and does nails for a living, but is obsessed with getting plastic surgery so she can use that newly-attained beauty to make a ton of money working in room salons. (Room salons are establishments where men, especially business types, go to private rooms to be entertained by women whose job it is to look pretty, drink alcohol with them, listen to them talk, and perhaps even have sex with them if the women and the establishments permit it. The closest thing I can think to liken room salons to are hostess bars in Japan.) Kyuri, a woman from Jeonju who's had innumerable cosmetic procedures and has worked in room salons all of her adult life, lives across the hall from Sujin and Ara and tries to caution Sujin from joining a world that could lead to degradation and inescapable debt. Miho, Kyuri's roommate who grew up with Sujin in the same orphanage back in Cheongju, is an artist whose previous studies in New York gave her access to wealthy Korean circles, where she made a rich best friend and a rich eventual boyfriend who weren't as well-adjusted as they seemed. And living on the floor beneath this quartet is Wonna, a married woman from Namyangju who was abused by her grandmother as a child and avoids superfluous human interaction, but who also admires her younger upstairs neighbors for how free and independent she thinks they are. None of these women have had happy childhoods, and as they entertain their respective desires and aspirations—Ara wants to meet her K-pop crush, Kyuri wants to maintain her lifestyle while potentially finding a path away from room salons, Sujin wants the perfect face so she can be an "ace" room salon girl like Kyuri, Miho wants to maintain her university funding and finish her art series commemorating a dead loved one, and Wonna wants to finally have a viable pregnancy and give birth to a child—they contend with all the odds that are stacked against them.

I related most to Wonna (I too witnessed/experienced abuse in my childhood) and Miho (I too am an artist, albeit not a professional one), but I definitely learned the most from Kyuri. Kyuri, in word or deed, dispels a lot of the myths I've held onto about plastic surgery and sex work in a way that I sorely needed. As much as I try not to judge people, plastic surgery is one of those things that I've always silently judged people for, dismissing them for being so vain and insecure as to alter their bodies in such drastic ways. I'm one of those people who would look at the prevalence of modified faces in South Korea, a country known as the plastic surgery capital of the world, and react with the oversimplified conclusion, "Why does everybody in Korea hate themselves?". Obviously some people have cosmetic procedures done simply because they want to. But as I delved deeper into this novel and messaged my American friend who lives in Korea about it, I realized, "It's really helping me understand in a new way how status-focused Korea is. Like the plastic surgery thing isn't simply because people hate themselves (even though that probably is part of it for some people). It's really about getting ahead and having an edge over the next person, especially since so much of social mobility for women is tied to how others assess their looks." For example, the stigma associated with sex work makes it nearly impossible for Kyuri to transition to another field, or marry out of having to work at a room salon ever again. But she needed to surgically alter her appearance just to be considered beautiful enough to work at one of the more upscale room salons that pay more and have slightly better working conditions. That's how competitive it can be for Korean people—especially Korean women—to make a living, even in an industry as shady as sex work. 
And speaking of supposed shadiness. Kyuri is brutally honest about the negative repercussions of doing sex work, but at the same time she rightfully rebukes people (even if only to herself) who insult her and treat her like she's beneath them. She's not downtrodden, she knows she's being exploited, but she's also making a living and paying for her ailing mother's healthcare with the money she earns from doing the very thing that people look down on her for. And who is anyone to look down on Kyuri anyway, when the room salons are full of "respectable" businessmen lying to their wives and girlfriends about their whereabouts, while said wives and girlfriends pretend not to know what their men are doing? And who is anyone to look down on Kyuri, when there are doctors, pharmacists, plastic surgeons, whole entire "professional" sectors that profit off of the sex workers who patronize their services? Everyone, including and especially men, is full of it as far as Kyuri as concerned, and she sees right through people who try to act like they're morally sound or have no ties to her industry whatsoever.
I was reminded of so many other works as I read this book. The 1989 miniseries 'The Women of Brewster Place' came to mind, with its ensemble cast of Black women living in the same apartment building, dealing with their own singular and collective struggles they face due to being women. The 2017 documentary 'Save My Seoul' also came to mind, with its examination of how precariously young some girls can be when they get involved in sex work, and of how sex work was a cornerstone of Korea's postwar economic recovery. Sujin's dogged protectiveness of Ara proves to be motivated by guilt for letting Ara down in a life-altering way in the past, a revelation that immediately reminded me of the character Terry in the British TV series 'I May Destroy You'. And of course, If I Had Your Face has obvious parallels to Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982, which matter-of-factly lays out the everyday sexism that Korean women are expected to unquestioningly put up with in order to participate in society. I also noticed that there are actually five main characters in If I Had Your Face (not four, as the back cover suggests), but although she plays a significant role in Ara, Kyuri, Miho, and Wonna's lives, Sujin never has a chapter where she shares her own backstory and perspective in first-person like the other women do. She's the common denominator, but she never gets to take the floor. And I figure that that has to mean something. There must be a reason for it, but I don't know what.
This book is often blunt about some incredibly tragic events that happen in these characters' lives, but gosh darn it if it isn't also funny. There's so much humor here. Sarcasm, cynicism, playful chiding, messing around, passive aggression, laughing to keep from crying. The humor in this book takes so many forms, often showing up alongside some of the darkest revelations and harshest realities that these women face. And believe it or not, If I Had Your Face ends on a hopeful note. Open-ended, but still hopeful. Ara has gotten rid of her assistant from hell and overcome her K-pop idol obsession. Sujin's face has healed and she's enjoying her new pretty status while working in room salons like she'd been wanting to from the beginning. Kyuri may or may not be doing the impossible (leaving sex work for a "real" job), thanks to Sujin's help. Miho's art career is as promising as ever, she's cut her hair from waist-length to shoulder-length, and she's carefully plotting revenge against a man who recently wronged her. And Wonna, with her overly-caring husband out of the picture and her pregnancy progressing, is finally opening up by inviting the girls over for dinner, showing them an ultrasound, and letting Ara help with baby prep. They've bonded in a way that transcends merely being neighbors. If you're interested in societal taboos, novels with multiple narrators, perspectives on Korean womanhood, the consequences of beauty standards, or stories about friendship between women, then read this book!

Favorite quotes:
"I know it will fade by next week, but for now it makes me happy, as if I have set off a signal to the world. Already, I have noticed how people react with great caution to someone with fuchsia hair, even if that person is mute" (149).
"I am sitting on the curb looking up at the cloudless wintry sky and wondering if I am a happier person than I was twenty minutes ago, when I did not know what I know now" (172).

"In a way, I think I am now experiencing true freedom for the first time in my life. That is the way to think of this—that this is karma, and also absolution... But before he sees her in my work, I will suck everything I can from him. I will be wild and unleashed. I will now take from him what I can. I have not heard Kyuri's philosophies on men all this time for nothing... I will build myself up so high in such a short time that when he leaves me, I will become a lightning storm, a nuclear apocalypse. I will not come out of this with nothing." (213-215)

"Whatever it is, I am so grateful that a gush of hope springs deep inside me and it is everything I can do to not break down completely in public. I want to share this with someone—anyone. I want to clutch the lady who is sitting next to me on the subway and tell her. I want her to know a little world is erupting inside of me" (216).

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