(Above image is a photo I took of a detail of a page of Elisha Lim’s 100 Crushes.)
I just finished reading Elisha Lim‘s wonderful book 100 Crushes and it got me thinking about what it means to hold change and ambiguity: to hold space for it; to hold it inside you; to hold a presence for it in public; to embody it.
It felt like that was one of the threads that ran through every section of the book, but two in particular brought those questions up for me.
The first was the section call Sissy, in which Lim draws eleven different people who they talked to about their experience with and relationship to the word sissy. Lim then shares some of their words in handwritten prose next to their portrait. What’s so striking is that Lim doesn’t seek agreement, or a steady thru-line; doesn’t edit out the voices that reject the use of sissy as a descriptor of them. Lim demonstrates the ways in which the word simultaneously holds many means for each person; enriching its meaning while also challenging it.
And perhaps more straightforwardly, the section titled “They,” offers more portraits and hand-rendered words from people Lim has crossed paths with who use “they” as their preferred gender pronoun rather than he or she.
But really, every section of the book highlights manifold existence and identity, from the excerpt of a memoir project focused on Lim’s time attending a sex-segregated Catholic secondary school in Singapore to the one on jealousy.
More and more, the condition of being asked to be either/or feels highly specific, and not universal at all. The more I listen to others speak about a variety of identity demands placed upon them here in the US (the place where I am), and how those demands differ elsewhere, the more it drives home the simmering idea that came from interviews I was doing for my documentary project that one of the most pernicious legacies of European philosophy and colonialism is the hegemony of the “rational,” the ways that drives white organizational culture (to quote an interview subject, Maria Bauman), and the ways in which this demand for rationality shapes a sense of discomfort, dis-ease, and, in some cases, violent fear when confronted with ambiguity and not-knowing. A circular trap.
And yet in states of oppression, we have to rely on stale categories that remain a critical tool in calling attention to injustice as a means of stopping it because it is precisely those stale categories and the assumptions people bring to them that drives the oppression, or the feeling that oppression is acceptable in those circumstances. Another circular trap.
“To learn which questions are unanswerable, and not to answer them: this skill is most needful in times of stress and darkness.”
– Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness