Author Archives: mimi thi nguyen

“It’s In the Syllabus.”

A woman's torso, she wears a white t-shirt reading, "It's in the syllabus."

Hey, want to see the readings (and the Spring 2011 course blog) for “The Politics of Fashion”? Check it out there, but comment back here, please. I’m not sure yet if I’m going to limit comments to the course blog to enrolled students, and myself — any thoughts?

I know I need to update my clips, but I cannot make myself watch The September Issue (2009, dir.RJ Culter). I already hate The Devil Wears Prada, and I can’t imagine wanting to watch another film about that awful magazine. I’m looking forward to screening Chris Rock’s Good Hair (2009); I need to watch Malls R Us (2009, dir. Helene Klodawsky) to see if any part of it relates to the course (I’m hoping it will go with Marianne Conroy’s “Discount Dreams”); and I would like to see Picture Me (2009, dirs. Ole Schell and Sara Ziff) though I deal very little (or at all) with that part of the industry (though doing it through a concept of labor would help). I hear that the “breakout star” of Bravo’s The Fashion Show this season is Calvin Tran, and that he does speak about how his refugee passage informs his relation to the work — perhaps a good pairing with Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu’s The Beautiful Generation? (Here’s the interview, and here’s our review!) I usually show Doo Ri Chung’s segments from Seamless (2005, dir. Douglas Keeve) with Tu’s work. What else is interesting or relevant? Suggestions?

It’s 5 a.m., and I clearly need to sleep lest I ramble on much more. So much love and thanks to Minh-Ha, by the way, for keeping up the good fight on the blog, our Facebook, and our Twitter, while I have been mostly AWOL for the last few months — whew!

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From the Archives: “My Hair Trauma” (1998)

A photograph of two Asian women with big bouffants and miniskirts, probably from the 1960s.

Amsterdam, 1960s via http://www.reisenews-online.de via theswingingsixties.tumblr.com

We received a request for a piece I wrote over ten years ago, from my time in the “olden days” of what we oldsters once called “web journaling.” It’s hard to read some of my old writing without cringing (as I mention in the comments below, I am so on-trend for ’90s nostalgia), and this piece is no exception (I would probably ask more, and different, questions now). Still, the realization that our own hair is political is something of a rite of passage, right?

Earlier today I stood in front of the bathroom cabinet mirror, sewing scissors in hand. I was having hair trauma. (I have hair trauma a lot.) Taking inventory, I glanced down. Sitting on the back of the toilet were the following instruments (of varying degrees) of follicle torture: Royal Crown hair gel. Pantene hair spray. A tortoise shell clip. Ponytail ties. Bobby pins. A year-old plastic container of “Apple Green” Manic Panic hair dye. A blow-dryer/curler. Clippers. Bleach conditioner. A comb.

Standing in my underwear I imagined the possibilities: braids, french twists, a bun, two hair buns (a la anime girlies), the “wet” look, shaved, curled, ponytail, pompadour, mohawk, bihawk, streaks, “Glamour Shots” big hair, gang-girl big hair, buzz cut, mullet, beehive, haute couture. This is the essence of my hair trauma. I got dizzy thinking about it and left well enough alone.

In a phone interview over three years ago I was asked, “What do you think of Asian women who bleach or dye their hair; do you think they’re trying to be white?”

That day my hair was chin-length, a faded green. I said, “No.”

What does it mean to be “assimilated”? I’m suspicious of, say, fork, no chopsticks. A ridiculous concept with far too much currency; I get it all the time. In the zero-sum struggle between a fluid “Western” modernity and a static native “authenticity”, what confuses is the space between the either/or, the “difference they keep on measuring with inadequate sticks for their own morbid purpose.”

But wait: “they” is a fluid concept.

My interviewer was a middle-aged, heterosexual Asian American man with his fingers pushed deep in the white avant-garde tradition. Did I ever mention how much I hate the white avant-garde tradition? He revels in the modernist circumstance: the Western bourgeois and usually masculine subject imagines himself artist and rebel, bemoaning/celebrating his alienation while seeking to impose some more basic “truth.”

The hegemony of white racial bias works both ways: first, to assert an overdetermined standard of Eurocentric beauty and second, to warn against racial inversions or artistry that defy the dominant “white” logic of racial coding and stylization. That is, while we might acknowledge that the first instills a sense of “inferior” worth in people of color, what do we make about the second? I mean, is hair as art, as style, as invention, banned to the Asiatically-follicled? It is already suggested by dominant “common sense” that anything we do is hopelessly derivative: we only mimic whiteness. This is the smug arrogance underlying the issue -the accusation, the assumption– of assimilation: we would do anything to be a poor copy of the white wo/man. Do you buy this? Are you, too, suspicious of “unnatural” Asian hair: permed, dyed, bleached? But if I assert the position that all hair-styles are physically and socially constructed, even “plain” Asian hair, how do we then imagine hair as politics?

Who defines what’s “natural”? Does our hair have history?

What does my hair say about my power? How does the way you “read” my hair articulate yours?

Asian/American women’s hair already functions as a fetish object in the colonial Western imaginary, a racial signifier for the “silky” “seductive” “Orient.” Our hair, when “natural,” is semiotically commodified, a signal that screams “this is exotic/erotic.” As figments of the European imperial imagination, Suzie Wong, Madame Butterfly, and Miss Saigon are uniformly racially sexualized and sexually racialized by flowing cascades of long, black shiny hair. Is this “natural” hair? Or is hair always already socially-constructed to be “read” a certain way in relation to historical colonial discourse? Is this “natural” hair politically preferable? “purer,” as my interviewer implicitly suggests?

According to a certain culturally nationalist narrative: yes. But it gets complicated once the fetishist acts up and says, yes, I like you better when you are natural/native/other.

We are then confronted with a contradiction we might not like; that is, what do we do when the white folk agree?

When I was a sophomore in college a group calling themselves the Asian Male Underground embarked upon a mission. That is, they graffiti-ed women’s bathrooms on campus with propaganda: “Have you tried an Asian male lover?” “Sisters support your Asian brothers: stop dating white men!” I was and am so over Asian American straight male recuperation of their penises in the name of cultural “pride.” A strong man makes a strong community? I took a red marker from my bag and scribbled, “No, but I have tried an Asian sister. Does that count?”

Do I need to be saved?

And because the initial (hair) question is gender-specific, I have to ask: did the interviewer seek to escape scrutiny? I mean, are Asian American men who cut or style their hair participating in an “unnatural” visual economy pre-set by (wannabe) white standards? Why is men’s “loyalty” to racial community not likewise questioned in a parallel scenario? Are Asian American women posed as “culturally weaker,” more susceptible to the seductive lure of whiteness? More inclined to “sell-out”?

I imagine the whispering, the first sign is the hair.

We are then confronted with a contradiction we might not like; that is, what do we do when both (heterosexual) Asian/American men and white folk agree?

It bears mentioning that the interviewer assumed I was “straight.”

So does bleaching our hair necessarily connote a desire to be white?

When I was eighteen my roommate Alicia took a pair of sewing scissors and a stinging, foamy blue mixture of “speed bleach” to my scalp. By the end of the night what was left of my hair was a deep shade of pink, cut close to the skin.

All through high school I had “natural” long black hair. A white man approached me in the park one day, told me he must have been an “Oriental” man in a former life because he loves the food, the culture, and the women. At the mall a black Marine looked me up and down and informed me he had just returned from the Philippines, and could he have my phone number?

I was fifteen. They start on us young.

In Helen Lee’s short film Sally’s Beauty Spot our heroine (Sally) cuts off her long black hair in response to her white boyfriend’s exoticizing gaze. It seems relevant then, that cultural critic Rey Chow notes that the “activity of watching is linked by projection to physical nakedness.” It is an act of violence that “pierces the other” in order to name or own the object-slash-objectified being watched.

I cut off all my hair and damaged it with all kinds of fucked-up chemicals because I was sick of the orientalist gaze being directed at/on me. Having “unnatural” hair was supposed to be an oppositional aesthetic tactic, a “fuck you” to the White Man, not an attempt to be the White Woman. I wanted to be an aggressive spectacle, a bodily denial of the “passive” stereotype, the anti-lotus blossom, because when I was young it was always just a simple matter of “fighting” stereotypes by becoming its opposite. I thought to embrace my difference, to expound upon it, to expand its breadth.

I said to myself, “Now I will be what they least expected. I will be scary, I will be other than the stereotype of the model minority, the passive Asian female.”

In some circles a shorn skull is a sure sign of dyke-ness. I marked myself accordingly.

But whatever we mean for our style choices to signify politically, none of it means that we’ll necessarily be read that way by “illiterate” audiences. For the next four years, my bright green locks were an “excuse” for some whites (male and female) to continue to eroticize my difference without indulging the “obvious” orientalist signifiers. That is, because they did not necessarily adhere to the “traditional” homology of racial fetishes -the long black hair, for one- it was “okay” to exoticize me because I was not a “traditional” Asian woman: “North American,” punk, etc. As a result, the p-rock hair only emphasized a (superficially) different but (structurally) similar re-fetishization of my female Asian body as doubly “exotic:” that is, my “other-ness” factor increased exponentially in relation to the “unconventionality” of being a “bad” Asian/American woman.

Then there were those who took no pains to hide it. There is in fact a punk song that wants to rape me. I am the “bad” Asian female who needs to be disciplined with a little white dick. It excites him/you to think that some violence can surely be anticipated in the act of subduing the black-belt “Saigon Siren” he/you would like to imagine me to be. He/you wants to “do” me: I am unsure if this means fuck me or kill me, or both.

How much do I “own” my self-(re)presentation? How do I account for being “misread”?

Sally’s boyfriend said: “You look different.” But he liked her hair “still, shiny and black.”

I don’t deny that some of us grow up damaged by dominant aesthetics and white mythologies. There are plenty of stories circulated among ourselves about how we wanted hair that curled, blonde hair, red hair, whatever. We are impressed with an sexual ideal; that is, we are taught to believe that thin, blonde, tall, big-chested, blue-eyed, and rosy-cheeked are checkpoints in an inventory of what is beautiful. Sometimes this results in a painful process of racial erasure or self-hatred; sometimes we adapt to these myths in unexpected ways: I for one –convinced of her desirability– grew up wanting to fuck the Barbie look-a-like, not to be her.

So: I refuse to be pathologically defined by an imaginary lack of “good hair.”

My own bleached locks -when I had them– hardly suggested “white” hair. I took no pains to disguise my black roots and the burnt effect of the peroxide was not a “normal” or white-looking hue. I doubt my hair masked the shape of my eyes, my nose, my face. Nor was it meant to. If possible, it became more obvious: who expects Asian features beneath a ragged shock of green hair? About Malcolm X’s former incarnation as a slick zoot-suiter with a red conk, black gay academic Kobena Mercer writes, “Far from an attempted simulation of whiteness I think [] [hair] dye [was] used as a stylized means of defying the ‘natural’ color codes of conventionality in order to highlight artificiality and hence exaggerate a sense of difference.”

My (racial) difference was exaggerated as a result of my “unnaturally” colored locks, but it was used against my chosen oppositional body politic.

And of course, in punk rock “unnatural” hair is aesthetically conventional for whites and is anyway fast becoming a popular “look” found in clubs, music videos, and Urban Outfitters, so it loses its strategic political meaning as “anti-Establishment” rebellion.

But why mourn the passing of punk aesthetic-as-politics? Purists (most often white, heterosexual, and male) argue that it diffuses their own “difference:” but it’s a difference they so fiercely covet because it is their only difference and for the sake of claiming a marginality, it remains important (to the purists) that they maintain that imaginary line. I mean, aren’t white punks always complaining about “blue hair” discrimination, as if a jar of Manic Panic magically re-positioned their own social status on some level of “equally” marginal footing with people of color? And where does that leave the rest of us who cannot wash our colors away?

What does it mean to dye your hair blue?

Angela Davis critiques the fashion-as-politics retro-perspective that conflates the Afro with black liberation: the nostalgia, she writes, is misplaced. Her hair was not the whole of her politics.

In the context of “radical” racialized aesthetics, the psychological/pathological values assigned to hair-styles labeled either “natural” (therefore indicating racial pride) and “white-identified” (“she must hate herself because she’s got a perm”) are based on a reversal of Eurocentric binary logics. Does reversal=liberation?

Here the inverted logic restages the liberal Western racial discourse about “natives:” that is, in the liberal version of multiculturalism, they like us best when we’re “authentic.”

How many white people have clucked their tongues at my seeming inauthenticity? Too many.

The white avant-garde likes to think it can break boundaries and transcend the restrictions of that bogeyman called Society. The avant-garde “borrows” liberally from everywhere, plundering our cultural drawers, and pretends it makes something new, but not just new: something more truthful.

In the 1960 Hollywood film The World of Suzie Wong the white American artist is horrified when his model/love interest Suzie, a street prostitute, shows up in his Hong Kong apartment proudly wearing a brand new “Western-style” dress. He calls her a whore and, violently shaking her like he might a child, tears the dress off her maligned body. In the following sequence he gives her an “authentic” Chinese wedding dress and is enchanted by the resulting vision in (virginal) white: restored to a more desirable state of “purity” by the white artist, she is suddenly demure, docile, “properly” Chinese. It is significant that while red is the color of happiness and marriage in Chinese symbology, white is the color of death and mourning.

What kind of death does Suzie Wong die?

What does it mean to be an Asian woman? Or more, what does it take for me to be seen as an Asian woman?

I’ve twice been mistaken for “Amerasian,” or half-Vietnamese, half-white: once by a Vietnamese American girl in a women’s studies undergrad class, once by a white Vietnam vet at a screening of From Hollywood to Hanoi at the Roxie.

And in Little Saigon I was a novelty, “exotic” with wallet-chain wrapped around my neck, trapping dirt & sweat, truncated green hair, even though Little Saigon is as “American,” as inauthentic as I am: a city council-designated site for reimagining “home,” we are nothing like we might have been, elsewhere. I can’t preserve what’s been irreversibly destroyed, even as possibility, in the process of war, migration, decolonization. And still I manage to elude Authenticity, big-A intact, or more, it eludes me. And so I wear my history of trauma differently, what of it–?

It’s still my history too.

Where is my community? Whose identity politics do I follow?

For Christmas I got my mom my hair. That is, I dyed my shoulder-length green hair black. She loved it. It’s been forever. I had been “different” from my mother for too long.

For no good reason I got myself my hair. That is, I took a pair of scissors and cut myself bangs just like Anna May Wong’s, the original Dragon Lady. I aspire to similar great heights, only without Hollywood to script my untimely demise I am intent upon succeeding/subverting.

Do I look Asian enough for you now?

Jaded is a monthly caucus of Asian Pacific queers “+ friends.” This time around I am playing the femme, foregoing jeans and boots for blood-red vinyl and black metallic. Around one a.m. we are positioned somewhere near the stage, our feet numb from sitting on speakers. Hello Kitty flits ghost-like across painted brick walls, her mouth appearing and disappearing according to some silent language she mimes. Across a sea of bodies elevated dancers snake their arms toward industrial piping and disco ball. My also femme-ed friend wrinkles her nose, pointing out one of the club kids in a black bikini and brown velvet pants. Disparaging: “Why is she wearing a blonde wig? That’s kinda fucked-up.”

I shrug because I’ve heard it before. Because she is a queen of the ironic performative herself I am a little cynical about her stance. I promise myself to later show her this really cool piece I’m writing on hair.

Recently I ran into a friend of mine in a bookstore. She is looking for a book on Elvis because she is getting a haircut and is considering a pompadour. Only three inches at the longest, she (a Korean dyke) runs her fingers through her black hair. She tells me, “Some of my friends have been bugging me about it ’cause they say it’s getting too femme-y.” I am forced to consider what my hair, no longer shorn or dyed, relays to other Q&A women.

Is it just a simple matter of becoming the antithesis of the stereotype? Which stereotypes do you choose to not be? Do you affirm the stereotypes even as you (imagine that you) defy them?

We are then confronted with a contradiction we might not like; what do we do when even our friends agree?

We internalize the imperative of surveillance. That is, we police even ourselves, speak our need to be recognizable to the stranger’s gaze, transform our identifications and desires into advertising.

And can you tell I was a refugee by my hair?

In a ‘zine interview conducted between two Asian American women in punk, they make free with the generalizations about how “typical” Asian American women are less daring, less wild in their style choices. This is because (they say) they’re assimilated, unlike the Japanese exchange students who populate the East Village in funky fashions.

They congratulate themselves for being “different” from the “typical” Asian American woman because they are punk rock.

Are there different kinds of “unnatural” hair? I mean, it is qualitatively different to dye your Asian hair pink rather than perming it with Miss Clairol? Why? In either situation, it might be said that you are re-constructing your hair to conform to a certain subcultural standard of what “fits” the respective standards of beauty. If you are going to stake a claim of a “bonus” difference accentuated by punk rock, it’s relevant to ask: what is the qualitative difference when punk and the so-called “mainstream” are both dominated by whiteness, demographically, discursively and follicle-ly?

Question one: Please answer the above in complete sentences or annotated diagrams.

Again: how do we perpetuate the stereotypes we (think we) oppose? Whom are we different from or whom do we presume to be different from?

Does “breaking the silence” of stereotype liberate some and (continue to) depreciate others?

Question two is multiple-choice.
1) If you dye/bleach your Asian hair, you’re being radical.
2) If you dye/bleach your Asian hair, you’re self-hating.

Or, 3) If you dye/bleach your Asian hair, your politics might not be readily available via a visual evaluation or are not otherwise related to the shape/size/color of your hair at all.

Which hair politic do you follow?

I hate the white avant-garde.

I hate my hair trauma, but not nearly as much.

These days I am thinking of chopping off most of my hair and bleaching it white. Again.

I never said my hair would start a revolution.

Can you really grasp my political agenda, my psychological state of mind, from my style choices?

Question three: Please illustrate the approximate percentage of political choice, psychological conditioning, and visual artistry involved in hair-styling with 1) a pie chart 2) a geometric-algebraic formula 3) a ten-page expository essay.

You will be graded on an arbitrary scale according to how well you explore a) the philosophical mandate of the avant-garde tradition b) “serious” Marxist objections to the performative body politic of feminisms and queer theories and c) your own hair history.

Any questions?

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Small Janelle (For Minh-Ha)

A very young black girl dressed up as Janelle Monae for Halloween.

(via The Incoherent Mumblings of a Mexican Genderqueer)

I wish this little girl had come to trick-or-treat at my door. I would have given her all my candy.

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Punk Rock Pearls

A handful of earrings that feature concrete "pearls" on sterling silver posts.

(Cement earrings by Metsa via I’m REVOLTING)

For pearls, I choose concrete! These studs would totally go with what I call my Daggers uniform –torn black low-top Vans, also-torn black jeans, big black tee, and acid-washed black denim vest– in homage to the punk rock skate gang from that 1986 classic Thrashin‘.

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Get It: HEAD DRESS

The cover of the zine HEAD DRESS, which consists of a list of words associated with the "native" headdress.

Thanks to Julia from a l’allure garconniere, I have downloaded my very own copy of Kate Burch’s zine HEAD DRESS, “composed entirely of found images from blogs, juxtaposed with critical quotes from theorists and bloggers examining the effects of cultural appropriation.” (An excerpt from the Coco Fusco citation I posted a while back is included! For more, some of our posts on the headdress can be found under the tag “native appropriations.”) Because it’s a free download from the awesome Zine Library, Julia suggests,

print out a bunch of your own copies and drop them off where you think they might be most thought-provoking. a few ideas:

  • thrift stores where you regularly see “hipsters”
  • coffee shops in urban areas
  • music venues/festivals where you have seen aforementioned cultural appropriating hipsters
  • offending stores that sell clothes labelled “tribal” or “native” or “cherokee” (urban outfitters, forever21, bluefly, etc)

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Pastels Revolution

An Asian woman with short hair holds up her fist in the solidarity gesture. Her pink, yellow, and blue funnel neck is pulled up to her nose, hiding her face.

Obviously, I’ve stepped away from the blog for a few weeks, trying to complete some other writing projects and forcing myself to stay off the Internet. Meanwhile, I’m still here in spirit, fighting the good fight, as you can tell from this outfit, which is a fortuitous mixture of mine and Iraya’s mind-melding thrifting. I do have plans for upcoming posts (including some book reviews, interviews, and guest posts!), and I’m also teaching my Politics of Fashion course next semester, so I’m hoping to somehow integrate assignments for that course into this platform. Any suggestions?

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EVENT: “Look Around: A Fashion Crawl & Trunk Show,” October 2, San Francisco

Art by Jaime Hernandez, though I don't know what issue of Love & Rockets this is from!

My much-mentioned best friend Iraya Robles, underground stylist and multimedia artist provocateur, is presenting (with the new vintage project Soulful Dress) a fabulous event tomorrow in the Mission District of San Francisco as part of a gallery-based exhibit. I’m hoping to get some additional insight from Iraya about the Fashion Crawl & Trunk Show, including its genesis and how the Mission as a neighborhood with its deep histories for people of color and queer persons figures into her own “mission” (ha ha) for the event, soon!

Spend the afternoon experiencing the incredible stylings of local designers, artists, performers, vintage retailers, foodcarts and much, much more….

Featuring:

“Look Around” is a part of the Celebrate! San Francisco exhibition at Mission Cultural Center (see below). “Look Around” is an outdoor/indoor event taking place within a three-block radius of 24th and Mission, at different surprise neighborhood locations. Meet in front of Mission Cultural Center 10 to 15 minutes early to pick up your limited edition map/zine with program. Departs at 1pm!

Fashion Crawl from 1-2:30 PM, with Trunk  Show and Reception to follow in Mission Cultural Center Gallery until 5pm.

Zine: $5-20 donation. Crawl & Trunk Show: FREE!!!

Presented by Soulful Dress and Iraya Robles

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TIlda Swinton, The Hotness

Tilda Swinton poses in a dark suit and sweater against a dark gray and black background. Her left hand is on her hip and the other is up by her right shoulder, against the wall.

This post’s title says it all.

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Foot Fetish

Five-inch heels in perforated leather with multiple=

Kokon to Zai orthopedic heels, as seen on I’M REVOLTING, photographs by Shop It Right Now. I am considering, among other things: the figure of the disabled body as a problematic metaphor; the eroticization of medical apparatus as well as the disabled body; phenomenological prosthetics that transform consciousness of self in the world; the blurring of the always precarious line between medical-surgical discourses of necessary utility and rehabilitation and “elective” aesthetics and beauty; clothing (and shoes) as armor against access and intimacy; Seoul’s pink parking spots designated for women in high heels; and finally, this quote from Rosemary Garland Thomson:

“Many parallels exist between the social meanings attributed to female bodies and those assigned to disabled bodies. Both the female body and the disabled body are cast within cultural discourse as deviant and inferior; both are excluded from full participation in public as well as economic life; both are defined in opposition to a valued norm which is assumed to possess natural corporeal superiority.”

–Rosemary Garland Thomson, 1997, “Feminist Theory, the Body, and the Disabled Figure,” The Disability Studies Reader, Ed. Lennard J. Davis (New York: Routledge, p. 279)

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Semester’s Start Takes Me By Surprise, Again

Mimi Thi Nguyen stands in front of a tomatillo plant and fence in her backyard. It is late afternoon, and she holds some tomatoes in one hand. She is wearing a green and black dress from the 1980s, a black leather belt, and black leather studded boots.

My semester began this last Monday, and although I’m on teaching leave, I’m still working — there are all-day faculty meetings, for instance, as well as the usual committee service (in my case, for two programs because of my split appointment) and student mentoring on top of research and writing, which are an academic’s bread and butter. This includes the final stretch on my revisions to my manuscript, a co-edited collection on Southeast Asian/American studies, and my forthcoming Signs essay called “The Biopower of Beauty: Humanitarian Imperialisms and Global Feminisms in an Age of Terror,” which is the foundation for my second book (and which I’ve given as a work-in-progress in many places kind enough to invite me to do so). Which is to say that I’m swamped once again, and may be posting irregularly, or much more briefly, here.

In the photograph above, I’m standing in my garden after the first of those all-day faculty meetings in a green and navy dress (from an ’80s time warp) and black leather belt, both given to me by my very best friend Iraya Robles for a belated birthday present. (The pockets are huge. I can totally put all the tomatillos and tomatoes I harvest semi-daily in them.) There’s lots more where this dress came from in Iraya’s vintage-packed apartment (she is an underground stylist as well as an above-ground vintage dealer, so her collection is amazing), and that came home with me in my suitcase — a mid-calf pink leather skirt, a sheer yellow ’70s ruffled blouse, a shrunken turquoise cardigan sweater, and dark blue jelly wedges, for instance. Spending time with Iraya, one of the most incredibly creative and intellectually curious persons I know, reminds me that our friendship over the last twenty years (she met me when I was a snarling, semi-feral punk rock anarchist in a tattered black uniform) has shaped who I am in innumerable, and invaluable, ways.

I also reconnected on my last trip to the Bay Area with filmmaker and writer Arwen Curry, one of my favorite people from that era in my life during which I spent half my time in “doing” graduate school, and the other half hanging out at the Maximumrocknroll house (green-taping the record collection, preparing for New Issue Day, reviewing zines, making dinner and hatching plans, whatever). Arwen was a coordinator at the magazine at the time, and we once spent long hours discussing the place of punk rock in our lives, especially how it informed, and at times constrained, our intellectual trajectories, creative impulses and political hopes. (And goofier enterprises, like the time we tried to start a punk rock Dungeons & Dragons game.) These questions are still with me, even now; so when Arwen and I met up in the Mission for a long lunch, we circled back to them as we took stock of what we’d done since we last saw each other. For an incredibly detailed account of this meeting of the minds, check out Arwen’s most recent online column at Maximumrocknroll. (Among other things, Arwen is an associate producer for Regarding Susan Sontag, as well as producing and directing a documentary about the amazing fantasy and science fiction author Ursula K. LeGuin, which frankly blows my mind. You can read an interview with Arwen about this second project at The Rejectionist.)

It was wonderful to spend time with both Iraya and Arwen, who together helped me to approach this coming semester’s work roster with these reminders: that this sort of work can be creative and sustain us in powerful ways, but also that work can just be a job, and not the whole world. I need to learn better how to live with, and in, this tension.

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