Mar 25, 2021 • 5M

A woman out in the world

What I've learnt from more than a decade exploring the world on my own.

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Short audio notes to accompany a newsletter about how we seek and tell stories to make sense of a changing world—and our personal and collective place in it.
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Are you trying to tell me that after so many years risking your skin for the revolution, you’re just simply going to sit back and calmly accept their lack of trust? That you will accept without flinching their insulting notion that because you are a woman you can’t keep your head when you drop your underwear?
Gioconda Belli, The Country Under My Skin


You’re reading a newsletter by Emily Ding about how we seek and tell stories to make sense of a changing world, the passions that drive us, and our personal and collective relationships to places.
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Where the writing gets (and doesn’t get) done.

Over the past months, I’ve had at least three half-written letters in my drafts waiting to be completed and sent, but found myself unable to focus on any single one. The Great Affair is in no way meant to be tied to any news cycle, but I felt like I had insufficient mental bandwidth to ponder the subjects I had started to dig into in those letters during such a time of upheaval and conflict: the US capitol riot, the fierce clash of perspectives on cultural appropriation and sexual harassment/assault that played out over Malaysian social media, Myanmar’s military coup and Malaysia’s subsequent tone-death deportation of 1,200 Myanmar nationals back home, the devastating blow to freedom of speech with the announcement of a “fake news” law snuck in amid Malaysia’s ostensible “state of emergency”. And most recently, the Atlanta shootings, which has reignited discussion on the intertwined racism and sexism experienced by Asian women.

It feels strange and disconnected to be writing at this time without writing in confrontation of such events directly, but I feel constitutionally incapable of the hot take. Were I to say anything at all, I would want to have something deliberate and provocative—and more importantly, something new—to say. But that takes time, especially considering the completist I always feel the need to be. I always feel like I need to have read dozens of books and interviewed dozens of people to put forward a sound perspective that goes beyond the boundaries of just my own mind. I always feel like whatever I write on a subject, the piece has to be—if not realistically the last word on it—then the fullest possible manifestation of it I am capable of writing at that time. But more often than not, time passes and the urgency dissipates. The rest of the world moves on, and there comes other talking points to get on top of. But I’ve realised that I can depend too much on the social media cycle to determine whether a story is still “timely” or not, and it’s a mind trap I need to get out of.

Back in mid-January, when the second wave of infections came, Malaysia went back on lockdown for a while—no more than two from the same household in a car, no dining out, essential services only, that sort of thing. (That’s been lifted now, with social lives resuming.) In some ways, you’d think one would feel more at ease looking inward during such a time, happier to tinker over one’s own obsessions in a circumscribed world. But in another way, it’s the opposite. You’re hyper-aware of everything that’s going on outside your immediate sphere because you aren’t immersed in—you aren’t living—any particular event yourself. From your social media perch, you seemingly have a view of everything that’s happening in the world, and what people are clamoring at. And if you don’t engage in that common attention economy, it can make you feel like you’re missing out, even as you feel largely incapable of contributing much that’s actually useful.

I don’t actually want The Great Affair to be beholden to that attention economy—for one, there are people engaging with it better and more comprehensively elsewhere. I remind myself that both here and in my work, I want to listen more closely to the themes and subjects that obsess me, and not primarily be directed by the news of the day or what everyone seems to be thinking and talking about at any given moment. One just has to accept that one can’t write about everything, or one might end up writing about nothing after all. I think I would like this newsletter to be a step into unexpected or unrelated things that may or may not extend their tendrils in some more obscure way to the bigger picture. And to my completist self, I say over and over: every letter is but a snapshot of a particular time, and need be nothing more.

So, I return to a letter I was writing last December, in which I began to reflect on traveling solo for more than a decade, without feeling any longer that I need to make it an all-encompassing essay—at least, not right now, though it ended up pretty long anyway. And after what happened to Sarah Everard in London, kidnapped and murdered while walking the streets alone, this dispatch is unfortunately and tragically relevant again. Come to think of it, I guess it would always have been.


Notes on a decade+ of wandering on my own

Looking for mummies at the Chauchilla Cemetery—Nazca, Peru. Photo is mine.

A couple of years back, when a friend visited Kuala Lumpur on her own for the first time, she asked me for restaurant recommendations where she could dine without feeling uncomfortable, where a woman alone wouldn’t draw attention. It surprised me a little at the time within the context of Kuala Lumpur, since one tends to see one’s own city in exceptional terms, but I remembered that I had made the same consideration when traveling without company to places that were new to me, and I knew exactly what she meant. It meant a few things; in part, I think it meant the sort of place that wouldn’t be disproportionately populated by men.

I’ve traveled on my own many times over the past decade, and have learned to be comfortable inhabiting male-dominated spaces: a restaurant in Marrakech full of men watching football because it was the only cafe near my guesthouse at night, a cafe full of mining truck drivers catching breakfast off a rural highway in Peru, a busy canteen full of male campesinos in a Guatemalan highland town. By necessity, because I gravitated towards roads less traveled, I had learned fairly quickly early on not to be fazed by the furtive and frank glances of curiosity—and for the most part, I’ve been left alone, or my presence inquired into with courtesy.

The way I’ve come to deal with it is by doing my best to give off the aura that my presence anywhere is nothing out of the ordinary, no matter how much I actually stick out like a sore thumb—in some countries, being the lone Asian woman, rather than the lone white woman, will get you more stares. I’m not sure if doing that actually influences how others see me (I feel it does a little), but it helps make me feel more comfortable in my own body so I can liberate myself from my mental confines of what’s seemly or unseemly. If there’s a space I want to enter that I feel intimidated by, I walk in acting like I’ve done it a hundred times before.


Negotiating a ride in a beach village in Nicaragua, while a stranger looks on. Photo is mine.

It was sometime during my last year of university that a growing curiosity about the world, which had sprung from the places I studied about in my law and history courses, began percolating and morphed into a juddering restlessness that felt like conviction. Having always identified as an introvert, I had been my most social and communal during this time of my life, and enjoyed it thoroughly. At the same time, I was starting to feel that I wanted—needed—to see the world and make sense of it through my own eyes, unmediated by friends and family. Nothing feels quite so grand an adventure as the anticipation of planning a trip all by yourself, of setting out and arriving in a strange place on your own. Left to your own devices to find your feet, everything just feels so much more discoverable. As Alain de Botton put in The Art of Travel:

It seemed an advantage to be traveling alone. Our responses to the world are crucially moulded by the company we keep, for we temper our curiosity to fit in with the expectations of others... Being closely observed by a companion can also inhibit our observation of others; then, too, we may become caught up in adjusting ourselves to the companion’s questions and remarks, or feel the need to make ourselves seem more normal than is good for our curiosity.

Perhaps if I look back on the jumbled scraps that constitute my diary during that time, I’ll find less of a neat line between that realization and what happened next, but it led me to ideating and reimagining, over and over, what traveling by myself would be like, and finally doing it. After I graduated, I went backpacking around Central America (with a telling and formative start), and those months would constitute my first real solo travels—by which I mean setting out on my own to a place where I don’t know anyone, rather than, say, extending a trip with friends to include a few days of travel on my own, which I had done before. Travelling solo also doesn’t mean spending all my time alone, since I invariably bump shoulders along the way with fellow travelers or local guides and acquaintances. But it does mean essentially making decisions and moving from place to place by myself; and in a remote place, it often means counting on the goodwill of strangers to take me from A to B, where intervention—should it be necessary—is not readily at hand.

Since that first time, I’ve continued to explore the world on my own—not for every trip I take, but it has been my default mode. Though it has its downsides (the right company can bolster you in doing things you wouldn’t do by yourself), in many ways it is also less cumbersome (the wrong company can stop you from doing things you would do on your own). You can head off and move on when you want and where you want, without having to meet someone halfway on anything, which allows for spontaneity in a way that is utterly freeing. I think of it as the purest expression of following my curiosity, simply finding my way from one thing that interests me to the next and to the next. Despite popular perception, I am by no means unique: more women are reportedly traveling solo, and apparently, a larger proportion of solo travelers are women than men (at least in the US and UK). But whenever I recount my travels, people always ask, not just because but certainly because I am a woman: “Was it safe traveling alone?

Without making everything of it, and while recognizing that male travelers too are harassed and attacked (in the US, men reportedly experience higher victimization rates than females for all types of violent crime except rape and sexual assault), women are specifically vulnerable because of their gender in a way that men aren’t as often (in the UK, government statistics estimate that 4.9 million women had been victims of sexual assault—including rape and attempted rape—in their lives compared to 989,000 men, with 98.5% of the rapists identified as men). This can leave women feeling like they have to choose between safety and freedom. As Sylvia Plath wrote in her journals:

Yes, my consuming desire to mingle with road crews, sailors and soldiers, bar room regulars—to be a part of a scene, anonymous, listening, recording—all is spoiled by the fact that I am a girl, a female always in danger of assault and battery. My consuming interest in men and their lives is often misconstrued as a desire to seduce them, or as an invitation to intimacy. Yet, God, I want to talk to everybody I can as deeply as I can. I want to be able to sleep in an open field, to travel west, to walk freely at night.

And for female journalists, there isn’t much of a choice. In an article for Nat Geo, Camille Bromley writes:

In much of the world, a woman traveling unaccompanied defies social or cultural norms; in some of the world, this act defies the law. Journalism, a profession predicated on going out into the world and following the trail of a story to its unknown end, is crippled by this gender divide.


Riding an overnight cargo boat into the Peruvian Amazon. Photo is mine.
A ten-day Amazon river journey by dugout canoe, Peru. Photo is mine.

Some years back in Peru, I boarded an overnight cargo boat by myself, followed by a ten-day journey by dugout canoe along the Amazon river with just my guides, which remains one of my most memorable journeys. From a short piece I wrote for Washington Post:

I say it now like I had made the decision just like that. But I agonized over it. I had seen enough movies to imagine the Amazon’s possible horrors, and the fact that there would be zero means of communication after the third day weighed on my mind—even as I texted my human ports-of-call and told them not to worry unless they didn’t hear from me by the eleventh day. Still, Miguel had talked about Cocha Pasto in terms eminently doable, with a safe return seemingly taken for granted. I dared myself to go ahead, but, erring on the side of caution, asked if he knew a female guide—and was surprised when he said yes. The next morning, I found out that he had simply asked the guide to bring his wife. "Two for the price of one," Miguel said cheerfully. You can imagine how it looked: like I was being chaperoned. With some hilarity, I thought, That’s not the kind of traveler I want to appear to be! And yet, as a woman traveling alone, you feel obligated to take all the precautions you can.

I’ve gone walking alone, without a guide, a number of times in the mountains and rural expanse of countries like Indonesia, Nicaragua, Chile, Spain, and Italy—alternately fearful that I would come across a stranger and hopeful that I would meet one. Happily, my fears never came to pass.

I’ve hitchhiked along remote country roads in Central America as the only tourist among locals (sometimes it was the only way to get around without hiring your own private transport)—and though the rides could be rough, it’s also given me one of my keenest memories, lit by the most mundane sort of magic. Somewhere in the highlands of Guatemala, trundling along in the back of a pickup truck: I remember unfolding myself to lie down, my head resting on my backpack, after several passengers had got off and freed up space. What a surprising moment, I think now, in which to have felt such a sure sense of peace and faith, as I looked up at the stars and enjoyed a silent camaraderie with my fellow travelers, the night breeze buffeting us gently along.

Over and over on my travels, I’ve had to put my confidence in strangers and rely on their goodwill, just to get around. The young man in Pisagua, Chile, who walked me back to my guesthouse when a coterie of dogs advanced warningly towards me. The off-duty driver who sent me back to my hotel on his tuk-tuk in Antigua, Guatemala, when I got caught halfway in the rain at night. The guesthouse uncle in Bajawa, Indonesia, who woke up before it was light in the morning to send me to the base of a volcano I wanted to hike, because it was safer than calling a taxi. And countless others. Every good deed, no matter how small, carried me a step forward in my journey.

The seemingly forgotten village of Pisagua, along Chile’s Atacama desert coast. Photo is mine.

Without hesitation, I would characterize my accumulated experience traveling alone as having been largely positive and encouraging. However, I—like most, if not all, women—have been sexually harassed by strangers. Thankfully for me, no disconcerting encounter has ever crossed the line into violence.

While strolling around a highland village in Guatemala during my first solo travels: a teenage boy crept up behind me and cuffed his hand up my crotch (I was wearing pants), giggling as he ran away. He did it in full view of the public square, while adult men saw what happened and stood silently by, which I found to be more humiliating and provoking than what the boy had done. I wanted to grab the boy and shake him, but he was younger than me—a boy. I didn’t know what to do, and just left the square.

There was that time in Tbilisi, Georgia, on the steps of Vake Park. A rotund, florid-faced man gesticulated mutely to me, pointing at his phone. He looked to be in his fifties and stressed about something, and I thought he needed help. At first, I couldn’t see what was on the video because of the glare of the sun. Then he pushed it closer to my face, and I finally made out a video of a woman performing a blow job. I reeled back in shock. My anger spiked, and I resisted the urge to shove him down the steps. I made myself turn away to walk, as calmly and deliberately as I could, up ahead to where a woman was playing with her daughter and a boy in a hoodie was reading. I never did approach them, but at that moment, they looked like strangers whose mere presence could be comforting.

In Tbilisi’s Vake Park, Georgia. Photo is mine.

And that time hiking Gunung Inerie in Flores, Indonesia, when my guide molested my behind under the guise of making sure I didn’t slip down the admittedly very steep slopes of cascading soil—which, unbelievably now, I tried to believe at first. I told him, as forcefully as I could without lashing out, to stop and walk in front of me. He didn’t take me seriously the first time, and on the second, responded by bounding way ahead as if to say, Fine, let’s see how you get on by yourself now. I thought of leaving there and then, but we were already some way up the mountain, and my gut at least told me he wasn’t dangerous, just fishing for what he could get. I continued to trudge up behind him, and he looked back from time to time to check that I was okay. We both made a little effort to return things to a more even footing through small talk, but largely remained silent.

At the top of Inerie, I took a photograph of him in case I ever needed to identify him, and we made it back down safely without further nuisance. But later, I had to endure the supreme awkwardness of meeting his family—including his many daughters. I had met his wife earlier that morning while we sat down to breakfast together before the hike, which was partly why I felt I could trust him, along with the fact that he had been recommended by another (albeit pushy) guide. Surrounded by these women, it felt impossible to say anything. I was just a traveler; I was going to leave and probably never come back. He’s their father and husband and they lived here. Did I want to disturb the local dynamics of a place I was, in all likelihood, never going to return to?

Smiling through gritted teeth on Inerie—Flores, Indonesia. Photo is mine.

These encounters soured my moods and left me, in the immediate aftermath, more skeptical of strangers—most of whom didn’t deserve it, but that’s the line you tread between protecting yourself and being open to the world. I try to remember that though it’s the stories of women violated and murdered on the road that burn brightest in our minds, most women who set off on journeys by themselves do return home safely (perhaps not without some scrapes and difficulties), with some of the best memories of their lives and a new appreciation of the expansiveness of the world and the kindness of strangers—and friends and family telling them how brave they are.

And yet, and yet… If something had gone wrong, if they had been injured or attacked, others might have been inclined to blame them for not being cautious enough. Surely they should have known better? What were their motivations for traveling, and traveling alone, in the first place—and were those motivations justifiable? Surely a woman can’t just want adventure (funnier thrust here), which men are naturally presumed to want as a rite of passage? As Vanessa Veselka wrote in her essay “Green Screen: The Lack of Female Road Narratives and Why it Matters”:

True quest is about agency, and the capacity to be driven past one’s limits in pursuit of something greater. It’s about desire that extends beyond what we may know about who we are. It’s a test of mettle, a destiny. A man with a quest, internal or external, makes the choice at every stage about whether to endure the consequences or turn back, and that choice is imbued with heroism. Women, however, are restricted to a single tragic or fatal choice. We trace all of their failures, as well as the dangers that befall them, back to this foundational moment of sin or tragedy, instead of linking these encounters and moments in a narrative of exploration that allows for an outcome which can unite these individual choices in any heroic way.


There are many blogs and articles on the internet offering up tips on how women can travel safer alone. Learn Krav Maga, always keep someone informed of your whereabouts, dress down and blend in. But we’ve heard enough stories to know that just one little thing has to go wrong, and your life can take a different turn, very quickly, even when you do everything right. This warning voice is always present in your head, but it’s easy to brush it aside when things have mostly gone well for you. It’s easy to think, That won’t happen to me. What are the odds?

As Amanda Lindhout recounts in A House in the Sky, her harrowing and stone-cold sobering memoir about being routinely tortured and gang-raped while being held hostage for ransom as a rookie foreign correspondent in Somalia:

I’d like to say that I hesitated before heading into Somalia, but I didn’t. If anything, my experiences had taught me that while terror and strife hogged the international headlines, there was always—really, truly always—something more hopeful and humane running alongside it. What you imagined about a place was always somewhat different from what you discovered once you got there: In every country, in every city, on every block, you’d find parents who loved their kids, neighbors who looked after one another, children ready to play. Surely, I thought, I’d find stories worth telling. Surely there was merit in trying to tell them. I knew that bad stuff happened. I wasn’t totally naive. I’d seen plenty of guns and misery by then. But for the most part, I’d always been off to one side, enjoying the good, the harm skipping past me as if I weren’t there at all.

That’s exactly what emboldens you for the next trip, and the next, and the next. An ex-boyfriend once said to me, as he worried about an impending trip I was making, “You trust too much in your own good luck.” But on the other hand, it feels impossible to move through the world constantly anticipating the worst-case scenario. Just as we approach other aspects of our lives, so we approach travel: we inform ourselves the best we can and take whatever calculated risks we feel we can. Right? Right? What is the alternative?

Despite the hand-wringing over all the what-ifs that can accompany the planning of more difficult journeys in more remote places, it’s hard to express adequately how much being able to navigate the world independently means to me. It feels like the very essence of freedom: just knowing that you have the capacity to land on your own two feet in a strange land. It feels especially true for me, as someone who has always had a terrible sense of direction and who can’t get around without a map. I blame it on my constant reading in the car when I was a child, disinterested in the world passing by outside. I think it was only in my late teens or early twenties that I grew to want to see the world for itself, to level it with its depictions in the books I read.

I remember that as a young girl, I was described more as “book-smart” by my mother in contrast to my “street-smart” best friend, and it had felt like something of a vindication when I returned home safely from my first solo trip. I had shown myself that I could go somewhere completely unfamiliar, without a single contact in the country, and be resourceful enough to find my own way—not without some stumbling blocks and false starts, but find my way regardless. For that reason, traveling on my own remains my greatest source of security and confidence.


In attempting to toe the line between freedom and safety, there have been funny moments. I think men know what the lone woman who crosses their path off the beaten track is likely thinking. And in turn, they’re probably thinking about how they can defuse the tension—to say, without quite saying it, Hey, you don’t have to worry about me. I’m a good guy!

I remember a particular exchange in Flores, Indonesia:

I wanted to visit Lake Wawomudha, and found a man with a motorcycle to take me there. Once we arrived, I told him I would meet him again in a couple of hours, and rushed off on my own into the woods. But soon, I found that the surrounding forest was sufficiently devoid of people that when I came upon a smoking cabin with no one in sight, I wondered if I should have invited the rider along as a walking companion. When I returned to meet him at the trailhead later, he was laying in the grass waiting, and I overheard him talking to a coffee farmer in the area. The farmer asked: “Why didn’t you go with her for a walk?” And the driver replied with a shrugging laugh, “I don’t know, she ran off very fast before I could say anything.” I had to hide a smile, and felt a momentary twinge of guilt.

Near Wawomudha Lake and its surrounding forest—Flores, Indonesia. Photo is mine.

Another exchange in Flores, shortly after the Inerie episode with the handsy guide, when I had my guard up more than usual:

I took a shared cab with a few local passengers from Bajawa to Ende. I had given the young driver only the street name of my destination, and he asked me, mid-journey, for the house number of my intended lodging. I hesitated to tell him exactly right then because we would be arriving in the evening and I didn’t want to share more information than I had to any earlier than I had to. After a pause, he gave me a sideways glance and smirked knowingly, “Oh, I see. You don’t want to tell me. You’re afraid I’ll kidnap you or do something bad?” Later, I would find this funny, like we were breaking a fourth wall. But at the time, it was discomfiting.

In the end, there was nothing to worry about. For the most part, people are decent, and you can count on their interest in self-preservation too. The driver was dropping off an Indonesian woman before me, but no one was answering the bell at her relative’s home. Still groggy from sleep, she told him that she would just get off—he didn’t have to wait. But this seemed to agitate him. “No, no,” he said. “I’ll wait until you’re in the house. If anything happens to you, it’s me people will come after. I don’t want no trouble.”


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Readings: The intimate and the political

Reading in Berlin. Photo is mine.

As part of my #2020readingchallenge, I read a bunch of books that touch on how women navigate identity, love, sex, sexism, assault, and other thorny aspects of womanhood. Perhaps spurred by #metoo and perhaps because I had started seeing someone again, I was interested in probing the shadowed corners of intimate relations and their political dimensions. (But also, many of these books were simply popular in Berlin’s bookshops last year.)

I’ll continue to add to this list as I go along, so check back from time to time. Feel free to chime in with your thoughts or reading suggestions in the comments.

Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino

Womanhood has been denied depth and meaning for so long that every inch of it is now almost impossibly freighted. Where female difficulty once seemed perverse, the refusal of difficulty now seems perverse. The entire interpretive framework is becoming untenable. We can analyze difficult women from the traditional point of view and find them controversial, and we can analyze bland women from the feminist point of view and find them controversial, too. […] Feminists have worked so hard, with such good intentions to justify female difficulty that the concept has ballooned to something all-encompassing: a blanket defence, an automatic celebration, a tarp of self-delusion that can cover up any sin. […]

I have wondered if we’re entering a period in which the line between valuing a woman in the face of mistreatment and valuing her because of that mistreatment is blurring; if the legitimate need to defend women from unfair criticism has morphed into an illegitimate need to defend women from criticism categorically; if it’s become possible to praise a woman specifically because she is criticized—for that featureless fact alone.

Not all the essays are compelling, but it’s worth your time overall. It deals with how much the internet makes us who we are, modern feminism’s limitations due to a lack of imagination, and the optimization of beauty for success in a rampantly capitalist society, among other things.

Lauren Oyler has a biting review of Tolentino and her book, also equally worth reading. I think it would be hard for most of us not to feel implicated too.

The Temporary by Rachel Cusk

Watching him, she caught an expression on his face for which she was unable to find an explanation. It was as if he had forgotten she was there, and looking at him she had a sense of glancing through a window at something she shouldn’t see, something private. Seconds later he caught her eye and the expression disappeared hastily, as though he were embarrassed. She had sat many times at tables such as this, the face opposite her but a mirror in which her successes, her charms, every flicker of her loveliness were clearly reflected. Ralph’s face was unkind to her image, and Francine was unnerved by her suspicion that behind his barred eyes whole worlds turned, lives of thought were born and flourished, and that at the centre of its operations was a presence before whom she was powerless. She shrank slightly from this unpleasant notion of his complexity, and then returned with redoubled boldness, determined to conquer it.

A skewering novel about the vanities we bring to modern dating.

Know My Name by Chanel Miller

All I can see is the legs. Oh, it looks good. Trump and Billy Bush were evaluating a woman, not in passing or from memory, but on the bus that was slowly pulling up to her. She was present, visible but excluded. I imagine her standing outside, smiling and waiting patiently. She is the deer while we are made aware of the mountain lions lurking in the bushes, and I am whispering at her to perk up her ears. Run. When the two men descended the bus steps, their crude talk switched off as they turned into their public selves. How about a little hug for the Donald. As I watched her greet them warmly, walking in between them with linked arms, I was filled with dread, reminded of all the ways we are unaware.

Really affecting.

Three Women by Lisa Taddeo

Sloane could see that Jenny was serious. That she wanted to hear every detail. But Sloane knew she couldn’t tell a woman the ways in which Sloane had been her man’s fantasy. She was also aware enough to know that she was lucky—that she was her own husband’s fantasy while other women were often not what their husbands thought of to get themselves off in the shower. […]

She cannot tell Jenny that Richard can be an asshole, but the kind of asshole he can be is never the unforgivable kind. It is never the kind who lies about where he has been. She cannot tell Jenny that when he is fantasising, it is not about a friend of hers or even a porn star, it is always, always about Sloane. Perhaps it is about Sloane with the porn star, but she is always in there. She cannot tell Jenny that she never has to worry about her husband in precisely the way that Jenny was shown she had to worry about hers.

Compulsive stuff: a deep dive into how desire manifests for three women, whose stories Taddeo follows over the course of eight years. If you’re looking for an analytical dissection and some thought-unraveling on female desire, this isn’t really it; the book is more anecdotal and built wholly around the individual narratives of the three women, and makes you feel like you’re sitting down with a close friend as she tells all, and can make you feel like something of a voyeur. The book doesn’t make female desire—or desire, period—anymore graspable as an idea, and that might be the point: its inexplicability being its very, sometimes destructive, allure.

Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney

While I let myself into the apartment I thought about Nick entering the room while everybody applauded. This now felt perfect to me, so perfect that I was glad he had missed the performance. Maybe having him witness how much others approved of me, without taking any of the risks necessary to earn Nick’s personal approval, made me feel capable of speaking to him again, as if I also was an important person with lots of admirers like he was, as if there was nothing inferior about me. But the acclaim also felt like part of the performance itself, the best part, and the most pure expression of what I was trying to do, which was to make myself into this kind of person: someone worthy of praise, worthy of love.

In Rooney’s first novel, her characters seem so self-aware as to confuse what they project and what they are. She writes about human contradiction and miscommunication so well—the fear of vulnerability on the one hand and the urge to destroy before being destroyed, and the desire to give in completely to another person on the other. We know what we’ve been told to believe about what constitutes “healthy” and “unhealthy” relationships, what you can stand and cannot stand for, but all that, in Rooney’s books, seems beside the point. Human relations are messy. And maybe retaining one’s sense of self is not always the most important thing. There is no ideal way to be with a person, and the sorrows lovers mean or don’t mean to inflict on one another, and one’s utter surrender, can also be redeeming. It’s a difficult thing to swallow, and not a little depressing. But you can see the truth of it.

Normal People by Sally Rooney

She used to wonder if he really loved her. In bed he would say lovingly: You’re going to do exactly what I say now, aren’t you? He knew how to give her what she wanted, to leave her open, weak, powerless, sometimes crying. He understood that it wasn’t necessary to hurt her: he could let her submit willingly, without violence. This all seemed to happen on the deepest level of her personality. But on what level fit it happen to him? Was it just a game, or a favour he was doing her? Did he feel it, the way she did? Every day, in the ordinary activity of their lives, he showed patience and consideration for her feelings. He took care of her when she was sick, he read drafts of her college essays, he sat and listened while she talked about her ideas, disagreeing with herself out loud and changing her mind. But did he love her?

There are things you can pick at—perhaps one instance too many of human miscommunication that felt just a little contrived? A touch too many instances of inadequately explained self-destruction?—but it’s as compelling as everyone says it is. Could not put it down for even a second, read the whole thing in a few hours. Watched the mini TV series adaptation too, which is marked by some subtle but fairly important shifts in the dynamic between Marianne or Connell, more as it relates to Marianne’s character. It’s all about human relationships, and what it means to be truly close to somebody. (I confess to being the sort of person for whom true intimacy means being able to leave nothing unsaid—a treatment that’s terribly, terribly selectively deployed precisely because of how it flays you; sometimes you ask for answers to questions you don’t necessarily want to hear.) But more than a love story, this novel feels to me like an indictment of group friendships: how, even as they provide comfort, they also sometimes misshape the purity of our individual desires, even our innermost ones.

Future Sex: A New Kind of Free Love by Emily Witt

If a woman thought she would most likely sabotage her future happiness through her sexual choices, it followed that it would be difficult to plainly state one’s desires, or even to describe in explicit language the sex she wanted to have. Every sexual repression raised the question of false consciousness: women were described as “objectifying themselves,” “degrading themselves,” or “submitting unthinkingly to contemporary pressures.” They were accused of succumbing to the “pornification of society” and altering their bodies to please men. Rather than following the natural impulse of an adventurous young person a woman was “adopting the sexual behaviour of the most opportunistic guy on campus” or “masquerading her desperation as freedom.” Once married, a woman who became a swinger was accommodating the desires of her philandering partner rather than acting no her own free will. A woman could not even give a blow job without a voice in the back of her head suggesting she had been “used.”

Published a number of years back, I’m coming late to this, having stumbled upon it in one of my accommodations in Berlin. The questions it asks are still relevant, though the attempted answers, the experiments, seem already to have been left trailing behind in our culture.


Bookmarked shorts


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Isn’t she lovely? Photo is mine.

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