There has always been pain on the tip of my tongue. How to name it? The dull ache that lures me to sleep days away, the heavy anchor on my chest that prevents me from doing laundry, brushing my teeth, showering. The sharp spikes of worry, red-hot and dangerous, sending me into overdrive because of simple inconveniences.
Before The Bell Jar, I could not articulate the things I felt. A churning, dark mass of confusion curdled in my stomach, and I had no language for everything I felt. As a teenage girl, I’m often dismissed. Emotional. But how could the infinitely complex reservoir of things I feel be boiled down to that one, simple word?
It can’t. Esther Greenwood, protagonist of The Bell Jar, proves this. Slyvia Plath’s specific, cutting language slices right into the reader, examining the complex and nuanced mind of a young woman struggling with mental illness. Reading about her feelings of failure to live up to her own potential, her disillusionment, her utter disappointment in the world and herself– it was like placing the final piece in a jigsaw puzzle I never knew I was solving. Feeling understood and seen in literature is a uniquely reassuring experience– yet it seems impossible that a woman living in 1963 could be exactly like myself.
Plath originally published The Bell Jar under the pseudonym ‘Victoria Lucas,’ which I find humor in– a book that feels made for me was originally under my name. But The Bell Jar isn’t just mine. For decades, women have been relating to Esther, connecting to both her struggles and her wit, talent, sharpness.
The life-changing prose in this novel helped me discover that I was not as alone as I had believed myself to be, that my feelings were real, had weight and validity, and that there is hope for girls like me.
Stories are reflective. They exist as mirrors of the author, and further, mirrors of the world around them and the people who see themselves in them. This is how stories transcend time, repeating themselves endlessly in different words, mediums, and cultures. I found that No Longer Human, a Japanese novel written by Osamu Dazai in 1948, was an intimately familiar story of alienation and the trauma that follows childhood mental illness.
I have heard it said that trauma repeats itself, and Oba Yozo, the main character, is certainly emblematic of this repetition. I see my own replications in his attempts to reconcile his feelings of inhumanity by donning the mask of a “clown” through childhood, along with attempts to find comfort in women he can not love.
There is no lesson to be learned from No Longer Human, but there is a connection. The book speaks about childhood mental illness with an accuracy I have not seen before or since. I found that I most acutely related to the claims of inhumanity that Yozo makes of himself through childhood and adulthood. I saw myself in how Yozo speaks of constructing a false self out of other people’s words, other people’s pieces, without knowing if anything truly exists underneath, if cold emptiness is the only real part of himself.
No Longer Human successfully portrays mental illness without seeming melodramatic, a problem I found while searching through modern depictions of depression and anxiety. The tragedy does not exist in the irony or the drama of the book, but in the constancy of it. Yozo’s mental illness and alienation permeate every part of him, every personal bond and attempt at employment. Trauma repeats itself with every action he takes, with every person and habit he goes back to—a likeness I see in myself.
In truth, I felt numb when I finished the book. It was as if someone held a mirror to the parts of myself that I, at the time, tried my hardest not to look at—the feeling of emptiness that I can never quite shake, the layers of masks I hide that space in, the feelings of alienation born from my queerness or my Asian-ness or the parts of my mind I can never completely ignore. Now, I can not help but see those parts of myself in my day-to-day life, and I can not help but attempt to remedy them, trying to reach out in an attempt to become more human.
At the end of the book, Yozo speaks of how the universal truth is that everything passes. I am finding that this statement holds true to my own life. Everything passes, the good and the bad, the cycle of trauma, the times in my life that I feel the least human. If anything, I will be able to hold onto that.
Paul Kalanithi was a neurosurgeon who died at age 36 from stage IV lung cancer. His memoir, When Breath Becomes Air, chronicles his life and his dying.
I read it twice. Both times I turned the pages late into the night with a sense of accelerating desperation, learning about Kalanithi’s derailing diagnosis and his fervent attempts to continue searching for the meaning of life even after his world was shattered.
My first read left me recalling the story as tragic yet simple, containing well-packaged advice to live in the moment and embrace life despite its challenges. But when I read it a second time, nearly two years later, my first interpretation was shattered. In reality, the book is messy. Kalanithi wrestles with impossible questions and makes impossible decisions. There is no easy answer, no sense of justice—a lack of all the things I had naively thought I was owed.
And amid the unpredictability, Kalanithi’s strength is the one constant.
I found inspiration in Kalanithi’s willingness to stare at death rising on the horizon, a morbid sun casting shadows on the future he imagined for himself, and continue forward. Not floating on the breeze, but weathering the storm. Even during his physical decline, he created his own joy; he went all in on those he loved. He and his wife, Lucy, chose to have a child, a child with whom they both knew Kalanithi would have limited time. He’s poignantly honest about his choice, lays it out bare: “Lucy and I both felt that life wasn't about avoiding suffering.”
I’ve always been hesitant to take risks, to commit myself to ventures or relationships with the fear that they might end badly. I’ve preferred to live in the reliable middleground of life, with little chance of extreme joy or pain. But in When Breath Becomes Air, Kalanithi chronicles a life I strive to live—one in which he was not afraid to pursue things, to offer up answers to unanswerable questions, to seek out joy even if its impending absence threatened to rip out his heartstrings, one by one. Within the muddying fog of looming tragedy, when nothing was guaranteed, he chose to continue pursuing a meaningful life.
I’ve noticed that the vulnerable wisdom of When Breath Becomes Air has surfaced in my advice to my friends about their relationships, in my advice to myself to keep moving forward when stagnation is easier. I’ve found that it takes a person of great strength to decide to reach for purpose amid the constant upendings of life. Paul Kalanithi was such a person. And reading When Breath Becomes Air has made me want to be even half, even a fraction, of the person he was.
Never safe, never certain. The place where death is right around the corner and failure seems inevitable. Perform well enough, you continue your training. Though if you fall short, you’ll be banished; forgotten from the world. Welcome to Divergent by Veronica Roth. As I began my journey through this exceptional novel, I found myself relating to the protagonist Beatrice Prior. This young girl from the faction of selflessness and compassion never quite felt like a part of Abnegation. As she tries her best to fit in with all she has ever known, she detects a sense of longing. Longing for something new, something exciting, something extraordinary. It is as if her society is a jigsaw puzzle, and she is the fifth corner. You can try making it work, but in the end, Beatrice Prior is meant for a different game. And that game is Dauntless.
Anticipation, exhilaration, everything Beatrice has wanted since the beginning. So she took it. She listened to that little voice. She leaped. So why can’t I. What is stopping me from chasing my dreams? The question of failure? The unsureness of my every decision? “Be more like Beatrice.” Those four words have been scratching at the insides of my brain since the moment I read this book. Reaching my full potential would make my life worth living; but is it still worth it if I lose everyone I love in the process? Beatrice taught me to not care about that. She taught me to think of myself before I think of others. If they love you, they won’t leave you. So leap.
Sometimes you have to take a risk in order to know how or what it takes to achieve that goal. That passion. If you don’t take any risk, you’ll never know what you’ve missed. Divergent helped me realize that being different isn’t substandard. Being different isn’t unacceptable. Being different is what makes you great. What makes you unique. Being independent is what makes you Divergent.
Although my eyes could always reflect the emotions I felt for others, my heart did not truly find its inspiration for genuine empathy until I came across André Aciman’s novel: Call Me By Your Name.
Aciman writes about The San Clemente Syndrome, which tells a story about a basilica in Rome. This building was rebuilt over the site of at least four different historical structures; all of which served a variety of religious purposes. Currently, the San Clemente basilica has layers and layers
of various stories beneath it.
This is a metaphoric reflection of humans. All of our past personalities and thoughts are rebuilt over each other to create the current version of ourselves. No matter how distant some memories or experiences feel to us, they will always be an immense contributor to who we are today. The
basilica with its layers of stories is within us.
My heart fluttered as if it was taking notes on the emotions felt by the main character when he realized the importance of the fragmented stories that make up everyone’s current chapter. He taught me to see that in each frown, there are past chapters overflowing with laughter. In each
smile, there are heartwrenching losses anchored in their hearts.
Before I knew it, this lesson’s impact on me was felt by others. I became the first person my friends would call for supportive, empathetic, and reliable help. Driving 20 minutes to give my friend a much-needed hug will always surpass the importance of studying for a Calculus test. People are not one-dimensional figures as we are constantly reshaping ourselves. Each molecule of effect from our lives works towards rebuilding a new version of ourselves. I vowed to myself that I will always be the effect that rebuilds people into stronger versions of themselves.
Seeing life through this lens brings a renewed sense of magic upon me: instead of seeing figures, I see stories.
I've always been a dramatic child. I read action-packed graphic novels with glee, relished in over-the-top Victorian drama thrillers. I sought out the most complicated societal commentaries and the most intense dystopian novels. I read to escape a world I found boring. I read to find some greater purpose in my life, or at least any purpose a 12-year-old girl could comprehend. I wanted to start a revolution like Katniss, to be the one to save the world like Harry.
But, as life goes on, it gets harder to escape the world. I found myself overwhelmed, so that reading was first on the chopping block. Flash-forward to senior year, and life had grown exceptionally complicated; I was admitted into a psychiatric treatment program and getting through the day-to-day was harder than ever before. When I returned to school, we had begun our unit on poetry. I scoffed, cynical and reluctant to read poems about deer and grass and sylvan loves. But I remember the piece that first cracked open the rusted iron lock on my mind: "The Passionate Shepherd to his Love," a poem by Christopher Marlowe.
The beauty of this poem falls in its simplicity. The shepherd pleads to his love, leave behind the complications of humanity, and "live with me," love with me within nature. When I read this poem, I felt as if I was staring into the eyes of the poet and the wonder and joy and contentment he felt was reflected back into me. My life did not have to be exceptional; the world does not have to be ending to be exciting. The small things—the deer, the grass, the sylvan loves—can fill a world with more beauty than I considered. It was as if the sunlight around me had been clouded, but this ode to the pasture revealed the warmth I had never known to search for. Poetry has quickly become a secure facet in my life. Writing it has become a coping mechanism for me and reading it has become a passion that has reignited my love for life.
In Latin, the word “amat” translates to “he or she loves.” In the novel Beartown by Fredrik Backman, the character Amat is a fifteen-year-old boy who loves hockey. Backman introduces Amat alone, in an ice rink, before dawn – again, again, again, he speeds across the rink and shoots the puck.
I have never held a hockey stick. Nevertheless, I gravitated towards Amat’s personality and work ethic – Amat loves hockey because it empowers him to become the best. Wanting to wholeheartedly commit to one pursuit like Amat, I set out to find my “hockey” in high school.
Freshman year, I found my love for biology. To master complex cellular processes, I wielded highlighters and notecards – studying, I heard the sound of skates on ice: again, again, again. Sophomore year, I dedicated myself to American history, seeking out essays and speeches to read – again, again, again. Junior year, I consumed an eclectic feast of philosophy, politics, and economics for debate. After each tournament, I considered what I could improve for the next competition – again, again, again.
Coach Sune rewards Amat’s determination by promoting him to be the youngest member of the hockey A-Team. However, when Amat witnesses fellow player Kevin sexually assault a girl, Amat’s moral compass clashes violently with his love of hockey. Faced with backlash from his town, Amat risks his world by coming forward with his knowledge. Inspired by Amat’s courage, I began doubting his devotion to hockey. How could a sport matter when compared to a person’s life?
Amat and his town prove me wrong. Turns out, hockey matters because it gives people stories: hockey drives Amat to do his best, both on the rink and in his life; eventually, the town and the girl recover, and he achieves professional status. The novel challenged me to rethink my own pursuits. I loved biology, history, and debate because they embodied people’s stories: what people think and do and love. The act of reading stories, again and again to better understand my world, is my “hockey.” Amat fabulam: she loves stories.
There were probably warning signs. Maybe my shaggy haircut that made me resemble a young Jodie Foster. Or my rigorous preparation to audition for the role of Bert in Mary Poppins, before realizing that no other girls in my musical theater class were remotely interested. But I didn’t know I was gay until middle school.
I live in a rural town and grew up in the Unitarian Universalist church: a small, eccentric congregation. It was an environment that prioritized social justice. I knew cross-dressers, lesbian couples, and even a Pagan witch—all of whom I considered family friends. So, when I began to question my sexuality, I was confused. How could I be so accepting of others and not myself? Later, I discovered the concept of socialization: even though my church was a little pocket of progressivism, I still went to a school where the kids called each other fags. I began to resent my identity and did not tell anyone for years.
My grandmother was the first person I came out to. A few months later, she handed me a tattered copy of Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde: a “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.” Upon reading, I realized that I live in a country that condemns self-exploration and encourages abiding by societal norms. And that, in turn, self-love could be considered a form of rebellion. I was inspired by Lorde’s fierce devotion to inhabiting every dimension of herself and celebrating it. She was a catalyst, opening my world to other writers, such as bell hooks and Adrienne Rich.
I began to write poetry, formed a women’s writing group at school, became an intern for one of the only female politicians in town, and joined a civic engagement program for girls. I taught myself empowerment through activism, ready to yell Xena Warrior Princess cries off of buildings.
What did Sister Outside teach me? That there was nothing wrong with me. And that was what I needed to hear.