Wednesday, August 2, 2023

Disability Reads: "Love, Love" by Victoria Chang

By Kara Jackman

I took Victoria Chang’s “Love, Love” on my trip to Annual Retreat in 2022. (Yup, that was last year, and I am just getting around to writing about it this year.) I also brought my Kindle library along with me, too. I don’t know what I was thinking. When would I have time to read? Well, I thought, this was written in verse form, so how long would it take, right? Second, I always like to have a bunch of books around me for comfort when I am away from home. They are like my adult stuffies!

The story is about an Asian-American family told through the perspective of 10-year old Frances Chen. Her sister, Clara, mysteriously begins losing her hair. Her parents focus most of their time on the protagonist's sister, trying to give her vegetables and teas, purchase wigs, and otherwise keep up appearances as Asian Americans living in the midwest United States. This leaves Nancy Drew-loving, and worried, Frances to solve the mystery of why Clara is losing her hair.

Frances has her challenges, too. At school she is bullied, her friend stops spending time with her. She feels very different and very much "the other" in her mostly white elementary school. While times are tough for Frances, she does have one saving grace: tennis. She loves to play, and is quite good. A friend’s coach recognizes her talent, and she begins practicing at the bubble. Soon she must tell her parents about her interest in the game, after being offered an opportunity to play in a local tournament.

While all this is happening, Frances takes lunch in the school library, and begins reading with her friend about hair. They learn all about it, the science of it, what it is made of, and how it grows. At home, she keeps tabs on her sister, Clara, and eventually ventures into her room to learn, discover, and solve the mystery of Clara’s hair loss.

If you don’t want me to spoil the ending of the book, please stop reading here. Frances discovers that Clara has trichotillomania, by reading her diary. Trichotillomania, or hair-pulling falls under the umbrella of obsessive compulsive mental disorders. I, and many like me, some of whom are in our community, struggle with the compulsion to pull our hair. I have had many one-on-one conversations about my lifelong struggle around this issue. I feel this book is a great way to begin some dialogue about it among people in our community.

Frances handles learning about Clara’s trichotillomania in such a beautiful way, without words, but signing letters to her across the table, proving and demonstrating a way Clara can constructively use her body for connection, and to be seen. Frances signs “I K-N-O-W/ Y-O-U/ P-U-L-L O-U-T/ Y-O-U-R/ H-A-I-R.” Clara responds by telling her not to tell her parents. The last page of the book sums everything up nicely. “I still don’t know why Clara/pulls her hair out/I still don’t know/if she will tell my parents/but somehow/I know/it’s not/my secret to/tell/somehow I know that/not even the snow can/bruise us anymore/because somehow/we know/we are each no longer/fully alone.”

In this book, there is so much suffering in silence, and extreme feelings of isolation despite living and being around people. We in the CCA community know how this feels when we are in our home communities, or at school among our so-called peers. Yet, when we are together at Retreat, let’s say, we experience what it feels like to be seen for who we truly are inside, and to know we will never be alone again. This is the message of this beautiful book by poet Victoria Chang. Perhaps, there is no coincidence in me packing this book for retreat last year after all.

Chang grew up in the midwest, too. Though she admits not being very good at tennis, she feels her experiences growing up were similar to Frances. As she writes in her dedication, “To all the bullied kids in the world: I see you. To all the kids who suffer: I see you.” Chang wrote a tremendously beautiful story in verse, about mental illness, family, and belonging. I am so grateful to have read it. I encourage you to do the same.

Many thanks to my colleague at Boston University, Megan Sullivan, for suggesting this book through a syllabus her sister created for a class at University of New Hampshire. You both are truly "my people!"

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