18 Jun Finding myself in the pages of books
I’ve been a reader since I was a kid. As I read, I would find cultural references that were either not of my generation or not part of the community I grew up in, but I’ve noticed something, and maybe it started when I was listening to the radio while driving in Vancouver about 10 years ago and the retro hour played Shaggy’s “Thong Song” and I realized that I was getting old, or maybe just older. But as both a writer and a reader, I was always on the look out for the things of my childhood, of my adolescence: The bands I loved, the TV shows I watched. As a white girl, I saw myself a lot in books, but there was something about seeing myself in pop culture references that I longed for.
As a writer, when I started writing about myself, and started including mentions of the Backstreet Boys or LiveJournal and I worried, would anyone understand what these things are? Would readers roll their eyes and go, “she hasn’t lived long enough to have a story to tell?” I guess I was worried that I would discredit myself by showing too much of who I am.
I have a love/hate relationship with the Facebook Memories. I hate when they dig up pictures I thought I deleted that I took when I was a different girl in love with a boy. But recently it brought up a video “Little Girls Don’t Stay Little Forever” which is a poem by Erin May Kelly. While being an important reminder of the strength and resilience of girls, it also includes the line: “We live in a world that has been taught to hate everything to do with teenage girls.” If it’s not bad enough that girls learn to analyze and police every bit of who they are, they’re constantly reminded how silly, how stupid, on materialistic, how meaningless they are. For me these reminders came in small comments about the boy bands I loved, the TV shows I couldn’t miss, and the wall paper of Leonardo DiCaprio’s face I created with cut out pictures from magazines. The things I loved became a source of shame, and some how I carried that shame into my writing, especially when people have said things such as “how could someone so young know anything about life.”
So imagine my delight when books, memoirs and essays in fact, have started appearing that include nods to the things of my youth, the silly, stupid, meaningless stuff that made my teen years manageable. This post is a celebration of the books that I’ve read recently that I have loved for many reasons, but especially the way they included references to pop culture and to the mood/atmosphere of my youth.
I loved this book for countless reasons. The writing is like a punch in the gut and a slow dance at the same time. The structure of it from beginning to end holds your hand and guides you through and then surprises you at the end (don’t worry that’s all I’ll say about the end). But I loved that including details like that her favourite magazine when she was a kid was Tigerbeat, and with just the mention of that I could immediately see JTT on the cover and thus the connection that I love in great writing and good stories was there.
As a writer, I’m obsessed with Elissa Washuta’s writing. She has a style, a voice, an approach to structure and prose that inspires me to write words, and reminds me why I love to write and to read. In addition to the Twin Peaks and Stevie Nicks references, there is one essay in this breathtaking collection that is wrapped around the narrative of the Oregon Trail. I remember playing that computer game on those old Apple desktop computers. Those tall, grey boxes with a green and black screen. My parents went on to buy me Amazon Trail and Yukon Trail. The interesting thing about the way Oregon Trail worked for me in Elissa’s essay, it gave me an familiar entry point while she then used the game to write about colonialism and colonial narratives. I remembered the game but the way Elissa presented it, with her style and voice, made it new because I was pulling apart the game but also my understandings of colonialism.
I picked this book up as research, inspiration, and an ongoing exploration of what adolescence and being a teen girl meant/means. There were times as I was reading where I had to lay the book down and just absorb what I’d read, that I was finding bits and pieces of myself in this book. Unfortunately, I leant my copy of this book to a friend so I can’t dig up all the specific references to you, but what I remember, without the book on my desk in front of me, is that there is an atmosphere, a mood throughout the book that felt familiar. There was something about how Melissa Febos wrote about her changing teenaged body, about how her body interacted with the boys and men around her, the desire to care for others over herself, the relationship teen girls have with their sexuality, that was part of what I’d experienced too.
This book is an important read for all the Canadians who don’t think we’re racist, or that it’s not as bad as our neighbours to the South, it’s time to drop the act because the reality is damaging, violent and dangerous. I did my under graduate degree in the early 2000s at the University of Victoria. I grew up in Victoria and Victoria of my teens and early 20s (and likely still today) was white, very white. Maybe it’s the way the city seems to hold on to it’s colonial roots like a badge of honour, but Victoria does not represent the realities of the rest of the country, instead there’s high tea and until a few years ago there was a bar at the Empress called the Bengal Lounge. There is so much that was familiar to me because of my age, but obviously so much that I could never understand because I am white, and was a white woman on a predominantly white campus. What was familiar: night clubs and binge drinking, the relationship I had with my body because I didn’t know better (yet!) and how I thought I should be flattered if men gave me attention. My experience spoke to one of privilege and in reading They Said This Would Be Fun, I was reminded of the fact that a white body on campus in Canada has a very different experience than a BIPOC body. And our campuses are a microcosm for our country.
When this book arrived I took a sniff (yes sometimes I smell my books) I thought, is that Body Shop’s Satsuma. And then I read Erika Thorkelson’s essay “Me and Bridget Jones” and then I read “A Letter to My Unconceived Offspring” and while being a bit younger than some of the authors, as an elder millennial the references to Degrassi and Bridget Jones Diary got me right away, while also speaking to these larger feelings about having or in my case not having kids, and the way Erika writes about her mind being trained outwards. I haven’t read all the essays in the book but have been moving my way through seeing myself reflected back in some of the pop culture references and reflections.