1. The queer female body of color is both hypervisible and invisible: no one sees her for who she is, and all overlay on her their own representations and projections. She is object, never subject.
How Do I Look? skewers this double bind. The speaker shows us the mirrors she’s been looking into all her life - our own gaze - and confronts us with the distorted reflections the world’s been sending back to her. References to films pervade the book, of course - what better than the screen and the ways it complicates any kind of gaze, to illustrate the conflicts animating the speaker, and the issues around visibility and representation? Because another question haunts the title: “How do I look?” is overlayed with “Do you see me?”
Do we see the speaker? What do we see in her? What does the speaker see when she sees herself? The breadth of Asian stereotypes on screen is referenced, from Mickey Rooney’s yellowface in Breakfast At Tiffany’s and Long Duk Dong’s stereotypes in Sixteen Candles to token Asian characters like Lane from Gilmore Girls and the invisibility of Asian bodies within whitewashed narratives, even the ones set in Asian countries. One thing subsists: our representations are intertwined with our realities. The speaker endures street harassment that’s both gendered and racialized. Not seeing herself on screen, or seeing only a distorted version, goes hand in hand with her body not belonging to her in the real world.
2. Must there always be someone to look at us in order for us to be validated? The title immediately locates the vignettes at the heart of a cluster of anxieties around appearance. Social media and technology heighten these stakes of looking and seeing: “During my MSN days, I felt prettier looking at a webcam than looking at a mirror. Looking at myself look at myself being looked at.”
Looking at oneself without the parasitic gazes of others is a move that’s denied to women and anyone else who defies the rigidity of certain gender structures, because it would give them the kind of power that would allow them to step outside of a system designed to tie them down in a spiderweb of representation and perception. The first vignette, “Medusa,” points to how commonplace this denial is:
Beauty, power, and confidence without gaze. Then, a man holds up a mirror and kills her. There is nothing mythical about that.
What is a woman who knows she is beautiful and doesn’t need people - men, specifically - to tell her she is? Can she be allowed to exist?
3. Contrast Medusa with Holly Golightly, who, in Breakfast At Tiffany’s, asks the question from the title of the book. Holly can ask “How do I look” because she’s a movie star, a white woman who can’t and shouldn’t be aware of her beauty and the effect this has on the men around her. Holly is allowed to ask “How do I look?”, meaning “Do I look good enough for you?” because Holly won’t threaten anyone, for her confidence is the demure kind, not the kind that exists solely for itself.
The same words resonate differently for the speaker:
I only let you put makeup on me because I had a crush on you. “How do I look?” I asked. You didn’t let me look at the mirror. You closed the window with the YouTube tutorial. You rubbed everything away. The thing about monolids is that you can work on them for ages, only to look up at your reflection and see zero progress. But it’s there. You couldn’t see it then, and neither could I. But I can see it now.
Her womanhood isn’t the same as Holly’s, because her womanhood doesn’t benefit from the security of whiteness. In “Lost in Translation (2003),” she asks squarely, “How come my alienation isn’t soft and beautiful?” If confidence is tied into the way we’re seen, what does it mean to be looked at and not seen?
4. This points to the fundamental and continuous oscillation within the book. The ‘I’ moves between voices and stories, with each vignette building up towards a whole but never giving us the whole picture. An asymptote of fragments. In “Never Have I Ever,” a riff on the drinking game exposes the uncertainty at the heart of queerness: in the strict confines of binary thinking, there is no escaping the either/or polarization. Here, however, we are left with the quiet defiance of the speaker, who drinks “extra” because her actions cannot be categorized within that “either/or” and exceed any attempt at pinpointing, at neat defining:
Everyone knew I’d slept with my high school girlfriend but everyone still called me a virgin. “You drink if you have, not if you haven’t.” “Either you are, or you aren’t.” “Either you did, or you didn’t.” I drink extra.
The oscillation pervades the very fabric of reality, as when the speaker finds herself playing GTA V at 4am: “I don’t think I’m good at this. I’m blowing all my money on clothes and tattoos and I keep stopping to gaze at the sunset—in the game, I mean—and I’m running around with nowhere to go and everyone on my back.” What does it mean to not be good at creating a fantasy? What is, or what do we construct as, reality? What can qualify as real? What offers continuity or rupture between the real and the not-real, whatever that may be?
The flower crown Snapchat filter whitewashes her face and she relishes the fact “for a maximum of ten seconds.” The fantasy is always ambivalent. There’s always a wound lurking beneath.
5. A lot of wounds, for sure. But these poems also harbor many gestures towards both resistance and healing. The speaker’s mother crafts a doll that is a true likelihood of the speaker as a child, not the whitewashed version the child had to make during Girl Guides, only to have her otherness thrown back in her face by another girl. The speaker finds solace, safety, and solidarity in the invisible presence of her friends: “It’s what women say to each other instead of “See you later.” When I get home safe and take off my clothes, I can smell a mix of all my friends’ perfumes on my neck from hugging them close all night.”
Most of all, the speaker is unapologetic. She knows how to say in Chinese the names of relatives, as well as food types, and “I’m going to chop your head in two halves.” Is she serious, is she in jest? She refuses to let us know. Her type? “Women who would make Drake cry.” According to a Buzzfeed quizz, she’s a jellyfish: “because they are soft, free-swimming, blooming, boneless, brainless, breathless, heartless, venomous.” She learns to reclaim everything for herself, far from the gaze of anyone who would try to diminish her. From Holly to her very own Medusa.