Staff Chat: Sara and Clara Talk Youth, Angst, and May's #BrazosBest

Sara Balabanlilar: Hi! Welcome to another staff chat. This time it is Sara and Clara and we are… Not going to talk about sports! Today we are going to talk about our Brazos Best for the month, which is a beautiful Taiwanese book from the late 80s called NOTES OF A CROCODILE. As a store we’re huge fans of this book, so I’m really looking forward to chatting about it with Clara.

Clara Kang: Hi.

Sara: I wanted to talk about our relationship to this author a little. I love her. *long pause.*

But in all seriousness: she was a cult favorite in Taiwan in the 80’s and 90’s. Her books were passed through underground youth communities for years as photocopies before they were ever published. I’m really grateful we have access to this, just published in English!

CK: How did you know about this writer?

SB: I found her other book in the Houston Public Library downtown.

CK: In Houston?

SB: Here in Houston. I had this almost sick obsession with the NYRB classics, so anything that had that spine, I would pick up and check out immediately. I found her other book, LAST WORDS FROM MONTMARTRE.

That was November… I still have that book sitting on my bedside table. I have debt collectors calling me about library fees. Anyway. So that’s my relationship to this author.

CK: *laughs*

For me, with this book, I just felt pushed into such a realm of nostalgia regarding how I grew up. Because I grew up in a conventional household, even in the schools i went to. Yeah, Houston’s pretty great in its quirks, but bottom line is, it’s Texas. So a lot of times I never knew the language, the vocabulary or even the expressions to experience queerness.

When I read this, it really hit home for me in the way they describe it being a coming of age story of a queer individual. A misfit. It was too relatable for me. I really wonder how things would have been had I known and been exposed to this kind of writing early. In middle school, my friends and me, we experienced this but didn’t have an engagement and vocabulary for it. And I can say that we’re queer now because we’ve established that years and years later… but at that time we had to express our sexuality through jokes, humor.

That’s why this book really was too close to me. It’s such tragedy to read this but at the same time I just felt like I just read something from a friend.

SB: I feel very similarly, because especially later in the book, she talks about her friendships and networks of other people going through the same things she’s going through. For example, her relationship with these two girls, which is honest and a little bit pure, really. For the most part, her interactions with them are totally platonic. These two girls are in a relationship. They met in high school and were best friends. With her male friends, with whom she spends a lot of time in the latter part of the book, there is a very detailed description of how their friendship vacillated constantly between being romantic and platonic.

It’s so interesting to think back. Would queer youth in the 90’s have benefited from being able to see this all over the world? On one hand, the more the better. On the other hand, her other book is literally a series of suicide letters after which she kills herself.

CK: Wow.

SB: I wonder, you know. It’s so interesting to think about this being passed around clandestinely as a sort of secret icon of queer life — and her nickname, in the book, “Lazi,” becoming the word for “lesbian” in Chinese in Taiwan.

…But at the same time, i use “queer” in the broadest of ways, and I think her book does too, to refer to not just being LGB but rather anything that is questioning normative existence on any level.

Obviously, because this book tackles not just the literal (her recognizing she is a woman who loves women), but also questioning gender — again on a literal level and then also through these weird retreats from humanity through these news articles about crocodiles. The crocodiles being of course not so specifically gendered or human. A queering — a dissolving— of personhood, you know?

CK: Also just crocodiles, for me, are such an interesting symbol and message. There’s that phrase, “crocodile tears,” even, so that’s kind of where I came from reading this too. I wasn’t sure what she was referring to so I had to interpret it as being a situation in which she had to remove herself and even her emotions perhaps.

When I was reading this, I noticed, this writer is super guarded. Even in her own notes. Which was surprising. When you’re doing journal entries, and even canonical writers who use the motif of journalling and letters, it’s this weird implication of, or desire to pour everything out. But even in this, I can feel that this person is holding back even within themselves.

SB: And that’s so fascinating, because that’s exactly what the crocodile is dealing with in this passages. It’s all about the crocodile vs. the media. The crocodile realizes that it’s an icon of the media and tries to retreat.

There’s this one passage where the crocodile goes into its neighborhood bakery and is ordering cream puffs, all while under the disguise of being a human (with its human skin on, presumably, a shield mentioned pretty regularly for the crocodile). And the person in line behind it leans over and mentions oh, haven’t you heard, crocs eat only sugar-free pastries, and the crocodile’s like, what, how do you know that? and the person says well that’s what they say, I don’t know, how would YOU know any differently? Kind of confronting the crocodile.

So there’s this amazing parallel between queerness and crocodile-ness in the sense of public interrogation. It’s so beautiful and the crocodile’s response is to stop going to that bakery, stop going to that town center. It waits outside the the bakery for a kid to come by and bribes the child to buy a cream puff for it, and even then it gets into the news.

It’s kind of a tear-inducing moment for me — and I do see this nostalgic sense of a secretive history of identity and desire, even if it’s a desire on the level of “what foods do you like?”

Makes me want to cry a little.

CK: I’m getting emotional.

SB: Actually I had a few drinks the other night while reading, and I have all these weird little notes. One is ‘at this point the whole nation was saying, why my dear crocodile, how are you?’ page 80! SOOOOOO RELATABLE. With about six O’s. In my drunken state obviously I felt really connected to this sort of metaphor.

One of the things that is really popular in queer, experimental creative thought right now, and has been, is the connection to Deleuze and his “body without organs” and rhizomes, which kind of moves anywhere in contemporary media from impression-based experimental writing on the internet to fragmentary zines, really channeling a sense of the self as being not one, or two, or half, but somewhere in between, or “multiplicities” (to quote ol’ GD himself there).

So I keep thinking of the beginning of his descriptions of a Body Without Organs in which he describes our complexes, where he gives examples — we have the schizophrenic, we have the anorexic, we have the sado-masochist, we have all of these ways of dealing with our bodies (yeah, I know, oversimplification, sorry), and I keep thinking of that. Even in the early parts of this book, where she says something to the effect of “I was a high achieving student, but I felt like pure carrion inside.”

She uses words like “purge,” “divided,” “body devoured…”

*throws book*

I think it’s SO RIGHT that this book is coming out right now!! And I really hope that it becomes another icon — and not just for the queer community, but for the greater community of thinkers, people who feel different.

This is really, at its basis, a renovation of the college memoir.

CK: It is absolutely more than just a niche category in itself. There is a wider conversation in this that anyone can investigate within themselves. Reading this is an introspective and retrospective experience.

SB: She says in Chapter Five that her new motto is “the power to construct oneself is destiny.” and so I think it’s beautiful and sad that the way she constructs herself is through a series of metaphors removing herself from the public eye. But also, this is something that we can take with us from the book in a way that perhaps is not happy, but has a strange sense of hopefulness.

In that sense, it totally reinvestigates what it means to be alive, so while she is not a happy, or traditionally productive person, she is truly digging down to re-understand, and rebuild, what it means to move through the world.

Ten out of ten. Would read again.

Notes of a Crocodile Cover Image
By Qiu Miaojin, Bonnie Huie (Translator)
$15.95
ISBN: 9781681370767
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: New York Review of Books - May 2nd, 2017

Last Words from Montmartre Cover Image
$14.95
ISBN: 9781590177259
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: New York Review of Books - June 3rd, 2014

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