Never apologize for the sex

This post is actually a fangirl gush about a new author I’ve just discovered after reading a review on Dear Author: Gaijin by Remittance Girl. As I was putting my thoughts together, I considered starting with a warning that this author’s work is intensely erotic and may contain content, language, etc that is disturbing or offensive to readers. But 1) You never know what’s going to offend a reader 2) Heck, my work is likely offensive to some 3) Who am I to be the protector of sensitivities? and finally 4) A great word of advice I got from author Megan Kelly:

Never apologize for the sex

You’re inadvertently shaming the reader, implying that they shouldn’t like the sex, when maybe they were perfectly fine with it.

After reading Gaijin, a short story about a Caucasian hostess who gets kidnapped by a Yakuza boss…no, that’s not what the story is about. It’s about a woman thrown into a harrowing situation in a foreign land and what she does to survive…no, that’s not what the story is about. It’s about culture clash and the loss of power and control juxtaposed with the same loss of power and control also experienced through sex. No, that’s not what the story is about either. I am such a bumbling, talentless hack at this. Please read Janine Ballard’s review on Dear Author. She does a better job of it. Better yet, read Gaijin.

It’s a challenging read. A disturbing read. A thought-provoking read. A beautiful read.

I’ve re-read it and I can’t get it out of my mind. There is something unsafe about it. You want to talk about the story as soon as you’re done, but it’s the middle of the night and no one is awake…So I went browsing for more work by this author and settled on a whole collection of short stories: Coming Together Presents Remittance Girl. For 2.99 digital, you get 16 short stories.  It’s a steal.

I don’t believe all her stories are interracial encounters, but the very first one “Motorcycle Hug”, takes place in Saigon and centers around a Caucasian woman teaching English in Vietnam and her romantic encounter with a xe om driver. (The motorcycle taxis in Saigon where the rider sits behind the driver.) It’s a very different story from Gaijin, but it is about the meeting of two cultures.

I can’t speak to the cultural authenticity of Gaijin — if anything, I think the images Remittance Girl chose were meant to be iconic and larger than life and they served the themes well. I can speak a little more about the cultural elements in “Motorcycle Hug”, but I’m no authority to bestow the seal of authenticity upon an author. I can only speak to my own experience and the conversation this story had with me.

I recalled my time in Vietnam. Though ethnically Vietnamese and also a fluent speaker, I, like Ellen, felt very awkward in Vietnam because all I knew was the very formal speech I used with my family. Unlike Ellen, I look like a native yet didn’t really blend in, so I also had to grapple with how people saw me because of that. In Vietnam, a Việt Kiều is considered a foreigner and yet also a native, subjected to a unique code of varying acceptance and prejudice. This part is so hard to put into words — in Vietnam, native Vietnamese generally treat Caucasians with respect and deference. It’s NOT a sign that Vietnamese people are obsequious and submissive. It may be because Caucasians are usually tourists spending money, it may be a throwback to colonialism, it may be because we think white people are generally used to sort of more cordial treatment. It’s all those things.

An example is when I tried to exchange a hundred dollar bill at the front desk of a hotel. They wouldn’t take it from me because the money wasn’t crisp and wouldn’t get a high exchange rate on the street. Crisp money…that’s another little cultural note for you. I was pissed. (That’s the American in me.) I had one of my traveling companions who was a white guy exchange the money for me. They took it from him, though reluctantly, explaining they weren’t allowed to refuse a foreigner. Another example, when visiting the Cu Chi tunnels, I paid the same low fare as natives. The white guy was charged nearly ten times that much. This resulted in a tirade about discrimination from my mother ( a funny and ironic scene, if you think of it ).

In another incident, my mother disappeared for hours to a hair salon. We had no way to track her and I was getting frantic. I mean, we’re Viet but we’re foreigners. Visions of her getting mugged and kidnapped ran rampant in my head. I talked to the hotel desk since they had recommended the hair salon and one of the valets agreed to take me there on his motorcycle. I’d never ridden a motorcycle, a xe om, before, so I was a little worried. I knew (academically from reading travel guides) that there’s a certain way you’re supposed to lean with the turns and xe om drivers frequently made fun of foreigners for not doing it right.

I ended up putting my arms around the driver’s waist as we rode through the streets of Saigon. He said he’d drive slowly so I wouldn’t be scared.  He was a young man, not bad-looking.

Turns out, my mom was fine. She was in the salon being subjected to every treatment they offered and she’d be back to the hotel later. Ah, the art of the upsell. Vietnamese merchants are fierce about it.

The driver took me back to the hotel. Before we got there, he asked me what I was doing that night. But you see, he called me “em“. It literally means little sister, but in context it can mean “darling”. If he was being polite, he’d call me “chi“, which means elder sister, despite our ages. Or perhaps “” which could mean aunt or miss, but with a slightly younger connotation. Em, that simple address, left things totally open.

I felt kind of stupid for clinging onto him so tightly on the way there, so my hands were now just at his hips. I looked around and saw that no one else was even touching their drivers. Had I been sending the wrong signals? Apparently true Vietnamese women can stay on a xe om without hanging on for their dear lives.

“I’m having dinner with my family,” I said. End of conversation. I think I was blushing.

People are people. When men and women meet, they’re attracted to one another. Both the universal language and the cultural divide are forced to come into play. I don’t do a good job of explaining it. I think Remittance Girl did it better than me in “Motorcyle Hug” which captured that confused/flushed/uncomfortable/excited feeling I got in the pit of my stomach all because a guy on a motorcycle called me “em“.

The negotiation and nuances between English and Vietnamese language and culture were so exquisitely executed in “Motorcycle Hug.” It’s the sort of balance that I don’t see often and that I was longing for because it’s so much at the heart of my own experience. My first thought was, I have to recommend this story. It tells what I feel inside so much better than I can myself.  But what if readers don’t like the erotic elements? Then I slapped myself — the interplay between cultures can’t truly be discussed in full without romance, without sex, without eroticism, without the respectful and deferential way Tuan, the xe om driver, treats Ellen, while at the same time very much wanting to f*ck her. (Okay, that felt weird. It may be the first and only time I use that word on my blog)

So I won’t apologize about the sex. This part of the cultural dialogue can’t exist without the sex.

I better not ever hear any comments about “This story would have been good, except for the sex”. There will be swords drawn. You can’t cut that out and keep the soul of it. I felt the same thing about Gaijin — there is beauty and pain there and you can’t tone it down the ugly parts and keep the power and draw of the story. You can’t take out the imperfections and make it smooth and pretty without losing what it is at the heart.

I like flawed stories. I like challenging stories. I’ve only read two of hers, but I think I’m in love with Remittance Girl.

7 Comments

  1. Tari
    May 16, 2012 @ 10:48:56

    Jeanie, I just did this very thing. A friend asked me about my author recommendations for her new Kindle Fire, I gave her a list of my favorite authors, then as an afterthought I told her that I just thought she should be aware that the one author had written several erotica books…an author I love by the way…almost as a warning, or an apology. Later I wondered if I should have left it alone. Next time I will.

    I’ll be checking out Remittance Girl! Thank you.

  2. Jeannie Lin
    May 16, 2012 @ 10:51:06

    Oh please do! Let me know what you think after you give her a try. :)

  3. Dabney
    May 16, 2012 @ 11:12:43

    Just bought it.

    Thanks!

  4. Melanie Rose Meadors
    May 16, 2012 @ 11:13:23

    I don’t see how I could NOT read this story now. Thank you for the recommendation, and also for your story. i think we’ve all had some kind of weird thing like that happen to us. :)

    The sex thing gets me sometimes. I actually have just stopped apologizing for writing romance in the past year. I stopped making excuses about it. THe worst that has happened so far is that a friend of mine, upon discovering what I do, started an intelligent conversation with me about feminism and literature. I wonder what conversations I will be having when people see whatever sex scenes I write…

  5. Jeannie Lin
    May 16, 2012 @ 11:36:33

    @Dabney – I’ve only read the first story, but it was already worth the purchase price! (And considering Gaijin was also 2.99 — and also a good buy)

    @Melanie – Sometimes you hit an author whose writing just works for you. I feel so giddy when that happens.

    I think when they see the sex scenes, it will provide for an even richer conversation — if they’re open to it. Ppl so rarely comment on my loves scenes and, well, I think they’re not half bad. :)

  6. Remittance Girl
    May 16, 2012 @ 13:48:33

    Hello Jeannie,

    Or should I say ‘chao em’? Because I am a hell of a lot older than you, and yet we are fellow writers so, perhaps it should be ‘Co’ and that’s the thing, isn’t it? There is a wonderful dance of language in the measuring of proximity and informality? It’s a beautiful language. I have come to miss those many modes of address that simply don’t exist in English.

    My best friend is a Viet Kieu. He came here to find out about his family. (he was one of those orphans taken away and adopted at the end of the war). It was hard for him to negotiate it. He looked Vietnamese, of course, so people would immediately assumed he was fluent, but his Vietnamese was worse than mine. I had studied for a year and he… well, his parents were white people from Boston. To want to belong and yet know that there is no going home, because that home no longer exists. Time has changed it. It is irretrievable.

    It took me a long time to recognize intimacies. And to know what was simply normal. Going out to lunch with all these women holding my hands and touching my as they talked… it took some getting used to. And when I introduced the concept of tampax to my friend Lien, because she was going to a holiday on the sea side, and had her period. I gave her the box with the instructions in it – and she read English very well. After about 10 mintues in the ladies room, she came out and said: I can’t figure this out. You need to show me. Show her? Yes, she said… help me put one up there. She was very puzzled by my reaction. And finally, I had to say. no… Lien, I can’t do that. She asked why? What was the problem? We were all women. I had found a gap I could not bridge. I said… I try my best, Lien. But sometimes, I’m just a dumb foreigner. Please forgive me for that.

    It was lovely to read about your xe om experience. The whole confusion over how you hold on , how tight and where, well… of course it matters a lot. You can tell lovers by how they ride together. It’s a language of its own, the various postures people take on bikes.

    Thank you for your kind reading of my book. I look forward to yours! June 1st, Amazon tells me.

  7. Jeannie Lin
    May 17, 2012 @ 07:16:22

    @Remittance Girl – Wow! Hello!

    To make matters worse/funnier/more interesting: I may be fluent, but I also speak with a Northern Vietnamese accent due to having learned from my grandmother and grandfather who were from the North before emigrating to the South where my parents were born. It confuses a lot of people to hear mother and daughter speaking with different accents!

    My heart goes out to your friend. I totally understand the displacement and longing he must have felt.

    The language of intimacy across different cultures is something so ephemeral – your understanding of it – and more importantly, your depiction of it, is admirable. It’s really a joy to read. As well as…um…you know, the sex. :)

    I’m reading Waiting Room right now and it’s, as they say, gorgeously disturbing. Every story I’ve read of yours takes me somewhere different — and I don’t mean just geographically. I really appreciate that.

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