Content warnings for depression, suicide, and death
There’s Norra Wexley, a woman so clearly broken by war. Trying her best to do right by her child. Trying her best to love him, to keep him safe, to help him grow. I watch her succeed in moments, and fail spectacularly in others. It isn’t her fault when she fails. Not fully her fault, anyway. The woman is dogged by war. Scars from the atrocities she witnessed. Nightmares from the torture, psychological and physical, she endured for too many years.
My heart aches as the critics throws stones at her for not being the perfect mother. She often is emotionally distant, she often acts out of terror and fear. Post traumatic stress disorder manifests itself in unpredictable ways, but the critics insist her failings are entirely a flaw of character, rather than the never-ending terrors of watching her friends and family die around her. Her failures are not virtuous by any means, but they are not bad. They don’t make her a bad person, a bad parent.
I watch over time as the woman gets help to confront the nightmares of the past. I see her slowly heal. Though the nightmares will always be there, I watch her finally find some semblance of peace and belonging in her world.
In my vision I see Akiva give way to Cambodia. I see Norra Wexley morph into my mother. I see my mother in the Khmer Rouge killing fields. She watches as Khmer Rouge soldiers drag her father into the street and put a bullet in his head. She screams as she is separated from her fleeing family. She endures as she is thrown into a forced labor camp. She summons the bravery one night to flee the camp and run barefoot into the jungle. She perseveres for endless days before stumbling over the Vietnam border before finally passing out. She wakes up in a refugee camp, carried there by some unseen saint she never got the chance to thank. The same refugee camp her family fled to almost a year earlier.
Over the years she heals physically, but mentally it’s another story. She raises two boys and and a girl and does her best but the echoes of war makes it difficult. She works hard, and her children have everything they need. But something she hasn’t always been able to provide was emotional support. How could she? She didn’t have enough emotional strength to support herself. Her efforts are never enough for some people. Her family judges her. Friends and strangers call her a bad mother.
Eventually she gets help to deal with the mental and emotional wounds that have festered for almost thirty years. She’s not a bad mother. She loves her children. If only those around her had asked her if she needed help instead of condemning her and casting her aside. Maybe then the healing would have started sooner.
I wish she had found this truth sooner.
Snap doesn’t understand why he can’t have the relationship with his mother that everyone else seems to have. Of course, he doesn’t actually have that many friends so he’s more left to speculate on the kind of relationship a boy is supposed to have with their mother. All he knows is something isn’t right with his relationship. Sometimes his mother is there. Sometime she holds him at arm’s length. All he’s sure about is that something is fundamentally broken.
He’s angry. Not angry all the time, but often angry. He counters his mother’s distance by being intentionally distant himself. He argues with and shouts at his mother. Usually he doesn’t even know why. There’s just a rage on a constant simmer that always seems to threaten to boil over. It’s not fair, he tells himself. Why can’t he just have a normal relationship with mom?
Akiva blurs into a small little city north of Seattle on a typically rainy and dark day after school. Snap gives way to me, sitting at my desk and stewing. I hear my mother’s footsteps coming and I brace for it. The door opens up and she flatly tells me that my grades aren’t good enough. It sets me off instantly, because I’m programmed to expect this shortness from my mother. We fight. We don’t speak to each other for almost a week.
After that week we’re watching a movie. I don’t even remember which one. My mom asks for clarification on some character element and some plot point. I happily explain, because I love it when she shows interest in something I enjoy. It’s like that fight a week ago never even happened. Part of me realizes that somewhere in there is the relationship with my mom I always dream about. There, somewhere, buried under the emotional scars I know she has. Under the terror of a war thirty years passed that constantly threatens to consume her.
We start going to therapy around the same time. My mother works to understand her PTSD. I work to understand my depression and anxiety. Her emotional wounds heal. I learn to cope with an unholy mess of brain chemicals that produce a voice that constantly lies to me. In coming to terms with myself, I finally see the demons plaguing my mother.
I know she loves me. I know the horrors of war broke her ability to show me that sometimes.
I wish I had come to this truth sooner.
Sinjir is a ball of self-loathing, death-spiraling personal destruction that masks insecurity with snappy one-liners and snark. He’s not proud of the things he’s done. He struggles to come to terms with who he is. Sinjir feels like his only choice is to run. Run from his past. Drink away the memories of who he was. Flee from having to come to terms with who he might be.
He’s broken. He’s lost. He’s scared. He fears he’s alone and will be alone forever. Perhaps sometimes he wonders if death is the answer. Not because it would be easier, but because it would be blessed release from the demons that torture his thoughts. He doesn’t let the world see how consumed he is with his own despair. Every time that vulnerability might bubble to the surface he suppresses it with a joke at his own expense. He feigns indifference. Tricks people into thinking he’s fine. Occasionally manages to fool himself into believing he’s fine.
He grows, though. He meets people who care about him, even if he doesn’t think he deserves that sort of attention. Deep down he’s still a snarky one-line machine, but it’s less directed at himself and more directed at the frequent absurdities of the universe around him. He has things he still needs to work on about himself, but by the end he’s managed to find some bit of peace for the first time since he was a boy. He’s still imperfect to be certain, but he’s growing. There’s hope for him.
Akiva gives way to the sterile walls of a behavioral hospital that’s been underfunded and poorly staffed for God knows how long. Sinjir gives way to me, sitting on a bed with a thirty year old mattress and hating myself for having gotten here.
I have a lot going for me. Started a new job, have a wonderful wife, live in a lovely home. But I’m still a ball of self-loathing destruction. All hidden behind a layer of deception, snark, and self deprecation. The night before I had seriously contemplated suicide. Why? When you have depression, when you’re anxious, when you’ve spent years hating yourself, sometimes death seems like a welcome relief to yourself and everyone around you that you’ve convinced yourself you’re burdening. Because of that, the staff took my shoelaces when I checked in. I suppose if you’ve been suicidal they think you’re liable to strangle yourself in the middle of the night.
I ask myself how I got here. Intuitively, I know. I’ve been scared that I was queer since I was twelve. Comes with the territory when you’re raised in a conservative religion and part of a non-white, non-western culture that shuns anything that so much as looks like it might be anything slightly less than straight. Internalized homophobia drilled into you from a young age breeds self-hatred and self-destruction. I come to accept (with a healthy dose of terror) that I think boys are pretty when I’m 24. I realize I’m bisexual, I tell my wife, she still loves me because she’s wonderful. But I still have a lifetime of internalized self-loathing eating at me.
I leave the hospital, mercifully. I come to terms and find a bit more peace with who I am. It’s a long road, and I’m still struggling to be certain. But I’m growing. There’s hope for me.
I wish I had found this truth sooner.
I set down Empire’s End and I’m overcome with something I’ve never felt before reading fiction. An overwhelming sense that this is me. This is my story, my reality. I see so much of myself, my experience, my heritage on these pages. In Norra I see the mother I grew up with. In Snap I see the boy I was. In Sinjir I see so many elements of the man I am. He’s a snarky, queer, person of color with self hatred issues he learns to confront. So much of him is me, so much of me is him. I see that my experience is represented in a way I’ve never seen it represented before. Not even close. I’m both sad and elated. Sad that I see so much of the struggles of these characters in myself, in my mother, in my life. Elated that those characters found a way through despite everything, that they were okay. That they grew, and continue to grow. In my hands was a book that did what I was convinced was impossible. I know it was never the intention, but somehow I read a set of books that had captured what it was like to be the queer, brown son of a brown refugee of war.
I gleefully rush to share this discovery, but I am stopped in my tracks. I immediately see the criticism. That Norra is a terrible mother. That Snap is a bad son. That Sinjir is the wrong kind of queer. I retreat, heartbroken. I expected criticism from the closed-minded. I didn’t expect it from those who nominally are liberal and intersectional. Their criticism speaks volumes: this representation is bad. I wonder if I’m supposed to interpret that as being my experience is inherently flawed, and I’m bad by extension?
I try to explain what these books means to me, but I’m drowned out by the privileged rush to fight at the margins. Any small imperfection in this representation renders the whole thing invalid, I’m made to feel. I suppose then that my whole existence is invalid if I resonate so much with this story and these characters. If that experience doesn’t fit into the white, western lens, then what good is it?
I’m angry. And I’m sad. And I’m depressed. And I’m anxious. Once more, I stand on the outside looking in. Why can’t I have the relationship with imperfect media that white folks have always had? These books would have been life-altering if I had read them when I was sixteen.
I realize that, like so many things, representation is viewed by many in binary terms. It’s either virtuous representation, or it’s bad representation. I realize that it takes a certain amount of privilege to be able to look at representation this way. For me, and for so many people of color, representation isn’t just about whether it’s good or bad. It’s about conveying truth of experience. So much of Norra, Snap, and Sinjir’s experience isn’t virtuous. It’s simply their truth. Much like the truth of my experience. Hence the resonance.
I hope we all can understand that truth is complicated.