Yellow Girls & The Deafening Silence
For someone who needed to scream but had no mouth, Wendy was awfully bad at writing about herself. Speechlessness—it was the defining condition of yellow girlhood, and it was agonizing. She was too messed up to be a reliable narrator, but she found herself writing anyway, obsessed with the idea that she could find a way of talking about herself without invoking the first person.
Strictly speaking, she wrote a mixture of reviews and essays. What she was best at, however, was confusing the terms of truth and fiction. The key was to obtain a narrative grip, slick like sex, that when brandished, dripped with helplessness and remained at the same time, erotic. Because this vulnerability was all a show, Wendy couldn’t help dissociating when she wrote. It was easier to present her library of pain as a disembodied observer.
Wendy had been trained in the art of genuflection by white women who fancied themselves her mothers, mistresses, or murderers. She could weave humorous anecdotes about most anything under the sun; she was an expert at delaying her own demise. Like most good talkers, she found in the motions of conversation an easy way out of profundity. Even vulgar moods could suit her, moistening her pearl-shaped eyes with a sheen of want.
All she had to do was splay herself open and, like warm milk left to curdle, the fabulous stink would come. Screaming, though—screaming was a different matter.
Screaming was not a war of positions the same way talking was. What the fuck kind of position, first of all, was she supposed to scream from? She rearranged herself into bouquets of anger and sadness, but people would stop listening altogether. Their eyes would glaze over, they’d nod absent-mindedly or drop into muteness. She felt like the only sentient being in the world, babbling amongst rubble. Her voice rang out lonely, quavering at times. When she cleared her throat, the distant earth would rumble in response, do it again and I’ll crush you.
There were, she’d decided early in her career, only three types of autobiographical writing: the messianic, which was essentially sentimental fiction with a moral twist; the wryly dissociative, delivering dry humor and equally dry sophistry to middlebrow intelligentsia; and the punitive, which could play dominatrix to a masochistic audience by giving them exactly what they’d asked for—life without parole and a sexy little slap.
There were exceptions, of course: essays that moved her and made her feel—really feel—that there could be a language to contain all the secrets of injury, a language to provide refuge from despair. But those were few and far between; for her, they were borrowed languages. She could only be allowed to wallow in their margins.
Wendy was supposed to be quiet and have no language of her own. This quiet didn’t evince some profound interiority but was a sign of her essential, mongrel incapacity. It wasn’t long ago that most people believed yellow girls were born mute, the sound sipped out of them while they were still embryos confined to some godforsaken prostitute’s womb. Yellow girls were born legs splayed from the tomb of prelinguistic nonexistence, screaming “FUCK YOU! LOVE ME!” (or maybe it was FUCK ME, LOVE YOU, which is what veterans always insisted they heard).
There was more than a hint of irony in this defiant war cry, because of course, yellow girls also possess some of the best omniscient voices on the market, so long as they manage to skin themselves perfectly raw.
But then again, most yellow girls, it seemed, never wrote about themselves except to extrapolate complicated puzzles for like-minded people. Like-minded people being the closest thing they had to kin, since, having been harvested as fuckable flesh, none of them could be mothers and all of them were motherless. If a yellow girl knew her function and learned to leverage it, she could go a far way. She just had to remember that there was only enough space for one yellow girl to whisper-talk at a time.
But just as there were exceptions to the autobiography and lyric essay, so too were there outliers in the distribution of yellow girls. Wendy was one such mutant. In her heart of hearts, she hated whispering. Wendy was a shouter. She also had no interest in honing a traumatic angle for self-discovery and despised the psychoanalytic disposition for public self-excavation. She had no vulnerabilities she wished to share, no transcendental truth to preach, only a genetically inherited tendency for depression and a disrespect for authority that stemmed from a childhood spliced bloodily along the sinew by imperialism, dislocation, and racial capitalism—episodes of trauma that constituted something even white people would begrudgingly admit was, well, tragedy. Whatever. She knew her audience, knew what they wanted from her: sleek, diaristic prose, a rigorously groomed Instagram profile, and a slightly twangy West Coast accent that could twinkle like a bespoke jewel on accented leather. She could deliver. She freelanced for Vulture, dabbled in diatribes for Jezebel, and, once, to her chagrin, ghost-wrote a female Insta-preneur’s memoir so well that it got excerpted in the New York Times.
It didn’t start out this way. Wendy didn’t always feel such antipathy for the first-person narrative, and she wasn’t always a hypocrite. But when her fiction flailed and her creative nonfiction sagged and she lost all inspiration for academic essays that Explained Something Extremely Oblique to A Niche Group of Readers, she was left with only one dagger in her stylistic arsenal, the one constant she could always fall back on: the lyric essay. Her descent into the depths of this murky hell was slow and subtle.
Despite these stylistic slippages, Wendy retained an ineluctably unassimilable edge. She surmised, groping in the darkness of her cellar-like unconscious, that, against the grain, her permanent discomfort had something to do with her willingness to embrace yellow feminine solidarity. It was why, despite her strange success in the essay form, she could not quite shake the feeling of nausea, of contempt bordering on suicidal rage, at her inability to stop penning those stupid, vapid, self-negating, status quo-maintaining bromides she sold as “criticism.”
The irony was also this. Almost all the contemporary Asian American women writers Wendy admired had a self-same confession—spilled in a turn of phrase, a slip of tongue, a moment of logorrheic vulnerability—that they had grown up hating other Asian women. This was their one claim to injury, and it was a slightly unbelievable wound that they claimed was inflicted by both self and superstructure. “When I was a girl,” the sentence/essay/brief anecdote would begin, “I had an almost pathological aversion to other Asian women. I would distance myself from them whenever they were in the room. In my mind, they were always already my competitors, challengers to whom I might lose the grain of my individuality. This was how I’d absorbed the ambient racism of my white suburb.” Variations on a theme. But Wendy, narcissist and confident though she may be, could not relate. She had never been taught their strange antagonism, this almost self-annihilating hatred. If love was too strong a word, then call it infatuation. Growing up, Wendy was infatuated with other yellow girls—they were her confidants, muses, lovers, interlocutors, enemies, all.
Every period of her life was grounded by a yellow woman, often, multiple of them and each in varying relation to one other. They were not simply how she came to a sense of herself, though their collective subjugation did inform her aesthetic sensibilities and eventually, her political reckoning. They were the reason she had a self to speak of at all. She spoke to them, existed as rapt listeners to them, and remained inexorably, gloriously enraptured by their contradictory depths and the simple way with which they held her, and finally, themselves.
The thought of hating another yellow woman was a strange, nasty conceit. It felt incongruous, dishonest, somewhat distorted, like a fetishist’s relation to pain. Yet there was something to the fact that this singular and self-effacing hatred seemed to be the key that unlocked the voices of so many of her peers. Was there something in those confessions that explained why their friendship always felt forced? she wondered. What must this singular alienation do for the cruel honing of a yellow voice. Did these yellow women, who specialized in hating each other and then unlearning that hatred actually possess a perverse yet profound understanding of what it meant to exist in relation to one another? LOL! she texted herself.
And: What drove the most refined of them to the lyric form? They were all marching to the same stupid Sisyphean task of becoming political truthsayers and self-professed cultural slayers, she scribbled in the margin of her Moleskine© notebook with her 0.38mm Muji© pen.
In her mind, there was a She/Her and an Us, two strains borne of the same culture but held in diametric opposition. She/Her were those beautiful, petite yellow creatures who usually hated her. They had a sharpness about them; they spoke in at least as many secret tongues to each other as Wendy did, but none of their words were intelligible to her. She/Her was an energy that sought sameness, that loved beauty, and collected people as objects. She/Her transcended gender, though it emerged from the same deep, poisonous well. Anybody could join the phalanx of She/Her’s toxic femininity—if not as a collector, then as the collected.
Us, on the other hand—we were rounder, more awkward shapes, fluid in our aspiration to be discrete, scattered when we were commanded to be singular. In our chaotic excuse of an existence, language was both secretive and convergent, full of revelations and the put-putting of domestic trivialities. We were accustomed to failure, content with tenderness, and appreciated bluntness but shied away from opportunism. For us, gender was a mess, but it was also a kind of opening. What this kind of social cartilage was, Wendy could hardly recall it now. It receded the further up she went in the asshole of “culture,” toward its bathetic prostate of “literary production.”
Wendy used to love writing because it brought her closer to Us. Before she knew how to pose like a literary femme fatale, she was a fluid, funny girl. How to describe it… She gravitated toward girls—butch, tomboyish, shy, tender girls—with whom she shared a quiet, unfussy kind of comfort. This model of friendship formed her preconscious language, was the stuff of her earliest epiphanies. But she’d departed from that mode of relation. Now its memory was a thorn in her writer’s-blocked side, something lost in the deep recesses of childhood before opaque monstrosity engulfed her waking mind. As she became ingratiated in the circle of She/Hers, Wendy began to find pleasure in the shaky territories of Sad Asian Girl clubs and Chic Asian Women networks, places where people proudly shunned political alliance in the name of opacity and refusal. Maybe they were all refugees exiled from Us, but so far away from the homeland, that they lost their tongues for daggers. The slippery hurt of betrayal became an everyday mood, and meanness accompanied every sore step.
It was no coincidence that all the mean Asian American women Wendy knew were friends with each other. Their shimmery gowns fluttered as they gathered in small concentric circles around each other, their lips moving in wild postures to issue the singular sound: “Shh—shh—shh—shh.” They spoke in the same ice-sharded language of truth and precision, whose inexorable quietude—a rapturously whispered “I”—jutted into her bruised belly and pushed her off its serrated ledge.
Wendy wondered about the aggressive blankness, the avant-garde glares that emanated beneath She/Hers. It didn’t really make sense, did it, to say that the grotesque thing that looked like love was actually crafted by She/Hers’ shared hatred of each other? That they finally learned to love each other because they realized they all hated each other in the same way? Lest love be too strong a word, call it poison. What other language was there for this off-colored, off-handed, off-the-shoulder halter that delighted in skimming the skin off kin?
Unless they were not kin. This is what She/Hers always reiterate—after spilling their guts about how much they used to hate themselves and all other Hers, after every half-hearted performance of something like a scream. They would say, “I learned to love us when I realized that we are all so very different.” Difference saved them the dignity of individuality, so if yellowness was a marker of similarity, it had to be punished into nonexistence. This was their participation trophy to themselves, awarded for a courageous confession that was more like indulgent violence.
She/Hers were always looking for messiahs, a woman of the moment, a queen bee who could host a hornet’s nest of smaller creatures beneath the steel frames of her gown, or cheongsam, ao dai, hanbok, designer shift dress. She/Hers were always looking to invest in a three-dimensional vanity chest to absorb the stares of the world about them, so that none of them had to lose to another yellow girl in the culture’s limited economy of attention. Every yellow girl wants to be the only yellow girl. There’s only ever enough space for one of her, and even then she probably has to put her personality through a diet.
Wendy had an aunt once, call her Maxine, who talked many stories about silences and inexorable wounds. Some people praised Auntie Maxine for rescuing the yellow woman’s voice, like there was only one and somehow it was closer to silence than sound. From silence to song! some people praised. As the only yellow girl who talked stories in her era, Maxine wrote books that were so aching, so rippling with desire that both Us and She/Hers paused to listen, our ears held tight against her reed-thin door. A story told by Auntie Maxine was like a sentence without end, or a building with many doors, where you couldn’t get from one room to the next without gaping at the expanse of the sky.
The most honest story Auntie Maxine told was a lyric about all the Asian girls she hated before. It was the concluding story of her famous book about yellow women, called The Woman Warrior, in which she referred to them as ghosts. When Auntie Maxine was a girl, goes the story, her mother cut her tongue to free her voice. However, instead of freeing her voice, the cut took away Maxine’s voice and banished her into the far stillness of silence. After Auntie Maxine lost the ability to speak in English, she began to see with a cursed vision, identifying all her crazy doubles—yellow girls who were pathetically mute or senselessly violent, all of them absent of a voice.
When Wendy was seven, her mother moved them to San Francisco, a hilly city near the concrete plains where Auntie Maxine had been born. On the first day of school, Wendy’s teacher, a petite yellow woman named Nancy, held her hand as she whispered her name to the class. The homework for that night was to write a short story. At home, Wendy sharpened her pencils and lined them up in a row. She stuck her tongue to the roof of her mouth, a trick she learned by sucking in her voice all the way to the back of her throat. An idea came to her: a genesis story. She loved the way the sharp point of lead rolled across the milky paper, leaving an undeniable trail.
The girl that Auntie Maxine hated first and most was her classmate, a perfect China doll who was an inverse portrait of Maxine herself: mild where she was repressed, neat and clean where she was mulishly dirty, and resolutely quiet where Maxine sometimes tried to speak with a voice that sounded like a squawk. The China doll took a liking to Auntie Maxine and followed her around like a headless chicken. Maybe she felt bigger under Maxine’s shadow, thought that Maxine could be her protector.
Not so for Maxine, who felt threatened and enraged. One day, she cornered the girl in the school’s basement bathroom. “You’re going to talk,” Maxine said, “I am going to make you talk, you sissy-girl.” Wendy could never get over this passage. Even as an adult it haunted her. Lying awake in her 1000-count Egyptian cotton sheets, she’d mouth the words to herself.
I looked into her face so I could hate it close up. She wore black bangs, and her cheeks were pink and white. She was baby soft. I thought that I could put my thumb on her nose and push it bonelessly in, indent her face. I could poke dimples into her cheeks. I could work her face around like dough. She stood still, and I did not want to look at her face anymore; I hated fragility.
Do we always love to kick the things that are soft, familiar, and weak? Wendy believed that Maxine would have hurt her anyway. This part of the story always made Wendy hate Auntie Maxine. What Wendy hated was not Maxine’s cruelty, which she knew existed in all yellow girls, but the matter-of-fact way Auntie Maxine told the story, like the only thing yellow girls shared was self-immolating hatred and an indescribable, self-effacing guilt. As if all yellow girls knew what it felt like to hate other yellow girls deeply and intimately. Could hate them even as—or precisely because—they found perverse identification with them.
When Wendy turned in her story, Nancy gave a loud gasp. In her bright, melodious voice, she praised Wendy to the class. A whole page! she kept exclaiming. She hung the story, all blocky letters and slanted lines, on the “Excellent Work” corkboard at the front of the classroom.
“Talk!” Maxine finds a menacing voice of her own, a cruel, ironic voice that seeks out defenseless yellow women. Maxine thought she could force the words out of this girl, could crush her soul—or just the veneer, just the exterior casing—and force her way inside, where a person, a language, a secret strength would surely flow out. In retrospect, maybe Auntie Maxine was looking for an outside person who could promise that there was more to the silence than emptiness. Or maybe she simply felt threatened by the shield of silence, maybe she was afraid that the yellow girl was actually speechless. When she couldn’t make the yellow girl talk, Maxine sobbed alongside her, both of them reduced to the raw language of hurt.
Whenever Wendy read Maxine’s story, she couldn’t help but marvel at the yellow girl’s weakness. You could do anything to the silent yellow girl, and she would take the abuse, dying again and again in your hands while never releasing the secret voice wrapped inside her body. But this death was necessary, even Wendy knew it: only by demolishing her other, her double, could Maxine discover her own voice.
Once, many years later, in a university course taught by a beautiful She/Her, Wendy wrote a paper about Auntie Maxine’s parable. She concluded that the thing Maxine couldn’t defeat was the bond between all yellow girls, a bond that runs through the skin but is more than skin deep. This bond, Wendy wrote, makes the task of demolishing our others very difficult.
I had stopped pinching her cheek because I did not like the feel of her skin. I would go crazy if it came away in my hands. ‘I skinned her,’ I would have to confess.
Maxine’s visceral, freakish reaction to China doll’s skin is the only thing that holds her back from murder, Wendy wrote. Her skin was too sticky, it stuck to Maxine and reminded her of what she was doing. Maxine did not want to get China doll’s skin in her hands because then she would have to explain what she’d done. If everybody knew that she severed a yellow girl from her skin, they would know that she was no longer yellow, but a monster.
The She/Her professor hated Wendy’s essay. You’re so enamored with your own voice, She/Her hissed during office hours. Her golden skin flickered in the twilight. Then she’d scratched Wendy, leaving her face leaking plum-colored tears.
There’s another girl, another Maxine, in Fantasian by Larissa Pham, where yellow girls get a little too close to each other in their search for something like a self.
It starts with a party. An unnamed narrator is co-hosting a party with her girlfriend, when across the room, she sees a girl who looks just like her. It’s a shitty party: all the white people are shooting microaggressions, and the unnamed narrator is beginning to feel like she needs to crawl out of her skin. She escapes into the bathroom, where she meets her “twin,” Dolores. Dolores is reading Lacan, “The Mirror Stage”—of course!
As they hide from the guests, a fire starts in the party next door. The fire is a symbol of the intensity that blossoms between them: the yellow girls fall into each other, finding an intimacy that peels them and submerges their raw skin in the other’s blood. Other people don’t immediately notice their resemblance; rather, it’s only they who see it and delight in the possibilities. Refreshingly, the girls’ self-identification overturns the trope of the indistinguishable yellow horde, suggesting that their likeness is an exception rather than the rule.
Dolores has a boyfriend who also has a twin, so the two “twins” meet two other twins, and they fuck in every configuration possible. Falling into Dolores, the unnamed yellow girl finds herself drawing dizzyingly close to the boundaries of her own body. It’s tantalizing, euphoric, like everything she’s ever wanted. She doesn’t stop, she crosses the invisible line.
Here’s a secret about me: I’ve always wanted to lose myself. Maybe you already figured this out. I’ve never been happy except when utterly surrounded by something or -one else. . . . If there’s anything I’ve learned about myself it’s that I love to be consumed. I like to watch—I like to observe. I wonder if it makes me porous, my watchfulness, or if it’s just that I’m so conscious of being seen I try to render myself a perfect mirror. . . . When you think you’re seeing the whole world reflected in the mirror, it’s because you are. It’s in there. It has depth.
One day, Dolores dresses our unnamed narrator in her identical likeness. Just for fun, Dolores says. Of course, the unnamed narrator says, though she knows that this act—being made identical, becoming porous—is the most intense form of foreplay that can exist between two yellow sisters. As Dolores leans in to make the last swoop of eyeliner across the unnamed narrator’s eye, she thinks: “Now that our faces are dressed in the same set of signifiers, the similarity is undeniable.” Enthralled, she follows Dolores into the bedroom. As they are about to enter each other, she thinks: “Once you start being visible you can’t go back to being unseen, to being unknowable.” In Dolores, her double, the unnamed character finds a sense of self-recognition that allows her to become, for the first time, recognizable. How ironic, that the terms of her “visibility” are staked on the identity of another person, and that in order to overcome her own inscrutability the unnamed narrator had to literally become somebody else.
After sex, Dolores asks the unnamed narrator for a favor. “I’m going out of town for a few days. I’ve got some business to take care of. I don’t want anyone to know I’m gone. I’ll give you instructions. Will you take my place?” Will she—it’s exactly what she wanted. While Dolores is gone, the unnamed narrator allows herself to envelop, and then devour Dolores’ life. She has sex with Dolores’ white boyfriend, and then a threesome with the boyfriend and his twin. The white twins call her Dolores, longingly, mockingly, uttering the name as if it were a secret shared between the three of them. (And it is—the slipperiness of the signifier “Dolores” is stretched between their play and her performance.) As she fucks the white brothers, the unnamed narrator observes how two mirrors frame them, showing a chain of reflections sinking deep on both sides.
In this inexplicable, infinite moment, the unnamed narrator grows cold with a certain resolve.
In the bedroom, Alexei and Dmitri are still entwined, moving with some shared, dark language I won’t understand, that I’ll never understand. They have come together in my absence, their bodies sealed into one long, clean line, and they are so very lovely to look upon that for a moment I pause and watch them. How arrogant they are. How cruel. I drag the container of gasoline around the room, hunched over like an animal, watching it flow out in oily rainbows, spreading across the floor.
As she witnesses the perfect, aquiline unity of the real twins, the unnamed narrator feels the depth of her own foreignness, the damnation of her unforgivable fraudulence. It’s a racialized reckoning of her incongruence, but more profoundly, it’s a devastating realization that the terms of her yellow sisterhood with Dolores do not match up to the “shared, dark language” of the real white twins. In this moment, the unnamed narrator realizes that she’s nothing more than a prop, buttressing Dolores’ life. It’s like realizing that you’re a simulation plunged into the real world, where everything you do is real, but nothing you do can make you real. So she reaches for the thing closest to salvation: she lights them all on fire, immortalizing herself as Dolores in death.
The fire consumes the better half of the apartment building, leaving none injured except three charred bodies—two men and one woman entwined on the bed. When the girl formerly known as Dolores returns from her trip and sees the damage, she does not cry. She is not shocked. She identifies the corpse as herself: “That’s Dolores,” she says, and kisses the photograph—kisses the unnamed narrator—goodbye.
Two yellow girls enter, and one departs. The story ends as it began, with an all-consuming fire. Except, unlike the first time, the second fire destroys the identity of Dolores and anoints the life of the unnamed narrator. Where the unnamed narrator raced to her own death by transforming into Dolores, the woman formerly known as Dolores now retrieves the identity the unnamed narrator has left behind. In her desire to “lose herself,” the unnamed narrator actually sets up the scene for another to find what she’s lost.
Death and resurrection are two sides of the same coin for the unnamed yellow girl, who is born and reborn at the horizon of her suicidality. When she is killed, she is remade into another configuration of herself. And indeed, her others are herself, to the undiscerning eye. By the end of the tale, the two yellow girls have become indistinguishable and interchangeable, no longer just to themselves but also to the rest of the world. Thus we return to the trope of the yellow female clone.
It strikes Wendy that these two paths toward a voice are not only futile, but cruel. Option one, torment your other to discover yourself and seize your singular voice. Option two, kill yourself to become your other, and slip into her voice. Did she miss the point somewhere? Did the mute China doll eventually learn to speak, or did the unnamed narrator find an Asian girlfriend who is not, like, literally her identical twin? It was exhausting to live this way, in a silo where no yellow girls can actually speak to one another. Sometimes Wendy disagreed with what She/Hers were saying, but she knew that the cost of disagreement was her voice being permanently exiled to the foot of the champagne table.
Wendy fantasized about the day she could stop writing in the first-person voice. She would grab the stem of the “I” and hurl it like a Molotov cocktail across the room of quietly schmoozing yellow women. Maybe it’ll smash against the wall and produce a sound so loud that it’ll stifle the mean-spirited whispers. Maybe a small group of She/Hers will get hurt and then all of them will rise up to run her over, grinding her to mush with their stampede of stilettos and sensible boots. But then, maybe, maybe, in the aftermath, there will be something like a silence. All of them will look at one another, wince at the bloody mass that used to be her, and wonder aloud: “What have we done?” If that ever happened, well, then, Wendy will have done her job. She just might be able to live with being dead.