Why Critics Need to Let Their Guard Down

Why Critics Need to Let Their Guard Down

Why Critics Need to Let Their Guard Down

A conversation with Larissa Pham about desire, the politics of vulnerability, and practicing a more generous form of criticism.

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A child of Tumblr, Larissa Pham never learned to take the defensive posture that, by her account, characterizes contemporary writing and public life. Instead, she named her debut essay collection Pop Song to align its aspiration with a different form—to speak directly to the heart, as shamelessly romantic pop songs do. She asks that her readers receive her as she writes to them: openly and generously, as though they were listening to their favorite tracks with headphones in, eyes closed.

But her sentimentality isn’t naive. Pham’s early published work translated the intimacies and everyday disasters she and her peers once cataloged on Tumblr to a readership “eager to hear tales of flagellation.” Now, she writes against the commodification of trauma: In her hands, intimate relationships are sites of transformation as much as they are of conflict and violence. Pop Song is a book many will cherish for not only its articulation of pain but also its commitment to everything that comes after trauma, which is grinding, painstaking growth. “To stop being hurt—no, to stop calling yourself a hurt person, I’ve realized—means accepting a different way of existing in the world, a new one, with different challenges,” she writes.

In writing about intimacy, Pham takes works of art as her ballasts. She jokingly describes herself as a failed painter, and her eye is voracious. Writing of impossible distances, she recalls how the blue hue of far-off things is improbably captured up close in an Agnes Martin painting. Elsewhere, on the precipice of losing herself in a relationship, she finds echoes of her fears in Yayoi Kusama’s self-dissolving oeuvre. The art history of Pop Song is, fittingly, “a bit populist,” as Pham told me—she puts it in the service of life.

I talked to Pham about desire under empire, sentimentality, and transformation. This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Chalay Chalermkraivuth

Chalay Chalermkraivuth: You’ve written recently about defensiveness as the first posture that writers take in response to the current literary-critical environment. By contrast, you’re interested in vulnerability and in feeling, and Pop Song is an illustration of that. How have you come to this practice of vulnerable writing? And how do you hope to be read?

Larissa Pham: I started writing online quite young, on Tumblr, when I was 17 or 18. And it was an environment where you didn’t really think of yourself as having an audience—you just put down your thoughts and then like-minded people would come find you, through tags or whatever, just loosely delineated communities. So I never really knew what it was like to write for anyone other than myself and my friends. I just didn’t have a conception of what it could be like to be defensive, to be defensive about being read, because we weren’t critiquing each other. It was just like your diary. I took that spirit with me into my professional work, for better or for worse. I think that the sense of wanting to be really honest and wanting to be really true and open has always remained. It is my great hope that people encountering Pop Song see the spirit in which it was written, and they meet it with that same kind of generosity. Which, I mean, it can be an ask for sure.

CC: In terms of asking people to be as generous with you, as you have been in the act of writing itself, does that point to a certain politics of vulnerability? What are the politics of vulnerability, in contrast to the politics of defensiveness that you were outlining in your recent writing?

LP: I wonder if a helpful way to talk about it is through talking about defensiveness, which I see as a relatively recent phenomenon. I don’t think we were always as defensive as we are now. I don’t even think that social media or criticism in general was this defensive. I think it stems from a desire to not be seen as wrong, to not be seen as doing the wrong thing. And I believe that stems from politics and this purity that everyone seems to aspire toward, which has been warped in this weird neoliberal capitalist sense to become a politics of identity. But no one can ever be fully right. There’s no right way to live; we’re all trying to find our own right way to live. But it becomes so much easier to critique people for wrong ways of living or ways of being that you don’t agree with. It’s much harder to show your stakes. And that’s what I find is missing from a lot of contemporary writing: it’s those stakes. Stakes are what make you care about something. They are what allow you to know what people value. So showing my stakes is what I can do to push back against that.

But it’s funny to think of it as a politics of vulnerability, because people have asked me before in interviews, well, why—why are you like this? What allows you to be this way? And I’m like, I don’t know! If I could be less vulnerable, I would be. If I could withhold more from the world, I absolutely would. But for some reason, I sit down and it just comes out.

CC: I think vulnerability also kind of speaks to the relationship between your present self and your past selves. And I see a lot of reaching backward in Pop Song: It reaches back to college; it reaches back to Tumblr, as you were talking about just now. In being vulnerable in writing about yourself, do you find yourself forgiving and holding your past selves, or striving for reconciliation, or something else entirely?

LP: Absolutely. I feel like you have to, if you’re going to write about your own life. It’s interesting—there’s this really dispassionate aspect to it. There are definitely scenes where I’m writing about my past self, and the choices that my character is making are so different from the ones that I would be making now. And I feel a great distance from that person. But I still love her. And a real driving principle for writing this book—maybe not at its outset, but definitely as it began to take form—was this idea of writing for my past self, writing the kind of texts that I would have liked to encounter when I was a younger than I am now, and less secure than I am now.

There’s a funny thing that happens when you write about your life. Everything is time-stamped on the Internet, but people will find an essay that you wrote, years after it was published. And sometimes they’ll respond to it as though you’re still living in that moment. But sometimes the reader is. And I also want to have generosity for both of us in that moment, but also to preserve, for myself, that distance between the event and the space that I was in when I wrote it and the space I am in now.

CC: In the past few years, survivors have been able to publish their writing and testimony in greater volume, although the terms of that visibility can be fraught. You might call this work a kind of literature, though that feels fraught too. Where do you see your work, which deals with trauma and intimacy, in relation to this body of writing?

LP: I think sometimes I bristle at the idea that there is a literature of survivorship. Because I do think that sometimes those disclosures can be challenging. I think about the women who have written stories and maybe felt like they needed to disclose more than they were comfortable with doing, or survivors have made statements and intended that to be the end of what they were saying—and then of course the media or social media picks it up and spins it out. It can feel like your words are getting taken away from you, when writing those words down is an act of agency and a reclamation of your own experience. So I think I have a funny relationship to this idea of there being a genre of this kind of literature. But I think at its core, I did write this book for my younger self, and it more broadly addresses a variety of things, not just assault necessarily, but just existing in a place, especially as a displaced person, as a person with a marginalized identity. I was telling my therapist this morning—I was like, Is it true? If it’s true, I’ll write it down.

CC: Pop Song is a lot about desire, desirability, using beauty, seeking objecthood, and abjection. What are the contradictions you’re holding together and thinking through when you write about beauty, which as an Asian woman living in the shadow of US imperialism is also bound up with fetish?

LP: It is hard to hold. So much of that identity formation for me was tied to becoming seen—I sometimes tell people I didn’t really think of myself as a raced person until I moved east, because being a West Coast Asian is just so different. But then I went to the East Coast, and all of a sudden I was this weird fetish object that I had not really known I could be. And I think when you’re a young person, there is something so illuminating about being seen. I mean, that sounds kind of tautological—you’re illuminated because you are seen, you are seen because you’re illuminated.

That feels in and of itself like a kind of empowerment—you become aware of your desirability, and if it’s the only power you have, if it’s the only way you know how to leverage something, then that’s what you use. That is definitely a through-line in the text. I hope that—I mean, I don’t want to dictate anyone’s reading of it, but I hope that by the end of the book there are other paths that are arrived at. I don’t intend it to be a tale of transformation or anything like that, but I do think that quite a bit of the book deals with these initial beliefs and initial wounds, and then strives to create meaning outside of those strictures.

CC: The collection is full of ekphrasis, but the title is sonic. I was wondering what the genesis of the title was and what the soundtrack of Pop Song is for you.

LP: I’ve always been really envious of musicians, actually, because they can do so much without words. It’s kind of unfair, you know—they play a couple of chords and everyone’s weeping, and I have to write so, so much more and build up so much more in order to do the same thing, if I manage to achieve it at all. So I guess the title represents that striving, that hope that it will come to you like a pop song. I also wanted it to be a bit populist. I wanted it to feel approachable. I wanted it to be something that you could hear on the radio, and not feel alienated by.

I actually made a playlist for this book. But I was listening to a lot of hyperpop while I was writing this. I was listening to a lot of techno—I miss nightlife quite a bit. In a song, people can sing the most sentimental stuff, but you just go with it. You’re okay with it. And I was thinking, well, all right, obviously I can’t get away with that, but what are ways in which I can become more comfortable with loosening up and really showing my stakes or my hand or the way something felt? I’ve always appreciated that about pop music. You can write a song about anything, and no one’s going to get mad at you.

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