“Literature is an exercise in empathy”: A Conversation with Ming Lauren Holden, curated by Kristina Marie Darling

Ming Lauren Holden is an activist, actor, translator, educator, humanitarian aid and development worker, theater artist, and writer who was raised on a zebra ranch on California’s central coast. Ming has worked in the international development sector on four continents in thirteen countries since 2003. She studied Literary Arts at Brown, earned her MFA at Indiana University, and a PhD at UCSB.

Kristina Marie Darling:  Thank you for the privilege of publishing one of the first excerpts of your second book. I’m sure our readers would love hear more about the larger project this work is excerpted from. 

Ming Lauren Holden: Thank you! I’m so thrilled these pages found a home in TQ. This book is tentatively entitled Netflix and Narcissists: A Memoir in Episodes. It’s constructed of braided lyric essays, the three main threads of which are personal memoir, trauma theory, and pop culture criticism. 

To be more specific, the personal memoir recounts my experience as a stalking victim and with emotionally abusive and nominally progressive men of privilege, including interactions with the lawyers, police detectives and Title IX employees who did and didn’t help me. The exploration of trauma theory I started for my doctoral research, but it became necessary for me to continue it to survive and make sense of…well, not just the stalking experience, but 2020 as a whole. The narrative analysis focuses on women-led sci-fi and fantasy shows and films from the last few decades, from Contact to The Wilds, Arrival, Russian Doll, etc.

I’ve worked on some threads of Netflix and Narcissists for twenty years; others for more like three, but it’s still the biggest project I’ve ever taken on, and it’s made up of work I saved instead of sending out for much longer than I usually do.

KMD:  The book considers—with subtlety and nuance—the phenomenon of liberal politics as performance, as costume.  With that in mind, what recommendations do you have for activism going forward, for those in the literary community and well beyond its boundaries? 

MLH: Given my concomitant experience with, for example, a broken Title IX office and its ugly two-year investigation of my stalker’s behavior during the Betsy DeVos era, it sure has been an interesting time to earn a doctorate in performance studies! And I think what I mean by that is that I’m trained to think of all actions, all gestures, as performative ones. Performance is part of every social interaction, part of human nature, and it’s in every text message and every photograph and every poem. So I’m less interested in writing something off as “merely” performative, and more interested in what work a performance is doing for culture–what it’s tearing apart, what it’s hiding, what it’s enforcing. And that’s where I’m troubled by the multitude of social and legal forces that functioned to mistreat and silence me as a woman and a domestic violence victim, because some of those voices are on the left. And not just the general left: the most privileged, Ivy-educated, golden boys, the anointed millennial thought leaders of our time, card-carrying socialist thinkers, are often the ones enacting this particular form of violence while gatekeeping in positions of power in law and media.  

As a scholar I research trauma, its historical construction, and how it affects the human system; my doctoral work puts those things into conversation with critical race theory, intersectionality, and Tarana Burke’s momentous work creating the #MeToo movement itself. Foundational to my research also is Judith Herman’s fifty-year-old point that domestic terror can have similar effects on the brains and nervous systems of victims as wartime terror, which thesis Bessel Van der Kolk supported later with the developments in cognitive science and MRI scans that proved Herman was right. Anyone who has had a toxic partner or workplace or boss knows why intentional infliction of distress is a crime, and that’s because it does real harm. You don’t need to assault someone bodily and leave bruises to do them harm. It’s my job to know that, and it’s also one of the main points of departure in Netflix and Narcissists.

And aside from saying that as loud as I can to anyone who will listen, I think the only worthwhile recommendations I can make are those to other white people, that we stop fucking up our attempts at allyship so badly. To me as a white person of considerable privilege, being an aspiring ally means finding the front lines of your own life, the edge of what you can tolerate emotionally, physically, financially, and sacrificing something there: time, money, safety, all three. And if you’re a powerful white man, it means either stepping up in ways your dad never did or stepping down, and out of the way, so that we can reimagine the future apart from the old boys network from which our historical inheritance of racism and misogyny has always drawn. It means leading change by changing how you treat people whether or not it’s on the record, and how you behave when you come home and speak to your partner or family. Who do you empower when no one’s looking, or at home at the dinner table? What kind of mistreatment do you get away with because it’s not as obvious and headline-grabbing as a rape button in a fancy office? Whose vulnerability do you exploit when you think you can get away with it? Who are you terrorizing by saying polite or “progressive” words to even as you treat them appallingly, and what damage is that disjunct doing to them?

 I was at Standing Rock in 2016 the night police water-cannoned Lakotah Elders praying in below-freezing temperatures. It meant something that I was there, but also the Elders pointed out that being there was the least we could do. We could also work on our mindset, cultivate humility, and stop doing harm unconsciously on a daily basis–which starts and ends with loving ourselves as a part of this earth. You can’t do that if you’re dedicated to a life of progressive rhetoric separate from actual progressive behavior. It’s ultimately a hypocrisy that can further fundamentally genocidal forces using social justice buzzword language. That chasm between the use of progressive language and its embodiment is what I wrote Netflix and Narcissists to try to figure out, because it harms people in ways that I believe only decolonial efforts can meaningfully repair. To truly recover from the trauma of toxic masculinity is to recover from that of capitalist oppression, also, and to do both is to be an actual ally. It requires sacrifice of the ego, and of real worldly goods, but that’s not all. To me it is tantamount to what Maya Angelou described as “growing up” as opposed to “growing older”: “What happens is most people get older…But to grow up costs the earth, the earth. It means you take responsibility for the time you take up, for the space you occupy. It’s serious business.”

KMD:  Your memoir brings to light many of the shortcomings of the #metoo movement, particularly the policing of victim narratives and who is allowed to claim them. Why is it important to be able to openly question and critique feminist movements? 

MLH: Because if it’s not okay to openly question and critique, then it’s not a progressive movement. And I would hope that feminist movements are progressive ones.

I work with traumatized people. I work with refugees, gender-based violence victims, and incarcerated youth, creating art for the page and the theater with them. The healing they taught me about is the real thing. And that healing is not one of silencing, but of inclusion. What trauma recovery I have witnessed in those communities doesn’t come from bullying other people into silence, but from bearing careful attention to a multiplicity of voices, and validating the stories of people who have been hurt. Policing those stories by invalidating them out of the gate would be a form of emotional abuse in and of itself, one that would simply serve to extend the carceral state of affairs through my body every time I chose to respond to a victim’s narrative with derision, whether in the classroom, in “real life,” or in a comment thread. 

And I think the literary and publishing world has some catching up to do there, in terms of contemporary gender dynamics and cultural norms. In Netflix and Narcissists is a conversation I had with the District Attorney, for example, who admitted that while the abusive ex of mine who had been arrested for stalking and harassing me was continuing to behave in ways that “made [the DA] want to file” charges, the fact that I wasn’t maimed or dead yet meant he couldn’t be sure that twelve members of a jury would vote to convict him. The advocate from that office once pointed out that while the Constitution has a lot about the rights of the accused, it doesn’t spend much time on the rights of victims. American culture has reverberated with racism and misogyny since its founding documents were written. The most revolutionary concept with which to combat those twin behemoths, to me, is Lilla Watson’s notion that my liberty is bound up with yours. How can that be a truth I honor if I’m busy policing you for not having a story that’s sufficiently obvious or scintillating, or whose abuse doesn’t seem as bad as what other women have suffered and is therefore invalid? I believe if you’re policing the narrative of a woman coming forward with a story of how she has been harmed, you’re doing the oppressive work of the patriarchy for it.

Relatedly, Netflix and Narcissists looks at what used to be called hysteria. Freud initially used the term to describe the effects of childhood sexual abuse, but this book explores the same condition resulting from the less brutally physical forms of violence enacted on women to keep them in line. Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow is a centerpiece of contemporary social justice movements. And in that book, which really did move mountains, Alexander openly admits that the “ethic of genuine care” she calls for as a replacement for the unjust, racist, and murderous carceral system she describes in America is not an ethic she can necessarily architect or describe. We have to do that, all of us. We have to figure out what an ethic of genuine care looks like, and then do it, not just agree with it. And I have yet to be convinced that bullying, policing, silencing, appointing oneself member of a suddenly formed #MeToo admission committee in order to exclude victim’s narratives, etc contributes in any way to that quest.

I believe that internalized misogyny, especially on the part of white women, is one of the last bastions of genocidal forces in this society that we have yet to dissemble. Silencing someone on a comment thread with edicts about what they are or aren’t allowed to mention, about what terms they are or aren’t allowed to use, when they identify as a victim coming forward with a story of abuse, is a very old oppression acting through the silencer in the present moment. And my contention, and that of Netflix and Narcissists, is that such a space is not where we’ll find that ethic of genuine care.

KMD:  Relatedly, what is the relationship between writing and social justice within your creative practice? 

MLH: This is where I become a nerd for literary translation, which I’ve been crazy about since college. George Oppen is the poet who really convinced me that meaning can’t be distinguished from narrative, and that considering them as bound up with one another is a weighty and worthwhile question for anyone who wants to do social justice work. Just as hearing stories shapes so much of our understanding of the world, sharing stories is integral to any kind of intercultural understanding–a dialectic whose purpose is greater understanding of the world as it is to someone else. The reading and writing of literature is an exercise in empathy, which is foundational to most concepts of social justice. Literary translation in particular is a way to put our quiet, one-person, solitary writerly skills to work in service of a global community of people who love language.  

It’s also maddening–an addictive, impossible thought experiment–that unfailingly makes one a better writer. Literary translations actually were some of my earliest publications. I interned at Archipelago Books in 2006, which regularly puts out the most important translated literature, at the beginning of my career. I think learning from a cultural juggernaut like Jill Schoolman in that little DUMBO office shaped my sensibility and prepared me to spend time in other countries with poets from those countries, Mongolia or Kenya or Bolivia or Suriname. Engaging in literary translation is a way to be of service to those far-flung folks, to put the professional privilege of a facility with English to use by amplifying the voices of other people within the industry of publishing. Maybe it’s a way to practice that elusive ethic of genuine care with a writerly skill set.

It’s also what got me into refugee advocacy. I was stationed in Mongolia through the Henry Luce Scholar program in September 2007, and so I happened to be a writer PEN America knew about on the ground there in Ulaanbaatar, when an exiled Chinese medicine practitioner came to their office in New York that month, and asked for someone to support an exiled writer from his hometown who was seeking asylum there. My job that year was to help the Mongolian Writers Union with their international relations, and a couple of the forms that job took were campaigning for the establishment of a Mongolian PEN chapter (which came to pass in 2009, I believe); and helping out this refugee from Inner Mongolia (which is a part of China), and whose family back in China was experiencing persecution. I went with him to the UNHCR, presented about him at international conferences, and when he and his wife and daughter did get passage to America, I had nominated him for a Hellman-Hammett Grant at Human Rights Watch, which helped with his financial situation.

When I reflect on what led to my activism, which began in many ways that year in Mongolia, I come to think that being an activist comes down to a consistent awareness not just of injustices, which are often obvious, but of one’s own values, limitations, and skill set. It commands, additionally, willingness to put those to work as often and with as much elbow grease as you can–while simultaneously acknowledging that our values and skill sets change over time, too. If you know on any given day what you’re about and what you’re keen to do, there are ways to blend the two every day of your life, even as you won’t be able to do the same thing to the same extent every day. You don’t have to be a famous writer at Random House to know what you enjoy and find rewarding, and you don’t have to have millions of followers to engage meaningfully in the fight to imagine and create a better world. Pema Chodron’s advice to “start where you are” is useful for me as an activist. Activism leads to burnout unless one attentively fashions a life as an activist that draws from those areas of our subjectivity that fill from beneath, like Glück’s wellspring. It’s possible to find things that contribute to the wider good and that rejuvenate you to do; it’s your job to look honestly at yourself and decide what those things are, and then do them. Like democracy, activism (and allyship) are questions of daily industry, constant vigilance, and endless humility–which, importantly, is different from self-unkindness in any form.

KMD:  In addition to your achievements as a nonfiction writer, you are a gifted poet. What can nonfiction writers learn from poets about structure, experimentation with narrative forms, and metaphor?

MLH: Thank you!  I find the rules often to be the same for poetry and nonfiction: what makes them good are concerns with space, rhythm, pitch, pacing, and when to know that your imagery is strong enough to speak for itself. 

I also believe that while not all poets decide to be nonfiction writers, the heart of a poet beats in every nonfiction writer. Just look at how popular Forrest’s essays are; how poetically Joan Didion ends her essays on Hollywood. Let’s look at the fact that Ross Gay isn’t just one of the country’s best poets; his essays on race relations in America define our era.

I grew up soaked in books of poetry, and less concerned with the newspaper of the world, and while I became concerned with news in high school, that affective response to the world has echoed into every part of my work and approach, even as the kinds of efforts and events I wrote about were increasingly the kind you’d read about in mainstream news outlets. And I think that openness to affective experience that is the coin of the poetry realm, the willingness to be buffeted about by the elements of the world, pairs beautifully with the desire for exposition and justice driving nonfiction. 

Come to think of it, there is actually an origin story for how I was able to wed the lyric approach with an overt concern for social justice topics. I attended Honor Moore’s workshop in poetry at the 2001 Wesleyan University Writing Conference, and John D’Agata was there as her guest to give a presentation on the lyric essay. His book of lyric essays, Halls of Fame, had just come out from Graywolf; the anthology he edited, The Next American Essay, came a year or two after that, which was an incredibly formative read for any budding creative nonfiction writer. I took that anthology to Russia, and wrote my first lyric essay, “Lenin,” about working for a sustainable forestry project there in 2003.

At this point I’m probably most directly a creative disciple of Lidia Yuknavotch and Terese Mailhot, but back then D’Agata really did do so much to open up the lyric essay as this space of exciting potential between nonfiction prose and poetry.  It gave me the sense that as someone with a foot in poems and a foot in social justice work, I could do things between the two that might challenge presupposed boundaries and methodologies in useful ways. I was also still a teenager and just really wowed by what he was doing, and then I got to Brown, which was possibly the best place for an inter-genre writer at that time, because Thalia Field and Forrest Gander and Catherine Imbriglio and Brian Evenson and Roberts Creeley and Coover were all there. I think I took sixteen creative writing workshops as an undergraduate. I’d first read Thalia’s work in that anthology D’Agata edited, and I immediately applied for her to be my thesis director. I mean, it was just heavenly, and being in that cohort was one of those rare moments of youthful awareness wherein I knew how lucky I was even at the time. I’ll be in federal student debt forever, but I had a wonderful time getting that way.

KMD:  What else are you working on?  What can readers look forward to?

MLH: One of the characters in Netflix and Narcissists, a Native American man called Tautahcho from the Chumash tribe on California’s Central Coast where I grew up, is also a character in my first book. He’s going to finally be the central character in my current third-book project, which came about at his request. Tautahcho, a Vietnam veteran and cancer survivor and Aikido Sensei, has been an important mentor to me for over twenty years, and when I got home on break from college once and visited him back in 2005, he just said, “Hey Ming! When are we gonna do our book?”

He has had it in mind to have me write a book about him, about his life wisdom and perspective, ever since. So for sixteen years, we’ve been recording interviews, first in tape cassettes and now on my iphone, and the title he came up with for the book that will emerge from our sessions is Allow Me To Remind You: Conversations with Tautahcho. I’m hoping to chase down a grant or some kind of funding to fully devote myself to transcribing those interviews, and sculpting that next book. Looking around at the world today, I believe that book’s time has come. We could all do with being reminded of what Tautahcho knows!

from Netflix and Narcissists