15. Origins

How awed I am by new life. The story behind my animated short Chamoe; Knausgaard and book darts; where to get good pie in Manhattan.

“But I, alas, do not know how to see sheep through the walls of boxes. Perhaps I am a little like the grown-ups. I have had to grow old.”
—Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince


Surprise! I write to you from sunny California, where I’ve been spending time with my nephew, a mewling critter of 3 weeks. He’s a dense mass in a tender envelope of tiny bones, sinew, secretions. There’s a soul in there, slowly and steadily layering outward. His impossibly miniature nails are complete with half moons and a little fairy grit. There are creases in his palms, as brief as his existence has been.

And hair! He has so much hair. 

Next I see him, he’ll be much changed; a little larger on the outside; tripled, quadrupled on the inside; his physiognomy shifted and risen like the plates of a new earth. His smell is subtle and sweet, slightly animal too. Milky, woolly, organic. Addictive. 

He’s sleeping now next to me, arms crooked up by his ears in mid-hurrah; suspended in a declaration of triumph. Some secret wager won, mysterious victory gained.

He drifts between waking and slumber with alarming ease. His eyes, an unblinking gray-blue in a certain light, seem to stare intently into mine before abruptly shuttering back to a primordial vapor—utterly exhausted, with effort, and of us. 

Sometimes he’ll jerk awake, arms and legs tensing outward in a whipping flash as if he were falling. But how does he know what falling is? Other times his breathing will quicken as if he were being pursued. Does he dream? What previous life haunts him? What world does he draw from?

He is a sphinx. 

The thought that he will not stay this pure is in some ways hard to bear.

I was listening to parents screaming at each other on a recent episode of The Daily, and I realized that I kind of can’t remember what life was like before the pandemic, before 2016 and this age of animus when our divisions weren’t so up front. I thought about divergence, how it has eclipsed a great bulk of American life. 

Alone with my nephew while his parents nap, I think the next predictable thought, that those parents from Central Bucks, Pennsylvania began like this themselves: friendly, if a bit fussy; tiny, new; unable to support the weight of their own heads; desires and complaints countable on a single hand.

My nephew flexes his small paws. Their creases deepen. 

Now when I watch a movie, I find myself focusing on hands—those of grandfathers, bakers, serial killers, superheroes, liars—and can’t help thinking about our breathtaking degrees of departure. Not just from where each of us began, but from each other.

This issue is about origins. It is itself a departure given travel and the nephew these past two weeks. I’ll return next issue with an update on my animated short Chamoe.

  • WIP: the story behind Chamoe 

  • Reading: The Morning Star

  • Tools: book darts

  • NYC: good pie in Manhattan

Even more upgrades this month! Thank you! I’m incredibly humbled, and so happy that you find value in my work.

A bit of news: member support has made it possible for me to collaborate with a musician/sound designer for Chamoe! I’m very excited about it—stay tuned 🙏

As always, deepest gratitude to members for believing in my process and vision ❤️

The Story behind Chamoe

Since I was away from the desk a lot these past two weeks, I think it’s a good time for a little backstory on Chamoe. I began talking about the project’s start-up in Issue 01, but here’s more about the narrator herself, and the context in which the story takes place.

Chamoe (참외) is a Korean summer melon with sweet, crisp white flesh. It has an abundance of light-colored seeds that can be eaten or discarded (I eat everything except the peel). It’s usually oblong in shape and particularly refreshing when consumed chilled.

Chamoe, my eponymous 2 minute animated short, is narrated by my mother. She talks about her intense craving for this out-of-season fruit when she was pregnant with me back in Korea. She also reminisces about her paternal grandmother, with whom she was very close.

On its face Chamoe is a fond memory relived, a story about family and tenderness.

My mother grew up in poverty among many siblings, then transitioned into the surface-level privilege of upper-middle class women, continuing into convention: college, marriage, mortgage, children, sacrifice, dependence.

When she was pregnant with me she was in her twenties, unhappily married, and frequently depressed. (Only three years later, she’d go through a harrowing second pregnancy with my sisters.)

Mainstream Korean culture, long-rooted in Confucianism and savaged by war, remains punitive to women. Back then it was even worse, especially when it came to things like divorce (according to my mother, child custody almost always went to the father). She had very little of what could be called a support system, often feeling alone, scared, and defeated.

You can hear this in her voice.

The 2 minute narration you hear in Chamoe is cut and rearranged from hours of conversations, most of them over the phone. (I learned the hard way that sound from phone speakers has a high level of distortion that’s difficult to mitigate later. I recommend using external speakers or a service like Tape a Call if you must record from the phone.)

My great-grandmother was a beautiful and comforting presence during some of my mother’s darkest days, rising as a vivid memory in stories I heard over several calls.

See photographs of both women in the member-only supplemental to this issue.

Take in good things, make good things

Knausgård’s The Morning Star, book darts, where to find good pie in Manhattan.

I was watching Succession’s 5th episode (Season 3) with my nephew (early education, people!) and laughed out loud when Siobhan refers to “Knausgaard” in a sneering comment to her husband Tom.

I finished his latest, The Morning Star
a week and a half ago. It’s a hefty but highly readable tome of over 600 pages, oscillating between the stories of 6+ people on a night that a mysterious star appears. Strange things begin to happen. 

It’s a spooky novel with disquieting imagery. The parallel stories felt like a slow crawl toward an inevitable and collective recognition of…not the End, exactly, but a cataclysm of some sort.

Also, I was impressed by how well the characters disambiguated themselves. Despite numerous first persons, it was easy to tell who was who by tone, manner, and take.

It’s a recommend.

Best with book darts
Book darts are these whisper-thin clips that I use to mark passages in paper books. (Paper is easier on my eyes, I retain more, and I prefer the tactile experience).

I think I first discovered book darts at this dusty reading-accessory company called Levenger, but you can find them elsewhere too.

A great way to mark passages that move you, or trigger ideas, as you read. Return any time to investigate further.

Continue in the member-only supplemental to this issue, which contains family photographs and personal details that I feel comfortable sharing with a limited audience. I also let you in on where I get my pies, holiday and everyday, here in NYC.

The Line Between
15s. Member only supplemental
Dear member, I have a deep respect for oral history, and Chamoe is my way of continuing a line the best way I know how. My hope is that these photographs—of my mother, who narrates it, and her grandmother, who figures in it so prominently—add depth to your experience when you watch the final animated short. Perhaps even…
Read more

We come from mystery, we return to mystery. We’re at least together in that. It makes me sad, a little. But my nephew redeems us, if only for the moment.

Happy thanksgiving to my American compatriots! May you enjoy pie, and share in an abundance of grace.

Until next time.