If I had read Truman Capote's Breakfast At Tiffany's as a cloistered, naive teenager, Holly Golightly would have been an entirely bewildering character to encounter. A girl who blithely talked about receiving "powder room money" was foreign to my world, her worldly vocabulary and insouciant cadences forbidden.
Before a certain age, the age when you believe you can do anything, there was God. (In San Diego, the worst town to grow up Baptist; if you don’t know how to drive, there is nowhere to escape.) Above my bed hung a picture of blue-eyed Jesus, which I often turned around so that I could sin unblushingly. At Sunday school, Mr. Thompson played videos that depicted teens contemplating premarital sex in the probable event of an Apocalypse.
There was also a Mother, who told me that bad girls had bad mothers; if I even kissed before marriage, everyone would know: my mother was a bad mother. Everyone being the church, family, acquaintances; in short the Cambodian community, a vaguely defined entity, comprised of refugee pockets of unknown faces and names with familiar cadences in Boston, Seattle, Long Beach and San Diego. Sometimes it was back “home,” in Cambodia, in the past, where the dead would surely have been infuriated by my unladylike behavior. If they only knew, it was insisted, they would rise from their graves and beat me or, better yet, chop off my feet.
A girl as unruly and blithe as Holly Golightly was certainly incomprehensible to a naive, extremely introverted teenager. I probably would have shunned her, fearful of this witty, worldly girl who represented everything I couldn’t understand: promiscuity, emotional fickleness, the thrilling, unwieldy, frightening polymorphous perversity of desire. Everything ambiguous and dangerous - the erotic possibilities within me - my mother warned against to save her precious face and mine, too, or what she thought was mine. So my feet were temporarily bound, present and future movements controlled by the norms of a community that later seemed invented by a mother who sought to protect me from an alien culture.
After my 18th birthday, everything changed. I left for school, where I would grapple with feminist theory and postcolonial literature, which, in short, addressed gender (and class and race) politics, the circumscriptions by the State and the family, and the unruliness of the body feminine. These studies were also abetted by relationships with the world - platonic and romantic, with boys, men, the concept of love itself, and especially women, androgynous, sexless, lustful, who were not like my mother, who were a little like my mother, who were a lot or a little or not at all like Holly Golightly but something else and always contradictory. Rini who loved only boys who lived in faraway cities, Niva whose beauty and money scared and attracted boys, the lovely polyamorous Ariana, Sohini who would disappear for days, sexless misanthropic Ashley, tomboy Mel with her braveheart safety-pinned to her sleeve, Myriam smart and sexy and hurt.
However, no woman, certainly not the ones I knew, could ever be described so patly. Yet I can inscribe my mother so cruelly, with an estranged daughter’s melancholic ease; I have never known her as anything but my mother. She is the beginning (but not the end, and that is what I have finally learned). Thus, over the years, the storyteller’s deftness becomes honed, in the effort to tell best the first story I ever told, the one about myself becoming a woman.
Now I wonder what sort of woman will surface in my fiction, who will tell her story through me, what kind of rage or sadness or even joy might be expressed. Perhaps I can tell the story of my mother before she became a mother: a young woman between worlds, before flight, before marriage, before my birth, before the church, before the moment she would tell her daughter the difference between a good and a bad woman.