Some of my Canadian readers will recognize my next title. Superfan: How Pop Culture Broke My Heart by Jen Sookfong Lee has gotten lots of recent and positive coverage in the media, and I tend to enjoy non-fiction essays with a lighter touch, so I opted to give it a try when the publisher sent me a copy. Lee has written a few books, mainly fiction, but she also hosts a podcast about the world of Canadian publishing. She’s also very active on twitter so I was already familiar with her voice, and this collection definitely progressed my appreciation for her perspectives, and talent.
These are 11 honest and soul-baring essays that alternate between analysis of pop culture icons and their affect on the author’s psyche, to raw glimpses of her life as a Canadian-Chinese woman struggling to determine her true self. Now in her early forties, Lee details moments of her childhood, many of them difficult, including the death of her father from a slow and excruciating cancer, the depressive and raging episodes of her mother and the gradual exodus of her four older sisters from the family home. As Lee gets older, she mines her most recent stumbling blocks; the failed attempt at a writing program in Montreal, a crumbling first marriage, and the struggles of single motherhood in Vancouver, a place where real estate prices are so high, they verge on unbelievable. Interspersed between these personal stories are recollections of tv shows she watched as a kid, and the often painful comparisons they led to between her family, and those on the screen in front of her. One essays detail Rhianna’s heartfelt songs that served as a source of inspiration and then guilt, as Lee strove to be as brave as the songstress when Rhianna testified against her abusive ex-boyfriend. Another essay examines Kris Jenner’s all-consuming love and drive to helping her Kardashian clan succeed, when Lee’s own mother hurtfully points out her daughter’s failures at every opportunity. Lee is not striving for the same life these celebrities and make-believe families have, instead, they simply work alongside her life’s ups and downs to paint a portrait of self-image and her values.
I was surprised to discover there wasn’t an substantial amount of pop culture references in this book, considering the title (I’m still puzzling over how pop culture broke her heart, as it seems to have helped in repairing it). The celebrities that Lee follows and analyzes don’t play a pivotal role in this book, but they do offer themselves up as comparisons, sometimes as role models that are missing from her life (like a loving and attentive mother), or a source of resentment and rage, like the perfection that Gwyneth Paltrow packages and then sells to women through her stupid Goop site. I’m not particularly well-versed in celebrity culture, but this in no way hindered my appreciation of her writing, even the parts where she is speaking about the relevance of a social icon and how they have factored into her life. These people act as signposts for Lee, either as something to aspire to, or something to avoid, and we all have these people in our lives, whether they be a celebrity, a family member, or even an acquaintance. It’s Lee’s isolation at certain points in her life that led to her interest in pop culture, but its also acted as a welcoming distraction for her when she’s been struggling.
The essays that mine her awkward teen years are some of the most difficult to read. She acknowledges the embarrassing things that she says and does at that time, which is quite a brave thing considering how desperately most people want to keep that period of their lives in the past. But her attempts to fit in are made worse by the fact that her mother is continually putting her down, which is heartbreaking to read about. At that early point in her life, Lee also wanted to distance herself from her Chinese background, so she did whatever she could to counteract these stereotypes and express herself in a way that feels authentic, although she later calls these attempts “curated” (p.78). I dog-eared that page because I remember feeling exactly the same way; this pressure to curate myself a teenage girl is one I remember clearly, and I think many people still struggle with that feeling: the burden of selecting an appearance and personality to suit your environment. Its these moments of honest clarity that made me appreciate Lee’s ability to distill these painful yet relatable phases in her life.
This book isn’t for everyone, I can already anticipate some people pointing out it’s full of complaints. It is full of complaints! Lee doesn’t hold back in pointing out unfairness in injustice, in her life and in others. But it’s an honest look at one woman’s life who is struggling with many of the same things other women are, and its refreshing to see it unflinchingly recorded for all to see.