Heart-Shaped Bruise

Pop Song: Adventures in Art & Intimacy BY Larissa Pham. New York: Catapult. 288 pages. $26.
The cover of Pop Song: Adventures in Art & Intimacy

When I used to write about my relationship to anorexia, I tended to retreat to metaphor. It was a worm. It left me hollow, scoured, cleaned of mucous contents. It was a fire. It was a book set aflame, and I was both the fire and the paper. Because I believed it didn’t have anything to do with how my body looked, I felt, at times, like there was something more regal, more holy about my condition, as though its removal from my body reduced the amount by which I was abased.

I regret this, and I regret writing about it that way—with poetry. It was a way to make sense of a thing I found lived inside me, but I regret trying to accept it by making it beautiful. Though this is something we all do, cope by aestheticizing our pain.

I’m thinking of someone attending to a wounded animal, or a child. So what hurts, then? What hurts?

Once, a guy I was dating asked me to help him throw up. Crouched over the toilet, he said, “Punch me in the stomach.” I told him, I don’t want to, put your fingers in the back of your throat, and he said, “You’d know about that, wouldn’t you,” and I reeled back with hurt, and I didn’t punch him, and he didn’t gag himself. But he did throw up and it was all red wine and it was still red.

In my early twenties, I made paintings about my pain. Obliquely, sexily, like a sad little ballet dancer making a moue over her shoulder. Among them: a pink canvas shibari-tied with red rope. An orangey-purple bruise, livid against tan skin. A photo transfer of a selfie with a hickey the morning after a hookup, glazed in sour greens and streaks of chalky white. An abstracted painting of my wrist, a hair elastic striping across the faint trace of two scrapes— there were wounds in the paintings, wounds everywhere. I titled them in all caps. I guess you could say the paintings themselves were bruises of a different kind—another way of taking, or making, evidence.

Some of it was political, wrenching with other people’s desire: I was an Asian woman, a yellow body, a brown body, a fuckable fetish fighting against the label. My hypersexual paintings were a way to call it out while playing the game. (Johanna Fateman: “It’s no surprise that for a lot of artists, gaming the system is more appealing, or simply more feasible, than changing it.”) It was an erotic system within which I felt myself ambivalently entwined—I liked being wanted, but I was always suspicious of why I was desired. Rather than turn the whole thing on its head—I wasn’t brave enough to make myself ugly or undesirable—I thought if I could take control of my pain, if I could own it, I could become a woman with agency. It wouldn’t matter if I still hurt. At least I’d be able to describe it.

In my research on the eating disorder blogs, my most salient finding was that the bloggers—no matter their relationship to their disorder—crave agency. They aren’t victims; they’re subjects.

Around 2014, maybe 2015, the preferred term to refer to a person who has been sexually assaulted becomes survivor.

In 2015, too, I encounter this line in Maggie Nelson’s book The Argonauts: “But somewhere along the line, from my heroes, whose souls were forged in fires infinitely hotter than mine, I gained an outsized faith in articulation itself as its own form of protection.” I liked to see someone else say it. It meant that articulation had protected her, too.

Larissa Pham. Photo: Adalena Kavanagh
Larissa Pham. Photo: Adalena Kavanagh

That the beginning of my career writing in public coincided with the development of my sexual abjection is not, I think, a coincidence. In the mid-2010s, the dominant mode by which a young, hungry writer could enter the conversation was by deciding which of her traumas she wished to monetize. The struggle—be it anorexia, depression, casual racism, or perhaps a sadness like mine, which blended all three—was described lyrically, articulated through the lens of a recent book or film and hung out to dry. For this, I was paid the industry rate of $150. It was 2015, and everyone was a pop-culture critic, writing from the seat of experience. Representation mattered, and we had our grievances, shaken free by a new, easily accessible language of social justice. I write about it cynically now, but all of this was important—to shifting culture, to creating literature, to developing a shared language toward describing a better world.

The problem was that I, along with so many others, was doing it for the first time. The process required us to bare ourselves, with little in the way of material or emotional protection. We were confessionalists again, but instead of one another, our audience was the world at large, eager to hear tales of flagellation.

Pain resonates. Pain is an unlocked room with the door shut: it paid too much to stay away from the source of it, so I kept walking in. For online outlets I wrote about heartbreak and about systemic racism. About my struggles with mental health, about my eating disorder, about casual sex, glorifying my methods of coping, which became, in itself, a way of coping. At times the disclosure did feel like bravery, and I believe that it was deserved. Other times, I keenly felt the cynicism of it—selling out some minor trauma for a byline and a news peg. And in all of this I found yet another framework to lodge my pain inside, another way to show off my bruises, more lucrative than any online diary or camera roll.

It was, and is, tempting to dwell in this close, sticky space, to crave being hurt, to glorify the wound, to want to stay interesting and close to the flesh, poking at the bruise. As long as I have my pain, I know that I can feel something. As long as I have my bruises, I can show that my hurt exists. 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.

I worry that in writing this down, I’m showing you the ways I made myself abject. But it was useful before, and I’ve never liked the self-help books where the writer comes across as holier than thou, already healed and already recovered. I want to honor the girl I was, whose pain was real. It’s her I write for, too.

Excerpted from Pop Song: Adventures in Art and Intimacy, copyright © 2021 by Larissa Pham. Reprinted by permission of Catapult.