Love & Wisdom

Hot New Books for Summer

Susan Lieu, Ijeoma Oluo, and Sasha taqʷšəblu LaPointe release compelling, transformative works

By Shin Yu Pai June 11, 2024

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This article originally appeared in the May/June 2024 issue of Seattle magazine.

In her debut memoir, The Manicurist’s Daughter, Seattle playwright and performer Susan Lieu, best known for her autobiographical solo show, 140 LBS: How Beauty Killed My Mother, recounts the tale of losing her mother in a botched plastic surgery procedure. When Susan was 11 years old, her Vietnamese refugee mother, Phuong Ha, died on the operating table of an uninsured plastic surgeon who had, unbeknownst to Lieu’s family, already been a defendant in 19 malpractice cases. Her family’s refusal to discuss Phuong’s death and its impacts overshadowed Lieu’s emotional development and life.

Susan Lieu – The Manicurist’s Daughter

In this extended version of a story that was originally written for the stage, Lieu unravels the long journey toward learning to love and mother herself, while searching for answers to her mother’s identity and the circumstances surrounding her death. As an adult, Lieu spends time in Vietnam and with relatives to learn the story of her family’s escape from a war-ravaged country and to better understand the role that her mother played in bringing her relatives to the United States, while still supporting family back home. Fragments and memories of her parents’ stories are interwoven with Lieu’s own narrative as a Vietnamese American.

Raised in a culture with unrealistic beauty standards, Lieu reflects on her body dysmorphia and relationship to eating through passages about binge eating, hiding food, and body shame. In her search to find self-acceptance and self-love, she writes about her brief time as a member of the cult Dahn Yoga, engaging spiritual mediums, hanging out with a Buddhist monk, and leaving her corporate career to embrace more fully becoming an artist.

Bearing resemblance to Stephanie Foo’s What My Bones Know, and Tessa Hull’s graphic novel, Feeding Ghosts, Lieu’s memoir explores intergenerational traumas and the power of rewriting and reclaiming one’s own narrative. As Lieu develops compassion toward each of her family members and their sacrifices and personal traumas, the characters of her siblings, father, and mother become more three-dimensional as she allows their identities to expand and grow beyond the limited understanding that she had of them as a child.

For those who have experienced Lieu’s one-woman show or seen her work at The Wing Luke Museum’s exhibition Where Beauty Lies and are curious to know more about Lieu’s trajectory as an artist, The Manicurist’s Daughter provides some perspective into Lieu’s evolution as a performer. She started with stand-up comedy, which led to an auditioning class, and eventually an acting workshop. The support that Lieu received for sharing her mother’s story in acting class inspired her to develop 140 LBS for a small performance festival. Based on audience feedback, Lieu continued to grow and refine her per formance piece. She includes sect ions of the performance script and her memories of premiering the piece at Theatre Off Jackson in her book. While Lieu’s memoir lingers on her identity as a celebrity with a growing public profile, readers may better appreciate the author’s inner journey toward wholeness and the actual moments of emotional complexity that make us want her to keep pushing beyond fear to find her voice and deeper truth.

 

Ijeoma Oluo

Seattle’s Ijeoma Oluo established her reputation as a social critic with her earlier books So You Want to Talk about Race, and Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America. But in her new book, Be A Revolution: How Everyday People are Fighting Oppression and Changing the World — And How You Can, Too, Oluo turns her attention to profiling and writing about social movement builders working across America.

She interviews and engages with more than 25 community builders, including numerous Seattle-area changemakers such as Norma Timbang who helped to establish API Chaya, an organization devoted to fighting violence against immigrant women being trafficked into marriage; Theryn Kigvamasud’vashti, former codirector of Communities Against Rape and Abuse; Laura Clise, founder of Intentionalist, an online guide to intentional spending that supports small businesses and diverse local communities; DarNesha Weary, owner of Black Coffee Northwest, a Black-owned business that invests in Black youth and community self-care; Native American activist Matt Remle, who helped lead the movement to get Seattle to disinvest from Wells Fargo during the Standing Rock protests; Inye Wokoma and Elisheba Johnson, founders of Black cultural space Wa Na Wari; plus Nikkita Oliver of the Creative Justice Project, an arts-based alternative to incarceration for young people in King County.

Ijeoma Oluo – Be a Revolution

Oluo also devotes time to remembering the short-lived Capitol Hill Occupied Protest (CHOP) that flourished for three weeks in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and resulted in a takeover of Cal Anderson Park.

Oluo includes a section of interviews and writing specifically related to disability and race, arguing that racism and ableism can’t be separated in the struggle for liberation as the two issues serve the same purpose: “to justify the oppression, exclusion, and exploitation of people based on a manufactured hierarchy of value,” or ableist ideas of conditional human value based on productivity. She invokes disability advocate Talila Lewis’ image of the “Escherian stair” in describing the relationship between racism and ableism. Oluo also writes about the work of activist and academic Dr. Sami Schalk to contemplate the barriers for participation for disabled people who are excluded from marches, protests, and movement work.

Like an extended issue of YES! Magazine, Oluo’s book takes a solutions journalism approach to addressing social issues and looks broadly at community leaders working around the country to make structural change to systems that include education, media, labor, health, housing, environment, and policing. Organized by areas in which activists are fighting against systemic racism, Oluo ends each section with a list of recommendations for actions and practices that support changemaking at various levels of commitment and impact. The collection is her offering to engage citizens seeking to take steps toward making real change.

 

Sasha taqʷšəblu LaPointe

Sasha taqʷšəblu LaPointe’s new collection of personal essays, Thunder Song (Counterpoint, 2024), revisits some of the same terrain as her breakout debut Red Paint (Counterpoint, 2022). Similar to her earlier memoir, Thunder Song engages with LaPointe’s passion for music and the influence of punk on her voice and literary sensibilities. But if her first book primarily focused on excavating intergenerational trauma, this more mature collection of linked essays looks at a broader range of emotional experience and draws immediate connections between colonial history and the author’s present-day experiences as a Native American woman living in the Pacific Northwest.

Sasha taqʷšəblu LaPointe – Thunder Song

The title of Thunder Song comes from a story about the author’s great grandmother, Vi Hilbert, and a cassette recording that she possessed of Chief Seattle’s “thunder spirit song” — a song for prayer and healing that holds spiritual power. Hilbert shared the recording with a composer and commissioned him to write music for the Seattle Symphony based on Chief Seattle’s song with the hope for bringing medicine to a world in need of desperate change. Guided by a similar impulse as her great grandmother Hilbert, LaPointe attends to a world in chaos — bearing witness to the CHOP protests on Capitol Hill in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, connecting her fear of Covid-19 to historical epidemics that decimated Native populations, reflecting on the lack of access to safe abortions afforded to Native American women, to drawing a thread between the red dresses left in trees by the community that signify missing, murdered Indigenous women to the violence enacted on her by men in intimate relationships.

LaPointe gives readers a perspective on the kind of invisibility and erasure that Native Americans experience and their experience of land as a place colonized and changed by settlers. She writes about the transformation of tidelands, the introduction of tulips in the 19th century, and the impacts of traffic and tourism brought to local communities by the annual Tulip Festival in Skagit Valley.

She writes of the whiteness of the punk rock and Riot Grrrl scenes when she was coming up and its failure to fully make inclusive space for Native people, all while writing from the awareness of a complicated light-skinned status — knowing that the attention that she receives and what makes her acceptable to white people erases all Native identity, including hers. These experiences run deep — LaPointe recounts a story from her childhood of being invited for a playdate at a white classmate’s house. She brought her sister along to play, but her sibling was sent home by her classmate’s family because of the bias against her sister’s darker brown skin color.

LaPointe’s journey in this book is of recovering a sense of self-love and cultural identity that informs all else. She writes of the complicated desire to be white that developed when she was young and the path toward reclaiming her identity through decolonizing her body, mind, and (vegetarian) diet. She comes clean with her vegan partner about her longing and relationship to salmon, a food that is critical to her identity. He chooses to love her anyway and gives her an acceptance that helps her deepen her capacity for love. As care for self and other expands, she repairs an estranged relationship with her mother. And as she connects to a deeper sense of love that is without boundaries or ownership, LaPointe points the reader toward a larger kind of love rooted in unconditional care and compassion in a uniquely Indigenous queer love story.

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