Lady in the House: Shelley Wong

This month, Bitch Magazine has provided us with questions for our Lady in The House feature. We have also asked each Lady in the House to provide a writing prompt for our readers. –The Editors.

 

When was the first time you remember being called a bitch? What were the circumstances?

I want to say that it was a stranger and that it was in reaction to something I did in retaliation rather than something I said. I don’t remember the details. The last time was last month in New York when my Queens friend called me a bitch because I insisted on paying for her dinner to return a favor. She’s one of my best friends so I know that she says it with love.

 

What is your own definition of the word?

It’s most often used as a slur against women who speak or act in ways that others find threatening. Others try to diminish these actions by comparing a woman to a wild animal, thus taking away her reason. But now we’ve reclaimed the word as an empowered, unapologetic woman. Bitches disrupt the status quo, break the silence, and talk back. Labeling won’t stop a bitch.

 

Have you ever had to explain the word to someone younger, like a child? What did you say?

I haven’t, but that would be an important conversation to have. If I knew what the context was, I would want to talk it through and say that people sometimes speak out of anger and fear and resort to name-calling rather than explaining why they are upset.

 

Carolyn Kizer once wrote of “a bitch” inside her. What lives inside you?

The creature that lives inside me is rethinking and carefully considering the options. She has a burning need to speak out against silencing, injustice, and oppression, as well as a passion to create something beautiful and real. In the past few years, I have been moving closer towards my unapologetic self. Things seem to fall away in your 30s and it’s deliciously liberating.

 

Have you ever written a “bad” character? Who was it?

Intriguing question. In response to a persona prompt, I wrote a self-portrait poem as an assassin so I suppose that fits the category of “murder-bad.” It was unsuccessful and rather cartoonish because I wasn’t able to tap into what would motivate this character. On a serious note, and taking “bad” to the extreme of genocide and war crimes, some of the most searing poems I have ever read features a historical figure involved in an atrocity as the central character: Rita Dove’s “Parsley,” Carolyn Forché’s “The Colonel,” and Srikanth Reddy’s collection Voyager.

 

Who are your favorite bitches in fiction or larger pop culture?

1980s era Madonna, my first and last idol, who taught me how to dance it out and so much more. Key lyric: “I’m not the same / I have no shame / I’m on fire . . .” from “Burning Up.”

Catwoman, especially Michelle Pfeiffer in Batman Returns. I love how she flips the damsel-in-distress dialogue to her advantage during combat (“How could you? I’m a woman!”) I just recently learned that it was written by Heathers screenwriter Daniel Waters. Talk about your classic bitch movies!

Beatrix Kiddo, O-Ren Ishii, Vernita Green, and Elle Driver in the Kill Bill films.

Sylvia Plath. She is often reduced to a tragic figure, but her work is terrifically alive— biting, surreal, tender, arch, and, above all, formidable.

 

Many women suffer from the affliction of “Bitchy Resting Face.”  Have you ever been asked to “cheer up!” when in reality, you’re just thinking? 

It’s possible that my at-rest face could be seen that way, but I don’t recall any specific encounters. I’m an introvert; some people may interpret a reserved attitude as bitchiness or aloofness. Or some may assume that I don’t speak English (yes, Asian Americans are still fighting the perpetual foreigner stereotype). For several years, I lived in New York and perfected my impassive look on the subway. I tend to walk fast, so that gets me out of awkward male-stranger conversations most of the time.

 

If you had to choose between being perpetually angry or perpetually fearful, which would you pick?

I would choose anger over fear and turn it into a force of action.

 

Writing Prompt

Consider a spectacle where there is a performer (or performers) and an audience (of one or many). How does the silence speak? Write one poem/prose piece as the performer and one as a witness/audience member. How does the speaker confront the silence?

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Lady in the House: Shelley Wong