Hungry Ghosts: A Preview
The three essays that make up Hungry Ghosts by Soleil Ho represent a kind of thinking that is perfectly complete and completely perfect. These essays, “Teach Me How to Speak,” “Minotaur,” and “Girl Power,” are linked to a relentless mind who finds patterns in cultural phenomena vis-a-vis her own inquiries into collective consciousness and memory. The subjects are smart and exacting, and Soleil’s breadth of understanding, observation, and insight urges her readers to consider and re-consider their methods of encounter and entertainment. Whether we are asked to follow the Korean pop sensation PSY (of “Gangnam Style” fame) to its most racist nadir, interrogate a spot on the head, or revisit the trappings of 90s’-issued “girl power,” Soleil’s command of language will convince you that an extraordinary amount of work must still be done to confront every cancerous ‘ism we’ve embodied as a country and as citizens of the world. These important essays could not be published at a worthier time, what with the president-elect’s filthy rise to power, his future cabinet of white nationalist curiosities, and the swarm of bigotry that has gained certifiable potency in this nation. Chagrined as I am to present this chapbook against such relief, it is a necessary read and could very well be the kind of call to action you need to stand up to cisheteropatriarchy and white supremacy.
I had the pleasure of talking with Soleil about her chapbook. Unsurprisingly, her answers are full of the smart and daring charisma you’ll find in all of her work. I am also happy to present a small excerpt from her third essay, “Girl Power.” Please do purchase this extraordinary chapbook. As always, Emily Raw designed the brilliant rainbow holographic cover that looks like oil-slick currency of the post-industrial future, as well as wormy-static endpapers. Think of the aesthetic as a TV that’s been plunged into a radioactive crag. What I’m saying is, you really need to buy this book.
excerpt from “Girl Power”
Back home in New York City, my friends were beginning to talk about this thing called “Girl Power.” Well, not so much talking about it as shouting the phrase whenever they got excited about anything. My best friend and fellow divorced kid, Samantha, introduced me to the concept: “It just means that when girls do something it’s better because we’re girls!” She would usually conclude such statements with cartwheels, no matter where we were. The Spice Girls filled me in on the rest of the idea.
At their peak in 1997, the Spice Girls infected the globe with their brand of Girl Power, a slippery idea that, thanks to its broad marketing, is hard to define without resorting to punchily punctuated buzzwords and phrases. Individuality. Success. Catsuits. Sexiness. Kicking ass. Record deals. Femininity. Image management. Independence. It’s a particularly abstract take on empowerment feminism, which is a philosophy that, as Samantha pointed out to me, reconfigures any and all actions taken by women into feminist victories. According to the tenets of Our Ladies of Spice, Madonna is Girl Power. Margaret Thatcher is Girl Power. Rachael Ray is Girl Power. Phyllis Schlafly is Girl Power. I am—therefore I am powerful.
I remember someone asking Samantha, who had quickly become the resident Girl Power evangelist, “Can grown-ups have Girl Power?” Since the Spice Girls were all obviously adult women, it became easy to deduce that being a girl was something eternal that you would never discard. When I heard her say this, my back muscles tightened. So no matter how old I got, would I be a girl forever?
Every time someone calls me a girl or yells, “Hey, baby girl!” at me on the street, I remember what Samantha said. I continually have to remind myself that I am a comfortable number of years older than eighteen. That, by all quantifiable measures, I am a woman. And yet.
The funny thing about the Spice Girls is that the five of them all went by reductive aliases—mostly adjectives: Sporty, Scary, Posh, Baby, and Ginger. The object of this branding was to make their personalities simple to understand and as accessible to young girls as possible. Samantha decided early on that she was Sporty Spice, which only served to increase the frequency of her cartwheels. But I had a hard time deciding for myself, since there wasn’t, as far as I could tell, a Smarty Spice.
A Conversation with Soleil Ho
Natalie Eilbert: When I read your essays, I have this sensation in my body of a hand drawing many circles. Perhaps I have a distinct kind of ASMR that when I read language this clean and exact, it inspires little seismic inner quakes. But I think it’s more to do with the way your mind works. There’s this theorem in math, the Incompleteness Theorem, that states that anything you draw a circle around cannot explain itself without referencing something outside that circle, something that must be assumed but can’t be proven. I’m curious to learn how you approach essay writing, whether it starts out as one logical shape or many, or if it’s like no shape at all.
Soleil Ho: I like your circle drawing metaphor, especially because I consider the structure of these essays to be like fractals, spiraling out and out from a point that could be anywhere in space. I’m of course familiar with the more conventional style of essay writing, which is how I make that bread in my freelance writing life. For these, I was directly inspired by the work of Eula Biss, who does something very similar in the essays in her book, No Man’s Land. I think my approach here is a bit more spread out than Biss’: my style asks a lot more of a reader, since the objective is rarely clear from the get-go. But the thing is, that’s how my mental process works! I take in image after image and then the meaning comes through while I’m juggling all of those ideas all at once and seeing how they look next to each other.
NE: In your essay “Teach Me How to Speak,” you write with astounding clarity the scope and range of racism toward Asian Americans through the phenomena of PSY’s “Gangnam Style,” American Idol and William Hung, Cho Seung-Hui (the Virginia Tech shooter), and many other pop culture references (The Macarena does not escape the snare). This is one of those rare essays that solidifies yet one more permutation of white supremacy’s deafening narrative. In other words, it’s a “Now I Can’t Unsee This” kind of essay. I’m so impressed with how it reaches in every embarrassing direction of late 90s/early aughts American culture and pulls out this thread of oppression that now seems so obvious. How did you approach this essay? Did you have a sense of where you wanted to take it?
SH: Because I’m so insistent on seeing patterns and drawing relationships—textbook conspiracy theorist here—I experience a lot of moments where I feel like I can’t relate to other people’s enjoyment of simple things. And I tend to feel like my general sense of unease with unexamined pleasure is unwelcome, especially because it is so stubbornly against the idea of being “in the moment.” Instead, my pleasure comes from the successful connection of the dots, of making out the throughlines of history in order to see where all of the little bits of what we call culture or discourse fit with each other. It just so happens that one of the major throughlines of recent human history is white supremacist heteropatriarchy, so that’s what I tend to write about. In real life, it’s a lot simpler than that: I heard some undergrads blasting “Gangnam Style” on my graduate school campus one day and thought, ‘What the fuck?’ And just in case you might think I’m some kind of holier than thou person, I’ll add that even I didn’t escape the snare of the Macarena. (See below.)
NE: In your third essay, “Girl Power,” you write about Sailor Moon, divorce, gender, Spice Girls, and this depletive notion of “girl power.” We are always stuck in the girl desert, never allowed to transform into something real. In keeping with your deceptive ease as a writer finding patterns in the world, this essay also reaches in astounding directions. Have you come to any new understandings of girl power since writing this?
SH: Since I wrote that essay a few years ago, I have only further embraced the idea that feminism must be intersectional or it is shit.
NE: You are also a chef and one of the brains behind the podcast, The Racist Sandwich. Everyone reading this should subscribe! Tell us about an enjoyable—or at least memorable—moment on The Racist Sandwich. (Subscribe, everyone!)
SH: Never in a million years would I have ever thought that I would host a podcast; just the idea felt so . . . self-centered or vain at the time. But after we posted our first episode, which is an interview with Bertony Faustin, Oregon’s first Black winemaker, we got so many messages from listeners who told us that we made them feel less alone and less crazy. That’s one of the really painful aspects of oppression: it isolates your experience by classifying it as invalid, by gaslighting you. Every time we get a message like that from a listener, I feel a little more like a person. Because I’m in the same place as them.