Talking With Mary H.K. Choi About Teens And Texting

Photo by Hatnim Lee

‘Emergency Contact’ is out now

"It sort of reminded me of marathon phone conversations that I had as a little kid, like when I was making a new friend and had that three-hour brain dump where you feel like you disgorged your entire guts," Mary H.K. Choi tells me over the phone, explaining how a "pretty torrid and epic text relationship," in which she would routinely deplete her entire phone battery ("easy to do on an iPhone," she points out), served as inspiration for the intimate texting relationship between Penny and Sam, the protagonists of her debut novel Emergency Contact. Choi says, "I wanted to write a book that sort of captured that feeling, and I also had the immediacy of being in this long-distance relationship to draw upon."

Long-distance or not and romantic or not, many relationships today rely on texting as a main form of communication, and yet this mode of talking with one another is often dismissed as being inferior, and lacking a "realness" that things like phone calls or face-to-face conversations are thought to possess inherently. This line of thinking, though, speaks to a circumscribed view of the world, one which hasn't expanded to include all the different ways in which people can make a difference in each other's lives. In Emergency Contact, Penny and Sam are both dealing with a myriad of their own issues, but they become one another's emergency contacts, and soon enough grow to rely on the other, not just in case of emergency but also in order to share the banalities of their lives, those small and beautiful thoughts and moments that make up our lived experience.

Below, I talk with Choi about the novel, why texting is a great method of communicating, and how the teens are going to be alright. 

One thing that strikes me about this book is that it serves as a counter-argument to all the people who think that digital forms of communication mean that relationships between young people are less "real" than they used to be in the past. I've heard people say that's why so much fiction is set in the recent past, because then they don't need to deal with texting and other modern forms of communication.
Yeah, you're right. It's funny because I wrote this article for Wired where I embedded with a bunch of high school age kids to talk to them about texting, social media, and their relationship with their phones, only because the conversation that rises to the top, in terms of clickbait and morning news, tends to be alarmist and monolithic, and about how teens are either in, like, mortal peril or they're, like, these cognitive geniuses who know everything. My experience with them, talking to them and asking them these analog questions about identity and relatability, I was like, Oh no, teens are... teens. And similarly, I've been getting the question of the hierarchy of communication, as if it's this finite goal we're all moving toward, like IRL, a form of touch-based intimacy. I think that's really skewed. It also omits people for whom touch-based intimacy isn't even a thing, because they're either asexual or just have trouble with that or don't want that. I know that getting a DM lurk or having someone sliding into your DMs and try to say some swift shit is inferior to a hug or a text that you get from someone you love or someone that you're super-invested in, but the fact that Penny and Sam are talking through text shows that it has everything to do with the person and the circumstance and how you feel about them, and that's been true of any human experience regardless of the methodology of how we're speaking to each other.

People's perceptions are really limited to their own experiences though. It's sort of like the way people talk about New York City, where the best NYC is always the one they were in when they were 22. And it's just so weird and narrow-minded and nostalgic in this way that doesn't at all account for how people continue to live and adapt and connect.
I think technology is this weird thing where, if you look at it objectively, it feels like this far away thing or you experience dissonance about the way you perceive it, but you use technology every day, and you think the way you use it is different from the way you either think other people use it or the way you think it's seen. And I always find that really interesting too. A lot of people are asking me things like, "How did you create such a real and nuanced dialogue between these two people even when it's through text?" And I'm like, "In the same way you text people, you love in your actual waking life." And they're like, "Oh yeah, totally." Maybe it's an age thing, I don't know. And perhaps it's more seamless for those of us who have just known the screen for a really long time.

The way some people are weird about technology is also related to how some people view teenagers. It's especially interesting right now, when there's this huge priority placed on either celebrating teenage activists or trying to tear them down, but also so frequently forgetting that these are just teenagers. They're not aliens, they're people.
Totally. I think the one wonderful thing technology has afforded us is that there really isn't a notion of precociousness in terms of what you're interested in or what you know because the news—and just the internet—has made it so that information is readily available to all of us. And so the only difference is that perhaps younger people don't have the same coping mechanisms we do, as older people, only because of a lack of experience and only because maybe they can't afford the therapist they want before they finally break down and get one in their 30s. Prior to the 1950s, we never thought of teens as this other group, they were just shorter adults or whatever, and now we're kind of going back to a certain aspect of that, where it's like their capabilities aren't at all limited or specific to a certain age group or a finite age period. It's sort of presumed that the older you get, you're moving toward some finite goal or enlightenment, and it's not like that. It's not linear, none of it is. 

What do you like about writing YA fiction?
I think the one great privilege inherent in writing for young people isn't that their opinions aren't formed or that they're like jelly; it's not that at all. It's not about placing your world view upon someone else. It's actually that they're growing up with all this information available to them, and younger people are so wavy and so incredibly, humblingly expansive, and so you have these conversations happening within YA about intersectionality, where the different layers of privilege and the many layers of the solidity of identity and gender and all of these issues are being explored at a lightning pace and really organically, and on a person-to-person basis. 

I think the conversations teens are having are so smart and moving and important and it's great to see that reflected. Sometimes, I think, it can feel a little forced, or sound like an adult is trying to voice their thoughts and feelings through a teenage mouthpiece. But Emergency Contact doesn't feel that way at all.
I definitely didn't want to have any sort of preciousness with these characters or any sort of head-patting, self-congratulatory thing. I think, if you honor your characters by making them as honest as possible to what resonates with you, regardless of how old you are, I think that that tends to work. It was really important for me, as a fan of contemporary YA and as a huge fan of authors like Nicola Yoon and Rainbow Rowell, to have a tenderness. There's so much brutality in the way that we speak to each other on the internet, an anonymity that prompts this kind of harshness. I wanted people to just be nice to each other, and I know that sounds denuded, and that's not kind of what I mean. It's more like, even when it's hard or even when you argue or stand up for yourself, I wanted to show people being tender, and a little bit careful, and that is completely from my personal experiences, because I am always accused of having a certain degree of solemnity to the way that I'm a friend, I always have. I take it really seriously and I feel like loyalty is serious and being available is an honor and asking for a favor is a sign of trust and intimacy, so these are the things that I really wanted to talk about... and to hear that I've even remotely succeeded in that is incredibly heartening. 

Emergency Contact is available for purchase here.

Nail polish is for novices

Fashion label The Blonds is known for its high-intensity looks that you'd only wear if you wanted to stand out (and who doesn't?). For its runway shows, wild press-on nails are the beauty step that can't be missed. So, since the brand has partnered with CND since it was founded, we thought it best to get prepped for the show with Jan Arnold, CND's co-founder.

See why you should take your nail look from a zero to a 10, in the video above.

Shot by Charlotte Prager
Edited by Gretta Wilson
Produced by Alexandra Hsie
Production Assistant: Polina Buchak
Featuring Jan Arnold of CND Nails and The Blonds



Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

It would've been nice if someone said the word "fat"

Back in November, Rebel Wilson claimed to be the first plus-sized lead in a romantic comedy when she appeared on Ellen to talk about her role in Isn't It Romantic. Wilson was not only wrong, but she was—even if inadvertently—erasing the work of Black plus-size actresses like Queen Latifah and Mo'Nique, both of whom have expansive resumes that include romantic comedies.

Wilson's comment isn't the first example of white women taking up a little too much space in the fat acceptance ethos. It's actually quite common. But there is a reason why women like Wilson—women who are blonde, pretty, successful, and white—get put front and center in calls for body positivity. In the same way that feminism—the movement from which body positivity was born—has often failed to address how gender intersects with other identities like race and class; so, too, has body positivity been championed as a cause for otherwise privileged women. And that's why it's no surprise that Isn't It Romantic, which aspires to be both a spot-on mockery of rom-coms and a celebration of body positivity, is actually a perfect example of how very white both the movie genre and the body positivity movement tend to be.

In the film, Wilson plays Natalie, an architect based in New York, who is single and plus-sized—the archetypal rom-com underdog. Very early on in the movie, she endures the double humiliation of both being hit by a runaway food cart and then accosted by its owner for not stopping it with her "cement truck"-like body. At work, Natalie is similarly disrespected: The office manager hands off troubleshooting tasks to Natalie; another colleague always tasks Natalie to throw out his trash; her assistant Whitney (Betty Gilpin) won't stop watching movies (rom-coms, naturally) while in the office; and Natalie is so afraid to present her ideas for more innovative parking garage designs that she isn't even widely known in the firm as an architect, and is treated like an intern.

But is Natalie just a doormat? Or is it that she isn't asking for what she wants? And isn't very nice about not getting it? If Natalie's life is any example, the bar on suffering is set pretty low for white women. In her personal life, Natalie lives alone with her dog, and seems to be pretty well-off, financially; her best friend is actually her slacker assistant, Whitney, and she's close with another coworker, Josh (Adam Devine), who gives Natalie constant emotional support. She's decidedly anti-romantic, having been told by her mother from a young age that there's no such thing as real-life fairy tales; she's level-headed and practical. But also, she's filled with self-loathing. This leads her to be crass, sarcastic, and disconnected from people. And it was this last part that was hard for me. As a fat Black woman who grew up broke, does not have an assistant, and would get fired if I didn't do my job well, it was hard, if not impossible, to root for her.

For Natalie, though, everything changes when she bangs her head while fighting off a mugger. Her mundane life is tinted through rosy rom-com glasses. Suddenly, all the things that sucked about her life are gone, and everything is beautiful and perfect. But was her life so bad before? It didn't really seem to be.

And yet, looking around the theater at the mostly white, female audience, I accepted that my feelings didn't seem to be shared. But that almost seems to be by design; this feels like a movie for a white, female audience. There is only one person of color in the movie who even has a name: It's Isabelle (Priyanka Chopra), who shows up about halfway through the film—after everything has been rom-com filtered—as a yoga ambassador and swimsuit model. But a name is all Isabella has. A supporting character at best, she doesn't have any connection to anyone other than her white boyfriend, and is sketchily drawn. We learn nothing of her familial or ethnic background, and, even when she is shown at her wedding, there is nobody from her family celebrating with her. This huge oversight is particularly bizarre, given that Natalie has already bemoaned the lack of diversity in romantic films.

Another huge oversight? The presence of the word "fat." I don't think I heard it used a single time. Natalie only references her weight indirectly, by commenting on the appearance of straight-sized women; when talking about her own body, the word "fat" is replaced with "girl like me." But by ignoring this aspect of herself, and refusing to address it head-on, Natalie is succumbing to the same fatphobia that shapes her world, whether she identifies it as being a problem or not.

Before her life becomes a rom-com, Natalie feels invisible at work and in the world. Some of this is certainly her fault, but fatphobia is also at play. Fatphobia chips away at the humanity of fat people from different angles. It means that Natalie gets used to being dehumanized; she doesn't expect others to have empathy for her when she's physically hurt, because they don't value her body. And it's no coincidence that Natalie's fantasy world includes a magically bigger apartment with unlimited clothing options, because discrimination against fat people isn't just a matter aesthetics and preferences—it affects everything from our ability to dress ourselves to our ability to make and save money, since there's a price to pay for being fat, even if it's just having to pay more to travel. Just as much as gender and race intersect with fat bodies, so, too, do economics and class.

I knew I could count on a plus-sized white comedian to take down a genre of films that prioritized thin women. But I ventured to see if Wilson could go further than that, and challenge what it means to be white and well-off and fat in the process; it isn't just about taking down rom-coms but about doing so in a way that isn't just a mouthpiece for white feminist values. But, in the end, that isn't what happened. Isn't It Romantic is fine, but it needed to do more than target an audience of girls who are 10 to 30 pounds overweight and still too jolted by the word "fat" to ever apply it to themselves, so they go for acceptable alternatives, like curvy, plus-sized—or thicc, if they're hip. But I'm not afraid to say I'm fat, I'm just disappointed I will be waiting even longer to see a realistic reflection of that experience onscreen.

Isn't It Romantic is in theaters now.