Bone Clean – Ginger Ko


 When I was six, my kindergarten teacher asked my mother to bring in the workbooks that my mother bought from the homeschool store and made me complete at home. In the workbooks were line drawings of underwater tableaus full of cheerful octopuses and encouraging starfish. There was also long division and fractions, carrying the one, and multiplication tables, sites of intense sadness because I so often did not understand the problems, did not want to be sitting at them, but had nowhere else to go.

When I started the first grade, and was then inexplicably carried away to the second grade a few months later—for the school administration, this was unprecedented; for me, it caused my aunt to sneer at the pencil lead I had smeared on my cheek in my excitement to show her my workbooks when she asked about them (I didn’t understand, until two or three years later, that adults could ask questions to which they didn’t want to hear the answers)—the place I found to go was the bathroom. As the child of a woman who regularly rifled through her daughter’s belongings, who gave me gifts and then weeks or months later combed the drawers and cabinets to reclaim them, the lock on the bathroom door was a revelation. I carried my books into the bathroom and read them under that sick white long-bulbed light that still despairs me to this day. I remember having some time, some quiet to myself, some kind of faint untraceable sadness and satisfaction at being alone, before my parents began to notice, using the screwdriver to break into the bathroom while I hid my books behind the toilet.

It is the privacy of writing that I sought for most of my childhood, writing to ease confusion even though my mother would go into my desk and page through my attempts at working out the problems of self-story, confronting me with their contents with a righteousness that lacked any guilt. My parents attempted to turn writing into a chore, buying me special journals and forcing me to write daily entries, reviewing them when I was done. In this way, the impulse to write for any length of time became shameful, wasteful and self-indulgent, especially when my mother liked to remind me that competency at reading and writing was something accessible to all (even to her, if she had been born in this country), and nothing special. Without being able to work through problems behind the closed doors of writing, I’m not sure I thought much at all, and was mostly just a receptacle for abuse.

I must have made it easy, having been trained for it, and constitutionally suited to withstand it without crying or fighting back. I was slow, as a child, to understand jokes and identify the visual indicators that people use on their faces to relay their intent. I have memories of being insulted, my first reaction being to watch the scene as from a distance before understanding that I was supposed to feel bad. Often I didn’t feel anything at all, waiting until I was walking home alone, or standing in front of the bathroom mirror before a bath, to think about why things happened to me.

It is the resentment of turning my writing into something for others (the potential for the posterity of communication realized through the act of writing) that confuses me. If I can make writing truly my own, then I have no initial impulse to share it with others. I am too greedy for privacy and solitude. But what if it can never belong to me truly? Then my writing is bearing witness, forcing into existence what otherwise could be forgotten or denied.

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