:: Article

Another Way of Seeing

By Tomoé Hill.

It is only now that I wonder if I unconsciously chose to be hungry for everyone because I thought the world would be forced to accept me as I was. As I am, as I was: white but not white enough, other but not other enough. The product of a man who bought his wife—this is untrue, but an untruth I heard so often growing up that it is part of my slow realisation that even then, I understood sex as part of one’s identity without being fully aware of its complexities. Those complexities remain even now: a constant change, a reminder that identity is rarely fixed and to understand oneself is to do so in watching the selves that shed like dead skin during the fluctuations of life. The irony is that you have never been able to look past my face or my name to ask or care what or who I hungered for, and why. It is only now, when you tell me there is no room for my story because I am neither one nor the other, that I go back to that basement in my childhood where it started.

Desire at its simplest, to be wanted. The innocence of wanting everyone rooted in the corruption of identity, and so I have been corrupt since a child: too knowing, even in the face of the unknown—prejudices I barely understood except on an emotive level. Not grasping what it meant, where did your father buy your mother. Years later, understanding too well, laughing with a friend of my mother’s—also Japanese, married to an American—who on being rudely questioned by people, would respond with a straight face: my father was a GI and my mother was a whore from Okinawa. I laughed because she didn’t care and was willing to create a fiction at the expense of her truth, but when I saw my mother laugh I also knew she had no idea of the things that were said of her, and their frequency. My mother, who was naïve enough to accept superficial niceties as proof that a person was wholly nice; and I, who absorbed the judgements I could see moving beneath their skin—restless, questioning, deafening in their silence.

I don’t know how old I was in that antique shop basement. Maybe five or six or seven. Too young, but what is too young when you have already seen the looks passers-by give you and your mother on the street, when they ask her to repeat herself again and again because of her accent—regardless of her near-flawless English. You know what the looks and requests mean. She smiles, infinitely patient, deferent to a country she is still relatively new to. You glare at the speaker, unable to articulate the fury that you will later find is still inarticulate, still tongue-tied, tired at both new and old prejudices. My parents would go antiquing on weekends, which simply means browsing various markets and junk shops. I was allowed to venture from stall to stall on my own, and in my wanderings found the basement, with the woman who looked like a man with her thick glasses and short blunt hair sitting behind the counter. I liked her because she didn’t look like everyone else, and neither did I. I liked her because she didn’t bother to tell me I was pretty or to ask what I was the way adults seemed unable to resist when presented with me —‘was’ being shorthand for where are you from?—she simply looked up, nodded, and went back to what she was doing.

The basement’s appeal was that fewer people made their way downstairs: it mainly held old furniture, rusting vintage bar or shop signs for beer, Schlitz or Blatz. There was an old working soda machine when you came down the painted concrete steps that held glass bottles of Coke and Pepsi, complete with built-in bottle opener. I would make my way around the labyrinth of cool dark—there was sparse fluorescent overhead lighting—aisles, touching dusty furniture, gingerly lifting corners of signs back to go through the heavy stacks, ignored by the woman beyond a nod of hello as she was always reading a book. One day I found cardboard boxes full of magazines stacked in a newly divided section, and from then on, I would make my way to the basement under the guise of buying a soda, taking a cursory walk around the rest of the floor before coming back to those overfilled boxes, my step quickening, my breath, my heartbeat. Every time I blinked I could see limbs stretched and tangled in my mind, parts of the body I couldn’t yet name by their sensuous vulgarities: cock, cunt.

I don’t know if there was anything other than Penthouse and Hustler, because I only occasionally looked at the titles. I knew the amount of time I could linger was limited, perhaps only out of a dim sense, not of guilt, but that it was adult. Although my own parents never used ‘adult’ as a catch-all excuse not to explain or allow us to do something, I’d heard others offer it as an unsatisfactory, vague answer often enough to understand it referred to things they didn’t want to or felt they couldn’t tell us about. No one had sat me down to tell me about sex, but neither did anyone tell me it was bad, or even ‘adult’. I read at such an advanced level—resulting, alongside my ‘otherness’, in schools deeming me ‘special’ and moving me up a grade and into a ‘gifted’ programme—that I was already able to spot, and devour, parts of history and fiction books in my bedroom that dealt with sexual lives. To my parents there was no such thing as a book or subject I wasn’t allowed. All the books in the house mingled according to available space.

So I knew words in relation to sex, but images—the ones I laid my eyes on for the first time in those magazines were similar but different to the ones in my art museum books: I had already divined what all those paintings of Leda and the swan or Cupid and Psyche were about. But the women here were active, not passive, radiant in a different way, a connection to the words I had read which stood out in ways I didn’t quite grasp beyond function. To my eyes, these new images were less detached in desire, a feeling of excitement in my stomach testament to the start of a new awareness. I misread a male gaze for just a gaze of pleasure that could be had by anyone who wanted it. Along with never being openly told this isn’t for you, perhaps that misreading was the best thing for the formation of an identity that became something I could lose myself in when the world looked at my face, mispronounced my name and decided I could not be part of any other group. I could dream of one day being ready to be a part of that pleasure. I would look and read and imagine, let desires form without prejudice—as much as that means in a world where all agency is influenced—and act on them without guilt as they possessed me.

That freedom from guilt and whatever the norms of behaviour were for a sexually developing girl—in mind first, later body—meant having no shame, only curiosity. I never called it ‘playing doctor’ as I heard it called in school: in my mind there was a directness in what I wanted to experience and my memory of the acts themselves. I explored my male and female neighbourhood playmates’ bodies as they did mine, knowing what I wanted, oblivious as to why my desire did not see one sex as appropriate and another not. They were there and I wanted to know, and it was enough—to taste and touch and see the responses on a face and the movements of the body. Later the combination of words, images, and scattered experiences both alone and with others provided richer fantasies: I would go to the library and surreptitiously take luridly-coloured ‘bodice-rippers’ from the shelves, hiding them in a stack with Orwell or Bradbury or Blume and take them to the bathroom, where standing against the wall of a stall, I would read passages written almost completely in cliché and veiled words—understanding perfectly what they meant by now and the deliberate fever they were supposed to rouse—the fingers of my other hand sliding along a clit swollen with the desire that came more from knowing the nearness to more and varied experiences was not far away.

John Berger in Ways of Seeing speaks of the woman in terms of the surveyor and surveyed: she is constantly scrutinised by men, and so comes to regard herself accordingly, instinctively. I knew what it was to be surveyed when young, but only through the lens of being mixed-race. What I realised quickly was that it was a distraction to others: they were too busy commenting on my (imagined) intelligence and my looks. And so they thought my mind also must be on things they ascribed to the culture they could see—being obedient and studious, the perfect stereotype, even though I was only half. So I began to lose myself in those active images, where a woman seemed to give as much as she received, instinctually understanding her importance in the role of pleasure and seizing it. If no one would let me be in other ways: just a child allowed to fail or act up, not a curiosity in a city where I and my mother were immediately identifiable as something else, then I would be myself in the way they couldn’t see, and what was more, I would never define myself in terms so they could understand.

Sex was mine. And if there are protestations that I was too young to come into it, that there should have been more time until such things were known, then they should have given me time and space to be myself, whatever else that might have been. Sex welcomed me and gave me room to discover who I was within its boundaries, a place to escape, even when I became old enough to learn that my face and culture would be a sexual assumption to some as well. I had the power to reject anyone who saw me as such. I only wanted people who hungered without that blindness, whether it was for mine or another cultural or gender stereotype. I wanted to want, and I wanted the same from other lovers: bodies and minds distilled to their essence of desire, to know that pleasure is sometimes losing oneself in the fluidity of the senses—that a lover’s taste is your taste, that your scent is theirs, a narcissistic act that is also the most selfless when it is honest. If there are voices that say such a hunger is confusion, an inability to know who or what one is, then I say that is what it means for the surveyor to lose their power over the surveyed. I and others like me no longer belong to you, even if we still do not completely belong to ourselves.

Maybe it was luck that I went from painted women—passive in myth, taken but not taking—to my first magazine image of two women and a man, a mutuality of giving and receiving. It wasn’t until I saw shunga, Japanese erotic woodblock prints, that I realised there was a particularly Western notion of passivity, the surveyor/surveyed, the woman who is damned to be a spectator but never a participant, surveyor of a desire she observes from afar. Is it irony that I had to discover something from half of my culture to reject the other half’s denial of who I was to be? Part of the myth of the male gaze is that it is impervious, no one else can participate in it—that it can never be reimagined, taken for another’s desire. But there was nothing to stop me claiming those bodies for my own, a template of possibilities and part of piecing together what others desired and why. It sounds like sex as a kind of revenge, and I can’t deny it: I was angry, I am still angry. But in that anger there is a self that belongs to me and those few who either understand the anger or the hunger; that to quell one is to feed the other, to feed one is to keep the other at bay.

I found myself in one thing in order to escape another—one that was not true, but neither false; instead, the fantasy of me. Yet my escaped-self is one of fantasy, in which my fantasies are a thing I can bring to life. If I demur from accepting the part of me which has so long been tainted by stereotypes—long enough where it is hard to inhabit or acknowledge it in anything but the shortest amounts of time—then who is it that I mainly define myself as now? It is inadequate to say I am bisexual or pansexual or queer, even if the latter encompasses a fluidity that might be more appropriate to my ways of thinking or seeing in my life so far. The truth is that I was so relieved to be able, to an extent, to rid myself of the false weight of an identity I wasn’t, that it was enough to enjoy being and growing in a sexual world I’d created without the constraint of definition. It is only now, in attempting to write the story of it, that I find the old prejudices in the guise of a new restraint, the familiar sting of someone else’s need to assign you an identity.

In this sense—this, the page—the narrative in the wider world is still binary, static. If it is not solely open to the male gaze, it still requires a gaze that can be categorised in a mainstream sense. Queer? What kind of queer—can you be more specific? Bisexual? But leaning towards what? To withhold anything from one’s identity as an integral part of that identity is to be met with that old confusion: you, too, must be confused. Definitions are applied as near to what may be accepted by a majority. Who does a hunger for everyone appeal to? That kind of hunger isn’t confused or indiscriminate, it simply rejects the notion of a set of choices that must be adhered to for individual experiences. When it is attached to a person who has been deemed a non-person—that is, belonging neither to one group or other, visually not enough of one culture to be easily compartmentalised—then fluidity becomes too abstract to be accepted as even part of the marginalised. To be on the margins of the marginalised, and quite unremarkably so, is a kind of limbo where one realises that those who decide who among the voiceless deserve a voice have a specific hierarchy in regards to all of you—you meaning not them. Only certain people were brought to tell Dante their stories from whatever circle they occupied. Is that to say this is a kind of hell? In that you will never know most of us or hear our voices, yes.

Would it be easy, a final kind of relief, to give in and define myself in what is seen as the acceptable language of orientation? It might be for a moment only, but it would mean that I have given in to the people who tried to decide who I was my entire life. Anger, hunger, and whatever introspection and pleasure was to be found therein were the only things that gave me my own life, however flawed or difficult. If their ways of seeing were not mine, if I discovered ones that helped me understand who I was as much as I was able, then what good am I to myself after all these years, blinding myself in order to go back to theirs? Whatever combination of escape and instinct allowed me to find a kind of solace in sex has also shown me that the need to divide the world so that it better fits some people’s ideas of moral worth—and their superiority in regard to it—is one many of us endure, if not constantly, then at some crucial point when we first ask ourselves who we are. To see, I had to stop seeing with the eyes of others; in doing so, I saw more. I can no longer inhabit the part of me that I was given by my mother: whatever real experience of being half of a culture is buried under false perspectives—to restore it would be to do so for an entertainment that requires suffering to celebrate its owner.

What is left of me? That which has always been there, unnoticed, free to become without interference. My hunger is there, and that is how I navigate the world: more of a compass than I ever could have imagined that day in the basement, barely touching the pages of that magazine, the beginnings of the idea that there was an identity beyond my face and name that could be untouchable if I wanted it to—mine alone. I sacrificed part of me to be me, of that there is no doubt. I left the others occupied with what they thought they saw, a carcass of someone who never really existed. But it is also clear that what is me is not fully corporeal, in spite of its nature as we mostly know it, existing in that of physicality. A sexual creature whose sexuality—existence—mainly comes to life here on the page. It exists elsewhere, but only to those who are much like I: who see through sensing, who read led by feeling. To you who have never seen me, but have felt something you recognise as real as if I had reached out and touched you with the desire to know more, who am I?

Tomoé Hill lives in London and is a contributing editor at Minor Literature[s]. @CuriosoTheGreat

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, December 12th, 2018.