Insomnia and the Aunt by Tan Lin | Kenning Editions 2011 | $13.95
Tan Lin’s Insomnia and the Aunt glows neon yellow—like hilighters, French fries, hot mustard packets from Panda Express, or a Waffle House of scallion pancake-flavored commercial. In this remote control scrapbook Lin grieves the death of his estranged, mixed race aunt, who owned a motel in the middle of nowhere and watched a lot of TV. Tucked among postcards, a photograph of Ronald Reagan bottle-feeding a chimpanzee and footnoted Google reverse searches, Lin tries to extract ghosts from cached pages and remember his aunt’s eyes in the white noise and signal snow of “the Asian American immigrant experience,” which is really just America being watched on TV.
I have watched hundreds of movies with Asians and fake Asians in them, and the one thing that makes them all the same (except the white Asians) is that the Asians never stare into your eyes through the glass of a TV screen and you are never allowed to look too deeply into theirs. I think it is for this reason that whenever I think about my aunt, and TV for that matter, I can never remember my aunt’s eyes (they appear to belong to someone else), and think instead of Robert Redford, who said in an interview that it is necessary for the body to lie to the mind (not the other way around) when acting and that the various strata of lying are continually searching for each other in the wilderness that most people call the truth and that my aunt calls television (11).
Instead of working on this review, I decide to re-watch an episode of the (cancelled) TV series Dark Angel. I think about Jessica Alba in Seattle (driving a motorcycle, and how I always thought she was half-Filipina) and Tan Lin in Seattle (driving 87 miles to see his half-Chinese, half-white aunt), and as I compulsively watch episode after episode on the internet I begin to understand what Lin already knows. Like an addiction, serial television—with its timed commercial breaks, its catchy theme songs, its over-rehearsed staging of the spur-of-the-moment—feeds us with its promise of repetition and allows us to watch from a distance. On TV, sexual tension is always prolonged and people never say what they really mean. When we’re watching, it’s easy to avert our eyes, to lie. Television channels feelings and vends emotions. This is why the corner convenience store sells potato chips and ice cream for one or two dollars more than other places. Thinking about one particular television-consumed immigrant relative of my own makes it difficult to write about this book.
And yet watching my aunt watch TV makes me believe something about myself, like I am going to walk into a room and say something to someone who is there, like what are we having for dinner tonight? or did you hear about the person who put a quarter in someone else’s parking meter and was arrested for it? or it makes me want to talk about my family sitting around the TV listening to Chet Huntley talk about the Vietnam War when my mother says it is time to get up and eat dinner and we get up and eat our rice with red chopsticks out of bowls (one of them is green) my father made and sometimes we never say anything at dinner (18).
Insomnia and the Aunt is about the connection between immigrants and television watching, acting and lying, grief and killing emotions. Lin learns that the television stands in for our silence. It acts as a conduit between relatives, a mode of communication. It allows someone else to have our feelings for us, helps us escape from our “least predictable emotions” and makes it easy to experience moods we can’t find for ourselves (21, 23).
TV promises to fulfill our American dreams, but instead eats the residue of our ghosted desires and re-broadcasts them as lies, as actors acting “natural,” as laugh tracks. This creates an ambient track, a constant noise to ghost-write our lives. Lin and his aunt have watched so much TV together that his aunt has become the television—their feelings for each other, their whole relationship has become a television. In Lin’s book the television becomes a somatic, emotive appliance, digital flesh, his aunt’s re-transmitted body.
In writing about the “delay in the speed of an understanding” (28), or the delay in the grieving process, Lin notes, “Some relatives are meant to be imagined years before or after they died” (14). His aunt, who his parents’ never spoke about—perhaps because she was half-Chinese, or because she ran a motel in the middle of nowhere, or because she spoke “English Translation in Peking Dialect” (27)—has been subsequently forgotten, ghosted, disappeared. Lin grieves her death, tries to remember her eyes and encounters her insubstantiality, her retractable irretrievability, how she haunts a TV set. Lin writes, “A blank computer screen can still remind us of a face” (13). Is memory and grief the same thing?
This is why my aunt thinks all TV, even live TV, is canned, and why she thinks America is basically not a place or even an image, but furniture. For my aunt, the live broadcast of the Vietnam War of my youth and her early middle ages resembled a re-run. My aunt accordingly has very few memories of violence or even racism in America. TV has made her forget all these things. Likewise, it is very hard for me to remember her even though I miss her intensely. The more I miss her the more she becomes furniture or a TV commercial for Tide detergent (19-20).
Julie Patton, remarking on the work of Akilah Oliver in a panel at this year’s AWP Conference, spoke of the United States’ inability to publicly reconcile the historical trauma of slavery within the African American community. It is in the absence of this public reconciliation, Patton said, that America continues to make ghosts, or continues “to ghost” Black bodies, and much of Oliver’s work concerned itself with the processes of grieving and being visited by these ghosts.
I think America’s “continual making of ghosts” resonates with many other immigrant communities of color in the US, in particular the haunted inheritance of Asian American folks, who are often unable to acknowledge trauma or process their emotions around these shared cultural experiences. Instead they bear and pass on silences, so that what becomes shared is a ghost. Lin’s aunt comes to stand for a kind of inheritance, an inherited body of the immigrant condition in America, which is really a condition of America, which is really a television. Lin writes, “TV makes me forget all the colors except the one with an aunt inside of it. An American TV station has many Chinese moods inside of it just like we did, even if it is missing one or two of its actual family members. Once a mood like my aunt gets inside a TV set, it starts to die” (34).
All the poems I gave to my aunt to read while we sat in the Bear Park watching TV have been dead for a very long time. I see them stand up and walk around the room. They look like animals that have been recently stuffed. They shed tears like pancakes. They move around like a little parade with felt-covered batons. They smell of department stores. They tell my father about used cars. They hand my mother grains of rice. They invent songs by Depeche Mode or Tears for Fears. And in this way I know that the things I am feeling are no longer exceptions to the things that recur (44).
“Nonetheless, watching TV with them made it possible for them to wait a very long time for something, I think it was my family, to arrive” (39). Lin is removing photographs of his aunt from this scrapbook, and these deletions mean he is writing about what can no longer be seen. Instead of seeing her image we watch a television screen. We do not look into her face, we aren’t angry when we tell a story about racist discrimination, our faces do not betray any emotion. Instead of writing about Lin’s book, I find that watching Lin watch himself within the space of the book is much more like the truth. We stare.
But paradoxically, staring, especially later in life, removes most of one’s feelings from the world and deposits them somewhere else, whether in childhood, a scrapbook, real life, a former girlfriend, a news story about ozone, a romantic French restaurant, a telephone call, or a movie. I didn’t love someone like my aunt because of who she was, I loved her because she looked at me an awfully long time (45).
Lin‘s Insomnia and the Aunt is a television grieving for us. We can walk away, but we can never stop watching—or stop being watched—by our dead.