When Academia Tries to Defeat a Nerdy Femme

Academia Novel Femme Yumi Pak in a bookstore
Yumi Pak at the Downtowne Bookstore in Riverside, CA. Photo by Joo Ok Kim.

On 01 January 2019, I shared with friends my annual round-up of new books read the year prior. Out of the 200 reads I completed in 2018, one of my favorites was Victor LaValle’s The Changeling. Published in 2017, LaValle’s novel follows Apollo Kagwa as he attempts to solve an interconnected mystery: where is his wife, Emma? And how could she have done what she did before disappearing? LaValle makes several key points, critiquing the patriarchy, whiteness and technology worship, all of which I appreciated. But I was especially drawn to how the novel presented the feminine  and its associated characteristics of seemingly frivolous pleasure and joy as sites of generative strength and alternative possibilities, particularly when embodied by Black women and other women of color.

Maybe for this reason, and for fun, too, I also included my favorite beauty products of 2018, including the best splurge-worthy lipstick; the eyeshadow primer I bought while out for toilet paper; a highlighter palette that I bought on one of my research trips to Scotland and used until this year. 

Three days later, I started a new Instagram account, @a.novel.femme, with a simple premise: a weekly review of a book I love, paired with a lipstick from my collection. Rather than waiting until the beginning of a new year, I wanted a space where I could write about the importance of literature and beauty in my life. Nearly five years into my tenure-track job, I was continuously being reminded that joy and pleasure are integral to my surviving (within) academia. This was largely because of the way joy and pleasure are anathema to academia because they are unquantifiable, unlinked from tenure and promotion and from the assortment of acronyms that we are hard-pressed to learn if we want to “succeed.” Apollo plays the key role of detective in The Changeling, but Emma is the one who shares in my duality of nerdiness and femmeness, and without her, all is lost. 

Reading and Pleasure

From Roald Dahl’s Matilda, a moment of recognition for that Quentin Blake illustration of the titular wee child in a giant chair, tome in her lap, reading the afternoon away:

 ‘Did you know,’ Mrs Phelps said, ‘that public libraries like this allow you to borrow books and take them home?’

‘I didn’t know that,’ Matilda said. ‘Could I do it?’

‘Of course,’ Mrs Phelps said. ‘When you have chosen the book you want, bring it to me so I can make a note of it and it’s yours for two weeks. You can take more than one if you wish’ (15).

My suggested lipstick pairing: Fenty Slip Shine Lipstick in Quartz Candy.

I think every family has stories that become lore, shared so often that no one thinks to question their veracity. In my case, one of ours is that when my dad immigrated to the United States in his mid-twenties, he came with one paltry suitcase of clothes and numerous boxes crammed with books he could not bear to leave behind; my mom and I followed shortly after. The mythologized image I had in my head of him, accompanied into his new life with books that were meant to be read from right to left and vertically, is where I located the genesis of my reading habits and terrible eyesight. It’s easy to remember this mythology of our foray into American life when some of those novels still take up shelf space in my parents’ apartment. 

What’s less remembered – but no less significant – is that my mom taught me how to read in Korean, sent me off to school knowing exactly two words in English (“teacher” and “bathroom”) and then figured out the city layouts of San Francisco and the East Bay well enough to take me to public libraries whenever she could find the spare time.

As with many immigrant households, my parents could not give me what might be called an idyllic childhood, but my dad by example and my mom by creation gave me what is ostensibly the most steadfast pleasure, the earliest and deepest entanglement of my life.

You can imagine, then, the depth of my confusion when I began my graduate program (in literature, no less!) and found that not everyone read for pleasure. Or when I learned that not all faculty read for and toward that enveloping surrender, that moment when you recognize you’ve been moved to an elsewhere that isn’t yours, that some read fiction as being in service to ideology and nothing more. The difficulties of being first-gen were one thing; to learn that there were so few of us who used our university library for anything beyond borrowing books for research was another. 

In the final two quarters of writing my dissertation, I stopped reading for pleasure. I had begun to feel guilty and ashamed when I read a book unrelated to my research.  In fact, I actually started to hate reading, which was a totally new and startling experience.  I could clearly see what I would sacrifice if I tried to push through the guilt: the thing that had pulled me to the Ph.D. in the first place. 

The Loss

From Audre Lorde’s Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, a second moment of recognition, another young child in whom I see a facet of myself:

I took the books from Mrs. Baker’s hands after she was finished reading, and traced the large black letters with my fingers, while I peered against the beautiful bright colors of the pictures. Right then I decided I was going to find out how to do that myself… I said, quite loudly, for whoever was listening to hear, ‘I want to read’ (23).

My suggested lipstick pairing: Kosas Weightless Lip Color in Fringe or YSL Rouge Pur Couture in 52 Rosy Coral.

I became a doctoral student because I was twenty-two, because to me (as with many of us from working class backgrounds) a graduate student stipend seemed a windfall, but also because I wanted to keep reading. During those last two quarters in 2012, I feared that I would lose what I shared with this biomythogrified version of Lorde. 

To be sure, the Ph.D. program honed my reading skills, but I refused – and refuse – to believe that that loss of joy is an acceptable price to pay for sharpening my capabilities. Yet so many people I know have said this exact thing: that graduate school eradicated their love of reading, and that even a decade or more past the conferral of degree, they have yet to find it again. Reading “without reason,” for so many in academia, seems to be laden with the guilt and shame I mentioned above. 

What I have found in the decade since filing my dissertation is that this process of loss seems to begin even earlier now: I know faculty who will either explicitly dismiss what their students are reading as superficial or implicitly work at them, like the gloss of water over stones, until their sharp and spiky preferences are dulled to academically acceptable smoothness. Students enter my classes with predetermined ideas of what answers to offer when I ask about their favorite authors or books. 

Even well-meaning colleagues, when sharing what they spent their winter breaks reading, shamefacedly call them “guilty pleasures,” as though they fear that I will castigate them for their choices. I have written elsewhere about the complex reading practices that are present when the writer in question has despicable worldviews and we read them anyway. This is not that. These are colleagues who have been taught that some reading pleasures should be kept languishing – LANGUISHING – on the bookshelf. If instructors feel this way, is it any wonder that students are so reluctant to talk about books, stories, writers they love, especially when they fall under genre fiction considered unworthy of study – speculative fiction, horror, young adult narratives, romance?

Makeup and Pleasure

From John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, which, may I remind you, can be read as a work of horror, young adult narrative and romance: 

But Tom got into a book, crawled and groveled between the covers, tunneled like a mole among the thoughts, and came up with the book all over his face and hands (280). 

My suggested lipstick pairing: Revlon Super Lustrous Lipstick in Mink. 

I learned how to take care of my skin from a very young age, having watched my mom’s meticulous applications of SPF and eye cream, but I did not start experimenting with makeup until much later. My first serious and clumsy attempts were in my last year of college and first year of graduate school: the former because I had to conceal my exhaustion from my professors, the latter because I had to conceal my youth from my students. So while I remember the first fun and fancy makeup items I purchased – MAC Humid eyeshadow and Ruby Woo lipstick – the bulk of what I wore remained what is often called “no makeup” makeup. 

As academia continued disciplining me, the thrum of its power and impossible expectations made itself continuously known. I watched white women forgo makeup and be praised for their so-called feminist stance while women of color were considered unprofessional for doing the same. An explicit appreciation for femininity and the feminine, for the joy and pleasure in finding a perfect fuschia lipgloss or non-muddy bronzer, was seen as suspect by many. My stash of “acceptable” makeup stayed reasonable; the one of “fun” makeup exploded as I felt my desires expanding while the codes of behavior expected for the job market calcified. 

I was hired as an assistant professor into a top-heavy department; for the first four years of my time there, I was the only junior woman of color. I had already decided that if tenure is not guaranteed for me, regardless of how well I met the standards set by whiteness, then I might as well not play by all the rules; my face, however, did not adapt as quickly to this idea. I went to work continuing to wear the most neutral lipsticks I owned, all mauves and soft yellowed pinks. I consoled myself that I could still wear my “fun” lipsticks on my days off.

Except, as I learned, there were no days off, just days when I was expected to work from home. On the rare instances when I actually made myself step away from the emails and twenty open tabs in my browser to try and silence the voice of authority, of the university, of the profession that reminded me that my being there was a cosmic joke, I was so tired that there was no desire to wear “fun” makeup, or any makeup, at all. I texted my friends that my makeup was languishing – LANGUISHING – in my vanity until one day, in year four, in a pique caused by too little sleep and too much grading, I decided to wear one of these lip colors to campus. I applied it carefully with a brush, blotted, applied another layer, blotted again for maximum opacity. I wanted it to be seen.

Here is what happened: a student stayed after class because she had questions. Her questions: “What is your lipstick and where did you get it?” (Answer: wet n wild Sugar Plum Fairy, Target.) A junior colleague and I figured out that we love many of the same makeup and skincare brands; we started texting each other with suggestions and sales information. I went to give a brief talk on my summer research and noticed a staff member wearing a glorious purple lipstick. I complimented her, she told me the brand and I guessed the color immediately. She was delighted, and I was too; the men in the room, befuddled. I showed up to teach and to meetings in the following months, years, wearing teal eyeliner, a moody mahogany liquid lipstick, holographic highlighters that turned my cheekbones a pale lavender blue. 

Students continued wanting to talk about the canon as a violent formation. Some faculty still wanted to talk about the canon as a viable formation. Academia did not change, nor did I expect it to, but my relationship to it shifted. A decade ago I was terrified it would ruin my earliest love; now, my practices of joy and pleasure are a reminder that it cannot possess me wholesale.

A Novel Femme

My Instagram account is not aesthetically sophisticated. I don’t own any fancy lighting or camera equipment, I just use my phone to take pictures of the book cover, the lipstick and a swatch on my arm. I share why this book, this lipstick. Among my most liked posts are a graphic novel set in an alternate world (paired with a bright blue lipstick), a queer Latinx YA novel involving soft-hearted bad boys and a vegan bruja and a work of scholarship on settler colonialism in Hawai’i. This last book is written by a friend and the paired lipstick was gifted by another. Strangers find and follow my account; they pop in sometimes to tell me how much they also love the book, or that they bought a lipstick based on my recommendation, or that they appreciated how I make sense of a particular text. What a joy it is to be with others – the ones I know and the ones I don’t – in this way! 

The numbers are low, but that doesn’t matter. I continue to read promiscuously and pleasurably. Before the pandemic, I wore my bevvy of lip products in the same way. I am Blanche Devereaux when it comes to literature and lipsticks. Having this practice that grounds my nerdiness and femmeness within refusal – academia gets much of me, but not all of me – reminds and reassures me that unquantifiables, ungraspables, undefinables, still exist somewhere, elsewhere. 

A Collective Dance

It’s November 2016, and I’m in Denver, Colorado for the American Studies Association annual conference, having dinner with a friend from graduate school. She asks if I’m going to this book launch-turned-party-I-think-who-knows at the conference hotel; it’s meant to, it seems, bolster our spirits in the aftermath of the election. I have read the last two books in Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea Cycle just days before, trying to remember that I am not alone, and for lack of anything beyond wanting to be with my loves, I agree to go.

It is a full-fledged dance party, complete with a DJ and a (limited) open bar. Scholars whose work I regularly cite are dancing with their friends while I dance with mine. The last song the DJ plays for us is Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody.” Someone turns the lights down low; we’re holding each other and singing, all of us straining to hit that beat of “heat” that her voice jumps to so effortlessly, and I know the lights are dimmed because we are all crying. If the democratic nominee had been elected, the conference would have been charged in a particular fashion; the fact that she had not meant that our gathering was less a charge and more an exhausted dependence. Our collective crying, I think, was out of both rage and the relief in remembering that we could still make this thing, this space. Never own it, no, but make it, and dwell in it, dance in it together, just for a while, to continue being, as Alice Walker writes,  “each other’s peoples.”

My lipstick that night: Bite Beauty Amuse Bouche Lipstick in Squid Ink. A constant, persistent reminder: “‘[w]hatever I am, whatever I can do, it’s not enough,’ he said. ‘It’s never enough,’ Mead said. ‘And what can anyone do alone?’” (Tales from Earthsea, 47).

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Yumi Pak is associate professor of English and director of Ethnic Studies at California State University, San Bernardino. She shares her book and beauty recommendations, as well as her other writing projects, on Instagram at @a.novel.femme.