Jen Sookfong Lee’s memoir ‘Superfan’: on how pop culture held her together through troubled times – Toronto Star

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“I used pop culture … as a kind of glue to hold me together when I was hurtling through disaster,” Vancouver writer Jen Sookfong Lee writes in the introduction to her powerful new book “Superfan: How Pop Culture Broke My Heart.” “If I was lonely, I could listen to a Barenaked Ladies CD and imagine they were singing those lyrics of longing and disappointment to me, for me. If I was angry with my mother, I could reread “The Secret Garden” …” This action, this need for connection, and the finding of that connection with pop culture artifacts — books, music, movies, TV — will be familiar to virtually anyone who has suffered through a painful adolescence.
“Superfan,” however, goes beyond that level of familiar adolescent identification and quasi-connection. “Once upon a time,” Lee writes, “I might have thought that my love of pop culture was a passing phase.” Despite the book’s subtitle, pop culture doesn’t seem to have “broken” Lee’s heart; in fact, she refers to her involvement with pop culture as “a forever relationship, one that has outlasted partners, friends, even dogs.” Through a series of connected but independent essays, Lee uses elements of pop culture as touchstones for examining and navigating her life and the many roles she has occupied within it: disappointing daughter, writer, single mother, child of immigrant Chinese parents, and sexual being, among others.
The result is a dazzling, kaleidoscopic memoir, written with a surprising candour and a stylistic looseness that allows the narrative to shift and change, often without warning, but never leaving the reader behind. It’s a visceral, and often unsettling, experience.
The pop culture touchstones which guide the book range from the fairly straightforward to the almost surreal. Many women, for example, especially of Lee’s generation, can relate to the story of Princess Diana as, at least initially, a role model for the power of “the good girl.” As Lee writes, though, “Now you know this to be true: Diana was never really all that good in the first place. And neither were you.” Similarly, it seems natural for a young girl to use “Anne of Green Gables” as part of her grieving for the loss of her own father.
More surprising, however, is the role that PBS painter Bob Ross played in that same grieving, for Lee and her sister, his voice “like a soothing touch without being touched.” Lee’s examination of the maternal strategies of Kris Jenner (she of the Kardashian clan) is even more surprising, as she juxtaposes Jenner’s interest in and care of her children against her own mother’s anger and disinterest (though, like much of the book, it’s far from that simple). Framing the role of Hailey Bieber in husband Justin’s life (as reflected in the documentary “Seasons”) allows for an examination of the role of women in the lives of “creative geniuses,” from Sophia Tolstoy and Dorothy Wordsworth to Vera Nabokov, and how the essential support of such helpmeets is unavailable to women.
The strongest sections of the book — the interconnected “Boys on Film” and “The Bad Girl” — deal with fundamental questions of identity, rooted in issues of culture, race, and sexuality. Navigating a landscape of “Asian fetish” while seeking to define her own sexuality and place in the world, Lee draws on the life and poetry of Vancouver writer Evelyn Lau, whom she first encountered in the pages of “Runaway: Diary of a Street Kid,” “a bestselling memoir of her teenage years, when she ran away from her Chinese Canadian parents,” eventually resorting to sex work to survive; the “sensitive young white man” characters from “Dead Poet’s Society” and “Say Anything”; Amy Tan and her bestselling novel “The Joy Luck Club”; and comedian Ali Wong, among others. Like “Superfan” as a whole, the two essays, combined, are a bravura performance: free-ranging and allusive, but tightly controlled; spanning multiple decades but firmly rooted in individual moments. It’s heady, thought-provoking, and emotionally fraught stuff, and a singular reading experience.

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