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Smooth as Silk or Stone

As I devour “Eating Bitterness” by Hannah Yang, I am reminded of the short story “The Lottery” by one of my favorite authors, Shirley Jackson. In both stories, the world is routine and recognizable but with a macabre and unexpected twist. In “The Lottery” this only happens at the shocking and gruesome end, but with “Eating Bitterness,” we are introduced to this unique feature of the narrator’s world within the first few lines. We know something is peculiar, right away, and then are faced with choosing to accept this bizarre and grotesque facet of an otherwise normal family. Because Hannah Yang’s writing is so lovely, we come along with her, we accept her invitation inside, suspending our disbelief or initial confusion over the matriarchs in this story who possess a second mouth.

The story underneath is a universal tale of a young girl coming of age, both frightened and exhilarated at the prospects of growing into the power of her developing body. In this case we are referring specifically to the growth of a new aperture. The womanly second mouth used expressly for the removal of anxieties, guilt, fear, any painful emotion experienced by her family members.

There are the typical comparisons among the teen main character who is only just beginning to develop, and the other girls her same age at school who seem to have surpassed her and already wear fashionable scarves to hide their arrival to womanhood “scarves tight as chokers to show off the faint impression of what lies underneath.”

Scarves representing not only their crossing into adulthood, but symbolizing the noose-like hold this tradition has on the women in this society. A patriarchy where the husband and father works hard to provide for his family, bringing home beautifully woven scarves from business trips. While the wife and mother takes into herself bodily all of the anguish and suffering that seeps into their home. After the main character is gifted her first neckwear by her grandmother she finds herself wondering why her “beautiful new scarf feels like a stranglehold.”

As a woman, mother, and wife I can identify with the construct of taking in the burdens of my family, reeling them into my soul where I turn them around throughout the day, attempting to focus on work, simultaneously considering from every angle how to diminish the pressures on my children, how to lure my husband from his dissatisfaction with his career, how also to appear cheerful and optimistic when I’m not, in the hope this will somehow rub off, and my family will gain from my effort. Feel more at peace. On a base level, I’ve often felt this way about a cold, when my son is congested and miserable, that although I too will end up with the same cold, this doesn’t result in the removal of his symptoms, only the addition of my own suffering. I wish I could catch it more completely.

Understanding the difficulty of being weighed down by so much emotion, it is no surprise there are bad women in this world too; women who are too independent or modern or selfish to enter into the covenant of the second mouth. Who have it surgically removed. “We’ve all heard about women like her...forcing their husbands and children to suffer alone.” Suffer through the bitterness the world hands them. Perhaps these women have a lower tolerance for pain. The grandmother, Wai Po puts it succinctly when she says, “What’s a little pain? Our second mouths are designed for this task. It’s a woman’s art, the eating of bitterness.” It is painful, this consumption of sharp concerns, and when it overflows because there is too much for one woman to absorb at once, it manifests as lesions on her skin, painful sores that bleed.

The eating of bitterness is something I think about every year, at the Passover seder in the spring. Jews around the world spread horseradish (Maror in Hebrew) on Matzah to symbolize the bitterness of slavery as we teach our children about the Israelites being enslaved in Egypt. Year after year we repeat the suffering of this ritual, which feels nearly the opposite of what mothers in this story instruct their children. We all consume the bitterness that was lived by our ancestors, and by passing on this knowledge to future generations, we aim for nobody to be enslaved ever again. We chant one after another the plagues that afflicted Pharaoh before he would let the Israelites depart; darkness, boils.

The story closes with the main character taking a step toward adulthood, removing bitterness from her mother, and her skin erupting in sores. She tells her mother it’s not so bad, “A grown-up kind of lie.” She willingly accepts her role, a pathway set for her by the generations, that came before her. While Shirley Jackson’s martyr, the ill fated Tessie Hutchison, cries out in her final scene, “It isn’t fair, it isn’t right,” as she receives her reward like so many before her. Shirley Jackson takes light and shines it on the darkness in humanity in their willingness to conform and uphold pointless murderous rituals, while Hannah Yang takes the darkness and heaviness of our fears and guilt and manages to lighten it. Her female characters conform to perform a ritual whereby harshness dissolves, evaporates, soothes.

Hannah Yang’s writing is rich, multi-layered, and the interaction among her characters is moving and authentic. I imagine this story being dissected and analyzed by students in college literature classes for generations to come, there is so much to unpack and gain from this single tale. I heartily look forward to reading more from her.

Read "Eating Bitterness" by Hannah Yang here:

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