In the early days of the pandemic, we were told to sing “Happy Birthday.” It was supposed to be a marker, of sorts, an easy way of knowing that we’d spent enough time washing our hands, scrubbing away at an invisible enemy that we had only just begun to understand, even if — one year later — we still can’t define its exact contours, or run our fingers along its edges. One year later — happy birthday, indeed.
“There was something so horror-movie about it,” Mary H.K. Choi said to me over the phone last month, remembering what it was like standing over the sink, and not wanting to sing the words to the sing-song-y standard. “It was a very scary place to be.”
At the time, Choi was working on her new novel, Yolk, a story of two sisters — Jayne and June — who are orbiting opposites of one another. Both live in New York, both inhabit the tenuous realities of recent transplants to the city, and both have illnesses they are hiding; but that’s where the similarities end — and even within those similarities are countless differences. June, the older sister, ostensibly has it more together: Still in her early 20s, she has a high-paying job in finance and lives in a shiny, new construction high-rise in Manhattan; she also has cancer. Jayne is still in college — design school, though she isn’t designing much, other than her own life. She’s also living in a neighborhood in Brooklyn of which few people have even heard (what’s up, Windsor Terrace), has a toxic fuck-buddy for a roommate, and an eating disorder. Despite being in the same city, the two sisters don’t see each other very much, until they do; their lives collide, two halves of a whole, brought together by illness and need and love. Of course it’s messy, it’s all so real.
Yolk is Choi’s third novel, following prior bestsellers, Emergency Contact (2018) and Permanent Record (2019), and, though it’s easy to draw a line between the three books — they all center around intimate relationships between two lead characters; they address complicated family dynamics and the dangers of keeping secrets; they abound with spot-on snack food references — it is also, she said, “a divergence from the first two… there’s some ways I’m scared of it. I had no choice but to write it.”
Choi explained that she had “really particular ambitions” for Yolk, including wanting to “crystallize the fervor of my love for New York, but also talk about it with enough transparency and honesty and really claim how emotionally expensive it was to move here, and then to stay here.” Like the sisters in Yolk, Choi came to the city as a young woman; she was 22 years old when she arrived, and she hadn’t even told her parents about the move. “I felt such a classic filial piety and I knew they wouldn’t approve,” she explained, “and it was one of those things where I felt so physically and emotionally compelled to move here. So I went into total ‘ask for forgiveness, not for permission’ mode. I think in many, many ways that was my first very big divergence from what my parents wanted for me.”
While Yolk is set contemporaneously (though pre-pandemic), and so the New York of Jayne and June is not the same one into which Choi arrived not long after 9/11, there are some experiences of coming to the city that transcend eras, and speak to the powerful, thrumming energy contained within, and the way in which new arrivals will do just about anything to make it clear — to anyone else who’s watching and to themselves — that they belong.
“I always thought that I would be ejected — like something would happen and I would be spring-loaded, and the ground would just give way and I’d be catapulted back home,” Choi said. “And going home always felt like a capitulation, because moving here was something I’d done totally of my own accord. And the amount of pressure that you can put on yourself when you think about this town almost as a place you want to conquer... you can’t fail, so you want to have as much velocity in your favor as possible. But that delusion, that lack of gentleness, that almost violence, you apply to yourself in your desire to succeed, it’s so costly.”
And yet, by any metric, it paid off; Choi is a success: Beyond having written multiple bestsellers, she’s had an impressive journalistic career, and hosts two great podcasts, Hey, Cool Job! and Hey, Cool Life!, and so is exactly the kind of New Yorker to whom someone like Jayne — or any new transplant, really — would admire, even envy. Choi knows this, though she pointed out that it took her 18 years to get everything she wanted — and she was left with the question: “But, then what?”
Yolk is, in part, an answer to that, a perfect reflection of the intricacies of this bizarre place, where, Choi laughed, you’re given “so many things that are superfluous to survival, almost like an upturned Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.” She talked about what it was like to work in media, making no money, but being “given neon-colored jeans that are slightly ill-fitting, but they’re free — even though they’d cost $300. Meanwhile, you don’t have enough in your bank account to actually use the ATM because there’s a $20 minimum… that’s the fear I really wanted to talk about, and in order to do that I had to talk about the things that really haunt me, like what success feels like, what pressure feels like, what the Me Too movement felt like for me.”
Yolk contains all of that; it reflects the many ways in which so many young women, in particular, “betray their bodies” — a supposedly temporary sacrifice toward some amorphous goal of success. But, all too often, the state of sacrifice, of genuflecting at a makeshift altar, becomes a permanent state, or, at the very least, one that’s difficult to pull away from.
“I would just abandon my body in these really inappropriate, kind of scary places,” Choi said, “where I was just like, Oh, this powerful, powerful, gleaming man with this extraordinary timepiece with 70,000 complications is somehow paying attention to me. And there’s this undercurrent, this pull of this transaction, that’s happening, but you’re not entirely privy to it, and yet you still sort of move towards that despite all the terror because you’re like, Maybe this person can help me. Or, Maybe this person can save me.”
It’s Jayne who experiences things like this in the novel; Jayne who goes to many of the dark places that Choi has also visited. It’s also Jayne who has to figure out what to do when she finds out June has cancer, and realizes the limits to what we can do to save someone. For Choi, that shared experience happened in a different way; as she was working on Yolk, her mother was diagnosed with lung cancer.
“My mom got sick with cancer in April — April, when it was all sirens here,” Choi said. “I was writing a book about cancer and she had cancer.” Luckily, her mother is doing well now, but Choi remembered the panic and anger of it all, and how her coping mechanism was to go “full-on Ephron, like, everything is copy.”
So, she kept writing, even as she worried about the “magical realism” aspect of writing a book about cancer as her mother dealt with the disease. “But the other thing,” she said, “is that my natural inclination — and this happens too in the book — is that when something bad happens, especially around health, my first knee-jerk reaction is not to talk about it… If I’m not talking about it, I will become convinced in my mind that there’s a way to fix my mother’s cancer, because how else will she know that I love her if I don’t fix it?” Choi laughed, continuing, “God forbid that I tell her I love her — that’s not the way I do things. I would rather just open every browser tab and then get mad at her when she calls me, because she’s interrupting my only very dysfunctional love language of total isolation and curing cancer through a Chrome browser.”
This approach was also, Choi noted, a way of dealing with the shame around illness, the idea that being sick is a “moral failure,” and that talking about it is even worse — a plea for attention. “The quickest available feeling around [illness] is shame,” Choi said. “And it’s not like shame that this person is weak or anything, but for me it’s that, if I talk about it, you’re going to think that I think I’m special, or exceptional, or drawing too much air out of the room.”
Part of what Choi has sat with over the last year — through writing Yolk, experiencing her mother’s illness, and enduring the enforced slow-down of the pandemic — was how to process grief without shame; how to distinguish between emotions to get to some sort of larger sense of truth and awareness. Choi credited her work in 12-Step programs and therapy for helping her to get to a better place with it all, and being able to talk about things like having had an eating disorder without shame. “What happens by talking about it a lot is that while I’m not necessarily embarrassed by talking about having bulimia or having really bulimic- or anorexic-thinking, even though I no longer do that to my body, I think that you will think this is my attempt at being interesting. And I feel that way about illness too, that you think I”m showing off,” she said. “But what actually talking about it has given me is evidence that I can’t be showing off because human suffering is so ubiquitous.”
This is what Choi reminds readers in Yolk: No matter what it is you’re experiencing — pain, love, grief, tenderness, anger, envy — you are not alone in your feelings. It is an acknowledgment of our collective experience — something that feels very apt as we approach the one-year anniversary of singing “Happy Birthday” to ourselves as we stood at the sink, dousing our hands under scalding water. It is a reminder to be kind to others and to ourselves; a reminder that kindness doesn’t always mean avoiding what is challenging, but rather means encouraging ourselves not only to access the truth in our own stories, but also to be open to other people’s truths as well.
This is what Choi has kept with her, as she continues to live in the city she loves, challenging herself, realizing that her memories can only be complemented by learning more about what other people remember about the same time, releasing a novel that honors all of these things, that serves as a reminder that, in this confusing, prismatic world of ours, a person’s experience is valid, but it’s important to remember that “two divergent versions can exist.”
“A huge part of the story is how personal mythologies become apocryphal or calcified,” Choi said, toward the end of our conversation, “but not interrogating any of these stories or relationships can feel so isolating, because everything can feel like a foregone conclusion.” For Choi, nothing is inevitable, everything is part of a process.
It sounds so simple, I said.
“Largely, things are simple,” Choi responded. “They just happen to not be easy at all.”