Biography & Autobiography Women
Superfan: How Pop Culture Broke My Heart
- McClelland & Stewart
- Initial publish date
- Jan 2023
- Women, Popular Culture, Asian & Asian American
Paperback / softback
- Publish Date
- Jan 2023
- List Price
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A TODAY Show Recommended Read, this beautifully intimate memoir-in-pieces uses one woman's life-long love affair with pop culture as a revelatory lens to explore family, identity, belonging, grief, and the power of female rage. Named a most anticipated book of the year by the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star.
For most of Jen Sookfong Lee's life, pop culture was an escape from family tragedy and a means of fitting in with the larger culture around her. Anne of Green Gables promised her that, despite losing her father at the age of twelve, one day she might still have the loving family of her dreams. Princess Diana was proof that maybe there was more to being a good girl after all. And yet as Jen grew up, she began to recognize the ways in which pop culture was not made for someone like her—the child of Chinese immigrant parents who looked for safety in the invisibility afforded by embracing model minority myths.
Ranging from the unattainable perfection of Gwyneth Paltrow and the father-figure familiarity of Bob Ross, to the long shadow cast by The Joy Luck Club and the life lessons she has learned from Rihanna, Jen weaves together key moments in pop culture with stories of her own failings, longings, and struggles as she navigates the minefields that come with carving her own path as an Asian woman, single mother, and writer. And with great wit, bracing honesty, and a deep appreciation for the ways culture shapes us, she draws direct lines between the spectacle of the popular, the intimacy of our personal bonds, and the social foundations of our collective obsessions.
About the author
Jen Sookfong Lee was born and raised on Vancouver's East Side, and she now lives with her son in North Burnaby. Her books include The Conjoined, nominated for the International Dublin Literary Award and a finalist for the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize; The Better Mother, a finalist for the City of Vancouver Book Award; The End of East; Gentlemen of the Shade; Chinese New Year and The Animals of Chinese New Year. Jen was a columnist for CBC Radio One's The Next Chapter for many years. She teaches at The Writer's Studio Online with Simon Fraser University, edits fiction for Wolsak & Wynn and co-hosts the literary podcast Can't Lit.
Excerpt: Superfan: How Pop Culture Broke My Heart: A Memoir (by (author) Jen Sookfong Lee)
I was born in 1976, into a noisy house in East Vancouver where there were never enough bathrooms, privacy, or salt and vinegar chips to go around. By the time I arrived, my four older sisters were between the ages of seven and seventeen, and I would, for many years, remain the smallest and most observant member of the household. I would often hide in corners and behind doors, where I could listen to the conversations swirling around me, and watch the teens and adults rush through their lives, slamming doors as they ran out to waiting cars or to catch the bus downtown. I patched together bits and pieces of gossip, old memories, and confessions, and wrote and rewrote the story of my family in my head, a circular reimagining that became a comfort as I grew older. During the years when it seemed our family was falling apart, picturing my grandfather stepping off a boat in Victoria in 1913 with his one bag and one Western-style suit was a balm, a reminder that he had launched himself into the great unknown for the children and grandchildren who had not yet been born. That kind of love felt supernatural, like a genetic prescience.
In our family, immigration from China was recent memory. My grandparents and parents spent much of their time outside the home using whatever tools they could to prove that they belonged in the country where they now lived. Popular culture—the soap operas, the fashion magazines, the celebrity gossip, and the hockey fandom— was how they found a way in, studying, learning, and parroting what the white people around them were consuming. For my grandfather, who paid the five-hundred-dollar head tax upon his arrival in Canada at age seventeen, it meant listening to CBC Radio all day long. For my father, who joined my grandfather in Vancouver after the Chinese Exclusion Act was lifted in 1947, it meant listening to Chuck Berry and dropping his accent as soon as he could. For my mother, who married a man she had only met in letters and photographs for the opportunity to leave Hong Kong, it meant learning to bake the perfect sponge cake. For my older sisters, it meant perming their hair and never missing an episode of Dallas. And for me, it meant taping New Kids on the Block songs off the radio and, later, sending love letters to Beck. These were all ways that we engaged with popular culture. These were the things we talked about at school and at the office, and whenever we walked into new situations where we were visibly different. Maybe we were missing privilege and whiteness, but we could watch what everyone else was watching and try to close the distance between us and them.
Pop culture also became the measure by which we judged ourselves, which was a relationship that was equal parts motivating and demoralizing. We might have worked hard to be as successful as Diane Keaton in Baby Boom, but we also had to contend with the growing realization that, while no one in the world was going to be as beautiful as Connie Sellecca on Hotel or Diane Lane in The Outsiders, my sisters and I were also never going to be as rich or as white. It didn’t matter if my hair was permed in spiral curls, or if my sisters got their makeup done at the Lancôme counter, or if my father watched every single B.C. Lions football game; there was no way we could erase our faces—those smooth, olive-skinned, southern Chinese faces that betrayed our identities even if we would have rather stayed hidden.
Beginning in my childhood, I started losing people. My mother, who was constantly fighting off anxiety and depression, would sometimes entirely disengage from our lives, retreating to her bedroom or sitting on the living room sofa, her silence suffocating the entire house. My father would get cancer and die, followed shortly by his own father. My sisters moved out one by one until, by the time I was nineteen, I was living in our old Vancouver Special alone with my mother. It’s a special kind of torture to be the youngest child left behind, wandering through a house of empty bedrooms, picking through the eighties blouses and cheap drugstore perfumes your sisters didn’t want to take with them.
Still, I couldn’t help but be reminded every single day of the life my family once had when we were all together, when my father was alive, when my mother used to host mah-jong parties and laugh at naughty jokes with her friends. But as I grew older, the memories faded, receding into a murky dreamscape that I was pretty sure wasn’t accurate. As I had done when I was younger, I began to stitch together what I knew to be real with connective tissue, small transitional fictions and a little magic realism to make my family whole again. or at least to make our stories whole again.
I used pop culture in the same way, as a kind of glue to hold me together when I was hurtling through disaster. 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, where Mary’s mother exists only in flashes of memory of her walking away from her only child, a beautiful lacy dress swirling around her ankles. In those moments, it didn’t matter that I had never met singer-songwriter Steven Page, or that I wasn’t a Victorian-era child exploring the English moors; it mattered only that one fragment of their stories fit into mine. I was so used to not fitting in at all, to being the extra daughter who was often forgotten, that jamming a piece of pop culture into an absence in my life, no matter how poorly matched, seemed fine. It seemed like the only, no, the best thing to do.
This is how I became a writer.
I am not discriminating. All culture, high or low, is of equal importance to me, whether I am sitting in a room at the Tate Modern lined with Mark Rothko paintings, or I’m intently watching an episode of 90 Day Fiancé. There are always homilies to be borrowed, a conclusion to be made about the zeitgeist, a crush to be formed.
You remember the first time you fell in love with a celebrity, don’t you? The first time you saw David Cassidy smile widely at the camera. The first time you heard a Florence + the Machine song soar through the speakers in your car. The first time you watched Sarah Jessica Parker walk down that Manhattan sidewalk in a white tutu.
Did your heart beat so strongly you feared it would burst through your chest? Did your vision narrow until all you saw was that person, tiny but seemingly real, on your screen? Did you cry when the lyrics became clear to you, a breaking open of meaning like storm clouds parting to reveal a blue sky you had forgotten? These revelations, these moments of parasocial love, can occur once in a lifetime or many times over. I am culturally polyamorous, a person who can maintain several celebrity relationships at once. The variety is essential; I take what I need from each to fill every gap in my real life.
This book is like a mixtape, a compilation of my most loved— and a couple of my most hated—cultural moments and the people who inspired them. Sometimes they comforted me. Sometimes they enraged me. Sometimes they threw my own failings, longings, and aspirations into stark relief. Sometimes they showed me solutions, potential problems, other ways of being. But they were my constant companions—there on lonely nights or quiet mornings, when I was so anxious I couldn’t focus on anything but TMZ and the outlandish outfits at the Met Gala, after my marriage died and the bed I slept in felt impossibly vast.
Once upon a time, I might have thought that my love of pop culture was a passing phase, the sort of thing many sad teens use to distract themselves from the realities of their lives. But now, in my forties, I know that this is a forever relationship, one that has outlasted partners, friends, even dogs. It’s fitting, isn’t it, to write a tribute to the longest commitment of my life, one that has carried me from childhood to this very moment? Tonight, I will watch a music awards show and be mesmerized by Mary J. Blige’s crystal-encrusted gown; the panning shots of the chaotic crowd and bright stage lights will feel like coming home to a family who both sees you and enrages you, who cares for you while borrowing your belt without asking, who intuitively knows what you need and sometimes withholds it. A messy, performative, gossipy family whose peripatetic heartbeat is comprised of scandals and product placements, relentless choruses and binge-watches. A family that carries you along with its irresistible momentum even when you are the one thing that is not like the others, even when you know, deep down, you don’t belong. It doesn’t matter anyway. I have cobbled together my own identities and memberships from the cultural storm for as long as I can remember. It’s the only perfection I know.
“[Superfan] 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.[…]Superfan as a whole [is] 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.”—Toronto Star
"By peeling back the layers of her own life as a Chinese Canadian woman willing to defend the pleasures of watching the Kardashians, Lee reveals the complexities of our broader culture and its limitations. Expect that through this book Lee will find her own superfans."—Quill and Quire
“Superfan is a book you will want to simultaneously hug close to your chest and press insistently into others’ hands. There is such honesty, intelligence, warmth, and vulnerability to these essays that, when you finally put them down, you’ll feel breathless—a little sad it’s over, but ultimately full, invigorated, as if you’ve just ended an evening of deep, intimate conversation with your best friend. It takes a rare talent to pull this feat off—and Jen Sookfong Lee is that talent. I love this book.”
—Alicia Elliott, author of A Mind Spread Out on the Ground
“Superfan is about how deeply and, sometimes, disappointingly personal pop culture can be, even and especially for those of us for whom it’s not made. As she explores her identity through the books, movies, and movie stars who accompanied her along the path of self-discovery, Jen Sookfong Lee has written a memoir that is gorgeous and ugly, generous and petty, wild and self-conscious. In the process, she defiantly claims the right to be the good girl, the bad girl, and all the transitions in between. A thoughtful and exhilarating and brave self-portrait of a woman demanding to be seen and who, at long last, is able to see herself.”
—Elaine Lui, author of Lainey Gossip and Listen to the Squawking Chicken
"Superfan vividly brings to life the joys and despair of obsessing over pop culture—both, feeling seen by it and being deeply hurt by it. Lee's insights are devastating and tender, hilarious and profound. Superfan's introspective meditations on familiar pop culture moments effortlessly turn them into relatable and heartbreaking vignettes. You know that thing when a scene in a movie destroys you, and you have to spend a week reassembling your life, but you don't know why? Lee has done the work to figure out why, and her writing about it is so vulnerable it might destroy you too."
—Elamin Abdelmahmoud, author of Son of Elsewhere
“Superfan is an extraordinary work of personal memoir and pop cultural criticism. Lee’s exploration of pop culture’s impact on her as a child of Chinese immigrants is brilliant, absurd, and heartbreaking, and she shares her stories with so much warmth and generosity that by the end you will feel like her best friend. Each chapter had me laughing out loud and underlining her provocative takes on subjects like 90s heartthrobs, Gwyneth Paltrow, and the Kardashians. Eye-opening and luminous and so much fun!”
—Heather O’Neill, author of When We Lost Our Heads
“Superfan is a fresh reclamation of pop culture from an unexpected and exciting perspective. By juxtaposing her everyday life as an Asian woman with those of iconic TV characters and popstars, Jen Sookfong Lee spotlights how pop culture can be a mirror in which to both see and not see yourself, a gateway to somewhere else and a reminder of how stuck you are. It’s this complexity that makes Superfan a fantastic read!”
—Vivek Shraya, author of How to Fail As a Popstar and People Change
Other titles by Jen Sookfong Lee
Good Mom on Paper
Writers on Creativity and Motherhood
The Shadow List
The Journey of Immigrants and Refugees
Chinese New Year
A Celebration for Everyone
Whatever Gets You Through
Twelve Survivors on Life after Sexual Assault
The Animals of Chinese New Year / 中国农历新年动物生肖 Read-Along
The Animals of Chinese New Year / 中国农历新年动物生肖
Gentlemen of the Shade
My Own Private Idaho