On Helen Hoang's The Heart Principle, Sayaka Murata's Convenience Store Woman, and another kind of masking.
When I got my second dose of Pfizer earlier this year, my immune system decided to be characteristically dramatic about it. Fevers, chills, night sweats, migraine, dizziness, brain fog. My mother jokes that I’m an all-or-nothing person, I don’t do anything in parts, and it seems my physical body is the same way—I rarely get sick, but when I do it’s bad. Forty-eight hours post-vaccine, I’d recovered, and, yes, there was a sense of relief that I was less likely to get sick and less likely to spread the virus but there was now a different sense of dread.
This was before the delta variant or the mu variant, and everyone was talking about reopening the office, making indoor dining available again, “hot girl summer.”
Literally everyone I knew was planning a trip to Hawaii.
None of that sounded appealing at all.
It’s not quite re-entry fear that psychologists are talking about, but a grim realization that, wow, I hardly missed anyone while I was bound at home. The six feet of separation—both physical and emotional—between me and most of the people I used to interact with face-to-face? I liked it.
I’m not ready for it to change back.
Soon, I thought, I’d have to face the people I didn’t miss again. I’d have to mold myself and camouflage myself to share their space. I’d have to smile and chatter and perform again for these people who are not my people.
We love to see a writer improve her craft.
I had this thought when I finished Helen Hoang’s The Heart Principle a few weeks ago, which I felt was her strongest, most emotionally satisfying book.
Hoang’s previous two books were fun and swoony in the way that contemporary romance should be fun and swoony. The Kiss Quotient had Korean drama vibes which I can get behind (I think the male lead was actually described as looking like Daniel Henney) and, to be honest, I don’t remember a lot of details about the second book, but I remember enjoying it.
I’m not a regular reader of contemporary romance. It’s safe to say I only read romance out of a kind of… intellectual curiosity? I do like romantic subplots and I’m fascinated by how writers write love and sex but the kind of emotional upheaval I look for in books, I rarely get from the romance genre. So, I was surprised to feel kinda shook by The Heart Principle.
The main character in each of Hoang’s books has autism, like the author herself. But in The Heart Principle, Anna is only aware that she’s different from most people. She playacts to fit in, to please those around her. She performs everyday not only as a violinist, but as a neurotypical Asian woman—and it’s exhausting.
How much of what people say is genuine and how much is politeness? Is anyone really living their life or are we all reading lines from a giant script written by other people?
Helen Hoang, The Heart Principle
A woman with autism trying to overcome a destructive fixation and learn to re-love her passion and love herself for the first time is weighty topic itself, but Hoang also blends a number of other complex, difficult experiences in her work: caring for an ailing parent, caregiver burnout and the guilt associated with it, existing in the shadow of a sibling, class and expectation, among others.
Later, Anna is diagnosed with autism and with the diagnosis comes self-compassion and relief. She realizes her daily exhaustion and extreme stress around her high-performing family is due to “masking”—effortful social strategies she executes with vigilance in order to pass as neurotypical.
For all that, the swoony romance doesn’t suffer at all. Quite the opposite. Dare I say that all the open communication and sweet understanding and compassion that Anna and Quan have for each other makes the book possibly the sexiest out of the three?! Anna finds a friend and lover who accepts her for everything she is without the mask.
The normal world has no room for exceptions and always quietly eliminates foreign objects. Anyone who is lacking is disposed of. So that’s why I need to be cured. Unless I’m cured, normal people will expurgate me. Finally I understood why my family had tried so hard to fix me.
Sayaka Murata, Convenience Store Woman
Convenience Store Woman was a bleaker take on neurodivergence. Keiko understood she was different and the neurotypical people in her life—her employers, her family, and most of the rest of Japanese society—don’t offer her understanding or compassion. Nor does she seem to want it. She has her own way of masking (“My present self is formed almost completely of the people around me,” Keiko acknowledges) but unlike Anna, she’s aware she’s doing this. She’s clinical, detached as she muses about the absurd creatures around her. She rejects much of the pressures of society, but survival seems impossible without some degree conformity.
Keiko finds one thing that gives her a sense of comfort and accomplishment—her job at a convenience store. With its clockwork routine, its set of unchanging “rules,” this is a world that Keiko learns to operate perfectly in. Her mask is attuned exactly to it. Yet still she’s subject to criticism and scrutiny by her family and peers. How dare she find contentment in a dead-end job?
The pandemic had most people wearing physical masks for the first time.
I was taking one off.
In my day job, I work at a stereotypical Silicon Valley software company. I’ve been in this industry long enough to know that there are certain types of behavior that lead to success, and certain types of success that are rewarded and recognized over others. People speak and write in a foreign language, practice a foreign culture (“People used a sort of nonlanguage, which was neither beautiful nor especially efficient,” writes Anna Wiener in Uncanny Valley). I often find myself dissociating in meetings from the sheer absurdity of mainstream tech, but force myself to come back, to keep the mask on. I have plenty of practice doing this.
I grew up in a different kind of situation where the “rules” of the world didn’t make sense. I unknowingly broke them once and I was punished. That experience as a child instilled me a kind of hyper-vigilance for the rest of my life, one that I have constantly turned on in any kind of work situation.
No matter how trendy the idea of bringing one’s whole, “authentic” self to the workplace is, we all mask—some more than others—whether that’s due to neurodivergence, sexuality, cultural identity, gender identity, and other marginalized identities, or some intersectional combination of all of the above.
What I gained from the isolation of the pandemic is more time to be more authentically myself. The hyper-vigilance abated a little; my tolerance for bullshittery that didn’t align with my own values, my own sense of self, diminished.
And so it’s with dread I think about going back to daily physical interactions with people who are not my people. I’m out of practice with my mask. How long will I last until I’m identified as a foreign object myself?