A largely forgotten footnote in Amazon’s history is the time that the online retail giant sat down with the owners of a feminist bookstore and asked them: “Are you gay?” and “Have you had any interest in promoting lesbian ideals in the community?” These bizarre questions were part of a strange and awkward legal battle between Amazon.com and the tiny Amazon Bookstore Cooperative in Minneapolis, which sued the larger company for trademark infringement in 1999.
The feminists, who had been in business for decades, were sick of dealing with calls from confused customers and initiated a legal suit after attempts to resolve the issue informally went ignored. During the deposition, lawyers for Amazon.com repeatedly asked the owners about their sexualities, arguing that Amazon Bookstore Cooperative was a lesbian business catering to a lesbian audience and in a fundamentally different market to Amazon. Eventually they settled out of court, with the bookstore retaining use of the name but assigning its common-law rights to use the name to Amazon.
When Nicole Chung was very young, she wrote a story about being a Korean-American child in a white family. “I was one of those kids who liked to staple construction paper together and write stories,” Chung told me in a recent telephone interview. “I wrote one about my adoption.”
Now, with her debut memoir “All You Can Ever Know,” she’s written another story — for the child she once was. Growing up in a small Oregon town, Chung said she rarely saw Asian faces in the world, or in literature. “In large part when I was writing this,” she said, “I was thinking a lot about fellow adoptees, and specifically the kid that I was growing up, and the stories I wanted to see in the world.”
In a book that might have named Japan or larger society as the failure, Lee chooses history. She invites us to consider that while history may have failed the Baek family, we readers must decide if we will fail as well—if the lessons of Koreans in Japan and the deaths of Noa and the nameless Korean child will continue to exist past the page or not. Instead of questioning the toughness of certain individuals, or scrutinizing the solitary action of a person living under the weight of an unjust structure, we are asked to consider resilience, and to think about how we ourselves might unravel the foundations that necessitates such strength.
As an aspirational ideal, “creativity” has a uniquely insidious siren song: It promises escape from the system that defines it. To be creative is to transcend or recombine the established order, but there’s always the danger of cooptation and appropriation. As Dr. Malcolm, Jeff Goldblum’s character in Jurassic Park puts it to the park’s CEO, “You stood on the shoulders of geniuses to accomplish something as fast as you could, and before you even knew what you had, you patented it, packaged it, and slapped it on a plastic lunch box and you’re selling it, and you’re selling it!” But of course they are — why bother with scientific breakthroughs if you are not going to commodify them? Figuring out how to sequence DNA is one thing, but turning that idea into a theme park? That is true creativity.
In Against Creativity, Oli Mould, a lecturer in Human Geography at the University of London, explores this phenomenon of how radical and revolutionary ideas become mere fodder for lunch boxes. Creativity, Mould claims, is often invoked to describe not how ideas break free of capitalism but are made compatible with it. It recasts kinds of labor that may have seemed outside capitalist exploitation — care, emotion, art, design — as the most exploitable form of production. The way creativity is used today, Mould writes, “feeds the notion that the world and everything in it can be monetized.” Accordingly, creativity has become a means to rent, sell, or offer subscriptions to something that was once free or otherwise disconnected from the profit motive. Graffiti artists are hired by real estate firms to bring a safe level of grittiness to a neighborhood. Ebay asks us to choose between passing on a valuable collectable to a relative or finding the highest bidder.
The first thing I did after my father’s funeral was get sick. Nothing dramatic, just a garden-variety cold passed to me by my mother. The second thing I did was go to Disney World.
As I watched my husband pack our things after the mercy meal—placing our somber, dark-hued, long-sleeved funeral outfits at the bottom, layering jeans and T-shirts and our 7-year-old’s Belle costume on top, attaching the Disney tags to our luggage so it would be retrieved from the Orlando airport by Disney cast members and taken directly to our Disney resort—I wondered if I was a terrible daughter. Was I being callous? Abandoning my mother? Once again prioritizing my husband’s family over mine? My husband’s parents have always lived much closer to us than my parents; over the last 15 years, I’ve spent far more time with them than I have at home. I’ve always felt sad about the ratio, but have never known what to do about it.
Because Edward’s front yard on the Folly River was a sandy coastal mess of prickly crabgrass and Spartina, he positioned 50-gallon industrial drums, sawed in half, outside the kitchen door. He basically grew tomatoes in tin cans but was a member of the Agricultural Society of South Carolina. His seedlings raced up poles in a mysterious soil mix about which he was tight-lipped. As the sun burned off dew and the hour for lunch approached, Edward lumbered down the rows checking ripeness until he found a few about to crack with juice, and twisted the warm fruit from its vine. The smell of tomato leaves fell somewhere on the spectrum between scorched tobacco and a mechanic's grease rag. The flavor of the tomatoes themselves, an excruciating alchemy of acidity and sugar, only he knew how to achieve. In the kitchen, one of my great-aunts or Edward's wife, Lucy, made sandwiches. I can’t recall if the mayonnaise was Duke’s, but the bread was squishy and white. I ate mine, bare feet dangling at the end of the dock, or in a rope hammock on the porch, with one of Edward’s fantasies about mutant aliens inches from my nose.
Where would Southern culture be without the tomato?
There’s so much material roiling in “Ninth Street Women,” from exalted art criticism to the seamiest, most delicious gossip, that it’s hard to convey even a sliver of its surprises. “The stories told in this book might be a reminder that where there is art there is hope,” Gabriel writes in her introduction, but that wan, anodyne sentiment doesn’t do justice to the gorgeous and unsettling narrative that follows; it’s as if once Gabriel got started, the canvas before her opened up new vistas. We should be grateful she yielded to its possibilities. As Helen Frankenthaler once said, “Let the picture lead you where it must go.”