A librarian* talks about fashion, boyfriends, and the pitfalls of reading so much that you don’t actually know how to pronounce words.
She was standing at my door with an armful of clothes. The wan springtime sun was falling down on my bed, at the opposite end of the room; it sorted of blinded me to her, standing in the doorway, so that her veil of hair was practically a shroud.
We lived two doors down from each other on the third floor of Pinkney Hall, so even though we were two years apart in school, I saw her fairly often. I thought she was pretty–even more so because of her striking poise and the low, controlled resonance of her voice. If Wong Kar Wai remade Roman Holiday, the result would be Mimi as Princess Anne. If you’d asked me whether I thought she was quiet, I would have said no. I’d heard her speak a few times. And each time, she had surprised me.
There was the time I passed her in the hall, speaking on the dorm phone in Vietnamese, a language I hadn’t heard since lunch hour at my San Diego high school. It surprised me–based on her self-possession, I’d always made her for a cavalier second-generation type. The intimate fluency with which she spoke–leaning into the phone as if protecting the speaker on the other end–was moving. I wondered if something was wrong, I wanted to ask, but I wasn’t sure she’d want to talk to me, so I slunk away to my room.
There was the time after that, when she said she thought I’d like the band Coco Rosie. She was right. I did like them.
There was the time when we were doing our hair side by side in the dorm bathroom, and she asked for my advice about a boy. She liked him, he didn’t like her in that way, she’d done something embarrassing and didn’t know how to patch it up. (Apparently she wasn’t paying attention to my own very public romantic debacle, that year.) I don’t remember what I told her, but she remembers it kindly.
And finally, with the year all but over, here she was again with the remains of her closet. There were a few things she thought I might like.
Overlooking her very flattering misconception of what size I could wear, I caught my breath at the sight of what surely must have been the eidos of trench coat.
Consider for a minute what an iconic garment the trench coat is, and you’ll maybe understand why I was taken aback. The truth is, I’d never thought about fashion as iconography–I’d always been a label whore, though mostly from the distance of a paltry allowance. But I’d watched enough old movies to appreciate this coat…even more so, when I slid it on. It was a palomino brown color that made my skin look pale and pretty. It hugged my shoulders with an assertive comfort like when your coach pats your shoulder after you hit a home run. (That, by the way, is purely theoretical on my part.) The proportions were ideal–the lapels skimmed my knees, the lapels unobtrusively framed my collarbone.
It was the kind of clothing that advertises nothing but the wearer’s discernment. And it’s not exaggerating to say that, in receiving it, I felt as though some ineffable wisdom was being passed on to me. Of all the trench coats in all the clothing stores in all the world, Mimi had selected this one, and now had chosen me to wear it after her.
I wore the hell out of that coat until, like an idiot, I gave it to someone else.
Mimi credits her love of fashion (and most of her other great qualities) to her mother, who ended up in Little Rock, Arkansas after escaping the fall of Saigon. (Her father, a doctor, chose that state to settle in because he knew they grew a lot of rice.) She met Mimi’s father, another Vietnamese emigré, at the University of Little Rock.
“I’m kind of obsessed with them,” Mimi admits. “I kind of want to be them when I grow up. They’re really intense, but down to earth. They know who they are, and they have their shit together, and I really respect that. And I think they did a fairly okay job of raising me.”
Even so, Mimi says she hasn’t seen them in a year and a half. She doesn’t like going back to Little Rock.
Being the only Asian in her high school, as well as an inveterate bookworm, Mimi had solid reasons for finding it hard to fit in among her peers. Like most teenagers, she first became aware of fashion as a means to acceptance.
“Fashion was what I saw around me–it was Abercrombie & Fitch, and Birkenstocks. It was really hard to do, because my parents didn’t see the need for that. My mom was like, ‘No, I’m not going to buy you $90 sandals.'”
Instead, they went thrift shopping.
The easy comment to make here would be that Mimi, and her mother, were the original hipsters…a whole new level of hipsterism, in fact, because they shopped at thrift stores not only before it was cool, but while it was markedly uncool. Mimi suffered for her hipsterism.
But I keep these comments to myself, for the obvious reason–I don’t want Mimi to think that I am uncool.
“I didn’t like it back then. I was really ashamed, because as Nabokov says in Lolita, there’s nothing more conservative than a child. But my mom never forced it on me. It was just the way she carried herself, the way she dressed, the things she was attracted to, really influenced me. She was always interested in the unique. She was just, ‘I don’t want to look like everybody else.'”
Even as a thirteen-year-old, Mimi says, that idea struck her as profound. Perhaps that was why she didn’t go the typical teenage route of sneaking out when her parents wouldn’t let her go to movies or parties. Being with books had always made her happier, anyway, than being with people.
When she was thirteen, Mimi began volunteering at the Dee Brown Library in Little Rock. By age seventeen, she was earning $6.20 an hour as a page. “I was delighted,” she remembers. And it wasn’t a delight from a misbegotten notion that she would get to read all day–“I knew there was actual work you had to do, in the library.” It was being around the books, she says, that made her happy.
“The way people like being in nature, I delight in being around books. Every time I feel anxious, or sad, I think ‘Well, I’m surrounded by these books that contain all this knowledge, all these weird scenes…’
“It feels like… what’s another word for ‘savior?'”
Mimi has often been compared to her great-uncle, another voracious reader, who died a long time ago in Vietnam. He had a condition called the fugue, where during the summers, he would stand up, walk out of the house, and not come back for months.
I came to St. John’s College expecting to go to class, work my part-time job, and get out with a good degree. I was blindsided instead by the first-time-ever feeling of fitting in somewhere, among people who used gigantic words and enjoyed overthinking things.
When Mimi admits that she was often corrected as a child for mispronouncing words she learned from reading, I feel that same delight of tribal recognition. I’d thought I was the only one whose preference of books over people taught me what words meant before I knew how to say them.
So I’m surprised to learn that her experience at St. John’s was so different from mine.
“I used to think that once I went to college, everything would be okay. I’d have a bunch of friends, I’d be pretty, I’d be popular…and God, it was the exact opposite. If anything, my self-loathing was even more ignited. You’re around so many smart people, and it’s such a small school…I didn’t feel like I could really relate to a lot of them, and I didn’t feel like they could relate to me.
“I’m not saying I regret going. For the most part, it was a positive experience. But socially, I just…”
I can’t tell if she doesn’t want to say anymore, or can’t sort out her feelings any better. Her remarks make perfect sense, however, of something that has been puzzling and charming me for some time, about Mimi. If you’ve experienced it, you know what exactly what I’m talking about:
Mimi uses Facebook the way early film processors used Technicolor–her tones of feeling are unstintingly saturated, whether she’s talking about music or love or literature or people’s patent stupidity. But it’s only her style that’s in earnest; whatever she writes about–even her reverence toward her mother–is subject to gleeful deconstruction.
She has all the vituperative snark of New York magazine, the declamatory polish of Vanity Fair, and the serious erudition of the New Yorker. She has the street cred of Juxtapoz, the hipster cred of Pitchfork, and the screeching banshee earnestness of Jezebel.
She has, in fact, everything it takes to be a 140-character celebrity.
I tell her this, and she bursts out laughing.
“Why do you think that? I’m so obnoxious!”
There’s a self-awareness to her use of the medium that gives a fragility to even her bitchiest posts. A tacit remove from the life-as-open-book approach: most social media invites “friends” into the living room, while Mimi simply leaves the window open.
I’m not sure what makes this difference, unless it’s knowing her personally. We meet each other in the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial library on G Street and 9th NW, where she works as an associate. (She’s currently applying for graduate programs in library science; until she receives a masters’ degree, she conscientiously rejects being called a “librarian.”*) We’re sitting amid the stacks on the second floor, in the urban fiction section, near an outlet, so I can charge my camera battery while we talk. I’m struck not just by her library-ready voice–a natural trait, I discover, when we go out for drinks a few nights later–but by the way that the confidence in her diction competes with the shyness of her smile, and the way she uses both hands to pull her hair around her face, with the suddenness of a child suddenly running behind their mother’s knees.
If all you knew of Mimi was her Facebook page, you’d never be able to pick her out of a crowd. And if all you knew of her was her in-person persona, you might, like me, find her Facebook persona wickedly delightful.
“To be perfectly honest, I kind of use Facebook as…how do I say this?…an empty stage, where I work my own neuroses in front of everybody. And I don’t mind that. I’ve gotten flak from people with my updates–just how intense I am. I don’t mind. I think most of my posts are pretty funny…I try to be kind of snarky even when I’m really upset, or angry at somebody, or something.
“I try really hard to put more in [of] what I want to read on Facebook. And it’s not ‘I’m going to the race for the cure today, you guys!’ I think social media is really not to be taken that seriously.”
It is, however, through Facebook that I learn of Mimi’s penchant for Russian authors (“a massage for the eyeballs,” she calls them), as well as her encyclopedic knowledge of OG hiphop, and her religious observance of a quality mealtime.
And it’s through Facebook that I learn of yet another faced of her fashion blogs.
Mimi’s first gig out of college was at Watha T. Daniel/Shaw library in Logan Circle. While there, she started interviewing library patrons about their clothes, as well as their selections from the library for the day. It was a sort of off-the-cuff ethnography that quickly became the library website’s most interesting feature. It gave an otherwise humdrum public service a sense of community. It didn’t seem anymore like something that just had to exist–it had a vibrant life of its own, like the setting for an unusually real sitcom.
For someone who frequently declaims her social antipathy, I find it interesting that she gravitated toward seeking out the personal stories of library patrons. In fact, library patrons are the ones that Mimi will cut the most slack.
“I like public service. I can’t imagine working in the Library of Congress, in cataloguing or something, in a cubicle, in your own head all day. I need to be stimulated by people. Even if I don’t like them very much sometimes. “
It seems to me, I tell her, that she likes and doesn’t like people, at the same time.
“I just don’t want to interact with people’s foolishness. And the longer you know people, or the longer you spend time with them, the more you see that foolishness. And it’s exhausting! Which is why I don’t have very many friends. Sort of by choice. Even though I complain about not having friends–all the time–that’s just not who I am.”
I have to interject here that Mimi’s claim of not having many friends…well, I suppose that depends on what you define as friends. I can certainly speak to the truth that a lot of people like her, for precisely the reason that she doesn’t hold back her impatience with “foolishness.” A lot of fans, then, at the very least, who look at her Facebook rants as a vicarious hate reliever. She calls herself a solitary person, deep down…and maybe that’s what people respond to. Other solitary persons, who feel equally frustrated by the demands of school or society or whatever to be more upbeat, more cheerful, more sanguine, when they’d rather savor the foibles of the damned human race.
“I like how they talk. I like hearing other people’s voices. I like observing how other people move. The tics that people have, the attitudes that people have–good, bad, shitty, snarky, horrible. Even though I get very angry, it’s just kind of fascinating to watch.”
Last year, Facebook brought Mimi a message from a friend, someone she’d met only once, who now lives in San Francisco. Pravisti used to date someone Mimi knew in DC; she had just broken up with him, and unexpectedly looked to Mimi for help.
Mimi, going through a break-up herself at the time, passed on to her many of the hardline bon mots her mother has always given her:
“I said ‘You just got to love yourself, and not depend on other people for your happiness.’ Then we started talking about fashion, and I said ‘Hey, lets start a blog.’ I thought maybe it would be a good distraction for Pravisti, but partly it would be something that we both did. Kind of a feminist fuck-you to our boyfriends. I thought ‘Man, we’re both spending all this energy worrying about what other people are thinking. Why not just say fuck it and do this thing?’
“I told Pravisti that we were going to see it through for a year. We bought the domain, we paid for the design, and we’re just going to see where it takes us in a year.
“I thought it would be a really good ego boost, but strangely, contrarily, it’s not been.”
This, because people…well, some people…well, the former boyfriend…expressed their dim view of fashion blogs. It touched on a fear already present that Mimi has, of being the hackneyed “what to wear” guide or, worse, the exhibitionist’s homemade pedestal.
“My boyfriend-at-the-time, he said ‘I don’t understand, it’s just clothes.’ He’s a musician, so I tried to reply with ‘Well, music is just music, but you like doing it. And how dare you think that people who dress well don’t put any thought into it.’ I was kind of offended.”
“I feel like people who dress well, and people who are into fashion, and design, have every bit of artistic merit as someone who plays the guitar or someone who paints. It’s thought that goes into it, and it’s expression. And it’s not easy.
Blogging, she adds, isn’t easy–it takes a lot of time to look right. This answers a lament Mimi offers a bit later:
“It made me think about artists. That’s how artists think–they do it because they have to, or because they like it. it’s this genuine urge. My ex was like that. He was obsessed with music. He genuinely does it because he loves it, not because it’s cool to be someone who makes music. I don’t think I really have found that–that thing that I have to do.
“The only thing that I think I have to do is I have to eat alone. I have to have a book. That’s my time. But as far as creating something, I don’t have like, this itch that I have to scratch. I haven’t discovered that.”
If you read her blogs, you’re likely to disagree.
A guiding principle of Mimi + Pravi (the blog she started with her friend Pravisti, and the only one she keeps current now) is that all the clothes must be high-quality and cheaply sourced. It’s not really a thematic rule–more of an ethic:
“I don’t believe in spending a lot of money on clothes–I really want to stress that–on an economical basis, or even on a stylistic basis. You can certainly always find very beautiful, well-made clothes in thrit stores.”
The photographs, taken by Mimi’s friend Casey, are refreshingly undoctored–you see the textures, with their natural highlights, and colors made vibrant by early morning or afternoon sunlight. You get brief glimpses, as well, of the two women’s bicoastal environments–Mimi in DC, Pravi in San Francisco–allowing you to intuit the influence of changing seasons and shifting culture on the clothes.
And that’s only the visual aspect.
Mimi writes about clothing the way that M.F.K. Fisher writes about food. She plays her theme like an expert fisherman plays his line–casting it out to settle, letting it go slack with a bit of erudite meandering, pulling it in tight again to end up in possession of what you set out for.
I’m an easy mark for the ready-to-wear world…show me something on a pretty model, and I’ll probably try to buy it, if I can. Reading Mimi’s blog has made me a more thoughtful about what I wear, how I’ve chosen it, and whether it resonates with who I want to be. Whether it is something that can hold its place for an appreciable time in my closet…and whether it deserves to. The trench coat she gave me was never just a thing to wear. Nor was it only a vehicle of sartorial pedigree, like a little black dress or cigarette pants. It was a history–this interesting, complex person gave it to me, thoughtfully and intentionally. Wearing it was this multi-layered experience that anchored me, in a way, because I didn’t have to think about it. I just slid the coat over my shoulders and, like a superhero’s cape, I was somebody better. I didn’t just look like one.
That same principle suffuses Mimi’s blog–a visceral, sensual, and intelligent approach to first-world pleasures. This approach is, I think, a sine qua non of such pleasures, if we intend to maintain them. It’s what allows those pleasures to be truly nourishing, and keeps us from becoming soft, entitled, exploitative, in our enjoyment of them.
I’ll be the first to deplore self-consciousness as a hindrance to most pleasures. But maybe self-consciousness is exactly what’s needed to properly appreciate the things we take for granted. Maybe it’s only possible to enjoy simple pleasures precisely for their simplicity when you’re exhausted by the complexity of being yourself.
In that way, Mimi’s blog…for that matter, the indulgent snark of her Facebook…is a service to others. It reminds them to make thoughtful use of the pleasures afforded by their privilege of birth.
When I suggest this to her, she looks a bit dazed.
“I really like looking at clothes, and I like wearing clothes, so why not? And I thought it would be a great boost to my ego–not in a narcissistic way, but ‘Hey, I feel comfortable enough in my own skin to do this.’ But bizarrely enough, with this blog I’ve confronted so much more self-loathing. I’ll just think my blog is okay, but it’s not on the same level as X, Y or Z blog.”
Her voice, though keeping a library-appropriate pitch, rises in intensity.
“Who cares? Why does that even matter? But in passing, I think about this. It’s a really shitty, horrible exercise in self-loathing.”
Like a gesture, her voice drops again.
“Ultimately, what I come to, after being an asshole to myself is ‘Well, who cares? Why do this? I’m just who I am, and it’s literally like comparing apples to oranges. It’s not productive.”
I beg to differ–I’m definitely one of the vicarious hate relievers that hang on her every acerbic comment for catharsis.
But with all she has going for her…I sound like one of my own parents…it’s hard for me to understand how she can ever find it worthwhile to compare herself at all, let alone unfavorably. Of course she’s going to be different from other people. How many people know Margarita Nikolayevna well enough to call her a “ride or die chick?”
“I feel kind of like people compare themselves to other people maybe to anchor themselves in some weird way? Knowing your place in the world. ‘Well, I don’t look like this person, and my mannerisms aren’t like this person, this is who I am.'”
“I feel like I see a little bit of myself in every character I read.
“Even Humbert Humbert–I’m not a pedophile, but I certainly understand being obsessed. For stuff like Anna Karenina, or War and Peace, it’s so intense and moody. It’s like you’re living out these lives of people that you don’t live yourself. Because real life isn’t as intense and moody as I would like it to be. It’s ‘I’m tired and I’m going to take a nap,’ or ‘I’m hungry and I’m going to eat.’ It’s very hand-to-mouth. It’s boring. And Russian literature isn’t, for me.
“I would say the same thing about my current obsession with urban fiction.”
If, like me, you needed that heavily charged genre defined (I wasn’t sure if we were talking about Iceberg Slim or Toni Morrison), Mimi mentions Kiki Swinson’s “Wifey” series as one of her current favorites. She admits they’re not literary, but they’re fun, exciting, and she finds their raw uncut dealings with love, betrayal, world questions unexpectedly deep. “It’s engaging my mind. Makes me ask questions.”
She sort of shrugs it off.
“Basically, I like being around books because they entertain me.”
I can’t let this comment stand. If it’s entertainment she’s after, it’s clearly something deeper than cane be satisfied by prime-time TV or the preening banality of the DC bar scene. I wonder if what she means by entertainment is, in fact, another word for “savior”–an occupation that doesn’t change your circumstances, nor simply make you forget them, but helps you actually transcend them.
“Yes! Yes yes yes.”
She says this eight times.
“Sorry. Yes. You said it. Yes. Like reading Baudelaire, or Charles Bukowski… It just resonates. It’s transcendent.”
The summer before her junior year of college, Mimi interned at Little Rock’s NPR member station, KUAR, toying with the idea of reading the news on the radio. (Incidentally, her voice was made for this.) She liked doing the preliminary research on her interviewees; she liked writing up their profile afterward. But she hated conducting the actual interview. Her stomach would be in knots, even as she slogged through her list of questions. To get through the interview, she would repeat to herself the truthful cliche that they were just people.
She admits to a deep-seated fear of people. And when I ask her how she manages to come across so self-possessed, she admits,
“It’s hard–it’s hard to get through the day, figuring out why you got through it the way you did, successfully.”
You’d never know this, to look at her blog. Besides the beautiful put-togetherness of her clothes, there’s the way she takes the camera by force. Her face is open, her chin is lifted, there’s a life in her eyes that reflects the light around her.
Mimi attributes this to the great rapport she has with her photographer Casey–whom, incidentally, she was intimidated by when she first met him. (“I knew of him through the library blog–I was reading his posts and they’re really good. Funny. I thought, ‘Oh my god, he’s going to be so mean and condescending, how could he not?’ But he turned out to be a really nice guy. I feel really privileged to be his friend.'”) But there’s something more to it, in my opinion. There’s a sense of self, a comfort in her own skin–the feeling that eludes her in real life she can, it seems, possess when she’s immersed in the world of wearing, thinking, and writing about clothes.
“I wear what I feel good in. Sometimes I’ll branch out and wear bright, patterny colors, but that makes me really uncomfortable. When I was looking at my blog a couple days ago, I was wearing a bright blue dress, I thought ‘This is not me at all, why did I wear that?’
“Let me ask you this–what is the purpose of stepping out of your comfort zone? You learn what you like, what you dislike? So then you have that, where does that go? When you know that you don’t conform or fit into a bright blue dress, but you do it anyway, isn’t that just sheer lunacy?”
“I was reading Rookie mag a couple of days ago, and one of the articles talked about how you shouldn’t define yourself by what you like. I thought that’s very interesting, but why not? How do you define yourself?
“I think about what I like, fashionwise–very clean, classic lines. I like red a lot. What does that say in the choices people make? I think red is bold, but it’s also understated…if such a dichotomy could exist. What would that say about me? I would like to make a statement, but not in an obnoxious way. Which is why I like red.”
It’s loud, I suggest, but it has a lot of substance to it.
She seems to like this idea.
I’ve borne witness to the breed of librarian who resents the intrusion of readers into her domain–we had one of these at our college, in fact.
Mimi isn’t one of these–she genuinely enjoys the “helping people” aspect of public service. For real.
“I get along really well with patrons. I enjoy interacting with them, and I don’t get nervous around them. I think it has a lot to do with age. If they’re older, or even when they’re younger, I feel like I relate to them better. And also because it’s a work setting.
“But I do know that if I go into a social situation with my peers, like a party or a bar, I don’t like talking to people. I think a lot of it has to do with being intimidated by people my age. And I don’t know why. I really don’t know why. I find myself really struggling to relate to people my age.”
I’ve been haunted by this idea of Mimi’s great uncle, and the way he found to leave everything behind. I think of standing up on my porch, on the first day of summer, staring out into the distance, and going out to meet it. Instead of thinking of obligations to other people, to future plans, to the social alienation that people might regard me with…just going.
They call this a fugue state because it looks like psychosis, to care that little for the semblance of normalcy. But maybe fugue sufferers are only saying they don’t remember wandering off, because they have to, to save the feelings of the people they love. Or it could be they legitimately don’t remember–their brains, unused to that kind of bravery, are protecting them from remembering it.
Maybe Facebook and the things we do…the moments when we give leash to whatever we relly are inside, the thoughts we really have where we don’t let social obligations rule or behavior…maybe those are the same. A socially acceptable means of escape, the way books used to be for more of us.
Mimi suddenly asks.
“Do you think friendship does have an expiration date?”
I tell her the people I keep in best contact with, from college, are the ones that I met during senior year, while the people I spent the most face time with, I seldom talk to, anymore. Maybe friendship doesn’t have an expiration date, so much as a critical mass. Maybe those friendships went as far as they could, right away, while the more recent ones still have plenty of distance to cover.
Or maybe it’s a matter of freeing up your true impulses from taking the easiest road. We bond to what’s easiest and most immediate, out of a need for that kind of relationships. But when you’re not thrown together by proximity or common experience, it levels the playing field. You reach out instinctively for the people you’re actually drawn to, instead of the people that are just in your space.
Mimi attests that she likes connecting with people–she says this in the same breath as expressing her distaste for parties. I presume that’s why she keeps going to parties, keeps trying to date, keeps hosting her Russian novel reading group at the library and going to karaoke at the Pinch. Also presumably, it’s why she doesn’t adjust herself to be easier to get along with, persistently remaining “horrifically antisocial and unstoppably cool,” angry and proud and self-conscious and joyfully misanthropic. That is her, and to change herself for the sake of connection would make it not a connection, at all.
A mutual acquaintance, whom I saw at St. John’s, said of Mimi, “I think she doesn’t know how cool she is.”
Then he checked himself:
“I think she knows how cool she is, but she doesn’t know other people know it.”
“Identity expressed through clothes as a narrative for the world–I am sort of obsessed with this idea. I think it may stem from the fact that I am a first-generation Vietnamese woman who grew up in Arkansas. There’s certainly this sense of an unfinished identity within me, because sometimes I feel like I don’t have cultural legitimacy in either country. I feel very much American, of course, but I’m still considered a minority here. And I don’t know what it would be like to fully be Vietnamese, whatever this means, because I have never visited, and even if/when I do, I am not a Vietnamese citizen. I didn’t attend Vietnamese school; I didn’t grow up experiencing the full spectrum Vietnamese culture. So, sometimes, I don’t know who I am, exactly, beyond my experiences and personal preferences for art, literature, food, clothes.”
“Perhaps these experiences and preferences are precisely what builds identity. But I am always concerned about what sort of narrative I’m projecting when I pull on a certain sweater, wear a certain hat, throw on a certain scarf, because, at the age of 26, I largely haven’t decided or seen just quite yet what sort of human I am. But I think fashion and documenting my personal style will help me somehow. Clothes are pretty expressive.”
If you’re in the DC area, drop in on Russkaia Literatura at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial library.
All photos with captions taken by Casey Danielson