Friday Favorites: “Ribbons” by Laurence Yep

For today’s Friday Favorite, I’m going talk about “Ribbons” by Laurence Yep, a YA book. It’s not SFF, but it is ballet, so we’re still #onbrand!

“Ribbons” follows Robin, an eleven-year-old Chinese-American girl who is a promising and passionate ballet student. But, she has to give up those lessons so that her parents can afford to bring her aging grandmother to the US, which permanently alters the family dynamics as well as economics.

Once her grandmother arrives, Robin wants nothing more than to go back to her beloved ballet lessons, but when her grandmother sees her tying on a pair of pointe shoes with satin ribbons, all hell breaks loose for reasons that nobody will explain to Robin, who is feeling more and more pushed out of the family circle. Resentment, jealousy, and pain build until Robin and her grandmother accidentally come to a better understanding of each other’s inner world and the hurts they both hold.

Reader, this book was the first time that I really and truly saw myself in a story. I remember the utter shock of it: someone wrote a book–for me?

I desperately wanted ballet lessons as a child. I had my first ballet lesson when I was over 30. I did not have a cranky grandmother living with my Chinese-American immigrant family in the US, but I knew that the reason for my deprivation was in part because my parents were desperately saving all the money they could for my future and my younger brother’s future. (I say in part because they eventually did scrape up some money for entirely unwanted piano lessons.)

In hindsight of course I am sure there are many, many Chinese immigrant girls who wanted ballet lessons. But I didn’t know at the time because I didn’t live next to or talk with any of them, because my parents chose to bring us to white suburbia. That had its benefits for sure. Diversity was not one of them. I consumed and even enjoyed volumes upon volumes of white ballet girl books (I love Noel Streatfeild’s “Ballet Shoes” to pieces, so please don’t take this post to be a slam on those stories) but I knew those books weren’t for or about me. The same was broadly true of my reading, whether it was in literature or SFF. I did occasionally land on a book about being a Chinese immigrant, which was inevitably about Pain and Suffering and Abusive Family Dynamics. Thank you, publishers, for reducing my existence to those dimensions!

So it was incredible to read “Ribbons,” which seemed like it had been written just for me. If you looked at the readership of the extremely white town where I lived, from whose library shelves I plucked the volume, that might even have been true.

Although the book is not SFF, it was a fantasy for me: an AsAm girl immigrant who cannot have the ballet lessons that she so desperately wants–and even though she’s talented to boot. (I’m not talented. I did say this was a fantasy.) And as a child who thought she would never get the chance to dance, I made my peace with that and let Robin dance for me. I was a dramatic child, okay.

And then at age 30something, I hauled myself into a ballet studio and paid for my first lesson. I’ll never stop wishing I’d been able to dance as a child, but I am slowly learning that it is just as valid and beautiful to pick it up now as it would have been 25 years ago. Thanks for inspiring me, Laurence Yep.

(On a less self-centered note, I find it extremely regrettable that whole piles of talent and passion and drive in this world are lost. By the end of the book, Robin gets her chance. Many people never do, which is the part where the fantasy breaks down. This is why I donate to my dance studio.)

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to write fanfiction where Robin goes away to SAB and becomes an NYCB soloist.

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2018

2017 was incredibly hectic. You may have noodled that one for yourself from my dramatic decline in posting frequency.

Anyway, three goals for 2018:

  • Get promoted to the next level (Beginner II) at ballet school. Overall goal is to one day be able to attend a NYCB open class at the Kennedy Center! You must be at least intermediate level to join in, and observation is not allowed, so I better do all my exercises today. (I’m ordering a Theraband stat.)
  • Sell another short story. You know they say “it never gets easier, you just get better” and I’ll vouch for #1 but I’m not so sure on #2. For quite a while now I have only been getting better at seeing how my writing sucks. A useful skill to be sure, but best paired with an actual increase in writing ability. They promise me that eventually that curve flips but I think they lied. I’m still writing though. Forgive the tone of this item – nobody ever said that grinding EXP was heartening.
  • Do something original and self-directed at work. But first, I must get good enough at my job that I have the bandwidth to conceive of something original and execute it to completion.

Here’s to a happy, healthy, and heaven willing productive 2018!

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Ballet Shoes

Probably the biggest new happiness multiplier in recent memory: I (re)started taking ballet at local studio. Although I am a complete beginner, I grew up on a steady diet of ballet books at varying qualities. I don’t remember when I first saw the photos but I remember being completely entranced by the unparalleled beauty of the form. Lessons were not possible, so I read books, which is always the next best thing. I read all the Noel Streatfeild books, random teen serials where no book is complete without someone bursting into tears mid-dress rehearsal, and of course I read Jill Krementz’s “A Very Young Dancer” so many times that it’s burned into my mind. I also read all kinds of books about technique, and pored over photographs of classical ballets. Thanks, well-stocked childhood library!

One of the really flattering things that a teacher said at my very first lesson was “I can’t believe you’ve never taken ballet before.” And no matter how failhard I am at every lesson, I definitely laid up that comment to live by whenever I feel discouraged (the adagios in center practice, they slay me). And I do fail pretty hard, even for a beginner. My hips are stiff, I can barely follow simple choreography, and my placement is a mess. But I flatter myself that I have been mentally dancing for a very long time. So even when my feet are not right, I do know exactly what I am supposed to have done, and that sometimes–somehow–just a bit–shines through the mess of bad posture and worse turnout.

The other thing I love about ballet is that … I am a fairly competitive and perfectionist person in most areas of my life, but dancing shuts down that part of my brain. That makes it freeing and meditative–I suspect that ballet is to me as yoga is to a lot of people. If my steps are not perfect, that’s just my version of it and it’s as valid as anyone else’s, and I am shockingly content with that.

Which is the complete opposite of how I feel about writing! I submit my stories for publication, and I love it when people read and hopefully enjoy my stories. Part of me feels that a story is not real until it is shared–that it’s just a hallucination in my brain until someone else confirms that they heard those voices too.

In ballet, I do not feel that way. I am overjoyed just to be in the studio. I could do endless tendus alone save for the accompanying music on my phone. I feel absolutely no need to be on a stage.

I wonder if I would be a better writer, if I also felt that way about my writing?

Anyway, this was a rambling post. If you want to read a serious post about taking ballet as an adult, I wholeheartedly recommend the excellent essay “Swan, Late: The unexpected joys of adult beginner ballet.”

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