Mary H.K. Choi Thinks That Instagram Is Doritos
The author of "Permanent Record" on how social media is addictive and designed to keep us hungry
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Mary H.K. Choi needs no introduction. But I’m told I need to write one anyway, so I’ll use this space to tell you a few things I know to be true about her: She is a world-class connoisseur of all things bodega snacks. She is a believer in the evergreen nature of true coolness. And her new novel, Permanent Record, is a love story as vibrant and multi-faceted as the city its set in.
Pablo, the book’s protagonist, struggles to balance a new relationship with a glamourous global pop star amidst a life in crisis, and its that—as much as the references to bodegas and Manhattan streets—that give the story its decidedly New York energy. Choi writes the New York City that I ran to when I, like Pablo, was on the precipice of the next big chapter of my life in all of its messy, complicated, beautiful glory. And it manages to remind me that just like Pab and his love story, just like this city, we’re all a little messy, complicated, and beautiful, too.
Choi and I got to chat about the role of memes in the writing process, weaving a cast of characters that feels true-to-life, and interrogating the student debt crisis on the page.
Leah Johnson: Emergency Contact was such a huge hit in all of my circles—even folks who don’t believe themselves to be YA fans. What were your priorities when writing this novel—like the things you absolutely wanted to accomplish—especially in knowing that your debut resonated with readers so strongly?
Mary H.K. Choi: When I’m inside a book I can barely look out of the eyeholes. I have very little sense of proprioception so steering any of it according to what I think will resonate with readers and what people will enjoy isn’t something I know how to do. It’s something I can waste a lot of time and energy trying to do.
With Permanent Record I knew I wanted to set a story in New York. And I wanted it to be a romance not just between the two main characters Pablo and Leanna but also between Pablo and his friends, his city, his family and the value he brings to his own art and creations. It’s also heavily influenced by this rhythm to the way New York people talk that I’m absolutely captivated by.
Everything sounds like a snap or a joke but it’s cut through with so much love and familiarity. There’s an intimacy that’s foisted upon you by scarcity and proximity and you’re forced to support people and accept support in deeply uncomfortable ways. You can’t hide your shit. I knew I wanted to write about that.
LJ: I hung out with my 17-year-old niece the other day and realized how wildly uncool I have become, even though I’ve always thought I was The Cool Aunt! The way teenagers live online now versus the way we existed online when you or I were teenagers feels so different to me, so I’m wondering how you think through and adapt to that change in your work?
MHKC: I mean, leaning all the way into deep uncoolness is a gift. It’s worth earning. Especially given the accelerated pace at which culture changes where obsolescence is near-immediate. But even talking about the state of uncoolness is really a phenomenon particular to those moments when you only first realize you’re not young anymore. It’s still shot through with the hope that someone will pipe up and be like, Nah, you’re still cool and cite some irrefutable examples.
But true cool is evergreen. It’s kind of hilarious how uncomplicated it is and how little it changes. We love ingrained hierarchical structures. Those are just our ingredients. So much so that there’s always charisma in being sincerely indifferent to however coolness is defined. As long as you remember that there’s nothing more douche chill-inducing than the old person making declarative or prescriptive statements under the guise of “knowing what’s up” I think you’re OK. So I try not to do that. I’m not saying there aren’t objective differences in this generation from previous ones but otherizing teens because of Instagram, TikTok or Fortnite is being willfully obtuse.
Books take forever to write and an eternity to come out. Talking about trends is pointless. All I can do is tap into things I know to be true: everything is intense, friends are so important they may as well be celebrities, anxiety sucks and young adults are gobsmackingly resourceful when it comes to some things and heart-squishingly callow at others. I focus on interiorities. And how seismic the smallest things seem when they’re happening to you for the first time.
LJ: Part two to that question is: HOW DO YOU STAY IN THE LOOP??
MHKC: Short answer: memes. Also, lurking people who lurk the right people. I’m still interested, I’ve just capitulated on the need to be the expert. Dodai Stewart is a fantastic purveyor of international and domestic TikTok memes. Aminatou Sow’s Instagram stories are as vital to me as regular news. Also I enjoy the Anti-Pop Spotify playlist (even though I think the viral hits playlist’s algo is suspect). Naomi Zeichner’s Shabbat Shalom weekly roundup of new music is very solid. And talking to my friends’ kids about [YouTube] beefs because those fiefdoms are fascinating.
LJ: Both Emergency Contact and Permanent Record critique digital spaces and digital performance without creating a hierarchy of “this way of interacting with a human—in person, for instance—is more valid than interacting with them via a screen.” How do you strike that balance?
MHKC: I knew that I wanted both books to navigate liminal spaces and the way intimacy develops when you’re totally unencumbered by your meat suit and proxemics and eye contact and how new your sneakers are. But it’s not a balance not really. It’s about teasing the tension and drama when logistics go awry when you go from having constant access to not being able to physically be together.
But my favorite thing about using the internet and social media as a part of the story is that trick of the mind, that glorious plasticity of how we accommodate new communication modalities and stitch it all together to assemble what we know of a person. It’s like how you read words without vowels without skipping a beat. Nowadays you’re never like, oh this person said this meaningful thing and then parse the weight of it based on whether they said it to you in person or in a WhatsApp voice memo. It all goes into a general folder of goodfeeling that you associate with them. Of course, there is the performative aspect of the idealized hologram version of you that you’re swanning out into the world with social media but everything that goes down in the DMs engenders intimacy. I find it a lot easier to ask for help via text and voice memos just as I find it a lot easier to give help.
That said, for me touch is crucial for intimacy, the pressure of a human body against my own and meaningful eye contact in times of conflict resolution but it’s important to acknowledge that it’s not actually the case for everyone. And that’s beautiful too. I have terrible social anxiety so groups can make me completely shut down and dissociate whereas group chats can be delightful and edifying when I need a chorus of support.
LJ: You sometimes call social media an “instrument of self harm,” which I thought about often as I watched the ways Lee’s public persona affected every relationship in her life, including the one with herself. When you started working on Permanent Record, how were you thinking about the harm differently in this novel than the last?
MHKC: Instagram is Doritos. And I talk about it in the book. It’s a weaponized diversion in the sense that it is optimized for addiction and designed to avert satiation. And social media is a taxonomical prison. That’s the whole inspiration behind the title, this notion that your permanent record or all the metadata that quantifies your worth follows you around. It’s weird in how much it can feel permanent and predetermined when you have to seemingly carry your childhood mistakes around with you for the rest of your life.
In Emergency Contact social media was barely an issue beyond how Penny used it to terrorize herself about her own inadequacies as it related to Sam’s ex. But for this book, the magnitudes are so different. Lee is famous. Mega-famous. If Pablo says Lee’s Instagram is harming him, that’s like taking the price of oil futures personally. The solution is so easy. Stop going there. Being butthurt at Disneyland or Beyoncé or Coca-Cola because you’ve skewed your self-perception to where you feel threatened by astronomical success of multinational conglomerates is a bad scene. That way lies madness.
The wild thing is, everyone can relate to this. Feeling as though someone else is best life-ing at you.
And when you’re viewing yourself from the outside you just become this weird audience member to your own existence and before long you line yourself up in a race of your own making that has celebrities and the occasional dead icon mixed in where you all scrabble for stardom and happiness. It’s awful. You will always fall short. It’s all such a trap and at odds with contentment. The thing I try to remember is that Phoebe Waller-Bridge doesn’t have social and how fucking baller that is. I’m so curious as to whether or not I’ll one day have it in me to do that. I would probably miss my friends.
LJ: So much about this book is fantastic, but what really struck me is that among the other drama Pab is dealing with, perhaps the most pressing—externally speaking at least—is his crushing debt. I haven’t seen many books aimed at teenagers talk about what it means to be a freshman in college, taking out loans and credit cards that can follow you for the rest of your life. Did you head into this story knowing that you wanted to tackle the debt crisis in this way, or did it just naturally evolve as you fleshed out who this character is?
MHKC: I read something that the student loan debt right now is hovering at about 1.5 trillion dollars. Trillion. I’m not going to launch into a diatribe about the systemic failings of for-profit college systems that function primarily as real estate companies but just that number trillion. When you’re confronted by a total clown number you stop counting and want to lay on the floor and expose your underbelly and get it over with. What are you supposed to do with that? Nothing about that number or whatever portion of that number is your particular number inspires you to create an action plan. You can’t chip away at these interest rates the way the loans metastasize. It’s all so staggeringly broken the way the system privileges the same people over and over.
And I’m not saying that Pablo isn’t lucky—he is absolutely. But the second he faltered and failed out, that’s kind of it for him and whatever version of a life he thought he was working towards. I don’t know that I knew I wanted to deal with the debt crisis but in interrogating what a college-aged person was thinking about and preoccupied with, there’s no way to not address it. It’s so mercenary and predatory, it’s obscene. But it’s a racket and bum deal that we all buy into. Jacking up the cost of college to the point where you’ve mortgaged your future upon graduation is dystopic. It’s arguably the most fucked up thing you could do to someone who isn’t an adult yet. How do you make any decisions when failure will ruin you?
LJ: I don’t know if it feels like this for you, but as a writer of color, I’m always considering ways that I’m writing into and writing against images of blackness I’ve seen throughout my life. I was thinking about this in Permanent Record quite a bit because of Pab’s self-awareness about his family and what stereotypes they play into and play against.
In Emergency Contact, Celeste pushes back on the image of the “tiger mom,” and in Permanent Record, with Pablo’s mom, you aren’t doing that in quite the same way. I guess this is a long way of asking: Can you talk about how you conceptualized that shift in this book versus the last?
MHKC: I love Celeste. I loved the idea of a flaky Asian mom who doesn’t wear pants and shuffles in her Rocket Dog platform flip-flops and drives her daughter crazy. It’s like Edina Monsoon meets Bai Ling meets whatever energy makes Kylie Jenner seem convincingly 18 and 34 at the same time. But for Pablo and his mom I wanted that ambient wall of expectation and shame erected between them and I wanted to create a space to explore a lot of the intergenerational baggage that comes with being the mixed-race firstborn male son because that’s a true story as well.
Occasionally I’ll feel personally called out whenever someone on Twitter beefs about having to read yet another first-person essay about how orientalized they felt because their lunch smelled weird and the feelings of exclusion through the white lens and proximity to whiteness but the thing is, I’ve written that essay because that was a real thing that happened to me. I grew up in a British colony and then moved to a subdivision in a suburb of San Antonio. I didn’t grow up in Arcadia with the Asian mall as my mall eating ube pastries to the face and french fries with a grip of furikake on the top.
I definitely see how so many of these narratives are commissioned by white editors and how that skews things. But I also wanted to explore the long shadow of expectation that might seem much more a part of the model minority myth or Tiger Mommishness because these tropes and stock character types merit exploration too. Even if they feel shopworn to some. Pablo’s mom isn’t a Tiger Mom because she needs her sons to be doctors. It’s because she is terrified by all the things that terrify all parents of all cultures since time immemorial. Honestly, how is a mom who wants her kids to be doctors or lawyers and do well in school not Nigerian? Or Pakistani? Or Haitian? So many immigrants believe that a scholastic pedigree levels the playing field. That you can only be safe if you’re tethered to a massive institution or industry and how name-brand schools are that lingua franca.
I wanted to show the frailty of that. With Emergency Contact it was all about having one parent and that was so much fun to write but in Permanent Record I really wanted to dive into a loving, nuanced relationship between an East Asian mom and a South Asian dad. Bilal, Pab’s father is the most emo, most wavy patriarch ever. That was super important to me, figuring out the best character who would play as a counterpoint to the fallibility of the way Pablo’s mom Kay sees life. And someone who upends narratives and expectations around ambition, success, masculinity, and contentment on a moment-to-moment basis. Bilal was awesome to write. I want to hang out with him so bad.
LJ: In honor of the iconic Instagram @Munchies_Paradise, what is your go-to snack and sneaker combo?
MHKC: Comme Nike Cortez platforms and Flamin Hot Funyuns. Oft-slept-on classics with a heavy twist.