AN INTRODUCTION BY AAWW
In Look Who’s Morphing, Asian-Australian writer Tom Cho’s debut collection of playful, zany micro-fictions, the protagonist, whose name is also Tom Cho, can’t be pinned down. One moment he’s Baby from Dirty Dancing, the next he’s a 100-foot-tall Godzilla playing a farewell concert in Tokyo, and later he transforms into the Fonz, a Ford Bronco 4×4, and Princess Diana, to name just a few.
In the story published here, Cho has turned into Whitney Houston’s bodyguard. Lifting much of the plot from the 1992 movie starring Houston and Kevin Costner, Cho walks us through scene by scene without a trace of dialogue. The straightforward prose is almost comical — sort of the opposite of show, don’t tell — and takes on a surreal dimension when, toward the end of the story, he realizes that his body must transform again to meet the demands of the job. Tom Cho as Whitney Houston’s bodyguard is, essentially, a superhero.
In an essay about queer desires in fan fiction, literary scholar Ika Willis argues that “reading involves the negotiation of painful gaps between the desiring subjectivity of the reader and the ability of the text to sustain that subjectivity and those desires.” In other words, sometimes the movies, books, and comics we consume don’t leave space for how we see ourselves, and it hurts. It’s one way to understand why people turn to fan fiction.
Whether or not we think of Tom Cho’s “The Bodyguard” as fan fiction, the form has no doubt informed his work. When Cho read at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop last spring, he talked of those “painful gaps” in terms of a disappointment in texts — when he’s faced such with disappointment, it’s the emotional response that he finds most interesting.
After we published Cho’s “The Bodyguard” in The Margins last year, I revisited the 1992 film. While Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston make unconvincing passes at each other, it’s not difficult to understand how disappointment surfaces here. Whitney, who plays Rachel Marron, is as fabulous as ever, but Kevin Costner’s character, Frank Farmer, comes across as aloof, boring, weirdly aggressive, and controlling. By now it’s safe to say that Costner has set some kind of record for starring in white savior films. Who wouldn’t want to displace him with their own bionic body?
Critics in Australia have described Look Who’s Morphing as at once a queer narrative, a transgender narrative, and a narrative about Asian immigrant assimilation and transformation. But Tom Cho wasn’t trying to write stories that fit into any of those categories. Responding to a question after his reading at AAWW last spring, Cho said, “The moment you start to try to pin down a sense of self, the very concept of identity can become over-determining of people’s lives and experiences and bodies, and it does all kinds of harm to people. I needed to find some more subtle and imaginative way to write about identity that was a porous text in the same way that our lives should be lived porously.”
Managing Editor, Asian American Writers’ Workshop
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by Tom Cho, recommended by the Asian American Writers’ Workshop
Someone is stalking Whitney Houston and I have been hired to be her bodyguard. However, I soon discover that guarding Whitney Houston is not as easy a job as I might have thought. It turns out that she and I do not get along very well. She complains that my protection of her is too strict and that she cannot do what she wants to anymore. As a result, even as she becomes more and more frightened of the stalker, she begins acting up. I do not take very well to her acting up so I start acting more aloof. This behavior soon becomes a pattern for us. Interestingly, even in times when strong emotions are present, I have a tendency–perhaps mechanistically–to call on my sense of logic. Thus, I express to Whitney Houston the following either/or statement: either she will continue to refuse my protection and end up being gruesomely killed by the stalker whom I will eventually track down and apprehend and then and only then will I write a bittersweet yet poignant song about my love for her such that her sister will become very jealous of my talent, or she will allow me to protect her and this will create a better dynamic between us and we will fall in love and one night we will end up having sex at my place and then and only then will I modify my body such that I will be able to defeat her stalker. Presented with these options, Whitney Houston decides that the latter scenario is best. Thus, we end up sleeping together the following night. Later that night, as we lie together on my bed, I hold her and she rests her head upon my chest and tells me that she has never felt this safe before. This makes me feel proud. Although I have never been the strongest or even the most fearless of my peers, I have always had romantic ideas about being the protector of all the girls. On the other hand, I cannot help feeling that, by sleeping with my client, I have breached the limits of acceptable bodyguard-client relations. So, the next morning, I tell Whitney Houston that we should not have slept together and that we must revert to a proper bodyguard-client relationship. Whitney Houston is very upset about this and we begin to argue and Whitney Houston soon begins acting up and so I start acting more aloof. Eventually, Whitney Houston falls silent for a moment and then she tells me that she is in love with me and that she wants to be with me. I do not know how to respond to this, so I say nothing.
Over the next few weeks, the tension between Whitney Houston and me worsens. She is hurt and angry, and she becomes increasingly uncooperative about receiving my protection. One night, she holds a party at a hotel after one of her performances. At the party, I stand in a corner drinking a vanilla protein shake as I watch her mingling with her guests. She looks truly beautiful, as always. It is then that I notice that Greg Portman is at the party. Portman is a bodyguard I have worked with before. I walk over to Portman and greet him. He says hello in return, and he tells me that he is guarding another one of the guests at the party. We begin chatting. As always, Portman starts talking about some of the recent technological innovations that have been changing the face of bodyguarding. He tells me that, thanks to major advances in the development of force fields, bionic limbs and cybernetic exoskeletons, his job as a bodyguard has become so much easier. I give Portman’s brawny bionic arms a sideways glance before launching into my usual response that I am not interested in adopting any of these technological advances into my bodyguarding work. Portman looks at my biceps and then he laughs at me and tells me that I am still the same old-fashioned guy with my bodyguard fantasies of being chivalrous and protecting women. Sometimes I regret having told Portman about my fantasies of chivalry. Just as Portman begins telling me that going bionic is the best thing that ever happened to him, Whitney Houston comes up to us. I smile at her but she ignores me and smiles at Portman instead. She places her hand on his arm and asks him to tell her all about bionics. As Portman begins to tell her about his very first experience with a neurostimulation implant, I walk away from them and head out to the balcony. On the balcony, I look out at the cityscape. As always, I find myself wishing that I was a stronger and tougher man&emdash;a man who is indestructible. After a while, I come to a decision: it is time for me to seek expert advice about my situation.
So, a few days later, I meet up with someone who has a special place in my life. I have always thought of him as a strong and tough man. He is also someone who has had many sexual adventures with women over the years. This person is my Uncle Shen. Uncle Shen has always projected a very physical and confident kind of masculinity. It is a type of masculinity that attracts many women to him and, as a result, I suspect that he is an expert on matters relating to women and desire. Over beers at a pub, I tell Uncle Shen about what has been happening between Whitney Houston and me. I then mention to him that I have always admired his masculinity and the way it attracts women. Upon hearing this, Uncle Shen confesses that he has modeled aspects of his masculinity on Marlon Brando’s animalistic, swaggering portrayal of Stanley Kowalski in the film A Streetcar Named Desire. He says that he saw the film as a teenager and was struck by the sexual power of Brando’s Kowalski. He adds that he loves the power of having women want him, and he begins talking about his experiences of having flings with girls he meets in bars. Smiling, he tells me that his favorite line from A Streetcar Named Desire is “I have always depended on the vaginas of strangers.” He says that he has adopted this line as his life philosophy. I do not have the heart to tell Uncle Shen that he has based his life philosophy on misquoting Tennessee Williams, so I simply nod and tell him that I understand. Uncle Shen then winks and tells me that he has had many pleasurable journeys on “the streetcar named desire.” Me, I can only think about how some of my deepest desires are unattainable, so I say nothing. Uncle Shen notices that I have gone quiet. He tells me that there are too many good things about desire for one to get too sad about it. He adds that the opposite situation–a life without desire–would be far worse. In spite of my mood, I can’t help seeing some truth in what he is saying. So, as Uncle Shen begins talking about some of the things he finds attractive in women, I smile and join in, and we spend the rest of the evening discussing our interest in “a streetcar named lingerie”.
After saying goodbye to Uncle Shen, I head back to Whitney Houston’s mansion. She is waiting up for me and wants to talk. She apologizes for her behavior towards me. As I look at her in surprise, she confesses that she is very scared of the stalker and that she wants my protection now more than ever. She also mentions that she has been nominated for an Oscar and that, even though it may be dangerous, she wants to go to the awards ceremony. I congratulate her on her nomination. She blushes and thanks me. I look at her and I realize that, tonight, among my many desires, I want to continue protecting her and being her bodyguard. I tell her that she can go to the awards ceremony and that I will look after her. She smiles and thanks me again. As she walks away in her baby pink satin slip with its lace detail, side split, and embroidered contrast trim, I also make a silent vow to myself that I will do whatever is necessary to ensure that she is safe.
On Oscars night, Whitney Houston is understandably nervous about her safety. Cameras and lights and crowds of fans and actors and technicians are everywhere, and she looks almost ill with worry. I look at her with concern and I realize that it was a mistake for me to have told her my theory that the stalker was going to strike tonight. Fortunately, the night gets much better for her when, four and a half hours later, it is announced that she has won her award. When the announcement is made, she raises her hands to her face in shock. The orchestra begins playing and everyone applauds as she makes her way to the stage. As she walks up to the podium to accept her award, I turn around and am surprised to see Portman standing near me. I greet him but he looks a little awkward as he says hello in return. It is then that I realize the truth: Portman is the stalker and he is at the Oscars to launch his ultimate attack on Whitney Houston. Sure enough, just as Whitney Houston is about to make her acceptance speech, I notice that Portman’s left bionic eye has begun to glow red. I immediately run out onto the stage and make a flying leap in front of Whitney Houston and push her out of the way. A laser beam from Portman’s eye hits me in the shoulder. Everyone in the auditorium screams. I stand up and face Portman, my shoulder wound closing in a matter of seconds. He is shocked to see my wound heal so quickly. I inform him that I have changed since we last met at the party and that, while I am still not the strongest or even the most fearless of my peers, I too have embraced some of the more recent technological innovations that have been changing the face of bodyguarding. I explain that I have always wanted to be indestructible and I have now acquired super-fast healing powers and had my entire skeleton laced with an alloy that is designed to withstand extreme pressures. Portman suddenly activates his personal force field and tells me that, as long as I can never land a hit on him, he will be undefeatable. In response, I flex my bionic hands into fists and I unsheathe three foot-long super-sharp metal claws from each fist. Everyone in the auditorium screams again as Portman and I begin to fight. However, it is not long before I have Portman on the defensive. Once he realizes how powerful I have become, his confidence begins to fade. Eventually, I am able to corner him and slash through his force field with my claws. Yet, just as I deliver the final blow to defeat Portman, he fires one last blast from his bionic eye into my chest. This blast is delivered from virtually point-blank range. As Portman sinks to the ground, I fall backwards, blood pouring from my chest. Whitney Houston screams and rushes over to cradle me in her arms. She cries and begs me not to die on her. Crowds of people are surrounding us as Whitney Houston holds my body. My blood spills onto her clothes and she pleads with me to hold on and stay with her. But, once again, my wound heals in a matter of seconds, and Whitney Houston and I look at each other and we smile.
A week later, Whitney Houston and I are saying our farewells on an airport tarmac. She is doing her best to not cry. We talk briefly but soon it is time for us to part so I kiss her on the cheek and we hug each other and tell each other goodbye. She walks away from me and enters her private plane. The plane’s engine starts and she sits and looks at me from her seat at the window. As I watch the plane slowly turn away and begin taxiing down the runway, I find myself feeling very sad. It seems that I am not indestructible after all. However, I also suddenly realize that there is something else that I desire more than pure indestructibility. Thus, I formulate the following either/or statement: either I will stoically watch the plane depart and Whitney Houston will get the pilot to stop the plane so that she can run out to kiss me and then and only then will I resume my life as a bodyguard without her such that she will end up singing a song about our relationship, or I will decide that there is no logical reason why I cannot be her bodyguard as well as her lover so I will make a flying leap onto one of the plane’s wings and unsheathe my claws and use them to rip a hole in the side of the plane so that I can climb in and grab Whitney Houston and we can kiss and then and only then will I tell her that I have come to realize that being a bodyguard who can also be her lover&emdash;and being a bionic man who can also be human&emdash;is ultimately what I desire such that she will let herself be held by me and she will offer me an ongoing contract to work as both her bodyguard and her lover. Presented with these options, I decide that the latter scenario is best. Thus, Whitney Houston ends up in my arms, smiling at me, and offering to discuss the terms of my contract.