At the beginning of my junior year of high school, 1985, Lyn lit a garbage can on fire in the science wing bathroom. Things had gotten weird after she shaved her head. Ma and Sam bugged her constantly about her black lipstick and all-black outfits, but they couldn’t do much, since her grades remained straight As. My grades were always crap.

The fire was the last straw. The school ordered Lyn to see a shrink, but when she told the shrink she didn’t regret doing it and wished she’d been able to burn down the whole school, Ma called our aunt in Chicago and asked her to make up a spare bed. And that’s where Lyn went for the rest of the school year—to live with our aunt and uncle and our horrible cousin, who was the president of her college’s Chinese Bible Study Group. Sam, my stepfather, said being there would be a good influence on Lyn. Ma said it would be good for all of us to practice our Chinese more, that we were starting to act white.

Lisa Ko

Lisa Ko’s fiction has appeared in Narrative, Brooklyn Review, The Asian Pacific American Journal, and elsewhere. “Proper Girls” is part of her collection-in-progress of linked short stories. She lives in New York City, where she has taught creative writing at City College, and is currently finishing her first novel, Jackpot, about an undocumented Chinese family in the Bronx.

Patrick Ryan on “Proper Girls”

I was first drawn to Lisa Ko’s “Proper Girls” because of its voice. The narrator in this story is someone you want to spend time with, someone you find both funny and endearing. Someone you want to listen to. Cyn’s family has moved from a mostly Chinese neighborhood in Queens where she fit in, to an all-white suburb in New Jersey, where even the boys who think she’s sexy ask charming questions like “What are you, anyway?” Her slightly younger sister, Lyn, becomes a classic badass: she hangs with a rough crowd, chops off her hair, sets things on fire. And Cyn adores her. But as a result of her acting out, Lyn is promptly sent away for the school year, and it’s during her absence that we get to know Cyn and her world.

Cultural identity plays a big part in “Proper Girls.” So does sibling affection/rivalry. But perhaps what’s most at stake here is identity on a much more personal level. For most of us, there’s always something of a disparity between what we see when we look inward and how other people regard us, just as there’s a difference between how we picture ourselves and what we see when we look in the mirror. When I was a teen, I was constantly thinking I could shape myself into the person I wanted to be all by myself; it took me a long time to realize that, for better or worse, I was really being shaped by how I interacted with the people around me.

Enter Kai, Cyn’s bumbling love interest. Enter Jocy, the family’s youngest sibling and the child of Cyn’s mom’s second marriage. Enter a small host of random guys Cyn tries on like shirts at a clothing sale. What emerges out of all these interactions—and out of the clashes with Cyn’s mom and stepfather—is Cyn. I’d say, “for better or worse,” but I find this portrait of a teen girl struggling to learn who she is as endearing as I find her character.

Q&A by Patrick Ryan

PR: Cyn and Lyn, two of the sisters in “Proper Girls,” are both strongly defined characters. So here comes a potentially obnoxious question: Are they based on anyone you’ve known? Are they conglomerates of different people, real or imagined?
LK: Well, Warwick is a fictionalized version of my hometown—a nearly all-white New Jersey suburb half an hour outside of where I was born, New York City. In the rare times that I wasn’t the only Asian kid around, you better believe I took notice, especially when I encountered Asian American girls who were glorious, badass rebels in the way I could only dream of being at the time. Cyn and Lyn’s bravado was sparked by girls like the one I remember meeting at a party when I was 11 or 12, the daughter of some family friend. She was in high school and had giant hair and ripped jeans. She dated older guys and smoked cigarettes without fear of being busted. Girls like this entranced me. I was scared of them, I wanted to be them.
PR: Are you working on more stories about them? Or about any of the other characters that appear in the story? My fingers are crossed that Kai, the bumbling love interest, gets to make another appearance at some point.
LK: “Proper Girls” is part of a linked short story collection about the Kwan family called The Leavers, which I’ve been working on, off and on, for years. There are origin stories where the girls’ parents meet in the 1960s, even stories about their grandparents. And Kai does reappear! For sure.
PR: Can you tell us how you settled on “Proper Girls” as the title? Are there “proper” girls in the story? Or “wanna-be proper” girls?
LK: The title is tongue-in-cheek and echoes something that Cyn’s mother Pat says: “I just want you to be proper.” I’m talking proper in that old-school, sexist expectation that girls be “good” and look nice—none of the three daughters in the family can or even want to live up to this expectation, thank god. It’s also a handy distraction: Pat focuses on punishing Lyn for her clothes and behavior and policing Cyn’s sexuality, yet ignores what’s actually bugging them.
PR: And these not-so-proper girls are complex and fierce in different ways. How would you describe the dynamic that exists between them?
LK: I’m an only child, but I’ve always been fascinated by the sibling relationships I’ve observed among my parents and friends. Cyn and Lyn feel like outcasts in their own family and in their town, but to their little sister Jocy, it’s their closeness that makes her feel like she’s the outcast. Even if Lyn is a year younger, Cyn looks up to her—she’s more daring and outspoken. And in the way that choosing a music scene to align with can define your whole world when you’re a young person, when Lyn chooses hers and leaves Cyn adrift among the meatheads of Warwick High, that’s serious heartbreak.
PR: It occurred to me, after many readings of “Proper Girls,” that it might be a story without a heroine. What do you think? (Is there any chance that Jocy could fill those shoes? She could be a candidate in that she’s the sole character to perform an act of selfless kindness...)
LK: I do think of Cyn as the heroine; it’s her journey that’s the focus here. But Jocy, to me, is the heart and soul of these stories, even in narratives that are written from other characters’ points of view. She’s the one who is asking the questions in the present, who wants to unravel the mystery of her family.
PR: The closing of your story is beautiful in part because it’s open-ended. Where do you see these three sisters in, say, twenty years? Do they live in different parts of the world, or near one another? Do they talk regularly? Are they involved in one other’s lives?
LK: Twenty years later, Cyn is still in Jersey and Lyn is out in Seattle. She moved to the west coast for college and never comes back east. Jocy ends up in New York City. Their lives are really different from one another and they don’t talk or see each other that often.
PR: What are you working on now?
LK: I’m revising a novel I’ve been working on for the past four years, which is about a cast of totally unrelated characters and takes place in China, the Bronx, upstate New York, and immigration detention centers in the South. Whenever I’m cheating on the novel, I return to these stories. I’ve also started a new project that takes place in New York City in 1901 and 2001.
PR: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
LK: I keep returning to something one of my writing teachers, David Mura, said to another one of my teachers, Junot Diaz: that in order to write the book you want to write, you have to become the person you need to be in order to write that book. This reminds me that writing isn’t just about working hard and wanting to finish a book or even about being a good writer—it’s also about the work you gotta do within yourself.