RESPONSE by Diep Tran
This speech was first delivered by Diep Tran at Prelude Festival at the Martin E. Segal Center in NYC in October 2018 as part of a work-in-progress showing of Suicide Forest. Tran was asked to respond to the themes of the play by creating an original work. Below is the text of the speech.
Because Kristine put so much of herself into Suicide Forest—including her own body—I thought it'd only be fair for me to put a bit of myself into this response. In the play, Azusa asks Mad Mad: “What is it to become a woman?”
This is my attempt to answer that question.
I have been bleeding everyday for the past month. Like 62% of fertile women, I am on birth control. Mine’s called a Nexplanon, it is a 2-inch plastic rod that is implanted into your arm. You set it and forget it. It is over 99% effective in preventing pregnancy, even more effective than getting your tubes tied. I was a big “Lord of the Rings" fan growing up and the way I like to think of it is, the sperm is the Balrog and the Nexplanon is Gandalf standing on the bridge shouting, You shall not pass!
The side effects are relatively mild: mood swings, weight gain, headache, acne, depression, and, well, random bleeding. And sometimes the random bleeding lasts for, well, centuries. And then you’ll feel so unsexy that you won’t want to have sex with anyone, which is another way of preventing pregnancy.
When you’re on the Nexplanon, or any kind of birth control that turns you into a Cyborg, your period goes from a monthly inconvenience, like your credit card bill, to Jack Nicholson in The Shining.
Why am I telling you about this thing that’s happening to my body, right now, as I’m standing here talking to you?
There is something about having blood come out of your vagina for a month straight that really puts you in touch with your own body. It’s kind of like getting diarrhea, the kind where you realize it’s about to happen and you’re praying to god that you’ll make it to the bathroom in time before you shit yourself. Before shitting your pants, you may have thought that you were the master of your own body. And then you realize that sometimes your body will do things that you can’t control. You will be powerless in the face of biology.
Women are used to feeling powerless. We’ve been feeling it every single month from when we were 11 or 12. Every month, half of the world’s population bleeds. We don’t talk about it. We cover it up. But we still bleed.
Isn’t that one hell of a metaphor?
I just finished reading this book called Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, about Koreans living in Japan in the mid 20th century. It was purely coincidence—I had started reading the book at around the same time I was invited to participate in this festival. I would like to read one passage to you:
All her life, Sunja had heard this sentiment from other women—suffer as a girl, suffer as a wife, suffer as a mother—die suffering. Go-saeng—the word made her sick. What else was there besides this?
That is a great fucking question. I think we are all so unaware of how much pain most women are in, and how much women have been socialized to not talk about it. Because when we do, we’re not taken seriously. We’re told we’re exaggerating, “PMS-ing,” or lying. There have been studies that show doctors prescribe less pain medication to women than men after surgery, even though women report more frequent and severe pain levels. And women are more likely to be told our pain is “psychosomatic.” Another fun fact: women who give birth in America are more likely to die of complications than in any other developed country in the world.
I’ll give you an example of just how normalized female pain is. I’ve been asked why I don’t have an IUD. For those with a penis, an IUD is a T-shaped plastic device that is inserted into the uterus. It’s like a Nexplanon in that it turns your body into the sperminator and is crazy effective. The only difference is while the Nexplanon only lasts 3 years, an IUD can last 5 to 10 years.
I actually did have an IUD. In 2012, while in a long-term relationship where I really wanted to have condom-less sex with my boyfriend, and I didn’t want to take a pill every day anymore, I decided to get an IUD, which was completely covered by my insurance. Thanks, Obama!
My doctor, Dr. McDonald, told me that during insertion, it would feel like a pinch, and afterwards, there may might be cramping. I thought, cramping, I can handle cramping. I’ve been cramping every month since I was 12! I have a PhD in period cramps.
So there I am, lying on the exam bed, my feet on the stirrups, my legs spread wide. Dr. McDonald inserts the clamps, a familiar cold feeling that doesn’t suck any less even after 9 years of pap smears. The clamps click, I’m dilated. I feel cold air in my vagina, kind of like when you take off your shirt on a hot summer day.
Then Dr. McDonald tells me that she’s going to numb my cervix. She takes a needle, the biggest needle I have ever seen, and suddenly I feel like someone is taking a bite out of my cervix. And then nothing. Then I just feel the odd pressure of something going in where it shouldn’t be. It feels unpleasant, but it doesn’t hurt. And then it’s done. She snips the strings of the IUD and tells me to put my fingers up in there every so often to check and make sure it’s still there, because it can sometimes, you know, fall out. Apparently it coming out is much easier than it going in, the inverse of childbirth.
Afterwards, I’m given half a bottle of pain meds, which was so considerate because oh holy shit did I feel pain. I recently learned that my doctor giving me 5 whole prescription-strength pain pills was atypical. Some doctors just tell patients to take an Advil, the same stuff you take for regular period cramps. Except if regular period cramps feels like someone is squeezing your gut with their hand, IUD cramps is someone squeezing your gut and they have long, acrylic nails and they decide to twist. Fucking Advil isn’t going to help, that pain requires an exorcist. Or an epidural.
And if you’re a black woman, studies show that you’re even less likely to be taken seriously when you’re in pain. I’m lucky that every OBGYN I’ve ever had has been a woman of color.
A month later, I’m hunched over in my bathtub as my uterus is contracting and then, I give birth to an IUD.
And that is why I don’t have an IUD. And that is why the woman tax is bullshit.
My mom always told me, “con gái phải giữ thân của mình.” A girl has to protect her body, she said. The subtext: no one else is going to do it.
I was trying to do that. And my body did something I couldn’t control. And it’s doing something I can’t control now.
I think that’s why they call birth control “birth control,” because so much of a woman’s life is made up of things you can’t do anything about. You can’t do anything about your period. You can’t do anything about cramps and how bad they are. You can’t do anything about those ads telling you that you’re not thin enough or pretty enough. You can’t do anything when you go outside and men shout at you, or follow you home.
And you can’t do anything when a guy you’re fucking pulls off the condom during sex and comes inside you without asking, and then afterwards says, “You’re on birth control, right?”
But when to get pregnant, when to have sex for fun—that’s something women should be able to control. We’ve fucking earned it! Which is why it is such a violation that a man who is a sexual predator is going to get a seat on the Supreme Court.
But wait, back to Suicide Forest, the play we’re here to talk about. Suicide Forest talks about this phenomenon of sex dolls. How in Japan, rather than interact with real women, men are buying dolls. Not just to have sex with them. They dress them up, take them out on dates, and tuck them in at night. It made me think of a story I thought was so romantic when I was younger: Pygmalion. The first time I read it, I was so swept away by the romance. Pygmalion just wanted someone to love him, and so he made his perfect playmate. And he got a happy ending when she came to life! It wasn’t until I was older that I thought, what about her? What did she want? Did she like coming into self-actualization, only to be tied down to this man she just met?
What happened 2 years or 10 years down the line when she was no longer beautiful, when she started forming opinions and having thoughts.
It’s easy to love a statue. A statue doesn’t bleed, it doesn’t feel pain, it doesn’t have needs, it doesn’t speak.
I feel like there’s a reason Pygmalion is one of those stories that keeps on getting recycled, and why men prefer the company of dolls, or virtual women, to real women. We’re taught a woman must be like a doll.
Asian beauty standards aren’t that different from Western beauty standards. Be thin. Be white. Be young. Be quiet. Smile.
I didn’t have an orgasm until I was 21, because I was told that my power was between my legs and dependent on whom I chose to open them for. I was ashamed of my body, how messy it was and all the things that I felt that I couldn’t say: sadness, desire, rage. One of the biggest lies that the patriarchy has told women is that our pain is normal and deserved, and we can’t ever talk about it. We should accept our lack of power in life, because to be a woman is to suffer.
A girl has to protect her body, my mom said. Something else she also told me: “A girl needs to speak softly, and quietly.” If you ever meet my mom, you would not describe her as quiet. She has no concept of an indoor voice and she speaks in commands, “BÉ DIEP, XUỐNG ĐÂY GIÚP MÁ!”
I could choose to be the woman that she wants me to be, or be the woman that my mom actually is: someone who is loud, entrepreneurial, a war survivor, who asks for what she wants, and who speaks up when she’s in pain. I choose the real woman, with a bleeding vagina and a loud powerful mouth.
Diep Tran is the senior editor of American Theatre magazine. Her writing has also appeared in The New York Times, CNN, Playbill, NBC Asian America, and Salon. You can follow her on Twitter at @DiepThought.
photo by Maria Baranova