In 'Emergency Contact,' Finding A Safe Space In Texts

Apr 29, 2018
Originally published on April 29, 2018 3:42 pm

How do we find a real connection in a digital world?

In Mary H.K. Choi's debut novel, Emergency Contact, Penny and Sam strike up a text-based romance, and soon become take-your-phone-to-the-bathroom inseparable. But for different reasons, they have trouble making it real.

"At the start, Penny, who is a Korean-American person, is going off to college," Choi says, "and Sam is in the throes of the worst breakup, he's kind of homeless-adjacent, and he's dealing with a lot of anxiety and panic." The two have what Choi calls a "meet-harrowing" when Penny rescues Sam, who's having a panic attack in the street.


Interview Highlights

On the significance of an emergency contact

It's that you have someone holding down. And it might not be the person you thought it would be, in terms of like — it might not be your parent, it might not be your caregiver, it might not even be, I guess, the most orthodox definition of who your bestie is. It could be just someone else, who makes the world feel like a safer space. It's like the tether to the space ship when you're kind of free-fall floating out in outer space. And I really liked the idea, too, of that being someone who lives inside your phone. Because you have that person in your, you know, literal back pocket. But it's unencumbered by all this pressure of like, how you look, how they look, is it romantic, am I funny enough, is that person thinking about how my hair is greasy, do I have a zit? It doesn't have all of the stress of that, especially if you're like, cognitively a little bit atypical, and you struggle with different visual cues or timing for who's speaking next. I find texting to be kind of a safe space.

On tackling the issues teens face

The thing that I find interesting about teens now is that no matter how desperate we seem to be taxonomically othering them, for one reason or another — because the Internet, because whatever — I feel like a lot of the benchmarks and the experiences are, you know, same for teens through time immemorial. And I wanted an old-school teen story that still had technology and felt very very contemporary, but with a lot of the sort of bigger themes that are very real. Because teens now, it's this dual thing where they're super-precocious because they're so good at the Internet, and they're like YouTube billionaires, or they're hopeless and they're depressed and anxiety-ridden and overmedicated. And I wanted to give them credit, and I wanted to let them know that they're seen in some way.

On including sexual assault in Penny's past

People have described Emergency Contact as funny, and while it is really, really funny in moments, I always kind of want to throw an asterisk on that, because to your point, there should be a trigger warning to this book about the sexual assault in it, and Penny has an experience where — she's like me, she's an indoor cat. She's very into climate conditioning, she loves the Internet, and she has a lot of social issues outside, and so she befriends someone who is a trusted person. And basically he betrays that trust and sexually assaults her, and for a long long time, her brain can't compute that. And I feel like, if someone is exposed to the #MeToo movement, or [Harvey] Weinstein or Bill Cosby through the Internet, and if someone is in a position of seeing what they think sexual trauma looks like, or what the right type of victim is, it can be really confusing about how to define their own experiences.

And I had a personal experience where, for a long, long time, I was gaslighting myself into thinking that one experience was not as big a deal as I thought it was ... and it was really, really painful, because there was just a discord. And I was thinking about how there's so much conversation about mutually affirmative consent, and we all know the language and we all know the the conversations, but in each moment, when it's just two people and you're wildly inexperienced, you don't know what that's supposed to feel like a lot of the time. And I wanted to introduce some of that ambiguity back in a blameless way, where I wanted it to be for Penny to admit that she was sexually assaulted, and I wanted her to be OK with the fact that she did not want to tell anyone, because I do think that there are situations in which you feel pressured to do one thing or another ... I'm not saying that you shouldn't say anything. But what I'm saying is that you don't have to be any type of person in that moment, because you are absolutely blameless.

This story was produced for radio by Samantha Balaban and Ed McNulty, and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

How do we find a real connection in a device-reliant world? In Mary H.K. Choi's debut novel, "Emergency Contact," Penny and Sam strike up a text-based romance and soon become take-your-phone-to-the-bathroom inseparable. But for different reasons, they have trouble making it real.

Mary H.K. Choi joins me now from our studios in Culver City, Calif., to talk about her book. Hi.

MARY H.K. CHOI: Hi, how are you?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'm great. So, I guess let's start with these two characters, Penny and Sam. Who are they at the start of this book?

CHOI: So, at its start, Penny, who is a Korean-American person, is going off to college and Sam is in the throes of the worst breakup. He's kind of - he's homeless adjacent, and he's dealing with a lot of anxiety and panic.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And they kind of have this - not a meet-cute, which is what they're normally called when you have romantic leads meeting. It was a meet-anxiety.

CHOI: Yes, it's definitely sort of meet-harrowing rather than meet-cute. Sam sort of has this panic attack on the street. And Penny, who is the type of person who would normally just sort of keep it moving and be like, ooh, someone else will deal with this, but she sees him, and she reaches out to him. And they become each other's emergency contact.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What does that mean to you - emergency contact?

CHOI: It's that you have someone holding you down. And it might not be the person that you've thought it would be in terms of, like, it might not be your parent. It might not be your caregiver. It might not even be the most, I guess, Orthodox definition of who you're, like, besty is. It could be just someone else who makes the world feel like a safer space. It's like the tether to the spaceship when you're kind of like freefall floating out in outer space.

And I really liked the idea, too, of having that be someone who lives inside your phone...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Right.

CHOI: ...Because you have that person in your, you know, literal back pocket but it's unencumbered by all this pressure of how you look, how they look. Like, is it romantic? Like, am I funny enough? Is that person thinking about how my hair is greasy? Do I have a zit? Like, it doesn't have all of the stress of that, especially if you're, like, cognitively a little bit atypical and you struggle with different visual cues or timing for who's speaking next. And, you know, I find texting to be kind of a safe space.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There are a lot of other themes in this book, which I want to talk to you about - race, class, friendship. Why did you want to tackle all of that in a YA novel?

CHOI: The thing that I find interesting about teens now is that no matter how desperate we seem to be taxonomically othering them for one reason or another - because the internet, because whatever - you know, I feel like a lot of the benchmarks and the experiences are, you know, same for teens through time immemorial.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Hm.

CHOI: And I wanted an old-school teen story that still had technology and felt very, very contemporary but with a lot of the sort of, like, bigger themes that are very real. Because teens now, it's this dual thing where they're either like super precocious because they're so good at the Internet and they're like YouTube billionaires or they're hopeless and they're depressed and, like, anxiety-ridden and overmedicated. And I wanted to give them credit. And I wanted to let them know that they're seen in some way.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There's also another powerful theme in this book, and that is sexual assault. And Penny has an experience in her past.

CHOI: Right. It's funny - well, not funny, but people have described "Emergency Contact" as funny. And while it is really, really funny in moments, I definitely always kind of want to throw an asterisk on that because, to your point, there should be a trigger warning to this book about the sexual assault in it.

And Penny has an experience where, you know - and she's like me. She's an indoor cat. Like, she is very into, like, climate conditioning. She loves computer - like, she loves the Internet. And, you know, she has a lot of social issues outside. And, so, she befriends someone who is a trusted person. And basically he betrays that trust and sexually assaults her. And for a long, long time, her brain can't compute that.

And I feel like if someone is exposed to the #MeToo movement or Weinstein or Bill Cosby through the Internet, and if someone is in a position of seeing what they think, like, sexual trauma looks like or what the right type of victim is, it can be really confusing about how to define their own experiences. And I had a personal experience where, for a long, long time, I was gaslighting myself into thinking that one experience was not as big a deal as I thought it was. And...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'm assuming you're saying that you had an experience with sexual assault.

CHOI: Sexual assault, yeah. And it was really, really painful because I just - there is just a discord. And I was thinking about how there's so much conversation about mutually affirmative consent, and we all know the language, and we all know the conversations, but in each moment, when it's just two people and you're wildy inexperienced, like, you don't know what that's supposed to feel like a lot of the time.

And I wanted to introduce some of that ambiguity back in like a blameless way where I wanted it to be OK for Penny to admit that she was sexually assaulted. And I wanted her to be OK with the fact that she did not want to tell anyone because I do think that there are situations in which you feel pressure to do one thing or another.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, to just speak out.

CHOI: To speak out.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There is a lot of pressure to be public about what's happened to you.

CHOI: There is a lot of pressure. And the thing I'm not saying - I'm not saying that you shouldn't say anything. But what I'm saying is that you don't have to be any type of person in that moment because you are absolutely blameless. And that's something that took me a really, really long time and also a lot of therapy to sort of get to.

I say that it's kind of a time capsule in terms of me writing YA. It kind of does go both ways. It's more like a portal, which is like if I can at all share any wisdom that I've collected over my many, many years on planet Earth and if I can tell it to someone who's younger than me that they can use, like, that's great. It's like, you know, "Back To The Future" when Biff has, like, the almanac and makes all those bets and is, like, suddenly really, really rich in the future. It's like kind of that. If I can enrich anyone before they get to where I am at, like, I think that that is time well spent. And I would love to keep putting my weight behind it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Mary H.K. Choi's new novel is "Emergency Contact." Thank you very much.

CHOI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.