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Recently, I had the chance to read Genaro Kỳ Lý Smith’s new collection of short stories, The Beautiful Ones are Not Yet Born (UL Press 2018). One story that immediately caught my attention was “Perfect in Parts,” a piece that, like Claude McKay’s Banana Bottom and Frank Yerby’s Speak Now, calls upon us to reconsider our internalized ideas of beauty based on whiteness. Today, I want to take some time to show how “Perfect in Parts” deconstructs ideas of internalized beauty and shows that these idealized forms of beauty are nothing more a construction.
Narrated by Chien, “Perfect in Parts” focuses on Chien providing a tour in Vietnam for a couple from New Orleans, Etienne and Elaine Dutart. Throughout the tour, Chien examines the interactions between Etienne and Elaine while constantly thinking about his own failed relationship with Mia. Chien expresses an attraction to Elaine, as do the rest of the men on the boat that the trio takes. It is here that the deconstruction of whiteness occurs.
When Chien first sees Elaine, he pauses because he sees that she is not American but Asian. We do not if she is Chinese or Vietnamese. During the tour, the boat stops along the river so the passengers can swim in Hạ Long Bay. Appearing from below deck, she appears and the men on board all stop what they are doing and look at her.
Without the long skirt and the bobbysocks, the men and I stare at her white legs, and I know we are all thinking the same thing: we want to touch skin that white, that free of bruises and nicks and cuts from shaving, free of scars and scrapes, small reminders of the rigors of a life less leisurely than ours. And we each imagine what her legs would feel like and I’m thinking simply that they are smooth yet firm like the lichees I fed her.
Here, Chien focuses on Elaine’s physical perfection, her whiteness, lack of “scars and crapes,” “free of bruises and nicks and cuts.” Elaine appears to be the epitome of beauty. The men become entranced by her porcelain skin and immediately cease whatever they are doing to look upon her.
Etienne does not want Elaine swimming because he fears that she will become tired. In fact, she does become fatigued, and after her swim she retires to the cabin to take a nap. Reaching Cát Bà Island, Chien tells Etienne to go on ashore while he goes to wake Elaine from her nap. Going to wake Elaine, Chien sees the cabin door ajar and expects Elaine to either still be sleeping or in the process of getting up. Looking into the room, Chien becomes shocked. He sees Elaine on the bed; however, she does not look the same as she did earlier.
The blue skirt immediately tells me it is Elaine, but she is naked from the waist up, and I’m staring at her bare back, especially her bald head. Like the mole above her lip, I search for a mole to blemish her clean, hairless skin, but it is as white as a wall. I try to breathe, try to swallow that lump when I first pushed open the door, but the whiteness of her skin and the shape of her head hold me in place. Before she even knows who it is, she turns to face me, and she too gasps as she steps back against the bed and drops the bra she holds in her hands. She stoops down, seizes the bra and fumbles with the configuration of cups and straps and clasps. As she stands back up to fight with the straps, I notice her tiny belly button, a mere slit swallowed in the shallowness of her stomach. I stand there staring at her, at her white, slender neck, her pale scalp. I cannot even blink. But Elaine blinks and trembles as she struggles with the straps she quickly fits over her shoulders to cover what she does not want me to see, but I have already seen the scars where her breasts should be. Over one breast, a scar starts almost at the collarbone and comes straight down just above the nipple. The other scar begins underneath the other nipple and curves toward her underarm. Pink lines straddle the scars, and I realize that is how they stitched her back together to make her whole again. Their thickness the width of a finger, the scars seem to get darker, redder in color. Her shoulders slouch with resignation.
Elaine lies on her stomach, and instantly Chien notices Elaine’s bald head, and he attempts to search for some “belmish” upon her her “white” skin. When Elaine turns over and starts to get up, Chien sees the scars from her mastectomy. In this moment, Chien’s image of Elaine shifts. He does not diminish Elaine, but the image of perfection becomes shattered as he looks upon Elaine.
Chien wants to tell his coworker Ñhun about Elaine, but he never does. By refusing to tell Ñhun, Chien does not publicly challenge the idealized beauty of whiteness. However, Chien realizes that what we construct as beautiful is not necessarily beauty. It is, in fact, a construction of beauty based on either society’s ideals or on our own internal constructions. Chien brings this to the forefront at the end of the story when he tells the reader that while he repeatedly talked to Elaine about Mia as if him and Mia were still dating Mia had broken up with him.
Stopping at Hạ Long Bay to swim, Chien dropped his picture of Mia into the water, floating away amongst the men and tourists. At the end of the story, Chien thinks about diving into Hạ Long Bay to find the picture. However, he realizes that “[t]he thick texture of the photo would be too soft to touch to hold as [he] surface[s] and Mia would dissolve into pulp through [his] fingers.” The image he constructed about his relationship with Mia would, like the beauty he places upon Elaine, would fall apart in his hands.
“Perfect in Parts” is a story about, as Smith says, “this perceived beauty as being flawed and the disappointment of discovering the flaw, or maybe not disappointment but shattered view.” Along with this, I would add that we can read the story as a deconstruction of whiteness as the idealized form of beauty. Chien’s ideal falls apart when he sees the effects of cancer upon Elaine’s unblemished body. Ultimately, though, Chien learns that there is not one universal beauty; instead, there are many. Elaine tells him, “If this ever happens to Mia–. . . If it were Mia, don’t act like that around her. Never act like she’s any different from before.”
There are multiple aspects to “Perfect in Parts” that warrant discussion, and this post does not do adequate justice to the themes that Smith develops in the story. Make sure to stay tuned for next Tuesday’s post which looks at how Frank Yerby and Claude McKay challenge internalized ideas of beauty. What are your thoughts? Please let me know in the comments below. Make sure to follow me on Twitter @silaslapham.