There’s this feeling — it arises when I walk into a room and am the only woman present or am the only person of color. It’s the feeling that no one may be like me or for me. But then the feeling, this fear, is depleted when I remember that there’s a chorus of support in my back pocket. It’s a support system that counts as love, a love that holds me accountable for what I want to do and affirms my bravery and confidence in who I am.
Emergency Contact, which has been on the New York Times bestseller list since its March debut, alludes to this exact feeling that many of us know intimately. The chapters of the young adult novel flip back and forth between the perspectives of Penny, a freshman in college, and Sam, a 20-something barista — unfolding across a log of text messages. The tenderness and caution with which they speak to each other recreates the attentiveness that comes with sending a first text — from being conscious of grammar to overthinking the tone or whether to use an emoji or not. After a period of texting and slowly revealing their trust in each other’s words, they dub each other one’s emergency contact.
Emergency Contact is the story of young love nurtured in the digital age, and its author Mary H.K. Choi‘s debut novel. Choi is a smart and quick-witted writer who understands how we move through culture in this day and age. On top of penning Emergency Contact, Choi did a tenure as Editor-in-Chief at defunct magazine, Missbehave, has written for various publications, wrote DJ Khaled’s biography, Keys, founded and hosts podcast, Hey Cool Job!, and much more.
Emergency Contact may simply be the story of girl meets boy, as they text each other into oblivion and slowly, but surely, fall in love. But, after a close read, the novel proves that there isn’t just a need for love, but for unwavering support in life’s crucial moments. I spoke with Choi about the importance of having a support system to create art, growing up in a world seeing only white people fall in love, and how knowing what it’s like to be in love means never going back.
Jessica Joyce Jacolbe: What led you to write Emergency Contact and what was the inspiration behind it?
Mary H.K. Choi: I knew I wanted to write a YA book for a while. I really like the nature of burgeoning relationships and how awkward and fraught that could be. I had a story about Sam and Penny, but it was a lot more generic. It didn’t have that texting format. I remember in early drafts, I’d be writing all day or for a week, and I’d be like, these idiots won’t do anything. I just keep putting them in rooms. They’re just blinking at each other. I likened it to a Roomba, one of those automated vacuum cleaners. When it hits a corner, it just bounces in a corner.
Then, two things happened: one, I wrote a feature for Wired. I spent six months talking to, interviewing, and casting teens for their texting and social media habits. It’s not so different from the way all of us use text, group chat, DMs, or even Snapchat. I thought it was really interesting, the ways in which we used text in similar ways but use social media differently. Then the other part of it was that I met someone. We met in Jamaica, as you do. It was weird because we had a friend in common, and she brought him and another friend on a vacation. I remember being a little bit salty. We had this quiet conversation within this hubbub of a multi-headed teeming group dinner at a resort. We found a lot of commonalities. I was like, oh, that’s weird, and then put it to bed. The truth of the matter is that I was in a relationship at the time with someone else. It wasn’t an entirely happy relationship. When I met this new person, it was really alarming. I proceeded to do what all normal people would do which is ignore that person so hard-core that it borders on rude.
I broke up with my boyfriend at the time, and left LA to move back to New York because New York’s my home. Cut to me sliding into his (this new person’s) DMs because I had no way of getting a hold of him. We then started texting. It was the intensity of having this long-distance text relationship, then having this complete freedom with a text and being unencumbered by social obligations and logistics. He was getting out of a very long thing too, and I was fearful about asking too many questions because I had a suspicion that he would be special to me, but I was too afraid and complicated at the time.
All that found its way into the book. These two elements make the Roomba go to other rooms. I rewrote the book when I was in Hong Kong, which is where I grew up, for my birthday. I had really bad jet lag. Over three days, I rewrote it.
Do you think the feeling of obligation to respond to someone or be upfront with them is specific to technology? There’s something about texting that makes you assume someone is always accessible, even if they might not be.
I think it’s a great credit to texting that I was able to reveal a part of myself to this person that was unencumbered by so many things that were complicating my life at the time. It’s really cowardly if you think about it, because it’s almost like hedging your bets. You get to extend this little tentacle, a little sensitive antenna, and scope out the joint before you make any sort of commitment. I do think that is particular to correspondence. I don’t think that’s necessarily text. Throughout the history of letter writing, this is obviously a huge part of it.
Our specific flavors of crazy and shortcomings fit together like puzzle pieces.
Not to say that Penny is me and Sam is my person, but once Penny meets Sam, it’s kind of like, by your existence, I have to think there are others like you. If there are others like you, I can’t be with the person I’ve been with thus far. I can’t stop until I feel like this again, even if for some reason, it’s not with you. I think that this is a direct result of the groundwork or the bedrock that my person and I built our relationship on.
We’re together now, and it’s been three years. We go for long meandering walks every morning even when the weather’s really bad, and we talk about our work. We have a kindred language. I can’t un-know what it’s like to feel this acknowledged. If something were to happen to us and we couldn’t be together, or if God forbid one of us dies of cancer — everyone’s a freakin’ snowflake — and were sure we might not have that exact relationship again, I don’t know if I could settle for some other shit. Our specific flavors of crazy and shortcomings fit together like puzzle pieces.
Sometimes there’s nothing better in the world than talking to another creative person about where you are, because you may feel like you’re floating in outer space a lot of the time.
I love how Penny and Sam grow into themselves, separately. They’re not always physically together, but they’re able to accomplish their own goals with each other’s support. Do you think it’s because of technology that people are able to have time on their own to grow, but also know there is this confessional booth in their phone?
In the same way that apologies don’t work if they’re not said out loud, having someone in your corner and having someone in your pocket, even though you’re not talking to them at that moment, is like you [getting] power from them. It makes you braver. It’s basically a safety net. Human beings need support. They create a lot of safety for each other to grow. Hitting that next step can be really scary and seismic and disorienting. It’s nice to know someone knows you’re doing it.
Having friendships that are like “Friend Plus,” where you talk about real shit and check in with each other on where you are with work, is amazing. That’s the thing I didn’t really figure out until I hit my 30s. That’s something I wanted to impart on people who are a little bit younger. You’re not ever too young to have colleagues. You make your society wherever it is that you are, and you build your community. Those are your colleagues, especially if you take an experimental job that doesn’t come with all the bells and whistles and infrastructure. If you’re inventing something, you’re an entrepreneur, you’re the first to do it, or you have no money but you’re just gonna be like, fuck it, I woke up this morning and now I’m doing this, you need friends. They can’t be friends that are on some whatever shit. I’ve met people who are my colleagues or part of my village, and we may literally only talk when we need each other. It feels fucked up because it feels like you’re using them, but you’re not. Sometimes there’s nothing better in the world than talking to another creative person about where you are, because you may feel like you’re floating in outer space a lot of the time. It’s really nice to know that you have a home base in another person.
You have to decide who you are. You have to decide who you tell that to.
I feel that so much.
So much! Tomorrow, you could be like, I’m a poet. You need to tell someone that you’re a poet. It might be like, I’m gonna tell this person I’m a poet, and this person’s gonna be like, ‘OK, well where is your poetry?’ That’s a very good point. I better be about some fucking poetry today because this person knows I’m a poet. You have to decide who you are. You have to decide who you tell that to.
The overarching lesson is that I don’t want people to keep their dreams a secret. It’s so tempting. You feel insane announcing your dreams to the world. One, it feels unlucky. Two, it’s fucking scary because these people will know. Three, you feel like a fraud. I’m telling you that those things can’t prevent you from deciding who you are. That’s where agency begins. It’s really hard for women. It’s really hard for women of color.
It doesn’t get any less scary. All that happens is that you have less life left. It helps if you do your falling early, and it really helps if you do your reaching early.
We’ve been taught and conditioned to think that failure or embarrassment comes with claiming what it is that we want, especially when it comes to pursuing something creative. How did you overcome that fear?
For me, I was kicked out of the nest every single time. I realize a bunch of lucky undeniable shit happened to me. I had the opportunity to make a magazine when I was 26 or 27. I was so scared of telling my boss Elliott Wilson, who worked at XXL for a really long time and is now at Tidal, that I was quitting. He just hugged me and said, “I’m so proud of you, it’s gonna suck a lot, but you’re gonna be really good at it.” That’s amazing!
Getting different people’s blessing over the years has been really instrumental in me feeling OK about my decisions. Getting fucked over because I didn’t take opportunities that I should have or I didn’t speak up for myself is why it’s taken me this long to write a book. I had to do a nonfiction Khaled biography before this. I took baby steps, and for a long time I felt like I was doing the running man — I wasn’t really going anywhere. It doesn’t get any less scary. All that happens is that you have less life left. It helps if you do your falling early, and it really helps if you do your reaching early.
That secret dream that you’re really good at, this thing that you want to be good at … if that stays inside you, it festers. You get angry. You get high or burned out doing something else. It eats you.
If you know in your heart what you want to be [and] if you have the information, you have a moral obligation to yourself and people like you. It’s not easy for people who look like us. You had better declare it to the world and start fighting. That secret dream that you’re really good at, this thing that you want to be good at … if that stays inside you, it festers. You get angry. You get high or burned out doing something else. It eats you.
The pain you keep inside could be greater than the pain you’re gonna feel when you do the actual thing.
It’s a different pain, and they both suck. Deciding to be a writer, then being responsible for that promise to yourself every single fucking day, sucks. I don’t write every single day. At least this pain goes into the bucket of moving you forward, instead of weird circular pain that is brooding and malignant.
For the longest time, because I was so deeply unhappy not writing a book, I would go on job interviews. I would be constantly doing that and now I don’t do that at all because I feel happy. Now that I have a book to feed and a second book to feed and a third book to feed, it’s a different type of energy. It feels like a more fruitful searching. That’s a lot less despairing than the other kind of pain.
It’s all about making a thing and giving it life. That’s the dream. You get older and you have more wins and you have more experiences and what happens is that everything that’s ever been embroidered on a tea towel or written on an inspiration mug becomes true. Trusting the process is so fucking true.
When growing up, love to me was attractive symmetrical famous white people getting together … There was always something about love that felt inaccessible because I was not a white person who was gonna get the same haircut as Brad Pitt.
So much of how we manage relationships as adults is influenced by our upbringing. How did you see love growing up? How did that influence your outlook on love today?
When growing up, love to me was attractive symmetrical famous white people getting together. Where it’s like, Oh my god, I can’t believe Gwyneth Paltrow and Brad Pitt are together. They have the same haircut. It’s meant to be. Growing up, I read a lot of romance novels, basically soft porn garbage, which is great — again, with a lot of white people. There was always something about love that felt inaccessible because I was not a white person who was gonna get the same haircut as Brad Pitt. What does this mean for me?
In the same way that Instagram has metrics for how valuable you are, I feel like the whole “hashtag goals” aspect of love is toxic and poisonous. There’s just so much math going on in all of these incredibly unattainable situations that exclude so many people and experiences and identities. Now that I’m older and deeply in love with someone … one, it’s the best. I highly recommend it. Two, it didn’t take the shape that I thought it would. I’m not married. I don’t have 2.2 kids. I don’t have a dog. I don’t own property.
As someone who’s been in a relationship since they were 13, and has been in multiple relationships, so many of those relationships were me settling and being like, you like me slightly more than I like you. I do regret that, if for no other reason than selfishness. My work is better because I’m in a relationship with this person. I didn’t know you were allowed to have that.
Because of how you saw love in media when growing up?
Yeah. The only time you can have dazzling, dizzying love is if it’s first love, or you’re cheating on someone to be with this person, or it’s a short-lived affair, or someone’s going to war and all this stuff. There’s such a thing as quiet, not flashy, everyone’s wearing inside pants talking about shit, kind of love. I barely social my person. Someone asked me the other day if I have a photograph of him. I looked in my phone, and I don’t. It’s because when I’m with this person, I’m talking to them. I want their face for my face.
Is that because how people express love now? You feel obligated to post something about them.
Right, because then it’s this weird thing of, “Oh, you’re not claiming them.”
Is that even love though?
I don’t do performative love. It feels cheap to me, but that belongs to me. I think it’s awesome if that’s what you want. No one’s ever gonna be able to know the contours and the nuance of how I have a conversation with this person. You can’t ever smell this person with my physiological make up through a picture. Being IRL has some very hard-core, deep, and true benefits as well.
Are we living in a time when we’re adapting to a new language of expressing love? Maybe the way we express love, to friends or partners, has changed, or it’s always been the same except the language we use to express it is changing.
I find myself leaning on old-fashioned expressions of love lately. A girlfriend of mine sent me an analog paper letter. I got it after I was out of town for six weeks and it made me cry. I was like, ‘You pierced through the sky and you totally gave me a hug.’ That’s such a gift.
I do think there is a lot of merit in artifacts that you can keep. You’re never gonna look back at your terabyte drive of backed up fucking images when you should only really ever have 100 photos of yourself. I feel the same way about correspondence and moments of affection. I love sending a postcard.
Apparently if a person with synesthesia who sees colors when they hear music listens to an LP versus an MP3, an LP is more saturated or more vibrant. I don’t know if it’s all bullshit. I feel that jolt or frisson of care, vibes, tenderness and love so much more in an artifact. Texts are really special too. That’s like a spotlight on you. It’s like one on one. It’s the most limited-edition shit ever.
Love is taking up as much space as you want and still being held for it.
How do you define love?
Love is a consideration. It’s this generosity to receive and hold someone else exactly the way they are emotionally, psychologically, physically, financially, class, everything. I make it sound like a Tempur-Pedic foam mattress topper, but it gives you room for all these grooves and bumpy bits. There’s a part in the book about how Sam fits Penny’s heart exactly. That’s what I think love is. Love is taking up as much space as you want and still being held for it.