It took me some time to choose what to offer here because there is so much in this poem that energizes me. But what keeps tugging at me more than anything is this notion of a collective delusion of meritocracy that Jenny Zhang captures in her poem and then frames in her comments. And I am haunted by her observation that it “warps the psyche”.
When I first started writing about this poem, I found myself analyzing it the way it was done in school. But it wasn’t where I personally wanted to go and I had to remind myself that I no longer needed to try to fit that academic mold that never suited me. So I’ve given myself permission to just be moved.
On a personal level, the words “I finally qualify as a trophy” hit hard for me. Zhang doesn’t say she receives a trophy. She says she becomes a trophy. On the surface it begs the question “whose trophy?” But it also foreshadows the bigger question at the end of the poem: “who am I?” In my experience there is something about receiving an external honor that calcifies us and turns us into an object for gawking like a “gargoyle with nothing better to do”. Is the honor really for the recipient or the grantor?
It brings me back to one of the most painful discoveries in my life: when I was very young, between the ages of six and ten, I was a promising violinist. Deep down I understood that people were nice to me because of the way I played the violin. Beyond this I had an almost complete inability to connect with people (there was a lot of displacement during those years between countries, languages and cultures). When I turned twelve, it was as if I chose to test a theory: am I invisible if I stop playing the violin well? I stopped practicing. Yes, I became invisible. Since then, I have dabbled in attempts to become a trophy. They are never satisfying. I struggle with the question of visibility. The ego seems always to be lurking there. And yet, connection comes with visibility.
The thing about receiving honors which makes it even more complicated is that we attach economic resources to this thing we call merit. And we are rife with false narratives about why one person deserves economic resources and another doesn’t based on the myth of merit. Zhang refers to a capitalism contagion that infects everything, even the arts - though not the woods where we are “small”, “mostly insignificant” and, she points out, we can see with our own eyes.
I sit with the echos of the false narratives in my family about meritocracy. They are cringe-worthy, though nowhere near as cringe-worthy as the false narratives I drank when I worked on Wall Street. It seems that the greater someone hordes economic resources the louder and more passionate is their tale of meritocracy.
I have not even touched on what Zhang calls being “born wrong”, the wrong race, ethnic background, gender, or even being too pretty to be graced with certain resources. There is so much about this poem that energizes me. I hope you’ll join me and share your reflections. What does it bring up for you?