[Semiotext(e); 2023]

“You can’t make a career out of your commitment to feel it all the way,” Jackie Wang wrote in a tumblr entry sometime between 2012 and 2013, a period she defines as her Desert Years, “but you will.”

Alien Daughters Walk into the Sun: an almanac of extreme girlhood archives the written records of Wang’s early adulthood. An almanac—a compilation of meaningful information like the moon cycle, agricultural seasons, tides. About a decade ago, I had a fling with a girl who told me that each of her tattoos (she had lots of them) marked a zenith, the peak of a particular moment in time. I think of Wang’s book like this. If life is an endless series of waves, Alien Daughters marks the crests of one girl’s youth. Wang writes in many genres—prose, poetry, blogging, academic books. Given her stylistic breadth, it makes sense that the texts gathered in this collection include journal entries, tumblr posts, published book reviews, poems, interviews, and lectures. While the book is organized chronologically—spanning the politically dense decade between 2006 and 2016—there isn’t a sense of “progress” or linear development. Wang’s post-adolescent journal entries hit just as hard as the intentionally crafted lectures she wrote a decade later.

Alien Daughters is radically different from most contemporary memoirs, books you might lump into the nebulous category of “creative nonfiction.” The kinds of books that began their long proliferation at the dawn of the Maggie Nelson era—essays with lots of unanalyzed quotes from other essayists. While confessional, these books somehow assume they will be understood as a part of a universal experience. They often miss the mark. Wang, by contrast, enters the personal and follows it to the center of itself. You will not find any vague second-person plurals in this book. And it’s precisely because Wang doesn’t make generalizations, doesn’t speak to some made-up global audience, that her work is so relatable.

Alien Daughters is raw. It’s also constructed, in the sense that the self is always constructed. Jackie Wang is a character with specific emotional and psychological throughlines on her journey from hitchhiking punk to Harvard grad student who wishes she was still a hitchhiking punk but is, at least some of the time, glad for the stability. Wang’s brand of queer girlhood hit home for me. Early on in the book, Wang has a crush on a friend who isn’t gay but is clearly also in love with her. Wang writes in her journal: “Maybe it would happen if we were the sole survivors of an apocalypse, because only then would the barriers be erased.” Cutting right to the feeling, Wang defines herself: hard femme, alien daughter, fool. Wanderer and compulsive writer, passionate hater of systems of power, perpetual seeker of the meaning of things. “When you meet a fool, you’ll know her,” Wang writes. The fool rides her desire to the end of the line. She’s unproductive and disorganized. What she cares about most is taking it all in—being in the world, looking at it, feeling it fully:

[the fool] is a force of chaos in the world

but if you can handle her, you’ll realize that her chaos is also a gift

it dislodges people from their habitus


disorganizes &

makes possible


that wasn’t possible.

This excerpt comes towards the end of the book, part of a past tumblr entry. At this point, we’ve spent many pages with Wang in peak adolescence—throwing self-preservation out the window, not sleeping for days, biking through the night. Now, she’s equally passionate but more focused. It feels good to read about the fool, to sense that Wang still values the drive behind her former recklessness, even as she begins to take better care. There’s something precious at the heart of instability. Time, routine, and therapy have not cured her of herself.

The fool isn’t just fucking around. Her work is rigorous. A commitment to feeling it all the way requires nurturing an immense sensitivity that the world is built to crush. It’s like that line in Middlemarch, about how if you could hear a squirrel’s heart beat you’d die, just explode with emotion. Wang, like Middlemarch’s protagonist, carries the burden of this impossible sensorial acuity. She talks about the internet as one of contemporary life’s most soul-crushing emissaries—it inhibits precisely the level of sensitivity required to do the fool’s work. But it’s tricky. Wang came into her own as a writer in the age of Livejournal (1999) and tumblr (2007). It makes me wonder: was blogging the last bastion of humanity on the internet? A blogger examined her life through her exploration of language for an unknown, or only partially known, audience. If other people perusing the internet found the blogger and entered her world, they did so on their own time. There was a genuine correspondence, faster than letter writing but slower than any vehicle for communication today.

Today the internet force-feeds a torrent of information that Wang must resist in order to let herself really think and feel:

I feel too porous to engage with the internet too much. It makes me totally nuts. My head gets filled up with nonsense and then there’s no room to notice the sky or wonder if time-lapse footage of geraniums blooming might look something like exploding fireworks. Of course, the answer is probably on the internet, but it’s by not using the internet that the thought can exist at all.

I like how noticing the sky and thinking about something that maybe Wang once saw online (time-lapse geraniums) are both sacred experiences. However those geraniums first got into her mind, now they belong to the realm of wondering. The struggle is to keep the space of wondering (and its external counterpart, noticing) open. Even blogging about time-lapse geraniums would be better than looking them up. To look something up is to prematurely close the case, to amputate the daydream.

When Wang chooses to enter the internet, she goes in deep. Wang’s still-active tumblr page preserves the depth of early-to-mid-aughts blogging culture. It’s earnest and fun and sad, sucks you into a singular and compelling universe. In a previously published essay titled, “Ballerinas Dance with Machine Guns: The Cosmic Vision of Refbatch,” Wang writes about “a middle-aged schizophrenic Russian woman who compulsively posts videos on YouTube.” The essay opens with a close analysis of one of Refbatch’s videos: a woman in the forest screams and rants incomprehensibly. Wang is haunted by the blue tones of the video and the echo of Refbatch’s voice. “Intermittently, she jerks the camera away from herself, as if she is trying to draw our attention to something in the distance, perhaps an attacker. But there is nothing there, nothing but bare trees and a sky that indicates the rapid onset of darkness.” Wang defends the political project at the heart of Refbatch’s manic videos and the typo-riddled conspiracy theories that accompany them, convinced that she’s onto something. For Refbatch, nothing is banal and everything is cosmic. “I often find myself unconsciously thinking of Refbatch before falling asleep,” Wang writes, “and it is during this time—when the logic undergirding my thoughts comes undone—that I feel like I can intuitively understand Refbatch most.”

Reading about Wang losing her mind in Refbatch’s oeuvre made me lose my mind a little too, but not unpleasantly. Like when you tell someone about your experience taking psychedelics weeks after the fact and start to feel high again just talking about it. It’s also just really moving how Wang devotes the same intellectual rigor to analyzing this allegedly crazy Russian lady’s YouTube videos that she does to analyzing publicly acclaimed poets. You can imagine this coming off as performative, but it doesn’t. Instead, it feels central to who Wang is as a writer and what she values. Refbatch, too, is making an impossible career out of feeling it all the way.

Working both with and against the personal, there’s another force that organizes Wang’s archive—a force that bridges the gap between freedom and violence, between personal and universal experience. “How do we decompose while alive?” Wang asks in a journal entry from Kunming, China, where she spent time in college studying, living with her aunt, and nursing a massive crush on an allegedly straight female friend. What would it mean to live as though you were dead? “I want to fall away into the dirt and be eaten and carried away in pieces.” It’s a euphoric urge, to merge entirely with everything else. It’s fitting that Wang starts this archive in her post-adolescent years: swinging from isolation to communal euphoria, as teens do. The rest of Alien Daughters proves that this isn’t just a teenage thing, even though teenagers usually do it best.

Wang wrote a great essay (not included in this collection) about the psychoanalytic concept of “oceanic feeling” and its potential to unlock a communist mode of togetherness. The phrase was coined by French mystic Romain Rolland in a letter to Sigmund Freud, to describe a religious experience. Unsurprisingly, Freud understood oceanic feeling as an indication of an underdeveloped ego, stagnation in a phase of undifferentiated, eternal babyhood. Wang follows the idea through the work of post-Freudian analysts (Lacan and Kristeva), back to the philosophy of Rolland, and ends up with a different conclusion: what if oceanic feeling is a good thing? An involuntary state of being found through, among other experiences, dance, sleep deprivation, fucking, spiritual exercises, music, drugs. The oceanic isn’t a state you’d want to be in all the time. Our individual thinking mind is important for integrating our socially and spiritually merged oceanic experiences into the rest of our lives and vice versa. Engaging with oceanic feeling, Wang thinks, helps us treat each other well.

These two states—the cosmic-interconnected-oceanic and the independent-isolated-self—merge in the act of writing. Like many writers who can’t help but write, Wang writes a lot about writing. “Why is it that everything I write fails to capture the range of what is possible?” she asks herself. Wang writes about the limits of language but also writes through them. She writes about the desire to maintain a primordial, teenage blogger state, where writing is a “non-teleological event”—writing for writing’s sake. Wang describes how Bjork sings: “Bjork was the feminine hero’s journey, making her own bliss and rising above the bullshit to become the voice of landscape and arctic desolation and the elements and the earth with its cracks and eruptions—she simply could not not sing.” This is a good description of how Wang writes, except instead of the arctic, Wang is from Florida, which I think comes out both in her politics and her fuck-it-lets-party candor. Wang writes with the passion of the blogger, “in all her mania and unapologetic joy,” becoming landscape, becoming the elements.

Wang writes because she has to. Whether from a casino because the coffee is free or while taking the subway in London to the end of the line because the motion of the train might add a kinetic force to the piece she’s working on. But it’s not just for the pleasure of it. Or, maybe better put, it’s because unapologetic joy is political. When Wang writes about wanting to “pollute white space with [her] Brown body,” or that “the task is to blow up language,” she means it.

While working on her dissertation, Wang wrote Carceral Capitalism, published with Semiotext(e) in 2018. This dense and remarkably readable book of seven essays is informed by Wang’s experience of public school in Florida, having a brother in prison, and watching the 2008 financial crash in real time while working at motels; she talked to people as she checked them in, “transitioning from living in suburban houses to homelessness.” Wang uses her observations from a decade earlier alongside rigorous research to untangle the interrelatedness of neoliberal market deregulation, the debt economy, crumbling social infrastructure, and mass incarceration in the US. In a previously published essay, “All Joy Lives inside Violence,” Wang illustrates the clash between her mobility and the restraints that organize the lives of her Taiwanese immigrant father, her brother who is serving a life prison sentence, and Sicilian-New Yorker mother, a former house wife. Wang complicates her own narrative as a queer woman of color by trying “to understand the hidden brutality our lives depend on.” There’s nothing nihilistic about this train of thought. “Though I cannot live outside of this violence,” she writes, “it is necessary that I live.” For all her wrestling with violence—and, I suspect, because of it—Wang is optimistic. The future, she believes, is ours to construct. We have to do it together. “Though the actualization of one out of everything possible will always exclude every other possibility, and though everything that is-not is always greater than what is,” Wang writes with a sense of awe and responsibility, “we are.”

Olivia Durif writes cultural criticism, personal essays, reported pieces and book reviews. She lives in New Mexico.

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