This week, as soon as I began reading Bora Chung’s collection of short stories, Cursed Bunny (translated by Anton Hur and shortlisted for the 2022 International Booker Prize), I felt a tingle. In the first story, The Head, a woman finds a head in the toilet that keeps popping up and addressing her as “mother”. The head informs the woman (who is, alarmingly for the reader, not alarmed enough) that it was formed from all the bodily wastes that have left the woman’s body over the years. The story progresses in a thrilling, mouth left open way.
I was highly aware as I was reading that a part of my reaction to this superb story was its echoes of a phenomenon I am fascinated by: teratomas. A teratoma is a kind of tumour, a rare variety that is usually benign but grows rapidly. The reason they have their Greek name of “monster tumour” is because they are tumours that can grow their own body parts—such as hair or teeth or bone.
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Did you feel a creepy tingle? If you are easily grossed out, please don’t look them up. If you aren’t, welcome to my clubhouse. Teratomas should give TED talks.
One of the nicest things in the world is finding out that other people share your obscure interests. And if you are lucky, there is even a name for your interests. The writer Christopher Hitchens is supposed to have once written of his best friend Martin Amis’ new book, something roughly like “I am glad Martin has learnt something new but do we all have to learn along with him?” They remained friends. I hope we will remain friends even though I am going to inflict on you my new learning. Because I just learnt the term “praise kink” and we must discuss it.
Praise kink, as you know but I sadly didn’t, is a fondness for being praised during sexual intimacy. I was rather thrilled at learning that this was a Thing. The kink may range from absolutely needing overt praise to needing it for arousal, to enjoying it only in a power play situation or you know…the usual range of human sexual diversity. It is not, experts hasten to add, the same as enjoying a compliment about your blue eyeliner.
I did have a quiet giggle about how some people seem to have a praise kink outside the sexual realm and need praise to have their headlights come on. Until then, darkness abounds.
Mostly, I thought of the many people for whom praise is fairly painful to receive. They don’t know what to do with it.
In her memoir about motherhood, the Irish novelist Anne Enright writes of an occasion when an American praises her child’s looks and she immediately wants to snatch the child’s photo away. Ah, the Irish are like us, I thought with much satisfaction. They too believe in hypervigilance against the evil eye and saying nothing nice about our children.
Once, a woman praised her adult daughter to me, apropos of nothing, and I didn’t know what to do with my twitching face. It was all true, what she said about her daughter’s brilliance, but it was outside the ambit of my experience. I needed a Lonely Planet travel guide for this new land. I am more familiar with “oh, you washed your face for once” as a grinning response to your full makeover in preparation for a party. On the other hand, I am very happy to praise strangers and acquaintances and feel in a distinctly non-buri nazar way that there is a drought of thoughtful praise for the art and craft people bring to their everyday lives and work. That everyone needs and wants to “be seen”. That might seem like a contradiction but not an unfamiliar one, right?
I believe a clue lies here. When I meet someone who is a sincere believer in positive affirmations, a cult adjacent to the praise kink, I feel like I must run away before they offer me green tea. Both green tea and positive affirmations are good for you but I don’t know what to do with undiluted sincerity. I need a little bit of irony to help it go down.
What my closest friends once had in common was an ability to phrase their praise for you in ways that seemed like it was a deliberate provocation you had planned. How dare you have such a beautiful room? Your skin is disgustingly smooth. Oh please, you are just running around being productive, don’t talk to me. And so on. Leaving you with a befuddled, idiotic smile on your face.
Over time, though, I have come to believe that my praise kinks, my positive affirmations, don’t lie only in the world of people, however wonderful they are. Or only in the silver tongues of my friends, however wicked they are.
A new hook step in a reel, a 2014 rendition of a 1960s Konkani song about a drunken husband, a Korean story that someone just had to write and wants you, needs you, a stranger halfway across the world, to read—art is where you find your G-spot. And in the brevity of that hook step, in that full-throated Bebdo, a teratoma that pops up in a loo, you sound out yourself and hear a yes, yes, yes, oh god, yes. That is its own kind of praise kink.
Nisha Susan is the editor of the webzine The Ladies Finger and author of The Women Who Forgot To Invent Facebook And Other Stories.
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