Book review: How Pop Culture Broke My Heart

Book cover photo of Superfan by Jen Sookfong Lee.Superfan: How Pop Culture Broke my Heart is much more than Jen Sookfong Lee’s commentary on five decades of television, art, music, and popular celebrities and their role in her life; it is a heartbreaking testimony to family, identity, grief and belonging.  

From the adventures of Anne of Green Gables to episodes of ease-inducing painting with Bob Ross and Nora from Queens, Lee is devoted to the lives of characters and celebrities who she is uplifted by (Anne of Green Gables), adores (Princess Diana), criticizes (Gwyneth Paltrow) and inspired by (Kris Jenner). Tragic, absurd, and raw, her collection of personal essays forms an extraordinary and deeply personal memoir.

Born as the last of five daughters into a family hoping for a boy, Jen Sookfong Lee quickly learns to measure and compare her family’s Asian-Canadian life, with the books she reads, the music she listens to, and what she and her four sisters are devoted to watching on television.

Lee is eight years old when her father dies of cancer. Her mother, who came to Canada from China at 19 to be a bride, is left a widow and plunges deeper into depression, grief, and rage. She has little left to provide for Lee or her sisters, either as a mother, guide, or nurturer.  

Navigating her own loss and loneliness, Lee escapes into the world of Anne of Green Gables. She learns that Anne Shirley, while orphaned, was loved deeply by her parents. Anne finds love and belonging again with her adoptive parents who recognize her for giving them “new life.”  Another favourite read, The Secret Garden, defines a version of family and love that is in stark contrast to the anger and isolation that the young Lee lives with nearly every day.

Through adolescence and university Lee maintains her obsession with popular culture. She follows Princess Diana’s courtship, marriage, and divorce as the royal mother and activist finds her voice, and proves she is more than a princess with a crown. 

The life lessons gleaned from celebrities continue for Lee as she navigates her own marriage and divorce. The strength and resiliency of Rhianna, the unattainable discipline of Gwyneth Paltrow, the vulnerability of Justin Bieber and the steadfast devotion of his wife Hailey, and the sheer drive and business savvy of Kris Jenner. Each provides her with a framework through which to contemplate and assess her own life and her future choices.

As Lee herself writes in the introduction to the book, “Sometimes they threw my own failings, longings, and aspirations into stark relief. Sometimes they showed me solutions, potential problems, other ways of being. But, they were my constant companions — there on lonely nights or quiet mornings, when I was so anxious I couldn’t focus on anything but TMZ and the outlandish outfits at Met Gala, after my marriage died and the bed I slept in felt impossibly vast.”

In Superfan, Lee cuts right to the core of discrimination and being Asian in North America. She was compelled to write the book after the murder of eight people, six of them Asian women, at the height of the pandemic in 2021 during a rampage at three Atlanta spas. The memoir is dedicated to their memory. In the chapter Boys on Film Lee writes about Asian fetish, when white men believe all Asian women are submissive and demur in public and sex kittens in the bedroom. To learn that the man in your bed is there not because he’s besotted with you, but because his vision is of a petit, narrow-hipped, tigress, is to be reduced to a subhuman object.

Throughout her life, when times seemed impossible to bear; from the loss of her father, to the disintegration of her own marriage, Lee used popular culture as a “glue” to hold her together. From loneliness to anger, from isolation to depression, the lives of celebrities, the music and the shows provided a different script, a reframing that was brighter, more balanced and much more hopeful.

Lee’s essays are a profound commentary on the foundations of identity and belonging. They shine a revealing light on our collective obsessions and invite us to reconsider where we look for our own meaning.

Lee’s writing is brave and honest, raunchy, and humorous, and above all – real.  

Jen Sookfong Lee’s books include The Conjoined, nominated for the International Dublin Literary Award and a finalist for the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize, The Better Mother, a finalist for the City of Vancouver Book Award, The End of East, The Shadow List, and most recently Superfan: How Pop Culture Broke my Heart. Jen acquires and edits for ECW Press and co-hosts the literary podcast Can’t Lit.

Jen Sookfong Lee will be joining us on Oct. 12, from 10:30–11:45 a.m. for Insights from Insiders: Navigating Canada’s Traditional Publishing Landscape (Online). On Oct. 14 from 1:30–4:30 p.m. Lee will be one of our guests who will listen to you pitch your story in Pitch Your Heart Out! One-on-One Time with a Trade Publishing Pro (Online) On Oct. 13 from 8-10 p.m. Lee is part of the Literary Cabaret.

This review was first published in the Whistler Pique Newsmagazine. 

Review is by Nicola Bentley who lives in Whistler where she is a fan of reading, writing, and playing outdoors.