We can all use more laughter, and humor writer Mia Mercado brings it with her debut essay collection, Weird But Normal, which suggests that maybe we are all messy things just doing our best, and maybe that’s okay. In a series of essays where she dives into her memories of girlhood and eventual adulthood, Mercado, whose work has been published in McSweeney’s, Reductress, and The Hairpin, isn’t afraid to put her gritty, embarrassing, and painful moments on to the page in the hope that someone will read them and feel more normal themselves. In the introduction, she notes that she’s invested in the “parts of ourselves [that] are often internalized and intentionally hidden. They’re associated with shame, guilt, and panic.” Each of the book’s five parts illustrate that.
In “The Holy Sacrament of Birth Control,” Mercado writes in second person to a “you” who has decided to take birth control even though “unfortunately, the men you lie with will not be expected to put their bodies through such torture.” In “I Am the Girl From Your Tampon Commercials,” Mercado reckons with her own race, but does so funnily, distinguishing herself from the angst of the mixed-race protagonist by naming her struggle Rachel Ambiguity (see: racial ambiguity). She uses a long series of exclamation points to show just how easy it is to make mistakes (and to learn from them) as a young woman who’s learning about concepts of privilege while also just trying to not fail her classes and figure out what sex is. In “How to Quit Your Job and Change Your Life,” Mercado navigates working for a greeting-card company and dealing with her guilt: “I got to / had to live in this timeless, arguably cultureless vacuum, where it was forever a special occasion.” Throughout Weird But Normal, she makes good decisions and bad ones. She finds it hard to get out of bed. She doesn’t know what to do with the endless hoards of people who want to know where she’s really from. She’s supposed to #LeanIn but also “really go after it, you Girl Boss.” She gets horny about Target. She doesn’t know how to be a bride.
It’s a lot of pressure, but Mercado gracefully navigates it without putting that pressure on readers because she understands the ways that pacing (the book feels like a casual conversation, rather than a rant or a quip), structure (Mercado loves a bullet point), and punctuation (the exclamation points are doing work) help shape the narrative’s weight. Somehow, this book about racism, capitalism, and sexism feels like a welcome distraction from the heaviness of the world. Bitch spoke with Mercado about white audiences, thinking that sex was exclusively 69-ing, and the things that affect our sense of self on a deep, intimate level.
At the heart of your book is this idea that we’re all messy and abnormal and that we can maybe learn to be okay with that. How do you think concepts of normalcy exist for young women today, especially given their access to books like this one?
I grew up in the very suburban Christian Midwest, so talking about bodies was very hush-hush: We have a body, but shhh, don’t talk about. I don’t know if anybody feels super-comfortable in their own body, especially while growing up. Kids now probably have more access to seeing what they can expect and what’s realistic.
I agree. Even though they have more access to information, even just across social media on Twitter and TikTok, I keep seeing girls sharing how you can make your period do this or make your vagina smell or look like this. You might have more access to information, but you also have a lot more access to misinformation and weird stuff.
In some ways, I’m super glad that Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube weren’t things that existed until I was an adult. Instead of it just being like, there’s girls in middle school and high school [to compare yourself to], now, it’s essentially like, here’s all of the cool girls everywhere on every single platform in every single part of your life. I’m not that glad that there’s [now more] representation of [these] things, but I’m glad that I wasn’t force-fed examples [of ideal bodies and girlhood] in every single place that I looked [online and in real life].
Things are definitely getting better in the sense of representation, accepting oneself, general positivity, and being able to talk about the weird bodily stuff we all experience. But there’s still a stigma around anything that feels different. If something is different, that means it’s probably bad, and trying to reverse that in our own brains is hard. Especially when it comes to something like your body, which is so, obviously, personal.
You also talk a lot about the messiness of race. I loved the way you drew parallels about your own feeling of being perceived as racially ambiguous and the way that brands capitalize on that feeling that is often painful for mixed people or biracial people. Brands turn it into a way to lean in to inclusivity and diversity, while still ultimately catering to a white audience. How did you think about exploring race on the page, especially as a half-white person?
I wanted to be careful about how I frame things and make sure that when I was talking about race, I wasn’t putting the pressure on myself to feel like I had to speak for every mixed-race or a nonwhite person, because that’s a pressure that a lot of people who aren’t white feel. And a lot of white people put that pressure on people of color to be a spokesperson for every single person and treat nonwhiteness as a monolith. I don’t walk through my life with [the idea that] I am a half-white, half-Asian person at the front of my brain. I wanted the stories I told and the pieces I wrote to feel like my race informs every part of my life and my experience, but it’s not the focus.
I had to give myself permission to talk about race because I know how bad it feels when you hear a white person talking about how sad racism is. I am half-white. I experience a lot of white-adjacent privilege, and I wanted to be conscious of that. [While I’m writing] I’m hoping I’m not the only person who’s like, Do I have the authority to talk about Asian-ness? Do I have the authority to talk about being a person of color when I’m half-white? I don’t want people to think that I’m ignoring the fact that my otherness is often seen as exotic and fun, spicy, different, and all the model minority stereotypes that go along with being Asian; it has more to do with submissiveness and how that relates to white culture than with being [viewed as] threatening or scary.
I wanted to talk about the experiences of being a biracial person in a way that felt true and real. And sometimes the [absurd racist] shit that people say is funny, mostly in a sad way. I’ve been asked where I’m from just too many times, and if I don’t make some kind of joke about it, it’s going to weigh me down super-heavy. [I don’t think] conversations about race have to feel heavy.
You definitely lean into your own personal experiences. Even the moments of racism that weren’t funny necessarily didn’t feel super theory-heavy. It was more like this was a thing that happened to you.
I didn’t process the microaggressions I experienced as racist until years later. [At the time], I recognized that they made me feel bad and strange and different, [but] I didn’t really unpack any of that until I was living on my own in my mid-20s, like, Oh, yeah, no. Growing up in a space where I didn’t see a lot of people who looked like me definitely impacted how I think about myself and race. Being able to think about it in hindsight [while writing this book] gave me a bit of emotional space not to feel so heavy. It made me sad for baby Mia going through life being like, Oh no. You had no idea that people were saying things to you that you were going to hold in your head for a while. But, yeah, I’m glad that I’m unpacking them now.
You worked as a greeting-card writer, a job many of us think only exists in the world of 100 Days of Summer, as you mention. But you discuss that you started to feel weird about capitalizing on moments that are often painful for people. Has that impacted your focus on writing about yourself, rather than other people’s experiences?
When I was working at Hallmark, I got to this point where I was like, it’s nice that what I’m doing all day is a thing that makes people happy, a thing that when they receive it, they’re like, Oh, somebody thought of me, and here’s this nice thing. But it’s really hard to separate that from [the fact that] we’re making money off something that’s being exchanged during people’s very intimate moments, and we’re talking about them in this very branded way; you have to think about people monolithically when you’re doing anything that’s creating a product for millions of people. I just started to feel gross. Just capitalism right in front of my face.
I wish I had a really fun, smart, deep answer for why I write about myself, but I don’t know. I am both obsessed with and deeply hate myself. My writing is definitely self-serving [and offers a space] to try and unpack that. The writing that helps me understand myself better [as a reader] is when [writers] go through their own experiences and talk about what happened to them and how they felt about it. Because then I’m able to look at my own life and be like, Oh, something similar happened to me. Instead of it feeling like [this more distant experience] where this writer [explains that] when this happens to you, here’s how it’s going to feel, and here’s what you’re going to do. I feel like I’m able to better interpret [something personal] rather than being, like, here’s what it feels like when something is sexist, and here’s what it feels like when something’s racist, [it’s] here’s a joke about something that you are going to feel and experience. Talking about things that are personal feels like an easier entry point to talking about bigger things.
I [also] just wanted to be cognizant of telling stories that were mine and not telling stories that weren’t, [and] not talking about experiences that I haven’t had or assuming that my individual experience was going to be everyone’s experience. Treating myself as a character who is both real and unreliable and exaggerated and human feels more natural than trying to write about other people using big general statements and swaths of what people are and who they are and what they experience.
I hope that people read the book and know more about themselves at the end of it.
“All the Things I Thought Sex Was” was the chapter that made me laugh the most. The idea of going to your parents with the idea that sex was 69-ing is… hilarious. What does it say about the way that sex is communicated to young girls (and even teenage girls) that we’re given so much time and space to warp our understandings of sex?
It’s pretty fucked up. In school, I had no idea what sex was going to be like for me as a heterosexual person. And it’s weird that that’s the standard: women are going to have sex; people who don’t have a penis are going to have sex. So why aren’t we talking about that? Why aren’t we talking about how that experience is going to be different for a lot of different people?
The idea of female sexuality is scary to a lot of people. The way that girls think about their bodies is changing. Again, people have access to a lot more information because of the internet. But they also have access to a lot more misinformation, so it’s a little scary to be a middle-schooler and have to try and weed out what’s true and what’s not and what’s good and what’s actually going to happen and what that’s going to be like.
Most people are going to have sex, and it shouldn’t be bad and scary. [Sure], it’s uncomfortable to talk about because it’s very personal and intimate. Honestly, those are the things that we need to be talking about more, those things that affect us on a very deep, intimate level.
The “White Friend Confessional” chapter does a lot of work in few words: you’re diving into a complicated topic, which is the often low-key strained relationship between people of color and our white friends; namely, the expectation that we exist to—on some level, no matter how passive—absolve them of their sins, specifically the racist ones. How did you go about choosing that chatty Q&A format, and how do you use structure to communicate such heavy topics while maintaining levity?
That essay was originally published on McSweeney’s. I don’t remember the exact conversation that spurred it. I don’t know if it was one specific one or just one in a long list of feeling like I was the person that my white friends were turning to as, like, Please absolve me of my white guilt. The way that I experienced it was always so casual and kind of cavalier. The structure was probably informed by my Catholic upbringing, but the idea of white guilt is interesting to me and also how that manifests itself in this, like I need somebody of color to absolve me of my white sins. A lot of the lines in that are things that people have said to me and that I’ve said to other people. That’s probably how a lot of those kinds of conversations go: They’re introduced in this very casual way, but the context of them is very serious and heavy. Structuring that conversation as a confessional felt like it gave it the proper gravity that it needed while still acknowledging one, this isn’t right. Nobody should expect these conversations to absolve you of implicit bias, because that’s not how that works.
In “Procrastination But Make It Look Put Together,” you write about your procrastination goblin: “As that goblin grew, so did my desire to be loved and adored or, at the very least, seen as ‘nice.’ Not for any reason in particular, aside from maybe the fact that I am a Midwestern half-Asian woman. So niceties, submissiveness, and pleasantries are my presumed personality, but I DIGRESS.” Tell me more about this. How do our identities shape our ideas of niceness?
This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently, especially with political conversations being like, at least we can just be civil! Be nice to people. And we can disagree, but be nice. Ideas of niceness, kindness, and politeness feel very tied into one another. I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive, but I don’t think they’re all the same thing. I grew up associating them as the same thing. I talk about how I thought being polite and obedient was the same as being good. [I’m interested in] the idea that if people see me as nice, they’re going to see me as good, even if they don’t know anything other than that; if they don’t know anything beyond that I was polite to them, that I smiled and nodded and did the nice thing, at least they’re going to see me as nice and good. It’s tied into these expectations that other people had for me and that I assumed other people had for me based on previous experience.
I also found it interesting that you put “niceness” almost as a lower-level version of “being loved and adored.” Why do you think that is?
The conversations around niceness are very strange, and it’s a thing that we expect everyone to be and we expect it to be easy. It’s easy to be nice. There are things that you do in order to be nice, and we treat it like niceness is this monolith, and I don’t think it is. The ways that people think of niceness are definitely tied to race, gender, and class. In Parasite, the mother character talks about how the rich family is rich enough to be nice, and that kind of stuck with me: the idea that social niceties are things that are a privilege to be able to both experience and give out. If you’re not worried about anything else other than smiling and nodding, that’s really easy to do.
It seems like people associate niceness with servitude, especially if it’s any kind of imbalance of power. If you are expected to be nice to someone who is more powerful than you, it’s going to feel just like serving them.
“The idea of female sexuality is scary to a lot of people. They have access to a lot more information because of the internet. But they also have access to a lot more misinformation.”
I absolutely loved “A Time Line of My Online Personas.” Do you ever wonder if you’re a person or a persona? How does this impact your sense of self, especially as a writer who writes about herself?
The idea of a person having to be a “brand” is so gross and also so expected, regardless of what your job is. We’re all trying to cultivate this perfect, idealized, most representative version of ourselves in an online space that definitely doesn’t exactly reflect who we are in real life and also isn’t possible to replicate in real life. There are people much smarter and more informed than I am that I’m sure have done studies and written papers about how it’s going to fuck all of us up that we’re like, I need to cultivate exactly who I am on Instagram otherwise, x, y, z. But I am probably part of the generation where social media was starting to be a thing when we were in our formative years trying to figure out who we were going to be as people; so trying to figure out who we were going to be as people in real life, and then also having to do that online, was overwhelming.
I remember setting up an author page on Facebook long before writing a book and feeling like it was a thing that I had to do. I have a regular Facebook page that’s like regular me, but then I have this professional Facebook page that it’s, like, also me but professional. And it’s hard to acknowledge that the parts of the system are gross and weird while also being like, Well, I’ve got to do it though. I have to exist within it.
When it gets to the point where I’m like, I should tweet today, when I feel obligated to tweet, that’s when I know I’m like, I’ve got to take a step back. I need to calm down, walk outside, and not think about myself so much, and what other people are thinking about me.
I have hope for the youth when I scroll through TikTok. They’re way funnier than I was when I was younger. I don’t know if that’s just because they have access to more funny things or because they’re just funnier. I hope that kids who are younger than me are more self-aware and aware of the fact that online, it’s the same but also kind of different. It’s the way that I stay connected, and my friends in real life can be my friends online, but also it’s not one and the same. I haven’t talked to a 13-year-old in a long time. Maybe they’re as messed up as I was at 13.
The women’s essay space seems to be moving into a more authentic space: less glam and sparkling and exclusive editor events, and more bodies and butt hair and depression. Who are the essayists that you read when they publish something new?
Samantha Irby. I’m going through her collection of essays, Wow, No Thank You, right now. I’m trying to pace myself so I don’t eat it up all at once. Because it’s like a yummy little snack for my brain and my heart. She’s the pinnacle of writing authentically, writing like an actual person, and making it feel like writing nonfiction isn’t this inaccessible club that you have to go to an Ivy League school to get into. Jia Tolentino, who isn’t a humor writer, is able to talk about really funny things in a very academic way, which I admire. And Alexandra Petri for the Washington Post, who is able to consistently write satirical political pieces that I actually want to read. Political satire has just become so oversaturated and exhausting, and we get it. The president sucks, and we all hate it. And it sucks and it’s bad. And she’s able to acknowledge that in a way that doesn’t just feel sad and frustrating and overdone. It’s impressive that she’s able to do that consistently.
How does it feel to be promoting your first book during a pandemic?
Self-promotion during a global pandemic is weird! I’m trying to do it consciously without feeling like, “Enough about that coronavirus! Here’s some stuff about me.” There are too many things happening. I’m very much a believer in eating your vegetables and your dessert. Do the things that you need to do. Do the things that you know are like, I should stay informed. I should contribute to the world. I should try and help the greater good. But also, have a little snack every once in a while. Watch TikToks in bed until two in the morning. And maybe my book can be dessert. That’d be nice.
This story has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.