In March 2020, barely two weeks into COVID-19 isolation in New York City, the writer, artist, and community organizer Mimi Zhu woke up to find the eyes of the internet on them. The night before, Britney Spears had reposted a piece of art from Zhu’s Instagram about connection in the age of coronavirus. The post called for strikes and the redistribution of wealth, leading many to temporarily dub Spears “Comrade Britney” because of its socialist undertones. But the true appeal of Zhu’s piece lay in the way it tapped into the universal yearning that social distancing had created: “We will learn to kiss and hold each other through the waves of the web.”
Zhu’s missive, so specific to the moment in which they wrote it, also speaks to the broader impact of their work. Their Instagram meditations—bold blocks of text set against radiant colored backgrounds—capture emotions that many people experience but might feel too vulnerable to declare out loud. Captioned with unflinchingly honest titles like “feeling undesirable/forgotten,” Zhu’s posts are intimate and heart-tugging, centered around radical love and rooted in a desire to heal. “Likeability is not the antidote for loneliness,” they write in one. “I have contorted myself to appease many people, and despite winning their affections, I felt drained and even lonelier.” These posts have made the 28-year-old artist, who was born in Australia to Chinese immigrant parents, a vital voice in queer, BIPOC spaces online. They have more than 100,000 followers on Instagram, as well as a newsletter, Write, To Heal, which reaches hundreds of paid subscribers.
“With the online world, as wonderful a tool as it is, I always keep in mind that it’s only one dimension,” Zhu says IRL in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene Park, serene despite sweltering summer heat. Online, Zhu’s persona is compassionate and tender; in person, their energy is even more gentle. “The internet is a space for us all to feel less alone and to let a lot out, but we don’t have to share every part of ourselves… I reserve a lot for myself, which is a boundary.”
Boundaries play an important role in Zhu’s debut book Be Not Afraid of Love: Lessons on Fear, Intimacy, and Connection, coming Aug. 23. The book is part memoir, part essay collection, and part spiritual guide, a rumination on healing and Zhu’s journey to rediscover what it means to give and receive love after what they describe as a violent romantic relationship in their early 20s with a person they refer to as X. Over the course of 10 chapters, which range in topic from grief to the importance of being present, they engage with the complex and intermingling feelings that emerged during their quest to re-learn emotional intimacy as a survivor of intimate-partner abuse. In one chapter, about anger, they discover that their rage at the violence they experienced can be a force for radical change and protection when expressed safely; in another, focused on relationships, they share their newfound definition of unconditional love.
The process of writing Be Not Afraid of Love took two years, a period that was both cathartic and healing for Zhu. They strove to capture nuances that they did not see in the books they read or media stories they consumed about surviving abuse—narratives that either took a clinical approach or oversimplified the experiences of survivors, portraying them as helpless victims or opportunists who found a way to profit off their pain.
“Having that lack of nuance was pretty isolating, to be honest,” Zhu says. “I really wanted to bring forward a perspective that it’s not always either/or, that we shouldn’t feel compelled to sell our trauma or prove that we’re so much better than this or sink deep into shame.”
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Zhu constantly finds the political within the deeply personal, and vice versa. They don’t shy away from revisiting generational trauma in their family, which was impacted by their move from China to Australia, or delving into painful memories with ex-lovers. In one poignant section of Be Not Afraid of Love, Zhu processes their ex’s Asian fetish, drawing a line between X’s sexual interests and the history of orientalism, Western domination, and white supremacist ideology.
The book has an academic quality that may come as a surprise to fans of Zhu’s work on social media. They sprinkle footnotes referencing everything from Granger E. Westberg’s grief model to resources for mutual aid throughout the text, and draw as much from psychology, Buddhist philosophies, and the teachings of activists like bell hooks and Audre Lorde as they do from their own experiences. Zhu explores the impacts of structural inequities like access to physical and mental health care and the U.S. immigration system—and connects those impacts to their personal life and relationship with X. Despite all they endured from their ex, Zhu, who was undocumented at the time, chose not to involve the police. “It spoke volumes that I did not feel safe, protected, or secure in relation to either X or the carceral state,” they write. “I knew that there would not be true justice. Calling the police to arrest X would not stop his violence.”
Years later, Zhu is more focused on developing self-love and connecting authentically with others than achieving the law’s idea of justice. The final chapters of Be Not Afraid of Love glory in the renewing powers of community and the relationships—with others and with themself— that brought them to these priorities. They emphasize that healing is a process. “The end of the book is not the end of my life,” Zhu says. “I’m still very much healing, but I have arrived at a place where I feel a lot more embodied in love.”
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