Q&A With Hayanna Kim a.k.a. @herpickings on Instagram

@herpickings is beloved page for book lovers on Instagram. I came across the account in the early days of “bookstagram” (a hashtag that now has over 19 million posts) and have been a fan for around three years. I was happy to meet the person behind it, Hayanna Kim, in Manhattan Beach this spring to talk books and what it means “to live deliberately.” 

Hayanna started working young. Through high school and college at Syracuse she worked with a mentor on start ups in event planning, tech, and food. Then after college, she was planning on going to law school. She was studying for the L-SATs and interning at a firm in downtown Los Angeles. However, life intervened. She got into a fatal car accident. Its trauma and repercussions revealed that she had Lupus, an autoimmune disease. After having to take a break for a couple of years, she is now looking for her next step and working on her own writing. 

 

How did @herpickings begin? What made you want to share the books you were reading and write about what you’ve read?

I’d just been running since I very young, trying to figure out what I want to do. I was working and then studying and had no time to rest.

I got really sick. I had to quit everything. My symptoms got aggravated after my car accident. My body just crashed. Even though I wanted to work, I couldn’t. If I started something, I would be sick right away. It would be unfair to the employer and to me. I’d have to quit in the middle of it. So I took two years off, maybe even three. I did side stuff, but not a full time job. I took a break. Pretty much didn’t have a choice because I really couldn’t get out of bed for a while. Just being so tired and fatigued and my body was too weak. That’s when I had a lot of time to read.

I was home by myself when I was sick. Then you feel lonely. I couldn’t go out with my friends. Because I got sick in my early 20s, everyone was doing their own thing. I felt isolated. I needed community. I was just looking and found the first book people on Instagram. I was like, ‘that’s fun,’ and we were reading the same books. People ask me, ‘how did you grow it?’ My intention was never to grow the account. It was more for me.

At first, reading would be escapism. And then after a while, reading would be a daily routine. I would have anxiety and panic attacks, and if I didn’t read even a couple of pages a day, I would feel like I couldn’t calm myself down. It was kind of a coping mechanism for me for a couple of years.

It was one thing that kept me going. Waking up every morning early, at the same time. It’s something that helped me heal. Go to a coffee shop, just sit there, read. And do what I love. And it became a routine for me. Which helped me get out of my depression. Because when you’re sick you’re always home, and you get depressed.

That’s why when I did posts, it kind of helped me work through certain things in my life– being able to share and having other people relate to it as well.

A lot of the books I read helped me face my reality.

I’m working on a book of essays now, and that’s one of the reasons I especially like your posts, because they seem to be about books of essays. Did you start reading essays when you got sick?

No I always did read essays, but think I read more. It was easier to read. If I didn’t want to or couldn’t read a whole book, I would dive in, and then I’d dive in and out.

Also, I like essay writing. It’s interesting how it can change over the years, and how personal it can be too. It was the form of writing that I did most. But also sometimes, I want to read books depending on what I’m going through at the time. People ask, how do you pick  the books you want to read? I just pick whatever I feel at that time. It’s more emotional.

What does it mean to you to live deliberately?  Can you share what you’ve found through your readings and from the perspective of your illness? 

Reading helped me heal every day. Whenever I read, there are bits and parts that speak to me. Whether it’s a sentence or a passage. It triggers something in me, and me trying to unlearn what society has taught me.

Unlearn at first and then re-learn that I don’t have to follow what society tells me. Because growing up I thought I have to go to college, get a job right away. I always thought you have to follow A-B-C, but because I got sick on the way, I had to take a break, take a step away, to see what can I do in my life. First of all, how can I stay happy, but also make a living without getting myself to this very sickest point again. Finding balance. Finding what’s my normal, not other people’s normal. Because I have to back off certain things in my live in order to do one thing just because of my energy levels, because I can’t go out every weekend like my friends would, or else I couldn’t work all week because I’d be too tired. There are things I have to sacrifice, like throughout my day, I need to pick and choose what’s important to me to go through the day, get through the day, and then wake up the next day and do that again.

 

So, I had to figure out, what is my goal? Do I want a lot of money? Is that really worth it for me. Because making money means working like a dog again. For me, it just wasn’t worth it. So I had to let go of my ideal of what I had in the past. I had to rethink everything of what I thought I knew.

So you start with your health and body, and then go from there?

Yes. Becacuse without my health, I can’t do anything else or help anyone else to begin with. Also just job wise, I don’t want to do something just for the money, like of course you need a living, but I want to do something more meaningful in the end. If I think 10 years from now, would I have helped inspire at least one person, instead of just living day-by-day. I want to do something a little more, and I think that changed from before when I was sick.

Even though I got better, there are still things I can’t do. And I’ve accepted that. I have physical limitations. There are people who stay at work until 10pm, and then do their own stuff afterwards. And I know physically I cant do that, or I’ll go back into the cycle of being sick.

Do you look at people and say, if only you know that you need to just work two hours less and take care of yourself?

Yes. And my friends, when they see me, they realize that. And right now there are so many autoimmune diseases, there are so many people I know personally that have it. It’s really interesting to see. I know older people that have been working their whole lives, and they get really sick and they don’t know why. They quit their jobs and stress less, and they’re better.

Can you recommend two books you think people should read to live deliberate lives?

I like reading journal, diary entries, like Sylvia Plath, Susan Sontag, Franz Kafka, Albert Camus.

 

Those journals I always go back to because, it’s about their struggles with writing, and they write about their struggles getting through their days. For me, I like reading journal entries that aren’t too edited. And it shows that you’re not alone. When I don’t feel like reading anything else, I go back to journal entries.

If anything I would recommend Rebecca Solnit’s, The Field Guide to Getting Lost. That’s something I feel that, everyone, no matter what they’re going through, can pick up that book when they’re feeling lost and know that being lost is OK. Because no one really knows. I talk to people older, younger, way older, and no one really figures it out. We’re just living trying to figure it out who we are. It’s really interesting to know that you don’t have to know everything now. And you might not find everything ever, either. It’s the search.

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Gail Simmons & Curtis Stone on Falling in Love With Food

I really love what feels like a new trend in Los Angeles of having so many live talks and conversations happening all the time. It’s not just the usual book signings in bookstores anymore, though those are always great. There are now several groups organizing events across the city (usually related to a new book release) from ALOUD to Live Talks LA to the Los Angeles Times Ideas Exchange to Maria Shriver’s Architects of Change Live. One of my “to live deliberately” goals is to attend as many interesting in talks as possible (cost-and-schedule-permitting), and I hope to share more and more of them on this blog. (Like last week’s post about Jennifer Egan’s conversation with Marisa Silver at the Los Angeles Public Library’s main branch downtown).

I attended a talk featuring Top Chef judge Gail Simmons in conversation with LA Times columnist Patt Morrison in Beverly Hills on Sunday evening. Simmons has a new cookbook out, “Bringing It Home,” with recipes she developed based on the notes she gathered over the last few years while she travelled and tasted the world.

The theme of the night was, of course, food, but they touched on so many interesting facets that surround this basic human need.

Food and Memory

“We love food that has stories.” Morrison said early on in the discussion, and Simmions agreed.

“Food is very personal,” she said. “Food memory is a very powerful thing.” Most of her recipes are based on stories of family–especially her mother–and travel, often the two combined. She shared one story of a recipe based on Lee’s Diner on Main Street in Gloucester where she goes every year with her husband’s family.

And a few days after the talk, she shared this lovely banana and cardamom upside-down cake recipe on morning TV. The recipe was inspired by her mom, and how she always had banana bread in the house– but Simmons added her own touches (sour cream, cardamom) based on her experience with recipes and ingredients. I can’t wait to try it!

Food and Fear

After a general intro about the cookbook, one of the first things Morrison asked about was all the “pickiness” surrounding food today (of which I’ve been guilty of myself at some points, I have to admit), such as the gluten-free trend.

Simmons nodded knowingly.”Food phobia,” she said. “Food is yes very powerful, but also very scary. There are a lot of cultural issues that weigh into food…” especially related to body image. That drives a lot of the problems people have with food. At the same time, Simmons made clear that there are real cases when people do really need to be careful with what they eat. “There are also very serious autoimmune disease that are on the rise,” she said, listing celiac disease as an example, and the increase of children with severe peanut allergies as another. These, she said, are a real problems we should be concerned with.

“It’s sometimes hard to differentiate between the two,” she added, saying that in general there needs to be a balance.

“In my life, I was always taught that food is a great pleasure and a great privilege, and it’s a great luxury to be having the food we’re eating now.”

When Morrison asked her later in the evening what her “guilty pleasures” were, Simmons said,

“I try not to feel guilty about food…

Sure, there are some foods that she can’t resist the call to have (salt and vinegar chips, for example), so she may need to temper herself around them, but to her the idea of guilt shouldn’t exist.

Food and Politics

Simmons invited her friend and fellow Top Chef judge, Chef Curtis Stone, to join her on stage midway through the talk. One topic that was clearly important to both of them was food distribution, or the lack thereof.

“I think at large that the culinary world is very interested in helping,” Stone said, describing how most chefs are involved in their cities’ efforts to feed those who do not have enough to eat. But he stressed that “Food distribution is a political issue.”

Simmons agreed emphatically. “We are in a moment when access is the issue, and it’s not an issue of not having enough food in the country to feed people. It’s an issue of distribution. It’s on the political level, congress, lawmakers… I don’t think food banks are the solutions– they’re a band-aid that we definitely need.”

Food and Cooking

A topic that kept coming up through the night is how the link between food and cooking broke in our country for a while as people got busier and were no longer able to spend hours following a complicated recipe and making a perfect dish (though that’s fun sometimes, it is unsustainable on a daily basis). Morrison said that even looking at some photos in cookbooks can be intimidating to many and lead them to processed, quick foods.

“For me, it should be less about being perfect, and more about being holistic and fun,” Simmons said. “It should be something that gives you pleasure, and not something that gives you anxiety.”

There’s been a revival recently in people turning back to kitchens, with shows like Top Chef being a part of that. There’s also been an expansion in what we’re eating. “Our tastes in America swing all over the place, and that’s the beauty of living in a country with so many cultural influences and varied histories.” Simmons said, noting that diversity in taste and palates is an important feature in her cookbook.

I especially loved what she had to say about the joy of making your own meal:

“The best part is it comes together in an hour or less, and you can make something that people can enjoy. And that’s magical.”

She had specific tips to help people make it more convenient to cook. Being organizing is essential: thinking about the week ahead, planning recipes, discovering simple and interesting things, cooking in large batches, buying the right ingredients for the week, (and being conscious about not wasting food by matching meals to your own or your family’s schedule). She added that if cooking can be a family activity, that helps a lot as well. It becomes something for everyone to do together in the evenings, and brings people together, rather than being a chore for one person.

Stone chimed in, “If you fall back in love with food, that’s the important part.”

I really liked Stone’s closing thought about cookbooks themselves being a gift that keeps on giving. First you enjoy receiving them, then enjoy reading them through, and then you keep enjoying them as you try new recipes and make ones you love over and over again. That’s definitely something I’m going to keep in mind when giving gifts, especially with the holiday season ahead.