the ch!cktionary

I'm Lena Chen, a writer, activist, and media producer who's been called a "skank" (by Bill O'Reilly) and "a small Asian woman" (by The New York Times). My favorite part of my workday is the hate mail.

For the unlikely story that is my life, read on.

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irregular features
Ask Lena: Reader Questions Answered
Anatomy of an Outfit
Bad Feminist Confessions
Freelance Friday: Career Advice for Young Writers
Hate Mail
Gratuitous Photos Of My Bulldog
Notes & Snapshots from Abroad
Recent Tweets @lenachen
Posts tagged "snapshots"

My text and soul are one and the same, and I make no Faustian bargains.


a·mok   [uh-muhk, uh-mok] noun
(among members of certain Southeast Asian cultures) a psychic disturbance characterized by depression followed by a manic urge to murder, a state of murderous frenzy.It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer an orange-haired joker gunned down the fourth wall of a Colorado cinema, and I didn’t know what I was still doing in Boston. I’m weird about shootings. The idea of killing people makes me sick, but when confronted with the rampages, the national tragedies, my impulse is to empathize not with mourning families or fallen victims, but with the perpetrator. He’s usually one of the losers or freaks, a social outcast, the kind of role I had always been assigned no matter my environment. What happened in Aurora had nothing to do with me, but I couldn’t help wondering who I would’ve become if luck hadn’t intervened, if it would’ve been me pulling the trigger instead, only in a different place at a different time.Frank said it was the most morbid thought in the world. (But of course, how could he relate to the character of the underdog?)Boston was bad enough. The sun rose at 6 in the morning, warming the black-tarred streets and mansard-roofed homes of a noiseless city. By the time I woke hours later, the temperature in our centrally air-conditioned penthouse unit had risen above 80 degrees, a result of leaving the windows open overnight for fresh air. A heatwave was sweeping through the country, its rays as indiscriminate as the aim of the joker, ravaging residents of coast and country alike. I couldn’t bring myself to do anything, least of all to write…
            –Excerpt from “REAL ESTATE CURES FOR WRITER’S BLOCK”

I haven’t read The Bell Jar from cover to cover in years. This fall, I’m going to take a page from Hunter S. Thompson and retype the entire thing by hand. I figure I might learn a thing or two given a few years of distance, and either way, it’ll be better than pitching thinly disguised stories about a writing professional who hates the professionalization of writing. All of my writer friends feel the same about their jobs, but none of them are passive-aggressive or ironic enough to actually approach their editors with such a story idea. I guess I should say “most” and not “all”, especially since I sleep beside a German academic with an appreciation for specificity, but come to think of it, all of my writer friends really do share my rapidly dwindling faith in the media and publishing industry.
Earlier this August, the Hound and I were in Fire Island for ten days with ten books. The only one that got cracked open was The Bell Jar. Sylvia Plath was my sole like-minded companion in the darkest hours of my adolescence. She was the author who defined my girlhood by defying hers, and after I discovered her memoir at the age of 15, I had an annual habit of revisiting its pages. I don’t know why I ever stopped. Plath makes me think about a part of myself that I haven’t had opportunity to consider anymore, especially as the topics of my writing have become more professional, legitimate, closer to the mainstream. Look at my portfolio; I never really wanted any of this for myself. I wanted to write, yes, and I like “networking” if what you mean is finger food and compliments from strangers, but the travel, events, business cards, etc.? I spend more time on my Twitter stream than I do on stream-of-consciousness.
I knew by the time I graduated college in 2010 that I didn’t want any of the things I thought I wanted all through my undergraduate years at Harvard. The only reason I pursued any sort of career in the traditional sense was because I needed to insulate myself from cyber bullies who couldn’t get over the fact that I wrote a sex blog when I was 19. Why should I have to encourage people to forget that I ever appeared naked on the Internet in order to have them take my writing seriously? Moreover, my genius plot didn’t even fucking work. I’m 25 now, and they are still not bored of stalking and defaming me or my friends or my boyfriend or my family. And last year, they moved on to stalking my readers by outing anyone who commented on, reblogged, or liked my posts. I felt like I gave up a part of myself for nothing. Ever since the harassment has escalated, I have lost any desire to blog most days - and I’m sure my lack of enthusiasm showed in less frequent and less substantial updates this year. I felt the walls creeping up and the confines of my career closing in every time I signed another contract for another gig I didn’t really want to take.
I burned out. I put away my unfinished memoir. I started a novel. I decided I needed to get the hell out of America. I wanted to break up with my life. I read the first page of The Bell Jar.
On Fire Island, I spent the first half of my vacation being mildly irritated that there was no Internet or cell phone reception, despite the fact that I specifically wanted to visit Fire Island to escape Internet and cell phone reception. I was generally displeased by my then-unresolved housing situation, my two-week separation from Patrick (who was obtaining a visa in Germany to stay in the U.S.), and my utter inability to make progress on my novel and the three or four creative writing pieces I’ve been working on since the beginning of 2012.
Then Patrick arrived (by ferry) and brought with him foodstuffs, supplies, and the best birthday present ever. But I cannot reveal the latter for fear that it will not come to past! So, instead on this 25th year of life, I am belatedly sharing the above photograph (taken by Patrick) and the excerpt (written by me). The latter comes from an unfinished short story about six people trying to find a home during an unusually hot summer. It’s my first adult attempt at writing fiction, and I’ll think about trying to get it published somewhere when it’s complete, but mostly, I’m just curious to see how the writing process plays out. I’m writing this one for me, and the mere notion of trying to price something like this, to figure out its market value - well, it’s absurd, but so is the rest of capitalism.
I know now for certain that my writer’s block is over, because I know that I can and I will and I want to finish writing this story. I need to, because it not only tells the tale of this summer, but the story of my young adulthood, the story of this entire year and my entire life, the story of The Bell Jar and what it means to me. If I can finish this, I can finish my book. There are things I want to accomplish here, things I want to say about literature in general, and things I have wanted to say about myself but have always been too scared to reveal. Writing this short story is both personal challenge and tribute. How better else to thank the poet whose single novel saved my life countless times over than by proving with text the suspicion that she must have always nursed, the contradiction that marked her career - that in the end, genre is just a state of mind, and the truth - or what it is we call “the truth” - lies not in words but in the spaces between the lines.

a·mok   [uh-muhk, uh-mok] noun

(among members of certain Southeast Asian cultures) a psychic disturbance characterized by depression followed by a manic urge to murder, a state of murderous frenzy.

It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer an orange-haired joker gunned down the fourth wall of a Colorado cinema, and I didn’t know what I was still doing in Boston. I’m weird about shootings. The idea of killing people makes me sick, but when confronted with the rampages, the national tragedies, my impulse is to empathize not with mourning families or fallen victims, but with the perpetrator. He’s usually one of the losers or freaks, a social outcast, the kind of role I had always been assigned no matter my environment. What happened in Aurora had nothing to do with me, but I couldn’t help wondering who I would’ve become if luck hadn’t intervened, if it would’ve been me pulling the trigger instead, only in a different place at a different time.

Frank said it was the most morbid thought in the world. (But of course, how could he relate to the character of the underdog?)

Boston was bad enough. The sun rose at 6 in the morning, warming the black-tarred streets and mansard-roofed homes of a noiseless city. By the time I woke hours later, the temperature in our centrally air-conditioned penthouse unit had risen above 80 degrees, a result of leaving the windows open overnight for fresh air. A heatwave was sweeping through the country, its rays as indiscriminate as the aim of the joker, ravaging residents of coast and country alike. I couldn’t bring myself to do anything, least of all to write…

            –Excerpt from “REAL ESTATE CURES FOR WRITER’S BLOCK

I haven’t read The Bell Jar from cover to cover in years. This fall, I’m going to take a page from Hunter S. Thompson and retype the entire thing by hand. I figure I might learn a thing or two given a few years of distance, and either way, it’ll be better than pitching thinly disguised stories about a writing professional who hates the professionalization of writing. All of my writer friends feel the same about their jobs, but none of them are passive-aggressive or ironic enough to actually approach their editors with such a story idea. I guess I should say “most” and not “all”, especially since I sleep beside a German academic with an appreciation for specificity, but come to think of it, all of my writer friends really do share my rapidly dwindling faith in the media and publishing industry.

Earlier this August, the Hound and I were in Fire Island for ten days with ten books. The only one that got cracked open was The Bell Jar. Sylvia Plath was my sole like-minded companion in the darkest hours of my adolescence. She was the author who defined my girlhood by defying hers, and after I discovered her memoir at the age of 15, I had an annual habit of revisiting its pages. I don’t know why I ever stopped. Plath makes me think about a part of myself that I haven’t had opportunity to consider anymore, especially as the topics of my writing have become more professional, legitimate, closer to the mainstream. Look at my portfolio; I never really wanted any of this for myself. I wanted to write, yes, and I like “networking” if what you mean is finger food and compliments from strangers, but the travel, events, business cards, etc.? I spend more time on my Twitter stream than I do on stream-of-consciousness.

I knew by the time I graduated college in 2010 that I didn’t want any of the things I thought I wanted all through my undergraduate years at Harvard. The only reason I pursued any sort of career in the traditional sense was because I needed to insulate myself from cyber bullies who couldn’t get over the fact that I wrote a sex blog when I was 19. Why should I have to encourage people to forget that I ever appeared naked on the Internet in order to have them take my writing seriously? Moreover, my genius plot didn’t even fucking work. I’m 25 now, and they are still not bored of stalking and defaming me or my friends or my boyfriend or my family. And last year, they moved on to stalking my readers by outing anyone who commented on, reblogged, or liked my posts. I felt like I gave up a part of myself for nothing. Ever since the harassment has escalated, I have lost any desire to blog most days - and I’m sure my lack of enthusiasm showed in less frequent and less substantial updates this year. I felt the walls creeping up and the confines of my career closing in every time I signed another contract for another gig I didn’t really want to take.

I burned out. I put away my unfinished memoir. I started a novel. I decided I needed to get the hell out of America. I wanted to break up with my life. I read the first page of The Bell Jar.

On Fire Island, I spent the first half of my vacation being mildly irritated that there was no Internet or cell phone reception, despite the fact that I specifically wanted to visit Fire Island to escape Internet and cell phone reception. I was generally displeased by my then-unresolved housing situation, my two-week separation from Patrick (who was obtaining a visa in Germany to stay in the U.S.), and my utter inability to make progress on my novel and the three or four creative writing pieces I’ve been working on since the beginning of 2012.

Then Patrick arrived (by ferry) and brought with him foodstuffs, supplies, and the best birthday present ever. But I cannot reveal the latter for fear that it will not come to past! So, instead on this 25th year of life, I am belatedly sharing the above photograph (taken by Patrick) and the excerpt (written by me). The latter comes from an unfinished short story about six people trying to find a home during an unusually hot summer. It’s my first adult attempt at writing fiction, and I’ll think about trying to get it published somewhere when it’s complete, but mostly, I’m just curious to see how the writing process plays out. I’m writing this one for me, and the mere notion of trying to price something like this, to figure out its market value - well, it’s absurd, but so is the rest of capitalism.

I know now for certain that my writer’s block is over, because I know that I can and I will and I want to finish writing this story. I need to, because it not only tells the tale of this summer, but the story of my young adulthood, the story of this entire year and my entire life, the story of The Bell Jar and what it means to me. If I can finish this, I can finish my book. There are things I want to accomplish here, things I want to say about literature in general, and things I have wanted to say about myself but have always been too scared to reveal. Writing this short story is both personal challenge and tribute. How better else to thank the poet whose single novel saved my life countless times over than by proving with text the suspicion that she must have always nursed, the contradiction that marked her career - that in the end, genre is just a state of mind, and the truth - or what it is we call “the truth” - lies not in words but in the spaces between the lines.

"The years that are gone seem like dreams—if one might go on sleeping and dreaming—but to wake up and find—oh! well! perhaps it is better to wake up after all, even to suffer, rather than to remain a dupe to illusions all one’s life."

–Kate Chopin, The Awakening

Taken on the Beech Forest Trail in Provincetown. It’s been great to be spending time outdoors with the dog lately. My trips to the Cape and to Vermont finally offered some quiet, a much-needed respite from city living. It’s too bad the more scenic parts of New England get so much tourism during the summer. Between all holiday weekends, Back Bay foot traffic, and Harvard commencement (today!), I’ve had my fill of crowds. One day, I’ll have to try zip-lining, apple-picking, and all those traditional autumn activities…

Wish I could put up an electronic version of a Gone Fishin’ sign. (Well, I guess that would be a vacation auto-responder ….) Anyhow, I am spending the week in Manchester, Vermont with the roommate and the dog. We’re doing some post-dissertation hiking before his entire German family descends upon Boston for commencement festivities.

I can’t believe half the year is already over and I am still not done with this damn novel. Bostonians: any good recommendations for cafes where I can jab at my keyboard for hours undisrupted? Wifi totally not a must.

My friends and I do this thing where we celebrate all major events/reunions by making pies. Mostly, this is because we have an expert baker in our group who single-handedly produces pie spreads like this one. I, on the other hand, can only make one type - key lime! - which I argue is the best kind, though some people dispute its status as a pie given its short baking time (blasphemy, I say!). I have produced key lime pie for a myriad of special occasions, including my dog’s birthday and finals period. Given that it is also Kennedy’s favorite, it seemed appropriate for the festivities :)

P.S. I use the Pioneer Woman key lime recipe and top off the pie with no whipped cream and a ton of lime zest.

In DC visiting one of my besties from college. Folks came from six different states to surprise the birthday girl :) I’m in town until tomorrow and then headed back to Boston where I need to get many life things in order.

(Yes, Kennedy is wearing an 80s prom dress. This is because she is awesome.)

Had to get the Roomie out of town after the dissertation was turned in, so we drove to Provincetown to spend some beach time with the pup and mentally regroup before summer.

Photo credit: Patrick Hamm

ON THE MOVE… So earlier this year, I committed to several speaking gigs but thanks to my totally unexpected creative resurgence, I am just getting around to blocking out my calendar for the rest of the spring, booking travel, and finishing taxes, because apparently, I am an adult now and I can’t indefinitely put off this stuff even if I’m on a writing spree.

Next weekend - I’m doing two workshops at Rutgers University but I have to hop into NYC first (because there’s no way to get to New Brunswick directly from Boston). Then on April 1, I’m headed to California to speak at Sex Tech (in SF) and Pomona College (in LA). I’ll post precise dates and details when I’ve got them figured out. In the meantime, I’m just trying to fit in book work whenever I’m home.

No time to blog, so please accept the above pretentious photo of last night’s outfit in lieu of content!

Anatomy of the Outfit: leggings by Silence + Noise, coat by Hanii Y, top by John Galliano, heels from vintage shop in Berlin, and convertible clutch/tote from Charming Charlie (a #SXSW freebie).

Hands down, my favorite part of the all-too-brief trip to Shanghai: our little sojourn to 50 Moganshan Road, a group of warehouses transformed into contemporary art galleries. It still carries some remnants of its indie past, but has clearly become increasingly developed over the years. I got a bunch of postcards from my favorite exhibitions, including Yu Lin’s Red Guards series and Xuanmin Jin’s Shikumen series. Sadly, we didn’t spend as much time in the galleries as I would have liked, since most were closed for the Lunar New Year. When I next find myself in Shanghai, though, this will definitely be a major to-do item.

(The photos above were snapped inside the galleries and during our walk through the art district’s graffiti lined streets.)