Mimi Zhu On Grief, Chosen Family, & Writing In The Instagram Age
A candid chat with the popular author ahead of the publication of their debut book, Be Not Afraid of Love.
In Be Not Afraid of Love: Lessons on Fear, Intimacy, and Connection, Chinese-Australian author Mimi Zhu translates the thought-provoking, text-based work they have become known for on Instagram into a book filled with wisdom, imagination, and tips for healing. The message of the book is clear in the title itself, as Zhu weaves together memoir and reflection on a range of topics, including grief, intimacy, anxiety, PTSD, romance, and vulnerability, that all relate back to the central theme of love.
In a culture that’s so often focused on productivity and transaction, Zhu’s work stands out for its centering of relationships beyond the narrow binary of traditional romance. Even amid the waterfall of Instagram accounts focused on mental health, Zhu’s messages have a certain clarity and warmth that make you feel like you’re listening to a close friend. In Be Not Afraid of Love, Zhu expands on their familiar themes around chosen family, how friendships become community in unexpected places (like the dance floor), and how working on oneself can sometimes end up healing intergenerational trauma. The 28-year-old artist and I met at a cafe in Bed-Stuy on a hot summer day to chat ahead of their book release (out via Penguin Random House on Aug. 23), and discussed everything from grief to learning the biggest lessons from your friends. Their wisdom is sophisticated in that it weaves together often-forgotten common sense truisms — like the need for clear communication in conflict for intimacy to thrive — with the profound realizations of an artist whose grown a massive audience on Instagram, a platform that typically flattens, rather than deepens insight.
Read on for our chat about Be Not Afraid of Love, now in bookstores everywhere:
What does it feel like now that your book is finally going to come out?
It feels really surreal. It’s definitely been a roller coaster of emotions, especially experiencing some imposter syndrome at the beginning. A lot of my work has been seen through Instagram, which is such a blessing, and I love using that tool. At the same time, I really want people to see beyond what I share within the dimensions that I post online, but obviously doing that requires a lot of vulnerability.
What I do post on Instagram scratches the surface of what I care about and then relates to my personal experience. And this book very directly tells my deep, personal story of survival, which is extremely nerve-wracking to write. While at the same time, as a writer, I don’t think I could write about anything else. I have to write about my experience, my survival, my life. So it’s also been extremely joyful, liberating and healing. It’s a mixture of emotions — it's been beautiful and scary, but kind of like my messaging in the book, I’m learning to sit with the fear and just allow what happens to happen and what’s to come to arrive.
As a writer working in memoir, how do you navigate writing about people you know and real life events?
I love this question because it feels like it’s one thing releasing a book to the world and for a lot of people that I don’t personally have relationships with to read it, but it’s another to have the people who have been by my side, who have held my hand in the last five turbulent years, read it. Yesterday, I got a box of advanced final copies, and I wrote some letters to people to give them as gifts. And I gave one to my absolute best friend soulmate yesterday. It was such an emotional feeling, seeing them hold it, because not only are they going to read something that they’re actually familiar with on an experience level, from what I’ve very immediately shared with them and cried to them about, but also there’s just absolute gratitude that somebody who has helped me write this book is reading it and is holding it in their hands. It’s just such an intimate experience. My acknowledgement section is so freaking long. It’s just so many names. And I really want to make sure that I included as many people as I could because they allowed me to come into my healing.
You’ve had the Instagram account for several years — how have you seen that community grow?
I’ve been writing for a long time, but taking the step to post publicly was a really big one. Privately, I’ve been writing for 10, 15 years now. I’ve always had journals that I really am devoted to writing in every single day as much as I can. But obviously I think taking your work out of a journal and sharing it is again such an intimidating experience. I think all writers should start with stream of consciousness writing, getting that energy out. For me, it was always an energy release, and it was really helpful because I knew and felt so safe in the fact that nobody would be reading it. But interestingly enough, because I had felt no pressure and I felt no eyes on my work, I would write some of the best stuff that I’ve ever written.
I think it’s really interesting how the truth feels the most free when I don’t feel surveilled. And so I found that transferring that skill into sharing was daunting at first, but I’ve really learned how to just be completely honest in what I share publicly because of the reception that I’ve gotten. I’ve realized that the posts that people resonate with the most are the most honest — the ones where I’m talking about my insecurities or my jealousies or my intrusive thoughts. And at first I think I wrote a little more surface level than that, more general, but as I’ve kind of been running this account and doing my newsletters for a while, I’ve really found that people resonate the most with when I reveal how messy my emotions are and how insecure I can be, how complicated my healing has been instead of me portraying some kind of picture-perfect reality of myself.
We live in a very complicated world, so I’m going to talk about my complicated feelings. I think people receive that so well because it almost feels like I’m saying what feels unarticulated or feels like something that people can’t admit to. But actually a lot of us are feeling this way. Not only that, but why are we feeling this way? It’s because a lot of us have been conditioned to do so.
Your posts seem to stand out more because of the platform they’re on — a really deep thought about insecurity will be sandwiched between posts of people being a little more fake. Does the platform itself influence how you think about what you post?
Yeah, honestly, at first, I would spiral about it a lot. I think it was pretty sudden, the virality, which I think is very common now, especially on TikTok. Suddenly being perceived, and not only perceived but being projected on, is such an intense experience. So at first, honestly I was like, “Oh, I can’t handle this. I don't know how to manage this.” But then now I have really strict, good boundaries with it. Where the like count is off, notifications are off. The only time that I really connect with people is when I respond to their DMs and stuff. But even then, I really try not to check them that often.
Becoming more popular on the platform actually really made me interrogate my boundaries with it at the same time. Because truthfully what I write about is about being present and living and loving and being in community. And I cannot really do that if I’m just online all the time. While I’m so grateful to be meeting the community online, a lot of the time, extending that beyond the Internet world has been really what I want to do. So I’m super grateful for Instagram as a platform while at the same time, as with a lot of things we love, boundaries are really necessary.
How did you end up translating these shorter form posts into a whole book?
It was a wild dream of mine. And I think the most private writing that I did was specifically surrounding very visceral experiences and memories that I have, especially surrounding my abuse, surrounding survival. I was always writing in private. I would go to the water, usually in Williamsburg, and just write by myself, literally thinking that no one would ever read it.
It was definitely a healing thing for myself, as a release. But the same time I was, I really did want to tell this story one day in a long-form manner. I think now is a time that I was actually ready to use that story, but then also intertwine it with a lot of the other lessons I’ve learned in the past few years, especially being in community, actually living instead of just theorizing my experiences, actually being really present in them, going to monasteries and being on dance floors with my queer families or going through my intergenerational healing process with my mother.
You write a lot about healing and trauma and especially grief, both online and in the book. How do you think we should be navigating the kind of on-going grief we’re all processing, seemingly all the time?
I wrote in Be Not Afraid of Love about grief and I actually have to come back to it a lot, because I forget sometimes that, like you said, we are all going through grief on a collective level and also on a personal level. What I write in the book is how important it is to attend the funerals, to attend these very personal funerals of ours and to grieve fully. Obviously grieving is not easy nor romanticized. And we require so much support during our grieving processes, but at the same time, I think pushing grief away can actually be very harmful to the self, to others as well. And I think we saw that during the pandemic — how there was so much grief and some of it actually went unprocessed, without support, came out as violence in pain and projection.
For, especially as we navigate this together, quite publicly too, I think it’s important that we understand the ceremonies that we have to partake in, that we have to practice with each other in order to understand the depth of our grief and what we want to use that energy towards.
I think grief is really just a reflection of the depth of love. And when you move into that center, what can you use that loving energy for? How do you mobilize that to honor the people that we’ve lost or to shift the circumstances that we live in? Because sometimes the grief is about planet earth, and it’s about watching global warming or the trees dying, et cetera. So it’s, I love Earth so much, and I’m grieving so much about it. What can I do to make sure that we don’t lose her? So I think for grief, we need to constantly hold these funerals while at the same time, understanding the energy that comes out of grief and how we can use that to control what we can, when sometimes with loss, we can’t control a lot, but I do think we still have agency when it comes to grieving.
Who are some of your favorite thinkers and teachers who you’ve learned from?
Researching the book was really fun because I got to read all my favorite authors. So some key players are definitely bell hooks, Thich Nhat Hanh, Audre Lorde, Bayo Akomolafe — a lot of thought leaders, teachers who have just shown me how their minds work and how in relation to the world they are. I could list out literally a million people, but I also want to definitely center my friends. My friends are absolutely my biggest teachers because I write about relational work so much. I write about being in relations. I write about love. And I don't know a better teacher than someone that I'm in a loving relation with, in who I move through conflict with. Who I have misunderstanding with, who I embrace, who I miss. People that I am in community with, especially people of color, who have really taught me what love can be.
I think I was really stuck on love just being romance for a long time. This very heteronormative lens of only having one lover, one person, whatever. And that has shifted so dramatically for me over the last five years. Love is literally all around me all the time. It's within me. And it's a practice, like bell hooks said: It's a verb. It's something that we do with each other and experiment with, especially considering we haven't really been taught the widest scope of what love can be. So honestly, my platonic lovers, my intimate friends, my community, my chosen family. Those are the people who are my greatest teachers of all.
When did the concept of chosen family become part of your life, and how do you nurture those bonds?
I think chosen family was definitely introduced to me because of Black and brown people of color, because a lot of the time queer people do not have access to healthy biological family dynamics or come from really abusive homes. So not only finding people to build family with but completely re-imagining what family is, is such a beautiful life-changing lesson that I've learned. I've definitely navigated a lot of painful family stuff that I'm actively healing with them, with my biological family. And I'm so grateful for the chance to be able to do that. And for the privilege I have in that, while at the same time, I could not have healed with my biological family if it wasn't for my chosen one because they taught me how to communicate openly. They've taught me how to move through conflict without being violent.
A lot of the ways that I try to show up for my chosen family is just by going really deep with them, and checking in with how they really are instead of how I want them to be in my life. And never treating anyone like they're disposable, and understanding how complicated we all are as people. And, of course, they offer that so generously to me as well. I've definitely messed up in my friendships and I've made mistakes, but the fact that I'm still friends with so many of the same people that I was when I first arrived in this country and we still just navigate through loving.
There’s this trend lately, especially among online mental health communities, of encouraging cutting people off or walking away from anything that’s “not serving you.”
It's actually quite complicated because I think I go through phases sometimes where one moment I'll be “No, you're cut,” whatever. And then the next I'm “Oh, but people are not disposable.” It can be both ends, where, for example, if it's someone who you truly are realizing is causing you harm and has no accountability, then by all means for your own self-preservation, for your own healing, that relationship is no longer healthy. Maybe it needs some time. Maybe it needs some space, but I don't think that relationship can continue if there is no accountability or efforts there or if you've just tried so hard and there's just nothing you can do anymore.
While on the other hand, in the end, in the both ends of it, I also believe there's some people who are willing to try with you and they make mistakes, but if they do have a level of accountability. Similarly, if I have a level of accountability, there's like this mutual willingness to keep trying, then I don't believe that people should be cut off that easily. So I think it's deeply circumstantial, but I have always had an issue with the phrase “If they don't serve you, cut them off.” Nobody is born to serve anyone. I think we're here to be in relation with each other and every relationship is circumstantial to how you want to continue, how you want to nourish, or how you want to separate and detach. I think it's very much depending on the specific dynamics.
What are you seeing for your future? What do you want to do next?
I want to write more books. I think the whole process is delicious. And it just felt really embodied, especially because it's such a dream to write about what I care about. It definitely wasn't easy, but it felt enjoyable because I'm such a nerd and I was able to read writers and thought leaders who I just have always wanted to learn from. And then on top of that, just access these parts of myself that I've always wanted to be close to as well. And seeing it come into a body of work is beautiful. So I loved that process and I want to keep doing that. And that might be on the way. And I would definitely want to write movies.