Q&A: Durga Chew-Bose on family, gender, womanhood and race

Chew-Bose's collection of essays will leave you thinking about life’s great questions—and its small, secret moments

Durga Chew-Bose. (Carrie Cheek)

Durga Chew-Bose. (Carrie Cheek)

The first book by Montreal-born, Brooklyn-based writer Durga Chew-Bose is an intense, thought-provoking, paradigm-questioning essay collection that takes singular moments and memories from the writer’s life and broadens them into broader reflections on various issues. The pieces in Too Much and Not In The Mood explore family, gender, womanhood, race (the author’s parents immigrated to Canada from India)—even particular words and sounds.

In the essay “Some Things I Cannot Unhear,” for instance, Chew-Bose moves from talking about basketball player Allen Iverson repeatedly saying the word “practice” at his famous 2002 press conference after his team was ousted from the NBA playoffs to the startling sound of silence when her mother, aunt and stepmother were dressing her deceased grandmother in a sari in a funeral home. Whatever Chew-Bose happens to be exploring, it’s the writing itself that is particularly enchanting. Adept at using but also challenging the parameters of the personal essay style, she takes her readers through stories that twist and meander—especially the first, longest essay in the book, “Heart Museum.” It starts with an emoji and ends in a Mumbai hospital, where the author visits her “cousin’s husband’s mother” who is recovering from heart surgery.

Chew-Bose takes you into her life, but what’s really interesting is that she leads you back into your own, turning the proverbial lightbulb on again and again. Heady and provocative, this collection will leave you thinking about life’s great questions as well as its small, secret moments. The conversation with Chew-Bose has been edited for length.

Q: I was really struck by your ability to conjure so many interesting, startling images. A lot of the times I would get impressions or ideas, something that would feel like, ‘Wow, that’s a really perfect way of describing something.” One example comes at the end of “Heart Museum” when you talk about “the power that composes me when I walk down the aisle of a moving train.” How do you take those experiences and distill them so beautifully and in such an interesting way?

A: Thanks, and that’s a really good question because it’s something that, especially in the interviewing process leading up to the book coming up, has come up a couple times. I’m finding it sort of tricky to answer it because so much of the writing process for me feels a bit unconscious. Like I might have a tally of all these moments built up in my head or in notebooks that I can store in the back of my mind thinking maybe one day they’ll make themselves useful to me. But when it actually comes down to the psychic space between my mind and my blinking cursor I almost feel like all intentions disappear a little bit and so I think it’s more a question of choice and deciding what risks I can take, and I’m using the word risk very liberally—risk in terms of pairing images that otherwise might not necessarily carry the same weight or sentiment, like in that section particularly [of the essay “Heart Museum”] I have a whole list of images that people might not usually associate with each other but for me conjure a similar kind of mix of stability and instability. So much of the writing and doing is occurring when I’m not writing. So I feel in some ways it is deliberate but deliberate over time and then when the actual moment comes to write it’s sort of free of plans.

Q: Another thing I wanted to ask you about was the personal essay style, because you do talk in a few places in the book about feeling somewhat at odds with that style, yet you are using it. You do mention editors in the past who have pushed you to “claim the I.” And you ask in the book, “How can I contain all of my many fragments and contradictions and more so all of me that is undiscovered?” I thought that was a really interesting way of putting it—in a personal essay, you speak from the position of the “I,” but it’s interesting to look at it in a way that sees that the “I” might not be fully realized. So my question is: do you think you’ll always be at odds with that personal essay style?

A: I hope so. I think what keeps me at odds with it is what keeps me attracted to it. If I get too comfortable with it I probably will stop doing it, or I’ll get bored of it. What I like about it—me as a writer—is I like to manage the personal essay writing space as a space where I can divulge but also still remain very private about myself. I like kind of balancing on that line. Even when I feel like I’m giving a lot, I then hold myself back and then I wait a moment and give more. I’m even careful to do that within each essay. How much am I sharing and then how much am I sharing by actually holding back a lot? And so I think my discomfort with the personal essay is also just my discomfort with sharing a lot of myself. As a writer I think that what that does is that it requires of me kind of an alertness in terms of understanding how you can create a lot of room on the page with a sense of absence and missing.

Q: Do you feel like that’s contrary to what people think of when they think of the personal essay these days?

A: For sure. I definitely think there’s a stigma right now. There’s a lot of personal essay collections coming out and I think there’s this association that it’s kind of books about abundance, and whatever people want to define oversharing as, emotions stamped on the page. I don’t really have much of an opinion about all that other than to say I’m a bit wary of myself and my own writing doing that.

Q: You evoke quite a bit of feeling in the essays but it seems to me like a kind of affect or feeling that has been deeply thought through. Do you always know where you want to arrive in an essay or what kinds of feelings you’re trying to evoke?

A: I want to say yes, I know, but of course I don’t. The reason I want to say yes I know is because I actually really admire writers who will say that they were surprised by how something ended—and I’m talking strictly about essay writing in this case. They were surprised by how they began somewhere and then ended elsewhere, because in some ways I feel like on the page it might seem that I’m doing that, but I’m writing to some faraway distance where I’ve already kind of put down a flag. Even if I’m not, again, totally conscious about it. In “Heart Museum,” for instance, even the expression, let’s call it “heart museum,” the way the essay ends reveals as to where that came from. I’ve carried that moment in the Mumbai auto rickshaw in my mind for more than 10 years now and so, in some ways, I knew that I would have to land there and how many flips and turns and somersaults it would take for me to get there was up to, again, that unconscious space. But I think there was a part of me that probably always knew that I would have to land in that more narrative ending because that would help me finally choose the essay’s final exhale.

Q: The other thing I wanted to ask you about was the passage of time, feelings of nostalgia, memory, the desire to arrive at a future moment, your family’s history, private time and public time—all of these things seem to be coming up in your writing, even in the very last line of the book. Is time important to you? Or thinking about it? And if so, why is working through ideas of time something you’re interested in doing?

A: That’s a really good question. Why am I preoccupied by time? I think we all are, kind of. Right? Even the people who believe that time is just a circle or whatever expression people want to use. People say age is nothing but a number, all that stuff. I think it preoccupies us because we are human beings who want to connect and who want to make stuff and want to maybe perhaps outlast ourselves. We want to experience as much as we can and that’s so dependent on how much time we have, but I think it’s also just honestly a consequence of getting older and realizing I have less time with certain people in my life. It’s just kind of always on my mind—but not in a way that’s obsessive. I don’t have a constant ticking in my head. I’m not preoccupied by time in a way that I think is crippling. I think I’m preoccupied by time in a way that I think is very open, and I can be a very nostalgic person who is equally very curious about the unknown future. I don’t think I’m burdened by it necessarily, and I think it’s also because there’s something sad about time. I think there’s something underlyingly a bit overcast about some of my writing, even the happier parts, and I think that’s probably my relationship with time. Time more as something tenuous as opposed to time that’s like possibility. So maybe that’s it. I think it’s more like time as mood, as obnoxious as that sounds.

Q: I think that makes a lot of sense and actually my next question relates to the idea of inheritance, which I feel also comes up now and again in the essays, especially in “Tan Lines,” where you say, “Inheritance has never simply been what trickles down through the traditions, but also the work required to disallow how those traditions fade.” You have some examples in that particular essay, for example drinking hot beverages in the summer to cool down like your parents do – that kind of thing. How do you grapple with the various inheritances as a first-generation person being in what you call a “two-pronged” world?

A: How do I grapple with it? I guess I’m less and less grappling with it probably because I’ve written this one collection and it really gave me a time to consider and situate myself in terms of where my parents are from, as opposed to just using it as an identifier or qualifier your whole life. This really gave me an opportunity to just sit in it. Part of it is this mix of understanding and deep respect for my parents—that they’re from somewhere else and what does that mean, and it’s gratefulness too, but it’s also just understanding that they have this whole story, this whole other half of their life that is completely different than what mine was.

The funny thing about it is for them it’s mainly their childhood and their teenage years and young adulthood, so if anything it’s also fun for me to think about because it’s thinking about your parents before you existed. Thinking about when they were children and when they were small. In some ways for me it’s also just fun to think about because not only is it interesting to think about your parents before you were even a possibility for them, it’s about thinking of your parents in a completely different country and with a completely different expectation or idea of the unknown and where they would end up. So it’s that, too. It’s just pure fascination and it’s the way one is purely fascinated. And when I say pure, I mean fascinate as the root of fascination. Like when you love someone you want to know where they came from. The older I get the more I’m interested not just in that aspect of their lives but how I can continue it in the future for them.

Q: You talk in one of the essays about a woman’s inner life is something she “lugs around or holds in like fumes that both poison and bless her while nourishing another’s inner life, many others’ actually, while never revealing too much madness,” and I thought that was a very poignant way of describing what it was like to be a woman. It made me think: how do you think women can deal with these circumstances?

A: I think by becoming a little bit mad, honestly. I think a little bit of madness is very useful. Also there’s the regenerative powers of being a woman who can have her life, protect her interiority, express her interiority, but also have this ability to care for others and be sensitive to others, and have these instincts that are inborn. I don’t know. I mean I’m just so impressed most of the time by all the women in my life. But I think there’s a certain strain of madness that is really useful and also really comforting because it means that you have been pushed to your brink in so many aspects of your life but then you kind of convert that into an energy or something.

Q: That makes sense and actually, my last question for you is, reading the book I was struck at how you were able to be in dialogue with so many other writers and artists and even the title of the book with its reference to Virginia Woolf. Who is influencing you at the moment, artists from the past and the present?

A: Let me think. I was actually just reading [dancer, choreographer, filmmaker] Yvonne Rainer’s memoir Feelings Are Facts. I was pretty moved by that—that’s a memoir I just finished that I really love. I really enjoyed Elif Batuman’s The Idiot, which I finished recently. It’s her first novel and it’s semi-autobiographical, and it’s about a character’s time at Harvard. Why I was influenced by it, though, what I was really moved by, was Batuman’s ability to be funny without setting up a joke. The fact that humans are odd, weird creatures and if you observe another human that’s funny enough, and observing another human’s ticks or ways of saying can be funny. I was really charmed by her sense of humour.

I’m teaching this semester [at Sarah Lawrence College], so right now the students are reading Jamaica Kincaid’s Talk Stories, which are Talk of the Town pieces for The New Yorker that were collected in a book. Actually, the conversation that I had in class with my students yesterday was one of the most energized ones we’ve had in a long time, and I think it was because we were reading a writer whose voice is so strong and commands your attention, but it also has a lot of attitude. I think right now I’m particularly drawn to anybody, any artist who has a lot of attitude, and by attitude I don’t necessarily mean bad or good attitude, just that they have a kind of generosity of spirit but also seem sparked by the world, and also are willing to have their own flare. Anyone who’s confident in their opinions right now is a real turn on for me. So, yeah, those are three but I could go on and on. Obviously, film is a huge influence of mine and so I’m constantly thinking about all the filmmakers who I return to because I’m so much more able to function in the day when I’ve seen a good movie. I don’t know what it is. It makes me feel like I can create stuff but it also makes me feel like it’s okay to be a human with faults and I usually feel that way the most after seeing a movie. There’s so many filmmakers that do that for me, as well. I think I’m a bit of a sponge so when it comes to influence; I’m very comfortable being under the influence of a lot of people.

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