ALISSA McARTHUR

Scaachi Koul: On Writ­ing About Fam­ily and Try­ing to Keep Se­crets

Room Magazine - - CONTENTS - ALISSA McARTHUR

Scaachi Koul is a Cana­dian jour­nal­ist who cur­rently works as a cul­ture writer at Buz­zFeed. Cov­er­ing ev­ery­thing from the state of Cana­dian me­dia to adult sum­mer camps to racist mar­ket­ing in the beauty in­dus­try, Koul’s writ­ing is as thought­ful as it is funny. Her out­spo­ken on­line pres­ence has earned her an im­pres­sive Twit­ter fol­low­ing and a rep­u­ta­tion as an incisive cultural com­men­ta­tor. Koul’s first book, One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter (Dou­ble­day, 2017), is a sharp and poignant es­say col­lec­tion that cov­ers fam­ily, friend­ship, racism, im­mi­gra­tion, rape cul­ture, and on­line ha­rass­ment. Her writ­ing has also ap­peared in The Guardian, The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Huff­in­g­ton Post, Flare, and The Wal­rus. Koul grew up in Cal­gary and stud­ied jour­nal­ism at Ry­er­son Univer­sity in Toronto, where she still lives. In the fol­low­ing in­ter­view, Koul speaks to Room about writ­ing her first book, keep­ing fam­ily se­crets, and why rep­re­sen­ta­tion mat­ters.

ROOM: Walk me through your process of writ­ing es­says.

SK: I think about some­thing that makes me mad, and then I write about it. I’m not a very or­ga­nized writer. I don’t cre­ate out­lines. I think when we were start­ing the book—I al­ways say “we” because my ed­i­tors were ex­tremely ele­men­tal in the de­vel­op­ment of it—the pro­posal was com­pletely dif­fer­ent from what ended up be­ing the book. I don’t know if that’s com­mon. But I was so happy with the way it turned out. I think my ini­tial idea was more slight than what the book ended up be­ing. We knew there were themes we wanted to hit. And think­ing about those themes, I knew of anec­dotes that could help tease [the themes] out. It came to­gether quite or­gan­i­cally. Although, at the time, I re­mem­ber feel­ing great panic that I would not be able to fill this word re­quire­ment. They give you a con­tract that says 60,000 words, and you’re like, “How? I don’t un­der­stand.” And then two years go by and then, “Ooh, al­right.”

ROOM: You have a lot to say.

SK: Turns out!

ROOM: What I loved about your book is that it was so co­he­sive—even while dis­cussing dif­fer­ent top­ics you ex­plored the same as­pects in dif­fer­ent ways.

SK: Thanks! I’m glad that worked.

ROOM: I’m won­der­ing how you wove this co­her­ent nar­ra­tive to­gether.

SK: Some of [the es­says] re­quired a lot of work. The last es­say in the col­lec­tion [“Any­way”] was the last thing I had writ­ten for my book. And that’s the one about my dad and the silent treat­ment. I wrote in pieces. I would write an es­say, and I would give it [to the ed­i­tors], and at the end we read all of them and made sure it felt like there was a thread go­ing through. So, it was a lot of fine-tun­ing and re­mind­ing you about peo­ple you read about two es­says ago. And the book is ba­si­cally chrono­log­i­cal, which helps.

But, again, that’s the work of a re­ally good ed­i­tor. I was ex­tremely con­cerned about it be­ing repet­i­tive. And I was worried about it be­ing dis­parate. So, I was try­ing to walk this line of, I don’t want you to feel like you’re read­ing the same thing over again, but if you’re just read­ing a block of es­says that have noth­ing to do with each other . . . And there were lots of es­says we killed. I had lots of ideas, where I was like, “What about this?” And they said, “Why?” “Good point! I don’t know!” Maybe that’s for another time, or maybe that’s for the In­ter­net, where one thing can live and float into the ether and not matter in a larger con­text. You can’t re­ally do that with a book. Also, when you try and get peo­ple to buy an es­say col­lec­tion, you have to give them a theme. Peo­ple don’t re­ally know me. [Joan] Did­ion can just say, “Here’s a book of stuff that I’m feel­ing.” David Sedaris just re­leased a col­lec­tion of diary blurbs. And cool, they can do that, because you are in­ter­ested in their brain. No one’s in­ter­ested in my brain like that. I have to give you con­text, and I have to give you a theme. So, if you’re not in­ter­ested in sto­ries about fam­ily, you can put the book down. If you don’t want to read about be­ing lonely and feel­ing some way about iden­tity, or wom­an­hood, or race, you can put the book down. At least I give you some­thing to cling to. Peo­ple don’t like talk­ing about the mar­ket­ing of books, but it’s im­por­tant. It mat­ters, and I’m re­ally happy because noth­ing about the mar­ket­ing or the sale or the ad­ver­tis­ing or the pack­ag­ing of my book feels disin­gen­u­ous. At no point was there any­thing where I’m like, “This is some weird mar­ket­ing speak.” I’ve never had to do that.

ROOM: The cover is spot-on.

SK: Yeah! I love the cover. That’s Scott Richard­son at Ran­dom House Canada. He did a good job.

ROOM: You write so per­son­ally about your fam­ily. In one in­ter­view you said that in or­der to feel like you can write freely, “I have to write like they’re al­ready dead.”

SK: I said that at a live event while they were in the au­di­ence, and I was like “Ugh, this isn’t work­ing.” [Laughs]

ROOM: But how do you achieve that dis­tance when you’re writ­ing? SK: My mom doesn’t seek my work out un­less I send it to her. My dad does. This took a re­ally long time, but there’s an un­der­stand­ing that this work isn’t for them. There are go­ing to be nar­ra­tives that they don’t agree with. The truth is sub­jec­tive in these cases. I can say that I wrote hon­estly. But is it the truth? De­pends on who you ask, I think. I’m sure there are peo­ple who read it and dis­agree with my in­ter­pre­ta­tion of what hap­pened. My dad didn’t read the book, because I think he knew it would make him squea­mish. Not for the de­tails about him, because he loves at­ten­tion. He’d be chuffed. But more because I don’t think my dad wants to read about my bushy vagina. I don’t think he wants to read the de­tails about my labia, or when I started mas­tur­bat­ing. These are not sto­ries my near-sev­enty-year-old fa­ther is like, “Yes, that’s what I want be­fore my death, is to read these de­tails.” So, I think it cre­ated some space. And because my day job is jour­nal­ism, I get to give them this thing that I’m not re­ally in and say, “Just read this re­port­ing and be happy.” Ad­mit­tedly, there are tons, tons, of sto­ries that I will not tell un­til they are dead. Lots. And not just about them but about me as well, or about peo­ple in the fam­ily, or peo­ple I know. There are lots of things I won’t write just because I don’t want to an­swer that ques­tion. These things aren’t go­ing away, and I don’t need to [write about them] all in my twen­ties, so I’ll wait. I think if you write and you’re not a lit­tle un­com­fort­able, it’s not work­ing. You should feel some­what sickly about what­ever per­verted things you’re putting to­gether.

ROOM: And the reader should also feel chal­lenged.

SK: Yeah, you should feel a lit­tle queasy. I don’t see any­thing wrong with that.

ROOM: That’s how you learn [laughs].

SK: I hope you feel nau­seous. . . . This is a ter­ri­ble in­ter­view.

ROOM: [Laughs] In your book, you wrote about how you hid your re­la­tion­ship from your par­ents for years, and the emo­tional fall­out. What was it like to have such a big se­cret?

SK: It was easy! It was breezy. I was so used to it.

ROOM: Because you were far away in another city?

SK: Yeah, because I was far, and because I was used to keep­ing se­crets from them. I’m not good at think­ing ahead. Gen­er­ally speak­ing, I can’t think more than a week in ad­vance. It’s my best and worst qual­ity. Because I can very much work on this thing . . . or I can be at this party, I can live in those spaces, but then if you’re like, “What’s your five-year plan?” I’m like, “How old am I now? I’ll be thirty-one? I don’t know.” So, I found it quite breezy [to keep the se­cret] because I never needed to think about [the re­la­tion­ship] get­ting se­ri­ous because I don’t need to think ahead. Which is frus­trat­ing for ev­ery­body else in my sphere—I was hav­ing a fine time.

ROOM: So, it was more the after­math that was prob­lem­atic.

SK: Right, because then the other prob­lem is, when I was in the shit with my fam­ily, and they were up­set, or my dad was giv­ing me the silent treat­ment of the cen­tury, I couldn’t see be­yond that mo­ment of an­guish. Ev­ery­thing felt iso­lated in that mo­ment. Two weeks be­fore, when they didn’t know, I told my­self, I can do this for­ever. This is go­ing to be fine. And then I fi­nally tell them. It was a while, ad­mit­tedly [be­fore they came around]. For my mother it was a cou­ple months, and not like a year. But with her, be­ing in those few months, I was like, This is for the rest of my fuck­ing life. This is what she’s go­ing to be like. Which is not true. But I can’t think ahead. But keep­ing the lie was fine. And when my mother came into town I would be like [to my boyfriend], “Don’t call me,” and I’d hide things. It was like be­ing in high school and still liv­ing at home and hav­ing con­doms in your room, and be­ing like, I’ll put them in this book that my mom doesn’t care about. It was easy for me, but it was hard for ev­ery­body else. Because I didn’t have to deal with the consequences. My part­ner suf­fered—I mean I should prob­a­bly apol­o­gize . . . what­ever, he’s fine [laughs]. He suf­fered. I think my mom al­ways had a sense I was ly­ing to her. Moms are in­tu­itive. But she didn’t say any­thing. She prob­a­bly knew, and I think our re­la­tion­ship suf­fered for a long time because I

just wouldn’t tell her things. But, fair enough. If your fam­ily’s threatening to throw them­selves into the Dead Sea for what­ever thing you’re do­ing, it’s prob­a­bly for the best to just let them take a minute. ROOM: Have you ever dis­cov­ered a se­cret of your par­ents’? SK: I don’t think they’re se­crets, I think they’re just omis­sions. They don’t think about telling us. There are lit­tle fights in the fam­ily that have per­co­lated, and I don’t have full sto­ries about them, but I don’t think I will ever get them because half the fam­ily is in In­dia and don’t speak English. My grand­par­ents are all dead, so those are things I’m never go­ing to get back. My brother’s a real mys­tery to me. I’m sure he’s got some skele­tons. My niece is seven now, and she’s got this re­ally fas­ci­nat­ing in­ter­nal life. And that’s so weird to me because when you know this tiny body from a very early age, you sud­denly re­al­ize, When did you de­cide to get a life? How did that hap­pen? The other prob­lem is, there aren’t se­crets among brown peo­ple. We’re not WASP-y enough to keep any­thing from each other. Even with my part­ner, I’m sure my mom had an idea because I was dat­ing him, and one cousin knew, and she prob­a­bly told her mother, who told this aunt, who told that one, who told my mom. It’s im­pos­si­ble. So, I don’t even know how I would keep that up because we’re so nosy. It doesn’t work. If it worked, I would have been in trou­ble far less as a teenager. My mom used to read my diary. I had to start keep­ing a de­coy diary. I once went through my brother’s stuff. I don’t know what twenty-four-year-old boy is like, “I’m go­ing to keep this diary in plain view of my seven-year-old sis­ter.” We just don’t keep se­crets well. We’re too nosy. ROOM: So, it’s a round­about way of com­mu­ni­cat­ing with each other. SK: No one re­ally wants to ask. They’re just go­ing to get it. I’m just go­ing to go re­trieve the in­for­ma­tion, and then con­front you with it later. I’m a lot of fun, I’m real­iz­ing . . .

ROOM: So, you did have this in­di­rect line of com­mu­ni­ca­tion with your fam­ily, even if you weren’t dis­cussing ev­ery de­tail. When your dad wasn’t speak­ing to you, then, it must have been so jar­ring. SK: It was re­ally iso­lat­ing. And it affected these dif­fer­ent parts of my life that I didn’t think it would. My dad is very in­vested in my job. He’s re­ally into jour­nal­ism and news. And so, when he stopped talk­ing to me, I sud­denly had no one to talk to about these sto­ries I was work­ing on. And no­body cares about your job the way your par­ent will. No one cares, about the minu­tiae of it, or who you’re mad at that day, lit­tle petty things. And then you’re sort of by your­self. That was un­com­fort­able for me. It was tough. It was lonely for sure. ROOM: So, there you are, writ­ing a book that heav­ily fea­tures your dad, and yet you can’t speak to him. SK: The only time he re­ally spoke to me—which re­ally speaks to how much he loves at­ten­tion—is when I asked him to write the “About the Au­thor” sec­tion. That was my glim­mer of, Oh, he’s go­ing to be fine because when he wrote it, it made me think, Oh, you’re still in there. And then I re­mem­ber re­lax­ing a bit, and he slowly warmed up, and then even­tu­ally cracked. It just took a lot longer than I wanted it to. I would say it was a good year of it be­ing re­ally, re­ally chal­leng­ing. And then a cou­ple months of him be­ing a bit stiff. And ul­ti­mately, I have to ac­knowl­edge—and this is so frus­trat­ing, because it’s very pa­tri­ar­chal non­sense—but when I got en­gaged, then my dad fully cracked, and was like, “Great! I love you again.” Not that he said that, but that was the thing that needed to hap­pen for him to be com­fort­able with it. ROOM: Do you think not com­mu­ni­cat­ing with your dad changed the way you por­trayed him? SK: I think he got away with mur­der in this book. He comes off very well. Frankly, he should write me a thank-you note. Not that I was go­ing to write some snide oral his­tory about my jerk dad. But I think it made me wist­ful. It largely affected the last es­say, because the first bunch had been writ­ten a while ago, even in pieces.

ROOM: What about how you por­trayed your mom? Did you feel pro­tec­tive at all? SK: I’ve al­ways said about my mom that she’s the quiet dic­ta­tor in the fam­ily. I think this is true of a lot of brown house­holds and Asian house­holds. Ev­ery­body thinks your dad is the one to be afraid of, but you should be afraid of brown moms. They will fuck you up. So, I don’t think she needs my pro­tec­tion. She will kill any­body with her bare hands if she needs to. I fo­cused less on her because I think that’s sort of her thing. She is much qui­eter than my dad. She’s not as bom­bas­tic. She’s not as flashy. You don’t no­tice her as much because my dad’s so loud. But she is very much the one con­trol­ling these nar­ra­tives and mak­ing sure we’re not all dead and that we’re still in touch. She does all that work, qui­etly, because that’s her way. But I think I was pro­tec­tive of both of them if I was pro­tec­tive at all. Because ul­ti­mately, I’ve put this thing into the world, and I have no con­trol how peo­ple re­ceive it. And you can dis­like me all you want, but they didn’t write it. So, it would feel so crummy if peo­ple didn’t like them when they read the book. I like them! I think they’re worth lik­ing. And it’s not like I had this calami­tous child­hood where I was run­ning around with scis­sors pointed the wrong way and eat­ing matches or any­thing. I had a very reg­u­lar sub­ur­ban mid­dle-class up­bring­ing. So I had no in­ter­est in yelling at my par­ents for what­ever dumb mis­takes they made when I was a kid. But I guess pro­tec­tive is maybe a good word. ROOM: You’ve said that read­ing Born Con­fused [the novel by Tanuja De­sai Hi­dier] when you were young, and later The Name­sake [the novel by Jhumpa Lahiri], were re­ally mean­ing­ful for you. Why do you think it’s so im­por­tant for peo­ple to be able to see them­selves re­flected in cul­ture? SK: If you come from a group of peo­ple who are tra­di­tion­ally op­pressed, you don’t have a lot of proof that there’s a way out of that. I didn’t as a kid. Then, when I was older, I was like, Wow, you’re al­lowed to do these things and have these things?— I didn’t know that. I thought I had to be a doc­tor. Which, I would be the world’s worst doc­tor. Ev­ery­body would be dead. And al­most on pur­pose. I don’t like touch­ing peo­ple. I don’t like be­ing in groups, I hate talk­ing to peo­ple, I don’t like meet­ing new peo­ple. I would let them die. So, I would be a ter­ri­ble doc­tor. But that was the thing you were sup­posed to do when you’re a brown mid­dle-class kid.

It’s im­por­tant in terms of per­spec­tive. Things get bor­ing if you let the same peo­ple make the same things. That’s why we have sev­enty-five sin­gle-cam sit­coms where one plot is in­dis­tin­guish­able from the next. That’s why there are so many bad movies. It’s why a lot of books are bad. It’s why a lot of mu­sic sucks. But, on a per­sonal level, it tells you that you can do some­thing. You can be told that all you want, but un­less you have the proof, it doesn’t mean any­thing. I think that all the time about girls who might want to en­ter pol­i­tics. I never had the gene, but, Hil­lary’s flawed, but man I wish you had an ex­am­ple of it. I wish you had some­thing. Some­body who wasn’t a ter­ri­ble ex­am­ple. We had a fe­male Prime Min­is­ter for what, forty-five sec­onds? [Canada’s] cer­tainly very be­hind on it. It’s the same thing when you look at some­one like Jag­meet Singh, who I think is a deeply flawed politi­cian, and he’s al­ready frus­trat­ing me—politi­cians are frus­trat­ing, you should not trust them, gen­er­ally speak­ing. But, it is sort of com­fort­ing. I re­mem­ber when he won, I was think­ing, God­dammit, thank God. Let me have this one thing. Don’t worry, I’ll get mad at him soon. But let me en­joy this for five min­utes, just on this very ba­sic level. Let me know that this is pos­si­ble. Now, we’ll see what hap­pens. We’ll see how peo­ple re­act to him. That makes me ner­vous, but that’s a sep­a­rate con­ver­sa­tion.

ROOM: You wrote a lot about anxiety in your book, but writ­ing can also cause anxiety—writer’s block, wor­ry­ing about how your books will be re­ceived, etc. Is that some­thing you were ex­pe­ri­enc­ing when you wrote the book?

SK: I had writer’s block. I set time slots where I said I would write for an hour a day, or a cou­ple hours ev­ery week. Even if I didn’t write any­thing, I would just make sure that I sat there and looked at the com­puter, and try to not play on Twit­ter. But at least sit there and try. And even­tu­ally, some­times, it works. I’m an anx­ious person any­way. [Writ­ing] isn’t mak­ing it bet­ter or worse. It’s just another ves­sel for me to put it in. If I wasn’t anx­ious about Are peo­ple go­ing to like this? then I’m sure I’d be anx­ious about Do they like me? I’d find another way.

ROOM: Do you have any ad­vice for writ­ers who feel stuck or over­whelmed?

SK: I think you should have a hobby. The worst thing I do is, I don’t re­ally have hob­bies. And it can’t be drink­ing. And it can’t be just hang­ing out with other writ­ers. Baby Braga, who’s in the book, he runs a lot. He’s run­ning a marathon. He’s very sinewy. I have friends who take pot­tery classes. So, take a lan­guage course, learn a sport, go to the gym, read. Fig­ure some­thing else out that doesn’t fill you with some sense of rage.

ROOM: Have you found that thing?

SK: No! I haven’t, and I don’t think that’s good. I read a ton, I watch a lot of TV, but I haven’t found some­thing that pulls me out of that field en­tirely. I’m still look­ing for that. I’ll fig­ure it out. I’d like to learn a lan­guage. I think it’s im­por­tant to . . . go do some­thing else. Do some­thing with your hands. Make friends with peo­ple who are not in your in­dus­try. You’ll go to them like, “This person was mean to me on Twit­ter,” and they’ll be like, “What are you fuck­ing talk­ing about?” You need peo­ple who look at you like you’re nuts.

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