Durga Chew-Bose: In Ser­vice of En­thu­siam and Zero Clar­ity

Room Magazine - - CONTENTS - KAYI WONG

Durga Chew-Bose has writ­ten for pub­li­ca­tions such as GQ, Cana­dian Art, n+1, Adult, The Globe and Mail, and web­sites such as Ha­zlitt, The Hair­pin, Grant­land, and Paper­mag. Af­ter living in New York for many years, the writer re­turned to her home­town of Mon­tréal to fin­ish her de­but col­lec­tion of es­says, Too Much and Not the Mood (FSG), which was sub­se­quently named by The Globe and Mail and NPR as one of the best books pub­lished in 2017. As a writer who is in­vig­o­rated by work­ing on mul­ti­ple projects, she has also taught a writ­ing work­shop on not writ­ing at Sarah Lawrence, her alma mater, and is cur­rently the se­nior edi­tor at SSENSE.

Too Much and Not the Mood is a genre-am­bigu­ous man­i­fes­ta­tion of Chew-Bose’s pro­longed ru­mi­na­tion about ev­ery­thing from be­ing a daugh­ter, “nook peo­ple,” and hav­ing a “mis­heard name” to the writer’s un­bri­dled en­thu­si­asms for her favourite artists, writ­ers, and the in-be­tween mo­ments that are over­looked by most but the ro­man­ti­cally per­cep­tive es­say­ist. Her lyri­cal prose is thick with cin­e­matic im­ages, and they are at once neb­u­lous and in­can­des­cent, quiet and charged.

In the fol­low­ing in­ter­view, I met up with the es­say­ist at a lit­er­ary fes­ti­val be­tween her pan­els, and we chat­ted about Tum­blr, the lack of clar­ity in her writ­ing, and the rad­i­cal act of lik­ing things as women of colour.

ROOM: You said on the non-fic­tion panel yes­ter­day that be­cause Too Much and Not the Mood is your first col­lec­tion of es­says, you just want to say all of these things, get it all out, and not re­visit them again. Can you tell me more about that?

DCB: I think I was re­fer­ring to the idea that when you col­lect your first es­say col­lec­tion, there’s this kind of need to es­tab­lish your­self, or your voice, or your di­rec­tion per­haps. There’s a lot of top­ics I wrote about—my fam­ily, my par­ents, my iden­tity, and fig­ur­ing out who I am—and as much as I’m go­ing to be writ­ing about that prob­a­bly for­ever, I might want to write fic­tion. I might want to move away from a sort of “claus­tro­pho­bic self ” that only in­ter­acts with the world based on my own ex­pe­ri­ence of it. Also, some of the ideas or im­ages in the book are ones I can’t use ever again, cer­tain ex­pe­ri­ences that I’ve had. I think what I meant was re­ally my way of mak­ing clear, maybe even to my­self, what I can do with my writ­ing.

ROOM: You’ve men­tioned that while your iden­ti­ties and ex­pe­ri­ences are im­por­tant to you, re­porters or edi­tors can also com­part­men­tal­ize you with the same iden­ti­ties and ex­pe­ri­ences. I mean, you were also com­pletely mis­la­belled on the copy­right page of your own book as “Asian Amer­i­can.” They had to put you in a box—even if it was the wrong one.

DCB: Yeah I don’t know why, that’s some­thing that has noth­ing to do with me or my pub­lisher. That’s wrong, I’m not Amer­i­can.

ROOM: How do you deal with that com­part­men­tal­iza­tion or cat­e­go­riza­tion?

DCB: I just try to ig­nore it, hon­estly, be­cause I feel like that’s not where my bat­tle should be—how other peo­ple are la­belling me. I brought it up a few times in in­ter­views be­cause at the time, I was do­ing a lot more press for it, and it felt like a re­oc­cur­ring theme. And as a free­lancer for what­ever edi­to­rial pur­poses, la­belling the writer, try­ing to in­tro­duce them, or try­ing to give enough in­for­ma­tion to a reader who might not know who the per­son is, can some­times mean the piece falls on cer­tain clichés or much more di­gestible ti­tles. I’m fully aware of that. I just feel en­vi­ous of writ­ers who can just be their piece of work. So much of what’s inside the col­lec­tion con­tains ques­tions hav­ing to do with my own re­la­tion­ship to my iden­tity and

com­ing into who I am. So just to have them smack that on the front of a piece felt like it would limit some­one’s con­text, or maybe I would be grouped in a cat­e­gory that would oth­er­wise not reach other read­ers; but I wa­ver. Like [on the panel] yes­ter­day, I felt the need to bring it up be­cause look who’s on stage with me. You have to choose, and you have to know in the mo­ment who your au­di­ence is, what the di­a­logue is. But it was clear to me that ev­ery time I brought up any­thing hav­ing to do with iden­tity yes­ter­day, it wasn’t go­ing to be fol­lowed up with. The panel didn’t feel like it was open to a di­a­logue; I felt like I had to be in ser­vice of their pedi­gree.

ROOM: As an au­di­ence mem­ber, I felt like there were many mo­ments where you would have spo­ken out if you were just in a dif­fer­ent con­text.

DCB: Yeah. You have to pro­tect your­self, and you don’t al­ways want to be the women of colour on stage pro­vid­ing a teach­ing mo­ment. I kind of wel­come those chal­lenges be­cause I can’t an­swer in­stinc­tively, I want to con­sider if I’m play­ing into this set-up I’ve been put in in this sit­u­a­tion, or could I use it to elab­o­rate. I def­i­nitely felt like I wanted to be con­sci­en­tious. Just so that I was adding some­thing be­cause that felt like the kind of con­ver­sa­tion that could have been very be­nighted, and so, I def­i­nitely wanted to pro­vide a lit­tle bit of re­sis­tance. Be­ing a part of this world, I know how to code switch and talk to white men, con­ver­sa­tional riff­ing, like we can all do it. They want to talk about the state of the world, lit­er­a­ture, crit­i­cism and the value of it; I can do that too. But I kind of wanted to chal­lenge my­self in the mo­ment to find a way to maybe pivot else­where oc­ca­sion­ally and see how they re­acted, but I felt like they didn’t re­ally want to have those con­ver­sa­tions. Maybe that wasn’t the right plat­form for them to do it. I’m not es­tab­lished enough I think to per­form any agenda or be too re­ac­tive in such a short time. There are ways to do a panel where you kind of ar­gue but con­tinue the rhythm of con­ver­sa­tion, and that was more what I wanted to do.

ROOM: You’ve said in your col­lec­tion that you get a lot of ideas, but you ru­mi­nate and mull them over for a long pe­riod of time. And you don’t keep a jour­nal. How do you keep track of all your ideas?

DCB: I think I’m in my head a lot. I’ve built a home in my head and it’s a very com­fort­able space for me to crawl back into, and so I live in there. I have a lot of note­books, a lot of lists, and a lot of notes on my phone. I also have a few peo­ple that I email a lot and I re­turn to those when I can’t re­ally com­mit to a piece be­cause in those emails are a lot of the heart of what I want to say, be­cause it means that I’ve sat down and com­mit­ted time to ex­press­ing my­self in words.

ROOM: A lot of writ­ers, a lot of non-fic­tion writ­ers es­pe­cially, talk about how their best writ­ing some­times comes from be­ing in a mind­set of writ­ing to their clos­est friends. And you’ve said too that when you were writ­ing this book, you were writ­ing to five peo­ple in your life.

DCB: I think it’s just kind of im­pos­si­ble to write to some anony­mous per­son. Again though in this case, it’s non-fic­tion, so it helps to have the peo­ple in mind that I’m writ­ing about. I keep them not just in mind, but in heart. I think writ­ing is such an act of cor­re­spon­dence, so it’s just a very nat­u­ral pro­gres­sion.

ROOM: The part that strikes me the most about your col­lec­tion is that you are in­flu­enced pro­foundly by these dif­fer­ent art forms, but you’re able to dis­till them so el­e­gantly that they’re just a part of your writ­ing. And par­tic­u­larly with your love for film, you have such a cin­e­matic style when con­vey­ing your thoughts in words.

DCB: Oh, thank you. I think it’s kind of how I am as a per­son—maybe not now be­cause we’re in an in­ter­view—but my friends said in read­ing [ Too Much], they felt it was “Durga Con­cen­trate,” like when you buy or­ange juice in a can. This is the can of me, and you need to add some wa­ter to it. It’s a lot; a lot of me.

ROOM: It feels weird, but ev­ery time I have to in­ter­view an au­thor, I have to read so much about them, and read so much of their work, and then I feel like I know them. But of course I don’t.

DCB: Yeah, that’s real. I ac­tu­ally like the ex­pres­sion, “I feel like I know the per­son.” Be­cause for me, it ex­presses a level will­ing­ness and open­ness to con­nec­tiv­ity, and an open­ness to the hope of un­der­stand­ing peo­ple—as op­posed to be­ing closed off.

Even though it’s an im­pos­si­bil­ity—you know, I read your book, so I know you— I en­joy that that’s the re­ac­tion that peo­ple have or that any­one has to any form of art. It means that the per­son view­ing it is in pos­ses­sion of the pos­si­bil­ity of know­ing and con­nect­ing. Some­times I feel like I’m a wound when it comes to art, I just let it all go inside me. So I think it’s cool that you can re­act that way.

ROOM: The es­says al­ways feel in­ti­mate but at a dis­tance. Does that make sense?

DCB: It makes sense. That’s how I am in my own re­la­tion­ships. [ laughs] I want to be in­ti­mate, but I also want my own space.

ROOM: Go­ing back to your love of film—any plans to go into screen­writ­ing?

DCB: I’ve writ­ten scripts. I’m ac­tu­ally work­ing on one right now, but the sort of way I treat any­thing I do in my life has a lot to do with tim­ing. I didn’t plan on writ­ing a book, and then Jonathan Galassi asked me if I was in­ter­ested in do­ing one, so then that hap­pened. I felt en­cour­aged by some­one, and I felt like there’s some­body else putting the pieces to­gether that I’ve al­ready been putting to­gether. So with screen­writ­ing, I love do­ing it, and it’s some­thing I want to pur­sue, but I don’t nec­es­sar­ily feel like it needs to be so de­lib­er­ate, like okay, now I’m do­ing this script, so now I’m do­ing this book. I think they can hap­pen along­side, and you can take breaks.

ROOM: Let’s talk so­cial me­dia. I looked through my Tum­blr archives and found so many posts I’ve saved and re­posted from yours. My favourite was this Jeanette Win­ter­son quote1 you’ve high­lighted and took a pic­ture of. So­cial me­dia seems to be quite a part of your cre­ative process.

DCB: I use it as sort of a stor­age unit. I think to be com­pletely hon­est though, I for­get that other peo­ple are look­ing at it. I kind of just use it to put what I’m read­ing, my friends, my fam­ily, what I’m see­ing, what I’m thinking about, be­cause I do feel like a part of me is a bit ner­vous that ev­ery­thing is go­ing to be wiped out by some ran­dom apoca­lyp­tic am­ne­sia that’ll knock me out. Some­times I’ll go into the ar­chive of my Tum­blr, and go back to 2012, and re­mem­ber oh yeah I went through a phase when I all I was do­ing was watch­ing this di­rec­tor, or read­ing this writer. And

for thirty min­utes on some days, I’m sud­denly back to a younger ver­sion of my­self, and how rare is that? You know, all we do is move for­ward. I guess it’s not be­ing present, but it gives me a mo­ment to take note of some build­ing blocks for me, and a lot of them are phases I’ve gone through, or in­flu­ences. It’s funny, I could re­visit some­thing that I was thinking about six years ago, and that thing is in my book. So for six years, I was car­ry­ing it with me un­be­knownst to me, be­cause we’re not aware of ev­ery in­flu­ence that we have ev­ery day. You don’t get dressed in the morn­ing thinking, I am al­ways thousands of things.

ROOM: Go­ing through your own Tum­blr ar­chive isn’t be­ing present, but it is like re­liv­ing those times when you were be­ing present.

DCB: It’s true. Also, it takes an ex­tra piece of ef­fort when you’re read­ing some­thing to then take a pic­ture of it or type it up. For me, that act re­quires me to be present. I’d type up en­tire pas­sages be­cause I want to, in what­ever ca­pac­ity I can, maybe not com­mit it to mem­ory be­cause it might be im­pos­si­ble, but com­mit the sen­ti­ment to my way of thinking. I want to adopt it, like that quote from Jeanette Win­ter­son. I want to adopt that sen­si­bil­ity be­cause I be­lieve in that sen­si­bil­ity. It’s a tes­ta­ment to where I may want to be, or how I have al­ways thought but haven’t had the words. That’s how I’ve al­ways learned to take note of what res­onates with me. I think that’s why a lot of peo­ple use so­cial me­dia, not to share their lives, but to put down what res­onated with them be­cause so much of living can feel like you’re not at­tached to your­self. You’re just go­ing through the mo­tions, you’re not tak­ing note of what’s im­pact­ing you, what’s chang­ing you, and what’s an­ger­ing you.

ROOM: Which es­say have read­ers come up to you most of­ten to tell you it has res­onated with them?

DCB: The one about my name comes up a lot, and the one about living alone. But I think cer­tain parts of “Heart Mu­seum” too that peo­ple feel con­nected to be­cause per­haps they’ve felt like oh this is how my friends and I talk, but I’ve never seen it in an es­say col­lec­tion. I can’t re­ally speak for other peo­ple’s ex­pe­ri­ences, but I think cer­tain parts of “Heart Mu­seum” prob­a­bly feel en­er­gized the way one feels en­er­gized when they’re with their peo­ple.

ROOM: I re­mem­ber af­ter read­ing “Heart Mu­seum,” I had these mo­ments in my life where I felt like— oh, this is such a Heart Mu­seum mo­ment.

DCB: That’s re­ally cool.

ROOM: You also wrote about how you’ve had to come to terms—that you just have to live a life that suits you. I’m guess­ing that’s a strug­gle that a lot of peo­ple have, even if they don’t con­sciously think about it. I’m con­sis­tently ques­tion­ing my­self if I should be lik­ing this thing that I like.

DCB: Why do you think that is?

ROOM: I think it’s an “in­ter­sec­tional fem­i­nist con­scious­ness.” I like Joan Did­ion, but at the same time I feel bad that I’ve used up this amount of time read­ing Did­ion in­stead of a POC writer. It stumps me a lit­tle some­times. I try to em­brace what­ever im­pacts me, but I’m en­vi­ous that you’re able to do it so freely.

DCB: I do feel like hav­ing a book that’s pre­dom­i­nantly about en­thu­si­asms for a woman of colour is quite a rad­i­cal act, be­cause I’m claim­ing my love for white male film direc­tors, and I’m talk­ing about white writ­ers that I love, white artists, white po­ets. And the world wants me to feel bad about that, or even within peo­ple of colour com­mu­nity, there’s a lot of con­tention there. Even within my own so­cial cir­cles or with my clos­est friends. I think the world wants peo­ple of colour to be al­ways alert, crit­i­cal, and ashamed. Joy, a pure un­bri­dled joy that can also be low­brow is not re­ally en­cour­aged, so I to­tally un­der­stand.

ROOM: It’s like we have enough shit to deal with.

DCB: Yeah! Can I just like the colour on a paint­ing? I know, I know. And then the flip side of it is that I think some­times I prob­a­bly sound re­ally naïve, in­no­cent, and not crit­i­cal enough. But you know what, I can’t be it all, and this is just one project and one mo­ment in time that I did, and maybe the next one won’t be so en­thu­si­as­tic and will be about ev­ery­thing I don’t like. Who knows? There is some­thing to be said about a brown woman ex­press­ing joy, lim­it­less joy. There’s also lim­it­less

sad­ness, and I think that that can also be a de­ter­rent for peo­ple be­cause there’s a lot of eye-rolling like, Oh, what now? What in­jus­tice now? What lit­tle thing now?

ROOM: What you said about the col­lec­tion puts it in a com­pletely new per­spec­tive that I’ve never even thought of. I’ve never seen Too Much as some­thing that’s cre­at­ing space for POCs to like things and be ob­sessed with them. What a con­cept!

DCB: What a con­cept, right? What a con­cept. I thought about that a lot when my book came out and I was do­ing a lot of in­ter­views be­cause I felt like that was what peo­ple kept talk­ing about. Wow you re­ally, like, go in about your love, and I was like why is that even a thing we need to be talk­ing about? I re­al­ized it’s be­cause there is also the more tra­di­tional ar­gu­ments that the es­say should be ar­gu­ing, or should be ar­gu­men­ta­tive, or should be in ser­vice of clar­ity—and so much of my book is in ser­vice of zero clar­ity. I’m try­ing re­ally hard to con­tend with ideas and im­ages that I don’t nec­es­sar­ily think are re­ally de­fined to me yet, and that can be re­ally trou­ble­some for some peo­ple. There’s also this funny bal­ance of me talk­ing re­ally en­thu­si­as­ti­cally about stuff, but not shar­ing all of my­self and not be­ing re­ally clear about it. That can re­ally up­set peo­ple.

ROOM: Per­son­ally, I can rarely res­onate with prose that at­tempts to be de­fin­i­tive or con­clu­sive. Do you think it’s be­cause we’re both living “in this time” that un­cer­tainty is no longer a nov­elty?

DCB: Well I think it’s def­i­nitely a part of it, but I think that es­pe­cially if you’re a per­son of colour, you’re not af­forded the time or the space to grow, or the time or the space to make mis­takes. And I think what ends up hap­pen­ing is what gets cob­bled to­gether with that—those lim­i­ta­tions and what­ever in­sti­tu­tional in­jus­tices—is that peo­ple wants you to an­swer quickly. Don’t waste my time.

ROOM: Like, “Can you ex­plain to me where you’re from in three sec­onds?”

DCB: Yeah, the world has so much pa­tience for white peo­ple to waste our time, but I can’t waste other peo­ple’s time. And then it gets con­founded with in­tel­li­gence, like maybe she’s not smart enough to draw a con­clu­sion. It’s all racist bull­shit ob­vi­ously. The

more peo­ple of colour are given a plat­form, my hope is that this im­pa­tience—or what­ever you want to call it—kind of wanes, be­cause it’ll pro­vide for those who might not be ac­quainted with voices of colour and there are many dif­fer­ent voices. That’s why I hes­i­tate with la­bels and stuff. If I’m be­ing hon­est, I re­ally didn’t want to be on stage bring­ing up that women of colour get paid less. I didn’t want that to be “my thing,” but I had to be­cause here are these white men who worked at legacy pub­li­ca­tions try­ing to talk about young peo­ple not get­ting paid. Noth­ing sur­prises me more than peo­ple who are so out of touch claim­ing to be in touch. It’s just awk­ward for ev­ery­one lis­ten­ing. It’s very un­com­fort­able. That’s the other thing—I would love to meet you and feel like we don’t have to only talk about all this [race] stuff. I mean we talked about other things, but then what hap­pens is that you’re put in an en­vi­ron­ment and you have to talk about it, be­cause to not talk about it would be to waste each other’s time too.

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