Over­think­ing aloud

Durga Chew-Bose, hailed as a star of the mil­len­nial in­tel­li­gentsia and an Al Pa­cino tragic, will chat with Lorde at the Auck­land Writ­ers Fes­ti­val in a ses­sion that al­ready has fans ex­cited.

New Zealand Listener - - CON­TENTS - By Diana Wich­tel

Durga Chew-Bose, a guest at the Auck­land Writ­ers Fes­ti­val, is a star of the mil­len­nial in­tel­li­gentsia and an Al Pa­cino tragic.

‘Dur­gan. Jerga. Durva. Derika. Durgid …” In her ac­claimed, ad­dic­tive col­lec­tion of es­says, Too Much and Not the Mood, Durga ChewBose help­fully pro­vides a list of ways not to pro­nounce her first name. Chil­dren of im­mi­grant par­ents – hers are In­dian-Cana­dian – who have to spell out their names will re­late.

The es­say “As In” is funny. “Just D,” she calls her­self at Star­bucks, so as not to hold up the queue. “New York­ers are their most im­pa­tient selves when do­ing rou­tine things.” For restau­rant reser­va­tions, she by­passes has­sle by giv­ing a friend’s name: “‘Ta­ble for two un­der Fiona,’ I’ll say spryly. No sweat.”

She also dis­sects the cost of this “ca­su­ally eras­ing my most es­sen­tial self – my name”: “Some­times I feel mis­er­able do­ing that, like the pangs I pock­eted as a kid any time I couldn’t rec­on­cile my par­ents’ In­dian her­itage with my own Cana­dian child­hood, but mostly, I rarely no­tice my im­pulse be­cause it’s just that, chronic.”

In­ter­view­ers will be grate­ful for this tip: “The North Amer­i­can way of say­ing my name is the one I’ve come to know and use. Dur­rrr-gah. Like the hum of a ma­chine capped by the glee­ful sound a wig­gling baby makes af­ter knock­ing over her bowl of Chee­rios.”

That’s apt. Her prose hums along with the pre­ci­sion of a well-made en­gine, yet her voice, on the page and off, can be mu­si­cal and child­like. The es­says loop from the dreamy – dust motes ap­pear on the pe­riph­ery like “anx­i­etys’ UFOs” – to the hyper-par­tic­u­lar: Sharon Stone’s shoul­ders in Ba­sic In­stinct; a dead squir­rel in the fam­ily swim­ming pool. The book’s ti­tle is a quote from Vir­ginia Woolf that ChewBose liked the sound of. Her idio­syn­cratic, as­so­cia­tive style calls to mind an­other Woolf quote: “Let us record the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the or­der in which they fall …”

She has an eye for the not oth­er­wise telling de­tail. “I seem to en­joy not tak­ing it all in and in­stead try­ing to find mean­ing in what isn’t the point,” she tells me, un­apolo­get­i­cally. “It’s also how I just see stuff, with a sense of won­der, still,” she says, her voice light and mu­si­cal on the phone from New York, where she’s vis­it­ing. “It can be dark won­der, too, but it prob­a­bly can read sort of young.”

She writes about the sur­prise of that youth­ful voice

– “I sound like I’m wear­ing a back­pack.” She asks her father how she could give it more grav­i­tas. “Stop re­act­ing to ev­ery­thing,” he replies, and they laugh at the im­prob­a­bil­ity of that hap­pen­ing.

Chew-Bose has called her book “a col­lec­tion of en­thu­si­asms”. The stream of ref­er­ences are eclec­tic: Mariah Carey, tarot, Build-a-Bear; tan lines, to-do lists, a sur­real taxi ride to visit a sick rel­a­tive in a “heart mu­seum” in Mum­bai. One of her en­thu­si­asms: Al Pa­cino. There are at least eight al­lu­sions to the ac­tor in his hey­day. What’s that about? “I don’t know,” she wails. “I al­most want to never find out the ex­act lan­guage for my in­fat­u­a­tion for him be­cause I love the way that it leaves me a lit­tle bit dumb. You want to be im­pacted by some­thing so it makes you stupid, and he does that to me.”

Their sched­uled con­ver­sa­tion is sold out and has been greeted on Twit­ter with, among other things, “OMG” and “Dope”.

Chew-Bose de­serves a hol­i­day from be­ing smart. The pub­lic­ity ahead of her visit down our way for the Auck­land Writ­ers Fes­ti­val hails her as “a mem­ber of the mil­len­nial in­tel­li­gentsia”. Her event in con­ver­sa­tion with post-mil­len­nial mu­si­cal roy­alty Lorde, Ella Yelich-O’Con­nor, is sold out. The pair­ing has been greeted on Twit­ter with, among other things, “OMG” and “Dope”. “We met through a mu­tual friend and we’ve stayed in touch ever since,” says Chew-Bose. “Ev­ery­one’s so busy, in­clud­ing

Ella, very much so. It’s dis­patches more than con­stant catch-ups. We like to vol­ley back and forth the same kind of tastes or im­pres­sions of a poem or re­ac­tions to a song or an im­age or a film. I was lis­ten­ing to [Lorde al­bum] Melo­drama and think­ing of my own writ­ing process. Some­times stuff can just share DNA, but you can’t de­fine what that DNA is.

“So that’s the long short an­swer, I guess,” she says, laugh­ing. “I find that what’s re­ally great about Ella’s mu­sic is that it feels like she’s put her all into it but not her best bits, which I think is a re­ally care­ful way to be an artist.” She’s re­fer­ring not to qual­ity but to an el­e­ment of mys­tery. “You want to lis­ten to some­thing and feel like you’ve got ev­ery­thing from some­one but also feel that you don’t know them at all.”

There’s the sense of some­thing pri­vate held in re­serve in ChewBose’s work, too. In an es­say called “Some Things I Can­not Un­hear”, one of those things is the “Huh” that was the only sound she made when her foot slipped through a rot­ten plank on a rope bridge when she was 18 and hik­ing with class­mates in Mex­ico’s Cop­per Canyon. She fell 10m to the ground, land­ing on rocks. “A gasp that was cut short, as if sliced by a butcher’s knife … Huh like the lazi­est re­ac­tion,” she writes.

Even then she was pay­ing close at­ten­tion: “… the way John’s eye­lids blinked slowly as if al­low­ing him­self a few ex­tra sec­onds to look away from my busted face …” It comes as a shock in the text. She doesn’t linger on what sounds like a hor­rific fall. “No, I don’t. That’s a good point. I don’t think my in­cli­na­tion is to write about trauma in that way. It’s just not where I ri­fle through my box of ideas. But it pre­sented it­self when I was writ­ing this piece, be­cause the sound will for­ever be with me. It made it­self use­ful for me,” she says, with a cer­tain pro­fes­sional de­tach­ment.

For her, some things are bet­ter served in fic­tion. “Some­thing that you can re­write, em­bel­lish and mine in a way that’s grue­some. You can write about the blood and surg­eries and not feel like you’re writ­ing about your­self,” she says. “The var­i­ous mouth and tooth sur­geons I’ve en­coun­tered are much more fas­ci­nat­ing to me than a fall that took no time at all. If any­thing, I have all these doc­tors’ ap­point­ments to write about.” Doc­tors’ ap­point­ments. They’re an ed­u­ca­tion. “Ex­actly.”

Still. It sounds like she’s lucky to be here. “In Mex­ico, when I had to hike out of this canyon and get a shot in my butt on, like, some­one’s kitchen counter who was the vil­lage doc­tor, they were, like, ‘You have a guardian an­gel. This is just un­heard of.’ So cer­tainly there’s that.”

She’s 32, now, and beau­ti­ful. I had won­dered why, in pho­to­graphs, she sel­dom smiles. “When you’re 18 and ob­vi­ously self-con­scious, you don’t want to be miss­ing teeth, don’t want to have bruises on you face … I think about it some­times when I won­der why don’t I show my teeth when I smile. I think that I de­cided right af­ter that ac­ci­dent I’m never go­ing to do that again.”

“Over­think­ing,” she says, “is one of my favourite pas­times.” Not in this case. “Maybe I’ve just never dealt with it and one day it’s all go­ing to come crash­ing down. But I also think it’s not go­ing to be that mo­ment in my life that I think about.” She’s been more af­fected, she says, by heart­break. “As ev­ery­one says, the body is tremen­dously re­silient,” she says firmly, “and so is the per­son who in­hab­its that body.”

Her par­ents came from Cal­cutta (now Kolkata) to Canada in 1975. Home is Mon­treal. She’s back there af­ter some years in New York. She writes with some­thing of an out­sider’s eye. “Feel­ing like an out­sider pro­vides you with the op­tion to write as some­one who has joined or the op­tion to not join and watch.” It’s about style as much as con­tent. “My writ­ing can then feel a lit­tle more like it’s up to some­thing. There’s mis­chievous­ness in­her­ent in it, a qual­ity to not hav­ing fit­ted in. As hard as I tried to, there’s al­ways some bar­rier to en­try.”

There’s also a sort of dis­lo­cated mo­men­tum. “To be first-gen­er­a­tion means ac­qui­esc­ing to a last­ing state of rest­less­ness,” she writes. “It’s as if you’ve in­her­ited not just your fam­ily’s knot­ted DNA but also the DNA ac­quired from their move, from ver­i­ta­ble mileage, from the en­ergy it took your par­ents to re-es­tab­lish their lives.”

The es­says are lit by the oc­ca­sional flare of anger, about things like be­ing con­tin­u­ally asked where she’s from by peo­ple who won’t take “Canada” for an an­swer. If anger isn’t too strong a word. “No, I’m so happy you said that,” she says. “No one’s ever said that. I can be very an­gry and very nasty.” Nasty? Surely not. The anger, she says, “is my throat burn­ing up when some­one goes out of their way to not pro­nounce my name even though I said it so many times”. There was also the time, af­ter her par­ents’ sep­a­ra­tion, when her mother in­vited a male col­league over. “And me lov­ing that he looked un­com­fort­able with his shoes off in the house. In his socks,” she says. “Watch­ing a grown man be vul­ner­a­ble who I didn’t even want in our home was de­li­cious to me.”

“I al­most want to never find out the ex­act lan­guage for my in­fat­u­a­tion for [Al Pa­cino] be­cause I love the way that it leaves me a lit­tle bit dumb.”

Her re­ac­tion to the breakup was to watch movies in the base­ment, com­pul­sively, “some­times the same ones over and over un­til the tapes be­came too hot and the im­ages and sound slowed.” She still likes a movie play­ing in the back­ground. “They’re just friends that are over and I’m in the next room cook­ing din­ner and they’re just talk­ing in the liv­ing room be­cause friends talk­ing in the liv­ing room is re­ally like a movie I’ve seen 100 times. It’s com­fort­ing, you know?”

So­cial me­dia has been a way she has got her work out into the world. “I use In­sta­gram, I’m on Tum­blr, I’m on Twit­ter. I see all the prob­lems that ex­ist with it like ev­ery­body else. I see all the ben­e­fits of it, not like ev­ery­body else, but a lot of peo­ple do. I also don’t take it too se­ri­ously. I know when to turn it off and look away.” She ditched Face­book along the way. “Hav­ing some­one you knew from high school whose ideas are so warped or nar­row just be in your morn­ing – it felt like, ‘Why do I do that to my­self?’ It was im­pos­si­ble for me to re­ally un­der­stand why I was be­ing al­most at­tacked by in­for­ma­tion by peo­ple who are no longer in my life.” In­deed.

But for one who so of­ten zooms in close – her su­perb long es­say “Heart Mu­seum” kicks off with an emoji – she has a grasp of the big pic­ture. “One ar­gu­ment I do have for keep­ing it is that there’s a lot of so­cio-eco­nomic dy­nam­ics to what Face­book is, depend­ing on where you are in the world, and if it be in de­vel­op­ing world coun­tries, where Face­book is re­ally the life line. This knee jerk di­vest, boy­cott … Sure, of course. But it also dis­counts half of the world or more that needs it for the most ba­sic form of re­main­ing in touch with their loved ones. So I see both sides.”

She’s al­most un­fash­ion­ably given to nu­ance. We get on to the pol­i­tics of iden­tity, the change that’s in the air. Is that some­thing she has to ne­go­ti­ate? “Yes, all the time.” She’s all for change. “I want the change to then pro­duce the qual­ity that al­ways ex­isted. I don’t want rep­re­sen­ta­tion and di­ver­sity to then not ac­tu­ally shine a light on those who have been do­ing the work the whole time and who are ex­haus­tively good; to then just to­kenise for the sake of build­ing a ros­ter for your pub­lish­ing house or your tele­vi­sion show or your writ­ers’ room. I still want good stuff. I want think­ing work. And I also want work that is crit­i­cal of one’s own com­mu­nity. That’s even more im­por­tant to me and, con­versely, not also to only have to write about one’s own com­mu­nity. I don’t want the up­shot of bring­ing marginalised voices more to the cen­tre of the con­ver­sa­tion to [be to] then sort of lose the rigour. Which is not al­ways a pop­u­lar opin­ion and it might be my own re­ac­tion to the tem­per­a­ture right now, but it’s one that I think about all the time. I guess I want it all,” she says. “In my dream world, ev­ery­one would be read­ing a lot more than they write,” she con­cludes, “and that would solve a lot of prob­lems.”

She is still, of course, writ­ing. “Fic­tion is some­thing I’ve been noodling with.” And watch­ing a lot of movies over and over. She cites a favourite, not in­volv­ing Al Pa­cino: Olivier As­sayas’s fam­ily-in­her­i­tance drama Sum­mer Hours. “Con­ver­sa­tional ban­ter about very ba­sic things, like who’s go­ing to keep the vase, is end­lessly fas­ci­nat­ing to me. My favourite ac­tiv­ity is to be at a friend’s house and they’re pack­ing their suit­case. Do I bring this bathing suit? Do I need three pairs of shoes? I’m, like, on the edge of my seat.”

She’s also writ­ing a talk to be de­liv­ered in Stock­holm on a topic she knows ab­so­lutely noth­ing about. This is her idea of a good time. “It’s at a de­sign and ar­chi­tec­ture mu­seum. So when I got on the phone with the cu­ra­tor to talk about it, I just shot a bunch of ideas to him that had ev­ery­thing to do with the house I grew up with, [from] the paint­ings I love, to women and in­side spa­ces to graphic de­sign­ers to film-mak­ers … My mind just kind of, like, fire­work af­ter fire­work,” she says hap­pily, off on her eclec­tic, as­so­cia­tive way. Hum­ming like a pre­ci­sion en­gine. “My best ideas out­run me,” she says in Too Much and Not the Mood. “That’s why I write.”

“I use In­sta­gram, I’m on Tum­blr, I’m on Twit­ter. I see all the prob­lems that ex­ist with it … I see all the ben­e­fits of it … I also don’t take it too se­ri­ously.”

A Chew-Bose sub­ject: Al Pa­cino.

Lorde: qual­ity but an air of mys­tery

TOO MUCH AND NOT THE MOOD, by Durga ChewBose (Macmil­lan, $28.00) Durga Chew-Bose will be ap­pear­ing at the Auckland Writ­ers Festival, May 15-20. www. writ­ers­fes­ti­val.co.nz.

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