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

Interview by 
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, Room editorial board member Kayi Wong met up with the essayist at a literary festival between her panels, and 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. 

1“There are times when it will go so wrong that you will barely be alive, and times when you realise that being barely alive, on your own terms, is better than living a bloated half-life on someone else’s terms.”

Photo Credit: Carrie Cheek

Kayi Wong has been an editorial member at Room since 2013. After living in Hong Kong and Singapore for many years, she settled on the traditional territory of the Musqueam, Sḵwx̱wú7mesh, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples, and is currently writing copy and doing social media for bookish folks, including Room.

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