Durga Chew Bose’s essay collection Too Much and Not the Mood “bristles with slow and tender inquisitiveness, carefully wrought anecdotes and character studies, devotion to detail, and nuanced structure in which form engages with content” (Los Angeles Review of Books). Durga recently sat down with Jia Tolentino of The New Yorker for a conversation on identity, silence, and affection.
Jia Tolentino: It’s hard to define this book. It’s between genres; it’s between categories; you have this quality of attention—do you have to will yourself to remember things? What was the process like, catching these things—you call them “interceptions” at one point in the first essay?
Durga Chew-Bose: I don’t think I have to will it so much as it’s kind of the boon of writing your first book. I was given this opportunity and I knew that the only thing to do is take advantage of it. There was definitely a tremendous amount of holding back, but, in terms of my memory, I think it was a real opportunity to mine it and believe that if I remembered something there’s a reason for that.
JT: What is your relationship to transience and writing? Is something more beautiful when it passes or when you’re trying to pin it down exactly?
DC: My relationship to precision is probably the only one I can speak on with any amount of clarity. I want to find not the most original way to say something but the most original way for me to express it. I’m unsatisfied with the third, fourth thing that’ll come to mind—I still think there can be work done.
JT: Can you relay the origin story of the book?
DC: I did a reading in Brooklyn that was called a “secret admirer” reading. At the time I knew who organized it but I didn’t know who had picked the writers. I later found out it was Amy Rose Spiegel. And then one of the other readers really liked it, and he wrote Jonathan Galassi at FSG and told him, “You should meet with this young woman.”
JT: What did you read at that reading? Was it one of the pieces from the book?
DC: Yeah, it was “The Things I Cannot Unhear,” which I wrote for the event because I wanted to read something that was totally based on the sounds of words. My initial reaction was to say no to the reading, and then I thought I should challenge myself and not feel so nervous all the time. So I wanted to write something that would require me to be there and perform to some degree. And the only thing that really came to mind was writing something that required me to think about sound.
JT: I love that essay. This book has a tense, fruitful relationship to silence and noise. You seem to always be craving silence and privacy, and also coming alive to the opposite, all the time. Did you need quiet conditions to write it? Did you find yourself seeking out mental quiet while writing?
DC: To some degree. I generally spend a lot of time by myself, so it wasn’t like, now I need to find the quiet spots. But I do think that there’s this really weird moment in the course of writing where you become unconscious to what you’re doing. I figured out what it means to write a book when I spent a month in Provincetown by myself.
I do think that there’s this really weird moment in the course of writing where you become unconscious to what you’re doing.
JT: Was it hard to give yourself permission to write something like the first essay, which is free-associative and pushing against structure—to free yourself from the structure you’d originally laid out for yourself?
DC: I just became quite comfortable with the idea that this project was taking on a life of its own. It’s hard when you’re freelancing, because you have to decide what you should be working on alongside your book, and so it was a lot of negotiating—does this go into this monster first essay? Because that first essay felt like me writing about everything. But it wasn’t permission. It was letting myself feel completely out of control a little bit.
JT: I wanted to talk about your “nook people.” It’s one of my favorite stretches in the first essay, you write, “The women I love reenter the world so poorly. Their elegance lies in how summarily they’ll dodge its many attenuations, advancing alongside the world as if passing their fingers over the rails of a fence and cleverly selecting the right moment to hop over.” Can you talk about “nook people?”
DC: I feel like there was a moment in the past couple years when people became obsessed with the binary of introverts and extroverts. It was probably the first time I actually learned what an introvert is. Basically, it means you lose energy from being around people, and that extroverts gain momentum and energy from being around people. But neither applied to me because I do like being around the people I love, but, I wouldn’t say that that converts into energy for me. It converts into meaning or a reason to exist, which I think is more important than energy. So I felt like I needed to write about that. The “nook people” thing probably just started from something like how, if a friend asks, “Where do you want to get dinner?” I might say, “Can we go somewhere that has a booth?” What does this mean at parties? What does this say about your friendships or the people you attract? I realized that most of the people that I know are some version of a nook person.
JT: One of the greatest currents running through the book is your affection for other people. There are many little love letters to your friends in here, which is delightful. But the “nook people” thing, it’s something more specific. It’s an aliveness and a sensitivity that’s beyond introversion, it’s a quality of attention and interaction that’s so attuned it can become unbearable. Which is in some ways the temperament of writers, or maybe just people who are smart. But so, so much of this book is affectionate, it’s about the things you love irrationally and deeply, and I’m wondering, what qualities in people would you say you’re most drawn to?
DC: I think I’m drawn to people who are close to their families. That would probably be a first one. I get a weird vibe, sometimes, when someone feels so detached from where they come from, even if where they come from might not be great for them. I’m drawn to soft people with hard shells.
JT: In the very last essay, family is another thing that keeps coming back. You write a lot about your family, and specifically the state of daughterhood. Could you explain this sense of daughterhood?
DC: The one way of identifying myself that always has felt the truest is as a daughter. For me, it feels like the most intimate type of belonging, because I had no say in it, in so many ways, and so it’s like a hard love, but it’s one that continuously surprises me, and I am becoming more and more it. You think “daughter” and sometimes you think “girl,” but I think I’m becoming more of a daughter the older I get.
JT: You say in this book, “I’ve been so young for so long and so old for longer.”
DC: It’s so funny, you write a book, and you put into it all these things you’re half-certain about, or, in fact, you put in all your uncertainties. You write into what you think is the far-away future when you’re writing, and then it comes and creeps up on you. Part of my voice when I was writing this book was a much younger version of me that suddenly aged, emotionally, once I got it out. The moment you’ve written it, it’s like a different person.
JT: It’s a game that’s fundamental to this book, right? You’re intercepting things, you’re taking a chance that when you write them down they’ll still be true.
In your last essay, which is called “At My Least and Most Aware,” you’re taking stock of what is still exactly the same or essentially unchanged since you were a child. You were saying that writing this book you felt like it’s changed, like it’s put a stop on certain things you were writing about, that maybe it changed the way you thought about yourself situated in the years of your life, but do you on an everyday basis feel pretty continuous with your childhood self, your teenage self?
DC: I don’t feel like I reinvented myself in my New York years or something. I feel like I’m pretty much the same person. And I’m the same when I wake up in the morning as I am at like three. I have some friends who are very different people before coffee or before they’ve woken up. I’m that annoying friend who wakes up and wants to talk. I’m pretty much always this version. So in that way, I think I’ve carried a lot of my versions of myself from teenagehood to now. They’re not that different.
Durga Chew-Bose is a Montreal-born writer. Her work has appeared in The Globe and Mail, Hazlitt, Filmmaker, The New Inquiry, and The Guardian, among other publications.
Jia Tolentino is a staff writer for The New Yorker and former deputy editor of Jezebel, as well as contributing editor at The Hairpin. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times Magazine and Pitchfork.
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