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Durga Chew-Bose


“Even when I was nothing, I was arriving.”

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Durga Chew-Bose


“Even when I was nothing, I was arriving.”

Active Memory

ESSAYIST DURGA CHEW-BOSE ON CHILDHOOD IN MONTREAL, EMBRACING NOSTALGIA, AND THE DELICATE BALANCING ACT BETWEEN PRIVATE AND PUBLIC LIFE ON THE PAGE

WORDS BY ROSALIND JANA

PHOTOGRAPHS BY SHRIYA SAMAVAI

 

Sometimes a book turns up in all the right places. A close friend mentions it in conversation, enthusiastically pulling up pictures on her phone of the lines that resonated most. Smart women with reading lists a mile long post images of it on Instagram, complete with impassioned captions. Independent bookshops put it front and center on one of their display desks.

Durga Chew-Bose’s Too Much and Not the Mood—delectable with its white, grey, and violet coveris one such book: an elegant, expansive set of essays that ramble through friendship, heartbreak, home, heritage, place, the nature of memory, and the accumulated moments and impressions that make up the author’s day-to-day existence. Lavished with praise by everyone from Rookie’s editor-in-chief, Tavi Gevinson, to The New York Times, it’s been making its way out into the world with aplomb since it hit shelves in April. The title is taken from a 1931 diary entry by Virginia Woolf. Fittingly, Chew-Bose takes an approach that echoes Woolf’s in her rich examination of experience and the emotional terrain of inner life, whether she’s ruminating on the pronunciation of a name, the “self-spectatorship” that comes with living alone, or the symbolic properties of an emoji.

As Chew-Bose writes in the book, ‘becoming is precarious terrain.’

We speak by phone on a soft day in June. At the time, I’m in London and have just finished reading the last essay in the collection a few nights before. My head is still spinning with it. Chew-Bose is in Montreal, having recently moved back to the city where she grew up. She’s spent the morning unpacking boxes of newspaper-wrapped possessions and envelopes full of letters, photos, and postcards. Much of the book was put together there, too—a process Chew-Bose describes as a “return” with resonance far beyond the writing process—and our conversation loops back again to place, recollection, and the experience of retreading familiar ground. “No matter what the city is, if that’s where you were a child, it feels very special, because it’s such a fleeting time that you can only really process in adult words and in an adult mind,” Chew-Bose observes early on. “There’s something strange and magical about it, because you experienced it when you were physically smaller, and the world was huge.”

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The experience of feeling “physically smaller” is one of the more extraordinary aspects Chew-Bose brings to bear in her book. She meticulously hones in on the tiniest objects— recollection is fragmented into green shag rugs, neighbors’ pools, and the sound of her father’s silk tie being knotted in the morning. It seems appropriate to be talking about tangibility on a day when she’s been unpacking her own past again. “I was thinking the other day how certain objects from my parents’ home as a kid are forever stamped in my mind, and I have no idea why, because they weren’t particularly special. A teal vase or something,” she says. “But I included them in my book because they chose to stand out to me. I didn’t choose to remember them. I wasn’t, like, eight years old going, ‘This teal vase is going to be my madeleine cookie type thing,’ but it did turn out to be that way.”

Beyond the landscape of her family home, Montreal also plays a prominent role in the collection as an ever-present backdrop to her explorations of memory and family. I wonder what it is about the city that continues to exert such an influence. Chew-Bose tells me, “I’ve never encountered a place like this that feels like a very exciting metropolitan city that still can have a sense of quiet and neighborhood and story. I don’t know, honestly it’s as simple as the architecture of an apartment. Like, I missed the triplexes. I didn’t have that in New York.” She also credits the “richness” that comes with growing up in a fully bilingual city; the “adaptive quality that begins very young” when English and French co-exist on all sides.

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"Sometimes I really want to practice another mind, just to see what else I could do, or how I could be more efficient. But I keep returning to the details as though they’re my lifeblood."

The comparisons between Montreal and New York feel charged, given how both cities frame and shape her negotiations of moving through adolescence and into adulthood. Now Chew-Bose is back where things began: “It’s a very strange thing to do … to be raised in a city, then leave for your entire twenties when you’re ostensibly really becoming who you want to be in the world and then returning once you’ve developed the right tools and equipment.”

As she writes in the book, “becoming is precarious terrain.” It’s a terrain she’s still moving through—combining the busy process of “becoming” with sharp excavations of the past. I ask her why memory wields such potent power throughout the essays: “For me, it feels very active to remember, as opposed to trying to stay present or to consider what I don't know.” She’s circumspect about her own inclinations—wry on her particular tendency to revel in all that’s already happened. “Just by nature, my point of view leans toward nostalgia. I’m maybe even sometimes it’s a little too saccharine in that department, but I just think that I am someone who can be wistful, who can rest her forehead on a car window when I’m sitting in someone’s car, and I get very emotional.” Here, she laughs.

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This image of herself as someone romantically resting her forehead on a car window is symptomatic of her essays, where she so often pinpoints specific habits and situations that usually go unarticulated, whether it’s being a “nook person” who “seek[s] corners” or “the girl who never answers her phone but will text back immediately: sorry. everything ok?” They’re the kinds of delineations of self that have the reader (or at least, some of us) nodding along.  

In fact, Chew-Bose talks like she writes: feeling out her thoughts carefully and emphatically, chasing down and tying up the loose threads of particular ideas. Sometimes she hedges her observations with “I don't know if you relate to this,” ever-aware of the process of storytelling and how we construct personal narratives. At other times, Chew-Bose speaks in the kind of evocative phrases one wants to underline and remember. She speaks of observing “the basic human emotional arithmetic of a family” as a child; summarizes the idiosyncratic rhythms of her sentences as being a “habit” that “becomes part of your breathing,” especially when working on a project over an extended period of time; and outlines how she’s learned to “tightrope in that space between sharing and privacy” as a writer.

The latter is something we talk about at length—specifically in terms of the shift from the insular process of writing to a book being out in the world, with all the publicity and visibility that requires. It’s a process that can quickly turn tricky (though Chew-Bose says it’s “encouraged [her] to let go a little bit of that control, or that perceived control, I thought I had”), as one grapples with the balancing act between writing something deeply personal while still maintaining a private life away from the page. 

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What is more interesting and what is more connective for the writing is not necessarily what is more revealing.

I’m curious about how she portrays her closest relationships, those with friends and family. She’s quick to point out that something can sound like it’s disclosing a lot while actually giving away relatively little. “Honestly, it’s just a question of storytelling in my mind. What is more interesting and what is more connective for the writing is not necessarily what is more revealing,” she says. “And I think that, especially in this project, I was very tethered—perhaps because I was in Montreal and away from my friends and not seeing them regularly. [This book] was like letters in my mind to them. And in that way it felt less like I was sharing to the world anecdotes of our private connections and lives and loves, but [more] that I was writing to them.”

This is the web Chew-Bose weaves: one of letters and fragments, of objects and places. Given the title of her book, I mention toward the end of our conversation that her prose reminds me of Woolf’s essay “Street Haunting,” with its central image of an all-observing “enormous eye” taking in the world around it. It’s a state that Chew-Bose knows well: embracing life as a street haunter, a people watcher, a chronicler of connections. But she adds that, with herself at least, “it might also be a form of distraction, because the more you concern yourself with the light in a room, or the footsteps that are familiar to you, or the taste of something, you’re probably not dealing with your to-do list. So it just might also be some grand procrastination long-game!” 

Still, the habit continues, as does the desire to write with a “feverish,” often “musical” quality. “Sometimes I really want to practice another mind,” she says, “just to see what else I could do, or how I could be more efficient. But I keep returning to the details as though they’re my lifeblood, so I’m not sure if I’m completely ready to abandon that point of view.” ★