In her debut book of essays, Too Much and Not the Mood, Durga Chew-Bose illuminates the small moments that make up a life. Whether describing her grandmother's hands ('As with nearly all elegant things, they photograph eerie. The way a rose stem looks arthritic.') or recounting the mise-en-scène of an inconsequential scene in The Godfather Part II, Durga's deft prose imbues every detail with the courtesy of her full and complete attention.
Ahead of her appearance at the Sydney Writers' Festival, get to know this bright voice in contemporary writing.
SWF: I'd like to start by asking how you became a writer. Was it a vocation or an accident?
Durga Chew-Bose: Focusing on one piece of writing a time and believing that my interests, no matter how weird or vague even to me, were worth an extra look, is, I'd wager, how this whole writing thing became a thing at all.
How have your goals and objectives in terms of the writer you want to be changed over the years?
I've never been good at making faraway plans or mapping out goals. Funny how now, since I've written a book, the goal is to write another book, at some point. It's like learning there's an entirely new form that I am not only capable of completing (hopefully again!), but a form that feels formless — has potential and might involve plenty of stumbling before it becomes anything at all. Over the years I've noticed how I'm less inclined by what seems at first obvious. It takes me sometimes what feels like forever to figure out how I can use an image that won't erase itself from my mind or a turn of phrase that tolls. Maybe my objective has become, more and more, to honour what I can't shake (the images, the words) and understand that there are connective powers working alongside me, nudging me towards a piece of writing I don't even know exists yet.
One of the things I like most about Too Much and Not the Mood is it's a book of personal essays that at times feels like poetry and at times feels like art or film criticism. How did you go about working with your own history while avoiding controlling the story too much or hitting hard on themes?
It might just be a question of confidence. I'm not convinced I know that much about anything. So my touch is...softer? Less certain? Wobbly but eager. I consider myself, in life at least, very controlling. To a fault. Writing is a good place to let go. To write something that sounds off, even wrong or misremembered.
How much — if at all — do you worry about accuracy of memory in your work?
Not that much. Seems like an impossible task.
'I'm not convinced I know that much about anything. So my touch is...softer? Less certain? Wobbly but eager.'
I know these essays were written over a long period of time, some while you were in New York and some in Canada — what's the main thing that links these essays for you?
The people I write to.
In what way is the book you wrote different from the book you set out to write?
Very different. Thank goodness. The one I set out to write involved a lot more structure. But structure, for me at least, ends up looking like a quirk. I wanted to avoid that. There were sections at first but I ditched that early on, not because the sections weren't working but because, why force the writing from the outside in?
Which writers do you most admire and why?
Marguerite Duras for her conversational tone, her attitude, her insistence on being a woman who repeats. Jamaica Kincaid for her ability to tell a story that doesn't feel like a story at all; for her plainspoken descriptions/tallies of women's clothes. Hilton Als because he writes with warmth and always situates his subject not just in time, but his subject's family and all that is heritable even if we deny it. Dickens for his elaborate details and how childhood can seem like a sad time in one's life. Virginia Woolf for how she writes up close but seems to care from a distance. Paul Beatty: he makes me laugh for real. Anaïs Nin's diaries are a good place to go when I want to feel complicated about why I'm so quick to say, "me too!". Frank O'Hara for what's unexpected; his playfulness. As my friend Jenny Zhang (another writer I deeply admire) might say, Frank O'Hara's words feel somehow "plump." Mary Ruefle because she converts energy: what's plain might sparkle; the smallest observation not just haunts but makes you grin in such a bodily way. I blush with recognition when I read Mary Ruefle.
For me, refuge is…
My family. Their kitchens.
Is there book (or piece of writing) that you consider to be your sanctuary?
May Sarton's Plant Dreaming Deep.
What physical environment is your favourite place to read?
On a couch in a home I'm only visiting for a weekend.