Lorde knows: Durga Chew-Bose gets the star treatment at Auckland Writers Fest

by Diana Wichtel / 12 May, 2018
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Durga Chew-Bose. Photo/Carrie Cheek

Durga Chew-Bose will chat with Lorde at the Auckland Writers Festival in a session that already has fans excited. 

“Durgan. Jerga. Durva. Derika. Durgid …” In her acclaimed, addictive collection of essays, Too Much and Not the Mood, Durga Chew-Bose 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 “D 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 Chew-Bose 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.”

Lorde: quality but an air of mystery. Photo/Getty Images

Lorde: quality but an air of mystery. Photo/Getty Images

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 Chew-Bose’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.”

A Chew-Bose subject: Al Pacino. Photo/Getty Images

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.”

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.”

Too Much and Not the Mood, by Durga Chew-Bose (Macmillan, $28.00)

Durga Chew-Bose will be appearing at the Auckland Writers Festival, May 15-20. 

This article was first published in the April 14, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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