Some months ago, I happened to read Good Girls Marry Doctors, an edited collection of essays written by second generation Indian American women. Detailed, thoughtful, and at times heart-wrenching – nonfiction and hence tightly tethered to reality – the pieces spoke of the complexities of identity and of living in dual entwinned cultures. All lives are not the same, and one could add to this clichéd expression that all immigration stories have their own unique flavour.
Durga Chew-Bose’s – an American writer who was born in Montreal and whose parents are from Kolkata – essay collection, Too Much and Not the Mood isn’t quite really of this genre. Her essays have that angst, the strangely undefinable quality of being “in-between” that might characterise a second-generation immigrant, and then her essays are also about finding one’s place and certainties, acquiring a sense of oneself in an urban world where it is easy to fit in and just as easy to stand out.
In the mood for writing
The essays in this collection are varied, in length and subject. A couple are at best a few pages long. The first, Heart Museum, at 93 pages, appears far too long for an essay moving from an emoji denoting a heart to the heart itself and the mysteries of its functioning, and then to subjects that might denote connections of the heart with people and places. The quirkiness and the odd flitting nature of the pieces however, intrigue and make one think. And with all the tangential gossamer quality of these essays, Chew-Bose uses her words carefully, with a rare beauty and precision – especially when this appears most difficult.
What the essays contain might be apparent from the collection’s very title: Too Much and Not the Mood. In A Writer’s Diary, Virginia Woolf used these very words to end her entry for April 11, 1931. It conveyed her irritated helplessness, even frustration at having to meet her readers’ expectations of her and from her writing; and conveyed a writer’s inability to “cram” her material and every thought quickly in, while leaving other (essential) things out. Taking Woolf at her word, Chew-Bose takes a defiant, devious and delightful turn with these essays, highlighting the necessity of looking to every moment, of being aware that in spite of the crowds everywhere, one’s own view of the world matters and must never be hidden away. Even if one must coin new ones to explain oneself.
First the feelings, then the words
For instance, the word “unhear” in Chew-Bose’s essay, Some Things I Cannot Unhear. She uses the word to denote a tone of voice that lingers, words that draw attention almost in an unconscionable way, and that continue to haunt. One can never not forget these, or “unhear” this tone, or such words, again.
She remembers listening to James Baldwin in an old television programme and his description of high noon Sunday as the most “segregated hour in American life”. Baldwin’s “it’s near sport of a voice” is something she cannot unhear.
“The way he says evidence is capable of galvanising the most blasé listener. His is a staccato that quickens in clip when Baldwin repeats words like ‘white’ and ‘hate’ but ripples when he says ‘idealism’, diminishing its meaning into a naivete”.
The tone stays imprinted, and her mind regurgitates the words in Baldwin’s tone while she reads of the recent Black Lives Matter protests. In much the same way, she can never unhear any more how Nina Simone sings of boobies in her What I ain’t got; just as only Chew-Bose hears for herself (and cannot ever unhear again) the guttural panic-laden notes that emerged from her throat when, out hiking with friends, she fell from a height.
In the same essay, the word coalesces into a noiselessness, different from silence, that prevails when Chew-Bose joins her mother and stepmother in readying her grandmother for her funeral, draping her in a sari. The exact details, as the writer reveals in another essay, she now “misremembers”. Helping her mother in fishing out what might be a dead squirrel in the swimming pool, Chew-Bose confesses that she misremembers the exact details of what really happened, or what was fished out. What she does remember is that before her parents divorced, and her father moved to an apartment, it was he who meticulously cleaned the pool of every debris.
The essays reveal their heart, if there is one, via an even and gradual peeling. An effort reminiscent of the act of parting veils so as to magically uncover the essential and yet very different truths that lie buried. An essay is, of course, non-fiction, and should, presumably, “tell the truth” for the most part. But this truth is at times transient, stationary, or tethered to a certain moment in time. Images that one remembers even definitively, are always fleeting. Memories return in different ways, to be retouched and relived anew.
Myriad subjects, Chew-Bose shows, are in fact ineffably linked to each other; words exist to help make the necessary connections. All it takes is the effort and a necessarily unique way, cultivated painstakingly, of seeing the world. As an adolescent, Chew-Bose realises her own apartness (she does not use the word “different”, for instance) – a realisation fostered by growing up as one of the few Asian immigrants in a Canadian city, and accentuated also by her parents’ decision to separate when she and her brother were still young.
The apartness was stark in the way she spent her summer watching movies in the theatre, while her friends spent theirs at the beach, tanning their skin in competitive ways, a brownness, Chew-Bose writes tellingly, “that was only ephemeral”. Ephemerality (which stands apart from transience) is also evoked in a piece recounting a fishing trip that Chew-Bose and her brother made with their father (soon after the divorce) and an older adult. It is a typical American activity that’s new for the family (though not for the other adult accompanying them).
The fish that she had caught, almost miraculously – something that gave the obviously diffident and awkward Chew-Bose secret pleasure – and then buried under layers of snow for it to be cooked for their afternoon lunch, goes missing. It is deemed stolen. The memory of that snowy afternoon, the remembered sighting of a pleasant young couple they had encountered (the suspects in Chew-Bose’s mind as she writes the last lines in this essay), and the drifting conversations are all that remain of a day that would always remain unlike other family days.
Apartness, not different
It isn’t just her apartness, noticeable most often in the way baristas call her name out loud, that has made her, but the inherited “feminism” of her two grandmothers. Her maternal grandmother was of Chinese origin living in the former French colonial town of Chandannagar (formerly Chandernagore) in Bengal. Her paternal grandmother was Chameli Bose, the first woman statistician to serve in the government, and who in her computation relating to the government’s occupational survey stressed the vital contribution of women in every rice-farming household in Bengal. The women used the “dheki”, a traditional instrument comprised of a “wooden lever, a pestle and a pedestal” to thresh and separate the grain from the husk. It was a correction that, for her grandmother, was necessary, to right something that had been erroneous for a long time.
By the time Chew-Bose heard this story from her mother, her grandmother was old and ailing, and a purple vein throbbed in her forehead every time she slept. She has feared and resented her grandmother for all the time she has known her, but this story from the past – one she can relate to, because of the strange connections that binds generations and families – is revealing, just as the detail of the bulging and ever-beating purple vein in her grandmother’s forehead is for the reader.
In another essay titled “Upspeak”, Chew-Bose talks of meeting a friend, someone she has hitherto known only online and his surprise (hers too) when he noted that her voice appeared more high-pitched than when they had chatted online or exchanged emails. They had similar tastes in films but his off-hand revelation grates on Chew-Bose, making her question other people’s assumptions of her, her voice and if she had to change herself to sound like someone less “unlikely”. Yet the act of writing, Chew-Bose writes in the last page of this essay, is achieved in silence, when she knows she does not have to speak, or worry about “voice” in any regard. In another essay on living alone in Brooklyn, Chew-Bose notes the way a day can stretch, with no question, and how small things – a forgotten banana in a purse, the play of sunlight on the floor – can acquire meaning and how slowly the unexpected becomes routine (and perhaps vice versa).
These essays, quixotic and quirky in every measure, have a quiet intelligence. How does one find oneself and how does one find one’s past when a lot is unrevealed (as is Chew-Bose’s own past)? But the book tells us that the journey to finding oneself begins in small ways. From the act of observing every quiet, ordinary moments, and finding for oneself, ways in which almost everything in this world might be unfathomably tied to other things.
Too Much and Not the Mood, Durga Chew-Bose, Farrar Straus and Giroux