Art

In Durga Chew-Bose’s Debut Collection of Essays, the Delight Is in the Details

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She entered quietly, without fanfare, the soles of her black boots tapping the ground. The writer Durga Chew-Bose had been invited to the packed lower level of the McNally Jackson bookstore to talk about her new book, Too Much and Not the Mood, an essay collection whose title is borrowed from an entry in Virginia Woolf’s diary in which she bemoans the writerly duty to appease readers — the very thing we’d all eagerly gathered to watch Chew-Bose do. She knelt in front of someone in the front row, her hand moving instinctively to their knee. Intimate and precise, performed in plain view, the gesture recalled a moment from the collection’s second essay where she muses on the dirty, quiet satisfaction of watching a stranger from between the panels of a wooden fence:

“The devotional quality of someone going about his or her day, of having to stand on her tiptoes to secure the corner of a bleach-stained towel on her clothesline or pace and pause, pace and pause, while talking on his cordless phone, was an intimacy I’d never deemed intimate until it belonged to a stranger who had no idea I was bearing witness. The thrill of a quick look provided me with pure, almost hysterical voltage.”

The 31-year-old, Montreal-born writer’s meticulous attention to detail will feel familiar to fans of her earlier work, which has appeared in Hazlitt, the Hairpin, the New Inquiry, the Guardian, and others. In Too Much and Not the Mood‘s fourteen essays, an almost compulsive use of imagery doesn’t come across as literary garnishment. The opposite is true: These descriptive details are what Chew-Bose notices first. They are the subject. Calling to mind the airy, meandering dialogue of Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise series, her finely tuned attention span evinces a rare, almost sneaky quality. In one scene, she describes her father’s glasses sliding down his nose as he stood watch over the family pool. What she first registered as fatherly satisfaction on his face she later clarifies as a resolution of guilt — the type of constant mitigation necessary for those among us who leave our homes and do not return to them.

Such details lead readers through a variety of memories: of the end of her parents’ marriage, the frenetic worship of the coming New York City summer, the freedoms and punishment of living alone, the answers that live in the pauses before we speak. Chew-Bose tackles topics traditional to memoir — family and friends, past relationships, and all the ways that childhood turbulence becomes adult-size. An essay that begins by marveling at the human heart’s ability to continue beating through uncontrollable excitement slips without warning into a meditation on the tortuous writing process, and then to a foggy recollection of a grandfather she met only once and could remember nothing about but the texture of chiffon. These are abrupt transitions but they do not feel impulsive; her denial of plot teases.

In the tumultuous first 100 days of the Trump administration, writers have turned their attention to the fallout that has trickled from the political to the cultural to the interpersonal. Few other demographics are as well versed in this vertigo as women of color. Chew-Bose tackles the politics of racial identity and culture in past and present tenses. In “Part of a Greater Pattern,” she writes not about white privilege, that dense, buzzy thing bogged down by theory, but about the “big and loud” mannerisms of the older white girls whose budding womanhood was on constant display throughout her childhood:

“In comparison, these older white girls made the rest of us appear like we were waiting in perpetuity. For what? It didn’t matter. The rest of us were girls-postponed,” she writes. I am reminded of girls from my own childhood whose ascension to womanhood shrouded my own in darkness, an eclipse it took me years to name.

Chew-Bose returns again and again to her family, exploring the duality that is the result of her parents’ immigration from Calcutta, India, to Canada, and weighing that with the vertigo of her own coupled existence. It’s no accident that she uses daughterhood as the point of entry or clarification for nearly every other subject. Chew-Bose is a first-generation Canadian who grew up with not just her “family’s knotted DNA but also the DNA acquired from their move.” She spent her time stepping into and out of many worlds: a North American one, a Canadian one, a South Asian one. Her parents lived here but were from there, and while she was born here, she was in a way from there, too. She sees exploring the evolution of that reality through the lens of her experience of daughterhood, one of the few modes of identity so hyper-specific it is difficult to criticize, as a kind of defense mechanism.

A description of a writing course Chew-Bose teaches at Sarah Lawrence College declares the nonexistence of procrastination: ” ‘Not writing’ is, in a manner of speaking, a variety of writing. It’s the writer accumulating and accessing new points of entry. It’s the writer drawing connections over time, without coercing meaning but, instead, allowing it to surface.” The class promises to show students — through “exploration of lists, correspondence, transcriptions, and film,” which all make frequent appearances in Too Much and Not the Mood — that writing is “a series of non-choices.” But by the end of her book, it is clear that she has in fact made choices, namely, rejecting conventional form and structure. As with her students, Chew-Bose invites readers to reject the binaries inherent in decision making. Opt instead for the freedom of smallness: “Smallness can make you feel extra porous. Extra ambitious. Like a small dog carrying an enormous branch clenched in its teeth, as if intimating to the world: Okay. Where to?” she writes. Chew-Bose promises to lead the way.

Too Much and Not the Mood

By Durga Chew-Bose

221 pp.

Farrar, Straus & Giroux

$15

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