When writer Durga Chew-Bose can't finish an essay, she pens a love letter instead. She compares being influenced by an artist to the spell of a bad crush. She prefers the offhand gesture of a movie star to their most famous line.
"Watching movies made me want to write, more than reading," Chew-Bose says, palms hugging her mug at Odd Fox Coffee in Greenpoint. A Montreal native, she's back in New York after a year away, teaching at her alma mater Sarah Lawrence. She's also celebrating the release of her first book Too Much and Not the Mood, a collection of essays on family and film, friends and first love, and all the small things that make up city life (the way a long walk gives you jelly legs, or how a street corner carries the memory of a beloved cafe, long after it's been repainted and reborn as a fancy boutique).
"So much writing happens not when someone agrees with you, but when someone says, me too."
"What happens with an essay, is that you constantly think you're done, and then you live another day on this planet and experience something, and think 'Oh, that can be put in there, too,'" Chew-Bose says.
"Not much has changed. I'm still a difficult woman who startles easily."
Her essays are both intimate and relatable—there's one on the frustration of having a name that no one gets right, from the Starbucks barista to the nosey stranger who feels he's owed her life story. And another about her parents' divorce on the cusp of her teen years, when older girls in perfect jean jackets seem to inhabit the carefree existence she craves. Like her friends Rookie editor and actress Tavi Gevinson and Girls creator Lena Dunham, Chew-Bose shares her coming-of-age hopes (and stumbles) through writing and film work.
Like many of her readers, I first encountered Chew-Bose's essays and film criticism online, where she also documents her reading and writing life via social media. We both love Tumblr—the way it allows you to collage music, movie gifs, and scraps of writing, creating an archive of inspiration. I tell her that it's where I got my early education in social justice, reading about race and gender through the experiences of other young bloggers.
"I'm fascinated by lineage," she says, "and by the ghost stories of being related to someone you've never met."
"So much writing happens not when someone agrees with you, but when someone says, me too," she affirms, though she sometimes finds labels such as "woman," "South Asian," or even "film critic" difficult to inhabit. One label she embraces, however, is "daughter." She's the first-generation kid of two Indian parents, something she explores in Too Much and Not The Mood, from a childhood visit to Calcutta to family photographs she knows by heart, even though she doesn't remember them being taken. "I'm fascinated by lineage," she says, "and by the ghost stories of being related to someone you've never met."
Durga Chew-Bose reads a passage from "Too Much and Not the Mood."
A first-generation daughter of Polish immigrants myself, we share the feeling that our parents grew up in an alternative universe, one you can visit over a summer holiday but never fully make your home. Yet Chew-Bose's experience is compounded by the experience of growing up Indian in a Canadian suburb, where white girls compared their poolside tan to her skin. It's the kind of difference she registered as a kid, but only reflected on later, as adult and writer, like strangers' insistent, where are you from?
"There is love; it lives in the practical details."
Like her writing, Chew-Bose's style is about the flawless execution of detail—a gold bracelet frames her wrist and a delicate smudge of black outlines her eyes. She wears dark clothes but loves the color lavender. She's tall, yet leans low across the table to get closer. Our conversation is punctuated by you know? As if there's a gap that doesn't need to be filled, an unspoken understanding that bridges the space between our coffee cups.
Beyond her ability to connect with readers through a quick tweet or selfie with a new favorite book, Chew-Bose's strength as a writer comes from her penchant to mull things over, rewatch the movie, get caught up in the details—to consider at length at a time when we cannot pull ourselves away from the latest breaking scandal or moments of global crisis, as if anxiety could ever serve us better than composure and thoughtfulness, in all aspects of life. Her essays remind us of our steadier commitments to the things that matter most, the things close to the heart.
"What's so incredible is when you know what you are drawn to, or what makes your heart spring, or what lighting you feel most human in."
Our conversation meanders on long after our drinks have cooled, and we find ourselves talking about desire, how the things we want as people—as women—are often mysterious to us. But Chew-Bose is for figuring things out slow, over the course of an essay, or on a long drive with her mom.
"What's so incredible is when you know what you are drawn to, or what makes your heart spring, or what lighting you feel most human in," says Chew-Bose, as the afternoon sun slants through the front window of the cafe. "Know those things, and then you'll figure out the other stuff."
Too Much and Not the Mood by Durga Chew-Bose (FSG), $15, mcnallyjackson.com.