In a collection of fourteen meandering autobiographical essays, Durga Chew-Bose’s Too Much and Not the Mood takes its titular phrase from Virginia Woolf’s moony reflections on editing for an audience and crafts the sentiment into the structure of its writing. Giving the book a sense of historicizing its own conception, Chew-Bose’s sentences evoke the feeling that they are in an active, self-conscious state of edit—not contradictory or unsure, but self-revealing and evolving— with the printed book reading like a furtive negotiation between the writer’s thoughts and the backspace key. This gives an interrogative, exploratory, and personalized presence to the author’s knowing revelations which so acutely reflect the state of coming to understand what you know you already know. This book, as a careful engagement with affect, memory, the physical body, and self-analysis, aptly exemplifies how the personal is political, how feelings are critical material, and how personal narrative can function as a rich, revealing method of research.
Writing about the material, bodily, and inherited nature of memory, Chew-Bose discusses affects as elusive and abstract as the attitude of living alone or nostalgia for your parents’ lives before you were born, and frames this materiality of both intellectual and physical knowledge through her experience as the child of Indian immigrants to Canada. This is an identity wrapped up in her various roles as a daughter, a Canadian, a writer, a New Yorker, and—often—a woman. Sorting through memories, feelings, questions, and family stories she materializes the complex experience of living and understanding her self-situation. Densely populated with references to music, literature, film, and visual art, her essays construct a variegated patchwork of cultural context, fleshing out the vastness of a millennial, first-generation frame of reference. Through a folding analysis, kneading lived experience and musing abstractions into each other, Chew-Bose interrogates the entanglement of the performed and felt self, inherited memory, culture, relationships, isolation, and bodily-manifested nostalgia. The politics of engaging and dis-engaging with an imposed feeling of otherness, the confusion of moving this feeling through childhood into adulthood, and mapping the (inherited) bodily, material marks of growing into, around, and against this sense of difference are major recurring thematics.
Chew-Bose is co-founder of http://www.writersofcolor.org/, a resource for editors (or anyone) to find writers of color by subject and areas of expertise.
INDIVIDUAL ESSAYS, SELECTED
The opening essay in the collection, Heart Hospital operates as an autobiographical foundation that contextualizes the subsequent shorter pieces. Driven by the observation that hearts, sometimes amazingly, continue to beat through the wrenching events that we colloquially claim are heart-stopping—alarm clocks going off, an old name popping up in an inbox (4), seeing a good friend for the last time before a big move (11), falling in love and breaking up —Chew-Bose affirms that this beating is a testament to resilience in the face of life events that elicit such big emotions that they intervene on our physical body. Heart Hospital allows readers to piece together an introduction of the author from a series of anecdotes about herself, her writing practice, her social life, her childhood, her family, and the heavier emotions and thoughts that saturate existence. Running from musings on life to death, the piece ebbs and surges with the irregular rhythm of a heartbeat alternately accelerated and lulled in response to the world surrounding it.
PART OF A GREATER PATTERN
Here, Chew-Bose introduces the notion of childhood innocence as split into the experiential, nostalgic categories of innocence as both custom and asylum (123). She describes a sort of homesickness for childhood—not as a romantic refuge from the harsher realities of adult life—but as the state before certain realizations are made, for the unique normalcy and infiniteness of the presumption of stasis. This is a homesickness for assumed regularity, for the taking of things like the rhythm of a childhood home for granted.
She develops this idea of a customary not-knowing alongside a notion of her body as a physical anthology of her childhood (125), for mixed amid the not-knowing is some already-inscribed self-knowledge. With a retelling of her experience of outsidership in the presence of “older girls,” –vividly relatable for anyone who felt envy for others just outside of their peer group when they were younger—she describes the bodily awareness of difference and self-consciousness, before she fully understood the feelings, injustices, and politics that helped to plant awareness that would grow into lifelong insecurities and internal battles. This otherness, inscribed against the older girls’ “physical comfort with each other” (101), their whiteness, their mannerisms, is present in her adolescent body long before it’s intellectually understood. The draw of childhood innocence for the author is this state before these bodily inklings surface and demand the ability to put words to, socially situate, politically trace, and defend yourself from them.
This essay starts off with a mental statement directed across the table towards what is, presumably, a bad date, an unimpressive date, a typical date: “The girl you want doesn’t exist” (145). A bitterly concise outline of what it is to fight against the delusions of (male) dates re-creating the women that sit across from them to their own liking, this essay responds to all versions of the saccharine but sinister pseudo-complement, “I can’t believe you exist,” (149). In naming and problematizing this all-too-familiar sentiment reeking of romanticism, projection, and manipulation, Chew-Bose breaks down some of the pervasively gendered and deeply-felt dynamics at play in the realm of dating and relationships. Framed from a young woman’s perspective, this piece stands in defense of the individuality and specificity of every one that has found themselves the victim of toxic fantasy-based flattery while asserting the relatability and consistency of this experience. Speaking directly to the perpetrator, she answers the question of “existence’ directly, and shuts it down, retorting “You’ve been encouraged to believe since boyhood that your fascination has manifested her,”(147). You can’t believe I exist? She doesn’t exist. But I do. We do. You do. This essay is a tired but necessary analysis of a fantasy-based co-opting of personhood that has long been a widely encouraged and romanticized toxic behavior, as well as a breath of validation for those who have been the mirror used to materialize someone’s made-up dreamgirl.
D AS IN
In this piece, Chew-Bose looks at her own tendency to introduce herself to new people as “D,” abbreviating her first name to avoid questions and discussions around where she’s ‘from.’ Through this habit, she looks at issues of self-erasure and self-assertion, of knowing herself and relating to others from the primary point of having a name that situates her identity as linked with a place other than where she lives. In this discussion, Chew-Bose again explores the theme of embodied history and inherited affect. She speaks of her DNA as carrying not just her family’s genetic information, but the inheritance of their move from India to Canada, their displacement and their re-establishment (160). Part of her and yet not part of her, this move has mediated not just her life, but her physical relationship between her body and her world. She looks at how, similarly, her name carries this move, and is something both inside and outside of her, a small but large part of who she is, and a prime arbiter of both her self-identification and how others see her. Furthering this, the author goes on to look at how her relationship with her own name foregrounds her struggles with using the first person as a writer, and discusses the politics of using the word “I” as a first-generation author, and the delights and struggles of its anonymity, in relation to her first name, Durga (161).