I remember the exact moment when, years ago, I came across Joan Didion’s rendering of the self as expressed in a private notebook: “the implacable I”. Who could be less forgiving than the self? The phrase stayed with me for a good time afterwards; I was stunned by the profundity such simple words could give away.
This same feeling came back to me recently in my reading of Durga Chew-Bose’s debut essay collection Too Much and Not the Mood. “Isn’t it curious how some fonts appear more dogmatic than others? How italicized neon pink on a book of non-fiction is suddenly: Commentary!” an observation she offers in the book’s opening essay ‘Heart Museum’ prompted me to take another look at the cover, only to realise that its minimalist beauty was scarred by a smudge. Had I spilled water on my book? It was unlike me to be that careless. A quick, confused search online then revealed that the smudge was part of the book’s design. The revelation was both stunning and sobering.
It is in this spirit that Chew-Bose writes. She writes in a meandering fashion, her essays often having no discernible beginning or end. This feels unreasonable, until you realise the details are there: they almost spring up on you by surprise, jarring revelations akin to suddenly catching sight of the deeper meanings of the everyday. Which isn’t unique for personal essayists of this ilk: Anais Nin, Joan Didion, Sarah Manguso and Virginia Woolf come to mind, the latter’s ending to a diary entry in A Writer’s Diary the title of the book.
However, Chew-Bose’s curiosity and minute attention to detail is deft—a woman on the subway loops her hairtie around her ponytail six times; it takes fourteen steps for her to walk from her bed to her bookshelves; the act of repressing incoming tears distorts her entire face as if “a leech is swimming frantic” beneath her skin; the easy cadence of older white girls. The essays read like a mind in motion that addresses that implacable ‘I’ while contending with the truth that writing is a work in progress in an effort to tease out what she considers the “second ply”, the other layer that fully sums up a person’s being.
For Chew-Bose, the world of language is a playground that is both cheeky and heartfelt. Words form unlikely pairings to elucidate vivid mental landscapes. Friends can be “battery-powered clamour”. A window doesn’t break or shatter, it is “veined”. An unease residual from her parents’ separation has become her “constant attendant”. A sentence is “skirmished” with on her screen. Chew-Bose’s keen eye and artful dexterity coalesce to cultivate an ongoing sense of wonder—attractive to her, because “it pays no attention to priorities”—that is shared by both writer and reader. In a quest to be her own observer, she retreats into herself, picks out what is immediately detachable and strings together a sense of her personal worldview by looking at herself closely from a distance. She is self-indulgent in a way that is pleasing, like hearing a friend’s thoughts aloud—an ‘I’ that is couched in a way that is not overbearing but nonetheless assertive.
In an effort to weave the personal, political and aesthetical together, films, scenes, and paintings act as binders to the narrative. They take precedence alongside Chew-Bose’s observations and feelings about her family, friends, identity, and solitude. You get the sense that deep rumination for her is chronic. The profound meanings behind lived experience are often sought but never overanalysed, a sense of inquiry prioritised over arriving at any definite conclusion.
To that end, she glides over her emotions surrounding her South Asian heritage, being first-generation and a woman with an understated elegance: nuances that a lot of writing investigating race and gender forget to account for. “To be first-generation means acquiescing to a lasting state of restlessness”, she proffers in “D As In”, an essay about her name—often mangled by others or leading to queries about her background—which sparkles with resonance. “Where are you from? What does your name mean?” Those two questions have been asked of me so many times that I respond with a singsong cadence, as if rattling off my address when I order Thai over the phone.”
As such, Chew-Bose has an interesting knack for offering up thoughts and ideas without any hint of argument. She never overstates her identity, but still manages to foreground it in quiet and arresting ways.
The content of Too Much and Not the Mood is, irrevocably, a series of letters addressed to oneself, an attempt to de/construct “a becoming” that is “multipart, but mainly a pilgrimage inward.” Like Joan Didion’s telling of stories in order to live, Chew-Bose writes because “the best ideas outrun me”. Writing is “a closed pistachio shell” that is—because she delights in the subtleties that can be found within conflict—a satisfying frustration. I’m sure many writers can relate. Writing still remains one of the ways we can uncover our deficiencies while also propping up our certainties. Ultimately, the collection is a testament to Chew-Bose’s inquisitive mind, a way of scrutinising one’s smallness which simultaneously gives her strength. Which is exactly like she suggests, early on: “because doesn’t smallness eventually prime us to take up space?”
Too Much and Not the Mood is published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. Durga Chew-Bose will appear at the Sydney Writers Festival 22-28 May.