The Debrief: An Hour With Writer Durga Chew-Bose

20.05.18

It’s usually a bad idea to meet your heroes.

Mostly because you run the risk of being disappointed. They might not be as funny as you thought they were, as kind as they seemed in an interview, as intelligent, insightful, thought-provoking or ground-breaking as you had always made them out to be in your head. The trouble is that we put our heroes on pedestals. And then we put those pedestals on untouchable shrines of greatness.

Durga Chew-Bose is one of mine. Her book, Too Much And Not The Mood, changed my entire relationship with writing. Before I read her book I thought I had a very clear understanding of what was expected from a writer. The “rules”. Things like how a sentence was structured or how a plot was meant to unfold. Where the reader should arrive to by the last page and the vehicle in which they will get there. And I never felt like my style of writing fit within those parameters.

Reading Too Much And Not The Mood felt like taking a warm bath. But it also felt like getting permission to write in the way that made the most sense to me. To write the way I talk. Even if that meant structuring sentences differently. Pausing in non-traditional places. Making space for a kind of writing that allows me to use my own experiences that aren’t particularly remarkable and unpack them in a way that helps both myself and you, the reader, make sense of it all.

Yesterday, Durga was interviewed by our very own Ella Yelich-O’Conner (it feels weird to call her Lorde in this setting) at the Auckland Writer’s Festival, and watching them bounce ideas off each other was mesmerizing. Durga and Ella are the kind of friends who send each other songs to listen to and text messages of encouragement when they’re on different time zones. They’ve had their aura’s read together in China Town in New York. They’ve seen the same Estelle Thompson exhibition and told the other person you would love it without realising they already did. They shared with the audience their affinity for growing up in “small places” (Ella from Auckland and Durga from Montreal) and the comfort that brings. Having both lived for long periods of time in New York and experienced how irrelevant that great, big city can make you feel when there is nothing that distinguishes you from the person next to you on the subway, or a weekend from a weekday, whether you stay or whether you leave. They loved the deliberateness of a small town, where you know exactly what 4pm on a Tuesday feels like.

Durga confessed that her beloved essay on being a nook person stemmed from our generations obsession with categorizing ourselves as extroverts and introverts, confessing that she didn’t identify with either. Instead, a nook person finds the arm of the couch, a window sill to perch on. A nook person finds the dog at the party and drinks wine from a mug. If you asked Durga what she felt like for dinner, she’s more likely to say I want to sit in a booth than to say she feels like curry. She is more obsessed with the spaces she occupies than with what she does in them. Nook people are those of us who need solitude, but also the sound of someone pottering in the next room.

I could keep going but I think I’ll leave things here.

At the end of the event I lined up to get my copy of Too Much And Not The Mood signed. Mine is starting to weather – pages folded, margins scribbled in, sentences underlined, discolouration from a week on a beach towel in Fiji. I imagine it’s these insignificant details that Durga could write an entire chapter on and make it feel important.

My departing conversation with her was about Céline; she complimented me on my oversized coat (for the record it was old season Lonely) and I praised her for the New York Times piece she wrote about Phoebe Philo’s departure from the fashion house. There was a sentence Durga wrote that always stuck:

Her clothes are like that luxurious feeling we derive from borrowing a friend’s pen and enjoying its unexpected weight. The smoothness of its lines.

Coincidentally, I think the way she feels about Philo is how I feel about Durga.