In an interview to The Wire, author Scaachi Koul discusses her new book of personal essays, casual racism, date rape, her parents and more.
Personal essays have always seemed a risky pursuit to me. There are so many considerations to take into account – how to choose subjects that are important to you but also relevant to readers at large, how to be kind to the real people we write about and also realistic about our own shortcomings, how to be authentic and vulnerable in our writing (what if people don’t like it and we take it as a comment on ourselves and not just our writing?)
In One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter, Canadian-Indian author Scaachi Koul takes a good long look at herself, her childhood, her relationships with her parents and her boyfriend, while tackling a surprisingly large range of issues including casual racism, date rape, self-doubt, the aches and pains of growing up, the round-hole-square-peg feeling of being a first generation immigrant, the insecurity of being too hairy or too large. And Koul does all of this with an acute self-awareness that gives these topics a humourous quality without detracting from their seriousness. Certain essays, like the first one in which Koul tackles her relationship with her parents and her rickety initiation into adulthood, feel like personal letters meant for readers to find themselves in, even as Koul reinforces her individual perspective through her writing.
The Wire interviewed Koul to ask her how she felt writing about her personal relationships, personal essays as a genre, being a South Asian woman and her personal brand of humour.
Excerpts from the interview follow:
What prompted you to write such a personal book? And since your essays cover a range of topics starting from your relationships with your parents to date rape, how did you pick the subjects you wanted to write about?
I wrote about the things that felt relevant in my life that people might want to read about too. Beyond that, I just wanted to make sure the essays had connectivity to each other, so they all tend to circle around the themes of loneliness of connection or dying. As for what prompted me to work on this: money. I wanted money.
People can’t seem to decide whether personal essays are here to stay or already over. How do you feel about that?
God, I hate this argument. I don’t know where it came from and I don’t know who keeps saying it but it doesn’t make any sense. The only time we consider whether personal essays are “over” or “just a trend” are when women start writing them. First it was white women who dominated the field and now we see more and more women of colour or non-binary people writing personal essay collections and all of a sudden, personal essays are over. I just don’t give a shit. I can see how certain media outlets are taking a step back from them – for a while, outlets were publishing too many personal pieces because it was easy, required little research and could therefore be cheaper to purchase, but personal essays still have so much weight and so much value to people who feel alone. I’ll consider personal essays “over” when dudes stop writing essay collections about their dicks and selling one million copies, but that doesn’t seem likely to happen anytime soon.
Your relationships, especially the ones you share with your parents and boyfriend, form a major part of your book. How do they feel about their portrayals? What’s the balance you try to strike while writing about people close to you?
My general rule of thumb when writing about other people is that you should, for the most part, come off as the asshole. If you write an entire book about your own crisis, or your own struggle, or the ways people have wronged you, there also needs to be an element of self-deprecation in there, otherwise your reader will resent you and fail to empathise with you. Maybe this is true of the book I wrote – I certainly hope not but if I’ve learned anything about releasing a book, it’s that you can’t control how people feel about your work and also people are garbage – but I did want to make sure that in most stories, I’m the asshole. And I am! I’ve been an asshole with my parents, with my friends, with my boyfriend, at work, on the internet. Starting from a place of understanding your own failures makes people less nervous when you write about them; even if my version of events is different from theirs, I’m still willing to throw myself into the mud with them.
Canada is increasingly presented as an immigrant-accepting utopia these days but your essays actually present a different version of things – one in which casual racism still exists but isn’t talked about or even noticed. Could you tell us more about that?
Well, I’d argue racism is very much noticed, just not by white people. It’s easy for Canadians to have a superiority complex about our social structures or our politics, largely because the US elected a literal maniac as their president. But I’m not interested in games of compare-and-contrast; just because things are worse in the US, doesn’t make me happy about the state of race relations in the US. Indigenous rights in Canada are trampled, being black in Canada still means you’re disproportionately targeted by the police, and I’m still getting stopped every time I go to the airport. What exactly am I supposed to be cheering for?
India, especially Jammu and Kashmir feature prominently in several parts of your book, but there’s always this tension where you seem to be balancing an outsider’s perspective and one in which you’re a member of the ‘in-group’. Is that what it felt like to be writing about India?
The frustrating part of being first-generation is that you’re always living in spaces that never feel quite right. I was born in Canada but it still feels a little unknown and a little weird and a little ill-fitting, but India doesn’t feel right either: I’ve only been there four or five times and I don’t speak the languages and honestly, I hate the heat so I can’t trust a place that has any intimate relationship with the sun. (That said, you could convince me to move for endless Thums Up alone.) Writing about India is tough, because ultimately I’m not an expert. White people may consider me one but that’s just because I’m brown, not because I know a ton about the region or the people. I can speak to the diaspora easily, but when it comes to writing about the country of origin, there’s always a balancing act between making sense of this place that I have inherent affection for, and also being frustrated by it in equal measure.
One of your essays deals with how gendered Indian weddings are – men can drink while women are expected to remain sober and take on more ceremonial responsibilities. Reading this piece, I felt like you were confused about noticing this and wanting to make sense of it but somehow not being on the same page as the women surrounding you. What were you thinking about when you wrote this essay?
I hate the argument that India or brown people are backwards or somehow more sexist than white people or North American countries. It’s important that we hold our culture and our own people accountable for the shit they pull that isn’t fair or that speaks to a larger issue in our communities – women are still disadvantaged to men pretty much everywhere – but I don’t want to do it in a way that’s condescending or ridiculing. I remember this happened when everyone was ranting about how India had a rape crisis, as if the rest of the world was immune from sexual assault. So when I was working on that piece, I wanted to talk about the absurdity of our customs and how bothersome they are if you’re not a man, but I also wanted to recognise their importance to me or to my family.
There’s a general upswing in first-generation South Asian immigrants sharing their life stories in popular culture and while those are hilarious and moving, I didn’t even realise that most were missing a woman’s perspective. Is that something you were consciously trying to address?
I wrote the book for brown girls first, and everyone else second. I don’t remember reading a ton of books by brown women to begin with, nevermind non-fiction books by brown women, so I did want to fill that gap at least. But it’s not like I set out to write the quintessential ethnic book. I wrote about things that felt honest and important to me and everything that came after it speaks to either how starved that market is, or how the essays are funny and thoughtful (I hope) or maybe that they just liked the cover. It’s a good cover!
Your writing walks a fine line between over-sharing and poignantly hilarious, especially the essay on body hair. How do you decide what’s funny or not? And how do you incorporate humour into your work when you’re writing about subjects that people are often so insecure about?
Everything about your life can be funny if you’re ready to let it be.