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The Anti-Polemicist

Durga Chew-Bose’s dense, meticulous writing on identity politics feels like a corrective for our current political moment.

Durga Chew-Bose has become a leading voice in the millennial intelligentsia by writing what’s been described as the antithesis to today’s “churned-out ‘hot takes.’ ” In a time when so many writers bend to the internet economy’s demand for easy reading, Chew-Bose rose to prominence with dense, meticulous essays on identity politics and culture that rewarded sustained attention and patience. Essays like “Since Living Alone”—a lyrical piece originally published on the Hairpin that examines solitude’s value—revealed a voice that stretched language to convey what it feels like to experience the world and homed in on everyday life’s mundane details to reveal their fundamental strangeness. She merges the political, personal, and aesthetic into a panoramic account of contemporary life and the vagaries of gender and racial identity.

That in-depth exploration of identity continues in her debut essay collection, Too Much and Not the Mood. “There’s strength in one’s miniaturization,” she writes early on. “Smallness can make you feel extra porous. Extra ambitious.” Across 14 playful and peripatetic essays that touch on everything from the pleasure of watching movies in the summertime to the alienation of being a lone adolescent brown girl in a throng of white girls, Chew-Bose shows us what such ambitious porousness might look like. Her strange, challenging, and sometimes frustrating prose is personal but only in the most attenuated sense.

I say attenuated because these essays don’t start from the presumption of a stable self. Rather, they narrate how experience is always intercepting and disrupting that I—especially when it belongs to a woman of color whose attempts to formulate a self in language are always subject to refraction through the minds and comforts of others. If we’re to go by the lyrical fleetness of Chew-Bose’s prose, though, that refraction or double consciousness rarely feels like a burden. The book converts miniaturization into an unexpected aesthetic opportunity, a lens that refracts one’s self in the most blissful ways possible. The result is a book that substitutes a giddy openness in place of the stark political polemics that characterize so many contemporary essays on gender and race. In “Upspeak,” an essay about the gender politics of her own “childlike” voice, she seems to lose her train of thought, digressing from an image of sleeping puppies to Al Pacino’s puppy-dog eyes in The Godfather to the ecstasy young Pacino inspires in her. What you expect to be a somber personal essay about gender politics takes a detour into astute and warm film criticism.

It’s not that this collection is apolitical—it’s just interested in the nuance of experience that many essays on race and gender so often forget to account for. Chew-Bose’s language, for example, excels when communicating the sense of dislocation—always close at hand—inherent in being a person of color. In one essay, she recalls her adolescence among older white girls, writing that white girls “knew nothing, or so it seemed, about the prickling and pining so innate to me, about deeply honed unease.” For these girls—seemingly unburdened by alienation, perfectly at ease in the world—participating in the world means being its focal point. If these girls are society’s pivot, Chew-Bose places herself off in the periphery, slyly spying on neighbors through holes in fences, an audience to the world but rarely a participant. She is “born accommodating,” as she writes in “D as In,” an essay about being continually misnamed. For her, being born accommodating means living with a sense that one does not own oneself, that you must always make space for others and find contentment being a spectator.

Judging by Chew-Bose’s prose, though, there seems to be so much pleasure in spectating that it’s easy to wonder why you’d want to be anywhere but the stands. Too Much makes looking seem extravagant, and in Chew-Bose’s hands looking is a tool for cultivating intimacy with the world. Recounting a scene from The Godfather Part II when Vito Corleone gives Carmela a pear, she writes that “He gently places the gift on their table while she busies herself in the kitchen, and in those few seconds I’ve always been taken by what I can only describe as the privacy of kindness. Those moments leading up to—that anticipate—the testimony of kindness.” This is the kind of close reading that opens up new dimensions of experience, that looks at the world a little cockeyed in order to peel back the layers we’ve become inured to and confront us with everything we’ve missed. Most importantly, it’s not a kind of looking available to those who have grown accustomed to thinking of the world as theirs. Chew-Bose’s status as spectator results in prose that feels Emersonian, like inhabiting a massive and insatiably curious eyeball that roves incessantly over its surroundings, finding in them the same aesthetic pleasure normally reserved for a darkened movie theater. Perhaps this is why Chew-Bose’s most enduring pleasure seems to be film, where there’s no need to do anything more than looking.

Or maybe Zora Neale Hurston is a more apt precedent. Like Hurston, Chew-Bose’s prose is itinerant, restless, completely uninterested in settling into anything resembling argument. Instead, it proceeds via associative logic, making an art out of diversion and tangent and inviting us to wander as she observes and questions. Her writing wants to retrain our attention on the various textures and pleasures that comprise lived experience.

“Heart Museum,” the 93-page essay that opens the collection, moves laterally through successive memories and observations tenuously related by nothing more than Chew-Bose’s penchant for attentive close reading and peculiar, clarifying observations. Reflecting on what it feels like to listen to a “perhaps not great, but good” album for the first time, she begins to unspool all the ways in which that album can infect your life, only to pivot quickly to how film can achieve the same infective quality, only to pivot again to a gloss on The Borrowers, Mary Norton’s series for children.

Such restlessness models a form of inquiry that makes its point via approximation rather than precision. Chew-Bose’s writing is asymptotic that way. It’s always inching toward meaning without finding it, more interested in capturing what experience feels like than interpreting it. In that sense, her most obvious predecessors are Chris Kraus and Maggie Nelson. Like those writers, she’d rather explore the resonances between ostensibly disparate phenomena than proffer meaning. The most exhilarating aspect of Nelson’s The Argonauts is the way stray bits of critical theory and poetry—a little bit of Judith Butler here, a little bit of Roland Barthes there—pockmark its surface but are never forced into interpretation. Nelson seldom bothers to explicate those excerpts’ relation to one another and instead allows their echoes to bounce off each other so that they entangle readers in their web. Chew-Bose opts for something similar, using a succession of examples or case studies to gradually articulate a way of experiencing the world that privileges openness, a willingness to affect and be affected by other people—even when it might not feel good.

This is a form that turns the vulnerability inherent in being a woman of color into strength and constructs connections between things that we rarely think of as connected. In the tantalizing “Some Things I Cannot Unhear,” for example, she moves from the staccato trembling of James Baldwin’s voice during an appearance on The Dick Cavett Show to Nina Simone claiming her breasts on “Ain’t Got No” to Allen Iverson indignantly uttering the word practice, and it’s difficult not to hear her building up to an ultimately unspoken assertion of the black voice’s power to reorganize how we perceive the world. Chew-Bose borrows some of this power for herself. Her webs encourage us to be in a more loving, attentive relationship with the world around us than maybe we’re used to these days. It’s an ambitious project, one that wants to register what it feels like to experience the world rather than flattening it out into meaning.

This itinerancy makes Too Much a disorienting and challenging read. That disorientation doesn’t always feel worthwhile. Chew-Bose’s arabesque prose is sometimes lyrical to a fault. At one point, she tries to capture the synesthesia of encountering a memory in the smell of a shirt her father once wore to a jazz club: “The shirt smells like paint drying and the sound of [Charles] Mingus’s hard bop, and while it smells like none of those things, it does.” Sentences like that feel exhausting to read because they seem ornamental more than anything, as if lyricism’s primary purpose is to provide the thinnest veneer of a narrative throughline on which these essays can hang. I often found myself pausing in the middle of an essay to wonder, What exactly am I reading about? This problem is more peculiar to the collection’s longer essays. In shorter pieces like the aforementioned “Some Things I Cannot Unhear,” there’s no need to justify a 93-page run time; we’re left to delight in how the author re-enchants the world by paying close attention.

Chew-Bose has various names for the people who find themselves in this state of enchantment, this condition of being “torn-between” multiple continents, histories, and cultures. At one point she deems herself a member of the nook people, “Those of us who retreat in order to cubicle our flame. Who collect sea glass. Who value a deep pants pocket. Who are our own understudies and may as well have shadowboxes for brains.” Being a nook person means dedicating oneself to a certain orientation toward the world, a wild-eyed and acquisitive fascination with a world that isn’t yours, that raises the eye above the I.

Because of these essays’ interest in texture rather than polemic, it’s difficult to imagine a book that contradicts our political moment more strongly than Too Much and Not the Mood. That title, drawn from Virginia Woolf’s frustration with her readers’ tastes, also spells out Chew-Bose’s relationship to the age of Trump. In a moment when public discourse has narrowed so that there seems to be little space for anything more than polemic, her essays feel affectively—and refreshingly—inconsistent with the modes of reading and writing we’ve grown accustomed to. Her irrepressible interest in the world can’t be subsumed into a politics. The dissonance Chew-Bose brings to the table has never felt more necessary.

Too Much and Not the Mood by Durga Chew-Bose. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Read the rest of the pieces in the Slate Book Review.