Durga Chew-Bose

Too Much and Not the Mood

“"There are those of who retreat in order to cubicle our flame."”

Small pieces gathered together form a cohesive whole. But if those pieces are rearranged, changed slightly, would a new whole emerge?

With a deep exhale into carefully chosen words, Durga Chew-Bose (b. 1986) triumphantly declares in Too Much and Not the Mood about all her small pieces: “I am all of this. Rearrange at will, I will still be all of this.”

How many versions of happiness involve a smile? Are determined by feeling fulfilled? How many versions of happiness require acquisition? My version swears by distraction. By curling up inside the bends of parentheses. I digress, but not idiomatically. I digress intentionally.

Too Much and Not the Mood is the debut collection of essays from this Canadian-born, New York-based author. An author who navigates a constant state of extended feeling, who deploys gentle but penetrative observation, and who is above all the kind of person Henry James would call “someone on whom nothing is lost.”

principles of uncertainty
Illustration by Maira Kalman for The Principles of Uncertainty.

The most minute detail of her twenty-eight years on Earth is drawn into Chew-Bose’s tough and tender brain and spindled into gold. Ruminations of life, culture, identity, love, writing, and other shiny objects that light our souls.

Though if I’m honest, the thought of splitting a sandwich suddenly makes me enormously sad. How long has it been since I’ve enjoyed the company of someone else enjoying his food? The way he’d toss chips in his mouth and savor the crunch, and then wipe his hands on his jeans, and smile—not at me specifically but at this wonderfully unspectacular event: the sandwich, the chips, the crunch, our appetites.

Like many twenty-somethings, Chew-Bose throws her essence and reflection against the wisened world, and the world scuttles by complacent. Or the world misspeaks her name. Her essay on name is exceptional.1

To be first-generation means acquiescing to a lasting state of restlessness. It’s as if you’ve inherited not just your family’s knotted DNA but also the DNA acquired from their move, from veritable mileage, from the energy it took your parents to reestablish their lives. I learned early […] that my parents were not from here, but from there: Kolkata.

In Letters to a Young Artist, Anna Deavere Smith wrote beautifully about the tension of name: we want our name to be known, but if it becomes too well-known, it turns into a persona that occludes our true self. Classics scholar Robin Lane Fox urged the practice of learning names because it deepens distinction and sets us up to notice the individual.2

Sea glass. Featured in Durga Chew-Bose's "Too Much and Not the Mood" in The Examined Life Library.
Sea glass. My own collection. Each one remarkably individual. “There is a kind of person who collects sand…” wrote Italo Calvino in his essays on human invention.Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Names are critical to that we are and can introduce conversation on who we are. “My name is a nation” wrote Ta-Nehisi Coates. But as Chew-Bose and many others know, it is also a constant reminder that one is “not from here.”

As for personal definitions, besides being a writer,3 Chew-Bose delightfully calls herself a “nook” person: one who seeks uninterrupted silence and the contained warmth of corners.

I don’t require much to feel far-removed; to impose my wanderings on what’s close. Because of this, my friend and I have started calling ourselves nook people. Those of us who seek corners and bays in order to redeploy our hearts and not break the mood. Those of us who retreat 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.

"Slabworks" 2019, Anthony Gormley. Featured in "The Unlikely Strength of Corners" on the Examined Life.
“Slabworks” 2019, Anthony Gormley. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Oliver Sacks wrote of his memoirs (he had many) that “he sat at the intersection of biography, biology, person and personhood” (and he spent his life expanding the concept of personhood). To those who grieve at young people writing memoirs, I say pish-posh. Person and personhood is not something we arrive at it; it is something we explore over time, throughout life.

I’m thankful that a person of Chew-Bose’s insight and sensitivity was generous enough to write while young. Because it will be delightful to see how she continues to impose her wanderings.