The Essay’s Not Dead Yet: Scaachi Koul and Jason Diamond

Not every writer would publish a column, as Scaachi Koul did in 2015 for BuzzFeed, containing thirteen “inexplicable yet endearing emails” from her father, among them a missive that states: “It is your sciniltallting [sic] writing replete with ascerbic [sic] wit and condescending disdain for everything under the sun which makes everybody hold you in high esteem.”

The truth of that assessment is palpable throughout Koul’s book debut, One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter, a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection for 2017.  In ten pithy essays the twenty-six-year-old Canadian writer, the first-generation daughter of Kashmiri immigrants, takes on weighty subjects — appropriation, patriarchy, racism, sexism, sexuality, rape culture, the immigrant experience, personal identity . . . and her father — with an unsparing eye for human foible and an attitude suffused with sardonic, misanthropic humor.

In another essay last May for BuzzFeed, where she writes regularly about culture, Koul reflected, “I don’t know why any of us write; it is a terrible sickness.” But her ever-increasing fan base is glad that she does. Koul’s admirers include some of her most eminent peers, among them Samantha Irby, author of the national bestseller We Are Never Eating in Real Life, who wrote: “One Day We’ll All Be Dead made me laugh embarrassingly loud on the train while surrounded by snarling, irritated commuters. Approximately 1,729 times. And she has so many killer lines that destroy me. Scaachi Koul is a miracle.”

Last month, Koul sat down in front of a live audience at Barnes & Noble’s Upper West Side Manhattan store for a talk about the state of the essay with Jason Diamond (author of the memoir Searching for John Hughes, editor at Rollingstone.com, and founder of Volume 1: Brooklyn).  The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Jason Diamond: You write about having this fear of flying, and yet you’ve been touring so much. Has it gotten worse?

Scaachi Koul: It’s getting worse for sure. It’s also getting worse because I have to come to the States a lot, and going through border security as an ethnic with, like, no real reason to be here, is never good. I’m here for a few weeks this trip, so I didn’t have a return flight. When I came in they were like, “What do you do?” “Oh, I’m a writer.” “Are you?” I could bring up this book I wrote, but they wouldn’t trust it.

JD: Do you think they’d like the title?

SK: I do not tell Border Security the title of my book.

JD: How did you come to the title? It’s possibly the title of the year.

SK: In the book, there’s an essay about going to my cousin’s wedding in India. She was having a bad week, because weddings are a week there. She looked at me, really exhausted, and was like, “This is so physically painful and emotionally painful.” I said, “It’s OK, because you’re going to be dead, and then none of this will matter.” My aunts didn’t love that, but I thought it was apt.

JD: Where did you come up with the idea to write a book of personal essays?

SK: I’ve got a couple of things in my favor. One is that I’m a narcissist. So right out of the gate, it’s like: Cool — ready to talk about myself again. But I’m also good at it. That’s just lucky. But the other side of it is, I wanted to write a book that would talk about things I didn’t get to read about when I was younger. I didn’t read a ton of nonfiction about women when I was younger. I certainly didn’t read nonfiction about brown women, and I definitely didn’t read about, you know, Canadian brown women pulling hairs out of their nipples — which is a story in this collection. That never really came up for me. I remember thinking how nice would it have been to have had that when I was even twenty; something that gives you a guide of, you know, your life is hell, but it’s going to be OK eventually . . . hopefully.

JD: As I was reading, I was thinking that children of immigrants grow up with values from where their parents are from, but their parents also are trying to raise them as a Canadian or an American. At some point you have to rebel. Every kid rebels, but I think it’s different when your parents are not from here. I’m wondering at what point you started thinking, “I want to be different than my parents.”

SK: Eleven or twelve. Puberty. I think a big part of it was noticing boys. That wasn’t a talk I got. No one sat me down and told me, “This is how somebody has a baby.” You just sort of figure it out because your mother will never tell you. But I never realized how much access I had to information, compared to the rest of my family. My mom recently told me a story that her mother got married when she was fifteen, before she had her period, and then she got it when she turned sixteen, and her husband had to tell her what it was, because none of the women in her family would tell her. Now I think about my niece, who is the first biracial person in our family. And I marvel at the amount of information she has.

But in terms of feeling different from them, I think it was inevitable. I was being raised in an atmosphere where I was being tugged in two directions. English was my first language, and I never learned any of the languages my parents knew. They wanted me to understand it, but they never taught it to me because they wanted me to integrate. But they didn’t want me to assimilate. It becomes a very complicated push and pull. I still haven’t figured that out.

JD: You talk about growing up in Calgary, and how there was a pretty large Indian community, but you say you didn’t feel like they were your people. Did you ever start to feel like they were?

SK: Not when I lived there. I left when I was seventeen. Calgary is . . . oh, I love explaining Canada. Calgary is in the West. It’s in the prairies. They make oats and cows. It’s a very conservative white area.

No, I never really felt like we connected with them. We didn’t live in the neighborhood where they had all settled. We lived in a white neighborhood. I don’t know if that was a conscious choice on my dad’s part when they moved. He wanted us to be Canadian. He wanted us to be North American. So a good way to do that is to make you live with other white people . . . I mean, with white people . . . See how easy it was to slip into that? Oh, I’m glad he’s not here.

JD: Was there ever a point, like, later on, when you started trying to maybe feel more of a connection?

SK: Not until I moved to Toronto, which is on the other side of the country, basically.

JD: Your father is everywhere in the book.

SK: He’s exhausting.

JD: How do you describe your relationship with your father to people? Even if you haven’t read the book, if you follow Scaachi on Twitter, you start to realize he’s this character who…

SK: He’s always calling. My dad is sixty-seven. He is the oldest in his family, which by brown standards means he is a fucking pain, because the eldest boys are so spoiled and so needy. So he’s, like, needy, but he’s the patriarch, and he’s very funny but he gets mad easily, and he’s aging, and he’s not OK with it . . . He’s like if your pet could speak to you all the time and tell you every need and anguish they have, and if they also had a cell phone and texted them to you. I love him a lot, but he’s 90 percent of the work that I do.

JD: He wrote your bio.

SK: He did.

JD: He says you stole some of his material, I think.

SK: See what I mean? Like, so dramatic. He routinely calls and asks for a portion of my advance. His new thing is, he calls and says, “What’s the number?” by which he means “What’s the number of books sold?” — as if I have that information every day. Then, if I have the number, by chance (because I will have to text my editor and say, “My father is asking what’s the number”), he’ll ask me if that’s better or worse than some other author, and it’s always someone that’s unreasonable. Franzen. He wants to know if Oprah’s read it. I haven’t talked to her in a WHILE, so I’m not sure

JD: For some reason, I kept opening the book to the text or email where he mentions Suge Knight.

SK: He loves Suge Knight. And he doesn’t know who Suge Knight is. He sent an email that says something about how Suge Knight “upset the humdrum routine of everyday life.” I was like, “He might be a murderer.” My dad’s response is, “Murder is necessary to social order.” This is his vein. Should I read the bio?

JD: You can read whatever you want.

SK: I emailed him . . . This is a real email. People always tell me that I made this up, as if I have the goddamn time. I emailed him on November 24th of last year and said, “My publisher wants you to write my author bio for the back of the book.” He answered with: “Who would have the editorial control? I need some ironclad guarantee that they do not turn what I write, which would be insightful and very succinct, into some post-pubescent pablum.” I replied, “I have spoken to my editor, and she has guaranteed that she will not edit you.” That was my mistake. Then he says, “You must correct it for punctuation, which is elites trying to keep bourgeoisie like us down.” Here it goes.

“The author of this book, Scaachi Molita Koul, is my daughter, born when Wife and I were at the cusp of entering middle age, but we were deliriously happy to welcome her after a particularly painful pregnancy. I am positive, or I would like to believe that she got a lot of material from my musings, which I expressed out loud to humor her. It could also be that I was vicariously living through her. I am almost certain she has presented me in a very poignant and loving way, or, again, I could be delusional. If I am presented as a crank or an Indian version of Archie Bunker, then my revenge would be complete, because I named her Scaachi with a silent ‘c’.”

He’s a lot. And that’s every day.

JD: In one part of the book, you talk about how you’re able to sort of blend within Canadian media.

SK: Oh, yeah. Canadian media is a lot smaller, obviously, than the U.S. — we have a lot fewer people and fewer outlets. And it is, by nature, designed to be a lot whiter than it is here. What ends up happening is that the very few people who get picked to enter that space are being allowed because of those gatekeepers thinking this crosses off the diversity box without actually addressing any of the issues.

A few weeks ago a bunch of Canadian editors of very large newspapers were talking on Twitter at, like, eleven o’clock at night on a Thursday about how they were going to set up a fund for what writer could best culturally appropriate from another group of people. Which is insane. They also came up with, like, three grand in an hour, which is, like: If you can do that, just give it to me! I’ll do something with it. That’s a great snapshot of what’s going on in Canada in terms of how people talk about indigenous people and people of color, and how the media treats those voices as complete tokens without actually using them for any good. Because I’m fair-skinned, they’ll let me come in and I can do certain things. But if I say too much, I get in trouble. And I get in trouble all the time.

JD: I know that a lot of women in media deal with this, but you’ve taken an unnecessary amount of abuse. With all you’ve had to go through, was there any sort of apprehension about writing this very personal book?

SK: I have a real impulse control problem, so I don’t know how to not do stuff. As soon as I decide I’m going to do it, that’s it. That’s a bad thing sometimes, but in these cases it’s probably beneficial.

A book costs money. So if you would like to yell at me but you would also like to give me $16, I encourage it. Feel free. But most people aren’t going to pay the entry fee to call me the c-word. If you already don’t like me, this book just affirms what you already believe. If you think that I believe in white genocide — well, you’re not going to get any different information from this. Good luck! So it hasn’t felt any different.

JD: There was a really smart New Yorker article a few weeks ago about the end of the personal essay boom. Did you read it?

SK: Yes.

JD: What did you think? There are two kinds of personal essays, in my opinion. There are really horrible personal essays. But then, there are great ones, and you have a book full of them.

SK: It’s my understanding that the person who wrote that just got a deal to write an essay collection. So they’re not over by any stretch. I think her argument is that there was a time a little while ago when a lot of media outlets were buying kind of easy-disposable personal essays because they were cheap, so you could go to somebody and say, “I need to fulfill these diversity quotas, so I’m going to talk to a bunch of women of color and say, ‘Please write about being a woman of color.’ ” It’s an easy thing to do. It’s low labor, because you don’t always have to do research.

Some of those essays were really great. I was probably a part of that boon before this book came out, and I worked in that space, too.

JD: A lot of great writers came out of that.

SK: Totally. But at the same time, people write essays who are maybe not ready. They don’t always get the editing time they need. So you’ve got this mass of essays that are terrible, but they’ve been produced because they’re easy to make.

But I don’t know if you can say that essays are done, because people have been writing essays forever. I’ve made this joke 100 times, but dudes write essays about their wangs all the time and say, like, “This is my opus.” It’s not looked at as this trend thing. It’s just a book. But for some reason, as soon as people whom we don’t consider to be the majority — women or women of color or non-binary people or queer people — start writing essay collections, those groups get lumped into this idea that diversity is a passing trend.

JD: You’ve been touring, doing events since the book came out in the U.S. in May. Can you pinpoint one thing that people have come up and talked to you or emailed you about?

SK: I notice that a lot of brown girls tell me they’re glad there is something that explained things that they were having happen to them, so it gives them some sense they’re not entirely isolated. A lot of dudes have emailed me, like, “Oh, I’m terrible; I had no idea.” That’s been refreshing. But I think people find their own thing from it. A lot of people who have had bad relationships with their dads said that it either gave them some comfort because their dad isn’t around any more, or it’s gotten them to call him or whatever else. So he’s done one good thing.

JD: We have you!

SK: Well, my mother did that.

JD: He’s one-half.

SK: Well, who knows?

The post The Essay’s Not Dead Yet: Scaachi Koul and Jason Diamond appeared first on The Barnes & Noble Review.

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