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Scaachi Koul on Writing a Book for her Teenage Self

Scaachi Koul grew up brown in a white city—and longed to read books about girls like her. A decade later, she wrote her own

Scaachi Koul on writing a book: "I wanted my existence to be readable. It wasn't."

When you go on a book publicity tour, people tend to ask you the same five or six questions. I have answers for most of them. No, my parents haven’t read the book yet. Yes, my dad really is like that. OF COURSE my boyfriend knew I was writing about him, how would I have hidden this exactly???  But after a few weeks of doing interviews and finding new and interesting ways to talk about myself (good thing I’m a narcissist!) I still don’t have a great answer to, “Why did you write this book?”

One Day We’ll All Be Dead And None Of This Will Matter came out in Canada at the beginning of March, a collection of essays on race, femininity, misery, family and—naturally—alcohol, that took me just over two years to write. I signed the deal when I was 23, not entirely sure I would be able to finish an entire book. I’m 26 now, and it’s done: a hard copy version of my diary that is now being handed over to people for $25. (Actually, it’s on sale right now on Indigo.ca and Amazon.ca—I’m winking so hard my eyes are bleeding.)

What is the right reason to write a book, an essayistic memoir one at that, one that makes you uncomfortable to work on and then leaves you with a pleasant kind of queasiness once delivered to people’s doorsteps? Money is a fine answer, but I didn’t care much about the advance when I got it. Fame is another fair one, but I don’t know if that factored in either when I was working on it. Besides, if you want money and notoriety, books are a terrible industry for that. Frankly the only good answer I can ever come up for this question, and it’s not that sexy of an answer, is that I wanted to write something I would have read when I was 19.

Related: Scaachi Koul on Race, Anxiety and Her Brand-New Book

The other thing I talk about too much in interviews is David Sedaris. People like to ask what writers influenced me, and it’s a good question, but my answers don’t waiver: Jon Stewart (Naked Pictures of Famous People), David Rakoff (Fraud; Don’t Get Too Comfortable), and David Sedaris. When I was around 13, at the crest of my turbulent teenage years, I found a copy of Naked at our local Costco and my mom bought it for me to shut me up. A lot of his stories didn’t make any sense to me. But the ones that did felt like he was talking directly to me, one weirdo to another. He wrote about isolation, about not being able to connect with your family even when you love them, about how it feels when people notice your difference and they don’t like it. It wasn’t my exact experience but it was close enough to make me feel noticed.

I grew up in a white city, in a white neighbourhood, around girls whose white bodies didn’t look like mine, in a family whose experiences weren’t quite like mine, the youngest in the family, often trying to tamp down undeniable things about myself. I didn’t want to be brown-skinned, swarthy, with thick legs and arms. I wanted to be named after jewelry, like Amber or Crystal or Ruby. I wanted my existence to be readable.

It wasn’t, so instead, I found other people’s work to read. Slowly, it informed my own.

It feels self-indulgent to assume that someone can see themselves in your writing. Or, maybe, I’m giving my imposter syndrome too much credit, that voice that so many women of colour have that downplays their own work. But the experience of being seen for the first time by literature, by writing, is so comforting. I’ve had it a few times in my life, first with David (can I call him David, like we are old friends?) and later with Tanuja Desai Hidier. She wrote Born Confused, a book about a first-generation brown girl which I found at my school’s book sale—I wrote her an email and she wrote me back! I didn’t know there were people who were allowed or able to tell stories about people who looked like me, who had my family history. I didn’t know I could find myself in a book. Born Confused was the first book I read with a brown protagonist. Just touching it, running my fingers over the cover where a woman was wearing a bindi—not with irony, not because it was trendy, but because it was hers—felt like a thrill.

Then, it happened again just a few months ago, when I finally read Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake. This time, the writing gutted me, reminding me of my first-generation selfishness, the way the children of immigrants are so ungrateful, how temporal my parents’ existence actually is. I haven’t read a book that touched that part of my life before. My feelings weren’t so rare, my anxiety wasn’t so absurd: here they were, translated by another voice.

My now-seven-year-old niece, who I call Raisin, is a constant presence in my book. I describe her skin, her hair, her eyes, the way her little mouth curls when she’s about to say something bad (she is sometimes bad; I really like it), and the big hopes I have for this little body. While I was writing the book, she was four, then five, then six. I pushed expectations on her, anticipations, wishes onto her in writing, but rarely considered what it would be like for her to read it when she’s older. Her mother bought her a copy and asked me to sign it; she said she’d give it to Raisin when she was 16 or 17. Will this extension of my family one day be big enough to understand this mess I put in a book? Will she want it?

I went back to my hometown last weekend to visit her. She ate my mom’s rice with her fingers, plus three bowlfuls of daal. I watched her push her hair off her face and mind her own business, seemingly not yet asking herself questions about belonging or purpose or identity. At her age, I knew I didn’t fit, but is she even thinking about it? I hope she doesn’t get there, that her youth is less charged with difference and confusion than mine was. But isn’t it a comfort that if it does come up, that if she needs to find herself somewhere, she can find it in pages I wrote myself?

Related:
Scaachi Koul on the Reality of Dating a Much Older Guy
Scaachi Koul on Writing While Female
Scaachi Koul on Why Twitter’s New Updates to Curb Abuse Aren’t Enough