An Experience and a Life and a Family: Talking with Scaachi Koul

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As a lifelong fangirl, I have learned the hard way that in most cases, there’s a canyon between someone’s public presentation and the living, breathing human being that gets distracted, makes mistakes, and perhaps might not actually thrive on your adoration. The leading brand markets itself as flawless, ever-caring—an embodiment of the meme “I woke up like this.” In this case, finding the cracks in the painting is a serious betrayal.

What makes Scaachi Koul great is that there is zero pretending that she is not the rest of us. Typical Koul content includes her cat’s inner monologues, email exchanges with her dad, iMessage threads with her mom, jokes about her fiancé, pieces she has written, Canadian news… and all of it feels real—caps lock and all.

In One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter, Koul’s essays use her signature sarcasm, intense attention, and dynamic emotional bandwidth to contemplate home, hurts, and hope.

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The Rumpus: One subtle but gratifying element of One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter is its cohesion. Many times, debut literary essay collections are just a compilation of pieces long-since published, an analog manifestation of work available and in circulation on the Internet. What prompted you to write this book ‘from scratch,’ as it were? Did pieces that had been published elsewhere serve as anchor points, or did they require some wrestling?

Scaachi Koul: There are four essays that were previously published elsewhere that served as the guiding themes of the book: “Hunting Season” about rape culture, “Tawi River, Elbow River” about home, “Inheritance Tax” about fear, and “A Good Egg” about friendship and drinking. From there, I thought about other stories I wanted to tell and how I could weave a narrative that felt thorough and connected throughout the whole book so that it didn’t feel like ten disjointed essays about my feelings and my various personal hells. (That’s what Twitter is for.)

Rumpus: For many artists, being on social media is a modern-day chore, an obligation necessary if one wants to establish and maintain a brand. A millennial, though, has a different relationship with the Internet entirely—sometimes one that is love-hate. As a public figure, you offer a comprehensive, three hundred sixty degree view of your life, rather than, say, a Scaachi bot that only tweets and posts marketing-approved, career-related material. Did it ever feel redundant to write about your family, worries, and relationship in the long-form? What are some stories and characters that did not make the final publication?

Koul: It’s really easy to think that fifteen or twenty tweets about my life or my family is tantamount to writing an essay about them. Twitter is fine for building a voice that people can recognize or disseminating information or learning from other people or self-promotion but I don’t think it’s great for creating larger stories. Things get taken out of context; they get lost. I did worry, initially, because it felt like I was repeating myself—and in one context, I guess I am—but ultimately, I was trying to give everyone a richer understanding of an experience and a life and a family. There were stories that didn’t make it to the final publication, but not because of repetition; they didn’t make it because I wasn’t ready to tell those stories, and I’ve learned not to tell stories that I’m not ready to tell. Everything gets its time, eventually. I’m learning how to be patient with my own narrative.

Rumpus: If ‘growing up’ is an ongoing process, how does the cross-out in your book title relate to moving through the world with anxiety?

Koul: Scott Richardson at Penguin Random House Canada designed the cover. I never looked at the title that way so it was this incredible moment of noticing that my worst instincts can be chipped away and turned into something good and honest. Anxiety can be good—it protects you from getting hurt and makes you work harder—but it can also be crippling and destructive. It’s worthwhile to find some good in the world now and then. (But don’t tell anyone I said that; you’ll ruin my braaaaand.)

Rumpus: “Inheritance Tax” includes a beautiful passage about how your mother generally moves in the extremes: “Mom, on the other hand, hugged you with her arms and shoulders and suffocating bosom, burying you in all her soft, cool flesh. That, or she would kill you. These were your options.” When she’s happy, she cries. When she’s sad, she cries. No matter what, “Mom told you how she felt, when she felt it, as much and as often as she needed to tell you.” How did your mother’s honesty impact your childhood and adolescence?

Koul: Honesty is subjective. My mom might think she’s being honest in certain moments but I might think she’s being wildly dramatic. I think it was less about how her honesty affected me but more about how someone’s raw, constant emotionality affects you as a person. I know that now, as an adult, I swing wildly from coldness to perpetual feeling, because there were and are not ever any in-betweens with my mom. But the nice thing is my mom has no capacity for passive-aggression—even when she thinks she’s being passive, there’s no mistaking what she’s thinking or feeling. And frankly, I think that’s a good thing to learn how to be for a woman: My mom never apologized for how she was feeling—even when it was ridiculous, she never shied away from hard conversations, she never let anyone dismiss her reactions or her desires. She just told you what was what, and the rest was your problem.

Rumpus: Essays about your partner-in-crime, referred to here as Hamhock, serve as bookends for the collection. What made you choose to use this term of endearment for the book? Do you ever refer to him this way outside the book?

Koul: Hamhock was Hamhock long before he became Hamhock in print. He will be Hamhock until he dies, whether he likes it or not. (To be clear, he does not like it.)

Rumpus: Among other things, “Anyway” explains how you and Hamhock had been together for years before told your parents the two of you are together, and how much emotional acrobatics it took for them to accept it. In fact, your father stopped speaking to you for three months after hearing the news, and to this day does not acknowledge him much. Has your recent engagement changed the dynamic at all? Have your parents read the book?

Koul: My dad came around a few months after I finished the book but before it came out. My dad hasn’t read it because he knows his emotional limits with these things and the content would likely upset him; instead, he’s happy to read my interviews and my reviews and seems satiated by that. My mom read it and said it was funny and sad, so, mission accomplished.

Rumpus: The great canonical American quarter-life crisis is discovering your parents are, in fact, fully-dimensional people. However, your knowledge of the inner life of your parents—as individuals and partners—is impressive, from their childhood memories to the beginning of their courtship to present-day habits and worries. Was it always like this?

Koul: Oh god, no, it was not always like this. It took me a really long time to understand that they were real people and not just wardens stopping me from doing everything I wanted, all the time, regardless of safety or repercussions. Some of their stories came out naturally—when we visited my dad’s old house, he just started talking, mostly to himself, about all these little things he remembered, or when my mom’s mother died, she had all these anecdotes about her parents or her brother I had never heard. But sometimes stories become a part of the tapestry of your family, and they’re woven in without you even having to ask what they are or what they mean. I always knew the stories about how my parents met, or about how complicated my conception was (gross), or about my grandfather’s death. I don’t know how I learned these things, but I assume it’s similar to how my niece just inherently knows things about me or my life. It’s not so much about learning more details about your parents that lets you recognize that they’re real, dynamic people, but about what you do with that information. I moved out of the house young, and it gave me a lot of time to reflect on my family and our roles and what they meant to me and vice versa—that’s when I was able to put all the stories I had about them to use. That’s when they became humans and not just people who did my laundry and made sure I didn’t die.

Rumpus: Though the shortest essay in the book, “Hunting Season” presents the argument that rape culture manifests most in the act of men constantly ogling women, as opposed to drinking and ‘party culture.’ Rapists, according to the essay, ‘have a plan long before we even get to the bar to order our first drink.’ Because they have been watching you, because they have picked you out, because they see you stumbling. Because they deserve you, according to the patriarchy. What was the response to this essay when you first published it?

Koul: Mixed. A lot of women told me it articulated a creeping discomfort they had always had with drinking near men, and a lot of men told me it was offensive and portrayed all of them as rapists. This is predictable, but I do think it’s worth examining what role surveillance plays in rape culture, and what tools we use—consciously or not—to sway women towards sex. I know it’s uncomfortable to read, probably more so for dudes who’ve never considered how they way they pick up girls at bars is a type of intentional observation, but all the more reason to think about it.

Rumpus: Does your father still watch the news four times a day, with two rounds of local news, one national, and one international? Did his need to know what was out there at any given moment shape how you consume and interact with the news? 

Koul: He does. It’s exhausting. I can always tell how interested he is in speaking to me based on whether he deigns to turn the television off or at least turn down CBC news. I’m sure my eventual interest in journalism was shaped by how much news he consumes—we watched local news together and he was a longtime subscriber to more than a few newspapers. It was important to know what was going on and, eventually, it became something for the two of us to talk about. My dad and I don’t have a lot of similar interests. When I was a teenager, I remember there was a shooting at a university in Montreal and my dad was really into talking to me about why it happened and what the social and cultural influencers were that leads someone to kill people en masse like that. It was one of our longest conversations to date and he treated me like an adult. Maybe it was important to find some common ground, even if that common ground was a little dark.

Rumpus: What does it mean to you to be a ‘culture writer’?

Koul: For me in my current role, I think being a culture writer means looking at the things affecting and influencing culture today and what that means. I like to write a lot about how we talk about beauty, about how people try to make connections to each other, about loneliness and the Internet and loss. Sometimes this takes the form of a piece about the My Favorite Murder podcast, or about why we’re all horny for The Rock, or an essay about my mom’s cooking. But regardless, there are always the unifying themes of trying to bond with other people, or trying to find comfort.

Rumpus: “A Good Egg” weaves a failed attempt at Dry January into college memories with one of your greatest allies Baby Braga and an old friend named Jeff. Party captain and a big brother figure to you at first, Jeff’s drinking becomes destructive and unmanageable and eventually ends your friendship, after an emotional interaction at a party. There are regrets, big and small, throughout the book, but complicated feelings linger here. Why did you choose to include this story?

Koul: Baby Braga is, unfortunately for him, a huge part of my life, and I knew I wanted to say something about him. Our friendship always came out of something that’s been marred by something terrible, a provenance that I never really liked to think about. But I think he and Jeff became these parallel images of each other for me, where one leaned into me and protected me and the other lashed out at me. It’s also become increasingly clear how many girls and women have “that” university or college friend, someone who can only exist in that ecosystem, and it’s always so heartbreaking when you can’t take them into your “real” life after you leave school. But mostly I wanted to publicly label him Baby Braga. His mother and girlfriend are really pleased with me.

Rumpus: As a girl with glowing white skin and bright blue eyes, your niece Raisin will have a completely different childhood and adolescence than you did, even though she is half Indian. In the book, it seems like this will spare her from something, protect her. Is part of the reason for including her in this book to remind her where she comes from?

Koul: Wouldn’t it be nice if every little kid—namely girls, namely girls of color—had a book written specifically for them that explained where they came from, and where they might go, and give them little pieces of their family history, and remind them that they’re not alone and that terrible things are going to happen but they will find ways to crack through misery, and that there are all these people holding them up to thrive and be healthy and be happy? That would be nice. At least I can do it for one person in my life.

Rumpus: “Mute” mentions “another book by an Indian writer about a first-generation Indian girl trying to date as a teenager.” Can you tell me more about this book? (Here’s hoping it’s Born Confused by Tanuja Desai Hidier because that book means the world to me.)

Koul: You’re right, I was talking about Born Confused! I think I got it from a Scholastic book fair at my school and my mom got a kick out of the cover—it has this old, stylized image of an Indian woman’s eyes with her bindi. I hadn’t read a lot of work by Indian writers before, but this one was specifically about the ABCD experience (American-Born Confused Desi, unbelievable that this acronym never caught on). And frankly, I don’t remember too many specifics but I just recall that I didn’t want my mom to read it because it would feel like she was reading my diary. It cut really close to the bone, how accurate my experience was being read back to me. I know this sounds routine to a lot of people but if you can’t find yourself anywhere in the culture, it’s so startling when you do, like all your secrets have been spilled out on the lawn. It’s enthralling and exciting but terrifying at the same time: like, can other people read this, too?

Rumpus: One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter explains that the expectations brown parents have for their brown daughters are steep in comparison for their brown sons, especially when it comes to romantic partners. Your brother, who has a white partner, “moved in with her before marriage to limited if only muted controversy.” When you moved in with Hamhock, your father gave you the silent treatment for “an isolating eleven weeks and three days.” Have these privileges ever strained your relationship with your brother? Do you consider the two of you to be close, even if you are twelve years apart?

Koul: I mean, being mad at my brother personally because he was treated differently by our parents is a waste of time. We’re not close—his daughter has been a fine proxy for our relationship since she was born—but he’s always defended and supported me, namely when my parents were pitching a fight about some perceived slight. (Which was and continues to be alarmingly frequent.)

Rumpus: So far, the book has had amazing success in Canada, and the American publication went into a second printing before it was even released. Were you still nervous about how it would do, outside your home country? How would you describe your relationship to America?

Koul: First of all, I am nervous all the time about everything. I was cautiously optimistic that people in the States would like it but it’s not like I had a guarantee that a Canadian audience would respond to it. I’m really happy it’s made sense to people, it’s a huge relief. As for America, I suppose I have the same relationship to it that plenty of Canadians do: it’s where all my TV comes from. Thank you for all the TV.

Rumpus: There are more events to be had, in Canada and abroad, but what are some lessons that you’ve learned while touring for this book?

Koul:

1) Teach people how to say your first and last names before they go up to a microphone.
2) Sit up straight at live events.
3) One glass of wine is not enough, three is too many, but weirdly enough, five is perfect.

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Author photograph © Barbara Simkova.


annalia luna is currently a contributor at html giant. She earned her B.A. in Literature & Music from Butler University. Her work has been published or is forthcoming at The Rumpus, Ploughshares, Literary Hub, and Heavy Feather Review. She lives & writes in Houston, TX. More from this author →