As Irby celebrates the release of her latest book, 'Wow, No Thank You,' during lockdown, the two discuss the art of sharing without oversharing
If the personal essay has never been more popular (and trust us, it hasn’t) could it spring from the tremor of recognition we find in other people’s experiences? In the hands of writers like Samantha Irby and Durga Chew-Bose, the essay becomes a common unifier, finding its echo in the knowing nods, laughs, and gasps of readers.
For Irby, the best way to deflect “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” is to find the punch line. Her essays are mordantly funny, self-deprecating, and profoundly human. To quote a laudatory New York Times review of her latest book, Wow, No Thank You, “Read Irby because she understands the mutinies of the body. She understands suffering and uncertainty, and is wildly, seditiously funny on both.” An African-American woman in a same-sex marriage, Irby also feels like the best kind of riposte to the Trump era of racism, misogyny, and homophobia precisely because she doesn’t condescend to dignify the bullies with a response. (She has also had relationships with men, often the source material of her earlier essays: “People want the jokes,” she told the web publication Into in 2017. “Most of my relationships with men have been jokes.”)
Like Irby, Chew-Bose uses her writing to interrogate her past. An unapologetic nostalgic, her debut collection, Too Much and Not the Mood, is both precise and expansive, as thoughts give birth to new thoughts, pulling seemingly random and disparate ideas into one seamless flow. Like Irby, too, she is interested in the triggers of memory, whether the psychedelic fever dream of Disney’s Fantasia or a tin of chocolates at Christmas. “Memory fans out from imagination, and vice versa,” she writes in “Heart Museum,” which kicks off the collection.
On the day that Irby’s newest book Wow, No Thank You was published, she chatted with Chew-Bose about using humor as a defense mechanism, finding inspiration in Carrie Bradshaw, and the art of sharing without oversharing.
Aaron Hicklin: Where are you right now?
Samantha Irby: I’m in Kalamazoo, Michigan, which is now home. I’ve lived here for almost four years. The days have no shape or schedule. What are pajamas? What are real clothes? They all just kind of blend together. I don’t mind being inside. I enjoy looking out the window to see what everyone else is doing, but it’s terrifying. The news is super stressful, so it’s not my ideal ‘stuck inside’ situation, but mentally and emotionally, I’m handling it okay.
Durga Chew-Bose: I am in Montréal, where I live. I’m in my living room which I’ve converted into some semblance of an office. It’s the place I’m at when I’m not just staring at the inside of my fridge. I’m kind of, like everybody else, very unclear on what day it is. But I’m definitely aware of the fact that this isn’t the time to be sure about anything.
“No matter how much you share, nobody can really know you. So it’s kind of like smoke and mirrors. You’re creating a framework where the reader is deceived in some ways into thinking they know you when in reality they don’t.”
Aaron: Samantha, I presume you were supposed to be on a book tour right now?
Samantha: Yes I was. I hate traveling. I understand that this is a very privileged thing to say, because not everybody gets to go on tour, but people are meeting the dirtiest, most tired version of you. It’s not really me at my sparkling best. So I was not too sad when the tour got canceled, because, in addition to flying around and meeting people, you still have to do interviews and podcasts. I just start making the same joke over and over because I’m so tired. But I don’t know that I prefer Zoom or Skype to being in a room with people, because at least [in person] you can feed off their energy.
Durga: I don’t think as writers we’re used to receiving energy from people. It takes a toll to have a rapt audience just listening to you. You’re very conscious of being a person in the world, standing in front of people who you’ve only spoken to by email.
Samantha: I never want anyone to walk away from an experience with me with anything bad to say. I’m always super conscious of, Well this needs to be good for them, I need to show that I’m extremely grateful they’ve bought this book and they’re gonna read this thing, but coupled with My suitcase is only so big, so I’ve got to repeat some outfits I’ve already sweated through. I want them to have a good time and meet a person who’s happy to see them—which I am. It’s just, at the end of the night, I’m like, Man, I wish I could go home.
Aaron: I wonder what ‘private’ and ‘public’ mean when your interior life is, to a large extent, your source material?
Durga: If it’s first-person and you’re sharing personal details, I think the goal is to remain, to some degree, mysterious. No matter how much you share, nobody can really know you. So it’s kind of like smoke and mirrors. You’re creating a framework where the reader is deceived in some ways into thinking they know you when in reality they don’t. It’s about creating these illusions and connections that are real, but in some ways, it’s more of a flirtation. I think one of the greatest compliments you can give a writer is to tell them you had that strange feeling of thinking you got to know someone, but then you finished the book or the essay, you were still at square one: I don’t know them at all. It’s in that moment when you’re reading it, like, Oh, she’s described her home and I know exactly where her staircase is and the relationship of her bed to downstairs, and then you close the book and it’s hard to place all of that. That’s the magic of the reader-writer relationship; that it’s not totally concrete.
I guess I don’t try to think about it because then you enter territory that doesn’t really belong to you either: how the reader is living with your work. That’s their private relationship. What do you think, Sam?
Samantha: That was such a good and smart answer, and I’m going to give the dumb one. For me, there’s nothing that I put in a book that I wouldn’t be okay with seeing on a billboard, because essentially you spend the rest of your life talking to people about what you’ve written. So, if it’s something you don’t feel comfortable being public then it’s going to haunt you and make for a terrible experience. The things that I put out publicly are things that almost feel like they happened to somebody else. I don’t write about anything I haven’t thoroughly processed, that I would feel humiliated to hear someone recount to me—because often what you do as a writer is listen to other people tell you about what you wrote.
Some things have to stay mine. There’s this misconception that you’re really giving people everything, but I’m not giving you everything [laughs]. There are some things that are going to live in my head or heart forever, and the public doesn’t get that. What they do get is intimate, because it’s true and I’ve no problem peeling off the lid and letting you get down in there. But there’s still some stuff I keep to myself. I don’t want to walk around feeling like an exposed wound all the time. Everything I’ve published is a scab that’s healed over, and the skin looks almost back to normal. All of those wounds that don’t heal or are slower, I keep those to myself, which is the difference between public me and private me.
Aaron: It’s interesting that you say, ‘I’m not giving you everything,’ because when I read your essays I often think, Wow, this is a writer who does not hold back. A lot of your essays are about the humiliations of being a certain type of woman, in a society riddled with misogyny and prejudice. Is the humor a way to cauterize that?
Samantha: I’ve always been a fat kid with bad teeth who was poor. I grew up in a nice place that had some bad areas, which is where we lived. But I learned early on that defense mechanism that if you’re in on the joke or if you beat them to the joke then that takes the teeth out of it a little bit. I was also super precocious, which is another thing. I learned early that being smart is no protection. Sometimes you can hide if you have the right clothes and shoes and stuff, which I did not. So the only armor I could have was to learn to fight, and I’m not a fighter at all. I don’t know how to throw a punch or take one. The options are either learn to fight or deflect with a joke, and I started doing that as a kid, and it worked. It was a good enough defense mechanism. It doesn’t shield you from being hurt, but when you take the teeth out of people who are coming for you, they usually just stop.
Also, with so much tragedy in my early life, I had to find, not the silver lining, but the nugget of absurdity in whatever situation and try to laugh at that. Otherwise, it just feels like it’s going to overwhelm you. I still do that now. I get through tours by laughing at whatever terrible thing happens to me. Whatever it is, I’m just trying to find the one amusing part so I can get through it. That’s a defense mechanism that I’ve had since childhood. Who knows, if I didn’t have a sense of humor, where or how I would’ve ended up?
Later, it translated easily to writing. You know, I’d go on a bad date with someone who’s mean to me—I’ve had a couple OkCupid dates where they’ve gotten up and left when I came in. I could cry about that, and sure, I did. But then I’m going to alchemize that. People can relate, but they want to relate to a funny thing more than they do a sad one.
Durga: I’m not always prone to laughing at what I think is funny. But your mechanism for humor is not just the joke, it’s the setup and the entire infrastructure of humor. People like me, who might find it harder to latch on immediately to the image that has a punch line, I’ll really hold on to an aspect of the image that totally tickles me, but it’s not the main event.
Samantha: Sometimes, I will read through something I’ve written, especially when I’m told it needs to be shorter, and think of how many things I put in there that are truly just for me. Do you ever write things that are like that?
Durga: Well I think it’s an aspect of your voice. Editing and cutting is essential, but there’s a level of trust that’s established on the page, or established in your voice. We trust that you’re up to something. I’m not, as a reader, asking, ‘Why is this detail here?’ It’s part of the package and it’s part of the experience, it’s part of your voice. I’ve also learned that the more specific I am, the more a detail feels so completely mine, so completely part of my life story and my memory, those are the moments that, strangely, someone will say ‘me too’ about. It’s obviously not the exact moment, because they weren’t there—but in the specificity, I’ve picked up on something else, like a feeling, or some kind of nostalgia.
Samantha: That’s my favorite thing about personal essayists—I hate that term! I wish there were another term. But I really love all the minutiae. Yes, I want to know the big sweeping story or the love story or the sad story, but I also want to know what kind of car you were in, and what sweater you had on. People always ask how I remember a story to retell it, and it’s because I remember all of those details, because those are the things that stick.
Durga: It’s kind of like that feeling where you always remember what someone was wearing when you met them or what they ordered, though you’ll barely remember what you talked about, or the circumstance that brought you together in the first place.
Samantha: My wife gets mad because when I picture our first date, I always think she was wearing overalls. She was not, but I do remember the exact meal she ordered. She got huevos rancheros, a huge plate, and ate the whole thing. I was like, Oh, this is my woman. [Laughs]
Durga: Details, of course, are really important to me. Getting it right, especially if I’m getting it wrong, is kind of fun too. I think it’s great to remember something completely not as it happened. Remembering the overalls is actually maybe remembering some aspect of a person that would wear overalls on a first date. I think that’s a loving, safe detail because that means something else. Like, Did I remember this or did I just look at the photo for so long that I created that memory from my childhood? Those kinds of fictions are essential to telling it like you think it happened, because your mind is clearly pursuing something and you’re letting it take over. I barely remember writing some of the sentences in my book. They kind of just happened.
Samantha: I often say as a response to people, ‘I’m not a journalist.’ You’re getting things through my prism in the way that it landed for me. I call my work creative nonfiction, which means kind of, mostly true. True as I experienced it.
Aaron: Samantha, you lost your parents when you were young, but I wonder what, for both of you, was your mothers’ influence on your work. Durga wrote about her mother as someone who had proven that a person can be supportive yet remain unreachable. Have your mothers shaped your writing?
Durga: I think my relationship to my mother and my stepmother and mothers in general—it’s not a closeness that has defined who I am. Maybe something about the world that we live in, if it’s fictional tropes, the Gilmore Girls, there’s this idea of some aspirational relationship. I think I went out of my way a couple of times in my book to talk about how that is not the kind of world I grew up in—not because there was spite or animosity or a lack of emotional connection. I just think that not all women are there to be your big sister and your mom at the same time, and they can provide forms of leadership and admiration and support that are different—just by having a house that had books in it, for example. That was something I wanted to make clear in my book, and I think my mom would agree with that. She is not a very sentimental person.
Samantha: Thinking about that whole Gilmore Girls, we are each other’s best friend thing, and how that is just not the experience for so many people. When you see something like that, you think, Oh is this how it’s supposed to be? Am I supposed to know my mother’s business? My mom died when I was 18, and I can tell you very few things about her life that I heard from her. I have three older sisters, and they are 20, 17, and 15 years older than I am, so it’s not like a sibling relationship at all. It was like having four mothers, which was three too many, for sure. My mom didn’t talk about her life with me. She was the mom: This is what you eat; put these clothes on; go to school at this time. She was 40 when I was born, and my sisters would say that she spoiled me, but I would say that’s just a little sibling jealousy. I feel on the one hand my mom would be very proud that I have achieved some success, but I do not think that she would be thrilled about the nature of my writing, only because she was very private. I say this a lot, and I hope it doesn’t sound callous, but I think my parents’ being dead is probably the most creatively freeing thing that could have happened to me. There truly is no one telling me, ‘You can’t do that, don’t say that, don’t bring shame to our name.’ My sisters do not read my books. They know they exist and they are proud. But they don’t really give a shit about any of this. So it’s a good dose of reality. Honestly, if my parents were alive they would just be like, ‘Are you rich? Can we have some money?’ I’d say, ‘Well, books don’t really pay,’ and they’d say, ‘Go back to working a real job.’
Aaron: Samantha, your work references film a lot. You are probably both watching more TV than ever right now.
Durga: I only ever really want to watch The Pelican Brief. I derive extreme comfort from courtroom dramas or civil action. I don’t like when a film portrays a courthouse how it really looks now, which is modern and gray and blah. I want to live in a courtroom drama where there’s just a little bit of investigation, and Denzel Washington is in the movie. And it’s the weekend, so he’s in his denim and gray crewneck sweatshirt. I find the detective-on-the-weekend aesthetic very comforting. That’s very real for me. It feels kind of dated, I guess, now—like justice!
Samantha: Speaking of courtroom dramas, one of my favorite comfort movies is A Few Good Men.
Durga: See! There’s so much denim and crewneck sweatshirts in that, too.
Samantha: Just a big star, being his dramatic best, and yelling in court. I also really love a super talky movie like The Social Network, which I watch alarmingly often. Aaron Sorkin is my comfort food of choice. This is so embarrassing, and I don’t think I’ve ever said it, but it’s true: I think that so much of my early blogging life, and thus my writing life in general, was informed by Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City. I don’t think it was conscious, and I certainly wasn’t thin and rich, but it came out when I got out of high school, and I watched it religiously, and I think it would be a lie if I said it didn’t even have a tiny impact on my early blogging days.
Aaron: I didn’t realize until about now, basically, that the ’90s would be the last good decade, probably, of my entire life. But Samantha, you actually say in ‘Girls Gone Mild’ that 2002 was a less cynical time.
Samantha: This is some get-off-my-lawn shit, and I’m sorry in advance, but I truly miss just getting to enjoy stuff without the potential repercussions of it. Not that I am watching a bunch of problematic shit that I want to get away with, but sometimes if you say publicly that you like something, someone somewhere will disagree, and not even because it is bad, but because they personally don’t like it. So I rarely say anymore things I like and don’t like, because I don’t want to listen to other people’s feedback. It was nice when you could just watch a thing and not feel like you had to defend it.
Aaron: Right, and on that basis, neither The Pelican Brief nor Sex and the City are going to get a pass.
Samantha: Right, none of it. None of the things that have shaped us. Everything is a problem. I get it, but I will just be over here liking what I like in silence and not recommending anything to anyone I don’t personally know. It’s hard. I can’t even keep up with all the reasons why you can or can’t like things. I know there is something in my queue right now that someone would roast me for watching.
Durga: I’m wondering about what you think of in terms of your writing voice and your voice in your head. When you’re writing an essay, is the voice in your head funny? Are you laughing along?
Samantha: I am always writing to make myself laugh, and I always know how it is going to end. Essentially, if you think of every essay as one long joke, I know where it is going to land, and then I write to the ending. I like to take a circuitous route to the point. I’m not a clown, but I don’t know that I could write serious, thoughtful things. It’s always just like, Okay I could say that one thing, but this joke would go perfectly right here.
Durga: I think my version of that is probably the rhythm of something. There is a quality that I can’t really map out, but I know when something is done and I know when something is missing a beat.
Samantha: Yeah, for me if there are too many para- graphs without jokes in them, I’m like, ‘Let’s change that, let’s dumb it down a little.’ I pride myself on leaning a tiny bit toward stupid. That’s what I want to give to people, like, ‘Let’s not take this thing so seriously. You can get back to your serious life when you put this down, but when you are on this ride with me, it’s going to be a dumb one.’
“With so much tragedy in my early life, I had to find, not the silver lining, but the nugget of absurdity in whatever situation and try to laugh at that. Otherwise, it just feels like it’s going to overwhelm you.”
Aaron: Who are the writers you have turned to?
Durga: I go through phases. With everything that’s happening, I’ve been rereading May Sarton’s books, mainly because she writes so well about solitude. But when we were talking about mothers, I was thinking about The Women by Hilton Als, and how he’s someone I’ve always admired for his ability to be a critic who can deliver on the personal, as well, or a portrait of someone that doesn’t feel simply observational. He can comment on how a person is walking, and it speaks on an entire generation of men. He has an ability to paint a very elaborate portrait of someone, even if he’s just having coffee with them, and I admire that quality in a critic. What about you, Samantha?
Samantha: My biggest influences have probably been stand-up comedians, storytellers like Bernie Mac. I really love Eddie Murphy and Paul Mooney, but—and this is going to sound like a hack answer, but it’s true—I remember being on the bus and reading Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris. I didn’t know that you could tell stories from your childhood as an adult and have them be funny, and have people read them. I think someone gave me that book, because I am a John Grisham, Stephen King kind of reader, so I know I didn’t pick it up myself. He probably has had the biggest impact on my writing about myself. But I mostly read fiction; reading personal essays makes me feel bad about my own work, and I don’t like to feel bad [laughs]. But Durga, this was so great, I’m such a huge fan, I’m going to be freaking out the rest of the day. I hope you know that.
Durga: I’m freaking out right now. I feel so lucky that I got to talk to you while the whole internet is talking about you. That’s the coolest feeling. People really need levity right now, but they also need honesty. I don’t think pure distraction is what we need right now. We need voices that will be here when we come out of this.