By Neha Kirpal
New York-based author Maya Shanbhag Lang’s new book What We Carry: A Memoir (HarperCollins India, Rs 499), delves into her relationship with her mother, an accomplished physician who immigrated to the United States from India and completed her residency while raising children in a traditional Indian way.
The memoir has been named a New York Times’ Editor’s Pick, an Amazon Best Book of 2020, and a Parade Magazine Best Memoir of 2020. In this interview, the author talks among other things about the challenges of narrating a personal story, the changing dynamics in mother-daughter relationships, and writing about degenerative mental-health disorders.
What led you to write your memoir What We Carry?
I was in the middle of working on my second novel when my mother needed emergency care. A geriatric psychiatrist, she was an expert at masking the symptoms of Alzheimer’s – until she couldn’t. I brought her home with me because I couldn’t bear the thought of hospitalising her.
Overnight, my life changed. I was caring for my young daughter at the time. I didn’t have help. I was overwhelmed. To cope, I started writing social media posts – my way of letting steam out of the pressure cooker that had become my life. An editor saw my posts and contacted my agent to ask if I would be interested in writing a memoir. I politely declined because the prospect terrified me. That night, I wrote 50 pages. I had no idea how much I needed to write this book until I started doing it. The most necessary stories, I think, are the ones that feel scariest to tell.
Your previous novel The Sixteenth of June (2015) was a fictional story. How different was it writing a memoir this time round?
I think every memoir contains elements of fiction, just as every novel contains elements of memoir. We conceal and reveal ourselves. We just aren’t always aware of when we’re doing it. The writing experience, though, is very different. In fiction, you create a parallel universe and then find solidarity in it.
Your characters voice feelings and questions you didn’t know you were grappling with until you hear them reflected back at you. You find yourself in others.
Writing memoir is raw. It’s like building a house but using yourself for the materials. You’re implicated throughout, which can be unsettling, but the insights are more direct and immediate.
What was easy and challenging about writing a story that is personal to you?
Certain parts of this book made me viscerally uncomfortable. My abusive father, the experience of postpartum depression, my mother not being there for me, the gap between who I wanted her to be and who she was: none of that makes for easy subject matter.
It was easier to write about my daughter. She helps me think about who I want to be. Simply by existing, she illuminates so much. Motherhood offers a chance to atone: to do what wasn’t done for us, to reach for the next version of ourselves, to break old patterns.
When did you first start writing, and what were your key influences?
I’ve been writing ever since I can remember. Writing felt like magic – an escape hatch into another world. When I was a girl, I was obsessed with the Sweet Valley High books. I wrote silly romances in notebooks and passed them around to my friends, stories where the girls had names like “Laura” or “Emily” and the guys had names like “Geoff” or “Scott.” It’s funny now to think about how white and American those characters were, how I never dared to think about characters who were more like me.
Who or what are your literary inspirations?
Some of my favourite writers are Toni Morrison, Franz Kafka, Virginia Woolf, Jhumpa Lahiri, Zadie Smith and William Faulkner. I love poetry as well, from T.S. Eliot to Terrance Hayes. My first novel was about Ulysses, so I have to mention James Joyce, but I was thinking about society’s relationship to that novel – the fact that people revere it despite not being able to get through it, and what this means about inclusivity and cultural capital.
You are also a competitive-calibre weightlifter. Tell us more about this passion of yours.
After my daughter was born, I realised I wanted to model fitness for her, not as an obligation but as a passion. I also wanted her to have a strong, healthy mom.
I fell in love with weightlifting because it taps into my internal competitiveness and drive. I don’t have to tuck that away.
My father always wanted me to be modest and cooperative rather than bossy or opinionated. At the gym, I can let out the willful girl I always was inside, be my warrior self. I can then go out in an elegant evening gown or bake cookies with my daughter. So often as women we get boxed into categories, but we don’t have to be. We shouldn’t fear our strength.
The relationship between mothers and daughters is complex and influenced by factors like birth and caregiving. As daughters grow older, how does this dynamic change?
We don’t really process our parents’ choices until we become parents. Children are the ultimate rearview mirror. We’re driving forward, but they make us look back. There’s that moment with rearview mirrors in particular where we sometimes see a double reflection, a ghost of ourselves.
When I was caring for my mother, I felt the past and future and present converge on me all at once. Sometimes, I would take my daughter and mom out for errands, and I would need to help them both with their seatbelts. The car felt like this perfect metaphor. My past and my future were there with me, all of us together, hurtling along.
What effect does the change in relationship between a mother and growing daughter have on a mother’s mental health, especially mothers who are immigrants in new lands? How much of her actions are dictated by fear of future regret, or the guilt of past self-indulgences?
When I became a mother, my mom started to retreat from me. She had always told me certain stories of motherhood—but now that I had a baby, those stories didn’t add up.
Later, during her Alzheimer’s, I came to learn of certain family secrets that sent me reeling. In hindsight, I think she carried quite a bit of guilt about her decisions as a mother. She didn’t want to face that guilt or think about it, so she turned away from me, withdrew from me.
For years, I would call her and say, “Mom, I don’t get it—how did you do this?” and she would say, “I don’t know, I just did!” She didn’t want to think about her past. During her illness, that past came tumbling out because its protective walls crumbled.
The medical reasons behind Alzheimer’s are unknown, but it has a devastating effect on the wellbeing of the entire family and not just the patient. How does literature generally capture the progression of severe mental health disorders like Alzheimer’s. Any particular novel/movies that stand out for you?
Alzheimer’s is typically represented in stereotypical ways. We see a dotty old person in a bathrobe wandering the streets in slippers, lost and confused. My mother never wandered. She never came across as weak or confused. Even when her weight fell to 87 lbs (39 kg), when she was emaciated because she kept forgetting to eat, she acted like a lion, like she was in charge, in a way that could be astonishing.
Literature and film do little to get into the complexity of caregiving—how fraught it is, yes, but also its gifts. Caregivers are typically presented as exhausted saints, but of course we are just ordinary people, with our own needs and desires and complicated emotions. We don’t have a certain disposition that makes us caregivers. Terrible circumstances are what make us caregivers. What we do with those circumstances is what defines us.
How do you write about degenerative mental health disorders affecting not only mental but physical wellbeing and deterioration in all health parameters? One way is to look at memories and contrast them with difficult experiences in the present. Is there another way of looking at this, where the person undergoing the trauma has no past memories?
Storytelling is an especially useful lens for this. Our stories aren’t always true or reliant on memory, but they define us. My mother currently has a whole narrative about why she’s living in an assisted living facility. Not a word of it is true, but it makes her happy—or, at least, it serves her. We tell ourselves the stories we need to hear.
What are you working on next?
I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of joy. I used to imagine joy as something we stumble upon if we’re lucky. Now, I realise that joy is a choice – and not necessarily an easy one. We hold the keys to our own happiness, but using those keys can be frightening. It can go against the grain of what we’ve been taught, especially as women or minorities or a conscientious people.
If you are all three of those things – a thoughtful brown woman, for example – then choosing your happiness can be downright terrifying. But, as always, my daughter lights the way forward for me. I want her to know joy, to live voraciously and magnificently – and the only way she’ll know how is if she sees me do it.
First published in eShe’s November 2020 issue