Maya Shanbhag Lang, WHAT WE CARRY

Maya Shanbhag Lang, WHAT WE CARRY

Zibby Owens: Maya Shanbhag Lang is the author of What We Carry: A Memoir and also The Sixteenth of June, a novel. Lang’s work has been featured in The New York Times, The Observer, The Washington Post, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and In Style, among others. The Sixteenth of June was long listed for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize and was an Audie Award Finalist for Best Audio Book. Recipient of the 2017 Neil Shepard Prize in Fiction, Lang has received support from the Rona Jaffe Foundation and from Bread Loaf. Her short work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. After graduating magna cum laude from Swarthmore College, she earned her master’s from New York University and her PhD in Comparative Literature from SUNY Stony Brook. A passionate teacher, she loves working with aspiring writers. Lang is the daughter of Indian immigrants and lives outside New York City.

Thanks, Maya, for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Maya Shanbhag Lang: Thank you so much for having me, Zibby. It is an absolute pleasure to talk with you.

Zibby: You too. I know when we did our Instagram live, I hadn’t had a chance to finish your book yet. I was like, I’m loving it so much, we have to continue this. I’m glad I had time to read the whole book. Now here we are. We can have a proper conversation. I’m so glad I did because it’s so good. Your book is so good. It started off great and kept right on. Sometimes books, they can start off great and then not continue on, but this was from start to finish such a pleasure. Congratulations on writing it and all the rest.

Maya: Thank you so much. I appreciate it.

Zibby: For people who might not be familiar with your book yet, can you please explain what What We Carry is about? What inspired you to write it?

Maya: What We Carry is about my relationship with my mother. I never intended to write a memoir. I was in the middle of working on my second novel when my mother was in need of emergency care and I brought her home to live with me. I started writing these Facebook posts because my life changed so dramatically overnight. I was raising my young daughter. My mom, who had dementia, was suddenly in my house. I was also trying to further my career as a writer. It was a lot. It was overwhelming. I just didn’t know what I was suddenly in the middle of. Being able to just write a little post about an anecdote or about an episode with her or a little conversation we’d had was a way of wrapping my mind around my experience. I couldn’t tell the whole story, but I could tell these little anecdotes. That just gave me a couple of lines and made me feel like I had some sort of grip on my situation. An editor happened to see my posts and reached out to my agent and said, “I think there’s a memoir here.” I thought, oh, my god, I could never write a memoir. That same day, I wrote, I think, seventy pages.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh.

Maya: It was clear that I did have all this stuff pent up in me that I needed to say. I think I hadn’t given my permission to really talk about it freely. A lot of the material, as you know, is not so much about the day-to-day of caregiving. It really gets into who I thought she was versus who she turned out to be and the illusions that I was carrying around in my head about her life and our relationship, and reconciling the past and the present.

Zibby: As readers, we got to go through the process of your discovering all these things with you. The way that you slowly dropped in your discoveries of some of the things that your mother hadn’t told you were just huge shocks to us. I could read you being shocked, and then I was sitting there shocked. It was a whole thing. In the moment when some of these things were happening — I don’t want to give anything away. Some of them aren’t life-altering major revelations, but just anything that you take as fact about your parent or your own family when it turns out not to be true, the foundation kind of rattles a little bit. How did you deal with each one of these little things as it chipped away at you? Aside from writing about it, what were some of the things that you did to process those moments in your life?

Maya: I think writing was the main thing, to be honest. My way of processing any experience has always been through writing. What I think is maybe unique about this memoir is that I wrote it in real time. It’s not as though I had years later, with that kind of remove from the experience, looked back and reflected. If it has the feel of a suspenseful story or a detective story, I think that’s because I was piecing together my life and these realizations as they were unfolding. My other coping mechanism besides writing was, of all things, weightlifting, which I talk about in the book. I needed some sort of outlet. I knew that if I didn’t give that to myself, I would just succumb to the pressure and I wouldn’t be able to be there for my daughter or for my mom. I began weightlifting. Fitness was completely missing from my life. I had no relationship to my body at all. My whole world was just in my head between my ears. I went to the gym. I just decided that I didn’t want the experience of fitness to be a negative one. I didn’t want it to be about weight loss or punishment or, I was bad the other day when I ate a brownie, so I have to make up for it now. I didn’t want any of that. I wanted something that just felt like a complete release. Weightlifting gave that to me. It ended up becoming this real metaphor for all that I was carrying around. Weightlifting, for me, became this sort of exercise not in picking up heavy weights, but in finally setting them down and giving myself permission to do that. I found it and continued, although in quarantine. Of course, I’m not going to the gym. It has become a nearly spiritual practice for me, I would say.

Zibby: Now you’re just lifting up your sofas. You’re going to walk around, little side tables go up in the air as we do our Skype. Nothing’s heavy enough. You’re lifting hundreds of pounds. You’ve got to get a piano in there or something. I loved your relationship with your trainer in the book too. Todd-isms, his name is Todd? Did I mess that up?

Maya: His name is Lewis.

Zibby: Lewis, Lewis-isms. Sorry. Lewis-isms and how he had all these expressions that you took to heart and had five hundred meanings in one and were also about life and then how at the end you realize he reminded you so much of your dad. That one, I kind of did see coming. Even though the book was mostly about your mom, I felt like a lot of it was about sorting out your feelings about your relationship with your dad at the same time. Do you want to talk a little about, if you don’t mind, I know it was a very difficult relationship for you, but how writing the book helped you sort through what happened with him?

Maya: My father was just a difficult person. He was controlling and rigid. He had a lot of ideas about women and girls and our place in life. He would say these things to me from a very young age about how I was worthless and girls aren’t meant to contribute to society. He just was very matter of fact about it. It wasn’t some hidden thing that seeped out subtlety. It was very open. Specifically, he was very controlling when it came to my body. He didn’t want me to be an athlete when I was a child. When I started physically maturing, he would rip up my leggings or anything that he thought was tight. He would get upset with me and punish me if someone gave me attention. A stranger on the street whistled at me. He would punish me. It was interesting, when I was writing the memoir, I remember this moment when my editor said to me, “We need a little bit about your dad.” I was so scared to write about him. Any time that I tried to, this will sound so bizarre, but I would literally break out into hives when I went to write about him. Specifically, I would get hives across my feet. I thought, god, what is this? The minute I stopped trying to write about him, the hives would disappear. It was very related to that act. One day as I was sitting at my laptop just sitting with my discomfort, I had this flashback where I remembered being very young and my father had found a crayon of mine under the couch. He turned livid. He sent me out to our driveway in the summer. It was July. He told me to stand barefoot on the driveway. I wasn’t allowed to hop between feet or go on the grass. That memory came back to me. It had been in my body, which is why I was getting those hives.

Writing about that was so cathartic and freeing. It helped me process these memories that I didn’t even know I was carrying around inside of me. As kids, we just grow up in whatever soil we have, whatever environment we have. We don’t really think about it. I think kids are remarkable and miraculous for this reason. We just find ways to thrive like flowers between the cracks in the sidewalk. I had never thought of myself as having a particularly rough childhood. I went to great schools. I was really close with my mom. I certainly never thought of myself as having been abused at all. To have that vantage point as a grownup and as a parent myself, to be able to look back and say, oh, that happened and I never gave it thought and now I can, that was really powerful. For a lot of people who have grown up in dysfunctional homes or with difficult parents, I think a lot of times what we tell ourselves is, whatever happened wasn’t that bad. Other people have it so much worse. Other kids have it so much worse. To come out of that stance and instead of trying to put him on a spectrum of, well, how bad was he? to instead just claim my story and say, this is what happened, that freed me from under its spell.

Zibby: Wow. It’s so much power in just being able to retell the story, to yourself, to us. All of those nights when he would take you and make you run and work, your whole relationship to the fact that you’re such an athlete and how he would make you run and run and run, and you got stress fractures, reading it, it was sort of horrifying. My daughter would kill me if I touched her favorite leggings. I have an almost-thirteen-year-old. That’s the tiniest piece, but even that, I could see the ripples of, let alone all the physical stuff. I’m so glad it helped you to get that out of your system. Imagine if you hadn’t have written about it. What if you had just kept going with your novel?

Maya: Right, exactly. I think the two things for me — writing was incredibly cathartic. In a strange way, going to the gym and working out with Lewis who is roughly not too far from my father’s age, to work out someone who was in a position of authority and who’s older than I am who encouraged me and never had a negative word to say, that accomplished more than therapy. It put me back in my body in an empowering way. That was so healing.

Zibby: This whole journey, I feel like I got to perch on your shoulder as you completely rehabilitate yourself in this book, including, by the way, just all the terrible stuff that people go through when they have new babies. You wrote so beautifully about postpartum depression and not only the despair, but that once you got medication and you woke up one morning and you were like, oh, I’m me again, even that part of your story was so powerful and the fact that you were holding yourself up to a standard that you didn’t even realize was on unattainable until later, against your mother. That’s a lot you’ve got in there.

Maya: It’s a lot. The funny thing is, we talk about all of this and it sounds so heavy. When your book gets published and your receive it one day, it shows up at your doorstep and you have in hardcover and you flip through it, I was looking through it thinking, it’s funny that they’re such short sections. I think part of what it is is that even though I was writing about these big, heavy things, I was in crisis as I was writing it. I was caring for my mother around the clock. I was trying to be there for my daughter. I wrote this book — literally, I would take fifteen minutes and hide in my bedroom closet and just try and get one little chapter done and then come back. I think because I was in it while writing it, I didn’t have the emotional bandwidth or capacity to write a long narrative. I sort of had to take it one little piece at a time. I think that helped me through the writing.

Zibby: It helped through the reading too. So many of your sections, that’s how people are consuming books these days anyway. We’re the ones running off to the closet to read for two minutes or ten minutes. I thought the short chapters were a part of what made the book so effective. They were scenes like you’re in a — it was very visual too. You’re in a scene. You’re at the doctors. You’re with your brother. You go back and forth. I thought it was really neat. I haven’t read your novel. How does this type of writing compare to your novel? Or if you’re going back to that other one, your next novel, do you write in the same way? How would you compare it?

Maya: It’s so different. It’s such an interesting question. I think part of it is that when I was writing fiction, without realizing it, I had always been really writing about these things, the father whose love is unavailable, the mother who is mythic. I’d been circling these themes. I just didn’t know it. I didn’t realize that I was revealing myself through my fiction. One difference, I will say, is that when you’re writing fiction, you have to kind of give yourself over to the artifice of it. You are creating this whole alternate universe with characters and a setting. Your goal as a writer is to kind of erase yourself out of the picture and just put the reader into that world. With memoir, the interesting thing is that you can reflect as you’re writing on the process as you’re doing it. Knowing now what that’s like, that requires a lot more vulnerability. It’s scarier to do. It also just allowed me and enabled me to get real in a way that I really hadn’t done before. It was much more difficult. Also, having experienced that, I don’t know that I could go back to writing fiction. To tap into your heart and really go there, I think that’s where we can offer so much value to ourselves and to the reader and just to the writing process in terms of what we’re trying to accomplish to really get at the truth of things.

Zibby: Yet the problem is that sometimes what we want to write about in our hearts involves other people. Your mother had passed away when this came out. Maybe she didn’t pass away?

Maya: She’s still alive.

Zibby: She’s still alive? Oh, my gosh, I’m so sorry I made that mistake.

Maya: No, no, no, it’s okay. One of the things I think about a lot is that I think with Alzheimer’s there’s kind of a double grief. You lose the person through the disease. As their sense of self fades away, as their memories fade away, you’re left with this kind of shell of a person. There’s that grief. Then later when the person actually passes away, of course there’s the second grief. My mother is still alive. I often refer to her in the past tense. Anyone listening to me, it’s completely understandable to think that she has passed away. In my mind when I talk about her, I’m always talking about who she was to me. In some ways, the person I go and — of course right now, I can’t go and visit her during quarantine. The person I would visit and now the person I talk to on the phone is an imposter. It’s not her at all. In the book, I reflect on this. I still kind of don’t know how to talk about her. I don’t know if I should use past tense verbs or present tense verbs. It’s like awkward, in limbo, purgatory of being where on one hand she’s alive, but even saying that feels kind of inaccurate because she’s not really herself. She’s not really alive as she would’ve wanted to be alive. It’s an interesting place.

Zibby: I almost sent you — then I was like, how can I send you an article? You’re such an amazing author yourself. There was an op-ed in The New York Times this weekend by somebody whose mother had just passed away from Alzheimer’s. She describes it exactly the way you did. I’m going to find it and send it to you. I’ll put it in the show notes of this.

Maya: Yes, please do.

Zibby: It’s exactly that. She didn’t know how to describe. The person isn’t alive anymore, and yet — but now I feel terrible. I’m sorry for the misunderstanding.

Maya: No, not at all.

Zibby: If you don’t think you can go back to fiction, are you working on anything new? Are you just deep into the virtual promotion of this book? which you should be enjoying and taking your time doing, so no pressure by this question. Just wondering.

Maya: I’m a little bit at a crossroads in terms of what to do next writing-wise. Definitely, my life has not been the same since writing this memoir. I think anyone who writes a memoir, you really hold up, not just any mirror to your life, but a 360-degree mirror to your life. Your life can change quite dramatically as a result of that. It could be that there are essays or another nonfiction book in my future, but I’m not quite sure.

Zibby: I know you had posted on an Instagram post that I had said when I was feeling very sad when my kids were with their dad — I’m divorced and remarried, but I still, five years later, have trouble when they go to their dad’s sometimes. I just get so sad. You responded that you were separated as well. I was sad to hear that, especially having read the book. I was like, oh, no. Has that affected anything with the release or your time now or how you see the writing process of it or anything?

Maya: It’s interesting. I will say that separating was the best thing to have done. I’m so proud of myself for having done it. My life now is a hundred times better. I say that partly to anyone listening because I remember when I was in my marriage and I was thinking about separating, it just seemed terrifying. I thought, oh, my gosh, what would my life be like? I imagined myself miserable and struggling. I didn’t know that I would emerge on the other side and be thriving. It’s a happy ending in that sense. Part of what I talk about in the memoir is that with my mother, I had always described her growing up and through college and in my twenties, I described her as the perfect mother and as this wonderful person. She and I were so close. Later, I realized that because I had such an awful father, I kind of needed my mother to make up for him. I was deeply invested in her being this fabulous parent even though I had to do quite a bit of twisting of logic and facts to see her that way. I would always describe her as this wonderful parent even though she didn’t necessarily always do things to warrant that. Even when she would be quite absent and negligent, I always found ways to think of her choices as being in my best interest. Really, it was this illusion.

It was a similar thing I did with my husband. In the book, I describe him as being wonderful and supportive even though — one thing my editor kept saying to me when she was reading this, she would say, “Well, where’s your husband in all of this? You seem so alone as you’re dealing with motherhood and postpartum depression. Your mother has Alzheimer’s disease. You sound so isolated.” I think there are actually a lot of women who feel that way in their marriages where you’re with someone and, on paper, you have a partner. For me at least, especially compared to how my father had been, my husband did seem incredibly supportive and wonderful because by the yardstick I was accustomed to, the absence of violence, the absence of a temper, the absence of verbal and emotional abuse, I just thought, oh, this is great. This is support. Writing the memoir really caused me to reexamine not just my marriage, but a lot of my relationships and patterns in ways that are ultimately very healthy now. I gained so much. It’s just a difficult process.

Zibby: You are going to have the best next five to ten years. I feel like you are going to do a complete 360 on everything in your life. I hope you continue to write about it so people who are not in your inner circle can watch. It’s like you just finally took off this whole protective layer. Now you’re in it. It will be fun, if you can write about it, to be a bystander and watch as you take off. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors now that we’re nearing the end our little chat here?

Maya: The thing I would say is, first of all, the most important thing with writing is to just write. We find so many reasons and so many ways to not write because we tell ourselves that we are not good enough, or what has happened in our lives to warrant writing about? I almost imagine writing as a chariot with two horses in front. Plato had this whole theory about the human soul being a chariot with two horses. There’s the horse that should be the weaker horse but it’s actually the stronger one, which is self-criticism. Then there’s the other horse which should be the stronger one but it’s the weaker one, which is our instincts as writers. I think if you can find ways to recalibrate the horses to tame the self-critic so that it doesn’t take over and to feed your instincts to bring them more to the forefront, that’s how the writing moves forward. I think when you hear that voice pop up that says, who do you think you are to be trying to write? or what do you think you’re playing at? however that voice speaks to you, to just recognize it and say, oh, that’s that horse taking over when it doesn’t deserve to and to sort of put it in its place. Then when the little voice speaks up inside that says, I wonder if I could write about that, to really give that all of the carrots and feed it and yield to that, I think that’s how the writing actually comes out onto the page. To any writer out there, I would say — I never got an MFA. I had zero connections in the publishing world.

Zibby: You have a PhD in comparative literature.

Maya: Yeah, but all of the people I was studying were all dead.

Zibby: It counts. I think that counts. But okay, fine.

Maya: I knew how to read novels, but I didn’t really think I could write one. I think to just go for it. Keep finding, even if it’s only ten minutes in your bedroom closet, but to keep finding little islands of time where you just get stuff on paper. That’s the most important thing.

Zibby: That’s great. Thank you, Maya. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” and for sharing your story with all of us. I can’t wait to see what happens next for you.

Maya: Thank you so much, Zibby. It’s been a pleasure.

Zibby: You too. Thanks.

Maya Shanbhag Lang, WHAT WE CARRY