Non-Fiction by Non-Men: Scaachi Koul

Scaachi Koul is a senior writer for Buzzfeed News. In addition to Buzzfeed, Koul’s work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Guardian, The Hairpin, and Jezebel, among others. Her debut collection of essays, One Day We’ll All Be Dead And None Of This Will Matter, was published by Doubleday Canada and Picador USA in May 2017. You can follow her on Twitter at @scaachi. Koul is based in Toronto.

EB: How did you start writing in general and nonfiction in particular?

SK: I don’t have any other transferable skills. The only thing I can do is write. If there was another option I would have picked something that required less self-loathing. I’m also a really bad liar—I’m not great at inventing narratives that feel honest. I’ve never been able to see a way to do that. My existence has been rife with its own pains—I don’t need to make stuff up right now. I started writing around twelve, thirteen, fourteen. I had a lot of journals and a lot of feelings. And that created this perfect storm that I have yet to escape.

EB: I just finished reading your book, One Day We’ll All Be Dead And None of This Will Matter, and I loved it—

SK: Thank you.

EB: —and I’d love to know how the book came about. Did you always know that you wanted to write a collection of essays?

SK: I got into essay writing in my early twenties after I graduated and after I’d had a couple of reporter jobs I wasn’t good at. I feel like this interview is becoming a catalogue of things I’m not good at.

EB: Ha! I mean, I think figuring out what you’re not good at is how you figure out what you are good at.

SK: I guess as a writer you always think one day I’ll write a book. But I had no idea what it would be when I started working on the collection and proposal. I thought it would be funnier—just mostly a book of funny stories, funny thoughts, things that make me mad. Which is fine and well, but as I started working on it there were all these other things that started coming out, other things that I realized I needed to sort out, wounds I needed to address. So in the end the book is, I hope, a comfortable mix of funny and serious, and I think it’s better for it.

EB: As a writer for Buzzfeed, most of what you write is for the internet. How does the medium affect how or what you write?

SK: When you write a book you have less concern for negative reaction because there is a cost for entry. On the internet, people who are prone to abuse, they don’t even need to read your piece—they can just read the headline and comment. Books don’t really offer you that kind of access. So I didn’t have that concern.

On the other hand, writing something for the internet, you have that immediate gratification. It sort of feels like the difference between making a movie or doing stand-up. When you’re writing for the internet, like with stand-up, you get an immediate reaction—approval or a laugh or you recognizing the thing that you did is not very good and then adjusting. You don’t get that with a book. I spent two years on this book and all you can do is trust the three editors you have. I couldn’t show the book to anyone else to see what the reaction would be. I just had to believe them.

EB: Going off that idea of stand-up and whether a joke lands, you are a very funny writer—I was often laughing out loud while reading your book and would turn to the person nearest to me to read a passage out loud. What do you think is the role of humor in nonfiction?

SK: I have a really hard time reading work that feels super self-serious. Sometimes the work deserves that, and I can completely understand that. But in nonfiction, I think it’s important to have a sense of humor, otherwise it is an unrelenting and daunting catalogue of someone’s unhappiness. In my case, that’s certainly what the book would have read like. I think the stories I’m telling are worthwhile and interesting, but not enough to stand on their own without offering you something else. If I present you with ten essays about loneliness, racism, sexism, assault, alcohol, self-image, body image, and dying, if I give you two hundred and fifty-six pages and there isn’t a fucking laugh, I won’t be responsible for you trying to throw yourself into the sea after, because that would be a really miserable reading experience. I think the best way to consume that kind of content and to deal with things that are painful is to give you something to look forward to, and in this case it’s a laugh. This is especially true as a lot of the essays don’t have closure. They are about issues that I’m still dealing with and will deal with until I’m dead. I can’t just say this is the answer and then everyone goes home and feels peace in the end. So if I can’t give you the answer, at least I can give you a good dick joke.

EB: Haha! That’s so true. Though, can you talk a little more about writing about issues you are still currently dealing with—in particular, what is it like to write about people you love, who are still alive, who are going to read what you’re writing about them?

SK: It’s weird, isn’t it?

EB: Yeah. Super weird.

SK: I asked permission of my friends. There are a couple of real names in the book, and they all gave me permission, and they read the essays before they were published. As for my family, I don’t use my niece’s real name or my sister-in-law’s name, and my brother isn’t in it at all. They understand that this is my job, but they don’t want to be Googleable, which I understand, because I am very Googleable, and it sucks. My parents are the most present in the book, and I don’t know if they would have chosen this, but, tough shit.

But I don’t write essays where I am completely the victim in the story and this other person is a terrible human being and poor me. Because, first of all, it’s not interesting. Anything I write about another person who is still alive, who I want to maintain a relationship with, I want it to be nuanced. Though that doesn’t make it less hard to read. My mother is reading the book right now, and there are passages giving her a hard time, and I get that, but ultimately I think here is honesty to all of them. Even if your memories of something differ from my memories, at least I can promise the recollections are accurate to what I remember and how they are affecting me today.

EB: I think you balance that really well. One of my professors in grad school said that as long as you make yourself look bad, you can say whatever you want about other people.

SK: Yeah. In massive swaths of the book, I’m an asshole. And that’s important, because I am a jerk, a lot. It’s good to let yourself be the garbage person sometimes, because if I’m going to control the narrative, I might as well throw myself in there. I deserve it.

EB: What do you find most challenging about writing nonfiction?

SK: The trouble for this collection came from not having a lot of answers and not having a lot of closure. I’m thinking of this one essay about being afraid of flying. I don’t have a solution there. I’m still afraid of flying. The essay doesn’t end with me saying and then I started taking Klonopin and everything turned out fine. If that was the case, boy, wouldn’t that be easy to write. But I didn’t have any answers, I didn’t have any closure, and I was concerned about writing a collection that felt unfinished. That would be really disappointing for everyone. I think trying to find a way to give closure to yourself and your readers is really important. I have to find a way to give you some feeling that everything is going to be okay, but show that I’m still working through it myself. I’m writing something that isn’t static. These things in my life may move, and two years from now things could be very different.

EB: Yeah. You can have aesthetic closure without having plot or subject-matter closure. But, even so, it’s really hard when you’re still living your life. If people didn’t write while they were still living, though, then no one would have anything to say until they were on their deathbed.

SK: And that would be boring.

EB: Yes. So, on the flip side, what do you find most rewarding about writing nonfiction?

SK: That’s a tough question. It’s enjoyable when people read it and see themselves in it and that can make you feel a little less lonely. A lot of the collection is rooted in loneliness and feeling like you’re alone in an unfamiliar place, but since the book’s publication in Canada in March, I’ve been getting a lot of nice messages from people saying this was also happening to me and I didn’t realize it was a thing. It does feel nice to create some sort of tenuous bond with other people.

Though, I also now get a lot of people who talk to me like they know my entire life. Which I guess is always the case with art. People think they know me better than they might. But if [the writing] takes away some of your loneliness, even if only for the time you’ve read it, then you’ve done your job.

EB: Of course, writing on the internet can affect you in a really bad way, as I know from your experience on Twitter. But how else has writing nonfiction affected your life, for better or for worse?

SK: The book has forced a kind of honesty with my parents that I didn’t previously have. I write stuff and then they read it and call and want to have a conversation about it, so that happens.

I get a different type of criticism for my work because when women write nonfiction it immediately means that they are vacuous and self-involved, so sometimes I think there is a misunderstanding of my abilities, which is frustrating, but it’s fine, I’ll kill them soon enough.

When I first started writing, it really changed my life in a big way. I didn’t realize how cathartic writing it could be. I didn’t realize the gap it could fill. Lots of women have started to do this. Ten years ago people started to say oh, women are writing memoirs and essays, how weird, but women were already writing essays and memoirs, it was just then that people started to notice. And people wanted to read that stuff, because, again, it helped with the issue of loneliness. I want to know that the thing I’m thinking isn’t a thing I’m thinking by myself.

EB: I get so angry about how women who write nonfiction are treated so differently from their male counterparts. Like, ugh, Karl what’s-his-name––

SK: Karl Ove Knausgård.

EB: Right! And here he was, writing this big domestic memoir that was praised for being so edgy, so unusual, and women have been writing about the same stuff for decades and it’s dismissed as just “women’s issues.”

SK: I think the industry is starting to change a little bit. At the very least the industry is realizing that [nonfiction by women] can be profitable. You’ve got your Roxane Gays, your Lindy Wests, your Jessica Valentis, and your Sam Irbys, who write these really wonderful, interesting books, and they start to make money, and everyone all of a sudden everyone goes what? This is legitimate? And they shit themselves because they never knew it could be possible. I mean, we’re still struggling with people being cool with women writing fiction, so I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised. I’ve done interviews with people where they are like oh my god, get a load of you, you’re a girl and you’re funny? Like they don’t understand how it’s possible, and then I’m stuck explaining how I can have a vagina and be funny.

EB: I hear you.

SK: I mean, well, my humor does come directly from my ovaries, straight from vulva to mouth.

EB: And it’s only really good once a month, right?

SK: Exactly. And then afterwards I just start crying, and they pay me 77 cents to everyone else’s dollar. It’s going really great!

EB: What do you look for when reading that makes it really good nonfiction, in your opinion?

SK: Sincerity of tone and honesty. If you can’t tell the truth because you’re subjective, at least be honest about your stance on it. Self-deprecation. The ability to recognize when you’re wrong. And when you’re right! No one wants to read an I’m a girl and I’m a moron memoir. There is a way to recognize your own faults in nonfiction, but also a way to recognize when you’re powerful. But it’s hard. Nonfiction is hard.

EB: It’s so hard. But it’s also so good. To close, what is a favorite passage of nonfiction by a woman writer?

SK: I’m not sure I have a favorite anything—that feels all too final—but “Devil’s Bait” in Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams always sticks out. Every line in that chapter feels kind and painful.

E.B. Bartels is from Massachusetts and writes nonfiction. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, The Toast, The Butter, xoJane, Ploughshares online, and the anthology The Places We’ve Been: Field Reports from Travelers Under 35, among others. E.B. has an MFA from Columbia University, and she runs an interview series on Fiction Advocate called “Non-Fiction by Non-Men.” You can visit her website at www.ebbartels.com, see her tweets at @eb_bartels, and read her haikus about strangers’ dogs at ebbartels.wordpress.com.

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