Hard to Read: Authors Harmony Holiday and Durga Chew-Bose in Conversation
Holiday’s third and latest book, Hollywood Forever, collages vintage news and magazine stories, photographs, record covers, and public notices below urgent poetry—all about Black America, celebrity culture, convenient histories, and sticky familial love and habit. Both books look ingeniously at pop culture, while mining their author’s personal family histories: Durga’s growing up in Montreal, Canada with a family from Calcutta, and Harmony’s living in Los Angeles and New York. “I watched my black father choke my white mother when the greens weren’t tender, enough,” she writes. “Later on, they cuddled and watched Beau Bridges gentrify Park Slope.”
There are many similarities between Chew-Bose and Holiday’s books and they were both set to read at Hard to Read (our ongoing lit series in LA), so we wanted to put them in conversation. The two of them and the series’ host, Fiona Alison Duncan, met on the evening of Chew-Bose’s event, May 15th, at The Standard, Hollywood (Holiday’s will be May 22nd). Chew-Bose had just flown in from New York where she’d been teaching at Sarah Lawrence. Holiday was coming from dance practice. They sat in the closed kitchen at Alma and discussed rhythm, responsibility, family, memory, and reading aloud.
DURGA CHEW-BOSE: I love LA, but it’s so weird to love a place you don’t live in, because what am I loving? I’m loving that I don’t live here, that I don’t get my bills here. It’s not a real place to me. I write about loving LA in my book. Because I like silly things, like palm trees. It’s still astounding to me that palm trees exist. They’re unreal.
Los Angeles maintains its unreality even after you’ve been here awhile. It’s like, endemic.
HARMONY HOLIDAY: I’ve never taken LA seriously. It’s always maintained its unreality.
Do you guys like reading?
Harmony and Durga: Yes!
Oh, I meant aloud. At readings.
Harmony: At first I didn’t understand what the point [of reading aloud] was, unless you’re performing. But I’ve started to feel it has a purpose—for trying out new work. If I’m working on something and I get to hear it, I can scrap the bullshit.
One of my go-to’s, William Burroughs, insisted that writers should maintain physical practices—his being painting and shooting guns—to balance out the mental of writing. Harmony, you’re a dancer. I was wondering how dancing balances you out or plays into your writing. And then Durga, I was wondering what physical or not-writing practices you maintain?
Harmony: Since I started to dance, that’s been the foundation of all my creative practice. When I was introduced to poetry and finding out that I liked writing, I saw it as another bodily function, as a choreography, or as way to use my body differently. I feel off-balance if I’m not doing both. I go on a lot of rants about how disembodied the writing community is starting to feel, especially with the media that we have, and that’s kind of why with this book, I made it ridiculous, layering all of these images, and trying to make it perform.
Durga: I’m pretty up in my head. My therapist used to tell me that. Like when talking about something that happened, I would intellectualize it first, instead of describing how it feels in my gut or how it feels in my hands or in my toes. I’m not attached to my body.
Durga: True, but so much of it is nostalgic—it’s the memory of the feeling. My writing mines interpretations of physicality. It lives in this liminal space… I’ll go for walks! But that’s mostly to recirculate the air.
I think it was cool, Harmony, how you described writing as another thing to do with your body. Reading both of your books, I was noting breath. Breathlessness and bated breath and releases of breath. Rhythm.
Durga: Rhythm is super important to me. And it is physical. It’s physical on the page, too.
Are there any lines from your books that get stuck in your head, almost like a pop refrain?
Durga: A little bit. When writing, I read out loud to myself, so I commit it to memory. I also write about this in my book—how certain relations I have to writing is like a pop song, there will be something I repeat-repeat-repeat for years that eventually ends up in the writing, though I had no idea it would get there when repeating it.
Harmony: It’s sort of out in the ether. I knew that I wanted to make a poetic tabloid of some sort. And I knew I wanted to talk about taboos, like adultery, and about things that are maybe known in black culture, but less in the mainstream. It’s like, quiet gossip. Poetry is a good way to—not exactly elevate—but maybe to flesh out some of what’s behind gossip. Like why it could be beautiful that Martin Luther King was also an adulterer. It’s about being sensitive to the story and to who might be hurt by telling it and to who might be hurt by thinking that everyone who’s a hero is a hero for a certain reason. I was relating that to telling my own family’s story. My dad is still a hero of mine, but he was crazy. Martin Luther King is still a hero to Black America, but he was crazy. Let’s accept what a hero really is. And that Hollywood heroics are false.
You both write about your families—about inheritance and genealogy. I have two questions about that. The first: What cares do you take or what ethics do you consider when writing about people who are close to you or still alive? And the second: How much do you feel your inheritance is yours? I have always been obsessed with what feels like the lottery, or randomness, of birth, time, place, and family.
Harmony: My dad was a singer. He was from the South, the Delta, to begin with, then he came through Chicago on the trains, got to LA, and started working with Ray Charles, and ended up becoming super successful. As far as inheritance goes, I almost agree with the African philosophical idea that you choose your parents, because the more I write about being biracial—my mother’s Italian-American—and the insanity of it all, the more I become who I am, and the more I realize, I probably chose this specific hybridity in order to understand certain things, which connects to the ethics. I sort of write ruthlessly about my life and family, about having seen something of the American experience that I think is hidden from most people; I feel a duty to talk about what happens at the exact clash of my two cultures.
Durga: This writer we know, Alice Sola Kim, tweeted something this year: “Write as if your parents are dead, write as if you’re dead.” I liked the sentiment, but it kind of rubbed me the wrong way, because I definitely write because my parents are alive. It’s a conversation I can have with them. It’s almost devotional or a totem to my childhood, a way of passing down the stories, or in this case, passing them to other people. It feels like a responsibility. An act of making sure my parents’ past, and their parents’ past, don’t get lost. I’m the keeper of their stories.
Do you ever talk about this responsibility with your family?
Durga: My mom’s a historian, so she loves it. She loves anyone whose mind honors the past and understands that history repeats and that you can’t be an ahistorical person. My father’s a little more closed off, even though I know a lot about his past. He’s the kind of person who wants people to tell his story, but doesn’t want people to tell it at all wrong. So, it’s a little trickier, but at the end of it, there’s love, because his daughter wants to spend the only thing that she thinks she can do—writing—doing it about him. He’s thankful. I don’t know if your family is like that, Harmony, where it’s an honor or a gift or something?
Harmony: It’s complicated. My dad passed away when I was young. The book I wrote before this one was called Go Find Your Father. It was half letters to my dad, half poems. In it, one of my pop refrains was, “the imagination is a form of memory.” I recognize that, in a way, having the storyteller gene, or whatever it is, comes from having a vivid imagination. You imagine a lot about the characters that are your family.
Durga: I relate to that. I have a line in my book that’s like that: “A memory is a line to imagination…”
I marked that one! You write: “Memory fans out from imagination, and vice versa, and why not. Memory isn’t a well but an offshoot. It goes secretly. Absconds.”
On Tuesday, May 23rd at the Standard, Hollywood, Harmony Holiday will perform from her new book, Hollywood Forever, alongside artist Richard Hawkins, and poet-author-editors Andrew Durbin and Joseph Mosconi.