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"Motherhood, Caregiving, and Storytelling" SwatTalk

with author Maya Shanbhag Lang '00

Recorded on Thursday, Sept. 10, 2020 



Emily: Hi everyone, I'm Emily Anne Jacobstein, class of 2007 and a member of the Alumni Council. And it is my pleasure to welcome y'all, into moderate tonight's SwatTalk. And we are in for a big treat tonight. We have Maya Shanbhag Lang, who is a member of the class of 2000. But before I dive into her background, I just wanna give a little plug for SwatTalks. This is an Alumni Council Initiative. It began a number of years ago with Lucy Lang, and we've had quite a few champions of it, Janet Erlick, and Julian Harper, and Dina Zingaro and BoHee Yoon now leading the effort. So, before pandemic life put us all on Zoom, we were looking for a way to interact with a broader set of alumni on a regular basis. And bringing a seminar-like feel to the broader alumni community at home. We feature alumni, we feature faculty, and sometimes we even bring in some current students to talk about different topics of interest in the day. And tonight we've got a great presentation. So Maya is going to do a reading from her recent book, and then we will be doing some Q and A with her. Everyone to please use the chat function to submit your questions. We likely won't get to all of them because we do only have an hour but I will try and get through as many as possible. And when you submit a question, please include your name and your class year. So a little bit about Maya. She is the author most recently of What We Carry, and it is a fantastic memoir. It's been a New York Times Editors' choice book. It was highlighted on Good Morning America and many other lists. It is all over Amazon. It was featured on PopSugar, I believe. And that was a fun surprise to Maya; it's got an incredible, incredible press. And it's really a fantastic touching story. She's also the author of a novel, The Sixteenth of June and her work has been featured in the Washington Post, the New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer and other places. She has a PhD in Literature and she's also a Swattie. So class of 2000, she has a major and honors major in English and Creative Writing. And I learned just a moment ago that she was also a SAM, a Student Academic Mentor. So with that Maya, welcome to SwatTalks. And I'm going to pass the microphone over to you to read an excerpt from your memoir before we dive into some questions.

Maya: Thank you so much Emily Anne, for the introduction and for your kind words. And thank you to the Alumni Council for having me. This is a real honor during the pandemic, any event like this. I feel a tremendous amount of gratitude for, but this one is extra special to me as a Swattie. So because this book for me was really born out of a juncture of motherhood and caregiving and thinking about storytelling, those three things. I thought I would read a brief excerpt having to do with each of those themes. The book takes place as I become a sudden caregiver for my mother, which was a role I never expected to have. So I was caring for her full time when she was suddenly in need of emergency help. While I was also caring for my young daughter. And this first excerpt, I specifically chose Emily Anne to read with you in mind because you are a new mother. This was a point in my life when my daughter had just been born. And I was thinking in earnest for the first time and with no small amount of trepidation about trying to write a book. "As my daughter absorbs her world, I see that I anchor it, it's sobering. If I want the voice in her head to be one of encouragement, I have to give that gift to myself. The whole thing makes me rethink motherhood. At award ceremonies, someone always tearfully acknowledges their mother. She sacrificed everything for me, the person says, but I don't want my daughter going through life thinking that I gave myself up for her. I don't want guilt to be her inheritance. My assumptions of motherhood have been all wrong. I feared I was supposed to have the answers. I didn't know that Zoe would help me find them. I worried she would be an obstacle to my dreams, not the reason I went after them. Zoe makes me want to be the best version of myself, which isn't sacrifice, it's inspiration. New mothers are told to take care of ourselves, to get a massage or have a glass of wine. Those things don't do it for me. Only in my writing am I able to let go. It sounds like the worst time to weigh one's desires as a new parent, but maybe it is the most necessary. When tasked with caring for a human being, this is when we require a firmer grip on ourselves. Rather than telling new moms to indulge, to do the frivolous things women in movies do, we should say this, find yourself. Gather yourself up before it is too late. You are at risk of getting buried. Maybe you're already feeling buried. Do something that will solidify your sense of self and buttress your retaining walls. Don't worry if it feels scary, it's probably a good thing if it does. Working on my novel for an hour or two restores me. I return home from the late night coffee shop feeling renewed. Perhaps this is what we should give new mothers, a laptop, a cup of coffee, a notebook, a pencil, permission to dream." So that was when I was an unshowered and sleep-deprived new mother. And fast forward a little bit to when my mother came to live in my house, as I said this was not in arrangement she and I had ever discussed and I had basically taken her to a doctor's appointment. And she had already been diagnosed with early Alzheimer's. And she reached a point, because she was a psychiatrist she was very good at masking her own symptoms. So no one realized how bad she actually was. She reached a point where she needed to either be hospitalized. Which I could not bear the thought of. So I brought her home to live with me in a very impulsive moment. And this next excerpt takes place after she's been in my house for about two months. "One morning my mother makes herself a cup of tea. I am ecstatic after weeks of showing her how. Weeks during which I'm not sure she retains a thing. Weeks during which I wonder why I bother. Watching her finally do it is as Jubilant a moment, as when Zoe took her first steps. The episode also drives home our reality. ‘You made yourself tea’, I crow. ‘I did?’ she replies blankly. She does not remember making it. Can't say how the still warm mug came to be in her hands. The accomplishment marks the ceiling in an ever shrinking space. A woman who once saved lives as a physician, can now do no more than make tea. It is bittersweet like building sandcastles on the shore. All that work speaks to its own pending erasure. The episode with the tea helps me grasp my situation. I cannot fathom my mother's disease. Can't wrap my mind around what it and our living arrangement mean. But a small anecdote involving tea is manageable. It gives me a story, a way to explain the ineffable. It gives me a few lines when the rest of the tale is out of reach. Alzheimer's is devastating because it annihilates one's story. It vacuums it up. Even the name feels greedy to me. What gets me is the apostrophe, that possessive little hook. It drags your loved one away from you. My mother no longer belongs to me. She belongs to the illness. My time with her as a way of countering that apostrophe. The episode with the tea allows me to stake a claim on her. The magnitude of the ocean can be overwhelming, but a sandcastle however fleetingly defies that power. Its beauty is more poignant for its brevity. "I cannot comprehend what is coming for my mother, the tidal wave of loss. But in the meantime we have this: tea together in the kitchen. Even if she doesn't remember it, I will. And it is enough to get me through the next day, and the next." And then I have just one more brief excerpt having to do with storytelling which for me, as a writer I find fascinating. Particularly the kind of storytelling and mythologizing that takes place within families. As background for this, I had always prized my mother's profession as a psychiatrist. Partly because she had told me she chose the profession so that she would have more time to be with her children, which I found very flattering. But mainly because by heightening her role as a psychiatrist and sort of focusing on that, it allowed me to turn up the volume on her compassion as a person. Almost as though there was a kind of vicarious empathy that by her being on her patients' side, she was therefore on mine. So now she's been in my house for a few months. "As my mother and I dropped our pretenses, I find that I can ask her anything. One day it occurs to me to ask her the biggest question of all. ‘Mom, I say, how did you know "you wanted to be a psychiatrist?’ ‘I didn't.’she answers right away. ‘I wanted to be an OB-GYN.’ She explains that she suffered from low blood pressure, meaning she couldn't stand for long periods of time without getting dizzy, which made performing C-sections impossible. With her dream job ruled out, she settled for psychiatry. That way, I could sit in a chair, she explains. For the next several days I'm in a state of shock. A neighbor could confess to committing murder and all I would think about was my mother's desire to be an obstetrician. ‘Psychiatry did not appeal to me at all’, she admits. ‘Listening to people can be very boring, you know.’ This is the last straw, the final puzzle piece that makes me realize how much I deluded myself where she was concerned. The whole crux of her identity was an accident. She became a psychiatrist out of a desire to be seated. She hadn't planned for me all along. Her trajectory in life wasn't a straight line. She wanted to give me the illusion that she had known what she was doing. I let her do it. This is not to say that our old illusions were meaningless. My mother's various stories were riddled with untruths, plagued by a suspicious lack of detail But they defined her. They weren't necessarily always true to events, but they were true to her. As a writer, I should have known this. I of all people should have understood that a story needn't be accurate in order to be true. Now that our illusions have been stripped away, I miss my mythic mother and I suspect she misses her too. I've been taking care of her, but who is she becoming under my care? She has lost her former stature. She is stronger, able to take the stairs without help, able to go on longer walks. But she lacks her old haughtiness. Maybe it does not matter whether our stories are true or false. What matters is that they are ours."

Emily: Thank you so much. For those of you who haven't read the book, I think that gives you an excellent glimpse into what you have awaiting. And it really is a powerful story. And I appreciate that you're just talking about storytelling and the stories even in nonfiction. So, in the book you do talk quite a bit about writing your first book, The Sixteenth of June which is fiction. When did you decide to write What We Carry and what led to your decision to switch from fiction to nonfiction?

Maya: Yeah so I actually never intended to write a memoir. What happened was that I was in the middle of working on my second novel when I brought my mother home to live with me. And as a coping mechanism I turned to Facebook of all places, and started just when I have 30 seconds, I would sort of blurt out a little post about my mother. It was sort of like letting steam out of a pressure cooker. These little Facebook anecdotes would just kind of give me a way to express some of what I was going through. And actually that excerpt I read about the tea started out as a Facebook post. Anyway, an editor happened to see these posts and contacted my agent and said, I think there's a book here. And I said there's no way I could ever write about my own life. I'm flattered but no. And that same night I think I wrote 50 pages. So I think it was one of these experiences where I didn't realize how much I had to say until I started saying it. And the process of writing a memoir, yeah as with caring for my mother, wasn't something that I had ever anticipated doing and just sort of found myself in the middle of. But ultimately it helped me really process that experience of living with her and because I wrote the memoir as I was living it, I had a different appreciation for our time together.

Emily: Wow, that's great. So you are South Asian and the daughter of immigrants. Your mother's story as a new immigrant is detailed in the book and repeating some of her medical training. And I know the Indian version of your book was just released a few weeks ago by HarperCollins India. And it has a different cover, it's a beautiful photo. I really, really love that and encourage people to look that up online. What has the reaction been both in India and from fellow South Asian Americans to your book. And did you have a particular audience in mind?

Maya: Oh, no I mean I think the only way I was able to write this book this will sound incredibly naive and gullible but it's the truth. I had to just sort of put on blinders and pretend that no one was gonna read it. Otherwise I wouldn't have been able to write it. 'Cause I never gave thought to the audience or the reception because a lot of parts of the book get incredibly vulnerable. To my surprise many of the things, it's that great Joyce line that the universal is in the particular. So many of the things in the book that I thought were incredibly sort of uniquely and weirdly mine, it turns out those things have struck a chord with readers the most. So for example, growing up I never really knew if I was Indian or not or how Indian I was, because I couldn't tell what was the product of my parents strange dysfunctionalies. They were very introverted people, they were both scientists, we weren't part of a community. I grew up in a very white suburb of Long Island, so I didn't feel a strong sense of Indianness or Asianness. And what I've heard from so many children of immigrants, not just Indian and South Asian immigrants, but generally children of immigrants is a similar kind of grappling of how much of that culture can I claim and how well do I really know it and what was my parents versus what was the culture? So just knowing that other people negotiate that space has been quite eye opening for me. Yeah and then just the other thing that's been quite interesting that I had never thought about in the book I talk about my father as a controlling and difficult and rigid person who was kind of a tyrant in our household. And he was an engineer. And I had never thought about kind of patriarchal family structures in Asian culture in particular. So I've heard from a lot of Indian families, who experience similar dynamics.

Emily: Interesting, we're getting a lot of great questions. And I'm thinking about who identifies with what's in your book. A lot of people are writing in with different elements that really spoke to them and their current experiences or former experiences. And we're also receiving some questions about Swarthmore and your experience with Swarthmore. So Martin June wrote in asking why you picked Swarthmore and given your challenging childhood, were you aware of the intense environment that you were entering. And Swarthmore does play, I'd say a minor role in the book and mostly neutral but I'm curious if you can talk about your experience leading up to going to Swarthmore, why you chose it and then how the school shaped you.

Maya: You guys, this is the worst story so... Truthfully the kind of normal trajectory for a high school student of doing campus visits, my parents never did that with me. So the only school I actually visited was Swarthmore, and it was because a friend of mine was doing an overnight. So embarrassing in hindsight I'd actually never heard of Swarthmore. And this friend was doing an overnight and said, ‘Oh it's a really good school.’ And I said, ‘oh really?’ And she said, ‘yeah it's just on the cover of US News and World Report their college rankings.’ So I thought, I should probably check it out, so I did this overnight visit with her and that changed my life. And basically the minute that I... I remember sitting in on Phil Weinstein's English class, and suddenly having this feeling of, Oh, I belong in this place. It was the first time in my life I felt that during that campus visit and then when I started that fall. Up until then I'd always been a bit of a shape-shifter who just tried to blend in with my environment. I'd gone to a very fancy boarding school, I was constantly sort of adjusting myself to fit my surroundings. And Swarthmore was the first place where I thought it sort of felt like coming out of the closet. Like I felt like, Oh my intensity and my curiosity and all the stuff that's in me is not a liability and I can let it out and sort of let my inner dorky freak flag fly bright and colorful. And people here want to stay up all night having these intense discussions and want to discuss books and... So it was kind of like coming home for the first time I would say. I've always said Swarthmore for me is not a place it is a feeling and that it's invaluable.

Emily: Well I hope in today's long distance environment, things like tonight can help bring that Swarthmore feeling back to all of us. 'Cause I know we miss it. We're receiving a number of questions about the experience of taking care of your mom at home. Marion Evans, Class of 1985 was curious about the planning behind it, it was a rather quick decision. And in your book you dive into the fact that she did have long term care insurance, but stayed at home with you for quite a while. And then Vivian Ling has some questions about caregiver fatigue, were you experiencing that? Were you worried about the impact that would have and was writing an outlet for you? If you could speak to that?

Maya: Yes, I was actually hoping someone would ask about caregiver fatigue also known as caregiver burnout. Because I do wanna say especially with World Alzheimer's Day coming up, which is September 21st. But also especially during the pandemic, other people have been thrown into caregiving situations. Caregiver burnout is so real and I experienced it deeply, particularly because I had not planned on our setup. I mean I really brought my mother home impulsively and her Alzheimer's was advanced enough where it was basically like caring for a toddler. So it was everything from cooking all of her meals. When she came to live with me her weight had fallen to 87 pounds and she was malnourished and jaundiced. So she had physical needs but also every day she would accuse me of poisoning her, kidnapping her, stealing from her. So there was what I call mood roulette. Where every, not just every day but really every hour, the ball would land on a different mood square. So it was overwhelming, and the caregiver burnout part caught up with me months later. There was this initial sort of adrenaline fueled rush of just on the fly taking care of her and trying to get her to be okay. And it was only after her weight came up and she kind of stabilized, she reached a place where she was more in a plateau. Where suddenly all of the work and emotional energy and labor just really snuck up on me and caught up with me. And it was also that by that point in time several months into it, the newness of the situation had worn off. So friends kind of stopped checking in on me or asking about my situation. It was just this given, after seven or eight months that I was my mother's caregiver. And that was really when I felt the most isolated and the most alone because I suddenly thought, wait, this isn't supposed to be my normal. And I'm in my 30s, and my friend's parents are grandparents who babysit instead of requiring babysitting. And so all of that started to catch up with me. And yeah, the thing that was incredibly fortunate for me was that my mother having been not just a psychiatrist, but a geriatric psychiatrist who... She actually did clinical trials for Aricept, which is the leading Alzheimer's medication it's what she now takes. So she had signed up for a long term life insurance, early on and so I was able to move her into an assisted living facility. And that was an incredible relief and blessing, and a lot of caregivers do not have that option.

Emily: So in the book you discover many secrets about your mother while you are essentially parenting her. And that really changes the way you view her. One of them being why she chose her career path and you grew up idolizing her, but later realized you only know part of her story. How has this impacted your approach to motherhood? And what do you still want to emulate from your mother with your daughter Zoe, and what are you purposefully doing differently?

Maya: So, yeah there are several secrets that come to light in the memoir. That truthfully I don't think I could get away with in a novel. There's certain things where I think as a fiction writer, if I were to try and say, here's how this woman grows up, she grows up not knowing the following things. I think it would defy- you know, readers would be in disbelief. So in terms of how learning about her has affected me as a mother. What was so interesting about my mom was that, I think it's one thing to protect our children when they are young. But when I came to my mother as a grown-up and specifically as a new mother and said, how did you do it? She never came clean with me. She always was evasive and said, ‘oh I just did.’ Like when I'd say, how did you redo your residency with a six month old, my brother, like did you use daycare? Like what did you actually do? And she would say, oh daycare didn't exist back then, I just did it. The legacy that for me was I felt really like I was bad at being a mom because I thought, well she was a superhero. And I'm not redoing my residency in a new country. Like what's my problem and why am I struggling? It never occurred to me that she was just leaving large important bits of information out of the whole story. So my solution is to, I have a much more open relationship with my daughter, of course in age-appropriate ways. And it is important for me to not self mythologize. I think that's such a tempting avenue as a parent, we want to seem in control as though we know what we're doing. And I think there are times when that's important, when the plane has turbulence sometimes you need to go into flight attendant mode of reassuring people especially your children. But I think it's important to not glorify ourselves too much or skim over our (inaudible). We were pre-med before we became the English major or whatever it is, the ways that we grapple and wrestle with questions and doubts and all the kinds of roads we think about taking and start to take and then change our path. All of that is okay and good to talk about particularly when our kids ask.

Emily: And I think you've very much been literally an open book. And shared so much both in your memoir, but also in some of your more recent writing and in just the past few weeks and months in the Washington Post, The Lily and Gwyneth Paltrow site Goop. And you're very, very vulnerable. So how has that openness and vulnerability as an author impacted you?

Maya: Oh, well it's been very different from when I wrote my first book which was a novel. Occasionally I would get a note from someone saying like, oh I really liked your book. Versus now people will write me, and I'm incredibly grateful. It's very, it's an honor. But people will write me with these deeply confessional things about their families, it's not just their parents or being a new parent it's also it gets into like, very deep, personal things. Yes since writing the book and I have written about this openly. So I'm now divorced; it's not an unhappy situation we're excellent co parents we have a great deal of respect for one another. It's a happy situation. The people have also written me about that. And I think especially during the pandemic, people feel isolated and feel alone and want and seek connection. Understandably I mean really I think that's the reason we turn to books and maybe tune into an event like tonight is to know that we're not alone in what we're feeling. And to seek some sense of how someone else has been in this position or grappled with these feelings. So yeah truthfully I don't always know how to reply when people come to me with these deeply personal things though it is a place of honor, I think. 

Emily: Even in the questions, there are a lot of people who I can see are identifying with specific segments of your story and looking for that connection. Michelle Gamburd wrote in with a question and she says, "I love the idea that people are defined by their stories. Does that suggest that personhood is always relational? In that case perhaps even if a person forgets her stories, you can hold her in personhood by remembering them and sharing them with us."

Maya: Such a swattie question, that's such a great question, so beautifully phrased thank you for that. Yes, so I think one thing that occurred to me. Kind of the irony of writing this book was realizing, as my mother's self mythologizing came to light because basically it would happen during the course of her dementia, was that she lost the ability to remember her fabrications. So the truth came tumbling out. And the irony for me was that I had been the fiction writer and here was this clinical scientist who turned out to be the biggest fiction writer of them all. She had been spinning narratives my whole life and I just hadn't known it. So one thing I really learned from this was that stories, despite what my father told me my whole life, stories are not a distraction. They are not frivolous, they are not a waste of time, stories are everything. And ultimately stories are an attempt at self assertion. So what I really think a family is at its core, I think a family is a battleground of stories. And I think that's why something like thanksgiving can be uncomfortable because we have our own versions of how we wish to be and how we wish to present. And our families have their own versions of who you are. You're the artsy one, you're the athletic one, you're the whatever. And part of the freedom of going to a place like Swarthmore and getting out of the house is that you get to assert your story on your own terms, perhaps for the first time. To answer that beautifully phrased question, I think often multiple stories can coexist, right? So my mother has lost her stories of herself, but I remember them and retain them and they coexist alongside of the current version of her. So I think of it kind of like Russian nesting dolls, that we don't need to choose between these versions of ourselves or one another, we carry them constantly and we can keep all of them. She can be the brilliant psychiatrist who was an expert of this disease, and she can also be a patient who now suffers from that disease. And she could be the kick-ass fierce mother, as much as she is a vulnerable person who was scared to share her actual parenting choices.

Emily: I'd like to explore that idea of different versions of ourself. And turn the mirror on you a little with this. So the title of tonight's talk brings out many facets of your life, mother, caregiver, and storyteller. Another one that comes up in the book is athlete. And I'd like you to talk a bit about weightlifting and how that has impacted the other roles in your life.

Maya: Thank you for asking that. So yeah, one of the things growing up that I never identified as was athletic. My father had sort of drilled that out of me as a girl early on. My first experiences with sports were that I remember having this feeling of a little girl going out onto the field and feeling competitive and powerful. And my father sort of quickly stumped that out of me. And he was so effective at doing that, that I absorbed this message that I was unathletic. And through high school and through college and then you can only imagine through a PhD program, that identity solidified where I thought of myself as a total geek. And I thought that I had no athletic ability whatsoever. And it was only when my daughter was born that I thought, wait a minute, I want to model like a healthy relationship with fitness and movement. And I don't want us to be on the couch reading books all the time. But she's not gonna know that unless I do something about it. I fell in love with weightlifting, and I'm now a competitive caliber weightlifter. It is still strange to me to hear the words come out of my mouth. But I squat 400 pounds, I deadlift 315 pounds and I love it. And it is all of these feelings I had as a girl of competitiveness and intensity, swattie intensity and power that were there the whole time. And to be able to have an outlet for them is freeing and liberating and so much of that is psychological. Part of what I always say about weightlifting for me is that it's not about how much I pick up. It's really this feeling of finally settling things down. One point I just wanna throw in on the caregiving front if it's okay. This was a lesson for me, there are a lot of lessons I got from weightlifting that I think apply to motherhood and caregiving. So one of them, that I just wanna say. When I started weightlifting I had all these fears about doing it because I had lower back issues. I was incredibly out of shape, and I thought that my lower back was weak. What I found out was that my lower back was actually too strong and it was overcompensating and doing too much. So that's why it hurt. And one takeaway I had, I specifically remember this moment where I learned, it's that other parts of my body have just been dormant and they need to engage. So once you get those parts kicking in, it takes stress off of the lower back. And that part was just overextended. And I suddenly thought, oh, the lower back is the mom of the body. I remember just having this moment when I thought this is what, I hate to generalize with gender and say, this is what women do because I've met over the course of this journey, men who are caregivers in their families. But I think so often this is what we do is we are doing too much and we think that we're weak. And we think that we're inadequate when really we're just overextended and burnt out. And that's what my lower back had been telling me was that it needed other support systems to kick in. And so I think, that is one way in which weightlifting has really been kind of an eye opening metaphor for how we live our lives.

Emily: That's wonderful and one of the very very many heroes in your book, but one of them I thought was your trainer and always full of words of wisdom. I also found your daughter Zoe to be a real heroine. And her resiliency and insightfulness in the midst of coping with seeing her grandmother's health decline right in front of her. It was really inspiring to see how she processed that. And I'm curious because today we are finding ourselves globally in a situation where resiliency is so important. How are you and Zoe doing today?

Maya: Zoe is amazing, Zoe is my north star. Motherhood is just so different from what I imagined. And for any new mothers out there including you, it just keeps getting better especially as they talk. They're not so much at two and three frankly But no, I mean she has constantly just illuminated so many values from resilience, positivity. So yeah, I remember one thing she said to me, this isn't in the book, but I remember she had said to me once when we were on vacation. I forgot how old she was. And she said, “Mommy, there's a rainbow but I only see it when my sunglasses are on. And if I take my sunglasses off, the rainbow goes away.” And I remember thinking about that during the period when my mother was living with us and she and I had this talk about that, that maybe Alzheimer's is a little bit like having sunglasses on where you get to see certain gifts that you wouldn't see otherwise. Because even though it is a dark time it also brings its own share of time together and experiences that you wouldn't normally have. So yeah, she's amazing, she's 11 years old now. She's now as tall as I am, she's 5'6, and she's remarkable.

BoHee: Yeah, hang on I have to jump in and I have to ask a question. Hey Maya? Looks like Emily Annes' computer just shut down so I'll ask the next question. You talk a lot about identity in your book and how people didn't know where they coming from a lot of times, how would you answer the question today if you were asked where are you from?

Maya: Oh well so yeah, a lot of people, including Indian people often don't believe that I'm Indian. So this book just came out in India and I've had Indian journalists say to me like, no one of your parents must be American. I guess because I don't immediately read as Indian. I've gotten that question a lot my whole life, what are you? So yeah, BoHee is that what you were getting at with your question was the kind of, or did you have something else in mind?

BoHee: It was, it was partially that. And we were also really thinking about where are you from in terms of context of really not just being Indian, but really where are you from. When you say Swarthmore's home for example, is that where you're from? Or it's really more of your origin story? I would guess if you were a superhero.

Maya: Oh God. Yeah, I mean it's funny because a lot of the places I'm technically from don't feel like home. 'Cause I grew up on Long Island which certainly I've never, even though that shaped me, I have never identified with it as a place. But there are certain things that I do latch onto identity wise, being a Swattie is one, being a writer is another, being an athlete. Now I realize like, oh, that's who I've always been. I just didn't know it until I was 35, yeah writer, athlete, mom. Those are not places I'm from but those are, I think we come up with... We're constantly remaking our own story, I guess it's what I would say. And that is the beauty of stories. But also I think their danger is that we don't always know how they are shaping us.

BoHee: Thank you. We saw a cool photo online of your bookshelf pantry, which I admire so much, or a "Bantry". Do you and Zoe have any favorite books that you read together and would like to recommend?

Maya: Oh, what a nice question. So yeah, as a little story behind the "Bantry". So after my husband and I separated, ultimately I moved out into my own place. Which is where I am now, when it's what you see behind me. And I remember having this moment, I knew I was gonna be bringing all of these books with me. I have something like 800 books, and I'd no idea where they were gonna go. And I remember moving in and looking at the kitchen pantry, which had all these shelves and I thought, oh, I could put my books there. And it was this moment that had nothing to do with stuff or moving. It was more of like this existential moment of I can live my life, how I want to live it. And if that means having books in the kitchen pantry, that's fine I don't need to... my life doesn't need to conform just because I'm a mother, or just because I'm 42 now. My life can look however I want it to look. And so that simple choice of when you open my kitchen pantry you just see tons of books, it was this very liberating moment of, life is full of possibility and you get to choose your own adventure with it and make your own choices. But anyway, she and I, she still lets me read to her, for which I'm very grateful. I know those days are numbered. And our favorite thing to read is the Harry Potter books, which we love. And even as someone who's very particular about, I'm such a snob about books and stories and storytelling and words. I think those books are gorgeously written and full of so much insight and beauty.

BoHee: I love hearing that as someone who uses her oven as storage I love your bantry. And do you have a favorite independent bookstore that you'd like to share with us, especially for those in the audience who'd like to purchase your book?

Maya: Oh thank you, well one venue that I would love to recommend to people that people might not know about is an organization called It is a website and I think for the Swarthmore audience, if you haven't heard of it, was founded specifically to compete with and take down Amazon. And the idea is that rather than try and have all these independent bookstores compete with Amazon, where your local bookstore doesn't have the storage space to be able to stock books constantly and ship them out the way Amazon can. Instead exists solely to ship books and the proceeds go to independent booksellers. So I think this is genius. I think it's so important, part of what Amazon did was put so many bookstores out of business. Which hurt not only our sense of community in neighborhoods, but it also hurt authors because part of how authors sell books is when a bookstore owner or a staff member falls in love with a book and recommends it to people who come in. So, I highly recommend them. Not only for my book of course, but for general book shopping.

BoHee: Thank you for that.

Emily: Hi there.

BoHee: So good

Emily: I'm sorry for briefly disappearing well my computer decided to stop working. But to follow up on the question about where to shop for books, what has your experience been like doing a virtual book tour? I know your release date for this came out, in the midst of the pandemic.

Maya: Yeah so my book came out on April 28th, my publicist at random house had a whole slew of book launch events and a national book tour. And it was everything from speaking at bookstores, going on to NPR and college campus visits. And then I remember this specific day in March when all of the events just evaporated and it was clear that none of that would be happening. So there was this real pivot to doing events like this in the way that we've all had to pivot. And on one hand I think of all of the problems to have right now, this was not one that I was going to complain about. To be able to publish a book is a huge privilege, on the other hand it represents years and years of work. So to have it come out in the midst of a global pandemic, who has a difficult challenge. Personally it was a little bit like the tree falling in a forest that no one is there to hear. But thankfully over the past couple of months there's been renewed interest I think, we all kind of had to get our sea legs under us. And people have been reading more during this time, which, I am someone who likes to look for silver linings and the fact that we have found time to read to me that is a silver lining in the situation.

Emily: We've received a number of questions about what's next. And so someone asked, you spoke earlier about how you were in the midst of writing your second book when this book happened. And did you ever finish that book? Are there thoughts about finishing that? Are you nonfiction now or are you fiction? What can we see next from you?

Maya: So I'm at a real juncture. The experience of writing a memoir is so different from writing fiction. My shorthand way of describing it is that I think writing fiction is a little bit like listening to the human heart through a stethoscope. In that you have this parallel universe and you have characters running around and you can connect that you're listening to their story and you're able to connect to that heartbeat. But it's in this distanced and removed way. Versus I think writing a memoir is like performing open heart surgery and holding the heart in your hands. It is much more raw of an experience. And there are times when it's scary, frankly to write about your own life and confront certain things. Any editor worth their salt will want you to write more about the things that are scariest for you to write about. The parts that you didn't even wanna put on the page to begin with, they'll say, oh, do more of that. So that can be hard, and the other hand there's a kind of addictive draw to it because when you're writing fiction you don't always know when you're hitting on the truth, or if you're hitting on something that's really good. Versus in memoir you kind of know cause you can feel it, viscerally, you know when you're onto something for me at least I would get uncomfortable writing certain parts because I would realize like, oh this is something that's really vulnerable for me or difficult to talk about. So yeah I'm not sure what the next book will be. I am currently working on some essays that I know are going to be anthologized. And so I'm in an essay phase right now. And I don't know if the next book will be nonfiction or fiction. I am thinking quite a bit about the subject of joy and what it means for people to choose ourselves and our happiness instead of sacrificing ourselves.

Emily: Wonderful and Maryanne Evans sent a note pointing out that we don't need to choose fiction or nonfiction. You can absolutely do both as you very successfully done. And people are sending in comments to encourage you to keep being brave and courageous. I've got one last question before we wrap things up and this could be very easy, it could be a tough one. But Karen Cervantes would like to know if you could pick one book that has touched your soul, what would that book be?

Maya: Oh my God, it's like choosing between children. I would say the one book that has probably moved me more than any other or stuck with me more than any other is Beloved by Toni Morrison. Toni Morrison is certainly one of my favorite authors of all time, perhaps my most favorite author of all time. And the epigraph in What We Carry is from Beloved. "You your own best thing, Sethe" that line having to do with motherhood, I mean there's a strange kind of caregiving that takes place in Beloved, right? But just when it comes to personhood, the idea that you are your own best thing. I think that counters so much of what we get told and especially what women get told.

Emily: Excellent choice. Well, for everyone out here who wants to stay up to date on your essays and what else is coming out, where can we find you? Where can we follow you?

Maya: Thank you for the question. I have my author website which is And that has links to all of my social media. I confess to being an old fashioned soul, as I think that's maybe part of being a Swattie perhaps. But I am on Instagram and Facebook in my own sort of old fashioned verbose way. So you won't see pictures of like trendy meals or like succulent plants or whatever I don't do that. But I do have like, thoughtful posts about life, hopefully in ways that speak to people.

Emily: And someone, I believe Robert Mueller wrote, Mueller had written earlier saying that it was ironic that it was Facebook that led to the memoir in the first place. So thank you, thank you so much for tonight. Thank you everybody for joining, Maya the book is incredible. Everybody, if you have not read it already, BoHee posted the link to the bookshop website to go and support her independent booksellers and buy a copy there. And thank you everybody for joining SwatTalk. As I mentioned at the beginning, this is brought to you by the Alumni Council. We are currently seeking nominations for future members of Alumni Council. You can find more information about the Council and what sort of programs we put on, including SwatTalks and others. And if you're interested in self-nominating or nominating a fellow alum, please do so nominations deadline is October 1st. And thank you again everybody for joining, please be safe. And thank you Maya, this was wonderful.

Maya: Thank you so much Emily Anne, and thank you to everyone who tuned in and so nice to be in the company of Swatties.