I always worry that saying a book proves something can be done diminishes it a little bit. To praise a book this way risks treating it as instrumental, reducing it to a point in a larger argument about writing or politics or reporting. But I felt this way so many times while reading “One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter,” BuzzFeed culture writer Scaachi Koul’s jaunty and moving new essay collection, that I wasn’t sure I could sum up the book any other way.
First and foremost, Koul serves as a reminder that even in different political climates and journalistic ecosystems, it’s possible to do what Nora Ephron did best: remind your readers that just because forces in women’s lives and urges we have in response might be ridiculous doesn’t mean they’re any less powerful.
In an chapter about shopping that recalls Ephron’s uproarious 1972 Esquire essay “A Few Words About Breasts,” which involves a particularly ludicrous padded bra, Koul recalls an outfit that she once believed would transform her life: “a royal blue shirt with ‘IF IT WEREN’T FOR BOYS, I WOULDN’T EVEN GO TO SCHOOL’ scrawled across the front in harsh yellow.” Koul knew then, and now, that the shirt was ridiculous, and had nothing to do with who she really was. But that didn’t prevent her from being devastated when “my arch-nemesis, Stephanie, wore the shirt I’d wanted, getting an obscene amount of negative male attention. … That was supposed to be my negative male attention.”
Feeling that strongly about a single T-shirt may be vaguely ridiculous. But raging against the idea that consumption is supposed to make the difference in women’s lives, even if no other aspect of capitalism, or the caste-based gender system, or international racial heirarchies, changes — well, that seems downright reasonable. And simply because something is ridiculous doesn’t mean it’s blunted as a weapon. As Koul observes tartly at one point, “In high school, I was repeatedly called a nigger, because racism doesn’t have to be accurate, it just has to be acute.”
“One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter” is also a terrific rebuke to anyone foolish enough to argue that getting more specific renders a piece of art difficult for a general-interest audience to relate to.
Koul is the daughter of Indian immigrants who settled in Canada, whose panicked emails to her — her father writes of one trip she is taking, “What was the rationale in choosing the country you are going to. Is it some sort of getting back at me. You know that I will be up for all the period you will be gone. Your brother did not go anywhere this exotic. What did I do to you.” — and bouts of the silent treatment are the product of their distinct personalities, values and experiences. The mixture of guilt and obligation and humor and love and theatrics are also instantly recognizable to anyone with Jewish parents, or probably to most people with parents.
In a similar way, her parents’ willingness to invite other immigrants from their region of India into their home becomes a way for Koul to explain her relationship to the Internet. “I will likely have to tell you, here, that vangan is eggplant, but online, I can find someone in mere seconds who already knows that,” she writes. Not all of us knew that before she explained it to us. But all of us have our own vangan.
In a similar way, Koul’s essay about her relationship to the hair on her head and her body is absolutely about her, but it still fills in questions plenty of other women might have asked themselves.
“The secret to Indian hair is merely to be Indian, to have decades of systemic racism, and fear of the other, and beauty anxiety, and fetishization, and repulsion woven into your roots,” she points out. “I mean, I use Amla oil tool, but even that is a ploy from Indian cosmetic companies creating products that suggest you, too, could possess the sheen and strength and length that we got from our mothers, who got it from their mothers, and so on and so forth. Mostly, it helps to be brown.”
“One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter,” also provides a reminder of the value of specificity in its less-successful stretches. “A Good Egg,” a wistful but clear-eyed meditation on Koul’s relationship to alcohol told through the story of her relationships with two college friends — one of which lasts, and one of which doesn’t — is followed by “Hunting Season,” an essay about rape that is well done, but much less fresh.
And finally, at a moment in publishing when writing anchored in the author’s personal experience is simultaneously omnipresent and undercooked, Koul sets a forceful standard that other writers should follow, reminding readers that life experience is a compliment to analytical rigor, not a substitute for it. It’s too easy for confessional writing to leave the reader feeling a little smug about having a life that’s not a wreck and vaguely disappointed not to have stockpiled enough drama for a memoir. Koul is far more engaging company than that — and far more challenging.