On Creating A Writing Life While Negotiating Mental Illness: An Interview with Urvashi Bahuguna – Michigan Quarterly Review

On Creating A Writing Life While Negotiating Mental Illness: An Interview with Urvashi Bahuguna

Urvashi Bahuguna is a poet and essayist from India whose work has been recognised by a Charles Wallace India Trust Fellowship, a Sangam House fellowship, an Eclectica Spotlight Author Prize, and a TOTO Award for Creative Writing. She is the author of a poetry collection, Terrarium (The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective, 2019) and a collection of personal essays on mental health, No Straight Thing Was Ever Made (Penguin Random House, 2021). 

Sanchari Sur (SS): Unlike your debut poetry collection, this is an extremely personal book. Now that the book has been out for a while in India, how do you feel about it?

Urvashi Bahuguna (UB): I think now is the right time to be asking this question because it has been a few months since it’s been out in India. There are books out there that are definitely more revealing than mine, that I think are primarily written by authors who don’t live where I live. And so in some sense, I do feel a little bit protected, because I haven’t divulged perhaps as much as I could have in a different social context. But I still do feel very, very exposed.

With poetry, I felt this sense of ‘I’m hiding behind the craft a little bit, hiding behind the form.’ But with the essays, I feel like I’ve laid myself bare. And, it has been very interesting to realise how differently one feels about giving away one’s privacy in that way. I think I wrote it for very selfish purposes. I think I told myself that I wanted to contribute to mental health literature in India, and I wanted to write about something that wasn’t as cut and dry as the National Health Service website makes it sound, or how movies make mental health appear. And how it affects—for me—every aspect of my life. And I wrote about it because I was always trying to say, ‘I can’t escape it. I want you to be able to see me.’ When other people see me, it’s kind of terrifying, because they have the option of not liking what they see.

I’m honestly fine being told that I missed the mark on my craft. But I think when it’s something that’s so very personal, so very raw, because I really did go through hell to write this book—and obviously that doesn’t mean the reader owes you anything—but it does create an interesting experience as a writer where you’re like, ‘Would I make this decision again?’ It has made me realise how one has to think about not only are you okay with this work today, but would you be okay with it 10-15 years down the line.

SS: You talked about how with poetry, you had the craft to hide behind. And I feel that maybe there is a bit of hiding here as well, through the way you write about what you are going through by referring to other writers. Can you speak to your heavy use of intertextual references instead of only your own experiences?

UB: To me, the intertextuality—in the way that I was conscious of it—was driven by the fact that I felt that I had known so much from other people. And I didn’t want to create a work that did not go back to that. And I know that it is reference and quote-heavy, but I had enjoyed other literature that had been written that way. It was about feeling like I couldn’t really tell the story without saying the things that those people were saying. And I didn’t just want to paraphrase it or sell it in a different way. But I do think that it is possible that I was hiding behind that a little bit because I was terrified as I wrote the book.When I set out to write it, I didn’t have this terror. I was excited about it. I thought it’s not going to be as painful as it turned out to be. And I was just crippled by fear while I was writing it, it was just constant. And I definitely leaned on other people’s books when I was writing.

I think there’s this moment right now. It’s been happening for the last few years in literature—in personal writing, in particular—where we’re writing about the traumatic things that have happened to us, we’re writing about the oppressive forces in our lives. And sometimes we write about it through some detachment, and sometimes we write about it through the story of our own trauma. And at times, I wanted to really write this from my perspective, the granular details of what happened on a particular day. But then there were times where I physically couldn’t get those words down. I needed to tell this from a little bit of distance. And so, I grappled with a lot of ‘how much do I owe the reader? How much am I comfortable saying?’ I remember reading a ton about how other artists dealt with this when I was trying to make that decision. And it was in an interview with Ben Howard, the musician, where he was talking about how someone told him that you really need to keep something back for yourself.  I’m glad that I kept something back for myself because I do feel like I needed that for my own sanity as I move forward. 

SS: In the preface of the book, you write, “This is not a memoir. The essays are arranged thematically rather than chronologically.” Why did you pick this structure? 

UB: I think I wanted to mirror the way in which I was experiencing time with mental illness. And it felt like I was flitting through a series of rooms, rather than a longer box. There was so much of one step forward, and ten steps back. 

It felt a little bit like that illustration in A Doll’s House. At the beginning of the book, there is a cross section of the house, so you can see into every room. And I think that’s how I kind of saw the book, where each chapter was a different room but it was all part of the same house, even though different people were living in different spaces. I didn’t really have an adventure story that went from point A to B. So, I needed something that gave me the flexibility to sink my teeth into whatever was holding my attention at that particular point of time without feeling like ‘oh, I’ve given too much importance for this era in my life.’

SS: In chapter two, you write about doctors and gaslighting. Can you speak to your experience as a woman of not being believed about what you were going through?

UB: I don’t know if this is an Indian city thing but when you go to a doctor here—in Delhi or Bombay, the two cities that I know—it’s not like your psychiatrist is in conversation with your nutritionist or general physician. And I think that that causes all kinds of problems. Because if they can’t figure out what’s going on with you, then depression and anxiety just become a blanket diagnosis. And it’s a huge disservice, because you end up living with very uncomfortable symptoms. I’ve had chronic headaches and nausea and fatigue for years. And it’s something that I just explained away. I was like, ’Oh, the doctor said that it’s part of depression, and I just got to live with the highs and lows of my disorder.’ And it wasn’t until a few months ago, not even while I was writing this book, that I began to realise that ‘No, actually it isn’t true.’ There is work being done elsewhere about gut health. There are investigations that one can look into to improve one’s quality of life.

I think I didn’t connect it to me being a woman at that point in time. They would check if I had any vitamin deficiencies, and if nothing came up, then obviously, it was psychosomatic. And it is possible, but then you need to help me figure out how I’m going to achieve closer to comfortable standard of living. It’s not desirable for one to have headaches and nausea every day. That’s a ridiculous way to live a life. I definitely feel I had to blindly believe what the doctor was saying because they were my only source of information for a long time. And there is no real incentive for them to help me get better. It is easier to write it off as depression.

SS: In chapter three, you write about the dissonance between the body and the self/mind. You write about your body in third-person: “Was I kidding myself or has my body expanded over the course of an intercontinental flight?… I look in the mirror, and ask: Who is that girl?” Can you speak to your relationship to your body as it manifests in your book? You jump between third-person and first-person, and I thought that was a really interesting choice.

UB: I think sometimes I am so hyper aware of my body, it almost feels like I’m outside of it as an observer. I think that has so much to do with the fact that my relationship to my body is deeply connected to the idea of gaze; how do people see me? How desirable am I? Do people notice me? And I don’t mean that in a ‘Do people notice my beauty?’ but ‘Am I invisible to people?’ I think the third-person voice came out of that the fact that I was constantly trying to view myself from an outside lens. Then, I wanted to bring it a little bit closer so I made it myself standing somewhere between other people’s observations and my body. That was the chapter I enjoyed writing the most because it’s something that I was so in tune with. One lives with one’s body, day in and day out. And I knew that I had been hyper aware of my body for as long as I could remember.

I knew that when I was depressed, it became so much worse. I had to look a certain way to convince myself that I was even worthy of help. And, that took me so long to try and untangle. It was also deeply fascinating to me. And I think as soon as I took that third-person voice, I could just write in this way that I hadn’t been able to do when I was writing in the first-person. I had this lowering of stakes, because I was writing about myself from outside myself. 

SS: You write about a writing peer who inadvertently becomes a mirror that you compare yourself by. In your case, she ended up being a good friend, and your friendship didn’t end because she was more successful earlier in her writing career. This experience touches upon a kind of pressure that many in the writing world experience in relation to someone of the same age. Can you speak to that dynamic of comparison that I think we internalise as writers when it’s constantly around us?

UB: In writing, how do you measure how you’re doing? It’s through publication of individual pieces in journals, through prizes, residency fellowships etc. Most of us aren’t making any money off of it. So, those markers end up being the things that are motivating. And, I can’t help it that sometimes my life feels empty because in the last four years, I haven’t put out a poem, or my name isn’t out there. And if my name isn’t out there in an unceasing publication cycle, that’s particularly hard to negotiate when one is ill because I simply don’t have the hours in a day or days in a year that a healthy writer does.

SS: Time just moves differently.

UB: Yeah, yeah, exactly. And, people have all sorts of priorities in their life so this feeling is very hard to escape. It is something that I have to negotiate again and again, constantly. Most writers have to. A lot of feeling balanced within myself, and not spiralling into this competitiveness or feeling inadequate, has to do with the way I have to go through this. And I can see between the two of us, my friend and I, how time moves differently. Because I have her to commiserate with, I feel like she’s my community, not someone that I need to compare myself against. That’s really helpful in feeling healthy.

SS: In chapter five, you write that “one can write without the express purpose of the work being good… One way I learnt to think differently about that process was through Ross Gay’s encouragement to writers to strive for mystery rather than mastery.” Can you speak to this idea of mystery in your own work being greater than perfection? 

UB: I came to Ross Gay’s ‘mystery over mastery’ via a different conversation, which I had with my therapist while I was writing this book. I said, ‘I don’t know if I can do this because what if I end up with a terrible book?’ And she was deadpan and asked me, ‘So what?’ And it had not occurred to me till that point that it was okay to write a bad book, it was not a message I was familiar with. It seemed so radical at the time that you could make bad work, and that was okay. 

And then I came across Ross Gay and I was reminded of what I wanted to do. I saw it as an alternative way of approaching my writing. What happens when I pursue it with curiosity instead of fear? It sounds like a cliché, but I kept reminding myself that it’s not about the end product, that it can be about surprising myself in the work. And I have to admit that those moments were few and far between while writing this book because I was extremely fearful during this process. 

I definitely feel like I am driven by mystery over mastery. And I sort of love it. I feel like I’m operating under anonymous conditions again. And it’s kind of wonderful. So, I’m not a visual artist at all but I do like to draw. I never really pushed myself to be good at that. And I kind of feel that that relationship with my writing is something that got lost while I was writing this book, but I’m rediscovering it. I’m trying to write a poem just because I have an interest in it, because I watched a Tiktok video and someone used a phrase that completely blew my mind; just being intrigued by language, allowing myself to follow the thread of wonder, to wherever it happens to take me.

SS: I want to touch on the relationship between art and madness. You write about a writer being told by their psychiatrist that if they are treated for their mental illness and are cured, they would not be able to create art anymore. There’s this idea that you have to have a mental health issue to be a good artist. I believe it connects back to Foucault, who was the basis for a lot of theory in general, including psychology and psychiatry. In his ‘madman discourse,’ he wrote about the discourse of a mad person being outside of civilization. And if you could understand this discourse, then you would come to some kind of truth and understanding of truth. I think maybe that’s where this idea has evolved from this connection with madness and being an artist. Can you speak to this proposed relationship and your own writing practice?

UB: I can’t deny that one of the ways in which my mental illness has fed into my writing is that it’s forced me to evolve. And it’s only in that evolution that I’ve really found my way. I think my strongest work came when I began to change and when I began to capture that change. So much of it has to do with empathy. I really couldn’t walk around anymore assuming that I knew what was going on with people. I could be very harsh in my judgments in my mind. But I simply didn’t have a portal through which I could see people’s lives, and that did bring a richness to my writing. I do stand by what I have said in the book, that I don’t believe that one needs to be neuroatypical to be an artist. But when you are pushed to the fringe of something, one is forced to adapt and ask oneself what the alternative is. A lot of people like me end up creating art, because it is so lonely on the boundary. One of the ways to force oneself back into the general narrative is to create a piece and try to show it to people.

SS: Let’s talk about the relationship between suicide and the future. You write in chapter seven, “The future remained useful in the art of going forward.” While suicide indicates an end, the future refers to living on. Can you speak to these opposing ideas in the way you juxtapose them in this chapter, and what they mean for you?

UB: As a writer, so much of my time is spent imagining things. Even though I don’t write fiction, I do make up stories all day long. I am always immersed in fictional universes. So, I do daydream about the future and one of the strategies I have in getting away from the really low lows, is imagining a better future for myself. Something that helps me do that is that eight or nine years ago, when I got diagnosed, my life was in a much worse place than it is right now, internally. I had no tools, I was floundering, my personal life was a mess. And I know that it has gotten better steadily over the years. So, I keep telling myself that yes, I am still riding the waves, it’s still very, very hard, but maybe someday it will be less hard.

When I was writing the chapter on suicide, I was reading a bunch of books on it. The study I reference in the book, by the psychologist Richard H. Seiden, is where people who survive are interviewed about it, where they are admitting that they are glad they had survived. That struck such a chord in me, because I don’t have that perspective. If people generally go on to regret that call, I thought there was something there. There is something to be said about leaving that door open for yourself and fighting. I do think that the world makes it very easy for you to give up. You are an inconvenience, you are not fitting in, you are definitely a challenge to capitalist ideas of productivity and success and personhood. So, it is very, very easy to buy into that narrative that you don’t belong. It becomes an act of resistance to say, “No, my future is mine, and I am going to hold onto it.”

SS: In chapter eight, you write about “praise poems or the ode” being “therapeutic.” Referring to your own work, can you explain what you mean?

UB: I don’t think I gave myself permission to be affectionate or exuberant before I fell ill. When the depression came, I didn’t have access to anything other than negative emotions, all the time. When I started to come out of depression, I started reading about how gratitude can become one of the channels to make one’s life better. It didn’t even feel artificial once I started writing praise poems. 

Sometimes, I wrote about my home state, Goa, where I grew up. Other times, I wrote about my parents, or my sibling. It was very interesting because I thought I was writing praise poems, but sometimes the subject of the poem would read them and be like, ‘You have written about not so great things’ (laughs). But for me, I was tapping into love for the first time, tapping unapologetically, and that was very healing. 

Aimee Nezhukumatathil was a very big part of that for me. I discovered her poetry, and I thought that this person is not at all afraid to be sappy… and she did it with finesse. I realized that that is a path I really want to explore, and I followed that. I still find it therapeutic to write in that form, and the trick is to write about things that you generally feel that way about.

SS: In the same chapter, you write about a snorkelling incident where you almost drown before finding your way to a rock where you feel alive, and specifically write about courage as a muscle: “The window for peace for my anxious mind is a narrow one, and sometimes, I have to bow down to fear, to not identify with courage I haven’t honed yet—it is a muscle, and I am so early in the building.” Can you speak to this idea of courage being a muscle you have to exercise?

UB: In the recovery process, things can feel quite dramatic. When I discovered my courage, I rediscovered gratitude. I discovered, ‘That’s it! I have moved the rock a massive distance.’ And I have allowed myself to get swept away in that emotion, I have gone off my medication, I have done things that I thought I was ready for. And I have been pulled back into the reality of who I am and where I am at. I wanted to admit to that, to highlight that so much of the work is cyclical, so much of it is every day. Even recovery itself, for me, is a muscle, and it is a very painful truth to deal with because one really wants to be done with the work at some point. 

There are going to be times that I will not work that muscle and do all the things that are not beneficial for my mental health, because I am human. And it is not possible for me to be that disciplined all the time. I have to realize that I am at a certain place in my journey, and I will be at that place a few more times, but I do get to keep building. I do see increments in the way the journey moves along.

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