Lang took a winding road to becoming a writer. Just as her role as a new mother pushed her to write her first novel, The Sixteenth of June (2014), so taking on the role of being the caregiver for her physician mother provided the impetus to writing What We Carry, which explores their complicated and evolving relationship. Lang sat down with LARB to discuss how she wove this memoir from the ever-shifting stories that she was told — and that she told herself — about her mother and herself.
KAVITA DAS: What We Carry begins with a prologue that relates a myth about a mother crossing a rising river with her child and facing the impossible decision of saving herself or her child. You return to this story at different points in the narrative, ultimately deciding to change the myth to reflect your own life. How did you choose this myth as a frame for the story about you and your mother?
MAYA SHANBHAG LANG: Because my immigrant parents were busy and preoccupied, I didn’t grow up being read to or told stories. It was therefore a fairly astonishing moment when my mother told me this one. It was our first official bedtime story, though I was 30 years old. The myth was my mother’s way of trying to come clean with me. Some part of me knew she was telling me something important, so the story stuck.
Later, when she told me a very different version, I realized that we are always revising our stories — and ourselves. My mother presented one version of the story when I was a new mother. She gave me a different version when I was her caretaker. Our stories reveal us, and they change over time depending on what we’re willing to concede. This particular story felt like the perfect way of conveying that.
Relatedly, a key theme is the impact of family mythology in inspiring and inhibiting the next generation as they navigate their own realities — especially the notion of “If I could do it, so can you.” What are your thoughts on how we choose what to keep and what to let go of, especially when it comes to one’s cultural heritage?
I believe that multiple stories can coexist — that we can hold on to different, contradictory truths. My mother wanted to be the mother who sacrificed everything for her children. She could also be shockingly selfish as a parent. I wish she had owned her choices rather than hide them from me, but I also understand her guilt. So, I try and make room for the mother she wanted to be. I honor that version of her because it doesn’t have to be the only one.
The important thing about family lore is that we reexamine it over time. When we’re able to see our parents as complicated, culpable people, that’s a milestone of adulthood. It means that we’re ready to let go of who we want our parents to be.
One of the realizations you have in the book is that the stories we tell ourselves — about ourselves and each other — are powerful and defining but that they don’t have to be static. They should reflect our life and learnings. This is how you rewrote the myth of the woman carrying her child across the water to be a less tragic, less misogynistic story. Can you talk about the journey toward this realization and how it shaped your perspective and this memoir?
Yes, exactly. The stories we tell — about ourselves and one another — can be false. This is their power, but also their danger. Sometimes our illusions are freeing or comforting, but other times they limit us.
For example, when I became a late-in-life athlete as a serious weightlifter, I realized I’d been misperceiving myself as unathletic my whole life. There I was, deadlifting 300 pounds, except I felt small and vulnerable because I was shuttled back in time to when I was a little girl — and, specifically, to when my father would try and “coach” me in sports by yelling at me. I didn’t know I was still listening to his voice in my head.
Reexamining our stories and the words we carry in our heads gives us space to become new versions of ourselves. The stories we inherit and the narratives we absorb can be damning.
You depict the mental and emotional challenges early motherhood presented for you but also how the arrival of your daughter offered you a chance to reenvision yourself and your life in a more honest way. How were you impacted by the fact that society tends to reward women who try to become “perfect” mothers while punishing those who harbor other ambitions?
This was really tough for me. I found that, when I acted the part of the perfect mom and feigned a completely false breezy nonchalance, I was rewarded for it. If I confessed my struggles, people would respond with buck-up messages no doubt meant to reassure me but that made me feel isolated. I felt more seen when I was playing a part.
I don’t think we give new mothers enough room to be vulnerable. We want — and perhaps need — new moms to be happy and competent because so much depends on it. Frankly, our survival as a species depends on it. We aren’t terribly comfortable when a mother says, “God, I don’t know how I’m going to do this.” Even when we’re adults, we want our mothers to have all the answers.
There’s also the role of secrets and silence in perpetuating intergenerational trauma and shame, especially given the stigma around mental health issues in the South Asian community. You were hiding your feelings of inadequacy and exhaustion as a new mother while your mother was hiding her slipping memory and cognitive decline. How has doing away with secrets and silence impacted your relationship with your mother? With your daughter?
My mom discussed her patients openly with me in a way that was completely inappropriate yet wonderfully revelatory. Ten-year-olds probably shouldn’t know so much about schizophrenia and depression, but that knowledge opened my eyes, made me understand that even put-together grown-ups have issues, that everyone deserves compassion. While my mother could talk with ease about science, she never talked about herself.
Because I’ve seen how secrets can lead to shame, I’ve made a conscious choice to not be mythic or mysterious with my daughter. My priority is to be real. I do this in age-appropriate ways, of course; it’s not that I’m spilling my secrets to my child. But I won’t go down the road of building myself up as all-knowing. I want to be honest rather than impressive, vulnerable rather than proud. I think, or hope, that my daughter already senses this, that she can trust me, that I won’t hide from her when she wants answers.
I’ve learned to give my mother room for her illusions. I’m glad we reached a place of honesty when her secrets finally came out. If it weren’t for her dementia, we could have inhabited that space as mother and daughter. Now, when she misremembers her past or engages in a bit of storytelling, I know not to take it personally. I understand that correcting her would be unkind. Stories are how we assert ourselves. My job with my mother is to listen and let her have those moments of narrative victory.
As challenging as it was to take on becoming a caregiver for your mother as her memory declined, you also note that it gave you a chance to separate the mythology of her from the reality. Why is this so important?
Every crisis has its silver linings. Even a debilitating and horrific disease like Alzheimer’s bears strange gifts. One of these was that my mother’s armor finally fell away. She couldn’t maintain her old stories with me because she couldn’t remember them. She became vulnerable. She became real.
Seeing her as a person was liberating for me. It made me realize that she was never in possession of all the answers; she struggled and floundered the same way I do. The fact that she hid her struggles spoke volumes about her guilt. It made me view her with empathy. And I think that, whenever we have more compassion for others, especially our parents, we give that compassion to ourselves.
It was your father who first called you a writer, but as an insult. Can you talk about your journey toward finding your path and identity as a writer?
From a really young age, I knew I was a writer, but it felt like something I couldn’t pursue, partly because of my father’s attitude toward the arts.
Like a lot of children of Indian immigrants, I started off college pre-med. Then I thought about going to law school. I ended up with a doctorate in comparative literature. I kept feeling restless and unhappy.
It wasn’t until my daughter was born that I finally let myself write a novel. Seeing myself through her infant eyes made me realize I was hiding. In some ways, it was the worst time to write a novel because I was an exhausted and overwhelmed new parent, but I was also motivated. I saw that I needed to be the fullest version of myself, that this was the single best gift I could give my child. Writing that novel became imperative — for her sake and for mine. People talk about motherhood as sacrifice, but I don’t think I would have become an author if it weren’t for my daughter.
Memoirs for so long centered on male ambitions and exploits; your memoir, however, centers on mothering, daughtering, caregiving, and self-care. Did it feel like a radical act as an Indian-American woman to write this memoir built around these themes?
I was very conscious while writing this of feeling unseen. Between caring for a young daughter and an ailing parent, it felt like I was slowly erasing myself. Each day I threw myself into the needs of everyone around me: feeding, cleaning up after, encouraging, observing, assisting. I forgot about my work and ambitions — about my own needs. Drawing attention to that space in a memoir felt unglamorous and raw but necessary. I suppose in that sense, yes, it felt radical.
All memoir writers have their own reasons for mining their lives and reflecting on them on the page. What was your motivation for writing this book, and what is your hope for it?
With anything I write, my goal is to help people feel less alone. I see books as life preservers. That’s how they felt to me when I was a girl, and that’s how I think of them still.
If this book helps one person out there with caregiving or parenthood or simply with negotiating adulthood, I will be satisfied. Life is hard. Honesty makes it easier — and reminds us that we’re not alone.
Kavita Das writes about culture, race, gender, and their intersections. Her first book, Poignant Song: The Life and Music of Lakshmi Shankar, a biography of the Grammy-nominated Hindustani singer who played a pivotal role in bringing Indian music to the West, was published in June 2019 by Harper Collins India. She is also at work on a collection of personal essays.