Maya Shanbhag Lang

Photography: Beowulf Sheehan

Maya Shanbhag Lang What We Carry

In a raw and riveting way, Maya Lang’s memoir, What We Carry, explores the filial relationship of mothers and daughters, and everything in between. When Maya became a mother herself, she found her own mother slipping away — a figure she had idolised for a very long time. The poignant reality of Maya’s mother’s Alzheimer’s engulfed her whole. With the affliction came many hard hitting truths, both about her mother’s past — which she had lied about — and Maya’s own relationship with her. In this poignant and moving book, Maya lays bare the the weight we shoulder as women, through a compelling examination of the lies and truths that are spoken and unspoken to us by our mothers. There is an immense universal appeal to her words. The book pushes you to recognise the follies of those who raise us and the necessity of inspecting these follies further, and hopefully in the process, accepting them fully.

We connected with the author to know more about her and the story behind the book.  

How did your relationship with the written word begin and how has that relationship been so far?
I’ve been a writer ever since I can remember. When I was eight or nine years old, I wrote a series of poems. My father found them and was furious. An engineer, he saw writing as a waste of time. ‘What do you think you are?’ he sneered. ‘A writer?’ I remember sitting up straighter and thinking, Yes! That’s exactly what I am. 

I couldn’t imagine it as a career, so I spent many years trying to be anyone else: a doctor, a management consultant, an academic. It always felt like a charade. When my daughter was born, I realized I had to stop running from my dreams — that I couldn’t encourage her to one day pursue hers if I didn’t go after mine. I wrote my first novel when she was a newborn. It is still a shock to me that I get to make my living this way.

What led you to write What We Carry: A Memoir?
I was in the middle of working on my second novel when my mother, a geriatric psychiatrist, needed emergency care. She had been diagnosed with early Alzheimer’s and, because she was an expert at the disease, was excellent at masking her symptoms — until she couldn’t. I brought her home to live with me because I couldn’t bear the thought of hospitalizing her. Overnight, my life changed. I was caring for my young daughter at the time. I didn’t have extra help. I was overwhelmed. To cope, I started writing Facebook posts. It was like letting steam out of a pressure cooker. An editor happened to see my posts and contacted my agent to ask if I would be interested in writing a memoir. I politely declined, thinking there was no way I could write about my life. That same night, I wrote over fifty pages. I had no idea how much I needed to write this until I started doing it.

As the book is born out of delving in your own life and explores larger themes like the relationship between a mother and daughter, what was your creative process like behind writing the book?
I wrote this book as I was living it. This is why the chapters are so short. I was in crisis at the time. Sometimes, I had to hide in my office closet so that I could have ten minutes to myself. You can’t ask someone with dementia for a break. They forget a minute later. 

On any given day, my mother would accuse me of poisoning her, kidnapping her, stealing from her, but then tell me I was the best daughter in the world. It was dizzying. She also became very confessional. She forgot her old stories, the ones she used to tell me that made her into a mythic superhero. On a daily basis, I was processing a lot — her hallucinations, her past. I began seeing her as an actual person, someone who was vulnerable and culpable. Caring for her awakened me. Being a mother to my mother brought back my childhood. This book was borne from that juncture of reconciling past and present, while also facing my daughter’s future.

How challenging was it to pen down your memoir?
Extremely challenging. There is no feeling of safety in writing a memoir. There is no remove. Whenever I sent chapters to my editor, she always wanted me to write more about the parts that made me the most uncomfortable — the ones that made me squirm. This meant confronting my past in ways I had never done. I was accustomed to writing fiction. Fiction is like listening to the human heart through a stethoscope. Memoir is like holding the heart in your hands.

There are many things that the book speaks about, especially in terms of our filial relationships. What do you hope the readers take away from it?
We are always spinning stories. Parents do this without necessarily realizing it. The problem is that they leave out key parts. They edit, highlight, omit. Children read into the omissions. My mother, for example, never talked about the difficulties she faced when she became a parent. ‘I don’t know how I did it,’ she would say breezily of motherhood. ‘I just did.’ When I became a new mother, I assumed I was bad at it. I wanted to be the breezy mom. It never occurred to me that she wasn’t being entirely truthful — that she had struggled, too. 

My hope is that readers will come away with a sense that the stories we inherit — about our parents and ourselves — require examination. We carry them around without realizing it. Sometimes those stories empower us, but other times they limit us. The trick is to recognize them, to take them out of the suitcase and unpack them.

How have you been coping with the pandemic and what will be the new normal for you post it?
Like everyone else, I am doing my best. I have a great deal of newfound gratitude for the simple pleasures I used to take for granted — and for things that aren’t actually pleasurable but that constitute normal life. Dropping my daughter off at school, for example: I can’t believe I used to complain about this! I’ve also learned to practice kindness and compassion more liberally. This is a good time to be gentle with one another, and with ourselves. 

Lastly, what are you working on next?
I’ve been thinking a lot about ideas of joy and self-love. I think about this with respect to my daughter. I want her to know what it means for a woman to prioritize herself. On the in-flight safety video on airplanes, they tell you to put your oxygen mask on first in an emergency. I want women to put their oxygen masks on first in daily life, not to save the people around them, but because we deserve to tend to our ourselves. This shouldn’t be a radical act, yet for women — especially for mothers — it can feel audacious to put ourselves first. Yet if we don’t, our daughters will never learn how.

Text Nidhi Verma