by Tah­neer Oksman

Tah­neer Oks­man spoke to Roz Chast about her recent­ly pub­lished book Can’t We Talk About Some­thing More Pleas­ant.

Tah­neer Oks­man: What com­pelled you to write this book about your par­ents, and why now?

Roz Chast: I thought it was an inter­est­ing and emo­tion­al­ly com­plex sto­ry — sad and enrag­ing, but some­times fun­ny. Also, I felt that the top­ic of how we as a soci­ety care for the extreme­ly old is rarely dis­cussed, and maybe that’s not so good, to pre­tend this doesn’t exist. After all, unless some­thing hap­pens,” that’s the direc­tion in which we’re all heading. 

Why now? One rea­son is that deal­ing with my par­ents at the end” was so drain­ing that I need­ed to think about oth­er things for a while. The oth­er was that even when I decid­ed I want­ed to do a book on this sub­ject, I had no idea how it would actu­al­ly come togeth­er. It took me a while to fig­ure out how to struc­ture it. 

TO: What was the process of writ­ing this book like, and how did it dif­fer from cre­at­ing the car­toons you draw for The New Yorker?

RC: It was a very organ­ic process. I used what­ever form fit the con­tent best.

I had a strong sense that it was a sto­ry with a begin­ning, mid­dle, and end. Although a few of the car­toons in the book, like the ones I did after the attack on the World Trade Cen­ters and the one about my mother’s sex­u­al attrac­tion/heel-height the­o­ry, were ones I had pre­vi­ous­ly sub­mit­ted in my week­ly batch” to The New York­er, the process of doing a book was quite dif­fer­ent from doing car­toons. Main­ly, the car­toons are indi­vid­ual pieces, and when I was work­ing on the book, I knew that they all had to work together. 

TO: In addi­tion to your comics and hand­writ­ten prose, you pep­per your book with pho­tographs and some of your mother’s poems. What oth­er kinds of research did you have to do to help you remem­ber the past?

RC: I had lots of emails that I had writ­ten to peo­ple about stuff that was going on while I was tak­ing care of my par­ents. I was able to search for terms like my moth­er,” neu­rol­o­gist,” The Place,” etc. So I was able to find pret­ty detailed accounts of events and conversations.

Also, some of the car­toons in the book were done years ago, like the dirty check­ers” one, the one about the shoes/​sex talk with my moth­er, the oven mitt one, and the World Trade Cen­ters ones. At the time I did those, I had no idea I’d even­tu­al­ly put them in a book about my parents. 

TO: Ear­ly in the book, you relate your par­ents’ sen­si­bil­i­ties — and espe­cial­ly their desire not to talk about death — to their Jew­ish immi­grant pasts. How do you relate to your Jew­ish identity?

RC: On some deep lev­el, I iden­ti­fy as a Jew. I don’t know exact­ly what that means. Maybe feel­ing a lit­tle bit like an out­sider. And that no mat­ter how much I assim­i­late, there will always be some­thing about me that will not fit in. 

TO: Were there oth­er works — of art or lit­er­a­ture or comics or film — that inspired you or informed your book?

RC: Not con­scious­ly. When I’m work­ing on a project, I tend to be pret­ty absorbed in doing it my own way.

TO: Do you think you might like to com­pose an­other long-form book or mem­oir in the future?

RC: I think so, but who knows?

Tah­neer Oks­man is assis­tant pro­fes­sor and direc­tor of aca­d­e­m­ic writ­ing at Mary­mount Man­hat­tan Col­lege. Her book on Jew­ish iden­ti­ty in con­tem­po­rary women’s graph­ic mem­oirs is forth­com­ing from Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty Press.

Tah­neer Oks­man is a writer, teacher, and schol­ar. She is the author of How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?”: Women and Jew­ish Amer­i­can Iden­ti­ty in Con­tem­po­rary Graph­ic Mem­oirs (Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2016), and the co-edi­tor of The Comics of Julie Doucet and Gabrielle Bell: A Place Inside Your­self (Uni­ver­si­ty Press of Mis­sis­sip­pi, 2019), which won the 2020 Comics Stud­ies Soci­ety (CSS) Prize for Best Edit­ed Col­lec­tion. She is also co-edi­tor of a mul­ti-dis­ci­pli­nary Spe­cial Issue of Sho­far: an Inter­dis­ci­pli­nary Jour­nal of Jew­ish Stud­ies, titled What’s Jew­ish About Death?” (March 2021). For more of her writ­ing, you can vis­it tah­neeroks​man​.com