Maya Shanbhag Lang_What We Carry
Q&A with Maya Shanbhag Lang, Author & Narrator of What We Carry

At a moment when many of us are experiencing our closest relationships in new ways, Maya Shanbhag Lang’s nuanced, tightly-woven memoir What We Carry could not be more timely. We asked Lang to share not only more about her book, but also what it was like to narrate such a personal story from the audio recording booth.

Please tell us a little about your audiobook, What We Carry.

What We Carry is about the year I spent caring for my mother during her Alzheimer’s while also caring for my young daughter. Being thrust into the role of caregiver was overwhelming. I didn’t know how to mother my mother. I was still figuring out parenthood.

That time transformed me. I learned of certain secrets my mother had kept hidden my whole life. She and I finally dropped our pretenses. Families build mythologies. We construct stories of one another. Those stories shape us, even when they are false.

Ultimately, What We Carry is about mothers and daughters, lies and truths, and who we become when we shed our illusions about the past. It’s about the weight we shoulder as women, the constant invisible labor we do, and how to become the next versions of ourselves.

When you were writing What We Carry, did you imagine you might one day narrate it? What was it like to voice a work as personal as a memoir?

No! I never dreamed I would narrate the book. There are so many talented voice actors out there. I just assumed a professional narrator would handle it.

The experience of recording the audiobook was a revelation. I’d imagined it as robotic, but it was incredibly intimate and personal and warm. Somehow, reading the book aloud conjured the reader. There was this pleasant, ghostly feeling of company in the sound booth, for I could sense the listener there with me. It was a lovely reminder that we are never alone—that books help us connect across time and space.

As you were narrating the audiobook, was there a moment or moments that had a particular impact on you, something you couldn’t have anticipated, or something that surprised you?

In a couple of passages involving my daughter, my voice cracks. She was a toddler in those scenes. Her vulnerability and earnestness split me open. Because I’m a perfectionist, I wanted to re-do those passages. I didn’t want the trembles and cracks, the shakiness in my voice. The director smiled and explained that the cracks were good—they showed my emotion. It was a reminder to me that we sometimes need to let go and let ourselves be vulnerable.

Did you do anything special to prepare for your days in the recording studio, or have any special treats ready when you were done recording?

In the days leading up to the recording, I eliminated dairy so that my voice would sound clear. Let me just say that not eating cheese for seven days was much harder than it sounds.

Because recording the audiobook was such a dream, I definitely wanted to celebrate it. Three days at the Penguin Random House Audio studio! It was like being in a movie. I went out for a night on the town to celebrate, one of those perfect city nights of restaurants and cabs and bars, a whirlwind.

As it turns out, that would be my last big night out in New York. It was just before the pandemic. I’m so glad I have that memory. The experience taught me about the importance of savoring joy.

And last but not least, is there a book or audiobook that you would recommend to people right now, especially as they struggle with the situation we’re all living in?

I’m finally reading Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout. I held off for a while because I was so attached to Olive Kitteridge; I worried it couldn’t possibly be as good. But Elizabeth Strout is a master.

There’s a great line from Zadie Smith: “Time is not what it is, but how it is felt.” I’ve been thinking about that a lot right now, how we are collectively and individually experiencing time differently these days, how each day contains hills and valleys and morasses. The great joy of books is that they allow us to experience time differently. My recommendation right now would be to keep trying different books and audiobooks until you find one that absorbs you. Having an escape right now is necessary. And there is no better escape hatch than books.

Listen to a clip of Maya Shanbhag Lang reading What We Carry:

Interested in reading more Q&As from authors and narrators? Find them here!