Meditation, ego death, and the humor of being alive in “Bad Thoughts”: An interview with Nada Alic – Chicago Review of Books


If you want to get to know the debut author Nada Alic, you should read her new collection Bad Thoughts. And once you read it, you will realize, yes: you already know her, and maybe, in fact, you are her. The protagonists of her stories are all different sides of the same person, different potential lives in a universe with a lot of commonalities with no overlap. Like each of the author’s own bad thoughts have been personified, then given life and a heavy dose of sarcasm. You get the sense that if they all sat down in a room together, they’d simultaneously despise and love one another—no matter what, sparks would fly, and meaning would be found somehow, somewhere. The characters in this story paint a portrait of an author grappling with womanhood, adulthood, meaning, and ego death, all with a sense of irony and self-mockery. I spoke with Nada over Zoom and emails about her relationship with Buddhism, how mindfulness guides her work, and more. 

Denise S. Robbins

How did this collection begin? 

Nada Alic

The first story I wrote for the collection was “The Intruder” in 2017, and I had pieces of other stories I’d been working on, but it wasn’t until I quit my job at the end of 2018 that I really set out to write the collection. It’s a very dramatic way to begin doing something you’ve never done before but it wasn’t on a whim. It took me a year of saving up just to have enough money to live on for a few months so I could focus on writing and figure out what I needed to do next. In one sense, it was a very punishing way to make art, but in another, it was the only way for me to do it, so I had this weird mental clarity about this very wild and scary decision.

Denise S. Robbins

The main characters in this collection are similar to each other. They have different names and different lives, but a lot of them feel like they have the same brain and are dealing with similar issues, and have some similarities with you, the author. Do you consider these characters different sides of you?

Nada Alic

Nope, I cannot relate at all! By that I mean, yes, these characters represent exaggerated versions of myself and people I know. Leaning into absurdity has always been a safeguard against taking myself too seriously. So for example, if I’m really struggling with something like waiting for an email, there’s this drama playing in my head about the email, and how it could change my life at any moment, I’ll take that feeling and create a character who is absolutely destroying her life and alienating everyone around her while she waits for an email to arrive. She’s insane, but I can relate to the desperation she feels and the fantasy she builds around it. 

I’ve always been drawn to absurd, delusional characters because they’re playing out our most base instincts and there’s something very cathartic about watching that. It’s why I love satirical shows like “I Think You Should Leave” or “Stath Lets Flats” because the characters are always very cringe and totally lack all self-awareness, and they’re just completely obliterating any sort of agreed-upon social contracts while trying very hard to be fit in and be liked. It’s very endearing to me.

Denise S. Robbins

Your stories definitely go deep into your characters’ minds and how they deal with the world. But in these stories, is it too much? They tend to overthink things and think in circles. Are their mental processes self-defeating? 

Nada Alic

I definitely think it’s too much, and that’s sort of the point. We all have a self-defeating inner critic and we turn to self-help and therapy as a way to cope. This can help give language to our experiences, but can also sometimes feel too reductive, like infographics and personality tests that declare some absolute defect you possess and should make your whole identity. I can get so sucked into that self-diagnosis vortex that I often need to come up for air and remind myself that I maybe I’ve got it all wrong and I’m actually fine. Even the idea of “bad thoughts” sort of speaks to that. What does that even mean? I don’t always know where my thoughts come from or where they go, and being a person means being privately inundated with thoughts that don’t always fit with the narrative of who I am. If I can laugh at it, I can remove the shame from it and have more compassion for myself and others.

Denise S. Robbins

What is your relationship with Buddhism? How did you come to it? 

Nada Alic

I watched a lot of Oprah growing up and that’s really when I first encountered spiritual teachers like Deepak Chopra, Eckhart Tolle and Gary Zukav. I remember reading The Four Agreements when I was younger and thinking, ”Ok, I’m going to hell now I guess.” But once I shed my genetically-inherited Catholicism and discovered Ram Dass, that’s when I went all in. I wouldn’t call myself a Buddhist. I’m more generally into Eastern mysticism and some new-agey stuff because it gives my otherwise spiritually impoverished neoliberal lifestyle some depth and meaning.

Denise S. Robbins

Have you had any negative experiences with Buddhism? In the story “Earth to Lydia,” about a therapy group to “deprogram” or “fix” people’s mindfulness, it seems like perhaps you have.

Nada Alic

Sometimes I need to balance out all of my spiritual stuff with just being the most basic version of myself, which usually involves watching Selling Sunset or shopping online until my hands hurt. I can’t fully commit to ego death anyway and I don’t think it’s even possible. But I see the appeal of living fully on the spiritual plane because having a body and being in the world is . . . a lot. I can’t believe I have to buy, prepare and eat food multiple times a day, then wash the dishes afterwards? Who came up with this? How am I supposed to do anything else?  

Denise S. Robbins

Do writing and meditation have any similarities to you?

Nada Alic

They are similar in that whenever I read about someone’s writing process or how their meditation practice has changed their life, I want to hurl myself off a cliff. Is that normal? As a rule, I think most claims an artist makes about habits and rituals should be met with skepticism, and a little contempt! No one has it figured out and everyone is just trying to cope with this little game called life. That said, as a semi-regular-ish meditator, I honestly don’t even know if it’s helping? Sometimes I feel more calm and clear, and think, yes this works. But other times I’m like, nope I’m 100% still me, but maybe a little worse due to the added guilt of having missed a day or week of meditating. 

Now that I’ve established that I’m basically a poser when it comes to meditating: I’ve found it similar to writing in that they both force me to be with myself. They both require attention, that thing no one has anymore. Meditation is also famously the portal to the subconscious, the place inside of you that allegedly contains all the good ideas. But much like writing, you can’t go in expecting to meet your muse; mostly, you will meet boredom and pain and memories of something embarrassing you said to someone three years ago, and if you’re lucky, the rare, fleeting insight. 

Denise S. Robbins

Do you have a meditation tip that you would recommend for writers or readers?

Nada Alic

See Also


I’ve been into sound frequency meditations. It’s much easier to meditate with binaural beats than with pure silence. It can get very trippy sometimes.  

Denise S. Robbins

Back to the book. Your main characters are all desperately searching for meaning and/or love.  Do you think that love and meaning are interchangeable, or is love not enough?

Nada Alic

Love is one of those words that can mean anything, like God. But it’s many off-brand iterations like desire and attachment feel more tangible to me. Those things can feel incredibly meaningful but will never be enough. A lot of these characters in the book have a central preoccupation, whether it’s to feel desired, or free, or powerful. The absence of those things can give your life a lot of meaning and purpose but acquiring them often feels empty and disappointing. I think we all instinctively know this, but we sometimes have to remind ourselves in a million different complicated and painful ways until it really sinks in. 

Denise S. Robbins

In “This is Heaven,” the main character and her boyfriend stare at each other until they “recognize” each other every Sunday, and it takes hours. It ends unsuccessfully, but the narrator says, “I might never really see him, but I want to spend my whole life trying.” (Spoiler alert — this story is already published inAstra Magazine.) Is that what you’re trying to do with this collection? To try to fully “see” and share your experience? Do you think you’re ever going to succeed?

Nada Alic

I think trying to fully examine and share my experience—and risking failure—is a worthwhile way to spend a life. I’ll never succeed in getting it exactly right, because there is a years-long gap between writing something and publishing it, so in that time I’ll think about things differently, I’ll grow into a new version of myself. There’s so much that’s outside of my control, but that remains true whether or not I put myself out there and write a book.

FICTION

Bad Thoughts

by Nada Alic

Vintage

Published on July 12, 2022



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