#DesiBooks10QA: Sushma Subramanian on reconnecting with our sense of touch to live more fully

About the author:

Sushma Subramanian is a science and health journalist whose writing has appeared in Slate, The Atlantic, Elle, Scientific American, Discover and many others. She teaches journalism as an associate professor at the University of Mary Washington and advises the student newspaper. Her radio work has aired on WBEZ and CBC. She has twice been a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists and was the winner of a Newswomen’s Club of New York Front Page Award. She has received research support from The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center at Duke, the Genetics and Behavior Journalism Fellowship at UVA, the Center for Health Journalism at USC, and the Knight Science Journalism Fellowship at MIT.

About the book:

We are out of touch. Many people fear that we are trapped inside our screens, becoming less in tune with our bodies and losing our connection to the physical world. But the sense of touch has been undervalued since long before the days of digital isolation. Because of deeply rooted beliefs that favor the cerebral over the corporeal, touch is maligned as dirty or sentimental, in contrast with supposedly more elevated modes of perceiving the world.

How to Feel: The Science and Meaning of Touch explores the scientific, physical, emotional, and cultural aspects of touch, reconnecting us to what is arguably our most important sense. Sushma Subramanian introduces readers to the scientists whose groundbreaking research is underscoring the role of touch in our lives. Through vivid individual stories―a man who lost his sense of touch in his late teens, a woman who experiences touch-emotion synesthesia, her own efforts to become less touch averse―Subramanian explains the science of the somatosensory system and our philosophical beliefs about it. She visits labs that are shaping the textures of objects we use every day, from cereal to synthetic fabrics. The book highlights the growing field of haptics, which is trying to incorporate tactile interactions into devices such as phones that touch us back and prosthetic limbs that can feel. How to Feel offers a new appreciation for a vital but misunderstood sense and how we can use it to live more fully.

[Note: The American version of the book was out in February 2021 and the Indian version was out in August 2021.]

How to Feel, by Sushma Subramanian, explores the scientific, physical, emotional, and cultural aspects of touch, reconnecting us to what is arguably our most important sense. […] and how we can use it to live more fully. #DesiBooks10QA .@DesiBooks


1. The desi book that made you want to be a writer (or changed your life.)

The Crest of the Peacock: Non-European Roots of Mathematics by George Gheverghese Joseph. I’m always looking for ways that we are taught to see our world from a limited or flawed perspective. This book helped me start looking for stories in new ways, by centering non-Western stories even when covering mainstream subjects.

2. The desi book that your own latest book is most in conversation with and why.

Unfortunately, I don’t know that I can think of one. Are there any desi books about the senses?

[Editor’s Note: She’s right, there isn’t a contemporary desi nonfiction book about the senses that comes to my mind either. I can only think of ancient texts like the Sariraka Upanishad, which gets into the indriyas and jnanendriyas. I reference the indriyas in my creative writing teaching, especially if I have South Asian students. I look forward to also referencing Sushma’s book now.]

3. The desi book that doesn’t exist (to your knowledge) but you’d love to read.

As a Tamil speaker, I’ve always been so curious about the Dravidian language family. Did it really originate in India? Does it have any connection to any other language family? I’ve always wanted to read its linguistic history.

“The Crest of the Peacock: Non-European Roots of Mathematics by George Gheverghese Joseph […] helped me start looking for stories in new ways, by centering non-Western stories…” ~Sushma Subramanian #DesiBooks10QA .@desibooks

4. The desi book that you’re currently reading or planning to read soon.

I loved Angela Saini’s recent-ish book, Inferior, about what science got wrong about women. And I really want to read her book, Superior, about the science of race. The Indian science writing community is a small one and I like to support it when I can.

5. The desi book that you believe is most under-appreciated and why.

I’m going to call out Chitra Banerjee’s Divakaruni’s The Palace of Illusions. It’s a retelling of the Mahabharata from Draupadi’s perspective, which was just fascinating. I think about it often.

It’s also important to me personally. My parents have a tangential connection to the author, and she was very encouraging when I was at the beginning of my career. It inspired me to see someone I sort of knew succeeding in this business the way she was, and I didn’t always see that as possible for myself.

6. What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

“Don’t write about what you know,” which is of course a different take on the typical advice to write what you know. The reason: our lives are so familiar to us that we sometimes fail to see them clearly and notice what’s most interesting about them. Also, in my case, I consider myself a fairly boring person day to day. As a nonfiction writer, I get to surround myself with exciting things constantly. I think that my skill is in being a good guide for people who don’t have the same access to unique people and scenes that I do and doing the work of observation and interpretation that I don’t necessarily use when I’m just living.

7. While writing your latest book, how did you keep yourself motivated to keep going despite setbacks (if any)?

This was my first book, and I think that I was highly unprepared going in. I knew, of course, that I was going to learn a lot about the sense of touch. I was very used to the work of journalism. But I had no experience using my narrative voice to make conclusions and arguments. It took a long time for me to figure out what I really think. Usually, in past works of shorter journalism, I’d always left that up to the reader.

What I learned through trial and error was that I couldn’t just work furiously until it all came together. It wasn’t just about doing more reporting or refining the writing yet again. When I get anxious, I have a habit of just working harder. And when I did that, I wasn’t producing anything meaningful. I needed to work much, much more slowly.

Forcing myself to take months at a time just to collect thoughts wasn’t something that came naturally. It was absolutely what I needed, though. Once I did that, the writing came much more easily.

#WritingTip from Sushma Subramanian: “Don’t write about what you know […] our lives are so familiar to us that we sometimes fail to see them clearly…” #DesiBooks10QA .@DesiBooks

8. With this latest book, what does “literary success” mean to you?

I’ve read so much advice about writing books and not expecting life to change substantially. I think I perhaps internalized that too much and really didn’t push hard in terms of sales or press this time around. I was just happy to have a book out. It got done! So that’s a success! Next time, I will set more goals and have higher expectations. I think that I have much more confidence internally now, so I’m less concerned about not achieving something I set out to do. Maybe it took writing this book for me to gain that kind of confidence, so that’s another win.

9. How have larger literary citizenship efforts or the writing community helped you with this latest book?

The writing of the book was a solo effort. I didn’t have too many outside readers. Generally, I like writing on my own to please myself and maybe an editor. If you have too many people in mind when writing, I think you can get really stuck. I also like to have a community that’s not all about writing. Publishing the book, on the other hand, was a collaborative effort with stakeholders at various steps.

10. What would you most like readers to take away from this latest book?

I hope readers start to think about why they developed the tactile behaviors they did. Was it something about their upbringing? Was it cultural? And do they receive touch today in the way they want? So much of how we express ourselves physically has to do with unconscious programming, and I hope to make that more conscious for people.

“I hope readers start to think about why they developed [their] tactile behaviors […] So much of how we express ourselves physically has to do with unconscious programming…” ~Sushma Subramanian on the takeaway from her book #DesiBooks10QA .@DesiBooks


Sushma Subramanian’s How to Feel: The Science and Meaning of Touch is out now. More at her website.

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