KR BlogBlogLiteratureReadingWriting

An Interview with Chaya Bhuvaneswar, Author of White Dancing Elephants

Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of reading Chaya Bhuvaneswar’s debut short story collection White Dancing Elephants. It’s a mesmerizing group of stories, filled with both joy and sorrow, and I had the good fortune of being able to interview Chaya about it.

Aatif Rashid: Let’s start by talking about process. Tell me a little about how you wrote these stories. Was it over the course of several years or during a more contained period?

Chaya Bhuvaneswar: It’s always kind of thrilling and scary when you reach a point, after writing anything, when you can’t even exactly remember the process or journey of writing it, from start to end. What I remember is that some of the stories existed in some fragmented, really draft form for years—definitely for years, one even for 10 years—but that there was definitely a conscious decision on my part to one day “just finish” every unfinished piece of writing I sort of had in my docket and then just see what I had. These were among the first 30 or so stories I finished that way and then it became easy to pick the ones that belonged together in this collection—and also designate a second group of stories, for a second collection that will hopefully go out on submission soon, now that some have appeared in lit mags alongside writers I admire so much, like Brandon Taylor (in Joyland) and Viet Thanh Nguyen (in Narrative). 

But basically—that’s my “process” in a nutshell. Just really try to finish. Sometimes it makes the story hurtle and then in revision, I have to slow down. Sometimes I like the ending, sometimes not. But I keep rolling down the hill of the story, to its depth. I want to drink the cup of it.

AR: And what was the publication process like? Did you go through the traditional agent query phase or did you submit directly to presses?

CB: I had kind of a parallel process, where I was working on a novel, trying to finish it before submitting it to agents, then not sure what to do with the story collection but feeling, after reading about Vanessa Hua’s and Allegra Hyde’s wonderful experiences with winning story collection contests (along with Dana Johnson’s BREAK ANY WOMAN DOWN, one of my favorite collections ever, which also won a prize to get published)—I wanted to try this route.

I should say too, not that I encourage people to think too much about the “mechanics” of publishing, because it really is like overthinking “how sausage is made” rather than diving into a beautifully-cooked bowl of jambalaya with jasmine rice—I mean, in the end, just taste it!—but I should say that there is no longer any ‘traditional’ route. I mean, Brit Bennett got an agent from an agent reading a digital essay by her in the online journal Jezebel. That’s it. That was it. She wrote this essay, it was read by tons of people with great interest and admiration, an agent called her and kept asking her about writing a novel, she wrote a novel, it sold. I love the novel too. The connection just has to get sparked. In my case, the process of revising my novel, which I also hope will go out on submission sometime this year, gave me a wonderful distraction from thinking too much about “what will happen” with my story collection. The Dzanc win was a wonderful surprise. I am so grateful to have published the collection and gotten support from mainstream as well as smaller literary magazines as well as many incredible booksellers. Through this process, I got an agent relatively early in the process who has helped me deal with getting the support I needed as a debut author from an indie press with limited resources but plenty of emotional investment in seeing my book do well. My agent has really helped me get answers to the questions I was brainstorming about “what is possible” and so much turned out to be possible and there were cheaper ways to do everything (i.e. mainly using digital galleys, doing my own publicity campaign when I learned my press didn’t have a publicity department, etc.).

AR: Let’s talk about the collection itself. How did you decide to order the stories? I think there’s a very good emotional arc that runs through them—they get gradually darker and more intense, I’d say, before ending on a very moving, hopeful note (not to spoil anything, but I really loved that ending line, very James Joyce in Ulysses with the way you used “yes.”). How conscious were you of the emotional effect the order of the stories would have when you chose the order?

CB: Not conscious at all. I am so grateful you liked the order! I really think ordering stories in a collection is very limbic, very loose, really something like putting together a mix tape or even ordering dishes you serve during a meal.

AR: I’m also struck by the range of stories in the collection—you have family dramas, historical fiction, one that’s more metafictional, one that’s almost a heist thriller. What was it like writing in these different styles, and did you have a different approach for getting into each one?

CB: I really try to stay with the tone and voice that the story initially presents itself to me in. Because I read very very widely—all sorts of genre, literary, translated, pulp fiction, pretty much have been reading everything I could possibly read since I learned to read at three—I know any number of styles are possible, though I have to say I love being reminded of possibilities. Like: the second person as used by Mohsin Hamid in The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Collective voices, like The Mothers, and wonderful wide ranging, yet intimate, omniscient narrations, like Min Jin Lee uses so incredibly skillfully and smoothly in her books. Stories are great opportunities to try and fully realize “a style” within a given story, though as I write some longer stories I’m seeing that there can be turns that in turn change the style. Turn of the Screw for a story, ha. Or the question of who survives to tell the tale.

AR: I love the way art is a recurring motif in several of these stories—characters who draw, references to cave paintings, the Uffizi featuring prominently in one of the stories. Can you talk about the way art is important to you and how you wanted to bring that out with these stories?

CB: I was a big fan of ekphrastic poetry for years, before I knew what that word meant!! But like—”Archaic Torso of Apollo” by Rilke. Love that poem. I love the translation of ‘the visual’ into words. I love the idea of ‘painting’ in words somehow, maybe because I love drawing and still draw and paint quite a bit. To this I also credit a really well-funded art history program in the public (magnet) school I went to—Hunter. We actually had both studio and art history and endless slides and the Metropolitan Museum, which was my hangout, a few blocks away. I was immersed in it. And then when I studied Sanskrit and ancient Indian history, I got deeply into the art and it still haunts me and obsesses me. Like I wrote this poem about the Mohenjodaro ‘dancing girl’ sculpture, up here.

AR: I feel like I have to bring up the Desi Issue of Barrelhouse from earlier this summer that both you and I had stories in. As Kamil Ahsan, our editor, described while promoting the issue, he was interested in challenging traditional and stereotypical representations of Desi/South Asian fiction with the stories he curated for that issue. Can you talk a little bit about the idea of a Desi identity and how you feel your collection addresses the idea of representation?

CB: Wow, it’s complex. The first thing I want to say: I can’t speak for anyone. There are ways any kind of “Indian identity” has been clearly co-opted and used for violent goals. The Hindu fundamentalism of the BJP and now of Modi’s government led to senseless killings, including of children, and now has been linked to the lynching of Muslims as well as retaliatory violence against Hindus that has continued in the Islamic world, where Hindus are less than second class citizens. I am fully aware of this, and there is no “shiny pretended unity” I am referring to when I use the word “desi.” Blood was used to draw the lines around the “desh” or “homeland.”

That said, it is powerful to draw support and strength from other South Asians as a subgroup of the larger “people of color” identity I feel supported by more generally.

It meant a lot to me that Kamil fashioned this beautiful issue. And it is wonderful to see his career (and your career!) bloom in part because of visibility of a collective of writers creating something together. It means a lot to me too that “desi” as provisionally defined in this issue is diverse. I didn’t feel that there was any misidentification of “South Asian” as somehow being equivalent to “Hindu”. On the one hand, it’s not. On the other hand, Hinduism has such vast and ancient roots in South Asia, it (as a very loosely aggregated system of all sorts of beliefs, texts, deities, practices) has certainly influenced all the other religions in the region so strongly. I am a person of faith. But so deeply fundamental to that faith is ahimsa. And Hindu nationalism is an ugly distortion of anything beautiful in the concept of ‘faith’ or ‘practice.’ It is inherently violent and aiming at erasure and conflict that gets in the way of progress in the region. Given how many people agree with this assessment I have to hope and pray they will get voted out just as we will #VoteThemOut here in 2020.