Sixteen stories make up Chaya Bhuvaneswar’s debut collection of short stories, White Dancing Elephants, winner of the Dzanc Short Story Collection contest, and a PEN/Robert W Bingham Prize finalist. Stretching across space and time, these stories – some of them as short as four pages – explore female bonds, familial and other relationships. But they are not straightforward, or necessarily safe spaces.
We see betrayal, violence, loss, racism, desperation, disappearance, and problematic power dynamics at play. Bhuvaneswar features and foregrounds women of colour facing sexual- and gender-based violence and harassment, and racial violence, and also writes about individual and collective trauma in understated ways – never sensationalised, as trauma sometimes is.
Of White Dancing Elephants, writer Lauren Groff has said: “Chaya Bhuvaneswar’s debut collection maps with great assurance the intricate outer reaches of the human heart. What a bold, smart, exciting new voice, well worth listening to; what an elegant story collection to read and savour…”
Bhuvaneswar spoke to Scroll.in about how her debut collection came to be and was curated, “owning” and borrowing stories, and her South Asian (and Indian) settings and audiences. Excerpts from the email interview:
You won the Dzanc Short Story Collection contest before Dzanc Books picked up White Dancing Elephants. Can you talk to us about how contests such as these serve as support mechanisms for emerging authors?
I find it very fascinating to contemplate the deep contradictions and complexity of publishing. We can’t say that “immigrant stories” and “diaspora stories” are somehow being ignored, given the incredible commercial success of precisely these stories across all levels of publishing, from bestselling, probing, deeply-researched literary fiction, like by Min Jin Lee and, more recently, Namwali Serpell – to works like Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians, many YA titles, Diksha Basu’s highly entertaining novel The Windfall, and others. Salman Rushdie’s recent NYT essay about the emergence of African women’s writing in the past decade – in English and in formats widely read in the US, Canada, Europe – speaks so cannily to that interest in immigrant and diasporic fiction.
Yet at the same time, the bar for convincing anyone that a “strange” sounding name will resonate with readers is still really high. We still see a lot of books being published that are about a more familiar, white American experience. To put it more bluntly, it is still really possible to be a very mediocre white male writer and get published, whereas in publishing as in life, for non-white women in particular: We have to work twice as hard for half of what they get.
Indie publishing presents a way for creative, resourceful and unstoppable women writers of colour to get published and get noticed. White Dancing Elephants featured on many “best of” lists, and was a PEN American award finalist. This is almost like a case study of how an indie press publication can really open doors, if coupled with persistent outreach to major media outlets.
How did you go about curating this wide-ranging collection – from the order in which these stories appear (where the title story is the opening story and really sets the tone) to the thematic links and space-time shifts?
I had fifty stories to choose from because I took awhile to realise that while I was working on two other novels – one of which is going on submission this year and which we hope so much to publish in both the US and India – I also had a story collection (or two). Then I just identified the ten or so I really loved. Building from there, my editor and I added seven more, one of which I specifically wrote for the collection during a MacDowell colony residency.
Some stories are as short as four pages (“Heitor” and “Asha in Allston”). Others have multiple sections (“Talinda” and “A Shaker Chair”). Can you talk about the space a short story takes – how the form can be squished, sectioned out, or stretched – and what that affords you as a storyteller?
It is thrilling to be included, for example, in the 2019 anthology Best Small Fictions –alongside Carmen Maria Machado, Anne Beattie, and other masters of “short story” over such a range of lengths and formats. I love the fluidity of “short stories” and I think it is a different and equally compelling fluidity compared with novelistic fluidity. Novels are fluid in the sense of how they move through time and space, construct “a world” that can actually be “worlds within worlds”; offer a sustained experience of other people’s subjectivity that is really unique.
In the Hindu epics, there are novelistic moments. We feel Sita’s anguish in The Ramayana when she’s in Ravana’s kingdom. We feel Dasharatha’s immense grief when Kaikeyi asks him for the one boon that it will kill him to grant her. There are moments of undeniable individuality to how these characters experience these emotions, but in the structure of the epic, these moments give way to the larger, collective story and the stylised emotions – valour, duty, betrayal, loyalty – also because of the religious mission of the epics.
I think of short stories as similar to moments of character depth in an epic, but freed from any kind of larger mission. A story simply exists to satisfy the need: “Tell me a story.” It is so fun to see all the different ways to meet that need. Fifty pages, like one of Jhumpa Lahiri’s long stories in Unaccustomed Earth. Six words, like Hemingway’s famous one: “Baby shoes for sale, never worn.”
The space within, and of, your short stories aside, I want to ask about structure and shifting points of view (from first- to third- and second-person). Most of the stories have female protagonists. Some, I thought, had an auto-fictional quality to them. Who owns these stories, who tells them, to whom – and to what effect?
To be honest, when I write I don’t feel I “own” any story. I am an observant Hindu, and on a deep level I feel that bhagwan owns the stories in the sense that I can’t tell anything without help. It goes back to the Satyanarayan story and how deeply ingrained that belief is – that without thanks, without help, nothing is possible; but with gratitude for the divine, recognition of the divine in other human beings (atma), everything you can think of that’s possibly good and decent is completely possible.
I am sure the relative innocence and “lightness” of my beliefs would come as a surprise to many readers who have identified the stories as “dark”, “pleasantly devious” or “sly”, but those aspects go with a sense of play, a sense of freedom. You see the same sense of play in the Bhakti poets, in Kabir, in the Mudrarakshasa. In stories about Krishna as a child.
I have enormous gratitude for the sheer complexity of motivations recognised by Hinduism the way I was taught to understand how to live, the way I feel devout. Of course humans are flawed, and “sin” is “error”. That’s who we are. We are essentially imperfect. And we enact these flaws on each other, we hurt each other anytime we come close, but we can also repair, we can also find a way to be good. We must. It’s a need.
Your epigraph is from a Seamus Heaney poem. One of the stories is titled “Chronicle of a Marriage, Foretold” in a lovely literary nod to Garcia Márquez. And one of your characters reads Susan Sontag. Are you interested in literary lineage and intertextuality?
I love characters whose emotions and thoughts reflect all their experiences, from relationships to reading, so the “reading life” of a given character is where any kind of intertextuality starts. That said, I also really like using “persona” as a way into a story I’m not sure how to write.
Look at the structure of the opening chapter of Henry James’s Washington Square and think about how I would write about a strip of Indian stores in Queens in the 1980s that is a central location in my forthcoming novel. I think Zadie Smith also uses this technique – On Beauty using Howard’s End as a taking-off point; Michael Cunningham using Mrs Dalloway the same way, in The Hours – and it’s definitely a kind of literary lineage and intertextuality that interests me and delights me.
I’ve said elsewhere that I think short stories are having something of a moment right now. Who are your go-to short story writers – as a reader and as a writer? (You often mention Jhumpa Lahiri in your interviews...)
I admit that I mention Jhumpa Lahiri not only because there is so much in her work and general demeanour (reserved, cautious, utterly dignified) to admire, but mainly because she is the South Asian American writer most American readers have actually read and liked, and we all benefit from how mainstream she is now. She is our brand ambassador.
That said, of Indian writers – Rushdie. Whatever his flaws: Midnight’s Children, Shame, Imaginary Homelands – I completely love these books. Above all, I love that he fashioned himself with absolute certainty in his abilities into a literary lion. That is a radical act for a “post colonial” writer, period. While he’s not a short story writer, there’s enough formal experimentation and sometimes fragmentation (like in Shame) so that I feel like I learned from him in ways that apply to short stories. RK Narayan is another writer to learn from when it comes to short stories.
Other go-to writers for short stories for me are Chekhov, Grace Paley, Alice Munro, Sandra Cisneros, ZZ Packer, Lauren Groff and John Edgar Wideman. It was a truly thrilling moment in my life when John Edgar Wideman wrote to me saying he enjoyed my book and that it made him feel.
The collection points its compass to multiple geographical coordinates and some stories have South Asian settings. Is an Indian edition in the pipeline? What do you want your Indian (indeed, South Asian) audiences to take away from these stories ?
We’ve been approached by two Indian publishers and I find that so heartening, while at the same time, what I really hope is that as India moves toward embracing Hindu nationalism, we can hold fast to what I believe is the beauty and vastness of Hinduism –many rivers flowing into one, co-existence of folk religions along with Brahmanical authority, multiple retellings of every story, every epic, multiple points of view, multiple contributions to contemporary subcontinental culture(s).
Plurality has served India the way it’s served every diverse place. It’s critical to progress. We have to reject any kind of hatred or “smallness” of spirit including sectarianism. I’m also really heartened by the September 2018 move on LGBTQ law – that Section 377 was declared unconstitutional. That’s an exhilarating development, and what it means most of all is that a lot of people, not just a few, have no time for hatred. They want to move forward and build together.