“[W]riters need more than imaginative invention in their short stories. What’s indispensable is a deeply insightful observance of one’s world with a superior technical skill for capturing the hidden, nuanced and unusual details,” writes Jenny Bhatt in her translator’s note in Ratno Dholi: The Best Stories of Dhumketu.
Bhatt and the short story go some way back. For years after leaving her corporate job in Silicon Valley, she studied the form, first reviewing five short stories every month on her blog, and later writing a short story column for PopMatters. This year, she has two collections of short stories out – Each Of Us Killers, written by her, and Ratno Dholi translated by her from the original Gujarati text by Dhumketu (1892-1965) to English.
The Dallas (US)-based writer, literary translator and critic spoke to Scroll.in about her personal connection to Dhumketu’s writing, the continuing relevance of his stories, the difficulty of choosing titles, aspiring to a two-beat ending and ageism in the publishing industry. Excerpts from the interview.
I want to start by asking you about the experience of working with a small press on Each of Us Killers. Personally, I found there were aspects I loved about working with a small publisher while other aspects were challenging.
I had three bad experiences with small presses for Each of Us Killers before I got lucky with 7.13 Books. This is also why my journey to publication took so long. Each time I had to walk away, it was because the press was having to renege on important time-bound commitments. While I am very supportive of the work that such publishers do on shoestring budgets, I also think we need a certain level of professionalism.
My current publisher made clear at the outset what he could and could not do and I so appreciated the level-setting and transparency. And he’s been very good about delivering as promised. My editor at 7.13 Books is also a writer of South Asian origin so I knew I was in good hands with her and her team of student interns. So the book creation process went smoothly, I thought. Publicity and distribution in a pandemic year is a whole other story we can get into some other time. I have a lot of lessons here that will make for a long essay someday.
These lines from your essay, “Emerging As a Writer – After 40,” really stayed with me:”Two things, I know now, can definitely be true at the same time: an emerging writer can also be a middle-aged writer...As a late-blooming woman writer of colour, it took reaching a certain age to shore up the confidence, conviction, and resources to work on my craft and send my work out.” What can the industry (publishers, magazines, informal writer networks even) do to better support and make room for middle-aged voices?
Thank you for recalling that essay. I’m still amazed with how much it resonated with readers. First, I believe the entire publishing ecosystem needs to stop using “debut” as a synonym for “young” or “emerging”. A debut can happen at any age and we should be okay with that. Just because someone comes to publishing late doesn’t mean they’ve also come to writing late.
Second, we need to do away with awards and lists that are age-driven. A book’s qualities are not somehow “better” because a writer is young. In fact, there are greater chances that an older writer, with more life experience, will have more important things to say. I’m always reminded of Ursula K LeGuin’s point about how age can make us better writers: “It is a little bit like being high up on a mountain and looking back. And oh, look at the view, gee. I never saw all that together before, you know?”
I’m also reminded of Zadie Smith’s point, which I quoted in that Longreads essay. Having once been a 22-year-old wunderkind with an award-winning debut bestseller and then a writer in her 40s, she said, “...there’s no replacement for experience. You can’t fake it, you can’t fictionalise it. It won’t develop your heart, it won’t develop you as a person. It’s a kind of game that you can play on the page but it’s not the same as being alive. Being alive is a very radical thing; it’s much more difficult...”
Third, gatekeepers across the publishing ecosystem need to understand the barriers for older debut writers who may not have the traditional literary pedigree (MFA) or access to the literary networks that such a pedigree allows. This does not make them any less skilled or capable or worth paying attention to. And, more often than not, women writers from minority cultures deal with these barriers more because we’ve had to follow traditional sociocultural scripts where writing as a profession or career is not an option.
But, of course, we know why the publishing ecosystem glorifies youth. It’s capitalism at its finest. Younger writers have, it is believed, a longer runway ahead of them, which means more saleable books. So it comes down to discerning readers who need to understand that news media is highlighting and promoting younger authors’ works for reasons that are more commercial than anything else. And these readers will then have to do the extra legwork to find good books by older writers, which will not come from the big five publishers and, therefore, not be as visible.
What I loved about the stories in Each of Us Killers was how complete they felt despite the fact that our view of these people’s lives is limited. I wonder, as a writer, how do you know when a short story is whole, when do you step away?
The short story form is, to me, the best prose form due to its malleability and flexibility. The economy or brevity is challenging but also fun. I’ve been writing them since I was ten years old, when I won a national children’s short story competition with Femina India. This was back in the 1980s, when it was a totally different kind of magazine, mind you. I still remember people scrunching their faces or smiling politely when I responded to “What is it about?” with “It’s about robots who write poetry.”
Looking back, I can see how I borrowed from HG Wells, The Wizard of Oz, and Gujarati folklore to create that story. But, more than anything, I remember the many drafts I wrote over a single weekend, each with a different ending. Never could figure out a suitable ending. It frustrated me so much that I chewed my lips until they bled. So endings don’t come easy at all. Knowing when to step away is difficult. That said, the opening of The End of the Affair by Graham Greene has become a permanent guideline: “A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.”
So, for me, a short story is about that singular moment or event from which we can look back or look ahead into the protagonist’s life. And I always want to stop at the point when the ending of one story could well be the beginning of another. And, for that, I must quote another writer, Mohsin Hamid, who’s talked often about how he likes to end his novellas on a two-beat note where he gives one beat and the reader has to supply the second. Heard him say this in a BBC World Book Club interview. I don’t think I’ve mastered this two-beat ending yet but it’s what I aspire to always.
I’ve been thinking about how the stories each have their own syntax which is in line with the mini-world of that story. For example, when I was reading “Fragments of Future Memories” I was thrown for a minute because the language had changed, a door had been stepped through. How did you go about learning the language of worlds you may not inhabit?
Oh, I’m so glad you asked this question. Yes, I worked hard to give each story, depending on its protagonist and POV, the right voice and style. My idols, when it comes to different voices and styles on the page, are Toni Morrison and Zadie Smith. Though, of course, I’m nowhere near their level. (Aside: This is another reason I love short stories; I get to try on many voices and styles.)
I’ll get a bit professorial now, please bear with me. Let’s define “narrative voice” because people mean different things when they use this term. I make a distinction between “style” and “voice.” Voice is about a point of view, attitude, personality, character, tone, diction, dialect, accent, etc., while style is about syntax, grammar, sentence/paragraph structures, cadences, rhythms, genre, etc. To put it simply, voice is about speech and thought patterns, and style is about how that voice is laid out on the page. Voice is learned through close listening and, well, mimicry. Style comes from honing craft through practice. Both are needed for the effects we’re talking about here.
Here’s an example I use when teaching where two people are saying almost the same thing but in their unique voices and styles. “Don’t play what’s there. Play what’s not there.” – Miles Davis. “The notes I handle no better than many pianists. But the pauses between the notes—ah, that is where the art resides.” – Artur Schnabel. Two very different musicians with two very different voices and styles. And, to borrow from them, getting a voice and style right is often about paying as much attention to what’s not there as it is to what’s there.
“Separation Notice” is such a unique example of myth and god-inspired writing. Can you tell us a bit about where the idea came from and how it took the form of this story?
”Separation Notice” started with a writing prompt. I wrote it for a literary magazine a few years ago with Saint Medard as the main character. I’d wanted to write it with a Hindu god but I didn’t think it would get accepted by the US litmag. When it came to including it in the collection, I changed the story around to Vishnu. I wanted to incorporate Hindu mythology in these modern tales about working lives but I didn’t want to do a straight retelling. So this was a fun way, through a letter where a god is fired, basically, to approach both a working life issue and Hindu mythology. I had fun with it.
When I first read the list of contents, the titles of the short stories didn’t register very much with me. After I read each story, I found myself thinking of all the assumptions I had (unconsciously) brought to what seemed like simple descriptors. Most of the time, after I would read a story, I’d have to look at the title again and think upon the ways it pushed forward the story. I would love to hear about the process you used to choose the titles.
Oh, I’m really bad with titles. My working titles, when I’m drafting a story, is generally just the protagonist’s name. After I finish the story, I try to pick out the main theme or the one beat I’m trying to give the reader. So stories have these simple titles like “The Waiting” and “The Prize” and “Neeru’s New World” and “Mango Season”. With “Each of Us Killers”, I took the last few words of the story because that, essentially, is what the entire story is about – we’re all killers in some way or another. I want to do better, though, with titles because I think they’re one of the reasons my collection was initially turned down by agents and publishers, to be honest.
What drew you in particular to translating Dhumketu’s work?
Dhumketu was one of my mother’s favourite Gujarati writers. Before she passed suddenly in 2014, we had been discussing doing a translation project together. She’d been a reader and lover of Gujarati literature all her life. After her passing, I inherited her small personal library. And the one author who dominated her shelves was Dhumketu.
She had the entire multi-volume short stories collection and most of his novels. So I began reading some of the short stories because that’s my favourite form and he was known as a pioneer of the form in Gujarati. I was blown away with how much and how insightfully he wrote about caste, class, gender, and religion problems. And how pertinent they still are today. I started the project as a way to re-connect, I suppose, with my mother. I hadn’t even considered a book publication until my agent, with whom I was querying my own story collection, jumped on the Dhumketu reference in my author bio and asked for that instead.
Would you tell our readers, many of whom may be unfamiliar with Dhumketu’s work, a little more about the continuing pertinence of these stories?
While Dhumketu’s stories are set in earlier times, certain themes recur: the parent-child bond; micro- and macro-aggressions by privileged upper-caste and upper-class people on the less fortunate; the stresses and challenges of conforming to social expectations and pressures (especially for women and lower-caste people); how our work defines us as individuals and as members of our societies; and more. All of these are still important issues across our societies even today.
I began reading and translating Dhumketu’s stories in September 2017, months after I’d written the last story of my own collection. But his writing resonated so deeply with me because almost all of these themes were also my preoccupations while writing my own stories. There were so many times I felt that simultaneous shock and pleasure of recognition as I read through his collections to select the stories I would translate. I hope that readers who come to both my own collection and the Dhumketu translation will feel some of that same recognition.
Why did you choose “Ratno Dholi” in particular for the titular story?
I’m no good with titles. Each of Us Killers had two other titles before this was proposed by my US editor. With Ratno Dholi, we had the original titles of all the stories from Dhumketu. My editor at HarperCollins India, Rahul Soni, suggested choosing this as the collection’s title. I believe the idea was that it would lend itself well to a catchy cover image.
I loved it for another reason. The penultimate line reads: “Listening to this, the laughing sort laughed and the crying sort cried.” Dhumketu is describing Ratno’s beautiful, vivid hallucinations of his lover. And I’ve always thought of this as one of the true tests of a good work of fiction: that it will make the laughing sort laugh and the crying sort cry. Several of Dhumketu’s stories felt like this to me during the translation process. Zadie Smith calls this kind of writing as having “a bit of laughter in the dark.” I’m not there with my own storytelling but it’s a lovely aim to aspire to, right?