Chaya Bhuvaneswar's story collection, White Dancing Elephants, received the Dzanc Books Short Story Prize, was a finalist for the 2019 PEN Robert Bingham Debut Fiction Prize, was selected as a Kirkus Best Book of 2018 as well as a Book Club selection for The Wing and Bookish.com. The book was listed as a "best book" in Entertainment Weekly, Harper's Bazaar, Vogue India, Buzz Feed Books, Book Riot, The Millions, Huff Post (US and India), Elle, Bustle, and elsewhere. Her work has appeared in Narrative Magazine, Tin House, The Millions, Joyland, Michigan Quarterly Review, and is forthcoming in The Kenyon Review, as well as selected for the 2019 Best of Small Fictions anthology. She is the Walter Robinson MacDowell Colony Fellow for 2018, recipient of a scholarship to Sewanee Writers Workshop and of a Henfield writing award, a finalist for fiction awards from Chattahoochee Review and Cosmonauts Ave as well as poetry prize winner of the Joy Harjo award from Cutthroat Journal, and finalist for the Hunger Mountain poetry award. Website: chayabhuvaneswar.com; Twitter: @chayab77
Namrata Poddar writes fiction, nonfiction and curates the interview series called “Race, Power and Storytelling” for Kweli. Her work has appeared in Longreads, Literary Hub, Electric Literature, Poets & Writers, Transition, VIDA Review, and elsewhere. Her story collection-in-progress, Ladies Special, Homebound, was a finalist for Feminist Press's 2018 Meriwether Award, and will release from Speaking Tiger (rights sold for South Asia). She holds a Ph.D. in French Studies from the University of Pennsylvania, an MFA from Bennington College and Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowship in Transnational Cultures from UCLA. Website: www.namratapoddar.com; Twitter: @poddar_namrata
NP: The South Asian American short story is a fairly young genre, even if the Asian short story is probably the oldest and largest literary legacy in the world. As I think of second generation voices in particular, writers like Jhumpa Lahiri, Rajesh Parameswaran and Nina McConigley instantly come to mind who published their story collections in the US before you did. Unlike new white writers who often leave “mainstream” writing workshops equipped with a toolbox that draws directly from a Euro-American literary history, did a young literary ancestry within the American context ever hinder your writing process? Or did it liberate the latter?
CB: For me, both my background outside the MFA world (while benefiting from various “strands” of it)—plus having the awareness that there hadn’t been a lot of writers working in my “territory” (women of color doctors, Tamil Brahmin queer women, etc)—is always liberating though so much so that I don’t even think about it. For better or worse, I never worry about whether a theme I want to write about has been ‘done.’ It’s a distant world to me where some workshop classmate or distant lit mag editor circles the title of a story saying, “This one has been done to death.” I couldn’t care less. And I don’t think powerful writing comes out of any deliberate decision “to be new,” though the adage “Make it new” (which comes from such a problematic Modernist poet, Ezra Pound) is one I construe as “Make it yours” and “It is already yours,” and other similar sayings aimed at reminding myself not to care about what Ezra Pound thinks either.
NP: You don’t come to writing from a more conventional path of the MFA, but from a professional background in medicine. How does this impact your writing?
CB: I try to be consciously grateful that I benefitted from a unique, high-quality education so much that it doesn’t matter about not doing an MFA. I gained a lot from studying English and creative writing at Yale as an undergrad. I majored in Philosophy but took high-impact creative writing classes and a ton of comparative literature classes, some of which really shaped my writing, like a brilliant seminar on Irish Literature, a class on Chekhov. Then I studied Sanskrit literature at Oxford as a Rhodes scholar; then medical training at Stanford including in medical humanities and medical anthropology. A lot of school! But writing all the way through, finding different writing communities – good friends. So I always had readers and never felt in a ‘vacuum.’ After about the age of eighteen, I always felt surrounded by people who cared about books, even though my dad and other members of my family were decidedly “anti-book” and literally tore books from my hands shouting that I was wasting my time when I was a child. (Note to parents: there’s probably no better way to create a writer. It made books taboo and desirable!)
Practicing medicine is harder to pinpoint as a “driver” of writing because of strict confidentiality. If anything, it pushes me toward speculative fiction because I never want there to be anything but very wide separation between my ‘day job’ and what I write about—and it’s really good for my mind and body to have writing be a separate, safe, entirely personal space. Everyone needs a respite from their job—a work/life balance—no matter what kind of work they do.
NP: Who do you see as your literary ancestors? And your literary siblings? Why?
CB: Ooh. Louise Erdrich is the older, incredibly chic and cool sister with a wisdom, self-possession and sheer love of writing whom I read to ground myself and remind myself of everything I care about in books. She has real charisma, too, as a literary celebrity. Not to mark every other writer I read as some specific family members, but writers who are really important in my cosmos: R.K. Narayan, Salman Rushdie, Suniti Namjoshi, Akhil Sharma, Jhumpa Lahiri, García Márquez, Margaret Atwood, John Edgar Wideman, Ann Beattie, Randall Kenan, Jeff Renard Allen, Pam Houston, Lauren Groff, ZZ Packer, Sandra Cisneros, Danzy Senna, Alexander Chee (especially Edinburgh; that book gutted me), Toni Morrison (many exclamation points), Henry James (especially Washington Square), some Borges, some Calvino, Chris Abani (feel like questioning all your life choices? Read Graceland), Isak Dinesen, and ending with the two doctor-writers I hope I can read until the day I die: Chekhov and William Carlos Williams. Everything. Both doctor-writers practiced until the end too.
NP: In a publication landscape where writers are repeatedly told that short story collections don’t sell, what was your experience in getting a story collection published? What were some of the unexpected challenges and happy surprises along the way?
CB: I think I could have waited to publish by going out on submission and trying to place this collection with a Big Five publisher, because around when I started entering story collection contests, I started getting approached by agents and I do have an agent. But I followed some instinct of “Do it now!” and leapt to publish when I won Dzanc’s contest – and now I’m really glad I did! I feel two things: 1) that it really benefited me psychologically to just f-ing publish and now a lot of floodgates are opened just because of that, as well as from the incredible reception that my book has been blessed to receive, especially considering the modest small press underpinnings, and 2) I am grateful that I was around, in the Dzanc multiverse, to pressure them hard to remove an Islamophobic title from their list that they’d accepted years before I won that contest. They stopped printing the book and recalled many of the copies that had gone out. They reverted the rights back to the author and cut all ties. This did take organizing with other authors as well as our direct outreach to Publishers Weekly journalists to cover the story and add to the pressure. But Dzanc is now, again, a press that (as the partner of a Muslim person and the mother of Muslim children) I can actually be associated with—a press I can point out that has published Charles Johnson, only the second black American writer to have won a National Book Award, and has published an increasing number of queer writers under its new, queer editor, Michelle Dotter.
NP: I love how your story collection speaks to an Asian, American and an Asian American world, yet also cross borders to explore characters in Europe and Africa. Similarly, in exploring power dynamics between different characters, your short fiction covers a range, dealing with issues of race, gender, caste, class, place, migration, body type, sexual orientation, age, and more. What were some of the challenges you faced in writing difference within your stories, whether it was about a place or an aspect of identity you weren’t as familiar with?
CB: I often think back to this quote from Rimbaud: “Boldness, ever more boldness” and apply that to writing. (Also the Jimi Hendrix lyric “she’s running wild with a circus mind” helps too). Writing can be anything. Full stop. It helps that in life, things are (God willing) ordered and highly regulated. I eat the same thing for breakfast every day. If I’m trying to finish a manuscript, I don’t work out every day, but otherwise I do. I have to finish my clinical notes by a certain time. I have to pick up my kids by a certain time. There is a high degree of regimentation and order I actively seek to cultivate in my life after many experiences of “trial and error,” including living in a bunch of different places, trying different methods of finishing books, etc. I believe deeply in routine as necessary and revitalizing. In contrast, writing can be anything. That includes any historical period, any living or inanimate object’s POV. The freer writing is, the better.
NP: On a more personal note, you are a working writer and mother of two children. How do you sustain a regular writing practice alongside the relentless and often invisible labor of motherhood and a more communal side to the writing life that involves literary citizenship, participation in social media, promoting one’s work, etc.?
CB: Again, by trial and error, I have learned that other people’s advice rarely works for me. For example, many people will valorize the idea of “sitting with a glass of Rosé, unwinding with music and/or a good book.” But any kind of alcohol gives me nausea and headaches, so I avoid. Also, movement works better for me and a really brisk walk helps more, including with an audio book. I think making sure I always write from a place of “want” helps a lot. Has to be on pleasure principle. Next – the regularity. But of course, that’s much harder when littles are in diapers. But then during those pumping sessions in wee hours before work, there was a chance to read/write using the weird, volatile energy of sleeplessness and adrenaline, followed by some sort of rest at some point. I feel fortunate my overnight call schedule was considerably less when the kids were in diapers. I had very little call back then – more now. That said – don’t be afraid to pull all nighters. And also – don’t forget to submit like a fiend. I remember very clearly, one night, I think in 2016? When I had gotten back, like, the 30th rejection on a story (that I’m saving for my next collection, hopefully, because it did appear in the Notre Dame Review, which has published favorite writers of mine, like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie) – I had a night where I just wrote with such fury and determination to get this story good enough. It was a turning point. I just pushed myself really hard. I was completely exhausted the next day but luckily it was a weekend. Then when the story got accepted, I realized, Oh, that’s what it takes. So much of this whole process has been accepting how much work is required and adjusting attitude until it’s become an embrace. “OK – Bring it.” That’s where social media is a blessing – a chance to trumpet a great book you just read, to make a Twitter friend, or just to be reminded, you’re not alone slogging through the work. To quote Sonia Sanchez, “I am woman alone/ amid all this noise” but sometimes joining in the public ‘noise’ of lit community is really fun.