I have spent the last few years reading and writing about literature written by women of color. It has been a deliberate choice, a way to upend the white, male paradigm of my personal literary history and to search for new, more colorful narratives that deserve to be heard and uplifted. Women of color are, of course, not obligated to write only about their own marginalization and oppression, just as LGBTQ+ authors should not be pigeonholed into writing about coming out. The beautiful thing about Chaya Bhuvaneswar’s debut collection of short stories, titled White Dancing Elephants, is that while it delves into various degrees of oppression and violence, the thematic thread that truly connects the women of color showcased within is the possibility of hope, and the universal humanity of moving forward.
I recently spoke with Chaya Bhuvaneswar via email about womanhood, her creative process, and how short stories (and writing in general) enable her to evade the limits of time and mortality itself.
What do you enjoy most about the short story form? What challenges you?
Probably its enormous flexibility with regard to time. I feel like the power of a short story to pull the reader into intense emotions is amplified by the brevity of the form. It’s a bravura performance. Meaning: brilliant, dazzling, daring. In a novel, like a full length movie, we need to be with the characters through “down times” too. Short stories are inhabited by people who are more stylized. We don’t get to see them for that long, so whatever we do see needs to be sharp.
The thing I loved most about reading your stories is that each involves a complex duet between two characters. In “The Story of the Woman Who Fell in Love with Death,” a boy reminisces about his sister who disappeared many years ago, while in “A Shaker Chair,” a psychoanalyst attempts to avoid her disconcerting relationship with a new patient. In writing each of these stories, how did you choose your narrator?
I like the idea of narrators “choosing” the writer as well as the other idea (which Lauren Groff talks about beautifully) of the writer “deciding” who to give the story to. Isak Dinesen does some very interesting things with “choice of narrator” and I remember reading her very early on and being so influenced by her artistry in Seven Gothic Tales. I also love child narrators and strongly recommend A Death in the Family for its use of a child narrator, interspersed with an adult perspective.
Why title the collection “White Dancing Elephants”? What was it about this particular story that encapsulates the collection as a whole?
I felt there was good luck in invoking the god Ganesha at the start of a collection, while at the same time speaking in a voice close to my own; it was also an expression of thanks for a piece of writing that seemed to come out of nowhere but spoke deeply to emotions I was feeling at the time. In terms of other themes throughout the collection that this story encapsulates, I would say above all the co-existence of larger cultural symbols with highly personal life stories and experiences. How meaning is made by history living within us. In this story, literally, since it focuses on a given body’s history, overlapping with the history of other South Asian women’s bodies, including the body of the unidentified South Asian woman that washes up in the river — an image that originated in a radio news snippet that I was listening to when I lived in Holywell Manor, at Oxford. I was in a really gorgeous room high in the Manor, feeling completely isolated and as if brown lives did not matter in England — [as if they] were not valued by most white people, not at all.
As a female reader, I felt that each of your stories really showcased the intersectionality of womanhood, and how the experience of being a woman is far from monolithic. As a woman of South Asian descent, what was it like diving into different experiences of color, of wanting children versus not wanting children, and so forth?
It’s really that the diversity of character in my stories, including diverse women of color, reflects the reality that a given individual can form attachments to so many kinds of people. There’s no predictability to who comes to “mean” something to any one of us. There’s no predicting who matters to us, and by extension, also no predicting who might hurt us terribly. It turns out that women of color can inflict enormous harm on each other. Queer women can be terrible to each other even under the cover of “just being honest” or “speaking freely.” South Asian women can be competitive to the point of obliteration with each other. Some of the most wounding things I’ve probably ever had said to me have been said by other women of color.
In terms of the wish for children — again, so unpredictable and completely individual. I’m always especially impressed when novelists who don’t have children and have already decided not to have children write beautifully and movingly about parental yearning, attachment, loss, and the psychology of children. It reminds me that contained within the experience of pregnancy, childbirth, child-rearing, are all kinds of experiences all of us have probably already had long before we become parents. Maybe it’s because the experience of loving a child is already inlaid with other kinds of love we’re already familiar with, it hurts so much to want a child and not be able to have one.
Constantly, I am reminded that what I write about matters. And that for me, and hopefully for others who read and write stories, storytelling is critical to resilience against all kinds of violence that we must survive.
These stories delve into painful and difficult experiences that many women endure during their lives. I imagine that writing them isn’t an easy endeavor. Do you incorporate time to recover from writing into your routine? How do you return to “normal life” after inhabiting violence and pain in your writing, and perhaps even reliving your own experiences?
Writing, and thereby “talking back to” what is happening to us, is actually a lot easier and more comfortable than simply enduring our human experiences. It is challenging on a daily basis, to figure out how to navigate and survive many adverse experiences relating to mortality and living in a mortal body that all of us face. So many conflicts relate to emotions that come up because of how finite we are, how something we are asking of another person bumps up against that finitude (“I can’t do anymore.” “Leave me alone.” “Stop bugging me.” “I’m overwhelmed.” etc). That is so human, I believe — to feel those limits of what we have power over and what we don’t, as humans. It is also a Hindu concept that was deeply ingrained in me, from being a child and listening to a religious story that was read every month, called the Satyanarayan puja, where one of the characters in the story (and thereby, the person actually reading the story out loud) asks God’s forgiveness for a mistake they made (they made a promise about how they would worship and they broke the promise). And forgiveness is sought based on an acknowledgement of human limitation, including things we don’t know, can’t know, but also invoking the fact that what we can accomplish is limited by our mortal heft.
In so many ways, writing is a way to evade the limits of mortality. It lasts beyond us. It even lasts beyond our capacity to articulate ideas in the same way we once did on the page. It reaches people we will never meet because there is in the end a finite number of people we ever get to meet, ever to even talk to in passing, let alone actually get to know.
Where do you see yourself and your writing in the next five years?
If you had asked me that a few years ago, I think I would have been thinking a lot more about the specific hours “allotted” to various tasks and how to rigorously “schedule” various activities. I’ve learned since then (especially as a parent) that time is not linear. Not at all. Lots of concurrent things and thoughts can be happening at any given time. So I’m trying to be open to whatever writing projects come up. At the same time, I’m bearing down on a novel that we hope will go out on submission this year, as well as a book of essays building from a few that have gotten much wider responses than I would have predicted.
I think in five years, I feel that I will have reached my goals if I’m as physically active as I am now, if I’m as close to the people I love the most, if I continue to feel like I’m making a difference as a doctor, as much as I can help others, and if I’m writing on a daily or near-daily basis.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
White Dancing Elephants
By Chaya Bhuvaneswar
Oct. 9, 2018