Radical Freedom: Talking with Chaya Bhuvaneswar

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Physician-writer Chaya Bhuvaneswar’s White Dancing Elephants, the debut short story collection and winner of the Dzanc Books Story Collection Prize for 2017, has been attracting broad critical praise since its publication in early October. NPR called the book “the literary equivalent of a protest march” and “a necessary book—and one that introduces a gifted voice to contemporary literature.”

Bhuvaneswar has written several essays on Medium, The Millions, and Tin House online, as well as published her short stories in Narrative Magazine and Joyland.

In late November, after we met through the Dzanc Books online writing mentorship program, I had the chance to interview Bhuvaneswar over email about what it’s like to be one of a few emerging South Asian writers, why her women characters aren’t victims, and the many hats she has to wear as an author working with an independent press.

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The Rumpus: How do you feel about the obligation to write women characters who are not victims? Is that important to you and part of the identification in many reviews of your book, of you as a “feminist voice,” a “feminist” writer? I’m thinking especially of the story “Orange Popsicles.” How did you conceptualize a way to write about victimization in the form of gang rape, without necessarily conceiving of the heroine or narrator as a “victim”?

Chaya Bhuvaneswar: I don’t know—actually, I don’t accept—that I have any obligations to write anything specific when I sit down to write. The whole point is the radical freedom of it, which I believe is fundamentally feminist. To have a voice at all. To receive money from a transaction involving just my thoughts, which other people are literally paying to read and then talking about afterwards, therefore inherently “valuing” my production and my “selfhood” in a way that women and women of color rarely are valued, if at all.

That said, it means the world to me that pretty much everyone who’s asked me about “Orange Popsicles” has not construed the lead character, Jayanti, who is raped, as a “victim.” There are more readers than I’d thought possible who can relate to her fervent desire to “just move on” and her dis-identification with her roommate Becca who in contrast wants to focus energy, time, the spotlight, truth telling, on this sexual assault and “make a lot of men pay.” My hope is that even within the story, I am creating a space for difference, for choice, freedom—including the freedom to move on, because for Jayanti, to do anything else is going to take precious time away from her art. She doesn’t want to engage any more than she absolutely has to with what happens to her because she never forgets what matters to her the most. Even during the act. Her mind goes to salvage: What do I need to keep doing my art? I could personally relate to this line of thinking, as could many people I know (men and women). But that said, traumatic memory can persist.

Rumpus: Your work highlights sexual orientation, race issues, and religion, topics that aren’t the most comfortable to discuss. Yet in several interviews and podcasts I’ve read and heard a prominent theme is how free you feel to write what most fundamentally preoccupies and fascinates you. Can you talk about how you navigate discomfort, both at the level of possibly feeling that discomfort yourself at times, when you write about controversial topics, and at the level of dealing with any kind of censoring reaction from others, including South Asians or other immigrants who feel discomfort at representations of violence and trauma within the community?

Bhuvaneswar: Well, it’s certainly a gift to feel free when I sit down with the page, and it took years of writing without showing anyone what I was writing or worrying about whether anyone would like what I ended up writing, that’s for sure. I mean, ultimately—as with any artistic performance—a sense of real freedom and capacity comes with a lot of intensive practice, every day if possible, and I would say I’ve done that for years, written for years. I wrote before medical training more intensively, wrote essays that received scholarships that helped pay for college and part of medical school, then perhaps wrote a bit less as I was entering clinics, trying to just take in and reckon with the vast body of knowledge and the art of medicine.

But then in residency, probably the last three months of it or so, when everything is done including Boards, etc. I wrote again—I wrote every day really early, like at 6 a.m., on any days that I hadn’t been on call the night before, and by your last year of residency you’re mostly doing electives and outpatient so there wasn’t much on-call. I wrote in the interstices of my life—on public transportation, in the kitchen waiting for my partner to wake up to have breakfast with me, even sometimes in the bathroom while waiting for the shower to warm up. I think because of the role of writing in the relationship I have with myself, in the way I sort out my own feelings about my own history, my life, who I am—it would be hard for me to be affected in any way by either the discomfort that I can imagine some readers might or might not feel. I don’t even know.

I will say, too, that the taboos of writing about family and ethnic community fade considerably as you move into an adulthood that encompasses people beyond those who shaped you. I doubt if I would have been able to, or wanted to, publish my fiction in my late teens, for example, while I was still living at home, before leaving at eighteen to attend college a few hours away. I think people who, like the narrator of Mary Gordon’s beautiful novel Final Payments, try to write and be artistic while still essentially living in their childhood home—or like Orhan Pamuk did, living there, or like Alexander Chee apparently did, moving back home when his fellowship money was done and he needed to finish the novel Edinburgh—I think that is a tremendously brave thing, because then some of the people who would potentially feel “discomfort” with what you’re trying to write about (including family secrets) might be sitting in the next room while you’re writing, or even the same room.

Physical distance is certainly a help with the goal of feeling free. Maybe I’m evoking that theme of exile that writers as diverse as James Joyce, who groups exile with “cunning” as essential to becoming a writer—and Bharati Mukherjee, who wrote in her early work about how powerful it had been to her development as a writer for her to leave India as a young woman to participate in an international writers program in Iowa. Some form of distance, some form of exile, is probably good for a writer.

Rumpus: So I take it that your road, as a writer, was something you created, in a way, rather than somehow inheriting, i.e. your experience being very different than writers whose parents published work as well or who encouraged literary and artistic production as well.

Bhuvaneswar: I think that’s freeing, too, though. I mean, I exist, when I write, in a space that my father, God bless him, would be the first to say that he “doesn’t know much about” but respects and thinks well of. I feel a huge gratitude for the opportunities my parents created for me, even if unwittingly, and for me, not having anyone I know really well be able to ask me “too many questions” about my writing has only helped me be a lot less self-conscious and inhibited, if that makes sense.

Rumpus: But given that you have been, in some sense, forging a path, and that you are one of the first openly queer brown/queer South Asian writers writing fiction today (the others I can think of include Shani Motoo, and then only much more recently, Rakesh Satyal, Neel Patel, and SJ Sindhu) — can you talk about any obstacles on your path to publication?

Bhuvaneswar: I have to say that the path to publishing this story collection was remarkably positive. Michelle Dotter, Dzanc Books’s publisher, picked it out of hundreds of entries to their annual contest. There has been a real learning experience for me in understanding how to work to ensure an indie book gets and remains visible when it comes out from a small press that simply lacks things like a publicity department, a marketing department, a library outreach department, or even specific individuals designated to handle these tasks. It is definitely possible, especially given the love and support of many writers, publishers, agents (mainly my agent Lane Zachary but also other agents who are just supportive of underrepresented books and writers more generally). There has been an unprecedented amount of coverage for White Dancing Elephants in places like Entertainment Weekly and Harper’s Bazaar. And to Dzanc’s credit, the publishers have really celebrated this, though clearly it has meant doing a lot more work, from the first and second print run to just even answering the number of requests for different things. I am truly grateful.

I did “a lot” mainly in the sense of mining the Internet for names of reviewer contacts at digital and print outlets that still have space for any kind of books section or culture column, then mailing copies of galleys to potential book review editors’ offices, and several times getting the addresses wrong or manifesting some other form of ineptitude that I am very grateful most people forgave me for—at the end of the day there was nothing I could “do” per se to “get” anyone to read my book.

Rumpus: Can you talk about process and whether or not you feel like any of the obstacles reflected your status either as a woman of color, as a queer writer, or as a writer with a “day job” as a physician (which I will clarify, I’m not limiting to “day” as you do mention being on overnight call!).

Bhuvaneswar: The most I could do was try to counter, if you will, the melodious but super loud “music” about other books being played at full blast by Big Five publishers, so that at least some reviewers heard the simpler but hopefully intriguing “music” of a small press author. But in the end, no one really knows why a book becomes visible in the culture, in the media, or doesn’t—that’s why it’s so important to really not care about that stuff and (sorry to repeat myself here) just write. Even with the knowledge that as people of color, as members of sexual minority groups (i.e. bi, gay, queer, trans), there may be many people who question whether our stories are “universal” enough.

I believe, though, that it’s our very particularity that draws in readers and gatekeepers, our willingness to write for those we love, in a way, in whatever way (either despite those we love not understanding us, or to articulate what those we love have experienced, or to directly communicate what those we love already know or suspect about us).

What I want to point out is that my work is so particular to me, to Chaya, to one single person and a view of the world, or many views held by a single subjectivity as that spans time, landscapes, different scenarios and plots. My work reflects, in ways I don’t at all plan or intend, everything that’s shaped me, from Hindu epics and Hindu comic books; to the Modernists (a lot of Eliot’s poetry is still in my head); to German novels I studied in high school to get Advanced Placement college credits; to Victorian novels and short story writers ranging from Flannery O’Connor to Annie Proulx to Gabriel Garcia Marquez (whose Innocent Erendira collection was formative); to truly indelible contemporary writers like Kelly Link, Lauren Groff, Louise Erdrich, Toni Morrison… But none of the writers I’ve ever read feel to me like they’ve written, to use Morrison’s image, “the book I most wanted to read”–—and so I did have to write it. I do have to keep writing it, because I’m the only one who can. The deeper I go into that particularity and uniqueness, the less I feel constrained by a general sense of “barrier” or “obstacle” even though I know, objectively, that these obstacles most certainly do exist.

I think too often as writers of color, women of color writers, queer writers, we not only perceive objectively real barriers and understandably feel angry, even outraged that they exist, but more fundamentally, we question ourselves without realizing it. We question ourselves when, in private, things get really hard about the project of writing, the challenge of finishing. We allow a feeling of “foreignness” and “strangeness” to seep in and essentially estrange us from our own words. I have experienced that. That feeling that not only is a given piece of writing hard, but that my equipment is all wrong somehow. That everything I will write or could write is somehow “all wrong.” It’s the psychological equivalent of balling up a piece of paper and blocking yourself from filling it with potentially “useless” or “wrong” words. It’s jumping to criticize yourself harshly before any reviewer can do it. We all know what I’m talking about.

But I think it is so important for marginalized writers to be clear, to know without a doubt: nothing is going to feel “like home” and “right” unless we give ourselves time, a lot of time, a lot more time than we can possibly know beforehand or anticipate with any degree of accuracy. The time could be invested in a super long project that goes nowhere, like Michael Chabon has famously described his thousand-page novel that he threw out—but then a much shorter project, or set of much shorter projects, could follow and be really brilliant, like Chabon’s Wonder Boys. We do not know what is going to happen when we write. But neither does anybody else, not about their own work, not about ours. We must honor ourselves and each other, other writers of color who are our contemporaries, and those in the past who somehow found the confidence to use their voices, to give ourselves time. Really. Simple but it took me—surprise!—quite a long time to believe it.

Rumpus: Do you have specific stories or themes in the collection that you’d like to highlight? Which story do you think was the hardest to write?

Bhuvaneswar: Emotionally, “Talinda” and “A Shaker Chair” were hard to write in that, while the writing itself came spontaneously and somewhat easily, and while the revisions continued to engross me and I wanted to keep returning to these and restructuring them as I did over years, there were a few people I knew who cautioned me against writing them as short stories and said, “You have enough for a novel with each of these” or who said things like “what the characters (the women) do to each other is ‘too harsh’ and I couldn’t deal with it.” Which is interesting, because those people only said that about the stories in manuscript form, but when the book came out, those same people said they really loved the collection! Maybe because it can be fascinating and suspenseful to read about a character who, like in “Talinda,” has an affair with the husband of her best friend who is dying of cancer—a character who still hopefully is recognizable as someone doing something for reasons that aren’t obvious even to herself, at first. Or maybe because, seeing the stories in a “real” book out there in the world gave permission to these early readers, some of whom were women of color literary agents and editors themselves, to enjoy representations of other women of color that don’t simplify or necessarily “ennoble” us.

Or maybe because actions like that of the character Maya in “A Shaker Chair”—I won’t give away exactly what she does—are entertaining, hopefully. Like Parul Sehgal recently and persuasively wrote about one of my favorite new novels this season, My Sister, the Serial Killer, there is something “seditious” about being entertained, rather than taught to empathize, per se. And seditious is delicious, in my book.

Rumpus: Any word on what you’re working on next?

Bhuvaneswar: I am grateful that people have been asking me this. Hopefully a novel I’ve been working on for awhile now will go out on submission in early 2019 along with a second story collection and/or an essay collection drawing from work in Medium and a forthcoming essay in Longreads. The novel is my center, now, which is a little sad for me in that I spent a year preparing and promoting White Dancing Elephants and now it’s getting a sibling, hopefully, and I feel myself letting go a bit.


Blessing J. Christopher writes about feminism, sexuality, mental health, and religion. Her work has appeared in magazines and journals all over the world. Her short story "This Story Has No End" was shortlisted for the Writivism Short Story Prize in 2017. She is currently working on her first novel. Find her on Twitter @delamore001. More from this author →