Always the Story First: A Conversation with Jenny Bhatt

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Jenny Bhatt’s exciting debut short story collection Each of Us Killers is a vivid, complex questioning of what we think we know of immigrants, of Indians who are the invisible lower class or caste, or of the disdained single women or divorcees in Ahmedabad, Mumbai, or in different parts of America. The slim collection explores different ways to unpack what is truly the immigrant story, the blatant and subconscious racism experienced by immigrants, and the experience of the “othered” class in contemporary India. It offers elegant introspection on “Achche Din”, or the “good days” in India—a slogan that led the current Modi government to its nationalistic, pro-Hindutva victory in the 2014 elections. The collection spans continents and experiences beyond the tired South Asian tropes of South Asian writing from the 1990s and 2000s. Each story has an interesting frame and arc, with multiple voices, different craft styles, and a lyricism that make the story stand out exactly as its author intended.

Bhatt shines especially in her observations of the exoticization of the “brown woman” (“Disappointment”), the divorcee baker and Heena’s one-night stand (“Life Spring”), and a domestic servant in Gujarat in whose life sexual assault and harassment are the norm (“Neeru’s New World”). Whether it’s a sari salesman and his existence a part of an invisible lower class (“Mango Season), or the roadside food stall owner who has to choose what he is willing to accept as his lot (“Time and Opportunity”), or even the Dalit lower caste incident of how we are responsible as a society for continuing to reinforce class boundaries (“Each of Us Killers”), Bhatt unflinchingly asks the important questions we as readers may never have otherwise asked.

I spoke recently with Jenny Bhatt about her debut collection, her podcast highlighting South Asian authors, the publishing process, and the craft of short story writing, especially in immigrant and South Asian writing.

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The Rumpus: Each of Us Killers starts with a fictional recount of the 2017 Olathe killing. Your take on that racially motivated killing was a refreshing change in “Return to India,” not only in the style of writing but also in your use of multiple points of view. Nirali Rainier, the ex-wife in the story, says, “We become too foreign for home and too foreign for here, never enough for both. I stole that last line from a poet.”

Tell us about your process, and how you selected this mode of storytelling to discuss divorce, loneliness, racial violence, and immigration.

Jenny Bhatt: I was in India when the 2017 Olathe, KS murder of Srinivas Kuchibhotla, the Indian tech engineer working at Motorola, happened. I watched it play out over news and social media. It was interesting to watch accounts from Kuchibhotla’s white coworkers about how it had been working with him, or what they had thought of him. I remember wondering if they really understood how the field is always dangerously uneven for a first-generation immigrant. Whether they knew what life for us was really like. Whether they realized how they were still “othering” him with their well-meaning eulogies. I lived and worked with people like that for ten years in the Midwest as an engineer myself. They were kind people and certainly never thought they were being racist. But they also did not recognize how their advantages kept them from seeing the disadvantages of others; and how, no matter their good intentions, their complacency with that racist system made them complicit. I wanted to tell this story in just those kinds of voices, to explore and highlight that.

Rumpus: You seamlessly move from Silicon Valley to a US-returned dessert maker to Dalit discrimination stories. The collection reminds me of Rohinton Mistry’s take on the Bombay he is familiar with (now Mumbai); of his writing, the Irish Times says, “His art is sustained by a belief in story… His fiction is immensely human, his prose graciously formal and his vision realistic, not romantic.” I feel the same descriptors apply to your work.

When you started to work on Each of Us Killers, how were you approaching the organization of each story? What did the stories represent for you, and why was it important to present them in this way?

Bhatt: Thank you so much for saying that. I love Rohinton Mistry’s work—his short stories even more than his novels. He wrote, however, of a Bombay past, one that he recalled after having settled in Canada. In my case, I was writing about a Mumbai and a Gujarat I was experiencing in real time after having returned to India. I was a single woman in my mid-forties and had been knocked about by life. There’s a different way you have to move about in Indian society with all that baggage. Add to that, the more volatile political environment as the Modi government had just come into power with its “achhe din“ promises of jobs and homes for all. From 2014 to 2017, India was coming at me fast and furious. I wrote about whatever was keeping me up at night. I was also trying to create a new identity as a writer after leaving a full-time corporate career in Silicon Valley. So, the role of work in our lives and how the intersecting issues of gender, class, religion, caste, age, color, ethnicity, race, and nationality shape our circumstances and career trajectories is what I was trying to understand better through my writing.

Rumpus: While experimental fiction, especially with second-person, collective and third-person points of view, is now entering mainstream South Asian/South Asian American literature, an entire collection with such play—including lyrical poetry, a police report-style journalistic story, even a second-person point of view—is rare. Did the stories or the forms come to you first, and how was craft instrumental in the storytelling?

Bhatt: It’s always the story first for me. The point of view, voice, style, and form have to serve the story. Once I know what story I want to tell, then I work out the best way to tell it. It’s interesting to understand how we find our way into a story. I question and rationalize every craft choice I make several times while writing early drafts. Perhaps that’s the literary critic and, to some extent, the translator, in me.

Rumpus: In “Disappointment,” the narrator talks about racially charged incidents and discrimination in a very casual and yet direct manner. Tell us how that story came about.

Bhatt: “Disappointment” began as a response to an opening-line writing prompt I’d read somewhere. I remember just free-writing at least three versions of this story with that opening line because it really spoke to me. When I settled on this version, where an Indian woman meets an old white boyfriend from her student immigrant days and recalls their relationship with all its implicit and explicit racism, I almost abandoned it at first. Let’s just say I have some bad personal memories. But then I thought, okay, we’re going to exorcise those memories through writing. Hence that last scene.

Rumpus: In “Fragments of Future Memories”, you write,

…there’s Kay: glacial on the bathroom floor
eyes like slivers of ice in the dead of winter again
at a corner of her mouth, a trickle of blood
like the russet silk from the night before…

It’s a fascinating way to introduce poetry and then pull the readers through the stories so viscerally. What is the thread connecting poetry and lyrical storytelling?

Bhatt: “Fragments of Future Memories” highlighted the character as an English Lit professor who loves and teaches poetry. The voice and the style had to be almost like a prose poem. Interestingly, an earlier version of this was accepted by a university journal in the UK. After submitting it, I decided I didn’t like that whole last bit written like a prose poem. I said to myself: it’s too on-the-nose. And: who do you think you are, a poet? I sent the editor an updated version with all that stuff removed. He said his entire editorial team loved that lyricism and didn’t want to change it. So, it stayed. In the end, I think it worked because there’s all this lovely language and it’s describing something very stark, cold, deadly. This juxtaposition is, I suppose, more startling or interesting to a reader.

Rumpus: The short story that really spoke to me was “Mango Season,” and especially Rafi’s Hindi couplet: “Daaman mein sitaaren, aakhon mein chamak // Duniya roshan kar de, aap ki ek jhalak.” Your stories, especially this one, tell readers of the invisible class in India that survive and sometimes thrive, but must continue to remain invisible for the middle and upper classes to have the lives they live. Also, the love for mangoes, I think, is very Indian/South Asian (and a running joke in comedian Hari Kondabolu’s Twitter feed). How did this story come about? What was the process for you to bring Rafi’s keen observation of his environment, his hope for and fascination with the unattainable, to the page?

Bhatt: “Mango Season” is the one story where I included every South Asian trope that’s considered a no-no. But I hope I’ve done it in a way that shows them as essential to the plot and story versus exoticizing or pandering to the Western gaze. So, yes, the love for mangoes, sarees, Bollywood references, spices, slum life, all of it. I’ve talked elsewhere about how I was pushing back at those who say we mustn’t include such things in our writing. But, of course, before all that, came the story, which was driven by the whole “Achhe Din” sloganeering in the early days of the Modi campaign and government. There were (still are) young people like Rafi everywhere in India wanting to rise above their class or caste just a little bit. I wanted to make sure that Rafi’s modest aspirations (mangoes, a home, a wife, etc.), acute hunger, and painful despair all come across palpably on the page. Hence the sensory details through Rafi’s point of view. As for that Hindi couplet—I had fun with that. I’ve written several more that only my husband will ever see, I think.

Rumpus: Each of Us Killers is edited by Hasanthika Sirisena, an amazing South Asian American writer I am proud to call my friend, and published by 7.13 Books. Can you tell us about your editorial experience with Sirisena, and your experience working with a small publishing house? Why did you choose this route for your collection?

Bhatt: I was thrilled when my publisher, Leland Cheuk, told me Hasanthika was coming on as editor. I’d read her debut short story collection, The Other One, and loved her brilliant essays published online at various venues. The editorial process went well. I valued and took on almost all of Hasanthika’s suggestions, especially changes to the book’s title and the ordering of the stories. There wasn’t anything surprising about the process because I knew, going in, that we would be a good fit. I hope she felt the same way.

This book’s publication journey is long and filled with twists and turns. Debut short story collections are not popular with bigger publishers unless you have a formal literary pedigree and some awards under your belt. I have neither, as I started publishing my work in my mid-forties while in India, which meant mostly being off the US literary grid. Leland was upfront about what 7.13 Books could not do as a small press. His own story of leaving Silicon Valley, overcoming some major odds in life to get his books out there, and why he started his press are all inspiring to me. Of course, things might have gone very differently if we hadn’t had a pandemic to add to the election-year craziness. Still, here we are.

Rumpus: Given that we are in a pandemic that doesn’t seem to quit, at least not in America, what has surprised you about launching a virtual book tour? What are you learning about yourself as you progress through this launch?

Bhatt: Everything has surprised me about this book’s launch and virtual book tour so far. In good and not-so-good ways. I’m very grateful for the positive attention at some well-respected venues. I’m thankful we can do virtual events even though they’re scarce because everyone across the book world is trying to manage their best with less resources.

What I’m learning about myself is that I’m happiest when I’m actively modeling the behaviors I want to see in the world. Instead of complaining about some Desi writers I was hoping would show up to support, I’m supporting other Desi writers in my own ways. Instead of worrying about my two books, I’m going to uplift several other books. Maybe it comes with being a certain age—you’ve learned to generate positive energy in the world instead of absorbing negative energy from it.

Rumpus: You are also working on a translation of Dhumketu’s short stories, out in late 2020 from HarperCollins India. What’s that experience been like? Whats’ surprised you about publishing in India?

Bhatt: This is a totally different and new experience for me in many ways. It’s my first book-length literary translation, so I’ve learned a lot in the process. Getting copyright permissions, access to scholarship, etc., is trickier in India than in other countries. Indian publishers really want to publish more translations, which is good. But the readership isn’t there yet for translators to make a respectable amount of money. When you consider the effort and time that goes into a translation, it’s quite sad. I hope things will get better. We need to promote translations from South Asia more because those books from the regional languages are literary artifacts rich with history, culture, traditions, and politics.

Rumpus: Desi Books podcast has been an amazing pay-it-forward initiative, in my opinion. It is how I personally get to other writers I wouldn’t otherwise. Tell us how you started the podcast, and perhaps a couple of favorite moments from it?

Bhatt: Thank you for saying that. I started it for just that reason: to find Desi writers I’d never know of otherwise. I had floated the idea on Twitter over a year ago and gotten a lot of positive responses. When the pandemic hit and a lot of writers, including myself, began to stress out about how they were going to launch their books this year, I thought, well, now is a good time to spotlight Desi writers and their works. Especially the ones who aren’t getting enough attention.

Favorite moments? Tough. I love the thoughtful answers each Desi writer gives to my standard question of “what’s your favorite Desi book and why?” I should make a list of these at the end of the year. They’ve introduced me to some terrific works. I’d love Rumpus readers to know about Desi writers: please know that we don’t all write about slums, terrorism, arranged marriage, and crooked politicians. South Asia is made up of several diverse countries and there are many different stories and different ways/traditions of telling them. Please sample and explore more widely. You could even go to desibooks.co and look through the book lists and the episode transcripts for what to read next.

What’s amazing is how many great Desi books are out this year in the US alone. But what’s not so good is how many of them aren’t getting mainstream media attention because it’s a tough year for books overall and tougher still if you’re a writer of color. So I’m really hoping that the Desi writer community will uplift each other beyond the usual cliques. I believe a rising tide lifts all boats. We really need that given how gatekeeping works across the publishing ecosystem.

Rumpus: Any advice for fiction writers, especially those labeled in hyphenated versions of say, South Asian American, Asian American or Latinx/Latin American authors, who are trying to stay away from tropes, clichés, and stereotypical writing in their work? How may they skirt those while still retaining the essence of their writing, which may come from their ancestral countries?

Bhatt: I don’t know about giving advice. I can only say what I believe. The way to avoid stereotypes, clichés, and tired tropes is to make our characters more complex: give them a range of emotions, balance the flaws and strengths, explore their fears and desires, allow them contradictions and ambiguities. That’s been my goal with all the stories in this collection. People are not easily understood or explained, I know this much. So I’m suspicious of any fiction that presents such characters. With descriptions of food, scenery, etc., I make sure they’re absolutely integral to the scene or plot—the economy of a short story doesn’t allow for more anyway.

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Photograph of Jenny Bhatt by Praveen Ahuja.


Madhushree Ghosh works in cancer diagnostics in San Diego, California. Her Pushcart-nominated work has been published in the New York Times, Catapult, Guernica, Longreads, The Rumpus, Brevity, Atlas Obscura, The Surfer's Journal, The Missouri Review, Panorama, The Chicago Review, Garnet News, Hippocampus, and others. An Oakley Hall scholar, Madhushree’s award-winning plays have been performed at San Diego Actors Alliance festivals, and she's a frequent invited speaker on Women in Science forums. She is working on her memoir-in-essays, Tall Poppy: Fierce Outliers Who Made Me Hatke, about outlier women of color who have made her one. She can be reached at @WriteMadhushree. More from this author →