Dread, Fear, and the Joy in Visual Beauty

A Conversation with Chaya Bhuvaneswar

by Aditya Desai

“No one has a choice. The whole idea of choice, it’s just a Western myth designed to make people uncertain, prevent anyone from taking responsibility. It makes people not know who they are. But I know who I am.”


These words, spoken by a South Asian American woman to her white ex-girlfriend in the days leading up to her return to India for her arranged marriage (of course, to a man), is emblematic of the crossroads facing the protagonists of Chaya Bhuvaneswar’s White Dancing Elephants (Dzanc Books, Winner of the Short Story Collection Prize). Chaya’s characters suffer crumbling relationships, sexual abuse, and racial judgment, but at their core, Chaya’s stories are existential examinations of how our past is reflected by the present. Above all, the stories in White Dancing Elephants never shy away from examining the pain that comes from pursuing a life filled with love and acceptance, while acknowledging that this never comes without sacrifice.


It’s unsurprising then that, in my email correspondence with Chaya, I found an equally brave and steadfast consideration of what it means to be a South Asian woman in the 21st century diaspora. Throughout our conversation, Chaya spoke frankly about the inner dialogue she had while writing these stories. Chaya also examined writers who inspire her (and gave us a pretty sweet reading list in the process) and the dialogue she hopes these stories continue to generate.

Aditya Desai: Congrats on the Dzanc Prize. Tell me about the journey from writing these stories initially to how you decided to put them together in a book. What was your vision for how it should come together?


Chaya Bhuvaneswar: I think what makes me the most grateful and happy about this collection is it “came together” in a way that embodies the spontaneous, unforced, organic quality that my writing life has taken on, mainly because of how much that life has to be nested with caring for my children and working full time as a doctor. It would be impossible if I were rigid about when and how I write and fixed in my expectations of “what should come out of it.” Initially, when I finished my training as a doctor, I did think in those terms and anguished about “the choice” between writing and medicine. Then when I realized I was far too emotionally invested in both practices to not do either one (I very painfully tried a whole year with minimal writing—do not recommend!)—that was the breakthrough for me. I started being content with “whatever” came, at least as a first draft, and when the process of revision came as something that happened in dialogue with friends, partners, and eventually critique partners I found at writers conferences and such. When I started to get bold about submitting my work (with a belated sense of my own mortality, truly—that I really couldn’t afford to take forever—no one can!)—that’s when the stories for the collection started coming together. Narrative Magazine’s Tom Jenks published “Talinda” along with a different story that will appear in my next collection, which is a set of linked stories. He was among the first to make me think publishing a collection might even be possible.


In terms of publishing through the Dzanc Books Prize Stories series—I’d read and really loved What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us by Laura Van den Berg in this series, and I knew Dzanc publishes Robert Coover, Charles Johnson, Josip Novakovich, and other really talented writers. I saw too that my wonderful colleague Vanessa Hua (whose first novel recently launched) had promoted the heck out of [her book] Deceit and Other Possibilities, which won an indie press story collection contest too. And that book not only did well, it opened up new spaces in Asian-American writing, I feel, including new spaces for my subversive, strange, cunning, not always wholly “sweet” or “dutiful” Asian-American characters.


The core theme that unites the collection was, I think, most generously and beautifully articulated in the starred Kirkus Review that came out last month: “The book provocatively probes the aftermath—the aftermath of death, of grim diagnoses, of abandonment, of monumental errors in judgment.”


How do we live through things? I wasn’t per se trying to answer this question, and neither are my characters, but they’re trying to see.


AD: Let me start with the first, eponymously titled story in the collection, about a miscarriage. Given the title and subject matter, I was reminded of Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants.”  Would this be a conscious rewriting of that?


CB: No, it wasn’t, because that story is so much about a forced choice, a coerced abortion within an emotionally abusive, or at least certainly within an unsatisfying, emotionally withholding heterosexual relationship. We feel sorry that the woman’s partner doesn’t really care for either her or the baby. Whereas my story is told from the perspective of a married but bisexual South Asian woman who never would have chosen to give up her child and cannot make herself accept the loss, not really. There’s so much love in her ruminations about this child; parts of the story are dialogues between her and the child.


I wrote this story in a burst of grief and tears while I was visiting Europe about a month after I miscarried the one who would’ve been our third child: the lost sister or brother that my children actually know about and ask about sometimes. I was actually sitting in an Amsterdam hotel lobby typing it on the shared computer there, completely jetlagged and disinhibited in how much grief I suddenly realized I was carrying.


The white elephants reference Buddhist and Hindu imagery—specifically the dream that the Buddha’s—that Prince Siddhartha’s—mother had before his birth, full of omens and a sense of dread and inevitability. That he would have a life of suffering. I’d always dreamed about writing some story about the Buddha’s birth and somehow this fit, this sense of terrible inevitability. Like a miscarriage. Watching a death happen inside your body. Not having any power to stop it.


AD: Are there other writers or works you see your own in dialogue with (or pushing against)?


CB: I think there are really two types of writers I see myself so much in dialogue with. The first are all the poets I read in school who were so formative in how I came to think about writing and literature generally. I wrote about some of my feelings on T.S. Eliot, for example, and about T.S. Eliot, and would count Seamus Heaney, Derek Walcott, Eavan Boland, Gary Snyder, and above all William Carlos Williams (another doctor!!) in this group.


The other group of writers whose work is constantly on my brain: short story writers and novelists whose work I’ve studied in various workshops (I took a bunch as an undergrad that I really loved and feel like those sustained me for a long time.  Ed Park, Paul LaFarge, Peter Rock, Susan Choi, and I all took several of the same workshops and it’s been so amazing to see them emerge as critical and necessary voices in contemporary fiction). The writers who really shaped my thinking about writing range from Maxine Hong Kingston, Don Lee (everyone has to read “The Price of Eggs in China,” please. That story!). Gish Jen, Robert Coover, Thom Jones (“Cold Snap”—so good), to even more formative like Chekhov, then George Saunders, Jonathan Franzen, to Margaret Atwood, Sandra Cisneros, Louise Erdrich (especially the Erdrich of “Tracks”). And growing up in a religious family, I feel like I’m always conscious of Buddhist and Hindu works of poetry—I’ve read Kalidasa in Sanskrit, learned some Pali when I was at Oxford. Those myths are always there, all those stories.


AD: One of the primary ways we learn about your characters’ state of mind is from the images of the world around them, what they’re taking in. They see their own histories reflected back at them. How important is setting to you in a story?


CB: I think it’s so important, and I remember a very useful exercise I did once in a class. I analyzed a few descriptive “setting” pages of Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure and these were so effective at conveying mood. So much of the novel seemed to be contained in the descriptions. But that said—setting is also dialogue, the unique sounds of different people arguing, talking, and then making up. I think of setting as the sounds and smells of a story too.


AD: A few of the stories are clearly placed in larger history—“Bhopal,” “Heitor”, (and “Newberry” in the Trump Era).  How do you see these fitting into the collection, which otherwise is contemporary but undefined?


CB: Sometimes specific moments in history are so gripping to a character that those moments find their way into a story or the setting of a story. I will say that I wouldn’t start out wanting to write about “some historical moment” but once I realize a character cares about what’s happening “outside” so much, I’ll research and think about those events a lot more. Usually after, there’s a whole story draft, with all its mistakes.


AD: Many stories are about people choosing between the lovers they desire, and the lovers they are stuck with. Would you call these love stories? Are they something else?


CB: That’s a fun question. Hopefully you can indulge me making a somewhat playful answer. I’m with John Edgar Wideman, who titled one of his story collections All Stories Are True.  I would say “all stories are love stories” and that fact is one key reason we enjoy stories so much.


AD: Another common device I see is narrators relating their own stories by telling the stories of people close to them—I think of “The Story of The Woman Who Fell In Love With Death,” with the boy and his sister, or “Adristakama” where the narrator sees the story through Lauren’s eyes. Is figuring out the narrative voice a big part of your process?  How do you go about it?


CB: It’s not at all easy to “decide” who to “give the story to,” as Lauren Groff (whose support I’ve been so grateful for, who is known for her support of emerging and diverse writers) has said in her craft talks. Chris Castellani and John Gardner are two writers who’ve written beautiful books on craft with sections on “POV” and I think these are the most useful when writers are encouraged not to separate “POV” and think of it as a distinct thing. I think instead experimenting and seeing what feels the most compelling and interesting to you as the writer, is the key to “deciding” who to give the story to. I often feel like the person telling the story just takes it and runs with it.


AD: Sexual violence and harassment are very present in this book, as well as other parts of your work. Are these themes you set out to write on, or did they find you as you wrote?


CB: Certainly, so much of what makes the #MeToo movement so powerful is that stories of harassment and sexual violence have been silenced for so long. And there’s such a momentum that it’s possible to allow yourself as a writer to finally, finally TELL. In some versions, I would say all the violence and harassment (and in one story, rape) happened to someone I read about in the news or happened to me personally. The beauty of fiction is that writers can tell without “disclosing.” Disclosure carries so much need for safety of the person telling the story. It’s a clinical term, disclosure, and I recommend very much that anyone thinking about coming forward array themselves with all sorts of support (friends, allies, family, therapists, whoever can help make sure to keep the environment of the telling safe).


Whereas “telling,” in a story, is an imaginative and free act. You don’t need anything or anyone to tell a story. You only need someone to listen (and when you’re writing it down, you don’t even need that). But thanks to #MeToo, I do feel there are more people listening.


AD: In “A Shaker Chair,” there is a line that caught me: “But nowhere did she write the truth about how she felt—how, when she was by herself, Sylvia recognized her revulsion as desire plus fear, and relived dreams, with exquisite detail”—this feels like a summation of many protagonists’ mental and emotional states throughout the book. Would you agree? Are there other consistent emotions that carry for you across the book?


CB: Dread and fear are such powerful emotions for so many people. Rather than being consciously chosen for the book, I think it’s that the process of trying to write as honestly and clearly as I could reveals the dread and fear that are at the heart of so many impulsive or ill-considered actions. It was important to me to just look straight at things and not turn away. And what’s revealed is dread.


Joy in the visual beauty of the world is also a consistent emotion though, I think. Like the main character Seema in “The Life You Save Isn’t Your Own” (of course the title is a nod to Flannery O’Connor whose work lives exactly on the knife edge of intense dread and ecstatic, even delirious, joy). For Seema, the texture of paint is a comfort and a source of quiet joy. For Jagatishwaran, the painter in the story titled with his name, the colors of paint are comforting too.


AD: In looking for how East and West are triangulated, I was struck how the Desi characters occupy an unsure middle space, resistant to giving in to complete whiteness, but also resisting the past and capital C “Culture.” And there’s never out-right vilification for either side. Do you think of the East/West dichotomy in those terms, or something else? What does it mean for you?


CB: I know I personally struggle with all kinds of questions about identity and identification. Like my immediate and visceral disgust when going to places where there’s a lot of dirt, sweat, close contact with literally hundreds of strangers, and walking in such places barefoot—that is probably a conditioned Western thing, a part of me that is “white” without wanting to be. My years of anxiety about whether my glasses were attractive enough to prevent me from being taken as a “stereotypical Indian”—the disavowal of anything linking me to that when, at eighteen, I went through a kind of “makeover” (cut my hair, got as thin as I’ve ever been, wore mini-skirts for the first time, etc.). I think Ashis Nandy had it right when he talked about shame of the colonized as the truly “intimate enemy,” eating at people of color from the inside, embodied in the “colorism” that some of my characters are vulnerable to.


I definitely don’t have answers though, and every experience complicates things further. Like an incredible two weeks I just had “down South” where I felt more at home, in some ways, than I’ve ever felt in the Northeast, where I really responded to people’s directness.


One place where I’ve tried to work out “what it means” got a write up in Wildness that I really appreciated (and that again complicated so much for me any kind of white-person-of-color sense of difference—because so many white readers responded to that piece favorably, including white editors and readers from the South).


I will say that the experience of being a writer, getting published, and being blurbed and read by diverse writers (including white writers) has forever changed me. People are listening. People respond. And they’re not primarily or exclusively other people of color though I feel the love from my communities (Desi; LGBTQ; Asian American; people of color generally). So much. Jenn Baker’s Everyday People includes the book in a recommended list; Tiana Clark, Jasminne Mendez, Stacey Lemelle Parker, Roy Guzman, Jamie Ford, Victoria Chang—they’ve all offered such incredible solidarity. And newer friends like Venita Blackburn, whose Black Jesus story collection everybody has to go out and read. Same with Rita Banerjee’s Echo in Four Beats. Go out and read!


AD: In the end though, to me, often culture/the past always seems to weigh heavier for the Desi characters. Is that a conscious choice you’re making?


CB: That’s such a keen and subtle observation. I think that’s true, or at least, I am more acutely aware of how the past weighs heavily for Desi characters. But not in the traditional “immigrant looking back” kind of story—rather, I guess I operate from the assumption that we won’t be forgiven, we won’t ever be given the benefit of the doubt. It is a sense of being part of community that experiences oppression, including by the burden of the past. It definitely wasn’t conscious.


One of the things I’m looking forward to is connecting with more readers in person, and I know from other types of public speaking I’ve done that Desi readers (particularly of the auntie-uncle generation) are the least inhibited about saying exactly what they think right to the author’s face. I fully expect to be asked cringe-worthy questions by my people about things like sex; lesbians; what is the difference between bisexual and lesbian; how come I write about South Asians with mental problems; do I think that cheating within marriage is a wrong thing to do; am I trying to say that Indian orphans aren’t well cared for; what about what the ICE is doing to children of deportees (true enough); also why does the poor Indian girl in “A Shaker Chair” not simply go to a good, reputable, decent therapist (I know, I wish she had). I hope, hope, hope so much we can get the word out about my national book tour to Desi communities of all stripes, and hope readers will continue checking back at my website chayabhuvaneswar.com for updated tour dates. The individual bookstores and other venues are also doing a great job linking with local news, etc. But Desi connections are unique. Here I must give a shout-out to Shanti Sekaran (so funny and trenchant—her piece from the POV of Catherine from “Wuthering Heights” is so good!), V.V. Ganeshananthan (who is brilliant, progressive, brave, and incredibly funny as a comrade and podcaster), and Raj Parameswaran (who fascinated me when we were undergrads by how self-contained he always seemed to be, though now, reading his stories, it’s probably just as well he was). Is it a coincidence that all three are Tamilians, as I am? Perhaps. Perhaps.


AD: In addition to being a writer, I read you’re a practicing physician. How does that play into your writing life, either in practical day-to-day ways or from a craft perspective? Do they inform each other?


CB: I’ve tried to understand this and like so many things about writing, I really can’t. The only thing I know for sure is that having to do a full time job that’s really demanding and takes all my attention for a set number of hours per day has either made my writing life more condensed and efficient (the good way of thinking about it) or more frustrating and exhausting (the other way of thinking about it)…and both are simultaneous, and as I write this, you’re reminding me of the two cold brewed coffees I just put in the fridge, fully intending to drink both myself.

Aditya Desai's (@atwittya) stories and essays have been featured by BODY, The Rumpus, The Millions, The Margins, District Lit, The Kartika Review, The Aerogram, and other publications. He received his MFA from the University of Maryland and teaches writing in Baltimore. He is currently working on a novel. His website is adityadesaiwriter.com.