Winner of the 2017 Dzanc Short Story Collection Prize, Chaya Bhuvaneswar’s White Dancing Elephants is a daring look at the power of imagination. Bhuvaneswar, a practicing psychiatrist on the East Coast, has created intricate characters who fight back against narratives that limit their existence, natural circumstances or human-made, from birth and death and disease to racism, classicism, and sexism, shuffling together ancient fables with realistic contemporary fiction and a dystopia with robots. (She’d also been previously kind to include my book in her list of novels to read on the way to a political protest.) I was excited and nervous about meeting Bhuvaneswar over email to talk about her debut collection.
The Millions: Let’s start off by talking about writers who have been a major influence. I saw in an interview that you mentioned Jesmyn Ward. Can you tell us why and which other writers and books had a lasting impact on you?
Chaya Bhuvaneswar: I loved A Small Revolution, so I’ll mention that first—psychologically gripping, real, and an important part of the larger canon on books about revolution. I like to think that in its own way, my book is also about revolution, about subversion, and I would say that there is likely a set of books, large and somewhat shifting but definite, that led me to be a writer, period, because of their astute and surprising way of depicting awareness, rebellion, determination. These are human qualities I truly believe in. So that has led me to a lot of very different books—from Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina to Sapphire’s Push (both of which I wrote about here). While these are very different books, they relate specifically to the collection in that I am not just writing about “survivorship” as a sort of condition, but as a form of internal resolution. As one decision or series of decisions. As a form of self-determination, often at great and unexpected cost. I think without consciously deciding it, several books, including The Handmaid’s Tale (before the Netflix series, but then also, thrillingly, during its rise), Tracks by Louise Erdrich, and individual stories, like “The Children Stay” (which is completely astonishing, an Alice Munro story mostly inside the head of a modern Anna Karenina-like character).
In terms of how much I’ve gained from Jesmyn Ward’s work, I think more than anything her quiet confidence and determination are a complete inspiration for women writers of color who have to cling to the belief that “anybody will care” about the characters we write about, dream about. Will anybody care about, for example, an Indian immigrant who becomes a spoken word poet, or (even more of a question) a retired, cranky man so choked with grief at being separated from his son that he is rageful and perhaps unforgivable to the daughter he lives with who has a disability? Does anybody care about these lives—a black woman psychoanalyst wealthy enough to be envied by others; a Korean-American lady doctor-slash-workaholic? So far the answer has been a resounding “yes” in nearly all cases—but I believe that would not be as true without the model of the thrilling success of Salvage the Bones and Sing, Unburied, Sing. She and others have opened doors for the stories of overlooked, ordinary people of color to be told and celebrated and sung.
TM: I felt that kind of confidence come through in your stories too, beginning with a narrator who whispers to her unborn child to the roar of the girls in captivity near the end of the book. How did you come up with the arrangement of this collection?
CB: One of my favorite short story writers, Maile Meloy (whose work I recommend reading here, especially; “Madame Lazarus” may be my favorite story of hers, ever) said once in an interview how she just sort of played with the order of the stories on the “back of a napkin” the way you’d shuffle a song playlist.
I think it was exactly like that. I was pushed up against a deadline, reading at AWP 2018 and having a blast generally, and I came back late one night and sat there shaping a response to the editor asking me to delineate the order, and this is just sort of what came out. I am incredibly grateful, as well, that our publisher and editor in chief at Dzanc, Michelle Dotter, really “went with” a lot of what I proposed as my instinctive responses to her questions. She had a lot of trust in me to shape the edits that in retrospect is so wonderful, really.
You try for the standard things—to vary POV, not have three stories told in the first person back to back. But I think as with a song list, there is a dreamy, playing quality and hopefully the main thing is that people enjoy it. To that end as well, I am thrilled to note that on the release date for White Dancing Elephants, Large Hearted Boy, that blog that posts “song playlists,” is going to post one I put together with the wonderful editor, David Gutkowski, and I guarantee—I KNOW—people will enjoy it.
TM: In your essay about being a writer and a psychiatrist, you say, “I write as a self-defining activity, without judging if what I write is any good. I write because I have seen people whose ability to write was taken away by illness. I write because I am mortal, and know it.” Tell us more about that because I feel it speaks so much to your characters in your stories too, about being keenly aware of their mortality.
CB: The daily routine of being a doctor in contemporary practice fundamentally changes your relationship to the physical act of writing. I mean, we just have to write SO MUCH. And all of it has to be written with a certain kind of care, because the medical record belongs to the patient, and so while there is a certain amount of productive “thinking out loud,” aimed at helping the medical professionals reading the record diagnose and treat various conditions, ultimately there can’t be anything in the medical record that doesn’t directly serve the patient. We have to be honest but at the same time as tactful as we can. It’s a constant goal we keep in mind.
So there’s this high wire you become accustomed to—writing a lot (thousands of words a day) but at the same time, writing with care and writing where there is so much at stake. And more than anything I think that has affected me as a writer. It helped make writing something I could own. Versus the publicly acclaimed and fraught and competitive position of “writer”—where, like, you read about Gary Shteyngart getting taken to a warehouse to sign thousands of his books, or you read about Terrance Hayes being “number two!” on the global list of contemporary poetry books selling on Amazon now, or whatever. I don’t know about all that. But I know that when I sit down at my desk, I can write, and as long as that’s true, I’m grateful. I have what I need.
TM: You explore the very edges of boundaries, particularly between life and death over and over in these stories—a woman grieving the loss of a child, kidnapping and sexual assault, sexual abuse by a parent, suffering from cancer, and connected to these the idea of switching places, roles—therapist and patient—playing constantly with societal expectations often with those with less power asserting themselves powerfully. I’m curious about your thoughts about the #MeToo movement?
CB: Mainly I have a few fragmentary thoughts to offer here (hoping of course that the shards will illuminate a little bit—that whole concept of “synecdoche” that I feel like I learned about from reading Forster but don’t even remember exactly how. Howards End, perhaps?).
First, the notion of “edges of boundaries”—I’m very influenced by the concept of “liminality,” from religious studies, which I first encountered when studying the poet A.K. Ramanujan’s really brilliant translations of medieval Hindu poetry. In these poems, mostly written by men but also by a few women, every definition was shifting and changing. Gender, sexuality, location, faith—all fluid, as fluid as language. I am interested in this fluidity as a source of resilience, and often I’m drawn to characters who don’t yet see the positive aspects of change, who deeply fear it.
Second, the responsibility of women to other women. I guess I still believe in an idea of “sisterhood,” but rather than prescribe it to anyone, I try to remember and celebrate those moments when women have shown me that solidarity. Whether in small ways—like sharing advice about how to care for a newborn—or other ways, like the woman administrator at my undergrad college, who actively encouraged me and other female students to come forward about a particularly egregious harasser.
I do feel like the way we find a path forward through the #MeToo movement is by remembering a common humanity. This is one reason I love the title of Roxane Gay’s anthology, Not That Bad, because it illustrates how utterly inadequate that type of label is for many of these experiences. Yes, you don’t literally lose a limb from being harassed. But you lose some part of your dignity and you end up having to fight to get that back. It is that bad, to suffer violence, especially when you’re in a space, as a working professional or student or any kind of occupational role, where you should just be allowed to perform, period, and not be given that extra burden, the extra barrier. I do think that #MeToo experiences constitute a form of resistance by the status quo, against the entry of women in equal numbers, and with equal or greater power, into professional and educational and financial spaces (including the entertainment industry) where male dominance had been the norm. Harassment is a way of making us uncomfortable. The movement is saying: We won’t stand for it. Amen.