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.
We wouldn’t dream of abandoning our vast semi–annual Most Anticipated Book Previews, but we thought a monthly reminder would be helpful (and give us a chance to note titles we missed the first time around). Here’s what we’re looking out for this month — for more May titles, check out our First-Half Preview. Let us know what you’re looking forward to in the comments!
(Also, as Millions founder and publisher C. Max Magee wrote recently, you can help ensure that these previews, and all our great books coverage, continue for years to come by lending your support to the site as a member. The Millions has been running for nearly 15 years on a wing and a prayer, and we’re incredibly grateful for the love of our recurring readers and current members who help us sustain the work that we do.)
Warlight by Michael Ondaatje: From internationally acclaimed, bestselling author of The English Patient and Divisidero among his other works, this new novel from Ondaatje is set in the decade after World War II. When their parents move to Singapore, 14-year-old Nathaniel and his older sister, Rachel, are left in London under the watchful eye of a mysterious figure called The Moth. As they become immersed in his eccentric circle of friends, they are both protected and educated in confusing ways. The mystery deepens when their mother returns months later without their father, but gives them no explanation. Years later, Nathaniel begins to uncover the story through a journey of facts, recollection, and imagination. If only Anthony Minghella were still with us to make the movie. (Claire)
The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner: In her third novel, two-time National Book Award-finalist Kushner writes about a woman named Romy Hall who is serving two consecutive life sentences (plus six years) in a prison in California’s Central Valley. The year is 2003, and the Mars Room in the title refers to a strip club in San Francisco where Romy used to dance; according to the jacket copy, Kushner details “the deadpan absurdities of institutional living…with humor and precision.” George Saunders calls Kushner “a young master” and Robert Stone wrote that she is “a novelist of the very first order.” Check out this short excerpt published by Entertainment Weekly. (Edan)
Some Trick by Helen DeWitt: If you periodically spend afternoons sitting around wondering when you will get to read something new by DeWitt, this is your season. In May we get 13 stories from the brilliant writer who brought us The Last Samurai—one of the best books of this or any millennium—and the evilly good Lightning Rods. In this collection DeWitt will evidently apply her mordant virtuosity to territory ranging from statistics to publishing. (Lydia)
Not That Bad, edited by Roxane Gay: In this age when (some) sexual assault survivors are finally being listened to and (some) sexual predators are being held accountable, there couldn’t be a better time for an essay collection examining just how pervasive and pernicious rape culture is. Gay has become a champion for survivors of sexual assault since the beginning of her writing career, so she is the ideal editor of this book that attacks rape culture from all angles. From essays by well-known figures such as Gabrielle Union to emerging writers, this book explores all elements of this ill from child molestation to the rape epidemic in the refugee world. (Tess)
Motherhood by Sheila Heti: Heti’s previous two books have created and followed lines of inquiry—with Misha Glouberman she wrote a book of conversational philosophy, The Chairs Are Where People Go. Heti’s novel How Should a Person Be? is an early work of autofiction that delves deep into art-making and friendship. Some called it a literary form of reality TV, making James Wood’s backhanded assessment of the book as both “unpretentious” and “narcissistic” quite the unintentional compliment. Heti’s new novel Motherhood follows in a similar line of existential questioning—the narrator approaches the topic of motherhood, asking not when but if she should endeavor to become a mother at all. (Anne)
That Kind of Mother by Rumaan Alam: “Just because something is natural doesn’t mean it’s easy.” Priscilla Johnson says those words to Rebecca Stone early in Alam’s novel. Rebecca’s just given birth to her son Jacob, and the novel’s first scene feels both dizzying and precise—a visceral reminder of life’s complex surprises. Priscilla is the hospital staffer who most calms Rebecca’s anxieties, so much that she asks Priscilla to be Jacob’s nanny. A few years later, Priscilla’s own pregnancy ends in heartbreak. Rebecca’s decision to adopt Andrew is complex: she loves and misses Priscilla, and dearly loves this boy, but is she ready for the reality of raising a black son as a white mother? Alam’s sharp narrative asides—lines like “Some percentage of the things she did for the children were actually for her”—carry such weight and truth that we trust his route toward the bigger question of the book: are we ever ready for the pain and joy that life delivers us? (Nick R.)
Welcome to Lagos by Chibundu Onuzo: Five characters arrive in the megacity seeking to make a new start, leaving behind traumatic situations born of Nigeria’s sociopolitical complexities and mingling their fortunes in what Booklist calls, in a starred review, “a tangy Ocean’s Eleven–esque escapade that exposes class and ethnic divides in the country even as it manages to mock the West for its colonial gaze toward the African continent as a whole.” (Lydia)
Spring by Karl Ove Knausgaard, translated by Ingvild Burkey: This is the third book in the master’s Seasons Quartet, a novel rather than the essays that characterized the previous volume. With Spring, Knausgaard explores a family disaster, explaining to his daughter (the intended audience of the Quartet) why it is that they receive visits from Child Services, and what it was that caused her mother to leave. (Lydia)
Last Stories by William Trevor: Prior to his death in November 2016, Trevor told a friend that the book he was working on would be called Last Stories. That is this book—the last we will ever have from the Irish author. Six of the 10 stories included here have never been published before, and what preview would be sufficient? Perhaps just this: if the engine of accomplished fiction truly is empathy, then you will be hard pressed to uncover a finer practitioner of the core humanity that inspired and inspires this deliberate, and personal, epitaph. (Il’ja)
Slave Old Man by Patrick Chamoiseau, translated by Linda Coverdale: A newly translated novel from a Prix Goncourt winner who Milan Kundera called the “heir of Joyce and Kafka,” Slave Old Man is the hallucinatory journey of an old man who has escaped enslavement on a plantation in the forest of Martinique, pursued by his former captor and a fierce dog. In a starred review, Publishers’ Weekly writes, “Chamoiseau’s prose is astounding in its beauty.” (Lydia)
Like a Mother by Angela Garbes: Several years ago Garbes, a food writer, wrote a viral and absolutely bananas piece about the mysteries and miracles of breastfeeding. Now she brings the same spirit of inquiry and amazement to a related and equally bananas process, filling a lacuna she faced when she was pregnant with her first child. The result is a deeply reported, deeply felt book on everything surrounding reproduction and its effects on the body and the mind. (Lydia)
Calypso by David Sedaris: In this, his first essay collection in five years, Sedaris uses a family beach house as a starting point to explore mortality and age with his characteristic humor and aplomb. (Read Sedaris’s latest essay, on his mother’s alcoholism, here at The New Yorker.) (Lydia)
The Ensemble by Aja Gabel: A novel about art and friendship and the fraught world of accomplished musicians—four young friends who comprise a string quartet. Mat Johnson said Gabel’s novel “deserves a standing ovation.” For a taste of Gabel’s prose, read her Best American Essays-notable piece on grief and eating ortolans in France. (Lydia)
The Lost Empress by Sergio De La Pava: De La Pava’s first novel, A Naked Singularity, was the rare self-published novel to receive critical acclaim, including the PEN/Bingham Prize. The Lost Empress is as ambitious as his first, a 672-page doorstopper that takes on both football and the criminal justice system. The novel has a large cast, but centers on two characters: Nina Gill, the daughter of the owner of the Dallas Cowboys, and presumed heir to the franchise; and Nuno DeAngeles, “a brilliant criminal mastermind,” who gets himself thrown into prison in order to commit a crime. (Hannah)
A Lucky Man by Jamel Brinkley: New York-bred writer Brinkley (and Year in Reading alum) delivers this anticipated debut story collection. Ranging from encounters on the New York subway to a young boy’s first encounter with the reality of racial hierarchy, these sensitive and probing stories promise to captivate. If you’ve read Brinkley’s title story “A Lucky Man” in A Public Space, then you know that he’s a talent to watch. (Ismail)
The Optimistic Decade by Heather Abel: Abel’s debut centers around a group of young people who converge in a utopian summer camp in a small town in the Colorado mountains, exploring American obsessions of freedom, ownership, property, and class against the vagaries of the Reagan and Bush years. In a starred review, Publishers’ Weekly calls this novel “politically and psychologically acute.” (Lydia)
Belly Up by Rita Bullwinkel: Bullwinkel’s stories are fantastic and fabulist feats that (often) address our messy, cumbersome bodies in thrilling and imaginative ways. For example: in lieu of a bra, a man is hired to support a daughter’s breasts; a woman whose plastic surgeon, when fixing her eyes, leaves her with a turkey neck (not literally but); twin brothers Gleb and Oleg, surgeon and sculptor, live in a prison infirmary and perform a thumb transplant. A compelling new voice, Bullwinkel has had stories in Tin House, Guernica, and Noon. Her first book, the story collection Belly Up, will be published by A Strange Object. (Anne)
Meet behind Mars by Renee Simms: In stories taking place across the United States and ranging in style from fabulist to realist to satyrical, Simms, a professor at University of Puget Sound, writes scenes from the American experience, focusing on the connections and inner spaces of a large cast of African-American characters. Tayari Jones calls this “an exciting debut of a vibrant new voice in American literature.” (Lydia)
Kickflip Boys by Neal Thompson: We all turn out like our parents to some degree — an unsettling revelation when we remember our own missteps growing up. In Neal Thompson’s new memoir Kickflip Boys, he recalls his rough-edged upbringing as he raises his skateboard-obsessed boys and wonders about their own emerging rough edges. Thompson is a magazine writer and the author of four prior books, most notably his biography of Robert “Believe It or Not!” Ripley. (Max)
The Pisces by Melissa Broder: You may know Broder because of her incredible So Sad Today tweets. If you do, you won’t be surprised to hear about her novel, The Pisces, which follows a Ph.D student in love with a Californian merman. The student, Lucy, has a breakdown after nine years of grad school, which compels her Angeleno sister to invite her to dogsit at her place. On the beach, a merman appears, and Lucy embarks on a romance that seems impossible. (Thom)
The Map of Salt and Stars by Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar: A novel about the Syrian war and the refugee crisis, juxtaposing the life of a modern girl fleeing Homs across land and sea and her medieval counterpart, a girl who traversed the same territory while apprenticed to a renowned mapmaker. Simultaneously an homage to Arab intellectual history and a lament of modern chaos. (Lydia)