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.
When I first read Percival Everett’s Erasure, it was assigned to me by Gregory Pardlo. Years removed from his Pulitzer Prize, Pardlo was a professor in Hunter College teaching “Multicultural Literature,” a course as challenging and thought-provoking as the man himself. For an entire semester, Pardlo (lovingly) demanded that we see the error of labeling creative works as “Asian” or “Black;” he told us that ascribing a culture with homogeneous traits does not empower the people lashed to said traits, that the authors who peddle this work are reinforcing, unconsciously or not, the foundations of institutional racism. Shuffled between Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story and Chang-Rae Lee’s Native Speaker, I opened up the pages of Erasure and was immediately annotating line after line, scribbling in the margins, folding pages for future reference. Everett posed a question that remains unanswered 15 years later, although the argument is louder, or more visible, than ever: Who is qualified to write about underrepresented communities? What is the “authentic black voice?”
In Erasure, we follow the absurd life of Thelonious Ellison, or Monk, as he’s known: a protagonist whose biggest, fiercest antagonists are his own intelligence and boredom. A writer, Monk is told throughout his life — by black and white constituents — that he is “not black enough:”
I have heard this mainly about my novels, from editors who have rejected me and reviewers whom I have apparently confused and, on a couple of occasions, on a basketball court when upon missing a shot I muttered Egads.
Though he shares his name with two African-American artists, Monk tries to distance himself from what passes as African-American art in the present day. Existing in a world of his own, Monk is constantly reminded that he is “different,” even within his own family; his writing hinges so close to his own interests and intrinsic intellect that it comes across as alien. Monk’s own father tells him when he’s young:
‘You have a special mind. The way you see things. If I had the patience to figure out what you were saying sometimes, I know you’d make me a smarter man.’
While Monk’s intelligence and overall awkwardness seems to barely keep him afloat both in his writing career and academia, he begins to notice that another writer is benefiting from public ignorance. Throughout the story, Monk is forced to confront the success of We Lives in the Ghetto, a fictional book written by Juanita Mae Jenkins, which is lauded by critics and owes its success through its inclusion of prostitution, underage pregnancy, and violence. This has earned the book the reputation of epitomizing what one review calls the “experience which is and can only be Black America.” Monk sees Juanita — an allusion to Sapphire, the author of Push, and others of her ilk — as the embodiment of everything that he feels is wrong with cultural classification in the literary world.
Everett lays out the two major pitfalls of navigating author authenticity. The first deals with the stress writers of color deal when navigating their own narratives. Pushed to the brink, Monk pens My Pafology, a book triple stuffed with every stereotype imaginable (its chapters are titled “Won,” “Too,” “Free,” “Fo”) and ships it off to the publisher. He aims for the manuscript to be so emphatically rejected, for it to completely insult every person who turns its pages that Monk can then point to it as proof that the black experience in America is not universal. He banks on these people in power, the Gatekeepers of the publishing world, being able to identify his obvious dishonesty. He wants to be found a liar.
But of course, My Pafology become regarded as an opus of the African-American experience. As his own personal narrative unravels, Monk accepts the book deal as the offer price soars, and even dresses up to pose as the walking stereotype and author of My Pafology, Stagg R. Lee. By becoming the writer he hates, Monk becomes an extension of the industry bigotry he was intending to fight. By this time, Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, the man whose name calls back to icons of African American art and culture, vanishes, erasing himself while attempting to fit the model he is forced into. Everett paints the people in the publishing world and academic circles, who aid Monk in his self-immolation, as completely out of touch with reality. They are imbecilic, cartoonishly naive.
In the current literary world, there are failsafes built into the process of publication to manage author authenticity, although they are not absolute. We can plan parades for the new emerging voices, but a James Frey or, more recently, a Michael Derrick Hudson will come around to disrupt the common order. Hudson found himself sitting on a poem which had been rejected (on his count) 40 times by publishers. So he changed the name — not of the poem, but his own. Michael Derrick Hudson became Yi-Fen Chou and now Chou’s poem, “The Bees, the Followers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve,” quickly found itself published and honored in the Best American Poetry Anthology of 2015. The editor of that year’s poetry selection was none other than Sherman Alexie who, in an explanation for his selection of Chou’s (or Hudson’s) work, laid out the credentials for his process. While these included specifics such as not selecting work from friends and not factoring in a poet’s larger body of work, there were two rules that helped Hudson become our real-life Monk. Alexie made the decision to pay special attention to underrepresented demographics, namely women and people of color.
There is nothing wrong with an editor’s choice to strictly follow these rules, and it’s commendable to hear that a person in Alexie’s position is being especially sensitive to the disenfranchised. But as David Orr points out in his New York Times coverage of the scandal, Alexie’s selection process reveals inherent holes in gauging authenticity. No matter what his intent was, he admitted to using a standard with very poor checks in place for success, which was exactly the fallacy practiced by the editors and publishers who greenlighted Stagg R. Lee. It is in these moments in which those who prepare to combat bias begin by performing a bias of their own, and this is the trap Alexie set his bed on. As Orr explains:
The problem, as the Yi-Fen Chou case demonstrates, is that this accommodation can be a tricky business when our ideas about excellence in poems collide with our ideas about the worthiness of poets.
This exposes a major flaw in artistic perception in publishing. In Erasure, everyone is fooled by Stagg R. Lee. And while Monk wrote My Pafology (whose title he later shortens just to Fuck) to fly in the face of convention — standing as a big fiery middle finger towards an establishment that he feels seeks to earn a profit by deciding which voices are heard and which are silenced — this plan backfires when the established “Gatekeepers” in publishing failed to get the joke. If anything, the Hudson/Chou debacle proves that even though we are now more intensely sensitive to issues of race and class, if a man is able to take the place of a more deserving writer with a simple Word document name change, this system is as flawed as what was already in place.
So what is different from the world Erasure shows us and our world now? If we can’t depend on the morals of the writer or the objectivity of the editors and publishers, how do we navigate the shoals of the authenticity debate? When Erasure was published, the power and reach of the Internet were vastly different from today. Reddit and Twitter have become socially acceptable places to air grievances and watch them either garner support or get ripped apart. The comments section of articles are modern-day gladiator arenas wherein combatants thrash their opponents, helmets of anonymity firmly fastened. It is in these arenas, ones which were basically absent in the world Monk inhabited, that a parallel set of Gatekeepers has grown in voice and influence. Now everyone can afford a soapbox. And while, the result is not always productive, there has been no greater time than now for social injustices to come to light with relative immediacy.
A perfect recent example is the publication of the book Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters, which has garnered attention primarily because of the glowing write-up it received in The New York Times. The story follows the journey of Victor (at some points also known as Jim): a freed slave who becomes a bounty hunter of other slaves against the backdrop of a United States that never abolished slavery. Winters is not a stranger to retooling history for his narratives (his Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters was popular amongst some critics for its conceit in the “mashup” genre), and novels involving slavery are not uncommon — many have surfaced in the last year. But critics took issue with the fact that Winters, a white author, is not only writing about slavery but also choosing to carry the voice and perspective of a black man. In the Times write-up (by Alexandra Alter), Lev Grossman is quoted as praising Winters for being “fearless.” Meanwhile, the book, ahead of its release, has already landed a television deal.
The backlash on social media was instantaneous. The primary question was why a white man writing about slavery in the skin of a black man constituted as a “fearless” act. Winters explained that his goal was to make literal the idea that “slavery is still with us” (which prompted the follow-up question, “With whom, exactly?”). But what also has people troubled is the fact that a white author felt himself “prepared” to write about the volatile subject matter of slavery by studying black pieces of literature. While you can be sure that Winters did “read and reread literary classics by Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, and Zora Neale Hurston,” to help place himself in context, many people cited this as a perfect example of how white privilege pervades publishing.
Yet this immediate public reaction is the beauty of our current culture. This is what Everett was missing in Erasure. And yes, while I tell my classes that if everyone is shouting, stomping their feet, and clapping their hands, the actual amount of progress during a debate is limited — there is still something valuable in the opportunity for a variety of voices to weigh in.
While working on the first draft of this essay, my first contribution to The Millions was published. My wife tapped me later that night and asked, “Have you read what’s happening in the comments section?” Reluctantly, I scrolled through what had become a fairly complicated discussion. While the posts began with a severe thrashing of Paul Beatty’s work, the topic of author authenticity immediately came up. By the time I read the last comment, the discussion had covered opinions on Beatty’s intended audience and relative merits, misunderstandings that were quickly clarified, and recommendations for authors and music that handled the topic better. What excited me the most was that the comments even delved into my current fascination with author authenticity. With a quick scroll of the page, questions arose regarding the standards of gatekeepers within the African-American literary community. One even went as far to state that, much like Monk himself, Beatty was both the self-aware victim having to cater to a low-set bar, and a willing manifestation of the irony: a black man preaching about the limitations of his culture while shoveling a story that fails to advance the discussion in a relevant way. Sure, they weren’t able to solve the issue in 21 comments, but in having the discussion alongside the article that sparked the discussion, there was a reasonably clear exchange of ideas and ideals. It would be in this platform that My Pafology, even after clearing the first two hurdles of the author’s ethics and publishers’ close-mindedness, would have been eviscerated by avid and watchful readers.
In giving us the fall of Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, Percival Everett was forcing us to question whether it was possible to clearly define the African-American experience in our country. The intervening 15 years have seen further missteps as we try to determine the answer. But the conversation is moved forward, however discordantly, by the new guard of people thinking about art and equality. Our world is not like Monk’s, and yes, we have the Internet to thank.
Picked up by a deputy police officer, a man claiming to get lost ghost-hunting in the woods was actually cooking meth. A man who won a competition to party with the Breaking Bad cast and crew was busted for manufacturing narcotics. A Hialeh, Florida, official pulled over by the cops secreted a meth pipe in his rectum.
Even forgoing the bleakest cases, meth fact is stranger than meth fiction. It’s fair to ask why a young writer would take on a subject when the finished novel will be less astonishing than the day’s headlines. (Granted, if that was a requisite, all fiction would go unwritten.) Some plucky writers, I assume, hope their writing acquires by association some of the drug’s features: highly addictive, vivid extra-sensory illusions, the intimations of ruin and transcendence.
The story of a thirteen-year-old heir to a family drug operation, Katherine Faw Morris’s Young God takes its title from a song by Swans. When they recorded “Young God,” Swans was still in its most harrowing, dissonant period before Michael Gira made slightly less harrowing, less dissonant music later in that decade. The song takes the perspective of Ed Gein, the serial-killer inspiration for the Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Psycho movies. The macabre lyrics, as bellowed by frontman Gira, are all jagged edge:
I don’t know where I am
I’m dancing in my corpse
I don’t remember anything
I’m wearing your flesh
Your flesh is my face
I love your face
Though Morris’s writing shares some of that song’s dark, cryptic tone, the novel has a conventional five-act structure. In spare, piquant prose, we watch as the protagonist Nikki flees a Department of Social Services home and seeks out her father, Coy Hawkins. Nikki might not have courage, but, as Lorrie Moore once described a very different character, she has “bitterness and impulsiveness, which could look like the same thing.”
The first scene begins at a perch overhanging a swimming hole (formatting is consistent with the book):
This is the jumping off place. everywhere else is the wrong side. Nikki bends at the knees and moves her feet one by one. With a lunge she grabs the head of the shrub. Now the river flings its white froth at her. The falls roar in her ears.
“i’ll go first.”
“No,” Nikki says.
“Just walk down on the path,” Wesley says.
“Nikki,” Mama says.
“God,” Nikki says.
Since she is going to die she would like to be remembered, spoken of in the backs of cars in words that shudder. Nikki pictures this. she turns the shrub loose and stands up.
she slips a step and then jumps.
Years after her mother commits suicide (in a mordant parallel, by leaping to her death) and a stay in DSS, she decides to return to her father’s house. The father, Coy Hawkins, is an appealingly grotesque villain, formerly “the biggest coke dealer in the county,” now a fading specter. The narrator says, “iN her MoUth his name is shiny and bitter like a licked coin.”
Tragically, she find her father’s expressions of sympathy as inexplicable and unfamiliar as his paroxysms of violence. In her conversations with her father, she is both naïve and clinical:
“is it BeCaUse oF the eCoNoMY?”
“That you’re a pimp?”
Coy hawkins laughs with his head thrown back.
“What?” Nikki says.
she laughs, too. Though she doesn’t think it’s funny.
“You used to be the biggest coke dealer in the county.”
Coy hawkins rests his elbow on the bench seat. He looks at her.
“You were,” she says.
“everybody’s on pills now,” Coy hawkins says.
“This is my new thing. This is the future.”
Nikki looks out at the motel parking lot. her teeth are grinding.
As in Winter’s Bone, the devastation caused by the meth trade in this rural North Carolina region has unsettled all the usual social structures that might constrain the impulses of a smart, ruthless teenage girl. Either novel could be mistaken for professing a kind of feminism, but I would prefer to call it selective misanthropy.
Each chapter is a fresh descent. Nikki endures the rape and murder of her friend, the mutilation of a rival drug dealer, and a dangerous stick-up. She becomes aware of how he has made her vulnerability a weapon:
“i don’t need you,” he says. […]
all NiGht she sits oN the CoUCh in the dark with her mind racing.
he does need her. He couldn’t have gotten into that apartment without her, for one thing.
she pictures the black girls, with their mouths wide open, but she doesn’t hear them scream.
Watching her father’s casual brutality, of course, Nikki becomes more jaundiced about life generally, and more cynical about family ties specifically. Violence is something she masters, but Morris isn’t particularly interested in a sociology of the drug trade or criminal pathology. Instead, Young God unfolds unselfconciously, as character study.
One of the strengths of the novel is how Nikki’s emotional disfigurement is subtle and teased out patiently over the course of the novel so that, until the final pages, neither the reader nor Nikki herself fully grasp what heinous acts she is capable of doing in order to restore her family’s status.
The unconventional capitalization and grammars, as in Sapphire’s Push, is meant to convey the main character’s lack of formal education, though I found it mostly distracting. In her first novel, Morris also allows a few quirks to clutter the prose. For instance, “muscle,” “chin,” and “shoulder” are all used as verbs. Those choices might be naturalistic, but I thought they were fussy diversions from a taut, concise plot.
What “young god”? Nikki does possess the sort of inarticulate, elemental impulses (rage, pity, hatred) that used to drive the gods of ancient Greek mythology and the Old Testament. It’s clear that her godliness is some mix of her ability to take life and her Nietschzean amorality. Paradoxically, her omnipotence is representative of the narrowness of her worldview, like the narrator of Ted Hughes’s poem, “Hawk Roosting:”
Now I hold Creation in my foot
Or fly up, and revolve it all slowly —
I kill where I please because it is all mine.
There is no sophistry in my body.
Why a “young god”? Throughout his career, Kenneth Burke pointed out the perversity of metaphor. In the essay, “Why Satire,” he quoted the phrase, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” Burke suggests that this aphorism has discomfiting implications for our perspective on “need” and “motherhood.”
If a meth-dealing teenager is a “young god,” how radically changed is Morris’s secular world from O’Connor’s “Christ-haunted” South. The central metaphor of Morris’s novel — Nikki as god — is a provocation, sure, and one that indicates a rift in Southern literature. Though their works diverged widely in subject matter and method, Faulkner, O’Connor, and McCullers wrote novels and short stories in riot against the modern assumption of the rational, knowable self, and that self’s ability to master history and nature. Their skepticism about modernity has been so widely embraced – by thinkers who have no interest in Sutpen genealogy, and those who might think of the Southern Agrarians as little more than a historical curiosity — that it seems de rigueur. Perhaps the concerns of O’Connor, et al, were prescient, and prescience is obsolescence in a flattering alias.
The novels of Daniel Woodrell, William Gay, and Morris have a much narrower philosophical scope. Young God is a strong entry in the tradition of the Southern Gothic Novel (redneck noir subcategory), but, while reading it and after watching the HBO series True Detective, I began to wonder if the genre still has any explanatory power for contemporary America. Stripped of its context and without invigorating it with new significance, that familiar mood has become an affectation. The style is still there, nestled between the derelict churches and the epic violence, but without the expansive critique that ran like a quicksilver thread through Wise Blood and Absalom! Absalom!
Late in Young God, the narrator repeats her father’s words: “This is the future.” Then, Nikki disposes of a body by hacking it into pieces. I suspect the Southern Gothic Novel (like many of the characters that have populated it) will have an even less tranquil afterlife.