Asides & Strangers
A Conversation with White Dancing Elephants Author Chaya Bhuvaneswar
By Michelle Hogmire
An intelligent and exciting debut short story collection, White Dancing Elephants (Dzanc Books, Oct 2018) focuses on the varied experiences of women of color. Bhuvaneswar deftly explores the complexities of intersectional feminism through tales about queer Indian women, queer biracial women, diverse immigrants, narrators with physical and mental illnesses, women of color coping with the trauma of miscarriage and rape, etc. Chaya's prose is simultaneously crisp, clear, and layered with storytelling references. It's essential to foreground the importance of saying and remembering stories of women usually forgotten—and this book does just that.
I spoke with Chaya over email, shortly before her reading at KGB Bar’s Sunday Night Fiction Series.
Michelle Hogmire: I was blown away by the first story in White Dancing Elephants, which is also the title story. It's a frank discussion of the horrors of a miscarriage and colonialism, from a female perspective. I'm interested in the choice to begin with that story—and to title the collection after it. How did you decide to start with that piece, and what tone/mood is it meant to set for the collection? Also, in terms of form, you do some fascinating things with parenthetical asides in the title story: the grieving mother uses them to address her child directly, as if he's still alive. Could you talk about that choice?
Chaya Bhuvaneswar: I felt that there was some special magic in starting the book with a story that some people had said was "too personal" to share, even though it's not actually that personal. It talks about a biological experience—miscarriage, pregnancy loss—that doesn't have to be seen as strictly personal, but in some ways as inevitable in women's lives. By breaking the "taboo" and refusing shame, I felt it was talismanic to start the story with this. I also meant it as a tribute to my deepest love. Family.
The asides are in a little bit of tribute to Grace Paley, who I feel uses "asides" so often in her stories, though often without parentheses. I like things like parentheses and flashbacks and shifts in tense and shifts in point of view, all of which are typically “beaten” out of MFA-trained writers. So there's a little delighted contrariness in including a story with all of those that has nonetheless resonated with a large number of readers.
MH: Storytelling and intertextuality seem to play an important role in your writing. In "The Story of The Woman Who Fell in Love with Death," a brother processes his sister's disappearance through the lens of a story. "The Bang Bang" and "Chronicle of A Marriage, Foretold" both tell the tales of writers. "Newberry" references real comic books and works by sociological theorists, and "Adristakama" is framed by tales from a Hindu comic book. Could you talk about the influence other texts have on your writing? What's their importance in this collection?
CB: I love the Hindu epic concept of “stories within stories,” a concept so beautifully brought to life in a book I read years ago and only vaguely remembered but loved—Haroun and the Sea of Stories, by Salman Rushdie, which actually draws its inspiration from a Sanskrit work literally translated into The Ocean of the Rivers of Story. I also enjoy contemporary stories within stories, like in My Name Is Red by Orhan Pamuk and in Possession by A.S. Byatt, both of whom are models for me in some sense. In the sense that they never seem to pander. They write at an emotional pitch that is true to them. They are as serious and oblivious to "fashion" as they want to be and I love them for it.
MH: I was also struck by the story "The Life You Save Isn't Your Own," which is about a woman named Seema whose life hasn't gone how she anticipated. The story ends with Seema saving a boy; he won't remember her name, but she doesn't mind. This story does an excellent job of upending traditional narrative conclusions: Seema's messed up life hasn't changed, but she has helped a stranger. The theme returns again in "In Allegheny," when the main character Michelle, a surgeon, helps a random boy experiencing an asthma attack. Could you discuss the role of strangers in your work? What function do they serve in your writing?
CB: I think the "stranger" character is inevitable in stories about people who feel isolated and unable to more than superficially connect to others; I also think strangers meeting and befriending each other in some way is an exciting event to depict in fiction, however ordinary it may be, and somehow this brings me back to the sensibility of Kieślowski films, where I always feel like the minutiae of how strangers become important to and intimate with each other is so exquisitely dissected. I am really interested in that process. Also the way in which someone initially a stranger, then accepted into a tribe, can always be demoted back to the status of "stranger." I feel that experience is one I face daily as a woman of color, as the child of immigrants, in a country where on first glance, I'm a "stranger with a strange name"—then get accepted—but can always be cast out again, made to feel that any history of acceptance or full equality might not have actually happened. Might not be real.
MH: What are you working on now?
CB: I'm finishing a novel that's going out on submission as well as a second collection of stories, and I'm being coaxed into putting together a collection of essays from several I've published recently, like this one at Medium, this more recent one that just went up at Off Assignment, the travel magazine, and this one on ethnic pornography I am so grateful to have published at The Millions.
MH: Care to share a moment, a person, or a story from your past that made you want to become a writer?
CB: I can! In high school I met and interviewed the acclaimed poet and writer Terese Svoboda. OMG was her life glamorous compared to the worry, fretting, stress, and restrictions of my growing up in Flushing, Queens. In stark contrast she tried on different boas before going out one afternoon and reminisced over herbal tea about her time with the Nuer tribe in Sudan a few years before. And also had whispered, secretive conversations with either her spouse or someone else, it almost didn't matter which compared with the shouting matches and nagging of suburban immigrant marriages I'd seen. WOW. I made up my mind on some level, then and there, that I would be a writer, somehow. Even if, like the poet in my story "The Bang Bang,” it all literally took place in a closet while on the outside I kept up a completely conformist and off-the-radar life.
MH: If you could change one thing about publishing, what would it be?
CB: That's easy. The percentages. Instead of 88% straight, upper middle class, Judeo-Christian white women—65% straight white women and the rest a complete and shifting mix of gay men, men of color, gay men of color, queer and trans men and women of all colors, straight women of color, people with disabilities. Muslim women and men, Buddhists, others, just for starters. Give us 35%. Do even that and we'll start getting somewhere.
MH: Who are your literary heroes?
Margaret Atwood, Sandra Cisneros, John Edgar Wideman, Grace Paley, Louise Erdrich, Alice Munro, Lauren Groff, Walter Mosley, Toni Morrison. It's an enormously long list. Because I think literature itself is heroic.
MH: What kind of writing excites you?
CB: Very precisely crafted and honed writing that at the same time has a lot of rage, passion, vitality.
MH: What advice do you have for writers just starting out?
CB: Just don't give up. Literature needs you whether you know it yet, or not.