Unreliable Narrators, Unreliable Realities: An Interview with Chaya Bhuvaneswar

Tara Isabel Zambrano

The stories in Chaya Bhuvaneswar‘s debut story collection White Dancing Elephants probe the space created by betrayal, disappointment, and rage in the most intimate of human relationships. Perhaps the most striking quality of this collection is the quiet assurance, the matter-of-fact boldness and authority of Chaya’s voice, which is able to create distinct worlds that spotlight women of color in their many forms and address larger topics of sexual assault and racial discrimination.

In anticipation of her reading at Mother Foucault’s (Portland, OR) on September 29th, where she will be joined by fellow Tin House Workshop alumni, Genevieve Hudson, Chaya and I exchanged a series of emails where we discussed politics, religion, and how the two influence her writing process.

Tara Isabel Zambrano: Was there a particular story that you felt in some way “triggered” the writing of the entire book? And can you comment on the phenomenon of “linked stories” vs. a more disparate “collection” and where you see each type of story collection going, in the future?

Chaya Bhuvaneswar: I like the idea of a single story ‘sparking’ other stories, and in my next collection, which looks to be a set of linked stories about a couple in an interracial marriage, I would definitely say one story triggered others in a literal sense. Examining one event can trigger a story about another, in a set of connected characters’ lives, and this was what I loved about one of my favorite “linked collections” in recent memory, ‘A Visit from the Goon Squad’, by Jennifer Egan. What is neat, though, about a more disparate collection, where themes rather than characters recur — in my case, themes of violence perpetrated against women and people of color, but also perpetrated by us, against each other — is how writing one story can sort of empower you to write another. Once I wrote ‘Talinda’ it was easier, somehow, to finish the draft of ‘A Shaker Chair,’ a story that had sat in my “drafts file” for years, as if encased in amber.

In this, I’m also inspired by Maile Meloy, who’s written both linked story collections and really disparate but wonderful stories piled together, like in Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It. I love the idea of stories being linked not in a literal sense, by representing different moments in time in a few characters’ lives, but rather being linked by an emotional resonance. And if there’s one theme that drove me to put my stories together in White Dancing Elephants it’s really the impulse to look deeply into “survivorship”, to resist simplifications or “noble” stories about what that looks like. To respect how stunningly calculating, cruel, rapacious and needy women, queer women, people of color can be toward ourselves and each other when we’re allowed to be honest. Just like white people – we’ve got the full range of human emotions and motivations. Sadly, even in 2018, that needs to be said.

TIZ: Can you speak to the problems or opportunities posed by writing fiction about fraught topics such as sexual assault and racial discrimination? Do you think fiction offers something that other modes of writing, like journalism or memoir, don’t and if so, what?

CB: I appreciate the framing of this question to allow me to give a shout out to some important, I think overlooked memoirs and journalistic pieces about the experiences of harassment.

I think it is really interesting that journalists like Ronan Farrow, a white male, have been valorized so much in the #MeToo movement, while women of color like Tarana Burke, whose role was obscured for so long though she started this movement decades before white allies like Farrow, Alyssa Milano, and others raised their voices in support. Another amazing woman of color who’s written about various forms of violence she experienced and survived is Gabrielle Union.

These are important examples of how journalism and memoir can tell certain aspects of these stories of violence and survival. I’d also recommend The Scalpel and the Silver Bear for a perspective specific to women of color in medicine and the enormous discrimination overcome, at least in part, by the first-ever Native American woman surgeon. It’s a “wow” read personally meaningful to me because 1) I went to the same med school she did and 2) some of the residents she trained, including white men, were by that time, over two decades later, very senior supervisors in the surgery rotation I did and they were really good to me, truly nurturing, and they talked about Lori Alviso Alvord of the Navajo Nation with real respect. They had known her up close and experienced her as a human being with a humanity fully equal to and as immediate as theirs.

And that’s what I believe is essential to fiction. That we have a way to make someone’s subjectivity immediate, transparent, real. It no longer becomes theoretical or a matter for “argument” that someone feels pain. We feel what the other person, the character, feels. I know I don’t consciously “try” for that in my fiction, only that I try to see a given character as clearly as I can, in the hope that others see that character too. I think when this works, the reader comes away with a different feeling about abstract concepts of “discrimination” and the whole thing becomes a lot more visceral and gripping. Like that moment in Celeste Ng’s beautiful novel, Everything I Never Told You, when the two children of an interracial marriage, out with their parents at a grocery store, minding their business, trying to have an ordinary day, are suddenly subjected to the violence of an elderly white woman accosting them with a racial slur. That is what our lives are like. That’s what aggression feels like. If we as writers can make it so readers don’t forget that, so readers actually flinch on behalf of “the Other”, those children – things can change.

TIZ: I was in 7th grade in Ujjain (191 kilometers from Bhopal), India when the Gas tragedy struck. The hospitals in my town were filled with ailing and dying families. You have captured the commotion and horror of that night so well in your story “Neela: Bhopal, 1984.” Can you tell me more about the writing of that story?

CB: I thank you for that perspective since you were “there”, and I feel so grateful that that story somehow avoided the potential voyeurism and exploitation of talking about a remote experience of suffering — and just became a story of a little-known fact. That child laborers and other people living in Bhopal without shelter were among the most severely-affected victims of the gas leak and resulting tragedy.

Homelessness is something that’s always gripped me, as a topic. I had all sorts of conflicts with my parents – cross-cultural, intergenerational, and perhaps the most subtle one that I’m only appreciating now – of class. Dorothy Allison has talked about her family’s ambivalence about her academic success. I think my father’s opposition to my becoming a doctor had a similar lineage – pride but also fear. A complex mix toward which I am so much more sympathetic to now that I’ve become a psychiatrist as well as a parent. But in the frequent storms of my growing up, I found a real refuge in my room. It was my hideout. I didn’t do that much with posters except for the James Dean ones that, for whatever reason, classmates who worried I wasn’t interested enough in boys yet (!) decided to give me. I didn’t have a computer either. But I had shelves where I stashed library books, and I had notebooks and pens, and I was set. I had safety, a home. I was my home.

One time, during an especially terrible argument, I ran out of the house barefoot, escaping all the way down a whole block. But then I came back, and I knew I could come back. I knew I wouldn’t be vulnerable to the elements. And after that, I often imagined what it would be like to be homeless, and became committed to trying to do something to help. In college, I organized an art show of a homeless artist’s work, Millind Paranjape, a brilliant immigrant who’d had the onset of symptoms of schizophrenia after he came to the US. I became part of a network of activists, health care providers, volunteers doing things like running soup kitchens, supporting the New Haven Legal Aid’s housing unit, and, during my medical training, working actively with Health Care for the Homeless.

In Bhopal, as in most Indian manufacturing centers, there is a population of millions of bonded child laborers, age 5-14, who are working without wages to pay off debts incurred by their parents. They work 12-14 hours a day instead of going to school. While more progressive laws have made child bonded labor illegal (dating back to the 1970s), it’s an abhorrent practice that continues in modern India — alongside the shiny, happy Indian Bollywood industry that has given us lovely consumable stars like Priyanka Chopra, who couldn’t be more modern or progressive, right?

But make no mistake about it — the millions of children working under conditions like those described in my story, with the same vulnerability to current environmental and corporate conditions that could make another Bhopal tragedy entirely possible – these children are still being exploited. By recent estimates, there were at least 25 million bonded child laborers, most of whom live and sleep outdoors given that they earn practically no wages and are “working off” a debt.

It was already terrible. Imagine, now, how it will be with even minimal environmental safeguards removed or loosened by the current administrations’ refusal to support global awareness and initiatives, and backing out of the Paris accord.

TIZ: This is a book that beams in Indian culture, Renaissance Portugal, and postcolonial landscapes. You have the most skillful touch in calibrating scene and dialogue, rich prose and sharp humor, complexity within characters.  Can you talk about your approach to craft? Did that approach, or process, change through the course of putting together and revising this story collection?

CB:  The one thing that changed in the course of writing the stories in the collection has been my ability to trust in a process. I definitely went through a phase, about ten years ago, where I lost faith in myself as a writer. I just felt like it was unrealistic to try to do clinical work, be a parent, be a decent partner, be any kind of friend – and write. I also felt kind of intimidated by a weird pressure to not only succeed at all these things but not experience any doubt, sense of setbacks, adversity, pain, etc. Like not only to succeed but also never have growing pains in the process of trying to create something, including creating a life.

That pressure, to not only make things “look” effortless, but actually experience life as “effortless” is what has changed, and made life a whole lot easier. It’s supposed to be hard sometimes. A lot of the time. It’s supposed to take effort. It’s OK on some level to be working all the time as long as there are delineated times when I’m not working but spending time with my loved ones. It’s OK to be working late hours, after the kids go to bed, to make sure I finish my medical notes, and also OK to wake up some mornings at 4 or 5 to write the beginning of a story and then not finish till weeks later or maybe finish it that night. It’s OK not to know how it is all possible. It’s part of the fun of it. Same with not knowing how a story will progress or how you’ll finish it. It’s Ok not to know.  To just find out.

Chaya Bhuvaneswar is a practicing physician and writer whose work has appeared Narrative Magazine, Tin House, Electric Lit, The Millions, Joyland, Michigan Quarterly Review and elsewhere. Her poetry and prose juxtapose Hindu epics, other myths and histories, and the survival of sexual harassment and racialized sexual violence by diverse women of color. Her debut collection WHITE DANCING ELEPHANTS will be released on Oct 9 2018, by Dzanc Books and is available for pre-order now. She has received a MacDowell Colony fellowship, Sewanee Writers Conference scholarship and Henfield award for her writing. Follow her on Twitter at @chayab77 for upcoming readings and events.

Tara Isabel Zambrano works as a semiconductor chip designer in a startup. Her work has been published in Tin House Online, The Cincinnati Review, Slice, Bat City Review, Yemassee, The Minnesota Review and others. She is Assistant Flash Fiction Editor at Newfound.org and reads prose for The Common. Tara moved from India to the United States two decades ago and holds an instrument rating for single engine aircraft. She lives in Texas.