“I write the people around me, people I know. This is my world. These are my friends and family. These are my ancestors.”
White Dancing Elephants (Dzanc Books, 2018)
What were your favorite parts about the process of writing and then publishing the collection?
I really loved following my impulses, writing with an intense focus on the fraught and dramatic moments between characters that from the outside can seem so calm.
Which, if any, authors influenced your writing of these stories? How so?
Grace Paley remains such a guiding influence, mainly in terms of how clearly she marks territory for the people she grew up with, the people she heard in her head. This was a model for listening to working-class South Asians in Flushing, Queens, which is on the one hand an incredibly culturally diverse and culturally rich place (the kind of place bored Manhattanites troll for “authentic” food) – on the other hand, a scene of sacrifice, relative poverty, shame. I remember friends commenting on how I lived two blocks from public housing, five blocks from the pawnshops and Western Union, etc.
Many stories in White Dancing Elephants depict characters dealing with traumas such as miscarriage and rape. In “Orange Popsicles,” the main character Jayanti sees a “container of orange popsicles, exactly the same color and shape as the one she’d had in the emergency room… sitting on the foldout metal table. The sight of them had made her nauseous enough to flee, to stand nearly an hour waiting for her train” (121). Was it difficult to write about the traumas these characters experienced, and did you have to distance yourself while writing them?
It’s always very challenging to titrate how “close up” to be to certain kinds of suffering that have been sensationalized or exoticized historically. It’s always going to be challenging to figure out how to show enough respect, yet at the same time be fearless, and in the end, because it’s not an intellectual “figuring out,” but really instinctive and ancient, the wish to tell the shameful secrets, to describe what the perpetrators want forgotten, to subvert oppression simply by saying out loud – I have to write and then before publishing, pray.
As I read the collection, I noticed that each story uses a different point of view. For example, “Neela: Bhopal, 1984” uses second-person point of view while “Jagatishwaran” uses first-person POV. How did you decide which POVs would work best? Did you decide on POV before you wrote each story or was it a trial and error process?
Sometimes it is trial and error but in an enriching sense and I usually discover something else that can be used later in other form, in another story, by writing from a different POV than the story turns out to be told from. I love POV. I love being inside a character’s head and thoughts. I would definitely say that multiple points of view are compelling and enchanting to me – from Isak Dinesen’s omniscient third person narrator, to Dickens’ sly, theatrical, editorializing third person in Hard Times and elsewhere, to the stark and outraged first person of The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold, to the incredible second-person narrative of Mohsin Hamid’s recent book How To Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, etc. One particular aspect of first person I love is how diverse it can be, how it can encompass third person, as well as (by quoting a letter, for example) some aspects of second person. I think the stories reflect my love of experimentation and play.
White Dancing Elephants deals with a variety of current issues such as sexual harassment and fear of deportation. The story “Newberry” touches on the state of America today when the character Anthony speaks to his employee Marco about his possibility of being deported, saying, “It’s the Trump age, what can you do” (151). Were these issues something you wanted to purposefully address with your stories, or did they evolve from the characters?
I think it doesn’t necessarily matter if a writer starts with situation versus character. Wherever you start, you’re going to have to deal with both. A completely static character who never gets into any present-tense situations (or immediately-proximal third person past, like “He got into a bad situation last month”) can’t really sustain a reader’s attention. Similarly, a character who is a mouthpiece for a situation doesn’t compel the reader either. Characters and events really commingle on the page and for me every story is some kind of examining and unraveling of the idea that “character is fate.”
White Dancing Elephants wonderfully balances imagery, dialogue, and characters’ thoughts. Do you have any tips for beginning writers on how to achieve such balance in their own stories?
The main advice I have is: 1) Be really happy for any praise like that (thank you!) and 2) know that you can’t “chase” such external comments about your work, but just have to keep at it.
As a practicing physician as well as a writer, how do you reconcile the seemingly opposing subjects of science and creative writing?
Really good science writing is worth taking a look at for budding fiction writers. I strongly recommend recent books by Sue Halpern (on butterflies, for example) and by Edmund O. White (a naturalist who wrote magnificently about ants). Read Darwin – that’s enchanting. As is The Lives of the Cell. I see real continuities between the natural world and literature. A recent poetry collection that made me remember this most keenly is Oceanic by Aimee Nezhukumatathil. Barry Lopez also writes beautifully about the Arctic and nature – really poetry. Rick Moody as well.
As an English major, I sometimes find an underrepresentation of people of color and LGBTQ people in contemporary works of literature. However, you include characters in your stories ranging from a biracial, possibly bisexual therapist in “A Shaker Chair” to an Indian slave in “Heitor.” Could you say a bit more about this?
The contributions of multiple writers (from Louise Erdrich to Edwidge Danticat, Victor Lavalle to Kali Fajardo-Anstine, whose new collection, Sabrina and Corinna, I’m so looking forward to) in creating space for the stories of diverse queer and people of color cannot be overstated. I write the people around me, people I know. This is my world. These are my friends and family. These are my ancestors. There’s nothing that unusual about that. Hopefully if my work can be crafted enough, I can help you see that these people are like you, and vice versa.
Would you ever consider writing a novel? If so, what might it be about?
I’ve written a novel in the past few years (for which I received a MacDowell Colony fellowship) and my agent is going to hopefully submit it later this year including to editors who have asked to see it, which is amazingly heartening and encouraging. A small excerpt can be read in Slush Pile Magazine here: and some of the themes – male gaze, feminism, pornography/ prostitution/ trafficking, sexuality, queerness, autonomy, friendship – are encapsulated in this recent essay I wrote for The Millions, here.
“Adristakama” is set mainly in India and “White Dancing Elephants” takes place in London. However, other stories like “Talinda” and “The Bang Bang” take place in Flushing, Queens. Did you draw on your own experiences for these settings? If so, which place was your favorite to visit or live in?
Always hard to pick a favorite but New York City, the city where my forthcoming novel takes place, the city where I grew up, always takes center stage in my heart (I am so sorry, Red Sox fans! But Boston just isn’t the same). Chennai, India and the Golden Beach come second. Those early mornings, walking along the beach, the colors and smells, the family who loved me for all their shocking traits.
Throughout your stories, you vividly portray characters’ emotions and reactions to their experiences. I particularly loved the passage from “White Dancing Elephants” that says, “Before my last morning with you, my love, I didn’t know rage. I didn’t know how empty rage is, like a bag of bones” (16). With lines like this, you create such rich and realistic emotions. How would you advise beginning writers to work on developing their own characters’ emotions?
It is important to be as honest with yourself as possible; to consider using various forms of writers notebooks and journals to capture how you feel or what you think in a given moment; to look for opportunities where you are able to hear a person, listen to a person (i.e. visit people in a nursing home or hospital through a volunteer organization; volunteer to serve food but also sit with people while they’re eating at a soup kitchen, etc). It is important to hone your ability to be sensitive to what another human being is feeling, what you are feeling, and I believe that this can translate into fiction that develops emotion in a compelling way. But even if it doesn’t directly do this, your reality and your presence in the world will be that much more enjoyable and connected, and you will feel less alone.
Chaya Bhuvaneswar is a practicing physician, writer and PEN American award finalist whose work has appeared or is forthcoming in Narrative Magazine, Tin House, Electric Literature, The Millions, Joyland, Large Hearted Boy, Chattahoochee Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Awl, jellyfish review, aaduna and elsewhere, with poetry in Cutthroat, sidereal, Natural Bridge, apt magazine, Hobart, Ithaca Lit, Quiddity and elsewhere. Her work was recently selected for inclusion in Best Small Fictions. 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.