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An Interview with Chaya Bhuvaneswar photo

Chaya Bhuvaneswar submitted her prose poem Girl from Uni to Hobart’s winter poetry edition, which I guest-edited. I was struck, as I am reading her prize-winning first story collection White Dancing Elephants, by the quality of her attention: to cadence and musicality, to the history which shapes even and especially the most mundane aspects of our present, and to the uglier aspects of human nature, which she catalogues with a kind of clinical empathy, unsparing yet humane. The stories in this collection, both realist and fabulist, navigate diasporic lives from modern-day India and New York to sixteenth century Portugal. In addition to writing breath-taking poetry and fiction, Chaya is also a practicing physician, which perhaps to an extent explains the acuity with which she wields language. 
– JR. 

JR: Please forgive me if this seems too obvious a question, but what came first: medicine or literature? Do you find that your work as a doctor informs your creative process?

I think during training this is a much more fraught question, because so much is unknown about how to organize time to have even, for example, a family life, time for basic self-care like minimal exercise and time to cook good food for yourself and get enough sleep to feel good, and a workable schedule doing clinical work. At first many of us struggle with having all those components and people actually do not enjoy that high a quality of life, eating on the run, barely sleeping, not exercising for months, let alone making the time for writing or any other creative ‘leisure’ pursuit. During training when you’re just trying to figure out the basics, it seems much more of a duality, but then as things settle down and you figure out how to still make time to see friends, spend time with family, have your weekends off as far as possible, the writing starts to filter back in and it definitely took time for me to feel at ease enough for that (and still, so much, I maintain a constant vigilance about the medicine, think constantly about what I need to do next for care, and honestly never feel completely relaxed or at ease, which – is just the way it has to be.) 

But in terms of how different things inform creative process – I would really say a larger awareness of mortality, which can come from medical training, but for many people just comes either from the passing of time, the aging of their parents, or the experience of having children – it’s really the awareness of mortality that ultimately shapes craft. I was reading a beautiful line or two of an essay by Claudia Dey that said, “I am writing—writing with the speed of an animal being chased by a larger animal. The larger animal is time.” Exactly how I feel. 

JR: In a similar vein, did you start writing fiction and writing poetry around the same time? Do you find that writing poetry improves your narrative ability, and vice versa?

Like many writers, I started writing poetry first, I guess, but then evolved into prose. It is interesting what Jesmyn Ward and Lauren Groff have to say about their exploration of writing poetry before becoming such immensely poetic and powerful prose writers. I would say I don’t have aspirations for poetry; or rather that my aspirations or ambitions about my poetry are even lower than my (steadily lowering) ambitions for my prose, so that there’s a way continuing to write and publish poetry feeds the “non-ambitious” side of my prose writing, the side that really is immersed in “writing to the self” and for myself. I do like hanging out with poets very much and have enjoyed interviewing poets of color for Adroit Journal for example.

Something very amazing and vibrant and sustaining is happening in American poetry right now and I celebrate that and hope so much it brings more people to reading and to bookstores and libraries, period. Poets who sustain and inspire me include Jericho Brown, Eduardo Corral, Nicole Sealey, Tracy K. Smith, Rita Banerjee, Leila Chatti, Victoria Chang, and no, it is not at all an accident that many of these folks are people of color, writing such raw and gripping poems about racial justice and the lack of it. 

JR: The Orphan Handler and Chronicle of a Marriage, Foretold are straight-up magical realism, while other stories in the collection (The Story of the Woman Who Fell In Love With Death, Heitor) take the form of fables and still others inhabit the realm of realist fiction. Do you prefer writing in a certain register, or would you be unsatisfied restricting yourself to only one?

I really appreciate being able to write in more than one way and am thrilled and stunned that despite this being a story collection of different stories without recurring characters, it’s being read and talked about (and even included in a recent list up at The Rumpus of “What to Read When You Want to Read Short Stories,” which thrilled me to no end.)

I think having a sense of freedom as a writer, especially a queer brown woman writer, is so critical. I never want to feel pigeon-holed or labeled and I am so grateful – I really haven’t been. That said, one of the things I’m finishing up now is a collection of linked stories, about two recurring characters, Renuka and Adam, that appear in stories here and here. It is very thrilling to follow two characters through many moments of their lives, in mostly realist stories – though that said, some of the most amazing fabulist writers are queer and non-binary women, like of course Carmen Maria Machado, but also, long before her, queer activist and South Asian writer Suniti Namjoshi with her book “Tales of the Blue Donkey.” 

JR: The protagonist of Talinda betrays her dying best friend by sleeping with her friend’s husband, while in A Shaker Chair, a therapist both lusts after and racially others her client. The Bang Bang and The Goddess of Beauty Goes Bowling feature fathers who neglect and abuse their disabled children. Even your less egregiously behaved characters are marked by some form of selfishness or peculiarity. What draws you to unlikeable characters?

I guess I think of it more in terms of characters who are extremely exposed and vulnerable during the telling of these stories, and at these moments, people aren’t striving to be likeable, they’re striving mainly for survival. And, actually most people who get portrayed as less than “likeable” are just in the grip of some moment in their lives where they can’t do more than scramble and struggle. They have no time or energy for charm or even to spare a thought for what other people think of them. In their own minds, they’re almost dead. So whatever they do is justified. It’s a place of harrowing hardship that, I’m sorry to say, many people find themselves in more often than they might want to admit. 

JR: Ableism also appears as a recurring theme, in The Bang Bang and The Goddess of Beauty Goes Bowling as well as Jagatishwaran, which is narrated by an artist with schizophrenia, who lives with his parents. What inspires you to fight ableism so powerfully in your fiction?

I take that as such a compliment – thank you! Fighting ableism is not a conscious agenda – there really isn’t any conscious agenda when writing fiction, thankfully.

Your question though does bring back to mind a story by Chekhov, “Sleepy,” about a really oppressed, overworked baby nurse who is so beaten, so exhausted, that in a state of sleep-induced psychosis she strangles her baby. The story is so effective because it conveys Chekhov’s own outrage, anger and compassion for this girl and “fights” class oppression in that sense, without ever seeming to have any sort of agenda.

I feel the same way about ableism — that simply letting experiences and feelings shape the story can form a kind of “fight” sometimes though definitely I think any kind of “fight” agenda is broadened, complicated,  vastly expanded by what fiction does to a given story or character. Fiction is so singular because it allows us to fight while at the same time questioning why we fight (about anything), who we are to think we have any right to fight, what the consequences of winning or losing would be, and on and on. Fiction doesn’t ever force us to ossify into any single position. 

JR: While your book examines the violence of whiteness and patriarchy, it also examines racism between people of color and emotional abuse inflicted by women upon other women. Are there other books, movies or TV shows that you feel are also doing this work?

I definitely see this as an area of progress and advancement lately as women, particularly queer women, are finding more representation and more voice. On the TV show “Killing Eve,” an Asian American woman and a queer white woman inflict horrific violence on each other while at the same time admitting their mutual fascination that has made the show so compelling. In the film “Real Women Have Curves” there’s a certain amount of intergenerational cruelty and emotional violence between generations of Latina women. In other films like “Monsoon Wedding” and other films about South Asian diaspora – a recurring theme about domestic violence inflicted by men of color against women of color. “Brown Girls,” the web series, is incredibly important for representation. I think as we get more forms of art in which the people of color characters aren’t playing off white characters, we’ll get more of a full spectrum of allies, foes, friends, perpetrators, mutual villainy. 

JR: Many of these stories are deeply traumatic. Neela: Bhopal, about the 1984 gas leak at a pesticide plant in Madhya Pradesh, India which killed and disabled thousands, and Orange Popsicles, which chronicles campus sexual assault, particularly come to mind, although I never felt that either story was gratuitous or exploitative of its subject matter. In writing about the horrific, how do you decide when to look, and when to look away? When to describe, and when to imply?

This is such a thoughtful point, though I don’t have that much of an answer. I feel like we have no choice but to feel our way through many, many drafts and just keep comparing how well each one reads and what level of detailed exposure, revelation, correlates with the best flow for the story, the most coherent arc, a well-crafted story. It’s so hard to predict that. It’s just trial and error and looking at multiple drafts.

That said, I went to a phenomenal craft talk at the recent Sewanee Writers Conference where Jeffrey Renard Allen astutely analyzed this same question as it had to be addressed by Hanya Yanigahara in her dense and acclaimed novel, “A Little Life,” in choosing how much detail and when to be very detailed versus 'implying' certain events in Jude’s life relating to torture, violence, rape and abuse. He pointed out direct connections between this level of detail versus various choices the character makes after the violence has finally ceased.

I think this is right: that we arrive at the artistically-justified level of detailed exposure of abuses by asking again and again, “How did this play out later in the character’s life” and “Why were these incidents so important?” and above all: “What did this mean to the character, and for the arc of the character’s life thereafter and how he or she understood everything that had come before?” 

JR: These stories also feature several queer women protagonists, all of whom are at various places vis a vis accepting and embracing their queerness (i.e. the poignant title of the closing story, Adristakama, translated as love for the unseen.) Where do you look for nuanced representation of lesbian and bi/pansexual women? 

I look in both poetry and film – and sometimes in novels and stories as well. I definitely look at graphic novels – particularly love “Blue is the Warmest Color” and recently I discovered a wonderful novel by Randall Kenan that everyone else had already read: “A Visitation of Spirits.” I really enjoyed “Marriage of a Thousand Lies”, a novel by S.J. Sindhu as well. And a movie I found really touching and sweet was “Kissing Jessica Stein,” which did a nice job with bi/pansexual perspectives even though it didn’t have that much to say about race or a racially diverse New York City (i.e. had the “Woody Allen’s white New York” problem.)  Chinelo Okparanta is another writer I look to as well. 

And now that I think of it – TV. Can I recommend that people watch Maura Tierney on Showtime’s “The Affair?” She embodies what I’m most interested in seeing, in portrayals of queer women: not just pansexuality (though that’s gorgeously-depicted in the new queer Latina drama, “Vida,” which I’ve been saving for a rainy afternoon of binge-watching) – but rather, pan-emotionality.

In “The Affair,” Tierney’s character, Helen, shows such incredible range and capacity and growth and genuine attention and interest in other people, period. She’s alive to the attractiveness and kindness of her sitcom-quirky young neighbor, a sort of New Age LA waif who could be cloying if she weren’t presented sparingly and whose annoying features you can see Helen processing. Even as Helen, a late forties-woman character, allows herself to enjoy the amusing aspects of this young woman Sierra, who’s half her age, as well and regards her with a certain amount of affection and care. There’s an appreciation in how Helen contemplates Sierra that mixes sexual and emotional in such a deeply satisfying way.

And yet Helen also loves different men so differently. She loves the ex-husband who cheated and lied but then went to prison at least partly to protect her; she loves her current husband who also cheated on her (with an also-bisexual Sierra.) A pansexual and pan-emotional character has a kind of independence and singularity that allows her to accommodate all kinds of complex and often contradictory feelings toward lots of different people. It’s a deep level of personal sophistication that I feel like I’ve also seen in characters portrayed by Jennifer Tilly in “Bound,” Linda Fiorentino in “The Last Seduction” (I strongly felt she was queer throughout that film), and anything Charlotte Rampling plays, including her “matronly” character in the Jennifer Lawrence vehicle “Red Sparrow” where she’s actually anything but matronly and actually quite fierce.  

Comparing the TV character from “The Affair” to the ones in my short story collection, I feel like Helen and Talinda would enjoy each other immensely – and evoke all kinds of new envy on the part of Talinda’s childhood friend and ‘nemesis’, Narika, the narrator of that story that was first published in Narrative Magazine, ‘Talinda.’

JR: Chronicle of a Marriage, Foretold is set at/ slightly parodies a writers’ retreat. What have your own experiences with writers’ retreats been like?

They’ve been completely fantastic experiences though evoke a certain level of sadness too because it is really hard to be separated from your kids for any length of time and I frankly don’t know how people do it for months. Their ability to function without me is incredibly saddening. But I get more done in a week at one of those than literally six months of ‘normal’ life! So, I just try to keep working with it and at many of them, on weekends it’s possible to see your family which is great. 

JR: Finally, if you care to share, what are you working on now?

I’m very shameless about sharing these things. In that respect I so strongly admire many of the writers who’ve published in Hobart, ranging from Kaveh Akbar to Elizabeth Allen. So much of what I love and enjoy about this forum is that the poets and writers published are bold in letting the world know what they’re up to and they’re both incredible to watch give readings, as performances.

I’m very excited to be working on an anthology of writing about the body that a group of women of color writers and I have been talking about and that we hope will include some incredible pieces that have already appeared in various online magazines such as Lenny Letter and others. The title thus far is “Flames Under Our Skin” and it is definitely on fire and I encourage anyone who wants to submit (women of color, writing on the body, body image, illness, disability) to contact me through my website at chayabhuvaneswar.com and we’ll go from there.

We are hoping there will be a women of color writers’ retreat in conjunction with this since I’ve definitely been yearning for the “long weekend retreat” type of thing that leaves a few hours at the end to reconnect with family but is long enough to get stuff done. I’m also working, as I mentioned before, on a collection of linked stories one of which was recently published in Joyland Magazine to my delight. That one is about the evolution of an interracial marriage, with many concurrent relationships including between queer women of color.

There’s an essay collection in the works, including my essay here about Asian women in British pornography based in my experiences in England for two years and these two about being a doctor/writer and about the intersection of imaginary boyfriends (and girlfriends) when I was growing up as a member of a diasporic community, or, to use Salman Rushdie's wonderful title for his collection of autobiographical essays, a person in a family with an "imaginary homeland."

There is a novel I was so grateful to workshop at Sewanee and which I made some progress on during MacDowell earlier this year; that my agent as well as the editors I met at conference have been so encouraging about. I am so grateful to them, particularly Lane Zachary, Kathryn Pories, Millicent Bennett, and Emily Nemens, mainly for their encouragement of writers at the conference and their representation of women as leaders in publishing.

And finally, there’s a book of poetry that’s now a chapbook but I’m working on expanding into a full length collection, with poems that have appeared in The Awl and another that won a Joy Harjo contest prize.

I’m so grateful about all of it and especially Dzanc Books for giving me my debut as a published author – really grateful to be in the esteemed company of Robert Coover, Charles Johnson, Emily Geminder, Josip Novakovich, Laura van den Berg and other incredible writers published by the press in recent years.