On #MeToo, elephants, and writing for writing’s sake: an interview with Chaya Bhuvaneswar

White Dancing Elephants is Chaya Bhuvaneswar debut short story collection published by Dzanc Books (Oct 9, 2018).  The book presents stories of the #MeToo movement from the diverse perspectives of women of color and LBGTQ women. It also features willful
androids, strange orphanages, 16th-century Indian-Portuguese slaves who outwit their captors, and the Buddha’s birth story.

A magnificent collection of stories that defy conventions, stereotypes, and reveal the universal complexity we all share as humans—gifted and flawed individuals, who struggle to reconcile the mixed signals of our own hearts.

–Jamie Ford, NYT-best selling author of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

Chaya Bhuvaneswar is a master of literary stealth. Seduced by her luminous, intimate voice, I was unprepared for the shattering force of her honesty and insight. Authentic, fearless and wholly original, White Dancing Elephants is a knockout collection.

–Jillian Medoff, author of This Could Hurt

 

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White Dancing Elephants is available for pre-orders on Amazon and Dzanc’s website.

 

 

1. White Dancing Elephants comes at just the right timing with the #MeToo movement being underway. Did you write the collection expressly for it or were you tapping into a collective anxiety that at the time was yet to explode?

Wow, what a great set of images! I was really surprised by the #MeToo movement and remain incredibly gladdened by it. Since my experience has been much more, within traditional academic communities, being told to be quiet and/or put up with harassment (or worse still: “to just get past it”) – it has been a complete revelation to find a community of other writers and other women of color who are all highly sensitized to the various forms of violence, discrimination and harassment that exist and who support each other as we collectively and firmly refuse to accept this as some kind of unchangeable reality.

2. What made it interesting to us is the defiance of genre–White Dancing Elephants is yes focused on the perspective of women of color but this doesn’t stop it from featuring androids, superpowers, urban legends, etc. Do you think this rejection of unadulterated realism has allowed you to better explore the themes?

The key element of any writing, like reading, for me, is pleasure – often very visceral and sensual – and what that has meant is a certain freedom in writing, so really I follow where different threads lead and try not to “decide” but rather than “see” where they go. That said – I read everything I can get my hands on, and love speculative fiction as much as understated, mordant realism, as much as lyrical, even mythic prose (like that of Jesmyn Ward in “Salvage the Bones”, to give an example of a book I read recently and enjoyed very much.)

3. What proved to be the biggest challenge in writing this collection?

Deciding which stories to include and which to save for a second collection! By the time I connected with Dzanc I had more stories than could be in a single collection and so it was fun but really hard to figure out which went together for a second collection but the second one is definitely coming together thanks to the wonderful support from friends, family, editor, and agent.

4. How has your creative process evolved over the years, if at all?

The biggest change is that I’ve stopped idealizing the process or fearing “losing” it. I’ve accepted that just writing is the goal and just tried to feel good about continuing and keeping hold of the gilded threads of stories that I follow through mazes.

5. Do you remember what was the first fully-fledged story? What came of it?

“Jagatishwaran” was the first story written – many years ago – and the first thing I wrote that felt alive It was taken out of my hands by a loving writing teacher and entered into contests, some of which it won, but then left me silent and afraid of not writing anything anyone else would like for a few years after.

6. For reasons that cannot be explained, cats can suddenly read at a twelfth-grade level. They can’t talk and they can’t write, but they can read silently and comprehend the text. Many cats love this new skill, because they now have something to do all day while they lay around the house; however, a few cats become depressed, because reading forces them to realize the limitations of their existence (not to mention utter frustration of being unable to express themselves). This being the case, do you this the average cat would enjoy Garfield, or would cats find the cartoon to be an insulting caricature?

That’s really funny. I think cats might be fascinated by the Opie character – the way Opie never tires of playing with and being played by Garfield, and they would be so absorbed in that intricate dynamic, I think the cats would forgive any aspects that are caricature – or just look around for more angry satire to read in their spare time!

7. A saucer has descended from the skies and kidnapped a fan of yours in the middle of the night. The fan has been taken to an alien planet where a society not dissimilar from our own is in place, and has been made the Chief Commander over the whole planet. The first decree this fan of yours (who is, incidentally, also the most devoted and extreme of fans) passes, is to render mandatory to anybody, child and grownup, the reading of your magnum opus. What do you suppose would the aliens dislike the most of your work?

That’s an impressively weird question. Congrats! I think the aliens might dislike being forced to read anybody – given that the writing of this book, and so hopefully the reading of it, felt like such a happily free and joyous act.

8. What’s next for author Chaya Bhuvaneswar?

I’m working on the second story collection as well as a novel, and starting to collect poems that appeared in a variety of journals, including The Awl and former cactus! And am so grateful to be included in your magazine as I hope to connect with more writers and readers.

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