White Dancing Elephants, the debut collection from Chaya Bhuvaneswar, is a powerful literary statement in its stylistic range, its willingness to engage with powerful themes, and its geographic and temporal shifts. Whether she’s writing about characters grappling with their own mortality and that of the people closest to them or veering into more fantastical realms, Bhuvaneswar roots her work in recognizable (and often wrenching) emotion, making for powerful and compelling fiction. I talked with her about the collection’s themes, her upcoming work, and more.
White Dancing Elephants opens with a pair of stories in which absent figures play major roles. Do you consider absence a running theme in your work? What draws you to it as a writer?
I guess our ‘themes’, such as they are, are the obsessions we can’t help writing about, over and over, and since I’m so interested in attachment, loss, absence and presence, from so many levels, I just keep writing about it no matter what I do. On a very personal level, what draws me probably the most to the condition – of enduring someone’s absence – is my profound ambivalence about being away from my dearest loved ones, even to do work. I can concentrate better on work without being pulled into things by the children but I miss them so excruciatingly whenever I am not holding them or physically in the same place as them.
The dialogue between two friends in “Talinda” is memorably bristly — the kind of brutally honest, bleakly funny conversation that can arise between close friends. What was it like to find the appropriate voices (and rapport) for these two characters?
One of the things I love most about writing, that makes it such a satisfying thing to be lucky enough to do, is that the characters find out. Usually they spring out fully formed. I don’t know them but they start moving through a scene in my head and I start seeing and hearing who they are. While the seed of ‘Talinda’ in particular, as I’ve mentioned at readings, started with an intense childhood friendship with a Korean-American school mate who lived a few blocks away, the character in the story is a lot sharper and more brutal and much less inhibited than my actual friend (who often bemoaned the plight of being ‘too normal.’) Talinda the character would never do that! She feels like a superhero. She wouldn’t complain.
You make use of historical settings frequently in the collection, whether it’s the recent past or the more distant setting of “Heitor.” What draws you to particular combinations of space and time? Do you generally know when a story will be set before you begin writing, or does that arise through the process?
I think one skill, or interest, that I have, that maybe wouldn’t be as clear if I had done an MFA, is storytelling. I like to tell stories, in an ancient sense, appealing to a tradition. In this tradition, storytelling never required education or specific expertise, or even any kind of ‘self consciousness’ or ‘authority’ about ‘how stories ought to be told. In this tradition, often a woman, often an older woman, ranging from a child’s older sister, to a grandmother with rapt grandchildren she would also be feeding while telling stories, would tell a story as expressively and suspensefully as possible, just for the pleasure of seeing the expressions on the listeners’ faces. Librarians and primary school teachers, the majority of whom are still women, are carrying forward this tradition in a more limited, less emotionally charged way nowadays. But the tradition I’m talking about involves sacred stories, stories in which the notion of sacred is distinguished from the profane, stories in which ‘morality’ was defined often in stark, memorable, cinematic terms (‘when the girl disobeyed her mother, the next morning she found her arms had turned to wings and she could not even comb her hair or play with any dolls…’when the little boy went to the forest, despite every warning his father had given him, he was devoured by a terrible monster.’ etc.)
To tell that kind of story, you need a place, time, and a way to entertain your listener. It’s really primal, that instinct to tell a story and also to ask, “tell me a story.” I feel we must honor this whenever we attempt to teach anyone writing, which I’ve started to do a bit of through Dzanc’s mentoring program – recently i had the pleasure of working with a spectacular Nigerian queer writer who I am confident will make his mark very soon.
I think when I am completely immersed in ‘telling the story’, other things can happen that I notice later – but the task of telling imposes a terrific momentum, and I follow it, I let myself tumble all the words down the mountain.
Both “Talinda” and “The Bang Bang” feature structures in which the way certain characters are referred to within the story changes. What attracts you to these shifts in perspectives?
It’s always been a puzzle to me, how we can tolerate not ever ‘seeing ourselves from the outside’ — not ever really knowing how we are perceived, even down to not really knowing how we look (everyone knows that selfies distort things!). And this puzzle also seems influenced by the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which I will describe in a ludicrously simple and concrete way that probably is totally inaccurate but has been useful to me — the idea that the minute you observe something and try to describe what you see, it changes, the process of observing it causes a shift.
Changing perspectives – from third to first and back again – is a little bit borrowed from novels, a little bit inspired by Alice Munro whom I think has done that at least once (I feel like that’s where i saw it) — certainly the use of omniscient third to jump in and out of different characters’ perspectives is related to that, and something that happens in nineteenth century novels, in the Russians, etc.
But probably – and I increasingly am grateful for this fact – there are all sorts of things I get into, at least some of which work but I’m not the judge of that, but at least they make writing incredibly enjoyable to me – that I might not have been “allowed” to do in certain MFA programs. So maybe it’s good that I evaded that whole structure and industry somehow, yet have amazing friends, like Leslie Epstein, whose book King of the Jews remains a classic, along with San Remo Drive, and who led the BU creative writing program, yet who’s always accepted me as a kind of outlier, as someone who found a slightly different way to learn and adapt traditions.
I was curious about your process for selecting titles. I noticed that several of the stories here were named for their central character; what about a story makes that the way to go for you?
I guess it’s a sense of invoking that character, invoking that person, hearing that voice come across very strongly, feeling the character has somehow seized the story with their indelible presence.
Much of the collection stays in a fairly realistic vein, but there are a few exceptions, notably “The Orphan Handler.” What appeals to you about realism versus surrealism in your own work?
I love speculative fiction and am working on a novel with speculative elements that my agent doesn’t know about. Sci-fi. Hi Lane!! ( in addition to revising the novel I’d been working on for over ten years. Yes, I’m doing that too! Don’t worry!). But I am so thrilled and empowered by the resounding power of N. K. Jemisin, Octavia E. Butler, Nnedi Okarafor, and in a different way, Leni Zumas and Margaret Atwood — writing feminist dystopias, writing speculative fiction that is in its essence so political and gripping because of contemporary concerns. I appreciate being able to write more ‘speculative’ stories, like the one you mention but also ‘Asha in Allston’, about an android, in part; and ‘Chronicle of a Marriage Foretold’ — and again, coming back to what I said above about loving the act of storytelling, there will always be a strong push within me as a writer to imagine worlds that are so different from our own.
There are a few references to the works of other writers in here, including Thomas Pynchon and Michael Chabon; another story’s title seems to allude to a Gabriel García Márquez novella. When invoking another writer, do you find it most useful as homage, as critique, or something else entirely?
I love the shared language of literature, writing, allusions. “The Life You Save Isn’t Your Own” title-checked Flannery O’Connor, and yes “Chronicle of a Death Foretold” was what I played against in “Chronicle of a Marriage Foretold” – the kinship between the two conditions far from accidental, in my (feminist?) story. I also love talking about books as part of the character’s lives, like Talinda talking about Susan Sontag as she herself confronts her illness and impending death, or like the character Michelle in “In Allegheny” thinking about how she once read Chabon’s debut novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh and how different her life is now, as a surgeon, when instead of reading, she has to go into rooms and tell people that someone close to them has passed away during a surgery. And what it means to her, and how it hurts her, as it has hurt me at times when I was too absorbed by my training and felt I did “not have time” to read fiction. And when I write about writers, or people who study literature, it’s impossible not to write about what they think about, though critical to do this in a way that keeps every ‘literary’ thought inside the character’s head, and not mine the writer’s view of a given book, if that makes sense.
Books are very immediate to me. Even sentences and how they’re formed – they’re very sensory, almost tactile. I love the act of forming words. Logos. A kind of magnificent ordering of things that never gets boring and that I will never control. Maybe due to this love, I’m pulled to writers I find mysterious, like Pynchon for example, making it inevitable that the character in “Chronicle” would love him too. But I don’t feel alone in this — books are significant to a lot of characters in novels whom I admire. Catcher in the Rye. du Maupassant to the character in a Lauren Groff story. Really interesting books and films in the consciousness of Laura Van Den Berg’s narrator in the beautiful (and definitely mysterious) novel she just published, The Third Hotel. Books live with characters in stories and even influence them. It is interesting to me, how that plays out.
What’s next for you?
A novel which we’ll hopefully have out on submission soon! (though I am eternally grateful to my agent for constantly reminding me that there is no deadline). A book of essays being developed from work I’ve published in Medium, here, which over 1,800 people read, a fact that stunned and delighted me; and here, at The Millions; as well as other essays, like this one and one forthcoming in Longreads this December which I’m so excited about, a long-held dream to publish there. A second story collection, this one a set of linked stories about an interracial couple moving into and (hopefully through) the Trump era, whose lives I’ve written about here. Two more novels, one speculative which I drafted at MacDowell, very very raw form, and another that I wrote during residency, over a four year period, excerpts of which have appeared and are appearing in lots of places, ranging from Litro mag in Britain, to Hobart and Scoundrel Time. And hopefully a poetry collection but that’s the farthest off – though it was so meaningful to meet Marilyn Nelson, whose beautiful book How I Discovered Poetry, everyone just has to read (they already are probably) and to receive a Joy Harjo poetry contest for a poem I wrote, and to publish in Ithaca Lit along with Natalie Diaz, and to have had two poems up at The Awl next to poets I really admire, like Monica Youn, or my poem recently nominated for ‘Best of the Net’ that went up at Sidereal along with my love of a poet Maggie Smith’s work, and so on. Poetry is somewhat of a more distant dream but that’s exactly why i like it – I feel the least drive to “finish” poems and just consider it a victory to write them down at all. Poems are stories I only want to tell myself. Stories and novels are stories I want to everyone I can think of to follow.