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Writing Beyond Saris and Slums: A Conversation with Jenny Bhatt

by Shoba Viswanathan

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This year, which has been unique in many ways, has the unusual distinction of providing a globally shared experience. The pandemic and lockdowns have impacted people in all corners of the earth and affected all industries. The good news for publishing is that there has been the continued excitement of great new books. The tough news for many authors with new releases is that the world into which their books have arrived is unlike anything they could have anticipated. Virtual events and social media have helped provide the critical bridge for author-reader contact. 

Community Bookstore’s panel  Against the Grain: Devi S Laskar, Sejal Shah, Anjali Enjeti, Soniah Kamal, and Jenny Bhatt on ageism and sexism was one such virtual event and it prompted my further engagement with Jenny Bhatt’s work. She has had two books—Each of Us Killers (7.13 Books) and the translation Ratno Dholi: The Best Stories of Dhumketu (Harper Collins India)‚ come out in this pandemic year, and it has been educational to see her tackle some of the challenges of this situation. Bhatt also started the podcast Desi Books with “biweekly news and views about desi (South Asian) literature from the world over” this year. Committed to the idea of building platforms that amplify the collective as much as the individual, Jenny Bhatt addresses these issues and much more in the following conversation. 

Shoba Viswanathan: How are you, and how have you been dealing with your book releases, in the middle of this strange year? 

Jenny Bhatt: Thank you, Shoba, for this opportunity and for asking this question. I’m doing better than many who have lost loved ones during this pandemic. So, while it’s been a difficult year, I’m just grateful for the two book releases, and being able to start and run the Desi Books podcast, teach my writing workshops online, and work on other writing projects as time allows.

The hardest thing about the two book releases is the logistical challenge of having them back-to-back in September and October and in two different countries. Also, some people see the virtual events and interviews/reviews that eventually get published and think things must be going great. But they don’t see the many nos to get to a single yes or the amount of time and energy it takes to organize or prepare for these promotional activities. With a story collection from a small press, there’s a lot more legwork to sell even a thousand copies. Writing is one thing and publishing is entirely another thing, they say. This year has certainly driven that truth home for me in many ways. That said, the silver lining in all of this is that I’ve met some terrific writers from around the world and I wouldn’t have gotten to know them if it hadn’t been for the virtual events. I was intentional, also, in asking other writers of South Asian descent to accompany me on virtual panels because I wanted to normalize that view in the publishing world. And because I believe a rising tide lifts all boats.

SV: The title of the collection Each of Us Killers is from your last story in the collection but also relevant to the opening story. How did these two pieces with the  race-caste parallels become your anchors?

JB: All the stories in the collection are about issues or situations that were keeping me up at night at the time of writing them. The first and last are both based on real-life incidents, though my versions are mostly fictionalized. Both were written in 2016–2017 before I even knew if I had enough stories for a book-length collection.

“Return to India” as an opener sets the tone for the entire collection because it deals with working life difficulties that, to some extent, I had also experienced as an immigrant worker in the Midwest. When I read about Srinivas Kuchibhotla’s early-2017 shooting in Olathe, Kansas, I wanted to explore that in a way that went beyond the headlines. I tried telling the story from different points of view at first: the dead engineer, the engineer’s wife, one of the coworkers. Nothing worked. It was only when I did the Greek chorus or Rashomon-style narration that things clicked. Everyone in the story has their own version of the racism-driven hate crime and that’s part of the tragedy.

With “Each of Us Killers,” the caste discrimination and oppression theme was directly influenced by the 2016 Dalit floggings in Una, Gujarat. I was living there at the time and saw, firsthand, how that terrible situation escalated from a local level to a state level and then a national level. Again, mine is a fictionalized version and I wasn’t comfortable with any single point of view so I went with the plural voice of the community.

The multiple parallels between these two stories—in terms of the underlying real-life incidents, the race and caste themes, and the multiple or collective points of view—became clear to me only when I grouped the stories by themes and key craft elements. That’s when I realized I should bookend the collection with these two stories.

SV: Women and work, women and agency—would you agree that this is a theme in this collection?

JB: Yes, for sure, these are two of the main and interrelated thematic preoccupations. Mainly because these were also my own preoccupations while writing the individual stories. I had left my corporate job and moved back to India to write full-time. So I was processing a lot of personal stuff about what that meant for my identity as a working woman and to my sense of agency as a single, middle-aged woman who was back in a patriarchal society in India. I was exploring, through the women-centric stories here, the many different ways that women today are forging their identities at work and how they’re navigating the fault lines of caste, class, gender, race, and more. This is something I could only do through fictional stories. With each one, I was answering or trying to answer certain questions for myself. In some cases, I think I’m still trying to figure them out.

SV: You’ve also identified dreams, with four of the 15 stories featuring them, as one of your recurring  plot points. Why is the dream world important in your storytelling?

JB: The general advice in MFA or writing workshops is to leave dreams out of storytelling. I’ve never understood why. We spend almost half our lives sleeping and, during this time, our brains are actively doing a lot of housecleaning with memories, obsessions, fears, worries, emotions, and more. Why should we not include all of that thinking and feeling into a character’s life? As long as a dream isn’t gratuitous or contrived, as long as it’s integral to the plot and story, I’m good with it.

I got deep into the science of dreams for a while. I read how the function of dreams is to forget things, erase memories, or suppress thoughts. It’s also our brain’s way of simulating futures, crafting answers to problems. So I wanted to explore that in some of the stories here like “The Waiting,” ”Neeru’s New World,” ”Mango Season,” and “Fragments of Future Memories.” I’m not done exploring or understanding dream psychology yet, so I’m afraid they will continue to show up in other writing too.

SV:  As a writer of Indian descent, you have made some intriguing choices in the characters and settings you’ve showcased. The familiar was woven in with the less-often-seen moments. Did you make conscious choices about these representations?

JB: There were five things I was very attentive and sensitive to throughout the writing of these stories.

First, I didn’t want to simplify the caste, class, gender, race, or religion issues. These are complex, intersecting forces of discrimination. There are a lot of gray, murky areas and nothing is simple or we’d have fixed it all centuries ago. So I didn’t want to confirm the reader’s sense of right and wrong but actually make them question their personal biases.

Second, I wanted to avoid the usual stereotypes and tropes that are often expected from fiction set in the region. Yes, we have slums, arranged marriages, terrorism, etc. But I’m not going to give you the poor and oppressed Muslim, the sad wife of an arranged marriage, the justice-seeking religious fanatic, or the manipulative and crooked politician. I’m not going to pander to the usual biases even if it means not getting the big publishing deal. I’d rather not publish at all than write like that.

Third, I wanted to ensure I was including specific sociocultural references, but in ways that were necessary to the character and story. Too often, I’ll read one extreme, where the writer throws in gratuitous details that merely exoticize certain aspects of the region. Or, there’s the other extreme, where they’ll leave out important socio,-cultural nuances so that the story reads like it could be set anywhere else in the world and not lose a beat. I wanted to be careful about avoiding these two extremes.

Fourth, as a literary translator, I’m mindful about linguistic ecology. What do I mean by that? Although I’m writing in English, many of my characters live in India. Their language is a social practice within their particular milieu. It is an outcome of and a response to their upbringing and their environment. Their ideologies, their concepts of time and agency, their moral and ethical politics—these are all part of their communication process. So it is not enough to give a character broken English to make them sound like they’re from a certain class or caste strata. We have to carry over—to translate—as accurately as we can, the linguistic ecologies of our characters too or we risk slipping into stereotypes.

Fifth, I wanted to avoid ending all the stories in dark misery. That’s not how real life works. As Yhprum’s law states: “Sometimes systems that should not work, work nevertheless.” Sometimes, people do catch a break. Sometimes, an ending is actually a different sort of beginning. In fact, every ending is really the beginning of something else.

SV: I see a little bit of all these underlying choices in one of my favorite stories in the collection, “Mango Season,” about the dreams of the young Muslim boy Rafi as he goes about his days as a salesman in a saree shop.  It was a prime example of reworking the familiar. How did you venture into this one, which starts off seeming like yet another Indians-mangoes story?

JB: I wrote this one entirely with a subversiveness that was a response to a spate of essays I read at the time about how South Asian writers exoticize their storytelling with the usual tropes of mangoes, saris, slums, spices, etc. This is true in some cases, but not all. So I thought of trying an experiment to bring them all together in a way that was essential to the plot and the characters. “Mango Season” has all of these and the kitchen sink. But I worked on it a long time to make sure I wasn’t just throwing it all in there without evoking the specific mood and themes I was aiming for. In the end, I had fun with it. And it seems to have resonated with a lot of readers too, so I’m relieved.

SV: You mentioned earlier about playing around with narrative voices. In a couple of the stories, the primary character of interest has no voice in the narrative. Other than experimentation, how did you tackle your POV decisions?

JB: Yes. “Return to India,” “Each of Us Killers,” “The Waiting,” and even “Fragments of Future Memories” feature voices of non-primary characters. With each such story, it was a trial-and-error process of deciding whose voice was best to tell the story and what aspects those voices I would highlight. With “Return to India,” I was dealing with the aftermath of a tragic death and I wanted to go beyond the headlines of what we were being told about the real-life death, as I mentioned earlier. With the title story, I wasn’t comfortable with taking on the voice of a single Dalit character so I went with the plural voice of the community. And that was a fascinating exercise because you can only show or tell what the community, as a whole, can see and talk about. So there’s a lot you have to leave to the reader’s imagination or to subtext. With “The Waiting,” the grieving widower’s story is being told by the ghost of his wife. That was also a subversion of a common literary trope in Gujarati folktales where ghosts will feature in stories and often tell a story-within-a-story. With “Fragments,” it’s the professor telling his future self about his dead student-lover. With each one, I selected the non-primary voice based on what the main themes and aspects of the story I wanted to explore.

SV: Speaking of Gujarati folktales, you reimagined an oral narrative idea in Vidya’s story, “Journey to a Stepwell,” and have now made it a feminist folktale. Would like to hear a little more about your process on that one.

JB: “Journey to a Stepwell” uses an old Gujarati folktale about four sisters that my mother used to tell me and my three sisters when we were kids. So, yes, it comes from that oral storytelling tradition. Back then, my mother’s version had a simplistic moral or lesson about obeying your elders and following their advice if you want to land a good husband. Of course, I was never happy with that version and would argue with my mom. She would tell me to go write my own version. Finally, I did. In Indian folklore, the story-within-a-story literary device is pretty common. You often get multiple nested stories with different narrators who may or may not be principal actors in the main story. I wanted to play with that device a bit, but I wanted to connect the frame story and the narrated folktale within it more directly so that there’s specific correlation and causation between the two. My version is both a subversive, revisionist retelling of an old folktale and a different play with a common literary device. It was a fun writing project because I didn’t decide all of this going in. It evolved organically as I wrote and revised.

SV: You came to writing after a career in technology. I believe you’ve said you didn’t know enough about publishing’s gatekeepers to feel hopeless/intimidated? What are the lessons you’ve learnt from that vantage point?

JB: Oh, where to start? I’m not saying the corporate world is a perfect place. Far from it. But there was a certain level of accountability and transparency with our stakeholders—employees, customers, suppliers, stockholders, etc.—across the business ecosystem due to various regulatory forces. There was also much-needed efficiency in our processes and systems. I don’t see this kind of accountability, transparency, or efficiency in the publishing ecosystem. Which is a rather sad state of affairs, really, given the many brilliant minds who work within it—from writers themselves to editors, critics, booksellers, academics, and more. There’s so much industry consolidation with the big four or five publishers controlling everything. So who gets the big deals, who gets reviewed, who gets awards—all of this is based on many personal biases and literary networks. We’ve seen this with books like American Dirt this year. We’ve seen it with many books across the South Asian literary ecosystem too. Unfortunately, all of this means we keep getting the same kinds of simplistic stories rather than the diverse, rich, complex literature we really need. I see pockets of hope, though, with brave people taking on the establishment now and then.

SV: Ratno Dholi: The Best Stories of Dhumketu, your book of Dhumketu’s stories translated from Gujarati, also came out this year. How has working with translation helped you as a writer?Ratno Dholi

JB: Translation has definitely made me a closer reader and editor than ever before. I am mindful of, as I said earlier, linguistic ecology: how language is a system of interactions with our environment. I am more careful about my own choice of words and phrases. I pay more attention to text, subtext, and what’s left off the page.

The flipside is that, being a fiction writer and a literary critic has also helped me be, I think, a better literary translator. I understand the writer’s craft because I practice it myself.

SV: What are your literary plans for 2021?

JB: I’m looking forward to getting back to a normal reading and writing schedule in 2021. That means focusing again on regular book reviews, a work-in-progress novel, and a work-in-progress translation. I’m back to teaching fiction, which I enjoy, in January at Writing Workshops Dallas. And, of course, the Desi Books podcast will continue with, I hope, a slew of interesting books by writers of South Asian origin from around the world. I’m also getting more involved with literary initiatives in the local community here in Dallas. So I’m looking forward to some of those coming to fruition.

Bloom Post End

Shoba Viswanathan is a writer, editor and book critic based in New York.  She can be found on Twitter @shobavish.

Photo credit Praveen Ahuja

One thought on “Writing Beyond Saris and Slums: A Conversation with Jenny Bhatt

  1. Pingback: Writing Beyond Saris and Slums: A Conversation with Jenny Bhatt | Stringing Words Together

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