On Mortality and Myth: An Interview with Chaya Bhuvaneswar

The ways in which you are able to house stories within stories throughout White Dancing Elephants is mesmerizing. Several stories have aspects of nesting dolls, especially with the merging of myth and realism. How did the two influence each other?

One thing I think about—from the perspective of both literature, and trying to understand human behavior and help people heal from behaviors that are self-harming in some way, as a psychiatrist—is how myth plays out in our lives. For myself, Hindu myth is a constant. Myth, epic, and story are used within Hindu traditions to build morality and self-awareness. This can be liberating as well as confining. I try to see how mythic conceptions work in every day life; these kind of filter through the consciousness of specific characters. 

Harry, in “Chronicle of a Marriage, Foretold,” is such an interesting figment, because he seems at first a haunting from Mikki’s past and then also an invention of her mind; sometimes he could be both at once. Did any of your own characters haunt you while writing the book? 

The rape survivor, Jayanti, definitely haunted me, and I rewrote that story several times, always alert to how I could write that story in a way that honored her. The belief that it was important to tell her story was the only thing that kept me going. 

The dynamics between race, sexuality, and privilege feel integral to these stories, especially with an eye towards the brutal nature of dominance. I wondered about the ways you were able to balance beauty with cruelty. What do you think the role of beauty is within the collection?

Beauty, of all kinds, is sustaining. Even the specific beauty of the glass, in “The Goddess of Beauty Goes Bowling” is important, as a reminder of this life and the here and now as a deterrent against the violence that could extinguish a life. Beauty and the hope of it is what helps the characters withstand not only cruelty from each other, but the inherent “cruelty” of time, that “goon,” to use Jennifer Egan’s wonderful image, for what it can do to us. 

By the end of many of these stories I experienced a sinking similar to the characters in “The Shaker Chair” and “Orange Popsicle.” This question is two fold. The first part is, what idea or image did these two stories start with? The second part is, what care do you take, as a writer and a human, while writing stories that are traumatic and visceral, that linger on the parts of our lives which are most painful?

I’ve come to value self care much more in the last five years. Rather than being focused on a futuristic, distant goal—the way I was during my medical training—I now focus on how important each moment is. There are things we just don’t get back, like how it is to watch our children experience life, to be with people we love, and to keep the relationships close. I keep encouraging myself to be in the moment for each of these milestones, each of these joys. These moments form a critical buffer.

Many of these stories seem to work in a world where everything isn’t chronological or parallel, but instead appears from a single plane of existence. Rather than feeling like a moment or series of moments, they seem to contain hindsight and forethought beyond the story length in the ways in which they blend past, present, future, history, culture, and myth. What aspects of your reading life might have influenced you to see the world not as an evolving place, but a simultaneous one?

For me there’s somewhat of a parallel between omniscient third POV and how time emerges as a force in my stories. I feel like we “need to know” several different points of view to understand a given interaction, and similarly, we need to know the present, past, future, myth, and reality of a given event wherever possible. Multiple meanings, on different levels. Often we’re unable know any of that. But a lot of times I write into “wanting to know.”

Who do you specifically hope and wish has access to these stories? Beyond that, who do you believe needs to read them?

I hope that people who have turned and looked the other way at border abuses would have different, more pressing emotions about these governmental actions after reading “The Orphan Handler,” for example. Or that the people who reached to turn off the TV when Dr Ford was testifying against Brett Kavanagh would instead listen to the full story on NPR after reading “Orange Popsicles,” which contains, among other things, a testimonial about rape. Speaking of NPR, I am really grateful for the attention in reviews of the book to the notion of “the Other” and hope, maybe ambitiously, that my book can be part of a dialogue that many people, many readers, are having about how to know and honor the feelings of survivors of oppression. 

The relationship between motherhood and mortality within the collection is really interesting. Were you conscious of this connection from the beginning, or did it develop angles as you worked through the process of writing them?

The urgency I feel about “motherhood” in terms of reckoning with its aspects of identity, priority, and implications for being able to write at all is inescapable. I wasn’t sure I would still be able to write after having children, and I curse that defunct mythology a little bit, because for one, I became needlessly anxious, and two, there are those weekends I’ll never get back, when I listened in anguish as my kid frolicked with a babysitter and I sat hopelessly revising a manuscript. There was never any need for the anxiety. I did not need to “carve out” time at the expense of the littles I love so much. We can work around their needs. We can have them move in and out of our writing room. It’s still a “room of one’s own” with a lot of Legos piled up inside it. I am quite angry at how long it took to really understand this and how much time I wasted feeling it was “either or” and feeling sad and helpless about this. It now feels like a completely useless byproduct of patriarchal and sexist conceptions about making art.

The phrases where animals held the emotional weight of a scene are captivating. Elephants, moths, crows, snakes, crickets, and others are given prominence throughout White Dancing Elephants. Can you speak to the need to include animals as symbols within the novel and/or title? What can animals portray that human characters possibly can’t?

Animals are vital to South Asian traditions. In the stories about the Jatakas the births and rebirths of gods—gods and goddesses in what we call “animal” form—are a stand-in for the fact that ultimately we can’t know what divinity “looks like” and how in reality the divine probably wouldn’t “look like” anything. The concept of animals and humans morphing back and forth into each other, whether through rebirths and the cosmic wheel, or through the more shocking transformations of Ovid, one of the poets I constantly return to. Animals manifest the principle “actions speak louder than words” and are inherently expressive. 

Towards the end of the book, several of the characters read comic books. I was really excited to find comics appearing alongside allusions to The Odyssey, poetry slams, Shakespeare, Little Women, Playboy, and The Pillow Book (which I’m reading right now on recommendation of May-Lee Chai). How have comic books influenced your writing, and what comic books might you recommend to readers of White Dancing Elephants?

I’m thrilled that graphic novels and memoirs are taking their place alongside both traditional novels and story collections—with comic books also on that shelf. I was excited to reference within a character’s sensibility, the graphic novel American Born Confused Chinese by Gene Yuen Lang, which was nominated for a National Book Award. The book uses myths to invert and overturn racial stereotypes. This strategy, one that in retrospect I also use in the collection, exists in Alexander Chee’s novel Edinburgh, where the legend of the fox-woman was used by a Korean-American pubescent boy to resist the horrific advances of a white pedophiliac. I just did a list for Electric Lit of my favorite graphic novels for Pride Month. Alison Bechdel and Marjane Satrapi come to mind when thinking of favorites.  

Many of these stories live on the bridge between selfishness and compassion, often moving between the spectrum. Do you think it’s necessary to have both in order to sustain a narrative?

Every writer is human, so every writer should have compassion for others, but also, hopefully, some amount of compassion for themselves—this is now important in cognitive behavioral therapy, the concept of “self compassion.” The characters in the stories do live on this bridge, struggling toward each side, sometimes fixed in place by the two movements canceling each other out: doing for others, doing for self. Such tension drives stories. I think the element of suspense in any story is often what’s most important to me. It helps me return to the page. 

About the author

Cassie Mannes Murray is a Nonfiction MFA candidate at UNCW where she works on design for Ecotone and Lookout Books. At the end of her first year, she was awarded the Shannon Morton Fellowship for creative achievement. Her work is forthcoming in Passages North, and she has received support from Kenyon Writers Workshop. Cassie is currently an Editorial Intern at Howland Literary and Book Review Editor at Raleigh Review.

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