Tuesday 23 June 2020

Shreya Sen-Handley Talks the Strange and Unexpected in her Short Stories with Elaine Chiew

Credit Stephen Handley
Bio: Former television journalist and producer Shreya Sen-Handley is the author of two books with HarperCollins, the recently published short story collection Strange and the award-winning Memoirs of My Body. She is also a columnist for the international media, writing for the National Geographic, CNN and The Guardian amongst others, a creative writing teacher, illustrator, and a librettist for the Welsh National Opera. She is currently writing her third book for HarperCollins, The Accidental Tourist, a travelogue, alongside her monthly column for top Indian newspapers, the Asian Age and Deccan Chronicle. The opera she has co-written, ‘Migrations’, will tour the UK in 2021. 

EC: Welcome to Asian Books Blog, Shreya. Congratulations on your short story collection, Strange (HarperCollins India, 2019). How long was it in the making, and tell us what your short story collection is about. 

SSH: Thank you Elaine. “What’s your next book?” asked my editors at HarperCollins the minute my first book ‘Memoirs of My Body’ was published in 2017. I said I was considering writing more short stories. I had written a handful in the 3 years my first book, Memoirs of My Body, had been brewing and each had gone on to be published, broadcast or shortlisted in competitions in Australia, UK and India, and thought readers might want a few more. I certainly enjoyed writing them and was eager to write more. My editors loved the idea, and noticed something I hadn’t really consciously wrought- an unexpected turn to most of my stories, and so this collection of ‘profoundly unsettling and unusual’ short stories was conceived. There were in the end, appropriately, 13 stories in all, and they covered a variety of genres – romance, comedy, science fiction, dystopia, horror, supernatural, crime, etc. There was no attempt to write on the same subject every time, or restrict myself to a genre. Instead the idea was to focus on the unexpected in every aspect of our everyday lives, and uncover, as a result, the strangeness that lies beneath the seemingly ordinary. 
Courtesy HarpeCollins India

EC: What draws you to the short story form? 

SSH: I have always enjoyed reading short stories. I grew up reading them. In school and university, I found they were perfect for reading in those snatched moments between classes, on multi-tasking lunchbreaks, and crowded bus rides home, but not because they deserved less attention. If anything, I often found crafting of a standard missing from many long-form books, where the tension and polish maintained by the best short story writers, sagged in its long canter to the finish. In a short story, the reader is shown all of life in the space of a few tightly woven pages, and might hold their breath through it all. The relief at the end is so much more exquisite as a result. For the writer it is a very exacting art; a challenge as well as a delight to be able to pack a whole, beautifully crafted story into a small space. There’s no room for mistakes, as you won’t have the space and time to recover should your storytelling falter. On a practical level, because I write in bursts around the raising of my still-young family, it is the perfect literary form for me at this stage. Altogether, writing ‘Strange’ was a joy, and it has been well received by readers too. 

EC: What are the themes you hope to impart with your collection?

SSH: I have focused on the uncertainty of our lives, which is true more than ever now. My stories are also about the gap between perception or expectation and reality, or the apparent and the fact. In this era of fake news, the peeling back of the whitewashing of history, the concerted subterfuge that is politics, relationships and society, I find the dichotomy between the stories we tell and the conventions we maintain, with what lies beneath, fascinating. So, that’s what I’ve delved into – the unexpected; what we don’t see coming, as well as what we ourselves conceal, deliberately or otherwise. And because it is so universal, I have presented this idea in a range of plots, characters, settings, and genres.  

EC: One of the stories, ‘Long in the Blue Tooth’ had a fascinating set-up: a Robot Domestics Retirement Park. Where did the inspiration come from, and for some of your other stories?

SSH: I draw inspiration from so much; life, literature, and my own imagination. For ‘Long in The Blue Tooth’ the inspiration came from observing how domestic help are sometimes treated in well-off Indian homes. I remember being struck by it particularly on a trip to Delhi a few years ago where I attended a glitzy party for the city’s great and the good, but found myself more comfortable tucked away with my laptop in a corner of the kitchen where the slicing and the spicing was being carried out, in very different conditions, by people of a different ilk. My story also comes from the gated compounds springing up all over India, with its residents protected from the real world outside. I flipped that on its head and had the protagonists being protected, but only half-willingly, from the outside world, yet for the benefit of the same. A world they had never been allowed to join. 

I had theme parks in mind too, and the installation of animatronic amusements at these, and the rise of the lifelike robots of today. Undoubtedly my reading over the years would have inspired elements of this story, though there is no specific novel or short story that I can remember. And it works similarly for all my stories, with elements of life and literature, and a large dose of my own imagination, blending to form the basis for all my stories. 

EC: I found the ‘strange’ element intriguing in many of the stories. The story about the children in ‘Never Alone’, for example, has that feel of Lord of the Flies meets Hunger Games meets the parents of Hansel and Gretel. What draws you to the strange, the surreal, the ominous and the macabre? 

SSH: ‘Strange’ ideas come to me quite naturally, I suppose, because I’m neuro-atypical. To think within the constraints of convention or ‘normality’ is a stretch because my brain is wired differently. But I also feel that the mainstream that seeks to exclude those they perceive as ‘different’ is secretly not that well-adjusted or ‘normal’ themselves. That all of us have quirks and angularities that we deny, or are unaware of. I sympathise with both the overt misfits and the secret ones. I have empathy for those who find that life, and their own nature, and the lack of understanding from the world around them, have derailed their plans of leading a contented, conventional life. A ‘normal’ life. But as we acknowledge differences more and more, whether in sexuality or culture, or anything else, perhaps we see that there is no such thing as ‘normal’. My imagination teems with those on the margins for reasons of genetics, ostracization, illness, economics, and more, and in my work they find a home. 

EC: What power do you think the surreal gives in story-telling, and does it, in this case, illuminate certain geographies for you?

SSH: The surreal is powerful because it is outside ‘the norm’ and it both fascinates and frightens us for that reason. In my settings as well as characters I have fused the familiar with the unfamiliar, to attract and repel in a way that is simultaneously conflicting yet complementary. In my story ‘Full Circle’, Kolkata may be unreal and magical to the young girl Yana who has never been there, yet about which she has heard endless stories from family and friends within their community. But for these older members of the expat Bengali community, Kolkata is so much more real than the Leicester where they have half-settled and been half-accepted, that it is harked back to all the time, especially at community gatherings. But every time it is resurrected in their stories, it becomes a little more magical, a tad more surreal. The Corfu setting is similarly used in the last story ‘Room For Two’ where it is both a stepping away from the unhappy situation in which the mother found herself, but also key to finding her way back to reality. So, not only do the surreal in my stories illuminate geographies, but surreal geographies illuminate my characters.   

EC: Male-female wayward relationships seem to feature in several of the stories, sometimes in compromising situations. Some writers find sex scenes very difficult to write. Barbara Kingsolver once said that she found them so difficult to write her sex scene was three lines: “She said that if he had a condom in his pocket it would be his lucky day. He did. It was.” Since there were several sex scenes in your stories, did you find them easy or hard to write? 

SSH: I find them easy to write. Sex is wayward. It is messy. Sex is an extension of who we are as people. And since I am a champion of the wayward, I am a champion of sex I guess! But I don’t write sugary sex scenes, they are either matter-of-fact, or a little bit weird, or funny, or it might even turn out not to be a sex scene at all but two journalists working on an expos√© on a dating service for the married, as in my story ‘Love Rats’. But if writing sex scenes are easy, it’s because I have been writing about sex, sexuality, and the body since 2013, when I had a popular column on CNN-IBN on gender and sexuality called ‘Snap, Crackle and The Occasional Pop’ which was funny, frank, and deadly serious at the same time, and also, often, quite provocative. It was a column that was so unusual at the time in India, and with a wholly distinctive voice, that HarperCollins approached me to turn it into a book. This became my first award-winning book, Memoirs of My Body for which the column was a springboard for a brand new story about one woman’s body and that of Everywoman, where nothing was off-bounds but all of it laced with humour. That’s the kind of sex you’ll find in ‘Strange’ too.  

EC:  You wear quite several hats. In addition to writer, you’re also a librettist, journalist and illustrator. Tell us more about your exciting adventures with the Welsh National Opera. 

SSH: Most of the work I do is linked by a passion for stories- finding, creating, and telling them. The Welsh National Opera commissioned me to write a libretto for their opera ‘Migrations’ in 2018. ‘Migrations’ is an opera that marks the 400th anniversary of the sailing of the Mayflower to the ‘new world’ by exploring migration to and from different lands, and through history, in six different stories by six accomplished writers. I decided to write about the Indian doctors who arrived in the UK to join the NHS at the British government’s invitation, to find that they weren’t welcome after all. Britain in 1968 was riven by anti-migrant rhetoric and marches, and though over time these migrant doctors from India (and the Commonwealth) managed to establish themselves, they often had to settle for ‘lesser’ roles in the organisation. The Coronavirus pandemic has shown clearly to what extent BAME medics have been relegated to the less desirable, more dangerous jobs in the NHS, exposed and dying as they have been in greater numbers than their white counterparts from Covid-19. It shows how sadly true my story from 1968 still is today. 

But if dark, it is still a comedy, with vibrant Asian/Indian influences, and for the first time, modern Indian characters on the operatic stage (previous Indian characters have mostly been mythological or historical). I am also told that I am the first Indian/South Asian woman to have written an international opera. Further fabulous projects in opera have come along too since then!

All the disciplines I work with, and the skills I have, are related to storytelling. I have a passion for stories, and the tales I tell, regardless of discipline, platform or purpose, all require a vivid imagination, an instinct for the truth, and enthusiasm for the arresting, the quirky, and the melodic. So though I won an award for the Most Versatile Writer of 2018 (haha yeah), I believe the skills I use in different disciplines are linked; they inform and complement each other.

EC: What can we look forward to next from you as a writer?

SSH: Our opera ‘Migrations’ goes on tour in the UK next year, as the central production of the Welsh National Opera’s 75th birthday celebrations. My third book with HarperCollins, The Accidental Tourist, an off-beat travelogue, will be published next year too. My columns for newspapers will continue. I also have films, art meets poetry commissions, opera projects, and maybe even my first novel coming up! 

NB: Strange is available worldwide at bookstores and online at Amazon in local currencies. Shreya gives special mention to indie bookstore Five Leaves (Nottingham, UK), Starmark South City Mall (Kolkata)which launched ‘Strange’, and Oxford Bookstore (Park Street) which launched ‘Memoirs of My Body’.