Thursday 28 January 2021

Contemporary Voices: Elaine Chiew Chats with Jenny Bhatt, Author of Each of Us Killers


Photo Credit: Praveen Ahuja


Jenny Bhatt is a writer, literary translator, book critic, and the host of the Desi Books podcast. Her debut story collection, Each of Us Killers, was out Sep 2020 with 7.13 Books. Her literary translation, Ratno Dholi: The Best Stories of Dhumketu, was out Oct 2020 with HarperCollins India. She lives in the Dallas, Texas area and teaches fiction at Writing Workshops Dallas.


Stories woven at the intersection of labor and our emotional lives. Set in the American Midwest, England, and India, the stories in Each of Us Killers are about people trying to realize their dreams and aspirations through their professions. Whether they are chasing money, power, recognition, love, or simply trying to make a decent living, their hunger is as intense as any grand love affair. Straddling the fault lines of class, caste, gender, nationality, globalization, and more, they go against sociocultural norms despite challenges and indignities until singular moments of quiet devastation turn the worlds of these characters—auto-wallah, housemaid, street vendor, journalist, architect, baker, engineer, saree shop employee, professor, yoga instructor, bartender, and more—upside down.

Cover design: Harshad Marathe

EC: Welcome to Asian Books Blog, Jenny. Congratulations on your engaging and diverse debut short story collection, Each of Us Killers, which packs quite an emotional punch. Tell us about the process of putting this collection together. 


JB: Thank you so much, Elaine, for this lovely opportunity to discuss the book. I began writing the stories in Each of Us Killers in late 2014. At the time, I had no grand plan in mind for a cohesive collection or book. I was writing short stories, which happens to be my favorite form of fiction, about things that kept me up at night. I’d recently returned to India after having been away for more than two decades (other than the frequent vacation visits.) I’d given up my corporate career in Silicon Valley and was trying to settle back in India as a middle-aged, single woman trying to pivot to a new field and create a new identity for herself. Also, a new Indian government had come into power and Indian society was dealing with certain cultural and economic challenges driven by race, class, caste, religion, and gender inequalities. So all of this was percolating inside.


I finished writing all the stories by mid-2017 and began the long querying process then. The order of the stories changed many times from that point on. The final order came about based on some thinking around the story’s themes and discussions with my editor at 7.13 Books, Hasanthika Sirisena.


EC: It’s marvellous that the characters in your stories hold such varied jobs, from bartending to saree selling to yoga instructor to bakery owner to housemaid. Even being an Indian deity – the Lord Vishnu – is treated as a job, from which he gets sacked, funnily enough. In what way did these occupations inform the creation and molding of your stories for you?


JB: I’ve held a number of different jobs in different industries since my teenage years. I’ve been a bartender, an engineer, a cook, a saleswoman in a clothing store, a yoga instructor, and more. About the only thing I haven’t been, of course, is an Indian god. Having given up my own full-time job after 40 to turn to writing, I had been thinking a lot about how work shapes our identities, how people perceive us, and our place in society. I also find that, when writing fictional characters, what they do for a living is my entry point. So I was simply exploring, through each story, our occupations and what they mean to us. All the central conflicts in these stories are, therefore, related to the protagonists’ occupations.


EC: There’s also a good cross-mix of male and female voices, races and ages as well as class differences, and this variety is precisely what flushes out gender, sex, race and class inequalities, which as some of your reviews indicated, leave these characters caught between boundaries, desires and expectations. What initially drew you to these characters who find themselves caught or trapped within their circumstances and their dreams?


JB: With each story, my entry point was a character with a certain occupation. And I had firsthand experiences of most of those occupations myself. Once I’d established the occupation and the physical setting/city, the main themes, conflicts, and trajectories of these stories began to unfold through the writing. I’m definitely an outlining kind of writer. I don’t plan everything out but I need a scaffolding to get started. These elements were my general scaffolding. But I was also keen to avoid the usual stereotypes and tropes that are expected of stories set in India. I wanted to make sure I had sufficient cultural nuance and that I went places that even I couldn’t have predicted at the start of a story. I wanted to avoid, for example, those stories I sometimes come across that are set in India or seem to represent South Asian culture, but have only the blandest and most obvious cultural markers. Where you could change the setting and character names and it could just as easily be a story set in the West somewhere. Unfortunately, these are the stories loved by Western readers and gatekeepers because they go on to win awards and accolades. But that’s a different soapbox so I won’t get on it for now.


And with respect to characters finding themselves caught or trapped within their circumstances and their dreams, I’m a woman of a certain age and certain life experiences. That allows a certain vantage point on matters of race, class, caste, gender, religion, etc.


EC: The first story in the collection ‘Return to India’ starts with a killing, and the last story, which is also the title story, ends with a killing. But interspersed in between are stories where the killing, I guess you could say is symbolic. Talk to us about the significance of ‘killing’ in the above-mentioned stories and for this collection. 


JB: The first story was influenced by a real-life killing. In 2017, Srinivas Kuchibhotla, an immigrant software engineer in Kansas, was shot dead in a bar by a white army vet who thought he was Middle Eastern. I remember watching everything unfolding on 24/7 news and social media. I’d been that immigrant engineer living in the Midwest when I first moved to the US. There was a lot I could identify with about his life, his particular challenges. But what intrigued me the most was how his white co-workers, who meant well, spoke about him. In my story, I don’t give the dead immigrant engineer a voice. I let all his white co-workers piece together their versions of the story. It wasn’t simply to highlight racism. I wanted to explore how, often, we have no idea of the personal challenges one of our co-workers might be dealing with. We might think we know them well enough but we don’t really. Of course, my story is entirely fictionalized other than the bar shooting part.


The last story, the titular one, is also based on a real-life incident that happened the year I moved to India. In Gujarat, the western state where I was living, four Dalit men were publicly flogged by upper-caste men for allegedly killing a cow. This spiralled into nationwide protests and acid-drinking suicides. I actually went to a village to talk with the Dalit community posing as a journalist. And how the community responded to my questions with almost one voice, united in their story, stayed with me a long time. I wanted to explore their helplessness, frustration, and resignation about what had been happening. I was also super-aware that I’m upper-caste myself and couldn’t really speak for them. So I used my journalist cover as a way into the story.


With all the other stories in between, the killing is, as you say, symbolic. Oftentimes, we kill the finer instincts or tender dreams in other people without realizing it through the microaggressions we inflict upon each other. Our privileges, biases, and prejudices make us blind to these daily acts of violence except, of course, when we feel they’ve been dealt out to us. Throughout my own working life, I’ve not only been on the receiving end many times but I’m sure I’ve been guilty of perpetrating such acts of violence on others too. So I wanted to explore that and understand it better for myself.


EC: These stories are full of subversive power too, not least by challenging the expected desexualisation of middle-aged women by society in stories like ‘Pros and Cons’ and ‘Life Spring’, or deviating from the usual tropes expected of South Asian fiction (‘slums’, ‘poverty’ or ‘mangoes’ as you mentioned in an interview on Electric Literature). Rather than overt political drumbanging though, your stories subvert with an internal disquiet. Since you also write essays (I read your essay in Longreads about ageism within the literary industry with great interest!), teach and host a podcast,  I’m curious about your thoughts as to the effectiveness or power of subversion in fiction. 


JB: Great question. I believe that fiction should always subvert, to some extent or other, societal expectations. Otherwise, why bother writing fiction at all? Why not just write reportage? I see stories/novels that have been ripped from the headlines. Two of my own stories in this collection are based on real-life events. But, if we can’t then, in fiction, go beyond what readers can get from the news or social media, why bother? I’m not interested in simply showing life as it is but also in exploring its many surprises and possibilities—both good and bad. And fiction is, to me, the most effective medium for doing so. As for why subversion in fiction is powerful: if done well, it can enhance a reader’s own ability to imagine and create subversive possibilities in their own lives. Certainly, that’s been my experience with the life-changing books that have rewired my inner circuitry.


With personal essays, I’m not so much subverting as I am excavating and distilling. With the literary translation work, also, there’s no real subversion—it’s about a deep immersion into another writer’s work and world through a word-by-word close reading and interpretation. With the book-reviewing, it’s about understanding how to approach and engage with a literary artifact and how it might or might not be subverting expectations. With the podcast, it’s about building a literary community and spotlighting South Asian books that aren’t getting enough oxygen precisely because they’ve departed from the expected stereotypes and norms. And, finally, I teach fiction because it helps me become, I hope, a better fiction writer.


Since you mention the Longreads essay, let me add: given my age, I’ve lived through a number of significant life experiences and I have the advantage of being able to look back to consider roads not taken, consequences and causality, how our personal goals and motivations are often in conflict with each other, and more such. So the internal disquiet you mention is very much my own that spills into my stories. And I still think that publishing gatekeepers need to see how older writers bring a lot more to the table because of their age and experience. It’s getting better but we have a long way to go still.


EC:  How has the pandemic affected you either in (1) book promotions or (2) your daily writing practice or career, and what ways are you finding to cope? Or perhaps, if you prefer to answer a different question, what’s next for writer Jenny Bhatt?


JB: Happy to answer both.


I’ve had two books—a debut fiction and a debut literary translation—launch in two different countries during the pandemic. This has been a trial by fire, let’s say. I’ve learned so much about the publishing ecosystem. One thing I know for sure: I hate doing book promotion though I know it’s a necessity even during good times.


My daily writing practice, on the other hand, has done very well with the seclusion/isolation. I wrote a record number of essays and did many email interviews last year. So that’s been a good use of time, I think.


Ways to cope: read, write, rinse-and-repeat.


What’s next: back to writing book reviews, teaching, podcasting, a WIP novel, and a WIP translation. Oh, and we just moved house so we’re still unpacking almost a month later.


EC: In ‘Life Spring’, the baker-protagonist Heena bakes a cinnamon-cardamom snickerdoodle causing me to salivate as I read! Is this a real thing? Do you have a recipe for cinnamon-cardamom snickerdoodle?


JB: Ha. I do bake this often. It’s a traditional snickerdoodle recipe with flour, cream, butter, sugar, eggs, cream of tartar, and a bit of salt. Then, before baking, I roll the dough balls in a blend of granulated brown sugar, ground cinnamon, and ground cardamom. I tend to use these spices in most of my baking. Cardamom, especially, is common in Indian desserts and sweets. I have a whole food section in my free book club guide with recipes to all the food and drink mentioned in the book. So, if anyone’s interested in a free copy, they can let me know:


Thanks so much, Elaine, for these engaging and thoughtful questions. 

EC:  Thank you for joining us, it was wonderful to chat with you, Jenny. I wish you luck on ALL your future endeavours.  


NB:   All the buying links, including Jenny's favorite indie bookseller, are on this page: