Friday 29 September 2023

Pulitzer finalist Vauhini Vara launches her short story collection This is Salvaged.

Courtesy of W.W. Norton and Author


This is Salvaged (W.W. Norton & Company, 2023).


A young girl reads the encyclopedia to her elderly neighbor who is descending into dementia. A pair of teenagers seek intimacy as phone-sex operators. A competitive sibling tries to rise above the drunken mess of her own life to become a loving aunt. One sister consumes the ashes of another. And , in the title story, an experimental artist takes on his most ambitious project yet: constructing a life-size ark according to the Bible’s specifications. In a world defined by estrangement, where is communion to be found? The characters in This is Salvaged, unmoored in turbulence, are searching fervently for meaning, through one another. 


Author bio.


Vauhini Vara has been a reporter and editor for the Wall Street JournalThe New Yorker, and the New York Times Magazine, and is the prize-winning author of The Immortal King Rao. She lives in Fort Collins, Colorado. 

Courtesy of Author



EC: Congratulations on your short story collection, This is Salvaged. Welcome to AsianBooksBlog. The stories in your collection are complex, multi-faceted and feel so well-imagined they are like novels. What draws you to the short story form?


VV: It’s the first form I ever learned, in my first creative-writing class in college, and is really dear to my heart. For at least the first five years or so of my life as a writer — starting with that class — I considered myself a short-story writer and didn’t think I’d ever attempt to write a novel. I think a short story is much more like a poem than like a novel in its reliance on allusion, subtext, and symbolism; I like the way in which much of what makes a short story beautiful lies in its connection to a reader’s — and the writer’s — subconscious.


EC: With your novel The Immortal King Rao being selected as a finalist for the Pulitzer, which form do you find easier or harder to work with? Is your process the same for writing either?


VV: I love both and find both impossibly difficult! My process is the same for writing both, which is easy to say because the truth is that I don’t have much of a process at all: I open up a document when I have time — whether that’s five minutes or a couple of hours — and tool around for a while. 



EC: My favorite story is probably the title story, where ‘salvaged’ takes on multivalent meanings, including what can’t be salvaged. In your Acknowledgements you mentioned the research you needed to do on how to build an ark. What was that like? 


VV: It was great! Being a journalist, I’m a sucker for research, sometimes to a fault (as in, I’ll fall down research rabbit holes that suck me away from the writing itself). In this case, I discovered an old press release about some academic research out of the Georgia Institute of Technology in which a doctoral candidate at the time, Jose Fernandez-Solis, had done some work toward figuring out what it would take, in our time, to build an ark according to the Bible’s specifications. I found Dr. Fernandez-Solis — he’s now an emeritus professor at Texas A&M — and he was generous enough to speculate with me at length, over Zoom, about what a hypothetical artist would need to do in order to build an ark in real life (or, in any case, in my fiction).



EC: How did you intend this particular theme of ‘salvaged’ and its various meanings to thread through the stories in the collection? (Feel free to mention particular stories too so that readers can get an even fuller sense of the collection)


VV:  With all the stories, I wanted to show the ways in which people — even in times of loss or estrangement — strive to find something to hold on to; something they can salvage from even the most wrecked moments in their lives.


EC: One paragraph in that story I was struck by was how art goers take in art, and how their response says more about class conditioning than aesthetic sensibility. Class shows up in several of the stories in interesting ways: in “What Next”, whether poor people sifted out rat droppings from their flour, and in “Sibyls”, class functions to show that our apartment neighbor’s secrets leach into our homes and bind us in uncommon ways. By contrast, race and culture feel like downplayed factors in the collection. For you, how important are these filters in your stories in  the ways they color perception, condition our values and thinking, and govern our conduct?


VV: It’s interesting to hear that class comes across as more prominent than race in your reading. My reading of the stories is different (which isn’t to say I think it’s a better reading!); I think race — for many of the characters, Indian-American identity in particular — is deeply woven into the characters’ experiences, for instance, when the narrator of “What Next” mentions the statue in her hometown of the great Dalit thinker and politician B.R. Ambedkar in the context of her community’s expectations for her, or when the narrator’s mother in “Sibyls” makes a racist statement implicitly distinguishing “good” Asian immigrants like themselves from “bad” ones like the ones she’s targeting. Because I write largely about characters of color, including Indian American characters, race plays a major role in how characters experience the world, even though my stories tend not to be primarily about the experience of being a person of color.


EC: A couple of the stories take on younger points of view, and in particular, the eight year old girl’s POV in “You Are Not Alone” was exquisitely mirrored in the way you handled the sentences. Was that a difficult perspective to get right in the writing of that story? Do you vary your approach in writing older or other perspectives? 


VV: Thank you! It’s hard for me to articulate just how a given character’s voice comes out the way it does; that said, I try to be aware of how characters’ perspectives on the world are very much shaped by their position in the world — including as it relates to the vulnerability and fear that often goes hand in hand with being a kid.

EC: The story ‘The Eighteen Girls’ feels almost fabled and gothic in its rendering, and reminded me a little of Carmen Maria Machado’s style and content matter. Do you also experiment with different genres in your short stories?


VV: I do think of many of my stories as experimental in nature, including that one.

 EC: Would you mind sharing with us what’s next in your pipeline? 


VV: I’m working on an essay collection tentatively called Searches, which Pantheon will publish in the spring of 2025. 


EC: Thank you for joining us, Vauhini. Good luck with everything, and we wish you all the very best as This is Salvagedlaunches out into the world.


VV:  Thank you Elaine for giving me space here.