Jenny Bhatt’s debut short story collection has garnered a lot of attention and praise from critics and reviewers alike. The fifteen short stories in Each of Us Killers straddle three countries (America, England and India), multiple cities (Chicago, Bombay, Ahmedabad, Berlin) and rural Indian villages. These stories, set against the backdrop of growing nationalist sentiments in these countries, highlight the struggles and journeys of everyday people and lay bare the societal and cultural roots that ensnare and entrap them.
Bhatt wears multiple literary hats: fiction writer, critic, and translator. She is also the host of Desi Books, a podcast which focuses on the South Asian literary scene, promoting and reviewing desi writers and their works.
Below, I speak with Bhatt about post-colonialism and its place in fiction, the South Asian diaspora, and how to avoid the pitfalls of exotification and poverty voyeurism in literature.
Your collection of short stories, Each of Us Killers, takes the reader from Britain to America, from cosmopolitan cities to rural Indian villages. When I read the first story in the collection, “Return to India,” I was expecting murder mysteries throughout. Thankfully, most of the killers in the rest of the stories are metaphorical and speak to larger issues of interpersonal, interracial and inter-caste relationships. Can you talk a little bit about how each of us are “killers” in our own way?
I started writing these stories in 2014. I’d just returned to India after more than two decades and the Modi government had come into power the first time. Never had I seen so much disconnect between what we saw/heard in the mainstream news media and what was actually happening in the world around me. In particular, the inequities and aggressions happening due to socio-cultural divides like caste, class, gender, religion, nationality, etc. I’d grown up with these in India, of course. But returning as an older forty-something had allowed a new awareness. Daily, it seemed like we were killing each other’s finer instincts, aspirations, desires, hopes, and dreams with these inequities and aggressions. And, beyond interpersonal relationships, I felt it and saw it more keenly in work-related interactions, where there is always a power imbalance. I’d left India just before the economic liberalization began in 1991. And, as terrific as that liberalization has been in many respects, it has exacerbated these problems. So, Each of Us Killers is also very much about that.
As a reviewer, you talk about the importance of reviewing works about the Asian diaspora with a post-colonial lens. Your stories also seem to be written with a post-colonial lens, whether they are set in American Midwest (“Return to India”) or Chicago (“Disappointment”) or India (“Time and Opportunity,” “Pros and Cons”). Why do you think it is important that we, as writers, talk about these fundamental issues, that sometimes seem to be forgotten in the exotification of Indian culture?
Well, I don’t believe we’re past the effects of western colonialism yet. My stories here are definitely looking at how western capitalism and colonialism continue to influence our daily lives. Even the art we create is subject to or driven by standards laid out by western gatekeepers. When I say that we need to, as critics and readers, view our contemporary literary works—whether in South Asia or in the South Asian diaspora—with a post-colonial lens, what I mean is that we cannot ignore or gloss over how much of an influence that continues to be on our writing. This is not always a terrible thing. All I’m saying is that we need to be more aware of our socio-cultural influences. Then we can decide if or how they make a work relevant. And, yes, there are writers and works that break free from that influence entirely by going back to pre-colonial traditions or creating new hybrid traditions. They’re exceptions, though. And, again, it requires a post-colonial awareness to even recognize them as breakout works.
Speaking of exotifying India through local color in movies and music videos, I want to talk about some of the stories in your collection that take an honest, unfiltered view at issues of caste, class and gender divides that still exist in modern day India, like “Mango Season,” “The Waiting” and “The God of Wind.” Can you talk about your process of writing these stories that deal with issues of poverty and social inequities without making them voyeuristic or exploitative?
First, I don’t know how I can write a story set in India without dealing with the socio-cultural divides that are so deep-rooted. But, yes, there are good and not-good ways to approach such depictions, of course. Let’s take each of these in turn.
Exotification is when we romanticize certain stereotypes. “Stereotypes”, by definition, are overused, over-simplified characters or tropes with limited dimensions. With India, we know some of these: the aspiring slum-dweller, the miserable wife of an arranged marriage, the fervent fundamentalist, the crooked politician, the nagging mother-in-law, the gratuitous descriptions of food, landscapes, and so on. We avoid stereotypes by making characters more complex: give them a range of emotions; balance the flaws and strengths; explore their fears and desires; allow them contradictions and ambiguities. Certainly, that’s been my goal with all the stories in this collection. People are not easily understood or explained—I know this much from my own life experiences—and I am suspicious of any fiction that presents such characters. With descriptions of food, scenery, etc., I make sure it’s absolutely integral to the scene or plot—the economy of a short story doesn’t allow for more anyway. (Note: I once had a long discussion with a writer friend about archetypes vs stereotypes. We can get into that some other time.)
Voyeurism is about taking some kind of pleasure from the pain/distress of others. How do we avoid that? By getting deep into the skins of our characters rather than simply researching and reporting on their lives. We’re creating fiction, not doing reportage. We have to bring to life our characters’ complexities, emotions, flaws, ambiguities, contradictions, strengths, fears, desires, and more with empathy and imagination.
Exploitation is about making unfair use of someone or something for personal gain or benefit. As writers, this is one charge we are all guilty of. I can’t see a way around it. When we write about fictional lives, we borrow details from our own lives and those of others. And we then want others to pay for and read our stories. Guilty as charged.
To be honest, reading “Neeru’s New World,” I was expecting her to get sexually assaulted as soon as she wore her mistress’s fancy clothes. I kept anticipating her in danger, surrounded as she is with men who seem to have so much control over her fate and her helplessness in the face of her poverty and social status. I can’t help thinking how one small misstep turns into a domino effect for people with no power. So, thank you for writing that story and others that highlight issues that often get overlooked or ignored for narratives that suit the common perception about India. Do you think it is possible for writers to write beyond the colonial/postcolonial lens? Or, at least for the time being, is everything produced going to in some way shape or form relate back to the shadow of colonialism? What would it look like for writing to break free of the colonial lens? Or the orientalist gaze, to use Edward Said’s terminology?”
There have always been writers subverting narrative forms to break away from or stand apart from the western canon and traditions, especially in the regional South Asian languages. Unfortunately, we’re not getting to learn more about them because of how mainstream media works. There was an essay in LitHub recently about rethinking the Eurocentric traditions in the essay form and considering what it means to truly decolonize the canon of essay writing. All of this applies to fiction writing as well, of course. It’s a complex, layered topic. The very least laypeople like me and academics like you can do is seek out and shine a spotlight on the works that draw on non-western traditions. As for how we might do that as Anglophone writers, I’m very interested to see what this new initiative—South Asian Avant-Garde (SAAG) Anthology—is going to put out into the world. Their mission is to do just this.
Can you talk about “Life Spring,” “Journey To a Stepwell,” and “12 Short Tales of Women at Work”? All these stories deal with issues of women trying to find their independence in a modern India, where they are encouraged to get a good education and career, but ultimately, they are expected to toe the lines of gendered expectations by being the good wives, the ideal divorce, or the working women who sometimes don’t have a choice but to stay in a toxic work environment because they have to support their families or quit work instead of being perceived as troublemakers.
Yes, you’ve pegged the main connections between these stories correctly. And these are not new themes, of course. Other writers have explored them in different ways. For me, it was a personal need to explore these themes at a time when, having given up my own longtime corporate career, I was working to rebuild my identity as a writer, a daughter, a sister. I had returned to India and these issues were both happening to me and in my life. ‘Life Spring’ was inspired by a real-life story of a divorcee who had left her techie husband in California after he had physically abused her. She didn’t return to India but I wanted to imagine what it might have been like for her if she had. ‘Journey to a Stepwell’ was inspired by a folk-tale my mother used to tell us sisters when we were kids (although I’ve subverted a lot in my version.) And ‘12 Short Tales’ was written when the #MeToo movement started and explosive stories were being revealed over Twitter.
The recent #PublishingPaidMe trend on Twitter highlighted racial disparities in the publishing industry, most notably in the amount of advances given to debut white writers compared to debut BIPOC writers. As a debut writer yourself, did you think that the #PublishingPaidMe was an overall positive, if painful, step forward for the publishing industry? Or do you think it mostly just threw salt in the wounds of BIPOC writers who were already well aware of the disparities? Perhaps it was a bit of both?
A bit of both, yes. It was a much-needed public conversation. But I feel like we’re so much in our filter bubbles and talking within our echo chambers on social media. I mean, look at how long American Dirt has remained on the NYT bestseller list despite all the online and offline protests and activities. It takes a long time for systemic change to happen and then stick. And it’s not that BIPOC writers aren’t getting big deals. But they have to conform to certain timeworn tropes within their writing to get past the gatekeepers, who believe they understand the market. Still, the conversation brought about more awareness and that’s always a good thing.
I want to focus on the titular story, “Each of Us Killers,” and how it deals with prevalent caste issues in rural Gujarat. It highlights a fundamental reality of how not much has changed in some parts of rural India when it comes to caste and class. The story seems to be plucked from the headlines and gives a human touch to the motivations and actions of this under-privileged Dalit community, living in a small pocket of rural Gujarat. How did you stumble on this story and what was your process when you decided to write it from the collective “we” perspective?
The story is based on a real-life incident in Una, Gujarat in 2016 of a few Dalit men getting flogged by upper-caste men. There were protests and suicides in the following weeks. I was living in Gujarat at the time and went to talk with some folks in the Dalit community near there. Mainly, I wanted to get past the headlines and past the usual voices that get featured by mainstream media. I wanted to hear from those who remain silent in the shadows—either because they’re not allowed to speak or because they dare not speak. I chose the plural first-person point-of-view because I also wanted to explore the crowd psychology aspect: how a community comes to a united way of thinking and processing a traumatic event that happens in their midst. It was one of the hardest stories for me to write. And, when it first came out in Kweli Journal, Laura Pegram as editor was amazing with her questions, feedback, and suggestions. I’m very grateful.
This has been a big year for you, professionally and personally. You have two books coming out this year and you moved, hopefully for the last time, from India to US and got married. You also started the Desi Books podcast, which could not have come at a better time during COVID. Can you tell us why you decided to start a podcast that focuses on the literature of the South Asian diaspora and why it was important for you to highlight the writers and their works?
It’s no secret among writers of the South Asian or desi diaspora that the publishing ecosystem doesn’t work in our favor. Gatekeeping stops our stories from being told the way we need them to be—without the usual tropes I mentioned earlier. When we do get published, there’s gatekeeping at media venues for how much oxygen our works get in terms of marketing, promotion, publicity, reviews, interviews, etc. 2020 is a tough year for all books because of the pandemic and the US elections. It’s even tougher then for debut works from desi writers like myself. Rather than complain or start a hashtag about it, I wanted to do something tangible, meaningful, positive. So the podcast, I hope, is a platform to highlight the desi books that deserve more attention. It’s a small platform but I have high hopes for it and plan to get funding too. I also see how writers in Black, Latinx, Asian American, and Native American communities support each other so actively. We don’t have that happening in overt, coordinated, consistent ways in the desi writer community yet. Established desi writers rarely come out in support of emerging ones. Still, I firmly believe that a rising tide will lift all boats. So that’s the aim of the podcast: to raise the tide.
You recently moved to Texas, got married and settled here. How are you assimilating into the literary community in Texas? I am also curious to know how Texas will feature in your future works.
I moved to Allen, a suburb of Dallas, on February 29th, a week or so before social distancing guidelines came into place. Despite this pandemic being a weird reality for all of us, the literary community within the Dallas-Fort Worth area has quickly adapted to the online format and I’ve been able to meet several local writers through a monthly reading series called LitNight Dallas. It’s run by Sanderia Faye, a professor and a wonderful literary citizen. She and I have talked about how I can support the work she’s doing and that will start after September. I’ve also connected with Blake Kimzey, the founder of Writing Workshops Dallas, and will start teaching an eight-week advanced fiction workshop online with them in August. There are a few more literary collaborations in the works too. So I’m just very grateful to be able to assimilate into Dallas’ literary culture and contribute actively despite the realities we’re all dealing with right now. As for what’s inspiring me about Texas in terms of writing, well, a major part of my work-in-progress novel is set in Texas and features the huge DFW Gujarati and Punjabi communities, with whom I’d connected during my 2019 visit.
I’ve been re-reading Toni Morrison’s Jazz and Ursula K. Le Guin’s Steering the Craft for a writing workshop I’m currently teaching. I just finished Tara Isabel Zambrano’s beautiful flash collection, Death, Desire and Other Destinations. And I am looking forward to reading Meena Kandasamy’s Exquisite Cadavers, which will be out in the US in November (already out in India and UK).
Is there an indie bookstore you’d like to recommend to our readers?
I have three terrific local indie bookstores that are amazing for the work they do across the local literary community. The Wild Detective, Deep Vellum and Interabang Books in Dallas. Like many other indie bookstores, they’re also dealing with pandemic-driven challenges. So, I encourage everyone to go to their websites and look through their book features and maybe order some if possible.
Each of Us Killers is out now via 7.13 Books, and available for purchase here and wherever books are sold.