Nominated as a Foreward Indies 2020 Book of the Year Finalist, author Jenny Bhatt’s debut short story collection, “Each of Us Killers,” has been an instant hit with critics. Her non-fiction and literary criticism have been published in various outlets, such as NPR, The Washington Post, Literary Hub and The Atlantic. Her literary translation, “Ratno Dholi: The Best Stories of Dhumketu,” also came out last year. She is the host of the Desi Books podcast and a creative writing instructor at Writing Workshops Dallas. Bhatt spoke to SEEMA about her work.
Tell us about your book.
It is a collection of stories, fiction, and they are all focused on work. Different kinds of people in the workplace. They are of Indian origin, in India or abroad, in varied professions. There’s a housemaid, a baker, an auto rickshaw driver, an English professor in the U.K., an architect, a yoga instructor, a techie engineer in the U.S., an auto rickshaw driver in India, [I] have looked at the challenges and conflicts they face at the workplace.
Why the focus on work?
I was interested in exploring how much our work shapes who we are as individuals and how much of our personal lives and upbringing shapes how we are at our work place. This meshing, the intersection of our work and our emotional lives is what I wanted to explore. I didn’t find that many stories forced specifically on work. When you read fiction, generally characters will have a job. Most fiction tends to focus on the private, intimate lives of people, even though the characters have a profession. Our hunger for validation, our need for accomplishment, or self-realization, can be as grand as a love affair, yet we don’t see a lot of fiction centered on that. I worked in the corporate world in different countries, different kinds of jobs. When I left that to pursue writing, I felt the ground beneath my own feet shift because my identity was not what it was. People asked me, ‘What do you do?’ And I said, ‘I am a writer, but I haven’t published a book yet,’ and they would wonder what you do. It struck me how much our identity is derived from what we do.
You do manage to bring in the South Asian experience.
Yes, two or three stories that look at Indian immigrants in the U.K. and the U.S. and the different issues they deal with, be it racism or ethnicity issues. I have written one story based on an incident that occurred four years ago. Srinivas K. was shot at in a bar in Kansas by someone who told him to “go back to your country.” In my story, this happens in the Midwest where I was working at the time. In the story, the investigators talk to his work colleagues, getting statements from the co-workers. As the statements [come in], it comes to light how little they know him. All their prejudices come forth towards him as an immigrant from another country.
You made a comment about how your upbringing can affect how you are at your workplace. How did your upbringing have a bearing on you as a writer?
I grew up with a mother who was a big reader. Now she did not read in English but Gujarati literature, [too]. She read English books translated into Gujarati – like [Alexandre] Dumas, Jules Verne and [Charles] Dickens. Being around a mother who read a lot made me an avid reader. Growing up in middle class India back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, there weren’t a lot of options for girls outside the home, besides school. During the summer vacation, books were a constant pastime. So that helped, I suppose, and I turned to books.
When I was 10, my English teacher asked me to enter a national short story writing contest and I won the prize. In those days 75 rupees was a big amount and it gave me a validation of sorts. It cements something for you. I really wanted to be a writer but my parents thought that was not practical. “You’re not going to make money with that.” You know how South Asian parents want us to be doctors or engineers. So I studied engineering in the U.K., and worked in different places until I turned 40. Writing is something I always did in the background. I moved to the U.S. in ’98. I started taking writing workshops just so I could educate myself and get better at that. I continued to do that till I turned 40. While I was writing, I hadn’t sent my work for publishing. I have actually written an essay about emerging as a writer after 40. I had not sent anything for publishing. I thought my writing was not good enough. At 40, I said if not now, when will I do this? I gave up my corporate job and gave myself a finite amount of time.
You have talked about ageism in publishing. This may come as a surprise to many, who believe that a good story should find takers, among readers and therefore also among publishers.
Publishing, like any other industry, is capitalism driven. And what works in a capitalist economy, and in a consumerist economy, is when you’ve got young, pretty, attractive faces to sell a product. It always helps if you have a young individual alongside the cover. The publishers also think a younger author also has a lot of runway ahead of them and they will carry it forward a long time. If they make a big PR push for a young debut writer, they’ve already got an assured readership and it will be easier to sell the next book by the same author. From a purely business perspective, I can understand that. You’re selling to a younger audience that probably isn’t as well-read and or so picky, it’s much easier to sell. So it’s just economics, mere business sense.
What does writing mean to you? It seems like it has been always your interest, your passion.
I don’t tend to use the word ‘passion’ quite as much. Certainly, writing was the way I engaged with the world. I would write a journal daily. Even when I wouldn’t send my work out, I would write daily. Even if I never publish again, I will always write. It’s always going to be a part of my life. For me, by the way, writing and publishing are two separate things. Publishing is a whole separate game. Writing is how I process my thoughts; it is my way to be in the world.
How did you get started into translation? It is clear your interest in translation stems from seeing all those books translated into Gujarati in your home.
Yes, I grew up seeing my mom read, and she was a big Gujarati literature buff. She had all her favorite writers that she read and she had her own little library – not a big one. But she had a few shelves with her favorite authors. There were Gujarati books all around me as I was growing up. Like all parents do, she would orally tell me those stories. When I left home, I would get still letters from her in Gujarati. I had my own Gujarati books that I read. I love the language and the idioms and colloquialisms. I was always reading Gujarati but I never thought I would translate.
After she passed away, I was translating them for my nephews, who are born and raised in the U.S. It was the sort of thing we did in the family. They don’t read Gujarati. Then, when I was in India, I was speaking with my literary agent about my own short stories and I just mentioned in passing that I do translations. He jumped on the idea and said there is not much translation of Gujarati literature into English. Late 2017 is when I sent him those stories and we got a deal with Harper Collins India. Last October, the book came out. I’ve learned a lot in the process and I have a lot more learning to do. But translation, like writing, is lifelong learning. You don’t get a 100 per cent perfect at it; you have to keep practicing.
Tell us about the writer whose stories you translated – Dhumketu. Is he a contemporary writer?
No, he is from my mother’s time. He was her favorite writer. Contemporary short story moved forward with him. But he had never been translated. He had written 26 collections of short stories, of which only one single story was translated. He had also written 27 to 28 novels, about historical and social realism. He was a short story pioneer in Gujarati literature. I took one story from every volume of his. He is very well known and respected within the Gujarati literary circles but has never been translated.
That seems like a lot of work waiting for you.
I am not planning to revisit his short stories. I might translate a novel. Or do somebody else. I have not decided yet.
What are you working on now?
I am looking at a certain period (medieval Indian history) and I’m trying to understand certain events but I don’t know what I will write – a book, a short story or an essay. A lot of male historians from a certain era, when they documented their accounts of what happened at that time, a lot of times it would be about the wars, about kings, who killed whom, and which country did they invade. The socio-cultural aspect is missing, and although there’s stuff out there, [there is] no woman’s perspective.
I’ll give you an example of an 11th century Jain monk in Gujarat called Hemachandra. He was a sort of a polymath, a historian, a poet, philosopher, even a mathematician. It is widely acknowledged that he discovered what is known as the Fibonacci sequence, before Fibonacci, but it is not called the Hemachandra sequence. He wrote in Sanskrit and Prakrit. For example, he describes what the men wore when they went to temples, but not what women wore. I was thinking I would like to know that. This is in the 11th century, after the invasions of Mohammed Ghori but Gujarat was still under Hindu rulers of the Chalukya dynasty. There’s a whole big gap there – nothing about what the women were doing there. It’s like working as a detective, looking for clues. We have to look at inscriptions, step wells, carvings as the textual sources are absent for such information and see if it’s a temple scene or a dancing scene.
How did you get started on the Desi Books podcast?
I first floated the idea of a South Asian books podcast in early 2019. The reason at that time was that I was trying to find for myself interesting South Asian books that had come out. I found that western media would talk about two or three big books in the year, tweet, and get a lot of responses. In the western media, other than two or three books backed by a lot of hype and PR, there’s no room for anything else. In a capitalistic system, it’s just a winner-takes-all scenario. it’s just the big names, for example, Jhumpa Lahiri, that count.
It is hard for me, as a reader of South Asian literature, to find new books by South Asian writers. But that year got busy for me as I had my own books coming out.
When the pandemic hit, a lot of my friends who were coming out with their books were being told there would be fewer book reviews as editors were cutting down on their budgets, that there would be no book tours or launches. So even the limited way South Asian writers had to get their books out there was gone.
Either I could moan and groan and get depressed or do something about it. So I decided to launch this platform for highlighting and spotlighting South Asian writers and their books in their languages as well as in English. I believe that a rising tide lifts all boats. We all have different stories to tell. For example, Sejal Shah is a Gujarati writer, too, but she was born and raised in the U.S., whereas I was born and raised in India. So our stories are different.
There is a big need for that because, for example, The Man Booker award long list was released the other day. There were writings in 11 languages from all over the world that were chosen, but not one from South Asian language. In fact since it started in 2005, there hasn’t been a single South Asian book in translation on the list. I still think there is a total lack of visibility.
There is a lot said, also by you, about South Asian writers getting typecast or pandering to western tastes.
Western publishers look for three things: the slum saga, arranged marriage plots, and terrorism. With the other ingredients thrown in– monsoon, mangoes, spices, readers get used to certain stereotypes in their mind.
What advice would you give to upcoming writers?
I am very honest and I tell them, make sure you have a day job, another source of income. I teach fiction writing, and when this comes up, I tell them [to have another job] so you can take risks with your writing. You can write what you need to write. Be very clear in your mind about what you’re writing, why you are writing, and why you are the right person to be doing that writing.
How do you get your ideas?
For book reviews, I choose books that interest me and where I feel I have something interesting and of value to add to the conversation. Essays brew for quite some time. I don’t confine myself to a specific the form in the early stages. I figure out what form to give to the writing later.
I don’t do what some writers might do, which is looking at what’s going on in social media, in the news, that is going viral, because I feel we have not processed it yet. For example, I wouldn’t write about the pandemic. We don’t know enough about it, don’t have anything insightful to add to it. In another two years, maybe we will.
Who are the writers that inspire you?
There are two groups of writers. I write in the western literary tradition, not in the South Asian tradition, much as I would like it. Short stories – Katherine Mansfield, Grace Paley, Jhumpa Lahiri. Rohinton Mistry – both short story and novel. There’s also Anita Desai, whom we don’t pay as much attention to these days but has a body of work that is very good. I am a huge fan of Toni Morrison. I teach her work. Also Zadie Smith, her essays more than her fiction. Different writers for different things.
This story appears in the May issue of SEEMA Magazine, check it out here