Transcript - Episode 90: Chaya Bhuvaneswar

[Note: This transcript has been edited for readability.]

Jump to:

[Return to episode page]


Mike Sakasegawa: Hello, and welcome to Keep the Channel Open, a podcast featuring conversations with artists, writers, and curators. My name is Mike Sakasegawa and this is episode 90. Today’s guest is Chaya Bhuvaneswar.

Hey everybody, welcome to the show. Today on the show I’m talking with writer Chaya Bhuvaneswar. Chaya Bhuvaneswar is a physician and writer whose work has appeared in Narrative Magazine, Tin House, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Millions, and elsewhere. She has received a MacDowell Colony Fellowship and a Henfield award for her writing. Her debut short story collection White Dancing Elephants was published by Dzanc Books in October 2018.

So, I first heard about White Dancing Elephants back in December when she did an interview with David Naimon on his podcast Between the Covers—which, if you’re not already listening to Between the Covers, I’ll just say, it’s one of my favorite literary podcasts. Anyway, White Dancing Elephants went on my to-read list as soon as I heard that interview, and then earlier this year I had the chance to read it and I’m so glad I did. There are 17 stories in this collection, all of which feature South Asian characters, and most of which are centered on women. Many of these stories involve trauma in one way or another—the opening story, the title story, is about a woman contemplating her miscarriage; another story is about a sexual assault on a college campus. There are also several stories about complicated or strained or even outright abusive family relationships, there are really relationships in all kinds of different sorts and configurations in here, and nothing is ever simple or pat. Reading these stories, they felt true in a really compelling way.

Now, one of the things you’ll hear us talk about later in the episode is about being nourished by other art forms. Chaya writes fiction, but we talked extensively about the poetry she loves. And here I’d love to hear from you: what art do you find is nourishing you right now? Send me a tweet to @ChannelOpenPod and let me know.

Before we get started, one more thing. Chaya will be appearing at the American Library Association Conference shortly, that’s in Washington, DC, this year. The full festival is from June 20th to the 25th, 2019, and Chaya will have a “meet the author” event on June 23rd. There’s a link in the show notes with the details so if you’re going to be in the DC area, do check that out.

OK, let’s get started. Here is my conversation with Chaya Bhuvaneswar.

First Segment

Mike Sakasegawa: So I, you know, before we say anything else, I did just want to say I really enjoyed your book, I enjoyed White Dancing Elephants, the stories in there. So, you know, thank you very much for giving me the opportunity to read that.

Chaya Bhuvaneswar: Oh, thank you.

MS: So I kind of was thinking, I was thinking a lot about what I would want to talk to you about and I kind of wanted to start at the very, very beginning and sort of talk to you about the epigraph of the book. Which is, you've taken the last stanza of Seamus Heaney's poem "Punishment"

CB: Ah, yes.

MS: —here. And I thought that was a really interesting choice. So this isn't a poem that I was—I wasn't super familiar with it beforehand. I thought this was a really interesting choice. So you've got here, the last stanza is "who would connive / in civilized outrage / yet understand the exact / and tribal, intimate revenge." And I—the thing that I find really interesting about this is that this poem, it's... So he's considering this bog person, right? Who—

CB: Right.

MS: This, I guess, has been debunked now but at the time it was believed that this person was sort of ritually executed for something. And he is imagining this young woman being an adulterer. And at the end of the poem here, he's talking about how he's on the one hand throughout the poem sort of talking about how unjust this is, but at the same time talking about how he probably would have done the same thing himself. And so I kind of wondered what it was about this poem that—and this stanza is really particularly calling out the speaker's complicity in this action. So I kind of wanted to get, you know, your thoughts on what was it about this particular poem that made you want to use it as the epigraph for your collection?

CB: Well, I so appreciate your asking. You know, because I actually have done quite a lot of press for this book at this point. It's been eight months now since he's come out, which kind of stuns me because it's gone by really quickly. But I have to say there's so much in this poem. I mean, so Seamus Heaney, unfortunately departed Nobel laureate, whom I met in person actually when I was an undergrad. And I remember having this conversation with him about like, he asked me, "What do you write?" And I said, "I write fiction but poetry nourishes fiction." And it was one of the first moments I had with someone I knew was a real writer, meaning—I mean, unfortunately in my mind there was also that overlay of most real writers are probably older white men with a twinkle in their eye when they see an attractive young woman of color. There was something there like that too. But I remember thinking that this was one of the first moments of understanding I had with someone who was a real writer where we looked at each other and when I said that about poetry nourishing fiction—which is not really an original thing to say, but I think it's just so true—he just looked at me and completely... I knew he knew what I meant. And you know, it was this very cool moment. And I think an elevated the interaction a little bit because he was a little drunk and I definitely wasn't and that could've gone a very different way, as many such interactions did for many Yale female undergrads of that time. But I think what is amazing about this poem to me is that I read it at a kind of a formative stage when my family was expecting me to get an arranged marriage. And I read it in the context of knowing that in many South Asian cultures—and I say that pluralistically, knowing that my orthodox, south Indian, Brahman subcaste community was just one of many cultures, you know, and this huge teeming diversity polyglot that is South Asia—but in many of them, you know, including Afghanistan and Pakistan and many parts of India and Nepal, there is a sense that any kind of extramarital sexual availability of a woman is automatically adultery and is punished. And I think, you know, Seamus Heaney wrote the poem inspired by this delicate skeleton of a young woman who he believed was hanged for adultery and was one of the bog people. And whether that was true or not, I don't think that's important. I think it was his imagining of the dynamic of that kind of punishment where it's this complex pity, recognition, affirmation of the person's humanity, affirmation of the fact that everyone loves, everyone desires. This could be any one of us. But then at the same time, this relatively complicit, pitiless view of this dynamic as, "But she knew the rules, but she broke the rules. She was punished, but she knew the rules." You know? And I think that kind of enforcement, including by women is across the—you know, there's this phenomenon of honor killings in South Asia, again, across many different cultures. And there are acid attacks where, you know, even women who aren't even being accused of adultery but are being accused of the possibility for adultery because they have rejected particular arranged marriage offers. So they're sort of saying, "I have an availability that I have some choice over." And so this might be extramarital, who knows? You know, the level of control that the society has to exercise over those women is such that, you know, somebody flings acid in their face to try to take that choice away. So I think for me it really resonated, although it wasn't a South Asian poet or a South Asian setting that he was describing, it really resonated with structures of patriarchy, structures of oppression. And the notion of choice and complications of choice and above all complicity. When you look at something and you know it's terrible, but then when you're really honest with yourself, you know that you're allowing it to happen. Which I think, also it turns out, I feel, is applicable now to so many of us in the Trump era where I look at these horrible pictures of Yemeni children dying, starving to death, or I look at the news about the children who have died in detention, in cages. And on the one level, I think that's so horrible and I judge the perpetrators. On the other hand, I look at myself and I think I'm complicit. What am I doing? You know? I'm not even one of the doctors who was brave enough to go—there's a group of doctors who went and they officially work for the government, but they documented the injuries and they brought them forward and now they're being penalized, you know? So I think complicity is really a theme in the collection, and so woven in with how the oppression of women works, I guess. So that's an illustration right there of how a poem, a few words can hold so much in terms of civilizations and the complex psychology of so many people, if that makes sense. And I'm sure that's a much longer answer than you wanted.

MS: Not at all, not at all.

CB: But to me that's the joy of literature. That's the joy of both fiction and poetry and plays, you know, that much condensed into little.

MS: I mean, I think this thing about complicity is such a difficult thing for a lot of people to reckon with, how we all participate in these systems. And I just thought it was a really interesting choice for this collection. And I think one of the things that has sort of occurred to me as I've read and reread these stories is [that] I feel like there is this sort of tension in the stories and in the collection as a whole, really, where—and I know from other interviews that you've done that the question of representation is very important to you. And that is something, certainly I relate to this as well, that you've talked about being excited about how literature and media nowadays are providing more opportunities for representation and what that can open up for the future, for new emerging writers of color, especially. And so there is that aspect to it where I read these stories and I'm very excited by that representation aspect to it. At the same time I think it's very interesting because many of these stories involve people doing bad things to each other.

CB: Definitely.

MS: And in particular, I noticed that several of the stories, they seem to be sort of a commentary on certain aspects of South Asian cultures that are maybe not as progressive as we might like, things that we might want to critique. It was reminding me, a little while ago I was talking to a friend of mine on the show, his name is David Bowles and he was talking about this idea from Gloria Anzaldúa about—

CB: I love her.

MS: —where he paraphrased it to me that she would say something along the lines of, if you're not Mexican American than she doesn't want to hear your criticisms of Mexican and Mexican American culture, but that if you are Mexican American, it's really up to you to speak up against the anti-woman and homophobic and machismo kind of stuff. And that was sort of one of the things that was occurring to me here, and that it also felt like the epigraph was sort of providing a framing for those two concepts in tension with each other, of both representation and critique. But I wanted to get your thoughts on that.

CB: Yeah. I mean, one of the other things that I think was really formative is I also read, some years ago, these translated poems by this poet A. K. Ramanujan, who I strongly recommend and he has all these poems by these medieval poet-saints from India. And I really feel like he taught me different ways of thinking about hina and hoti, you know, inside and outside, the anthropological distinction because in so many ways... I mean, we think of it as like insider-outsider in the sense of somebody getting excommunicated or somebody's being made a pariah or I think I saw this really funny movie not that long ago where to be a pariah, all these cave people turn their back to this—they literally turn their back to this guy and it's, you know... But I think there are so many other ways people can be insider and outsider. And that's what really fascinates me. The more subtle slights, the more subtle rejections. And I feel like I've been really attuned to these since childhood because of the ways that my own family wasn't accepted within the larger Orthodox Brahman South Indian community, let alone American society in general. Where our names were different, we look different, we ate weird food and all that standard stuff, but we weren't accepted within the people who came from officially the same places because my younger brother has some disabilities. And the meanings of that in South Asian culture are variable and they kind of move from—you know, he has a seizure disorder. And so is that a power of prophecy? Is that a mark of the divine in some way versus the family must have committed some sin in a previous life and now we're being punished. So again, goes back to that theme of punishment in the Seamus Heaney poem in a way. So I think that insider-outsider—I love [This Bridge Called My Back], you know, Gloria Anzaldúa's compendium and Cherríe Moraga. I love that sort of ethic, you know. But at the same time, I think probably everyone who writes feels like an outsider in one way or the other. So it turns out to be a very useful experience. But when you're going through it, I think it's pretty tough. It's pretty hard wondering will you ever find your tribe, you know, but I feel like I have. So.

MS: I mean, it's an interesting thing because I agree with you, I think—I don't know if it's even just writers or artists. I mean, I think in some ways everybody kind of has this feeling of isolation or of outsiderness or not belonging. I think that that is something is a very common experience to most people. At the same time, the ways in which everyone can relate to it but it isn't manifest in everyone's life to the same degree, I suppose. And these kinds of structural or community or racial or ethnic divisions that can really sharpen these experiences and increase the scope of them. I don't know exactly where I'm going with this, but it just, you know, sort of reckoning with that, being forced into the outsider position is something that I do—

CB: Mm-hm, exactly.

MS: Yeah. I find it very attractive when art engages with that.

CB: Mm-hm.

MS: So there is this way in which I think many of your stories in this collection deal with this sort of isolation that people can feel, ways that they're isolated in one way or another. One of the ones that really has stuck with me a lot, that really grabbed me when I first read it, but that I keep thinking about is—I think it's the fourth or fifth story, and I apologize if I pronounce it wrong—but it's called "Jagatishwaran."

CB: Mm-hm. You pronounced it right.

MS: [laughs] Okay, great. You might imagine that with a name like Sakasegawa I care a little bit about pronunciation.

CB: No, I know. We all learn, but I mean, it's so interesting. I feel like when POCs pronounce or mispronounce each other's names and I—I was really embarrassed, you know, the first time I met Danez Smith I said "Dan-ay." [laughs]

MS: Right.

CB: He was so nice about it.

MS: Yeah.

CB: But, you know, the difference is we actually care about—you know,we want to get it right in a spirit of respect.

MS: Yeah.

CB: Whereas, you know, that outsiderness or markers of outsiderness, what a marker there, you know, going to school and not being told, "Hey, you have a different name than me. Can you teach me how to pronounce it? How do you say it?" But being told, "Why do you have such an inconvenient name?"

MS: [laughs]

CB: "What is wrong with you that you have this name?" Do you know what I mean?

MS: Yeah. This story. There's something about it that... I feel like it had a somewhat different feel from the rest of the stories and I was sort of trying to figure out exactly what it was about it that felt different to me. There is, I think, a quietness to it, more than most of the other stories in this collection. But there is—I felt like there was this real tenderness towards this central narrator character, the title character. He is suffering from some sort of not very well understood mental illness, but there are all of these moments throughout where the people closest to him treat him like some kind of a monster or like a burden or something like that. And yet the story and some of the characters who are brought in more from the outside, like his American niece give him these moments of grace that I found really compelling. I wanted to talk a little bit about that particular story, if that's okay.

CB: Sure. Yeah. Well, I'm thrilled that other people have responded to that story. An interesting diversity of people have responded to that story, which I think is wonderful. Like Electric Lit picked it as Recommended Reading. And my white, queer, wonderful writer friend Emma Eisenberg did the intro and was the one who picked it. So that's, that's kind of interesting, you know. And then a couple of editors wrote to my agent saying, "I saw this story. I loved it. It made me buy the book. Where's her next book?" And none of them were people of color. On the other hand, this is also the story where these two guys who—their podcast is really hilarious. It's the Drunken Book podcast and they basically drink and debate the merits of different books. And they don't have the author, they're just drinking and, you know, they mangled the name and they made fun of the story. So it was very interesting. I mean, he's definitely really like a brother from another planet in some ways. Like he's really different. He's not even—there's some gender fluidity. It's not even clear what sexual orientation he has. He's just looking for companionship more than anything, and looking for some sort of human respect and humanity to be honored. But I think the fact that he's an artist was what I really related to. And how do you make art when all the circumstances of your life conspire to make you feel like you don't have anything that would be worthwhile that would come out of that? You know, like this word "useless." It's an Indian—a Hinglish slang or also in [the] sort of English that Tamil South Indian people speak, like "useless fellow." You know, this expression of complete frustration with someone. "Useless fellow." And it can be a grandparent saying that about a teenage grandson who wants to watch MTV instead of study for an exam. Or it could be like a servant that someone is displeased with. But just that idea of uselessness as being the highest sin, I think it's so reflective of the Victorian influence, and certainly in elite English speaking South Indian culture, that still remains that still there in my grandparents', my parents' generation. And to some extent I think in some people in my generation and our kids too, you know, this sense of having a certain work ethic or otherwise being useless and producing something or you're useless. And the notion of disability really cuts at that because the fear of many people who suffer from some form of socially sanctioned disability, you know, as opposed to the arguable disability of like George Bush having a cocaine addiction, you know, but that's not socially sanctioned, really. I think that's a lot of what drove that story. And the quietness of it was important for him to kind of take a stand of just having his existence be the story and having his survival be the triumph. I mean, who is anybody to demand more than that from another human being to prove their worth? You don't have to produce something in order to not be looked at as being useless. And that notion of use or not use, it shouldn't even be invoked for other human beings. So I guess all those feelings were definitely at play. But I think there's a real harshness in a certain success narrative too, like that success narrative of, you know... I mean if people saw the film Crazy Rich Asians, it's there too. You know, that they're so proud of their handsome son Nick. Not only because he's so handsome, but because he made it, he made well in the US and "I have this foreign son and it's something I can brag about at home." And the narrative of someone still back home who's never going to do that, who's never going to make the parents proud that particular way. There's a lot of anger that, again, like where do you—I could see being proud of a child who achieves, but where do you get off being angry because a child doesn't bring that upon you? Where is that written? That that's why you have children, right? I mean, like Kahlil Gibran, you know, that poem, "Your children are not your children." I really believe that, that they're not given to you so that you can get some glory from their light. I mean, so you know, all these things, these strongly held feelings.

MS: Yeah. I mean, and it is one of the things that I think is so interesting about that story is that he is very much unknown to the other people in his life. It seems like the person who comes the closest to actually seeing him for who he is is this niece, who only visits in the summertime because she lives on a different continent. And even to some degree, he doesn't seem to necessarily want to let her completely see him. Although in the end it does seem, with the letters and things like that, that he finds a certain solace, or there's something comforting to him about this relationship.

CB: Definitely.

MS: But that so much of what he spends his time doing in the story are things that the rest of his family that he lives with don't know anything about. I thought that was really interesting.

CB: Yeah. I also think artists inherently—you know, exile and cunning and secrecy, that image from Joyce, right? I think that's true. I think that there's something very necessary about some form of secrecy for making art. And I don't know why, and I'm just comforted by the fact that poets, writers, artists I respect and like, and in some cases are friends with, they feel the same.

MS: Yeah. So, switching gears a little bit—there's a lot I would want to talk about about that story, but just to switch gears a little bit—so one of the things that you've talked several times about in other interviews is this idea of aftermath. And that that is a theme in many of these stories is aftermath. You talked about this in several of the print interviews, you talked about this with David Naimon on his show, that a lot of these things will go past the point of whatever traumatic event or thing happens. And then you've talked a lot about how you're interested in this idea of not just of what happens to the person, but how they go on from it.

CB: Right. Definitely.

MS: Yeah, I think that's really interesting. One of the things that occurred to me is that it kind of makes me think about how a lot of stories that are set in countries with a history of colonialism, especially when they're written by people who are not from that country, are written in a a way that is before the colonial system collapses or it's written at the moment of collapse, but that it's not really written afterwards.

CB: Yeah, yeah.

MS: So, I was thinking about this context of aftermath in this sort of post-colonial context. And I wanted to see how that sort of struck you, especially in relationship to these stories. Some of these stories are set in India but many of them are not. I don't know, there's something about that idea, to me, of the aftermath of a postcolonial culture.

CB: Well, we are so much in the aftermath of colonialism and slavery. I mean, it's everywhere. We're living deep inside it, you know, we're living in a country where there's a debate about whether the Confederate symbols and statues should still be cherished, should still be treated with reverence. Right? I mean, and it's hundreds of years later and you're sort of like, "What's wrong with you that you still want this?" You know? But yet at the same time, there's so much going on now in terms of—you know, there's a, there's a wonderful sociologist, Ashis Nandy whose work I also recommend. And a lot of it is centered on this notion of the intimate enemy. And it's a framework for looking at internalized racism. But it's complex in terms of how in the aftermath we enact violence against each other.

CB: And I think it's less about geography and it's more about a kind of existential how secure does somebody feel about his or her own identity and how much do they look at someone else as potentially stealing it in some way or jeopardizing it or de-legitimizing it or just messing with it, you know. And so I think about a story like "Talinda," which, it doesn't take place in India, although one of the images that one of the characters, Narika, the quote-unquote "friend" invokes is a very important postcolonial/colonial image of Jallianwala Bagh. Which was in The Guardian recently about this—it was a massacre. It was an indefensible massacre by the British of Sikhs during their harvest spring holiday, Vaisakhi, where they gathered. And they trapped them in this enclosure and they started shooting. It wasn't like don't meet and give you a chance to disperse. It's like wait until the gates are locked and then start shooting, and a lot of people died. And I think that that image is there because there's this way that people feel trapped in identities and don't really know how to be free and then can turn against each other because they feel unfree even though the person you turn against could actually be someone who really loves you and someone you shouldn't do that to. Because you have access to that person, really, and the intimacy piece of it. So I think aftermath is really fascinating. And I guess it also, even though a lot of people have said they're dark, you know, like one of my favorite writers, um, Diana Abu-Jaber, this Lebanese American writer, said there's dark magic. These are dark stories and brutal stories.

CB: And I actually think looking at the aftermath is a reflection of just how deeply optimistic and hopeful I am as a person, I would say that that's truly a defining quality. And I think most people who enjoy practicing medicine, we are that way. You know, we do believe that something's going come up. It's going to be okay. We're going to find a way to make it okay. There's maybe not a cure, but there is a future. There's a forward, there's motion. Because I think that's it. The aftermath presents an opportunity for something different to happen and something to change. And that's what I find quite exciting.

MS: Yeah, it's an interesting question, whether the stories are dark or whether the collection as a whole is dark. People mean different things sometimes when they say that, when they use that description. And because a lot of these stories, they do involve people having a certain cruelty to each other.

CB: Yes.

MS: And so I suppose in that way they could be seen as dark. I'm not necessarily sure that that's a word that I would have picked to talk about them. But in thinking about it, I'm a little... I'm not sure I can articulate exactly why they don't necessarily feel dark. You know, like they feel more... Like that engaging with these ways that people can be cruel in either petty or, you know, small ways or big ways isn't necessarily pessimistic or nihilistic or otherwise a downer. But rather that it sets up these scenarios where people can then make other choices. It also sets up scenarios where, like in the story we were just talking about, there's a certain amount of grace that can be shown. And also that it just feels very true. It feels like a true observation that this is how people are, if that sort of makes sense.

CB: To me it definitely does. I do believe that. I just love honesty. To me, honesty is what's really beautiful and if it's honest problematic emotions, so much the better, you know? But I do think that part of the coding of calling a collection like mine quote-unquote "dark"—beyond the obvious that I'm a woman of color, so it's going to be dark—is that it's not a sanitized, prettied version of a suburban Indian American identity. It's people who are really struggling in most cases. And I don't know. I mean, I think I started writing some of them a while ago when I feel like Jhumpa Lahiri really was the person who defined quote-unquote "Indian American fiction." And that was fine. And I think she accomplished a lot. And I think all of us—I can't speak for others, I shouldn't, but I think most people are pretty grateful that she opened up a space the way she did with a certain degree of impeccable professionalism, dignity and restraint. I mean that she made herself into a classic in terms of how she comported herself, her Garbo-esque public persona. Just lots of things that she did. She was very, very meticulous, I think. But it doesn't necessarily—like nobody's saying the F word in her stories, and nobody's—to use the lovely image that your four-year-old—nobody's talking about farting, you know. And it's not that people are necessarily talking about that in my stories, but you feel like they could talk about that. So the other thing too is—and this is actually kind of important—if you look at other South Asian American literature, there is a commodification of what—I oh, I'm forgetting his full name, but he's the guy, Nivon something. He coined this phrase, the curry novel, curry fiction. There's this commodified—I'm probably going to have to look him up just because I want people to know about his book—but there's a commodified South Asianness that can be sold where nobody talks about racism. And everyone wears beautiful clothes, saris and whatnot. And you hear the rustling of the saris, you smell the smell of the jasmine, you know. And that's, I think, also what people have in mind when they say that my work is dark because it doesn't give forward that commodified kind of curry stuff. So I thought that was kind of—I took that as deeply flattering, actually, because I don't think there's any future in that. I think it's over. I really do. I think that that kind of really simplistic portrayal is over. And even in YA fiction, it's over because of Angie Thomas.

CB: It's over, you know, like I think—oh yeah, so it's—Naben Ruthnum is his name and the book is called Curry: Eating, reading and Race. And he is coined this term "curry fiction," and it's the kind of Indian or South Asian diaspora book that could have recipes in the back and people say, "I loved your book. I could taste the food." And people said that about Jhumpa Lahiri. She was doing lots of interesting stuff about alienation and the silences between people, the silences in intimate relationships, intergenerational concealment, all kinds of things about people cut off from different possibilities of communication. And some people read it and they were like, "Wow, I read your book and I immediately went and googled how to make rogan josh because that's what I got out of it."

MS: Yeah. Well it is sort of an interesting thing, right? You can't control what people are going to take away from your stories, and hopefully somebody will find the parts that were important to you in them.

CB: Yeah.

MS: And I think too, it's an interesting question because I think there are these stories that might at this point be kind of cliched or like the way the story is told or the particular kind of narrative that American publishers seem to really eat up might even be stories that, immigrants themselves also want, some of them,

CB: You're right, it's complex.

MS: Yeah.

CB: You're absolutely right. Because we—there's something that we want, too.

MS: Yeah. I think the trick is being able to make room for more than one kind of story, which is of course Chimamanda Adichie talks about. It's not so much that maybe that story is in itself a problem, but if it's the only story then that's a problem.

CB: Yeah, exactly.

MS: Well, why don't we take a quick little break and then we'll come back and do the second segment.

CB: Okay, great.

Second Segment

Mike Sakasegawa: So for the second segment, I always invite the guest to bring a topic of their own, which could be whatever you'd like to talk about, whatever happens to be on your mind. So what would you like to talk about today?

Chaya Bhuvaneswar: Well, I guess, what I would find helpful to talk about is what I mentioned earlier and how you started the podcast was talking about, "Well, why this poem?" And it's a larger question of why any poem and what's the relationship of poetry to other writing that I do? I do also write poetry, actually. So I guess I just wanted to talk about how important... I can focus on poetry—I mean, plays are pretty important to me, too, particularly screenplays and different stuff that I read—but how important poetry is at this time and what I'm reading and what I'm really excited about and what I want to urge other people to read, too. The whole thing.

CB: I think for me, my engagement with literature at all really started with the poetry in the Hindu Temple. Sanskrit. And that unfortunately is something that is so intimate to me and something where those are the first stanzas, slokas that I memorized and they're personally meaningful. Some of that has been appropriated by Hindu fundamentalism and, you know, I'm sick that Modi's party won. You know, again, they're going back to stuff that happened in the 90s that I thought everyone had decided, no, that's bad and causes lots of violence, but it's simmered, it's stewed. And then it came out in power in this age of fake news and—

MS: That does seem to be the narrative just about everywhere in the world.

CB: Yeah. And people literally inciting riots and murders using social media in destructive ways, right? So I sort of preface talking about Sanskrit by saying what I'm talking about has no relationship to stuff they're doing all that bad stuff with. But the music of it. And that was among the first music and stories I heard. And that was really important to me, that it existed, this thousands of years old body of literature that had nothing to do and didn't even open itself to be understood by the same people who didn't look at me and see a writer, didn't look at me and see someone who would get published or who would be read in schools. Amazingly, I have people write to me saying they're teaching the stories in their classes, like this wonderful Filipina American novelist, Gina Apostol, is teaching my book in her class and this memoirist Kiese Laymon at U Mississippi is teaching it in his classes and it's being taught in a class at the New School as well. So, you know, the same people who would never have acknowledged that I could have that kind of authority, the people who sort of smiled condescendingly when I said I wanted to be a writer, those are the same people who didn't know and couldn't have imagined the magnificence of what was created over those thousands of years in terms of all these years of civilization. And syncretic civilization. You know, the splendor of Muslim India just as much as Hindu India, and everyone kind of influencing each other and, you know, people coming on horses from the north and having like a horse-based culture and the horse sacrifice being integrated into Hinduism. And Hinduism being, I think, remarkable for how it's absorbed so many things. Like the way it absorbed Buddhism, it absorbed Jainism.

CB: And Buddhism is another sort of favorite dear topic of mine in terms of having a body of poetry and stories that I drew on for the first story in the collection. So that first story, "White Dancing Elephants," actually a lot of people who have read it said, "Oh, you were thinking of Hemingway." I truly was not. I was actually thinking about the Buddha's birth story, which I had been thinking about for years, but then thought about in a different way when I suffered from a miscarriage. Where the Buddha's mother, Prince Siddhartha's mother Maya has this dream about this elephant right before having the Buddha. And on the one hand it's full of promise and it's a beautiful creature. And on the other hand there's death in it. And just kind of knowing from the beginning that as overjoyed as she was that he existed at all, she would lose him. My love of poetry really comes all the way down from that, you know, that deeply rooted kind of thing.

CB: And I think it informs how I think on a sentence level about a manuscript, which is why I have revised the novel that we're really hoping—and my agent is like tapping her foot—we're really hoping it goes out this year for submission. Because I will revise a sentence many times and like certain sentences because of how they sound before I fully know what they mean. And then go back and say, "I did kind of mean this, but not this." I think the way that it teaches you to pay attention to language and hear language and the way that it can transform your feelings.

CB: And so some really important poetry thatI've been reading and I do want to share with the audience. So, you know, read Seamus Heaney, he's damn good. I mean, he's talking about all kinds of things, like father-son conflict. And not just political violence, but he was also talking about the grip of a certain kind of judgment and punishment within an Irish Catholic context, because when he wrote that poem "Punishment" and his larger collection North and most of his collections, even when the collected poems came out in the early nineties, there was still conflict, there were still the Troubles between Northern Ireland and the rest of Ireland. And only this year even did abortion become legal in Ireland, you know, so I mean, he was talking about this often really brutal clash of old and new worlds, which I completely identify with.

CB: The other poet whom I love—and, you know, he's controversial, he probably did bad things. So it's with pain that I read his poetry, but not that dissimilar pain from reading T. S. Eliot, for example, who was just a bigot and wrote about the Jews of Europe in a disgusting way. I mean, he and his friend Pound probably burning in hell right now for how they viewed other human beings. But it's painful to read Derek Walcott and know that he was taken to task for sexual harassment by many people—not just one or two women, by many women. It's just painful because I think Omeros is good. I think it's really good. And I think someone interested in finding their way into Caribbean poetry could start with his Nobel prize acceptance speech about the sigh of history and the influence of Indo-Caribbean diaspora cultures on his imagination, and how the Ramayana, which is the religious epic that's in verse. It's all poetry, Sanskrit poetry, but poetry of image and immediacy and bloodshed and myth and war, and kingship and marriage and, you know, it's epic. That influenced him because diasporic Indians in Trinidad would do Ramlila, acting out scenes from the Ramayana during Dusshera, a particular religious month. So the exchange of cultures is really fascinating in his work. So I would read that.

CB: And then I would read... I'm trying to think, read the Modernists. T. S. Eliot. Marianne Moore, another one. Oh my God, what a heartbreaking thing. She supported Indian boarding schools. She was on the board of one of the Indian boarding schools. She thought that was a good thing. You know, this really savage, wrenching destruction of Indigenous families and bowl cuts and orange jumpsuits. And forcing them out of their native tongues and—disgusting. She thought that was great. And yet she wrote some pretty amazing poems, like this poem on marriage and, you know, just—gosh. I mean, she's good. What can I do? I read her, she's in my head.

CB: And then obviously Eliot, who I've written about for Tin House because he was actually a contemporary of my grandfather and just imagining their parallel paths. My grandfather was a bit younger but not that much younger and, you know, just kind of thinking, "Gosh, imagine if they overlapped in England at any point," and how differently they were treated. So he's there, but I mean the rhythms and ["Morning at the Window"] and just how he could communicate a mood of disgust in so few words and somehow make you feel at once shame and then also make you question that shame. You know, I found that important, informative in how I thought about shame. So that's sort of kind of older, whatever, classic poets.

CB: Eavan Boland is an interesting younger poet. And she wrote, I mention her, you know, just to mention as many women as I can. She wrote the presidential inauguration address and a poem about it for Mary Robinson, Ireland's first woman president several years ago. So that's kind of neat, you know, just the idea of the poet in public life and what that can mean. So those poets all mean a great deal to me.

CB: Tagore, I'm kind of ambivalent about because I really feel like in Bengali he's doing something really different from what it seems like he's doing in English, which I just don't trust and I don't trust how we was translated and sort of commodified by the Modernists. And that's where it all started. All the nostalgia and BS of mystical India, that's all where it started. So I just kind of throw that out.

CB: I had a phase where I really liked Octavio Paz. He was ambassador to India, I believe. I think from—oh God, I'm going to get the country wrong. I think Mexico? But you know, that was a while ago that I read that. But he has some really interesting love poems that are really beautiful. Everyone talks about Pablo Neruda but try reading Octavio Paz, that's worthwhile.

CB: And then Rilke. Oh my God. Well, I mean Rilke's all over my novel, which is called You Must Change Your Life. And I am really influenced by just the way that he condenses the visual and the linguistic. I really love that. Just a kind of image-based writing. Again, I don't know why I love that so much, but I just do so, and there's always the risk that it can become static.

CB: And so I do think that one of the things I'm really happy about with the story collection is I think for years I struggled to get out of this writing you work on forever and there's sort of like this inscription on parchment and it's beautified, but nothing happens in this story. And why are you telling it? I know I did that early on and I think in this collection—like Sam Sacks, the reviewer of The Wall Street Journal is like, "Oh, there's a lot of action here. Lots of things are happening." And "There's a pleasantly devious streak," which was probably my favorite saying from all the different reviews that I got. Where there's these unpredictable and sometimes last-minute twists, particularly in the story "The Shaker Chair," where somebody does something somebody else that's not very nice. I think to me that's the dream and the goal of the kind of fiction I love reading and therefore the kind of fiction I attempt to write and try and try and try and try again, which is, it's moving, it's gripping, istuff is happening. You're a little bit breathless, you'r turning the pages, but another part of your head is registering. "Oh shit, this is so beautiful." It's jewel-like, what is this? I see that color, you know? Wow, I never looked at that thing that way. That's really beautiful, you know? And so it's a kind of—I guess you could sort of think of it as John Woo's bullet, you know, like it's going to shoot someone but you're looking at it and it looks good while it's moving in the air, you know? So I think poetry really gives you many ways of seeing how people do that.

CB: Because I do feel like the best poems grip you from the beginning and change you and you feel you feel something and you feel like the poem itself is a happening. So that's the fallacy of Auden, "poetry makes nothing happen." And he's obviously another big person in my mind, although, I don't know, I don't take his poems home to the pillow. But he certainly did a lot for poetry in the culture, in a way that somebody like Wallace Stevens really couldn't do. He was so much in his head and just didn't give a shit and just kind of wanted to make as much money from his day job as possible, but also just somehow play around with this poetry thing. But Auden was a really a public poet and public intellectual. So what he did was important, I think. But poetry is the happening. It's not that poetry makes something happen. Poetry is the happening. You're in a poem when you're reading it and something is actually happening to you as you are reading a poem or listening to a poem.

CB: So let's see, we've gone through some of the major people, but there are many more, and this is a golden age of millennial poetry, but also people who are older. That's the other thing I really want to stress that I think there's a laziness and people just saying, "Oh, Kaveh Akbar has brought back poetry" or, you know, "Fatimah Asghar has brought back poetry." It never left.

MS: To be fair, I don't think either of the two of them would say that they did that.

CB: No, and they wouldn't say that either. But what millennials poets have done, which I think is fantastic, is they've shown the possibilities of YouTube, social media, social networking in creating an expectant and knowledgeable and deeply allied audience for poetry, as well as opening up poetry to be something that those members of the audience could also create and aspire to create. So they have taken the openness of the web and digital media and they've transposed it and they've reflected poetry through it. And that is a really important thing that they've done. And I don't think other generations really could have done that because they just didn't... Like Adrienne Rich, she couldn't have really done that. She just could go to a street corner and hold up a sign and scream and take off her shirt. You know, that's all she could do. She couldn't do what these folks are doing. She couldn't even do what Rupi Kaur did, which is post this photo of herself with her period obvious in the photo. That's where it all started. This photo of herself with visible menstrual blood. And then from that she sort of built this Instagram poet empire or whatever, which, you know, I don't have any comment on that except, you know, it is what it is.

CB: But I mean, I think that the vibrancy of many poets, lots of them poets of color but, you know, Maggie Smith is really dear to me, really dear to my heart. Chelsea Dingman, she's wonderful too. Then this African American woman poet who, I think it's good—the Poetry Foundation themselves on Poets and Writers recognize this is a really, really good poet who has not been hustling and being out in the spotlight, but we should put her in the spotlight is Patricia Spears Jones. She's really wonderful. She won the Jackson Prize, which is a huge prize in poetry. Danez Smith, this one poem, "summer, somewhere," if you don't cry—

MS: I do love that poem.

CB: Yeah, if you don't cry when you read that poem, I do think there's something wrong with you. I do think that, you know, probably. And, you know, Kaveh Akbar, I think it's quite moving the way he writes about addiction and recovery. But I don't know that I feel like he has the same musicality as a contemporary poet who speaks to me more directly, who is Nicole Sealey, I think. And Tiana Clark. I think they're both just really, really good and searing, you read them and are like, "Oh my God." So there's a lot of poetry out there that is really worth reading and worth listening to. And especially the stuff that you don't fully understand, and it makes you kind of uncomfortable but then you find yourself thinking about it. Like Terrence Hayes. You know, I can't say that I want to memorize his poems and recite them to myself, the way that this line from Nicole Sealey, "O / how I'll miss you when you're dead," from, "Object Permanence." There's no line in Terrance Hayes like that but his poems are arresting and they make you really uncomfortable. They get under your skin and, you know, he has this—one of the American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin. One of those sonnets uses the phrase "Jim Crow" in a visual and interesting and different way, and talks about the image of a turtle and all kinds of images that are just completely disturbing and mess you up.

CB: So I think that's really important because I think that when fiction moves you or does something really different than a news story or an article, I think it's because it captures that transformative kernel that poetry has, and it kind of creates its own world. And it says, "I'm a bigger poem. I'm a much longer poem, but I'm still a poem. Deal with it." You know? So I do think the short story is a nice mediation between poem and novel. And I am grateful to that form for that reason that when I start a short story, I can see the end. I visualize what's happening and have a sense of the arc. I know it and I'm searching and I'm not fumbling in quite the same way. But I feel like, at least for me with the novel—it has taken a lot longer with this novel and I'm just really hoping the next one is a lot easier. I'm sure a lot of people feel that way.

MS: Yeah. Well, so, usually I end with this particular question, which we kind of this whole segment have been talking about. But I'm going to go there anyway and maybe II'll just modify it a little bit. Usually what I would ask is if there is a piece of art or literature or creativity in some form that you've experienced recently that meant something to you. Obviously we've just been talking about a whole bunch of different work that's meant a lot to you. But maybe what we could do instead is say—because everything we've talked about has been poetry—so other than poetry then if there is something that you've gotten at recently that meant something to you.

CB: Oh, definitely. I would say a beautiful essay by Melissa Febos meant quite a lot to me. She is a queer writer of creative nonfiction. And I'm just trying to look up the title because I'm so bad at remembering, and especially because she had a Greek word as the title. She is Greek American and it was in the Sewanee Review. That's right. And the title—ah, here we go—was "Thesmophoria." If people want to look at it, it's in the Sewanee Review, which has been resuscitated. It was a really good lit mag and then I guess it fell into disarray and then it was rejuvenated. So this beautiful essay, it just—again, not to be too perserverative, but it does what poetry does in the sense that it makes its own rules and it makes its own world and you just have to enter it and just accept it as she's telling things that happen in this trip to Greece that she makes as a young adult. "Rome, July." The plane touching down. But the whole essay is really about her relationship with her mother, who is a therapist. And I'm a psychiatrist. So for me, this had layers of thinking a lot about... On some level, I wear it very lightly that I have this other perspective on the behavior of people who are closest to me. I wear it very lightly. I don't obviously shrink people in any sense because I don't want to make anybody smaller. I don't shrink them. But then at the same time I know it's there. It's in my mind and I'm doing it. I'm doing it all the time. It's very ingrained. So it's a fascinating essay about what happens when you're on the other end of it, you're the child of a mother who sees you as a mother but who also sees you as an analysand, who sees you as someone who's exhibiting reactions to things that may be predictable. And manages you and manages your quote-unquote "affect," your emotional expression. Manage you—and it's actually, sometimes it's exquisitely painful because if there's a conflict that my children are part of, part of me is thinking about that, but I'm actually really focusing on what their bodies are doing and if I feel like they're having physiological manifestations of distress because I know that that can cause trauma later. The sequelae of trauma later, like much later. Like I have patients in their fifties who are still in the grip of whatever traumatized them at age four or five, whatever. I will go, I will hug them as tightly as I can. I will kiss them embarrassingly number of times. I will just stop the conflict and say "You're so good. You're such a good boy. You're so good. You're so good." And I think what's really hard is when I see parents in public spaces, not being abusive, per se, but just not managing the affect and not alleviating the distress and just kind of withholding that capacity that they have to make the person physiologically calm down. You know, they stop sweating, their heart stops pounding, the fists stop clenching. You can do it. With that holding you can really calm somebody down, a child, especially. When they don't do it, it's horrible for me. It so painful to watch it. Part of me is thinking, "Oh my God." Because that person, if enough people do that to that person, or if there's no substitute, there's no granny waiting at home to be a soft spot to go and land on, that person's going to be my patient later. So, I love this essay because it's this dancing, meditative, fanciful, very light touch on the fact that she knows that the mother knows her in this way. She's using heroin. She suddenly calls the mother, sobbing, and she says, "Do you think I'm a good person? I asked my mother. Of course, she said. I could feel how much he still wanted to help me. I hung up the phone." This is a really strong essay. I really recommend it.

MS: All right, well I'll make sure I'll put a link in the show notes for that. So, cool, thank you. So thank you so much for talking with me.

CB: Thank you, Mike.


Mike Sakasegawa: OK, so as I mentioned at the top of the show, Chaya will be at the American Library Association Conference in Washington, DC, coming up on June 23rd, 2019. There’s a link in the show notes for that, as well as for where you can purchase a copy of White Dancing Elephants. Do check those out.

And that is our show. If you have any questions or comments, you can find me and the show on Twitter and Instagram at @ChannelOpenPod, on Facebook at, or you can send me an email at If you enjoyed today’s conversation and you’d like to put a smile on my face, head on over to Apple Podcasts and leave a review, that’s a big help. And, of course, you can support the show by making a pledge to our Patreon campaign at, that’s sake like the drink and river like river. Our theme music is by Podington Bear, you can find more of his music available for licensing at We’ll be back on June 19th with a conversation with poet Michelle Brittan Rosado, so do be sure to come back for that one. And until then, remember: keep the channel open.

Michael Sakasegawa