Monday, October 5, 2020

Q&A with Jenny Bhatt

Photo by Praveen Ahuja


Jenny Bhatt is the author of the new story collection Each of Us Killers. She hosts the Desi Books podcast, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Atlantic and The Washington Post. She lives near Dallas, Texas.


Q: Your website describes Each of Us Killers as "Stories woven at the intersection of labor and our emotional lives." Can you say more about that?


A: Most of my adult life, I’ve been fortunate enough to have some job or other to pay the bills. But, as a reader, it was hard for me to find fiction that centered on the working lives of brown people, especially immigrants, like me. There are stories about working people but the work part is usually not foregrounded.


So I wanted to explore working lives and the different kinds of challenges we all face based on our class, gender, ethnicity, nationality, caste, and more. And how we then navigate those fault lines on a daily basis.


Q: Over how long a period did you write the stories in Each of Us Killers, and how did you choose the order in which the stories would appear in the book?


A: I started writing these stories in late 2014 and finished them in late 2017. There are two or three stories that existed in different versions before this time but I honed them during this period.


For how I ordered them: I didn’t have much of a sense of organizing them in any cohesive way when I’d collected enough stories for a book. When I first queried the collection, for about a year, the “working lives” theme wasn’t even mentioned in my proposals.


After reading a Twitter thread by Laura van den Berg in 2018, I organized the stories in different ways, removed some of them, and focused on unifying them around “working lives.”


Of course, that preoccupation had been there throughout the writing of all of the stories. Maybe, as it was my first collection, I hadn’t understood that the publishing world prefers themed collections because, well, they’re easier to package and market. I do understand that now. It’s a commercial need.


Q: How was the book's title--also the title of one of the stories--chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: When my book’s editor proposed we use this story’s title as the book’s title, I was a bit reluctant. I worried that people might mistake it for a thriller or a murder mystery. And, to be honest, that’s happened. But I also saw her point that my original title sounded dry and nonfiction-y.


With the story “Each of Us Killers,” this phrase is the last line of the story. I intended it to be a loaded phrase that spoke to the particular situation in the story as well as to the fact that we are all, each of us, killers in some way or another. Daily, we kill our own finer instincts, desires, needs, wants, aspirations, etc., and then we do that to others as well in the workplace.


We may not be aware of it but this “death by a thousand cuts” happens all the time. We may call it everyday sexism or racism or classism or casteism. But it’s very much there.


Q: In a review on Texas Public Radio, Yvette Benavides said, "If all stories are about loss and if that is where the element of conflict emerges in a story, then in Jenny Bhatt’s stories the central loss seems to come from how living in a particular place infringes on our lives — because of some disparity, some lack of equity." What do you think of that assessment?


A: Yvette was spot-on in her generous, insightful review. Most stories are about some kind of loss, this is true. And that loss or sense of loss gives the story its conflict, crisis, or tension.


Before the pandemic, many of us probably spent more waking hours at our workplaces than in our own homes. And workplaces are all about power imbalances due to the inherent hierarchies. Then, we have all the other disparities and inequities I mentioned earlier with class, gender, race, ethnicity, caste, etc.


So, yes, the loss and conflict we deal with at our workplaces, where we spend so much of our lives, is certainly driven by those disparities and inequities. And, yet, we don’t have a lot of fiction talking explicitly about these kinds of losses. As Stuart Dybek once said, we get a lot of fiction about love and sex and we need more about work.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m getting ready to launch my first literary translation. It’s a collection of stories by the Gujarati short story pioneer, Dhumketu. He wrote some 600 short stories in 25-26 volumes. And only a couple have been translated into English. So this was a big, multi-year project for me.


And, while I’m not thrilled about having to launch another book during a year like this and in another country (it’s releasing from HarperCollins India), I’m glad it’s finally coming out.


I’m also working on a novel but I can’t speak about a writing project until it has more definition.


And I’ve started talks with another publisher about another literary translation project. Let’s see what comes of that.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: As I’ve been doing the virtual book tour for this first book, I’ve been trying to bring along other writers who I feel are under-represented. And I’m very thankful to all those who’ve reached out to me, much like you have, to support me along on this book’s journey.


So my one request to anyone who cares about literature and about preserving and elevating literary traditions, is to model the behaviors we want to see in the world. Let’s keep raising the tide because a rising tide lifts all boats.


Thanks so much, Deborah for this opportunity to answer these questions. It’s gratifying for more than just the attention. I love how, with each interview, I’m gaining more clarity about my own thoughts and my book.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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