Set in the American Midwest, England, and India (Mumbai, Ahmedabad, rural Gujarat), Jenny Bhatt’s debut collection of short stories, Each of Us Killers, is about people trying to realise their dreams and aspirations through their professions. Whether they are chasing money, power, recognition, love, or simply trying to make a decent living, their hunger is as intense as any grand love affair. Straddling the fault lines of class, caste, gender, nationality, globalisation, and more, they go against sociocultural norms despite challenges and indignities until singular moments of quiet devastation turn the worlds of these characters — auto-wallah, housemaid, street vendor, journalist, architect, baker, engineer, saree shop employee, professor, yoga instructor, bartender, and more — upside down.
In conversation with the writer about her journey and new book below:
In your viral 2018 Longreads essay, you wrote about emerging as a writer at the age of 40 after a corporate career. Tell us about the most interesting aspect of the journey so far.
In the essay, I shared how I’d been writing since I was a pre-teen. Won a national story competition with Femina India at age 10. But, in the middle-class Gujarati culture I grew up in, writing was not a worthwhile occupation for women. Though my parents were advanced enough to allow their four daughters to study well and have respectable careers, the end game was always about marriage and kids. Breaking free from that script was a constant challenge. I knew I’d have to earn enough to support myself if I didn’t want to rely on a husband or a father. Writing had to take a backseat. When I had enough savings to take the leap, I felt too old to start a new career in a field that sees ‘emerging writer’ or ‘debut writer' as synonymous with ‘young writer’. Being a writer at this later stage in life has been about finding my voice, pushing back against gender-driven ageism, and more.
Your collection, Each of Us Killers, is about working people chasing their dreams and aspirations through their jobs. What inspires you about this theme?
I’ve had various jobs my entire adult life. From tuition teacher to shop assistant to bartender to engineer to consultant to financial planner to editor. Our occupations and professions are as much a part of our identities as our place of origin, or our relationship status, or our religion. Yet, we don’t see a lot of fiction centred on the workplace. Through this collection, I wanted to explore the lives of working men and women, and to see how the intersecting issues of gender, class, religion, caste, age, colour, ethnicity, race, and nationality shape our lives and our luck.
Who are your major creative influences for these stories?
As a writer, I am the sum of what I’ve read. And I've read many short stories — both for pleasure and for practice. I also wrote a monthly short story column from 2016-2020 featuring writers from around the world. For this collection my influences were Rohinton Mistry, Katherine Mansfield, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. But, while I learned craft by studying their short stories, I wrote with my own sensibilities and language.
What drives you to the short story form versus the novel form?
A novel can be summed up in a couple of lines when we ask what it's about. With a story collection, that's not easy to do unless the stories are all closely-linked. These are two different forms of fiction. A novel is read straight through because there's causality, correlation, what-happens-next, et cetera. With a short story collection, we can mostly read in any order. A novel has many pages to explore and say what it must. A short story has a finite number of words to pack in all its punches. A novel is capacious by nature and allows a story to build, grow, rove. A short story must get about its business quick, sharp, potent. A short story is not about a complete arc of plot or character. It is like a framed photograph of a particular moment shown from a specific perspective versus a widescreen movie of a series of moments recorded from multiple angles. It is not even so much about the start or end of something as about ‘that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead’ (Graham Greene.) Each story here aims to frame that individual moment of experience. So, of course, every detail and sentence within such a frame must be meaningful. This is, to me, the fun and pleasure of writing short stories.
Some of the stories here are drawn from real-life incidents. What are the challenges with writing such stories?
For me, the level of difficulty isn't related to whether a story is based on real-life incidents. Perhaps, with a solid foundation, it's easier to build a story's scaffolding. But the real test, with a story based on a real-life incident, is whether it sheds some new light or brings a new perspective to the incident. Something the news coverage hasn't already done. So I did work harder on those stories — like ‘Return to India’ and ‘Each of Us Killers’ — to draw out something new and noteworthy for the reader (and I am my own first reader, of course) to observe, explore, understand.
How have you been coping with the current pandemic and what will be the new normal for you post it?
I’ve been working on two book projects, book reviews, my Desi Books podcast, and more. So my life is pretty busy even as the world seems to be falling apart. I miss traveling, going to restaurants and bookstores, et cetera, but these are tiny problems compared to what many others are coping with. So I’m just grateful for being able to do my writing and reading in the comfort and safety of my home with my husband and our dog.
Lastly, what’s next for you?
I have a literary translation coming out in December with HarperCollins India. It’s a selection of short stories by the Gujarati short story pioneer, Dhumketu. Excited about that. I’ve got a novel in progress which I can’t speak too much about. And I’ve got my Desi Books podcast (https://desibooks.co) where I get to talk to amazing writers of South Asian origin about their books.
To read our complete review of the book, buy a copy of our November 2020 bi-annual bookazine. Coming Soon.