Work Life: An Interview with Jenny Bhatt
Photo by Praveen Ahuja
Jenny Bhatt is a writer, literary translator, and literary critic. She is the host of the Desi Books podcast. Her short story collection, Each of Us Killers, was released on Sep 8, 2020, with 7.13 Books. And her literary translation of Gujarati short story writer Dhumketu’s best short fiction will be out in late-2020. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in various venues in the US, UK, and India, including The Atlantic, NPR, BBC, Washington Post, Literary Hub, Longreads, Poets & Writers, The Millions, Electric Literature, The Rumpus, Kenyon Review, PopMatters, Scroll.in, and more. Her fiction has been nominated for Pushcart Prizes and the 2017 Best American Short Stories. She was a finalist for the 2017 Best of the Net Anthology. Having lived and worked her way around India, England, Germany, Scotland, and various parts of the US, she now lives in a suburb of Dallas, Texas. Find her at https://jennybhattwriter.com.
Over the past few months, the pandemic has revealed much about the types of work we consider essential and expendable, who we're willing to leave at risk on the front lines and who has the luxury of holing up at home. For many, the nature of work has dramatically changed, but for others the tasks remain relatively routine, even if much more dangerous.
In Jenny Bhatt’s debut short story collection, Each of Us Killers, we find characters in a complex array of professional relationships. Their jobs force them into moments that are intimate or distant, loving or transactional, cooperative or combative. At times, these disparities, in the office or elsewhere, lead to violent ends. I emailed with Bhatt about the relationship between work and writing, narrative structures, and the challenges of publishing a first book.
Aram Mrjoian: There's a pretty clear focus in Each of Us Killers on class structures. You've viewed these characters through day jobs, one of the places and activities on which we spend much of our time. Certainly, many people enjoy their professions, but there's also the reality that most of us work to make money, and I thought about that a lot during my reading. Forgive the unoriginal question, but can you talk a little bit about the themes of this collection and how you were thinking about money in relation to your characters?
Jenny Bhatt: When I left my full-time corporate job at age forty, I had hoped to launch into a full-time writing career right away and for as long as my savings would last. What I hadn’t expected was this sort of unmooring and loss of sense of self that happened during that transition period. It made me think about how much our jobs mean to us beyond the crucial necessity of paying the bills and putting food on the table. After all, our work is what most of us engage with for several hours a day—more than we might do with most other daily activities.
I also got to thinking about how sociocultural inequalities related to race, class, ethnicity, caste, gender, nationality, et cetera, play into our work-related interactions and identities. So, while money is definitely the big driver for most of the characters in these stories, I wanted to explore how they’re aided or thwarted by those inequalities in their attempts to earn a living. Particularly with the stories set in India, these inequalities are more deeply rooted, layered, and complex. I experienced all of that again firsthand when I returned to live in India, after having left as a teenager, from mid-2014 until early-2020. I also wrote this collection during that time.
AM: Another thing I found interesting about how these characters view the world is in the stark reality that often we don't know much about the people we spend countless hours with during a nine-to-five job. I think short fiction is often populated with strangers or people who are intimately connected, but here you kind of have both at the same time. Did the specificity of work relationships change your approach to character development when writing these stories?
JB: You’re right that we often don’t know much explicitly about the people we’re working with. Much less if we’re working remotely. But, if we pay close attention to the constant and complex web of work-related interactions between people, their personal biases, prejudices, needs, desires, aspirations, limitations, inequalities, et cetera, a lot more becomes evident. With the characters here, I made sure I’d understood some of their key social and cultural traits upfront. The rest was about seeing how they played off each other in their work situations to create an arc that would be interesting enough. And “interesting” is a vague word so I’ll clarify. For me, it means, the story takes me someplace that I’m not expecting—ideally, that tricky point of no return. In fact, you know how a lot of craft advice is to start a story “in medias res?” I often like to start a story at that point of no return. That hooks me as a writer more than anything else.
AM: I can see that in several of the stories, especially the opener, “Return to India.” A couple of these stories are in conversational first-person, but “Return to India” is structured as a one-sided conversation, a series of interviews with a police detective, but we never hear from the officer. From my perspective, this isn't easy to pull off, yet you make it feel natural and unobtrusive. What was your approach to writing this kind of story? How do you decide on the specifics—point of view, structure, et cetera—of how one of your stories is told?
JB: Thank you so much for saying that, Aram. It’s always a tough but deliberate choice, as you know, about which voice, point of view, and narrative structure to use when. Of course, they all have to serve the main themes but, given the economy of the short story, they have to do so much more. “Return to India” was inspired by the 2017 shooting of Srinivas Kuchibhotla, the Indian tech engineer in Olathe, KS. I was in India then, but I watched it play out over the news and social media.
It was fascinating to hear or read accounts from his white coworkers about how they had worked with him, what they had thought of him. I remember thinking: do some of these folks know how the field was always dangerously uneven for someone like him? Do they understand what a first-gen immigrant like him (and me) lives through daily? Do they realize how they’re still “othering” him with their well-meant eulogies? I wanted this story to be just those voices to highlight all of that more starkly. And the killer’s voice juxtaposed with theirs at the end was important too.
AM: This question might be inside baseball, but as an “emerging writer" and editor one of the first things I do whenever I pick up a short story collection is look to see where the stories were previously published. I've become kind of fascinated by this sort of thing, searching for patterns and unfamiliar venues. Can you talk some about the two lives of these stories? How did you think about and decide where these stories would find early homes? Were there a lot of changes between when these were published in journals and when they made the collection?
JB: I’m the same with stories in collections and wanting to know their previous lives. When I began sending these stories out to US and UK literary magazines, I was in India and off the US/UK literary grid entirely because even social media is tricky with the different time zones. I did the usual research to see if a lit mag had published works set in other countries and by writers of color—received a lot of rejections too. In some cases, I got some helpful editorial feedback. But, in general, I had only started sending my work out into the world in my early 40s, so I was just grateful when an editor accepted it. Only one of these stories changed considerably—beyond language and punctuation edits—after journal publication. With “Separation Notice,” I’d originally written it with Saint Medard. For the collection, I went back to my original idea of a Hindu god, Vishnu. There are plenty of specific mythological references and some folks might not get them or care for them. But, you know, they can easily look up the stuff if they want.
AM: There is a lot of direct and implied violence in this collection. The title story closes the collection and—without giving anything away—concludes in a horrific communal act. Do you see a relationship between violence—physical or rhetorical—and work? Is the title in this case sort of pointing to the ways in which we are all capable of harm?
JB: Absolutely, I do see a close relationship between violence and work. Thank you for this question. For years, I knew I was killing my own instincts, desires, and aspirations because I had to be this ideal immigrant employee with every job I had. I was just so thankful for the job that I let people treat me in ways I would not allow now. We kill some vital thing within ourselves and in others, I believe, with every negative interaction. So, yes, that is the sense in which I wanted to say that we are all killers in our own ways. Now, that sounds bleak and dark and I want to point out that not all the stories here are like that. Several of the characters have the “heroine’s journey” (as opposed to Campbell’s hero’s journey) like Urmi in “Pros and Cons,” Heena in “Life Spring,” Vidya in “Journey to a Stepwell.”
AM: Your bio notes, “Having lived and worked her way around India, England, Germany, Scotland, and various parts of the US, she now lives in a suburb of Dallas, Texas.” To return to the collection's theme for a moment, how has moving around and working in different countries changed the way you think about work environments, workplace relationships, and labor issues?
JB: The biggest thing with so much moving around is that you eventually do get accustomed to always being the outsider, the other. During my younger years, however, it was a source of constant discomfort because, of course, I wanted to fit in, to assimilate. And, more than that, in a work environment, the performance measurement and reward systems are designed such that you need to conform if you want to keep your work permit, have a stable job, get that salary increase, or land that promotion. So, you tend to give 200% to everything. And then, culturally, each country I’ve worked and lived in looks at work-life balance so differently, so that was an ongoing adjustment. That said, I still have people telling me that I’m a workaholic or they’re amazed at my bandwidth. I tell them, no, it’s just the immigrant work ethic.
AM: Your acknowledgments begin by saying the first book is “arguably the hardest for any writer.” Would you mind talking about that a little bit? What challenges did you face in putting this collection together and the publication process? Also, what's next? Are you working on book number two?
JB: Well, it’s been a journey and a half with this book. I have no formal literary pedigree. I started publishing my work in my 40s. My first book is a short story collection, which the industry gatekeepers aren’t too fond of, it seems. My fiction veers away from the preferred South Asian tropes related to slums, arranged marriages, terrorism, etc. All of this makes the uphill climb that much steeper. In 2018, after having signed with and walked away from three indie presses due to differences of opinion, I connected with Leland Cheuk of 7.13 Books. His journey to becoming a writer is very inspiring and he wrote about it at Salon . He’d also left Silicon Valley after a corporate career to turn to writing full-time. When he reached out and asked if I had a publisher and said he only published debut fiction because he thought that was the most difficult for a new writer—I was in. Working with him and Hasanthika Sirisena, my editor, has been a dream come true. Both of them are writers of color and they totally got my writing and supported it. They’re both super-talented and deserve a lot more attention for their own work.
Next, I have a literary translation coming out in December in India. Dhumketu is a short story pioneer in the Gujarati language and he wrote ~600 short stories and 40+ books. Hardly any of his work has been translated into English. He was also my mother’s favorite short story writer.
And I’m currently working on a novel, but I don’t like to say too much about early works-in-progress other than I’m truly enjoying playing with the novel form. I will always love the short story form and I still have many work-related short stories to write about South Asian Americans and the many kinds of jobs they do. There will be another collection soon, for sure.