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.