White Dancing Elephants

White Dancing Elephants

Eye on the Indies: A Look at Indie Authors and Their Publishers

By Lanie Tankard, Indie Book Reviews Editor

WHITE DANCING ELEPHANTS: STORIES by Chaya Bhuvaneswar (Durham, NC: Dzanc Books, October 9, 2018). 208 pp, $16.95; paperback ISBN 9781945814617.

“Ebb and flow, ebb and flow, our lives.”
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni,
Before We Visit the Goddess (p. 68)

Cover design by Matthew Revert

Chaya Bhuvaneswar’s debut book, White Dancing Elephants, won the 2017 Short Story Collection Prize from Dzanc Books. This intricate assemblage of seventeen candid tales skirts categories in a variety of voices and settings. A pithy quote from Seamus Heaney’s poem “Punishment” serves as an apt epigram leading into the narrative gathering.

The running theme explores commonalities among survivors—of discrimination, rape, miscarriage, betrayal, countertransference, disasters, arranged marriages, and disabilities (to mention a few). Most are women of color, but they are not the only protagonists.

Bhuvaneswar brings both her medical and psychological knowledge to these vignettes, thereby creating a solid foundation upon which to construct vivid scenes of marginalized lives: gay, lesbian, disabled, dying, female, lower class, or innocent children.

The author’s voice arrests, grabbing the reader’s lapels with a shake. “Listen,” her stories say. “Hear me,” her characters plead. Bhuvaneswar psychoanalyzes them. Her pages serve as a couch from which the analysands release their feelings in catharsis.

Many narratives address ethical questions such as the primordial hunger to have a child juxtaposed against caring for someone with a terminal illness in “Talinda,” which is the longest at twenty-six pages. It’s followed closely by “A Shaker Chair” at twenty-four. Both deliver a wallop.

One cannot predict a story’s strength by its length, however. The shortest tales are a mere four pages each yet weigh in on heavy subjects. “Neela: Bhopal 1984” takes on the heart-wrenching effects of the toxic gas leak at a pesticide plant in India, which led to a disaster. Bhuvaneswar’s minimalistic manner in that tale is reminiscent of the restraint George Saunders packed in his strong Tenth of December stories. Another short one is “The Orphan Handler,” in which girls can turn naturally into animals. This magically realistic world is a powerful metaphor portraying girls finding their own voices instead of being tamed.

“White Dancing Elephants,” the title story, is a lyrical ode to a child unborn. A forty-year-old Asian woman in London has a poignant conversation with the possibility she’s lost, imagining the future if this “being” could have been. The words ring real to anyone who’s had a miscarriage. Rare white elephants have symbolic meaning, connected to fertility. Before the Buddha was born, he is said to have appeared to his mother as a white elephant in a dream

Chaya Bhuvaneswar
Author photo: Aynsley Floyd

Bhuvaneswar’s stories delve into a whole host of issues—from body odor to robot sex. They reach as far back in time as 1584 Imperial Portugal to explore the life of a male Indian slave in “Heitor.” They jump to the present in “The Story of the Woman” as a twelve-year-old boy sits in Starbucks wondering about his sister who ran away from home—imagining if she’d stayed. “Orange Popsicles” delves into the long-lasting PTSD effects of rape, including class differences and cultural variations—and the importance of an ally who will go to battle for the survivor.

The fiction clustered in these several hundred pages makes quite an impact. It’s as if Chaya Bhuvaneswar’s imagination knows no bounds. One closes this book wanting more.

Chaya Bhuvaneswar’s writing has appeared in various venues such as Narrative MagazineThe AwlTin House, Michigan Quarterly Review, Notre Dame Review, and storySouthAs a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University, she concentrated in Sanskrit to study Indian poetic traditions. She has also been supported by a 1988 NEH Younger Scholars Grant in Literature for her examination of “Indian Oral Tradition in Greater New York.”

Bhuvaneswar has received the Henfield Prize, as well as Yale’s Elmore A. Willets Prize for Fiction. She was a MacDowell Colony Fellow, and a 2018 Tennessee Williams Scholar at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. Her short story “Penances” appeared in the anthology Her Mother’s Ashes 2, and she has been featured on The Other Stories podcast. Bhuvaneswar was a 2017–2018 affiliated fellow at Boston University’s Center for the Study of Asia.

In addition to writing, Bhuvaneswar is a practicing psychiatrist and physician at Massachusetts General Hospital, where she did her residency. She is also affiliated with Cambridge Hospital. Bhuvaneswar earned her MD from Stanford School of Medicine in 2004. She has taught at the University of Pennsylvania and Brown University—as well as St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center in Boston, where she is medical director of the psychosis unit.

Publisher: Dzanc Books

Michigan nonprofit publisher Dzanc Books got its start in 2006, focusing on modern literature that was out of print and transforming it into e-books at the dawn of e-readers.

Founder and Publisher Emeritus Steven Gillis, an antitrust lawyer turned author, supported Dzanc with profits from his own books. He earned an undergraduate degree from the University of Michigan and a law degree from the University of San Francisco. Gillis, who left Dzanc in 2016 to focus on his own writing, has taught at Eastern Michigan University and served on the Board of Directors of the Ann Arbor Book Festival. He also started the nonprofit writing center 826michigan, an offshoot of 826 Valencia founded by author Dave Eggers and educator Nínive Calegari in San Francisco.

Dzanc cofounder Dan Wickett created the Emerging Writers Network in 2000 as an email list for his own book reviews, later adding author interviews to a blog. EWN has morphed into a community of both emerging and established writers, as well as literary readers. Wickett stepped down as Dzanc executive editor in 2013.

Upon the departure of Steven Gillis, Guy Intoci took over for a year as Dzanc editor-in-chief—a position assumed in 2017 by publisher Michelle Dotter, based in Boulder, CO. Previously Dotter worked for various houses such as MP Publishing and the former MacAdam/Cage. She has a degree in Creative Writing from Colorado College.

Dzanc runs the annual Disquiet International Literary Program in Lisbon, Portugal, along with the Portuguese Centro Nacional de CulturaThe Collagist is Dzanc’s bimonthly online literary magazine. The publisher sponsors three literary prizes: fictionnonfiction, and short storiesPublishers Group West distributes Dzanc books.

Copyright 2018 Woven Tale Press LLC. All Rights Reserved.

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