Tara & Chaya
Tara Isabel Zambrano and Chaya Bhuvaneswar talked about “Gas Station” over email.
Tara: Chaya—It's such a pleasure reading your work again. Fresh and filled with all the details that I identify with, have grown up with.
I love the authenticity, the biting humor in this piece. The description of smells, the language, the perceptions sit perfectly without a crease. I am curious where did this idea originate from? What is this story about?
Chaya: I think this story comes from my interest in how finely different groups within subcontinental cultures define themselves—both in benign and less benign ways. I’ve been interested in this since as long as I can remember I think, it dates back to before I had language. When I was an observer and sometimes an unwilling participant in various Iyer (Tamil Shaivite Brahmin) rituals that the people around me distinguished so strongly from Iyengar (Tamil Vaishnavite Brahmin) rituals. For me, it’s really is all about the narcissism of small differences.
Tara: I have read White Dancing Elephants, and every time I read your work, as a writer, I am curious about your portrayal of South Asian men and women, the distinctions in their heart and the places they converge and intersect. How do you go about constructing them?
Chaya: I'm reminded of a beautiful interview I saw recently with Louise Erdrich, where she affirms the process I experience too—where you just sort of have stories to tell, but are not consciously constructing them. I'd say the construction piece might come later for long works, like novels. Definitely there's super-structural thinking in the revision process. But even in revision, a lot isn't conscious. I'm always grateful for that.
Tara: As a desi writer, I always ask myself if I should highlight a word because it's in Hindi or in Urdu, if I should explain it. So I’m curious: who are your audience? Is there a person/group that you are writing for? What do you want them to take away from your work?
Chaya: I feel like I am writing for anyone willing to read, and that's all. It's completely open. My hope as always is that they absorb how human other people are, who are different from them.
Tara: There's a tradition, a culture spread in your stories, it's always woven so seamlessly. I like the character of Wally, and identify with him, especially where he reflects upon his father's words, tries to obey as much as he can. Also his father who says, “you must never forget who you are.” Those few paragraphs are the gist of being desi, or rather, an expectation of being desi, in my opinion. Who inspired these characters for you? Who laid the foundation?
Chaya: I feel lucky to have desi friends of all ages, from all communities—Sikh, Hindu, North, South, Muslim, Ismaili, B'hai, Jain, Buddhist, etc. I feel like friends and family are where we draw most of our content for fiction. These are the people who love us.
Tara: OK so—I really want to know, is this story a glimpse into a longer work? Is there another book in the works? I certainly hope so!
Chaya: Not completely sure yet but this may be part of a novel—let’s see!
Tara: Thanks so much, Chaya!
Chaya: Thank you!
Kamil: I remember in the edits I was really intrigued by the “Bust the Dots!" reference because I had no idea what it was, I had to Google it—and you basically gave me a history lesson in it! Can you comment on the reference?
Chaya: So, the “Bust the Dots!” reference is to a hate group in the late 80s, the Dot Busters, that were based in Jersey City, and broadly in New Jersey and New York. Historically, the group has targeted us. South Asians. All of us. Not even specifically Hindus. The Dots referred to are bindis, but they went after turban-wearing Sikhs, Muslims with topis, every brown Asian. In fact, quite recently, the wonderful essayist and novelist Amitava Kumar vividly described an article in the New Yorker about this history and the Dot Busters' 1987 murder of an Indian man, Navroze Mody.
Kamil: Thanks, Chaya! I just really felt the need to talk about that because it feels like something folks like myself really should know about!