Jenny Bhatt wants to read stories from every culture

Jenny Bhatt is a writer, translator, and host of the Desi Books podcast. She is outspoken on Twitter about the need for diversity in publishing and is an advocate for all writers and not just ones who share her background.

Her debut story collection, Each of Us Killers, is about Indians in the workforce. The typical tropes readers, editors, and agents might expect from a South Asian writer are nowhere to be found. The book is the culmination of years of desire and hard work. She spent years in corporate America while writing on the side before moving back to India to pursue her debut seriously.

I spoke with Jenny Bhatt about her writing history, how her book finally came together, and how publishing has changed since she queried the book back in 2017.

Was literature always involved in your life from an early age?

Yes, it was. I was about 10 years old when my English teacher in school entered me in a national writing competition for children in India. It was through a reputable magazine and I won. In my head, I said, “Of course, I am going to be a writer.” In our middle class, conservative, Indian culture being a writer is not a respectable profession for women. That was never something my parents would allow.

I did continue writing though in school and college magazines. Like many people who started writing young, I had a novel at 15, which is thankfully destroyed.

Growing up, I did go the route most South Asians go, which is engineering or medicine, and in my case it was engineering. I did continue taking writing workshops and especially so when I moved to the States in 1998. I was staying in Kalamazoo, Michigan and went to writing conferences there or go down to the University of Iowa for their summer writing program. I did that in my spare time while earning a living in corporate America.

After I turned 40, I had a little bit of savings and decided to see what I could do with writing. I did try a low residency MFA program but it didn’t go well for me. I feel it was at a time that there wasn’t enough awareness of different ways of storytelling, traditions, and cultures. I didn’t feel the feedback I was getting was helping me much.

A lot of your publications listed on your website start popping up around 2016. Was that when you were doing the MFA?

That was after. The low res was in the mid-2000s before I moved to California. I couldn’t stay in California writing and paying those rents. I went back to India in mid-2014 to spend two years writing the book I wanted to write. Of course, two years turned into five and a half years because I ended up doing two book projects.

Up until then, the only writing I submitted was to writing workshops. In late-2015 I finally started submitting to publications and they started publishing in 2016. By 2017, I realized there were enough stories for a book.

Were the majority of those early stories written after you moved back to India?

I had some completed works before then that I never submitted. Some was fiction and some was non-fiction. The majority of what’s in the book is what I wrote when I was in India.

I’m always interested in place and how it influences writers. As someone who grew up in India, moved around the States, went back to India, and returned back here, how do you feel those paths and journeys influenced this collection?

My preoccupations during the time that this collection was being written in India were very different than the preoccupations I had while I was living in the U.S. When I moved to India in 2014, I had given up my corporate career and for the first time, that part of my identity was gone. That was always a part of my identity and it wasn’t there anymore.

People’s lives and people’s work and how it factors into their identity was something I was grappling with. Especially in a country like India because I was a middle-aged, single, and had no job. People weren’t sure where to place me. They would say: she wasn’t a mother, she wasn’t a wife, she wasn’t working, and she was a writer but doesn’t have a book yet. I was also struggling to understand my own identity back in India after being gone for over two decades. 

All of that came into this collection. It is centered on working lives and about people trying to figure out how work is a part of their lives and the challenges they deal with at their place of work. The funny thing was, I didn’t even realize that was the reoccurring theme until I had some pieces published. I hadn’t been pitching it to agents in that way and it wasn’t until someone said I needed a theme that I realized I had it.

I feel in America our work is so closely tied to our identities. We’ll ask, “What do you do?” very early into meeting someone. It seems there is that preoccupation of what we do defines us also in India.

I think it’s getting pretty universal. In India, because of the rising middle class and more and more women in the workforce. Certainly, in India, the issue is for men because their job defines their marriage prospects and where to place them in society. If a woman is unmarried the question becomes, “Well, what does she do?”

What was the process like for querying this book for you?

I had been writing for literary magazines in the U.S. and I had some connections, but I wasn’t on the literary grid. I didn’t have the MFA or an O. Henry Award. When I started querying in April 2017, it was still difficult to do that. What happens is agents and editors are on social media and if you can see what they’re looking for. With me being in a whole other time zone, I didn’t even get to see that unless I went looking. It was hard work trying to find the right people to pitch my work to.

My stories are set in the U.K., U.S., or India, but they all are of Indian origin. There are cultural markers in the stories, as there should be, but initially a lot of the feedback was around the lines of people not being able to relate to it. They liked the writing, but they couldn’t relate to it.

The idea of being off the literary grid is something that interests me a lot. How did you navigate that? Was it an advantage to be a new, exciting voice?

I think at the time, it was a disadvantage because there hadn’t been that many hashtag movements about diversity in publishing. Selling this book was even pre-#metoo. Being unknown did not work in my favor. 

Also, I feel when people think of South Asian literature or literature based in India or from an Indian-origin writer, there are certain tropes people are interested in. They want arranged marriage, poverty and slums, or even terrorism. There are a lot of award-winning writers from the region who have done that and even subverted the tropes. Look at what Mohsin Hamid did with The Reluctant Fundamentalist. He took the terrorism trope and did something completely different. There are writers who have done good things with those tropes, but unfortunately my book does not talk about any of those topics. I think that threw people off because it was an Indian book without terrorism or poverty.

If I was sitting in India now in mid-2020 and querying that it would be a very different ballgame.

I know there is a lot of work to do in the literary world regarding diversity, but one thing I admire is how outspoken you are and how much of an advocate you are for writers who are like you as well as writers who aren’t like you.

I do believe that every culture has a different storytelling culture. I respect that and think we are all better off for it. We’re all richer because of these cultures.

The idea that people turn things down because they themselves didn’t connect with it still baffles me. I feel I can connect with anything. These stories all have something I can connect with. I don’t think people can use that excuse anymore.

It was a euphemism for this won’t sell. I don’t blame agents. It’s their full-time job and they are trying to make their 15% or whatever commission. They have to think about commerce. I get it. We’re in a field that isn’t all about art and there is a commercial aspect of it. I just wish people would be more open about it and say, “You know what, with the current market of what editors are looking for means I can’t sell this.” To their credit, there were two or three agents who very openly said that they couldn’t sell it. Not that it couldn’t sell, but they weren’t the people to try to pitch it.

Throughout the time you searched for and found your agent and found the home at 7.13 Books, did you ever come across people pushing for you to include stories with more Indian tropes?

How I found them was that I had written an essay for Longreads entitled “Emerging As a Writer — After 40” and Leland Cheuk, the founder of 7.13 Books reached out. He was sure I had an agent and publisher, but said if I didn’t he would be interested in looking at my book.

He came back and said he was very interested and wanted to publish my book. I was sort of walking away from a certain publisher where things were not going well for me, so I thought 7.13 would be great. He had brought on Hasanthika Sirisena as an editor who is of Sri Lankan origin who has written a short story collection. I was thrilled to have someone editing my book who would get it.

To their credit, there was never a question of the book being too Indian or needing to make something more universal. Even when I decided to put all brown faces on my book cover, not once did I have someone say I should rethink that.

[Debutiful note: Please go check out the Lit Hub piece about the cover of Each of Us Killers.]

Please subscribe to Debutiful’s podcast, which releases once a month with an in-depth interview with one debut author.

Adam Vitcavage is the founder of Debutiful. His interviews and criticism have also appeared in Electric Literature, The Millions, Paste Magazine, and more.

Visit Jenny Bhatt at her website and follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

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