Book Review: WHITE DANCING ELEPHANTS by Chaya Bhuvaneswar

I love short story collections, but they’re devilishly tricky to review. Luckily, Chaya Bhuvaneswar’s debut collection, White Dancing Elephants, makes it easy for me: every single story is a knockout, cohering into a whole even greater than the sum of each part. Spanning continents, centuries, societies, religions, languages, genders, and sexualities, White Dancing Elephants offers up a profoundly moving series of observations about what it means to be alive (and sometimes dead), in some of the most beautiful prose I’ve read lately. Fans of the short stories of Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, and Jhumpa Lahiri won’t want to miss this one, though this collection is far from a mere imitation of those authors: with White Dancing Elephants, Bhuvaneswar forges terrific new ground all her own.

You can read my full review below.


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White Dancing Elephants by Chaya Bhuvaneswar

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

  • publisher: Dzanc Books
  • publication date: October 9, 2018
  • length: 208 pages

Two years ago, when I went back to Agra, India, at the age of twenty-two, to visit my grandparents and let two of my uncles set up my marriage, my ex-girlfriend Lauren, whom I work with now on a daily basis, came after me, hoping to stop me from giving in.

–from the story “Adristakama,” in White Dancing Elephants by Chaya Bhuvaneswar

I always forget how much scaffolding goes into making a good story until I read–or attempt to write–a short story. A novel (or even a novella) has so much room for curtains and cover-ups, words that smooth over worldbuilding and stakes in order to keep us fully immersed in the fiction. A short story does not.

Authors of short stories must hit a bullseye every time in order to be successful: they need to choose a premise that’s exactly the right size for the story, peopled by the right number of characters, made meaningful by the right array of metaphors and themes and big reveals. One wrong move and the spell is broken.

Assembling a collection is even harder. The stories must not only work well on their own, but add meaning to each other. They must be unified into something that’s more than just a collection of pretty items in a shoebox–something more like a thoughtful exhibit at a museum, something you’d remember for a long time.

I was reminded of all these difficulties because White Dancing Elephants makes it look absolutely effortless. It’s a high wire act that its author, physician and writer Chaya Bhuvaneswar, might as well be performing at ground level for all it seems to test her.

It’s hard to say what, exactly, unifies the stories of White Dancing Elephants, except that they are unified. The titular story (also the first one in the collection) follows a woman struggling with a miscarriage. It’s trippy and surreal, but not self-consciously so, a watercolor-y portrait of pain and dreaming.

From there the collection opens up into a riot of color, idea, sound, humor, violence, ache. “Talinda” is vicious and tender by turns, chronicling a toxic friendship poisoned by cancer, an affair, and overwhelming, terribly attentive cruelty. “A Shaker Chair,” my least favorite story in the collection (but still a damn interesting one) is also about two women determined to hurt each other, but this time it’s a black biracial therapist and her Indian client. It probes at the ways abuse, prejudice, and sex intertwine, especially at how Asian anti-Blackness and Black xenophobia work in frustrating tandem, neither sin of mistrust cancelling out the other.

My favorite story comes near the midpoint and is also, I believe, the shortest. “Neela: Bhopal, 1984” explores the “world’s worst industrial disaster” (the 1984 chemical leak at the Union Carbide pesticide plant) in language that’s far from the clinical and numerical, the way it’s mainly written about in the U.S. today. A girl goes outside to play and does not come home. Bhuvaneswar handles the material with great tenderness and sharpness both, managing to avoid a simple environmentalist morality play in favor of something more spiritual, piercing, and indicting.

I can’t decide if Bhuvaneswar’s style is deceptively simple or simply deceptive: she’s a master of storytelling sleights-of-hand, focusing your attention on the details so that the full emotional weight of each story sneaks up on you right at the end, without feeling like a cheap “gotcha.” I don’t think I’ve ever read a book so full of revelations.

She also writes with incredible specificity, name-dropping brand names and place names and disorders and configurations of queerness. This would feel less interesting if the stories were obviously autobiographical, but they’re not: in addition to “Neela: Bhopal, 1984,” there’s “Heitor,” a story about a Portuguese slave, and “Jagatishwaran,” about an artist living with schizophrenia in an Indian city wandering between a brothel and his fraught family home.

You can feel how precious each story is to Bhuvaneswar, and because their subject matter is so diverse, the effect is one of intense empathy. Perhaps this is what unifies White Dancing Elephants so well: an intense love and attention paid to the margins, wherever they may be.

It also helps that White Dancing Elephants goes out on such a high note. The final story, “Adristakama,” about a star-crossed lesbian couple fighting culture clash, but even more than the culture clash, fighting the fear of loving and being loved freely that I think we all hold inside, is so beautiful I could do nothing but read it again once I finished.

Lastly, if you’re tired of the way American publishing houses market the work of South Asian writers–flowery language, emphasis on spices, lots of images of tea and henna and lotuses and such–you’ll find a lot to love in Bhuvaneswar’s sly commentary about writing and publishing.

In “The Bang Bang,” a father speaks Sanskrit at an open mic and then gives up his family in exchange for literary recognition (and no small amount of tokenism); it’s a darkly funny and sharp critique of publishing as well as being a powerful story about family. Other stories also draw from this well: one’s about a writer on a retreat who’s processing her unsatisfying marriage (“Chronicle of a Marriage, Foretold”; it’s also an element in “Talinda.”

I haven’t even scratched the surface of the stories in this book, nor what they meant to me. How could I? I adored this book. It’s going on my shelf right next to Runaway by Alice Munro, another favorite short story collection marked by its empathy, its vision, its deep sadness.

Chaya Bhuvaneswar is a writer of tremendous power, skill, and gift; her work is visionary and experimental without sacrificing readability. (I tore through each story, barely pausing for breath.) White Dancing Elephants is simply dazzling. ★★★★★

Standout stories: “Jagatishwaran,” “The Bang Bang,” “Neela: Bhopal, 1984,” “Adristakama”

Content warning: White Dancing Elephants contains a graphic rape scene in the story “Orange Popsicles” (highlight to read). It is also substantially about infertility, abuse (including towards disabled people), and bigotry in ways that may be triggering. Read with caution if you have those triggers.

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I received a copy of White Dancing Elephants from the author in exchange for an honest review. I received no other compensation and opinions are entirely my own.

Friday Bookbag, 2.1.19

FridayBookbag

Friday Bookbag is a (semi-)weekly feature where I share a list of books I’ve borrowed, bought, or received during the week. It’s my chance to buzz about my excitement for books I might not get the chance to review.

This week I’m skipping over the whole pile of books I’ve bought since the last time I put up a Friday Bookbag (in October! Whew!). Instead I’m spotlighting a couple of short story collections I’ve received for review recently. Let’s dive in!


White Dancing Elephants by Chaya Bhuvaneswar

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

White Dancing Elephants Cover.jpgsource: a copy from the author

the premise: Says the back cover:

A woman grieves a miscarriage, haunted by the Buddha’s birth. An artist with schizophrenia tries to survive hatred and indifference in small-town India by turning to the beauty of sculpture and dance. A brief but intense affair between two women culminates in regret and betrayal.

It’s a collection of seventeen stories that centers on women of color, especially queer women of color, trying to survive in a violent world.

why I’m excited: I’m a lesbian, and as much as I love happy portrayals of women loving other women, I’m also a sucker for more complex stories about queer women in the world. White Dancing Elephants promises to be that kind of complex, interesting, diverse read–diverse both in the shorthand sense of not white, not straight and also diverse in the way short story collections are always diverse: an assemblage of different perspectives and approaches to a theme. Where a novel digs deep, a short story collection can go wide. I’m excited about this one.

Mothers: Stories by Chris Power

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Mothers Cover.jpgsource: a copy from the publisher, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, won in a contest

the premise: From the inside flap (can you tell I’ve given up trying to summarize short story collections on my own? there’s just too much much in them):

Ranging from remote English moors to an ancient Swedish burial ground to a hedonistic Mexican wedding, the stories in Mothers lay bare the emotional and psychic damage of life, love, and abandonment.

It’s apparently “braided through” with overarching stories about Eva, “a daughter, wife, and mother, whose search for a self and a place of belonging tracks a devastating path through generations.”

why I’m excited: Well, everything I said about short story collections above still applies here: I just love the experiments with language and storytelling they enable. For another, I love stories about mothers and daughters. That’s not the entirety of the collection, but it’s obviously a critical portion, given the title and repeated stories about Eva. And as I’ve written about extensively before, I prefer to read stories about women. Those will always be the most interesting, precious stories to me, given how often they’re sidelined. I’m curious what Power’s approach will be to this collection, given that he’s a man writing a very feminine-coded book (the cover’s even pink!). I’m curious how he will treat his characters. It could go wrong, or it could go very right! I’m excited to find out which it is.


What’s in your bookbag this week? Do you have any exciting weekend reading plans? Let me know in the comments, and feel free to link to your own book reviews and blog posts!

Book Review: USEFUL PHRASES FOR IMMIGRANTS by May-Lee Chai

I am having another week of feeling Extremely Not Well–it turns out chronic illnesses are, well, chronic! –which means I’m not able to give May-Lee Chai’s newest short story collection, Useful Phrases for Immigrants, the full review it deserves. I thought I’d do the next-best thing for this lovely book and write a shorter review instead.

Read it below!


Useful Phrases for Immigrants Cover.jpg

Useful Phrases for Immigrants by May-Lee Chai

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

  • publisher: Blair (an independent publisher)
  • publication date: October 23, 2018
  • length: 166 pages
  • cover price: $16.95

Like that, he felt a stab of ice shoot through his body. He knew in an instant, less than a heartbeat, his luck could change.

Useful Phrases for Immigrants, page 60, “The Body”

Useful Phrases for Immigrants is a slim and unassuming short story collection with oomph in its aftertaste; quiet but powerful in the way only truly experienced and confident writers can achieve. (Author May-Lee Chai is certainly experienced: Useful Phrases is her tenth book. I’ve previously read and loved her YA novel, Dragon Chica, about a girl struggling to adjust to life as a refugee in the U.S. after fleeing the Khmer Rouge regime with her family.)

Chai’s style is both understated and vivid, especially in my favorite stories in the collection, the titular “Useful Phrases for Immigrants,” “First Carvel in Beijing,” and “Shouting Means I Love You.” I particularly enjoyed how diverse Chai’s subjects are: nearly all are Chinese and/or Chinese American, and among them are gay and bi people, Taoists and Buddhists and Catholics, Californians and New Yorkers, the poor and middle class, country kids and urban ones, small children and wizened adults. (Most of the characters are women, something I also appreciate.) Rather than hammer home one single point about one single thing, Chai layers her conflicts like ambitious, gorgeous piano chords.

Useful Phrases for Immigrants exemplifies what good literary fiction can do: it broadens your understanding of what it means to feel human, or happy, or sad, or angry, or bitter, or delighted, or victorious, or often, a little of all of those things at once. It does this without feeling cloying or heavy. It’s a cliché of writing advice, but showing really does go farther than telling, and Chai is a master of showing. She doesn’t tell you what to pay attention to in each tableau; she just creates eight beautiful tableaus that you’ll find yourself thinking about for a long time afterwards.

I absolutely loved Useful Phrases for Immigrants. Even if you’re not sure if you’ll like it, at only 166 pages, it’s easy to take a risk on. ★★★★★


My copy of Useful Phrases for Immigrants came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.