Happy 2019, lovers of books! It’s been a while, I know. I can’t apologize for the time I took away from Voicefull because in that time I, among other personal feats, outlined and wrote 36,000 words of a novel that’s been in my brain since 2012, which for me is freaking stupendous. I learned a lot about myself as a writer in the months since my last recommendation, and each of those lessons have been crucial not only in reminding myself why I want to live a life full of words, but in leading me back to this space full of colorful and necessary voices. So, with much love, let’s talk BOOKS.
Full disclosure, I received a copy of White Dancing Elephants straight from the remarkable writer herself, Chaya Bhuvaneswar, under no promise of even writing about it for this blog. If I haven’t mentioned this before, I don’t write about every book I read. These posts are, first and foremost, recommendations. I want people reading good books that I’ve personally enjoyed, and I want people reading books written by women of color. Voicefull is my way of combining both of those goals.
Anyway, I deeply enjoyed reading White Dancing Elephants, even though I’m not sure “enjoyed” is the best way of putting it. This collection includes seventeen short stories that all topically circulate around violence and trauma that women of color endure during their lives. White Dancing Elephants is by no means an easy read – I found myself putting it down and picking it back up every few days to give myself time to process, which is not my usual method of snatching up a book and inhaling it immediately in one sitting. But to her credit, Bhuvaneswar does the women of her collection justice by treating them with care and empathetic precision. So while some of her stories will trigger survivors of sexual or racial violence, they never stray into the voyeuristic or tasteless. Bhuvaneswar cares about her characters, and it shows on each page.
Hooray for Unlikeable Women!
There’s an entire discourse in our world today about what makes people likable. The heteronormative, white patriarchy I live in dictates that women are only likable when they’re smiling, sweet, and/or demure, and men can be liked pretty much regardless of their behavior, especially if they’re white. This double standard is becoming more visible as each day passes, and as more of us begin to question and dismantle the systems in which we live. Thankfully, White Dancing Elephants is here to help, because Bhuvaneswar centers her stories on flawed, problematic women who cannot be deemed likable by today’s cultural standards, but who are wholly deserving of our sympathy anyway.
I cannot say that I aspire to be like Narika, who cheats with her friend Talinda’s husband after Talinda is diagnosed with cancer. And I don’t agree with the language that Mikki uses to describe the neighbor her husband is cheating with, as he finally fulfills his passion for “pale, fat women.” But in the stories “Talinda” and “Chronicle of a Marriage: Foretold,” Bhuvaneswar writes about women who don’t need to be inspiring, or held to some artificial, moral high ground – they are simply real women, flaws and all. Real women who make real and sometimes horrific decisions, in behavior or in word choice. I can sympathize with the women in each of these stories, even though I don’t plan on doing any of the things they do, because I too am imperfect, and just as capable of wrongdoing. Their imperfections and choices derive from pain and suffering, just as mine do. I curse at our president because he deserves it, I have intrusive thoughts, I am riddled with implicit biases that I have to work constantly to override. Bhuvaneswar writes about unlikable women, and that makes me love her writing.
The Necessity of Pain and the Promise of Hope
The beauty of good fiction lies in its ability to make the reader feel. These days, probably due to the absolute numbing hellscape that is our political and social world, I want to consume media that makes me feel all the feels but also leaves me with the sense that something better is on its way. That “something better” might be character growth or new understandings about oneself, but stories have to move forward for me, even if it’s just an errant thought in the protagonist’s mind at the end of the tale. Honestly, I’m not an optimist, and my anxiety often prevents me from seeing the silver linings around me in the real world. I need those silver linings in fiction.
Bhuvaneswar writes about deeply painful experiences, including miscarriage, rape, and abusive parents, but she manages to instill hope into her stories. “A Shaker Chair” tells the story of a psychoanalyst named Sylvia attempting to avoid a disconcerting relationship with a new patient, and it ends with a shocking and upsetting personal revelation for Sylvia. I won’t spoil it here, but as agonizing as this new information is for the protagonist, Bhuvaneswar manages to frame it as necessary for Sylvia to move forward, which is such an honest and realistic move. She writes in the final lines, “Sylvia’s car was empty too, no longer full of possibility. But Sylvia didn’t want to fill the space…[she] just wanted to think. Of vast and quiet areas where one could sit, in the desert, out in a simple metal folding chair, and contemplate phenomena never seen before by anyone.”
By the end of this story, Sylvia’s life is shattered, but instead of ending with more violence, Bhuvaneswar gives her character the desire to reflect. To be with her pain, rather than ignore it. For many of us whose worldviews or relationships have been shattered in any way, residing with our pain is perhaps the most hopeful and necessary way to move past it. Bhuvaneswar understands this, and for a collection of stories rife with brutality of every magnitude, White Dancing Elephants manages to leave you with the sense that we can keep fighting, and we can move forward.
For a collection that underscores violence and imperfect women, White Dancing Elephants is a perfect reminder of the power of fiction to infuse hope into moments wracked with pain. I thank Chaya Bhuvaneswar for sharing her stories with me. Please, go pick up a copy of this book!