Chaya Bhuvaneswar’s story “Wormhole” appears in Southern Humanities Review 56.4. Rendering a woman’s internal monologue over the course of visit to a local diner with her children, the story reveals, in keenly observed detail, the curiosity that shapes her life, the doubt she cultivates about her relationship, and the perpetually lingering question that she often returns to: What if she left her husband?
Talia Lakshmi Kolluri: I was immediately captivated by the urgency of the interiority of your narrator’s voice and the stream of consciousness technique. I know some of the more common examples of this style are Joyce’s Ulysses and Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. However, I found you pushed this technique a bit further than what I usually encounter because not only do we see the intricate details of your narrator’s internal monologue, but we see her awareness of it. Can you talk a bit about how you developed this voice and the ways it helped you shape your character?
Chaya Bhuvaneswar: I really liked the idea of levity, and maybe even a little self-parody, in autofiction, and I thought about pushing the “auto” aspect by putting in sci-fi elements, gendered violence, body image, patriarchy, etc. that aren’t necessarily part of my consciousness or life right now but are part of my female narrator’s. I also was influenced by one of my favorite eccentric jazz tunes: “Twisted” by Annie Ross originally in the sixties, but then covered by Joni Mitchell and others. It starts:
My analyst told me
That I was right out of my head
The way he described it
He said, “I’d be better dead than alive”
I didn't listen to his jive
I knew all along that he was all wrong
And I knew that he thought
I was crazy, but I'm not
And the song, like my story, is so much about how, historically, a female consciousness or a woman’s patterns of thought have been criticized as “suspect” or “invalid” or “maybe there’s something wrong with her” or “maybe if she’s an artist she can’t be a good mother” and on and on—and so I wanted, as I was writing this narrator, to have her voice be a resistance that is aware of just how persistent and relentless patriarchal voices have been in essentially shutting down women, shaming us, making us “hysterics,” and so on.
TLK: This is such a great and innovative technique. I think it has the effect of feeling as though she is also in conversation with herself and engaging in a constant negotiation with how she wants to perceive her life.
This story also addresses what I might call the slipperiness of time right away. Immediately, we are introduced to the concept of the bathroom wormhole, offering the narrator safe passage to an alternate timeline, followed by her reflection that a video of her son dancing might affect the fabric of space-time if it was played on repeat, followed yet again by the perceived risk that her “reaction time” suffers when she daydreams, thus endangering the family. Can you talk about the role time plays for this narrator and how it shapes her self-perception?
CB: She is as fascinated by time as she is, basically, by EVERYTHING. I think the element of exaggeration, both parody and the exaggeratedness of speculative fiction, is present in the voracious nature of her questioning. Everything is grist for her mill. She literally embodies the mantra, “Question everything!” which I recently read is a quote attributed to Euripides, which makes so much sense when we consider how much of his art related to questions of power, including within marriage--Medea being such a great example. My narrator in “Wormhole” sees time as having the potential to unseat those in power, to rearrange power dynamics, as well as maybe somehow granting her the ability to exist in multiple dimensions at the same time. I think her whole sense of “I love my husband, but also I’d do anything to be free of all his bullshit” points to a conception of time allowing her to have both at once!
TLK: That’s the core of questioning everything, right? We can follow an infinite number of paths and always wonder what the next ones could be. This is partly why I find the wormhole so fascinating as a tool to explain perception. It seems to function both as a mechanism for her to imagine an alternate life as a sort of release valve from her own life when she is unhappy, but also as a way of explaining why her husband, Abdul, sees the world the way he does. What were your considerations when developing the concept of the wormhole? Were there any images or techniques that you used before settling on this one?
CB: This is funny—I had absolutely no idea about wormholes. I’m not a Star Trek watcher (though I truly loved Salman Rushdie’s story from a while ago, “Chekhov and Zulu,” which reveals that he at least used to be a Trekkie—though speaking of Rushdie, God bless, and I just hope he’s doing okay after the brutal attack). I also never really have been able to translate Einstein’s theory of relativity into “plain English,” though I’ve read papers about it over and over and even tried reading and making sense of Richard Feynman’s explanation of it when I was much younger. What I was interested in was how the narrator is often orthogonal to science. Rather than being stymied or turned off by what she doesn’t know, she becomes fascinated. To some extent, this is also what made her fall in love with her husband in the first place. He’s pretty unknowable to her, just as much as she is unknowable to him, and yet love can exist and thrive even in that situation, which personally intrigues me so much. I have a story in White Dancing Elephants (my debut collection from 2018) called “Adristakama,” which means “love for the unseen one” in Sanskrit and is literally about that—two people falling in love who haven’t spent much time together. This kind of love is really exhilarating, and I have felt it personally. I don’t doubt that it’s real, calling into question again ‘what does time mean’ in terms of human emotions. So for me, the image of a wormhole was a mysterious and attractive way of being transported into that unseen beloved.
TLK: Yes! Unknowability and interiority are kind of intertwined, aren’t they? I think about this so often; the way it’s possible to love someone fiercely and at the same time look at them and realize that within you both are universes of things unseen and unshared. Is this push-pull between unknowability and love the genesis for how the narrator sees her husband? Through her eyes, he appears to regard her with an enormous amount of disdain for her appearance, her parenting, and the way her mind is woven from a net of questions. And yet, even though she simultaneously recognizes the anguish he causes her and takes pains to point out the signs of his love, she longs for him to participate in her interior life with her, in the sense that she wants to ask him her questions even though she knows he hates to hear them. I thought this was a heartbreakingly beautiful depiction of what it means to love someone even when you are not seen or valued. From a craft perspective, can you talk about how you achieved this delicate tension between how she loves and how she remains unloved?
CB: It’s tricky. I think I wanted to (and did in the final draft, hopefully!) convey that “in his own way” the husband does love her—in the sense that he is loyal to her, obsessed with her, feels that he needs her, constantly reaches for her. For this patriarch, the narrator’s defiant way of holding on to her baby weight, eating bread, admiring the full-figured bodies her husband hates, is a physical manifestation of his lack of control, which is really what he can’t tolerate since her actual physical body remains erotic to him no matter what. The husband is also immensely curious about her, even as he dismisses the outcome of where her artistic efforts have led so far; and more than anything, he’s jealous of the space art takes up in her head and wants her, instead, to be focused on him. He also is a complicated nurturer, cooking for her and the children, sacrificing and ready to sacrifice. (She mentions he’s ready to rip off his limb and transplant it onto any of their bodies, no question!) The question underneath this story: Is this love? Can this count as love? And honestly, I really don’t know. What I loved about writing this story is that the story didn’t necessarily require me or the reader to come up with a binary answer. He thinks he loves her. He thinks this is love. This actually is what love looks like in a lot of patriarchal marriages. There is a real, deep sense by a patriarchal husband that he owns his wife’s body. It’s his to exalt or degrade. She doesn’t own herself. The wormholes of the narrator’s thoughts enable her, essentially, to create places where she has autonomy. Where he can’t exert any control.
TLK: This is exactly the tension that I read in the story, and it gets to that unknowability aspect for me. Something that feels like love to one partner translates as control to another. I thought this depiction was so powerful. Outside of your writing life, you are a psychiatrist, which I imagine gives you an incredibly wide-ranging view of human nature, the dynamics in relationships, and an understanding of self-perception. Can you talk about how this influences your writing generally and this story specifically?
CB: It’s probably no accident that I would know a song like “Twisted” (which readers can listen to here—the Joni Mitchell version, which is fantastic but a lot more relaxed than the Annie Ross version from years earlier, which I loved listening to on a vintage jazz compilation: Ross singing with palpable tension in the early sixties, still the Girl, Interrupted era, when it was too easy to lock up women and girls simply for being “difficult”).
It's really hard to say which came first: the perspective I have as a psychiatrist or my being the kind of person so interested in questions of character and fate. Definitely I would say I am a reader of psychologically rich writing, and the novel I’m working on now is about a woman of color psychiatrist coping with the aftermath of a hate incident (part of a spate of anti-Asian hate and attacks).
TLK: Considering your body of work as a whole, are there writers who have been particularly influential for you? What writers do you see yourself in conversation with?
CB: So many! Gabriel García Márquez; Grace Paley; Amy Hempel (who I was so honored to meet this year and whose stories I love incredibly); Toya Wolfe, whose brilliant novel Last Summer on State Street about growing up in public housing resonated so much with a writing workshop I taught in New Haven public housing a few years ago. Monica Ferrell’s poems, other work by Danez Smith, Nicole Sealey, tons of poetry. Louise Erdrich, Kelly Link, Amelia Gray, Jamel Brinkley, you! (So brilliant!! What We Fed to the Manticore stands out as a favorite collection in recent times and has received so much acclaim!) Danielle Evans, of course; Bharati Mukherjee; Jhumpa Lahiri; Lauren Groff (a favorite); and writers whose fiction I only read this year, in some cases because they were blurbed by Alexander Chee, like Elizabeth McCracken (The Hero of This Book), or because their novels just came out, like Sonora Jha’s The Laughter, or people I befriended after reading their stuff, like Nick White (Sweet and Low), Jenzo DuQue, Mary South, Anes Ahmed, Vauhini Vara, Venita Blackburn.
TLK: This is such an incredible list, and I’m honored to be included! The feeling is absolutely mutual! I loved your exceptional collection, White Dancing Elephants, and I’ve been wondering if you have another book in the works. Is this story part of a larger work, or is it part of a collection you’re building?
CB: Yes! In addition to my novel in progress, called Victory, about a woman of color psychiatrist who’s at odds with the Great White Men traditions of psychiatry, yet needs psychiatry to finish her healing from an anti-Asian hate incident—I am working on a second story collection, Shock Value, building from my story earlier this year in The Sun Magazine (which prompted SHR to reach out to me), and I just finished editing my memoir proposal, Orchid, about my family and the trauma experiences that I survived using strategies as intricate and puzzling as an orchid.
TLK: I can’t wait to read all of these! Do you have any advice that you would like to share with writers who are building a story collection?
CB: Mainly a piece of advice cribbed from Laura van den Berg—whose blurb for White Dancing Elephants I treasured—which is that it’s important not to try to control the story too much, especially when you’re just starting to write it. It’s really unclear to me where my stories come from. Six months ago, I wouldn’t have predicted that I’d write “Wormhole.” But I’ve learned to trust that unknown, thrilling source, to go where it leads.
TLK: This is fantastic advice. Thank you so much for this wonderful conversation!
Find “Wormhole” in Southern Humanities Review VOL 56 No. 4
CHAYA BHUVANESWAR is a practicing physician, writer, and PEN/American Robert W. Bingham Debut Fiction award finalist for her story collection White Dancing Elephants: Stories, which was also selected as a Kirkus Reviews Best Debut Fiction and Best Short Story Collection and appeared on “Best of” lists for Harper’s Bazaar, Elle, Vogue India, and Entertainment Weekly. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Salon, Narrative Magazine, The Sun, Tin House, Electric Literature, The Kenyon Review, The Masters Review, The Millions, Joyland, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Awl, and elsewhere. She has received fellowships from MacDowell, Community of Writers, and Sewanee Writers’ Workshop. She is at work on her first novel.
TALIA LAKSHMI KOLLURI is a mixed South Asian American writer from Northern California. Her debut collection of short stories, What We Fed to the Manticore (Tin House 2022), was a finalist for the 2023 Carol Shields Prize for Fiction and the 2023 Northern California Book Award for Fiction; was longlisted for the 2023 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, the 2023 Aspen Words Literary Prize, and the 2023 Pen/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Short Story Collection; and was selected as a 2023 ALA RUSA Notable Book. Her short fiction has been published in Ecotone, Southern Humanities Review, The Common, One Story, Orion, and others. A lifelong Californian, Talia lives in the Central Valley with her husband and two cats.