White Dancing Elephants, by Chaya Bhuvaneswar. Westland, Michigan: Dzanc Books, October 2018. 208 pages. $16.95, paper.
Chaya Bhuvaneswar’s debut White Dancing Elephants reads less like a first book and more like a master cartographer’s map of terror and heartbreak. In the seventeen stories in this collection, Bhuvaneswar chronicles the disrupted lives of her characters, often punctuated by loss and betrayal—and sometimes violence.
White Dancing Elephants has been reviewed well by the literary media and it’s easy to see why. Yet, as a reader and as a writer myself, the magic of these stories is harder to describe than a positive blurb. Some story collections certainly have the “collected” feeling about them, in that there may be some thematic similarities, but there is no direct relationship between any of the individual pieces; other collections are specifically linked, with recurring characters and plot threads, but White Dancing Elephants is different. Each story builds on the last even as we are thrust into a new geography or scenario. Whether she is writing Hindu gods, failed pregnancy, cultural tension, or a break on shift at a nail salon, Bhuvaneswar is deft and precise—her prose is swift and technical, covering large swaths of emotional ground while still keep the details in sharp relief.
From a patient who destroys a psychiatrist’s life, to a male student who destroys a female student’s painting arm, Bhuvaneswar clearly understands how pain works, and the people in her pages apply this knowledge. They know how to hurt and they don’t hold back. It is often the cruelty of her characters that stands out, and one of Bhuvaneswar’s many talents as a writer is that she surfaces some of the ugliest parts of human interactions while imploring the reader to, rather than look away, look deeper.
“Acknowledged or not,” she writes in “A Shaker Chair,” “in psychoanalysis there usually was the smell of blood—people were brutal when exposed and vulnerable.”
The directness of Bhuvaneswar’s style, though, in the face of constant trauma, keeps the collection readable even when stories tread in speculative territory. Readers are grounded by knowing that the worst thing that could happen often will happen, even though we are not always correct about what that worst thing is: it’s not getting expelled from school, it’s being raped by another cheating student; it’s not a dying friend, it’s sleeping with the friend’s husband while she is dying, and she knows.
Yet, rather than being desperately bleak, these stories build and get increasingly powerful as the collection goes on, and the almost exclusively female characters of color consistently reject ideas of “can’t.” While the characters are hemmed in and burdened by social constructs as much as anyone, these women are not afraid to action the perceived impossible, the criminal, the downright mean, and these women have conversations so honest it verges on awkward:
“Don’t tell me you did this on purpose,” Narika says in “Talinda” to Talinda herself, referring to a dramatic weight loss. “It isn’t chic. You look almost skeletal.”
“Don’t ask boring questions,” Talinda says to Narika only a few beats later.
If you’ve ever thought you “can’t” hatch a risky plan or “can’t” say something, the women of White Dancing Elephants are ready to prove you wrong. Whether it is because some of them feel like they might not have much to lose or feel like they’ve already lost is immaterial—as a writer, Bhuvaneswar does not seem to be much concerned with trying to justify character motivation. That’s not to suggest the characters do not have their reasons, but rather their actions (for the most part) simply exist without much explanation; deeply complex psychology and the way that fear, selfishness, and cruelty are part of the human condition is more like table stakes than traits worth commenting on, especially within exposition, of which there is extremely little.
This approach works and contributes to the biting quality of much of the dialogue and the narrative at large, and as a reader I appreciated this unapologetic, feminist approach to a world peopled with “unlikable” female characters—Bhuvaneswar’s women are not here to be liked, and it’s refreshing.
In “Newberry,” Vinita reflects, It gave her flickers of amusement, sometimes, to think the words “I hate you all” as she was smiling the smile her boss Leo swore “guaranteed gratuity.” To think those words while all along saying a comforting mm-hmm or really?, while [she] settled a stressed-out customer in the deluxe manicure chair.
Despite the pretty title, White Dancing Elephants is not the kind of book that lyrically lulls the reader to sleep at night—it’s more like the experience of getting punched in the gut, with someone waiting around to make sure the force is strong enough to spit blood.
The winner of Dzanc Books’ 2017 Short Story Collection Prize, Chaya Bhuvaneswar is a writer to watch.
Wendy J. Fox is the author of The Seven Stages of Anger and Other Stories (winner, Press 53 short fiction contest & finalist for the Colorado Book Award), The Pull of It (named a top book by Displaced Nation), and the forthcoming novel If the Ice Had Held, selected as the Santa Fe Writers Project grand prize winner by Benjamin Percy. Writing from Denver, CO, and tweeting from @wendyjeanfox