There is strange fascination in pressing an old, yellowing bruise, still tender. It begs for repetition and simultaneously unsettles. Chaya Bhuvaneswar’s debut collection, White Dancing Elephants revels in this discomfort, veering through short stories ranging from the speculative to the queer, the mythic to the historical, the pleasurable to the sexually violent.
Centering the voices of women of color, White Dancing Elephants examines race, mental illness, violence against women, class, and sexuality with unflinching, sharp prose. The collection is due to come out from Dzanc Books on October 9.
In her book, Bhuvaneswar explores the horrors of being a woman with a body. Bodies bleed, like the woman with the miscarriage in the title story. Bodies disgust, like the resentful father who is repulsed by his own daughter’s disabilities and his young wife’s efforts to tend to them. Bodies orgasm, like the two young women stealing moments of intimacy in a story of an ill-fated interracial, queer relationship.
And bodies are violated.
In “Orange Popsicles” – perhaps the most visceral story of the collection – we follow Jayanti, a scholarship student who has been raped by a classmate who helped her cheat on a test. As the her campus community rallies in support to hold the perpetrators accountable, Jayanti remains fearful of her immigration status, convinced that the act of cheating made her vulnerable to the evil eye and, in turn, her rape. “Jayanti was supposed to bring her mother to the US, to prosper here. She’d wasted her time. Wasted her chance,” writes Bhuvaneswar.
Even as the narrative unspools simmering internal and interpersonal drama, the setting plays a crucial role in many juxtapositions that Bhuvaneswar plays with as a writer. Each story in the collection takes a sharp turn in perspective or location, which occasionally feels uneven. “Neela: Bhopal, 1984” pulls us directly into the choking shantytowns suffocated during massive gas leaks at the Union Carbide plant, later known as the Bhopal disaster. Several of the stories take place in Boston – a city that is frequently flattened into descriptions of baseball, academia, and whiteness. Bhuvaneswar breathes dimension into her portrayal of the city, focusing on the communities of color that at are often erased.
White Dancing Elephants is a novel of the Indian diaspora, but one that sidesteps and skewers common cliches with dry humor. These wry moments release the tension building from the otherwise unrelenting violence running across stories. Moreover, by renegotiating character tropes – whether it is the South Asian studies professor or the middle-aged poet uncle – the collection shifts our ideas of what a diasporic book looks like.
Bhuvaneswar presses the bruise. We flinch and keep reading.