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Drunk on Ink Q & A with Jenny Bhatt and ‘Each of Us Killers: Stories’

Drunk on Ink is a blast interview series by Soniah Kamal author of  the novel Unmarriageable, a parallel retelling of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and set in contemporary Pakistan.

Jenny Bhatt is the author of Each of Us Killers: Stories (Sep 2020) and the literary translation, Ratno Dholi: Dhumketu’s Greatest Short Stories (Oct 2020). Her writing has appeared or will soon be in The Washington Post, BBC Culture, The Atlantic, NPR, Longreads, Electric Literature, The Millions, The Rumpus, Poets & Writers, and more. Her short stories have been nominated or shortlisted for several awards. She is the host of the Desi Books podcast and resides in a suburb of Dallas, TX.

About Each of Us Killers

Each of Us Killers is a collection of stories woven at the intersection of labor and our emotional lives. Set in the American Midwest, England, and India (Mumbai, Ahmedabad, rural Gujarat) the stories in Each of Us Killers are about people trying to realize their dreams and aspirations through their professions. Whether they are chasing money, power, recognition, love, or simply trying to make a decent living, their hunger is as intense as any grand love affair. Straddling the fault lines of class, caste, gender, nationality, globalization, and more, they go against socio-cultural norms despite challenges and indignities until singular moments of quiet devastation turn the worlds of these characters—auto-wallah, housemaid, street vendor, journalist, architect, baker, engineer, saree shop employee, professor, yoga instructor, bartender, and more—upside down. [Advance praise from Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, Literary Hub, Electric Literature, The Millions, Entropy Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Bustle, Dallas Morning News, Texas Public Radio, and more. Kirkus Reviews listed it as a must-read story collection for Fall 2020.]

SONIAH KAMAL: First author/book you read/fell in love with? Why?

JENNY BHATT: During early childhood in India, like many, I grew up with oral storytelling traditions. So, while it’s hard to attribute the Gujarati folktales and fairy tales to particular authors or books, they’re the ones I fell in love with, lying beside my mother as she narrated them to us siblings after lights out. Each retelling would be a little different, tweaked here and there by her to fit her mood or whatever message she wanted us to learn at that time. They were always more than just entertaining stories because they allowed this ongoing dialogue between parent and child about many everyday observations and life lessons. I’ve done some feminist retellings of some of those stories in my new collection, Each of Us Killers, as well.

To unwind: chai, coffee, water, wine?

Oh, chai, for sure. Boiled with milk and spices, the Gujju way. It’s my go-to drink for everything — to unwind, refresh, energize, calm.

 A novel, short story, poem, essay, anything you believe should be mandatory reading? Why?

Tough to pick only one. Something I keep returning to when I need some grounding or even some uplifting beauty is Vincent van Gogh’s collected letters. He’s known as an artist but his letters are filled with an astonishing beauty of ideas and language. It was a short, troubled life that ended in a mysterious death. But these letters show us his clarity of thought, his aesthetic appreciation of all kinds of art, and his love for this maddening, crazy world.

Any classic you wished you’d pushed through in your teens?

I wish I’d pushed through War and Peace in my teens. I didn’t appreciate the beauty and philosophy of the war scenes and the bleakness and despair of the peace scenes. I had it all wrong. I reread it a few years ago when the BBC series came out and, my god, they’re all right. It’s a masterpiece. And there’s no other like it.

 Favorite quote from your book 

“What is destiny, Vidya asks silently. For women like her and Ma, it is simply a dagger thrown at you, which you must catch either by the blade or the handle. If you can figure out which end is which.” (from the story ‘Journey to a Stepwell’)

Favorite book to film? And why?

This is controversial but I loved The English Patient (watch trailer here). I think Anthony Minghella did justice to Ondaatje’s stunning novel while also making sure that his portrayal leveraged every advantage offered by the cinematic medium. I don’t see a movie as a retelling or even adaptation of a book but a re-interpretation in a different medium. And what I loved about Minghella’s re-interpretation is that it made me revisit Ondaatje’s novel with new perceptions and sensibilities.

Favorite Indie Book Store/s?

My local, The Wild Detectives, in Dallas is pretty cool. Hoping to get back to spending time on their patio once we get back to some kind of post-pandemic normal.

The one thing you wish you’d known about the writing life?

I came to publishing later in life so I’d learned enough about the pros and cons of the writing life from reading and following other writers on social media. The one thing we can never be truly prepared for is how awful and stressful a book launch really is. I knew it would be tough with a small press book of short stories. I understood it would be tougher still during a pandemic. But it feels like desperately trying to keep my balance while the ground is constantly shifting beneath me.

Does writing/publishing/marketing get any easier with each story/novel published?

God, I hope so. I want to believe so. A part of me knows that’s never going to be the case, though. And I’ll always need to plan for the worst and hope for the best.

Dog, Cat, Or?

Dog, definitely.

Ideal vacation?

Remote island, nature hikes, books, music, simple food, my husband, our dog.

Favorite book cover?

So many. But I’m partial to my own. And I wrote an essay about what it means to me.

 Favorite song?

Ooh. Another tough one. Bollywood classics from Basu Chatterjee or Hrishikesh Mukherjee movies are my go-to for a certain mood. Mood as I’m typing these answers: ‘Zindagi Kaisi Hai Paheli’ from the 1971 movie, Anand; sung by Manna Dey, lyrics by Yogesh, and music by Salil Chowdhury.

Favorite painting/ work of art?

A Vincent van Gogh painting titled ‘The Siesta’. I wrote a whole Twitter thread about why.

Any Lit Festival anecdote you want a share? A great meeting with a fan? An epiphany?

I was attending a reading by Grace Paley at Chicago’s Printers Row Book Fair (back when it was still called that — around 2000-2001, if I recall correctly.) I sat across from her, just a few feet away. As everyone left, I remained seated because I’d loved her reading, her answers, and had not wanted it to end. I was writing but not really publishing my work then and, listening to her had given me this aching feeling that I was wasting my life away. She smiled at me as she gathered her things and said, “Are you a writer?” I said I’d only written short stories for a little online mag no one knew about. She nodded and said, “Then you’re a writer. It doesn’t matter who knows. What’s important is that you know.” It’s hard to put into words what that meant to me at the time, to hear that from a literary hero no less, and to recall that to myself each time I’ve doubted my writing and my life choices/sacrifices to finally be able to do it as a profession.

What is your favorite Austen novel, and film adaptation? Why?

My favorite Austen novel is definitely Pride and Prejudice. And, of course, Soniah Kamal’s novel adaptation, Unmarriageable, has to rank high up there because it’s an Eastern contemporary version of a Western classic and it talks back to the Empire, as Soniah once told me. The Ehle-Firth TV series adaptation is my favorite because, well, Colin Firth.

Recommend a Small Press and/or Literary Journal?

I highly recommend my own small press, 7.13 Books, for debut fiction. It’s run by writers of color, which makes it even more special. For literary journals, I love the works published by Words Without Borders and Asymptote Journal.

Last impulse book buy and why?

Rita Felski’s Literature After Feminism, which came out in May this year. I’m a big Felski fan for her literary criticism theory works. And I’ve got almost all her books. I’d held off getting this one because of lack of time to read any texts outside my book review commitments and writing workshop commitments. But I just couldn’t wait any longer.

Soniah Kamal is an award winning novelist, essayist and public speaker.  Soniah’s novel Unmarriageable is a Financial Times Readers’ Best Book of 2019, a People’s Magazine Pick, a Library Reads Pick, an NPR Code Switch Summer Read Pick, a 2019 Book All Georgians Should Read, a 2020 Georgia Author of the Year for Literary Fiction nominee and more. Her novel An Isolated Incident was shortlisted for the Townsend Prize for Fiction and the KLF French Fiction Prize. Soniah’s TEDx talk is about second chances and she has delivered numerous keynotes addreses. ‘We are the Ink’, her address at a U.S. Citizenship Oath Ceremony, talks about immigrants and the real American Dreams, her keynote at the Jane Austen Festival is about universality across time and cultures and she’s given keynotes at Writers Conferences. Soniah’s work has appeared in critically acclaimed anthologies and publications including The New York Times, The Guardian, The Georgia Review, The Bitter Southerner, Catapult, The Normal School, Apartment Therapy and more.
She’s on twitter and instagram @soniahkamal

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Sejal Shah, This Is One Way To Dance, memoir

Madi Sinha: The White Coat Diaries, a novel

Chika Unigwe, Better Late Than Never, short story collection

Anju Gattani: Duty and Desire, a novel

Christopher Swann: Never Turn Back, a novel

Zetta Elliott: A Place Inside of Me, middle grade fiction

Veena Rao: Purple Lotus, a novel

Tara Coyt: Real Talk About LGBTQIAP, non fiction

Maureen Joyce Connelly: Little Lovely Things, a novel

Molly Greeley: The Heiress, historical fiction novel

Donna Miscolta: Living Color, short stories

Mike Chen: Here and Now and Then, a novel

Ruth Franklin: Shirley Jackson A Rather Haunted Life, biography

Colleen Oakley: Before I Go, a novel

Emily Midorikawa: A Secret Sisterhood: The literary friendships of Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot, and Virginia Woolf, biography

Shabnam Samuel: A Fractured Life, memoir

Elise Hooper: The Other Alcott, a novel

Anne Boyd Rioux: Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters, non fiction

Devoney Looser: The Making of Jane Austen, non fiction

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Vanessa HuaA River of Stars, novel

Chaitli SenThe Pathless Sky, novel

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Sara MarchantThe Driveway has Two Sides, memoir

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John Kessel, Pride and Prometheus, novel

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Rachel May, An American Quilt: Unfolding a Story of Family and Slavery

Rebecca Entel, Fingerprints of Previous Owners, novel

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