Shruti Swamy's debut short story collection, A House Is a Body, is a nuanced and powerful collection about our most urgent and deeply felt experiences — grief, love, and desire. In “Blindness,” a newlywed’s depression causes a rift between herself and her suddenly cruel husband, leaving her to escape into alternate dream lives. In “My Brother at the Station,” a pregnant woman catches sight of (and then trails) her brother, long estranged because of his ability to see the dead.
It was one of our favorite books of the summer, and we wanted to dive a little deeper into the book with Shruti herself. Via email, we talked about motherhood, textual ambiguity, and how the external world influences her interior explorations.
BuzzFeed Books: The title story of your collection, "A House Is a Body," is about a mother who's been told to evacuate her home in the midst of a California wildfire — especially salient in this moment, while California fires continue to rage. What is the relationship between the external world, current events especially, and your fiction?
Shruti Swamy: I really appreciate you drawing this connection. My stories are very focused on my characters: their interior and even dream lives, and their relationships with each other. Even with that focus though, I wanted to be responding to the world I was writing them in, the issues that keep me up at night. A couple stories, like the title story and “The Siege,” were explicitly written in response to this feeling of instability and dread — environmental and political — but many more take place in a kind of personal apocalypse, a place in which a character has lost something crucial from their old life and must figure out how to go on, to be a person, to live. This too is a response to current events.
Something I love about these stories is their ability to play with the border between dream and reality. Can you tell me a bit about how you tap into the psyches of your characters, bringing their imaginations (often their anxieties, fears) to life? How do you navigate the balance between specificity and ambiguity — telling the readers what's happening versus, for lack of a better word on my part, suggesting it?
As a reader, I find a lot of pleasure in connecting the dots of a story, running beside it or sometimes even a little behind it, trying to follow and understand its movement. It asks more of me as a reader, but the payoff is a deeper intimacy with the story. Your own experience of your life contains almost no exposition at all: You don’t think, “I am eating dosa, the fermented rice and lentil crepe from South India,” or “ah, my husband of four years, who is a different race than me, and who twice was mugged in his childhood.” You think: breakfast, you think: Abe. So rather than find the ambiguity of my stories alienating, I would like the reader to find them inviting. I want them to feel like there is no separation between my consciousness and theirs, that they are accepted wholly into these stories if they choose to enter them. With a story like “Blindness,” where there is a lot of ambiguity, I love the idea that a reader could have an experience and understanding of it that has something in common with mine, but is also different. As the writer, I am not the definitive authority on the text anymore: other interpretations are valid. If you read these stories deeply, they’re yours too.
You've become a mother yourself since writing these stories — something you explore in this essay. Has motherhood changed your writing?
I gave birth via c-section, which I have so much to say about that I can say almost nothing — but one thing about it that initially brought me so much sadness was the scar the procedure left on my body, which at the time felt enormous and brutal. When I look at that scar now, softened and healed by the years, but still very evident, I feel the rightness of it. The birth of my daughter was so momentous I wanted it to mark me, to change me. Mostly, the changes have been so gradual — more like pregnancy than birth, where the body every day feels different, but you don’t quite remember from what.
I wonder if in some years I’ll be able to look at my writing and see it changed, if there will be the dividing line, like the scar on my body, that separates the old thinking from the new. Or if it will be more slow, more gradual, more subtle. Or if there won’t be any change at all. Being a mother has offered me so many new experiences, which is always invaluable for a writer, but I am still waiting to feel, especially on the language level, that something has fundamentally changed in my writing.
What draws you to short fiction?
There is an inherent tension in a short story from the tightness of the frame that can be exhilarating to write into, what you say and what puts pressure on the story though silence. In that way it is sort of an unforgiving medium unlike a novel where you get a lot of room to explain; you can’t really be messy in a story in the same way. But there’s also a lot of leeway you can have because it’s short — you’re only asking the reader to stick with you for a little while, so you can take big risks you might not be able to carry off in a novel. Many of these stories — maybe all — are quite risky in some way: formally, conceptually, or emotionally.
Any new projects you can tell us about?
Yes! I’m currently at work on my novel, The Archer, which centers on a young kathak dancer coming of age in 60s- and 70s-era Bombay. She’s grappling with the legacy of a difficult and unknowable mother and a fractured family, and trying to find her way as an artist. It’s about some of the same things my stories are: the body, pleasure, sex, art, grief, motherhood — and about some other things too. It’s coming out with Algonquin in late 2021 or early 2022.
Anything you've read recently you'd like to recommend?
So many! I will try to limit myself:
I read Alexandra Chang’s Days of Distraction a little while ago but have been thinking of it a lot recently: There are so many things her protagonist so subtly articulates about being a Chinese American woman that resonate with my experience as an Indian American, and the writing is quite beautiful.
Matthew Salesses’s Disappear Doppelganger Disappear is insane, and somewhat terrifying, in the best way.
Hot Milk by Deborah Levy got me out of a reading slump (actually also pretty insane and slightly terrifying.)
Apsara Engine by Bishakh Som is one of the most astonishing books I have ever read. ●