Great Writers and What They’re Reading: Jenny Bhatt

by Alyssa Ennis

This interview series is meant to focus on the interactions between reading and writing through the lens of three Spring 2017 Windmill authors. The Windmill editorial staff hopes you enjoy this glimpse into the reading habits and writerly inspirations of our talented contributors.

Jenny Bhatt is a Pushcart Prize-nominated author who has been published in many literary magazines and an anthology called Sulekha Select: The Indian Experience in a Connected World. She splits her time between Atlanta, Georgia, USA and Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India and is currently working on her first short story collection. Find her at: Her piece in Windmill, “Life Spring”, is a wonderful fiction story set in a middle-class neighborhood in India that will grab you from the first page. To quote our managing editor, Keaton Ramjit, “I feel so REPRESENTED!!! THIS IS SO GOOD!!!” Be sure to check it out when the issue arrives in May.

Q: What book have you read recently that you would recommend to people who enjoyed your piece in Windmill?

A: I’m long due for a reread of this one. But, if people enjoyed my piece in Windmill about middle class morality in the Indian city of Mumbai, they might also enjoy Rohinton Mistry’s Tales From Firozsha Baag, set in an earlier time when it was called Bombay.

The most striking aspect of Mistry’s writing is his attention to particular details. The narrative choices he makes regarding what to compress, what to expand on — these are worth understanding. Every story here is like a well-polished jewel. Firozsha Baag is a world we want to inhabit for a while despite its flaws. Mistry brings together humor, pathos, romance, and tragedy to give us deep perspectives into: an old, more genteel Bombay that is falling apart and fading even as the stories are unfolding; an insular Parsi community that cleaves to a disappearing world it doesn’t know how to live without; characters who tussle with what their Parsi identity/culture means in a Bombay that mostly considers itself in Hindu and Muslim terms. Even though the Bombay I grew up in (1970s-1980s) is not exactly the same as Mistry’s 1950s-1960s one, a lot of what he wrote is still there. A couple of the stories also have elements of mysticism and surrealism and I wish he had done more with that. He is one of my favorite writers of Indian origin even though he has given somewhat of a short shrift to his female characters.

Q: Is there a book or other piece of writing that inspired you to become a writer yourself?

A: As a child, it was fairy tales, of course. I tried to rewrite “Cinderella” when I was eight. The only thing I remember is that I switched out the evil family for an evil giant, who she cleverly locked into a bathroom forever. I had my first real short story published at age ten in an Indian magazine after winning a national competition. It was about robots who wrote poetry and the inspiration was probably more Tin Man from Oz than science fiction. Though, I do remember worrying for days about exactly how much oil robots need regularly before they go to rust and their poetry turns from perfect rhymes to nonsense limericks to gibberish.

Growing up, Virginia Woolf has been a continuous inspiration. To me, she is still the ideal of a woman of letters who, without any formal education or the opportunities of her male siblings and counterparts, managed to write so well — ahead of her time, really — despite the many patriarchal constraints.

But I was drawn to short stories particularly because of Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, Alice Munro, Grace Paley, Katherine Mansfield, Edna O’Brien, Angela Carter, Jhumpa Lahiri. These writers are masters of the short story form and, each time I revisit them, I am in awe of their narrative skills, their insightful humanity, and their care with language. And, though I also truly appreciate male short story writers like George Saunders and Junot Diaz, it’s these women writers from whom I’ve learned the most.

More recently, the realist short fiction writers that inspire me are, in no particular order: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Zadie Smith, Yiyun Li, Celeste Ng. They write about more pluralistic societies and go beyond the “interesting moment” to show us important life matters we haven’t paid enough/any attention to. And, when I grow up, I want to write slipstream as stunningly as Karen Russell, Kelly Link, and Aimee Bender.

Q: Since Windmill is a literary magazine, what short fiction/nonfiction/poetry would you recommend? Do you have a favorite short literary work?

A: Ooh, tough. I always ask people who ask for literary recommendations: “Are you sure you’re ready for this conversation?” *smile*

For short fiction, I recommend “The Best American Short Stories” series to all. Though some years and some editors are better-curated than others, these anthologies give us, arguably, some of the best stories from US literary magazines. I try to read them each year and they’ve come a long way from when they only selected from the same small list of lit mags. The 2016 anthology is edited by the ever-impressive Junot Diaz and it is a truly diverse collection from some terrific writers. At least ten of the stories are in literary magazines online and free to read and I’ve collected them on my personal blog: My favorite from this collection is Karen Russell’s “The Prospectors.” She’s pulled off another feat of literary acrobatics because it is historical fiction, and a ghost story, and an adventure story, and a philosophical story, all together. Just. Wow.

For favorite short nonfiction, I gravitate to letter collections more so than essays. I think it’s because they’re both intimate/personal and, yet, written for a specific audience. A dying art form too, of course. I have several favorite collections, especially those between writers and their editors. My all-time favorite, though, is  “Dear Theo” — a selection of Vincent van Gogh’s letters to his brother, Theo, who was his biggest supporter during his brief, troubled life. These letters are heartbreakingly beautiful in their literariness (VVG was a big reader), their vivid descriptions of artwork (both his own and that of others), his thoughts about religion, ambition, love, solitude, loneliness, and much more. I have the complete set of his letters too — a hardbound three-volume beauty.

For poetry, my perennial favorites are Mary Oliver, Sharon Olds, Carol Ann Duffy, Dorianne Laux, and more. But, I like to recommend two young women these days. First is Canadian-Indian Rupi Kaur’s collection Milk and Honey — poems and prose segments about survival, femininity, love, loss, violence, abuse, and a whole lot more. All women, teens to grandmothers, should get it. I’m also a big fan of Warsan Shire, the Somali-British poet. I don’t think she has a full book collection out yet but her poems have gone viral — like “Home” about refugees and “For Women Who Are Difficult To Love,” which Beyonce featured on her “Lemonade” album.

Q: What are you currently reading?

A: I usually have 2-3 books on the go at any time.

Currently, I’m rereading Joan Didion’s essay collection The White Album. These essays are so perfect in their completeness and she is so precise with her language that each is a writing masterclass. I’m going to have to reread it a few more times for sure.

I’m also reading Mohsin Hamid’s How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia. He has a new novel out that I want, but I should finish this first. Hamid is one of those literary architects — he doesn’t just give us a good story, he builds it with layers, depths, varying frames and structures, careful language. And he manages to do it all in slim volumes.

Q: Is there an aspect of reading that you feel helps you improve as a writer?

A: One of the books that changed my life as a writer was Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer. I was sort of a close reader before I read her book. But I learned better ways to pay more attention to words, sentences, character, dialogue, etc. I also read with a notepad (don’t like writing in book margins) though it makes me a slower reader.

To me, reading a book is not just diversion, escapism, entertainment. It is an immersive and active experience in itself. Neuroscientists have proved that reading not only gives us long-term cognitive benefits because of the brain’s complex processing of language into connected ideas and sensory perceptions (versus, say, passively watching a movie, where words, sound, and images are fed to us), but it also activates the same regions within our brains as when we have physical life experiences. Reading, for example, a leg-related verb such as “to kick” activates both the language areas and the motor regions in the brain that are involved in leg/foot movement. So, the more I read, the more I am aware of the effect of my own word choices and sentence construction, which, I hope, help improve my writing.

Q: Do you have a favorite book? What do you say to convince people to read it?

A: There isn’t a single favorite book and I find there is nothing I can say in general terms about any particular book to convince others to read it. Our reading preferences are so personal and dependent on our individual outlooks and/or present preferences.

If I might, instead, talk about reading in general because, these days, I’m hearing more people say: “I don’t have time to read” or “I can’t read serious fiction because I’m too worried about what’s going on in the world today.” This is what I would say to convince them to read:

First, a good book — fiction or nonfiction — is the concentrated vision of a single writer, who has invested a lot of time and effort in presenting something they consider important for the world to know. And how can we understand our own world/lives, unless we also take the time to understand some of the best things that have been thought and written about it?

Second, fiction is a writer’s way of saying truths that cannot be said otherwise; it is a representation of a way of being in the world that cannot be expressed otherwise.

Third, good fiction takes us out of ourselves, places us in unfamiliar, ambiguous worlds, and shows us aspects of those worlds we would not have known otherwise. So that, when we return to our own world, we see and understand it differently. Our frames, our contexts, our very approaches to seeing and thinking change.

So, reading and writing are life-altering because no other activity can enable us to make such deep, thorough, specific observations of our world, while also neatly pushing our cognitively-lazy and biased judging self onto the backseat. Please find the time to read good, well-written books — they are essential food for your soul. And, if inspired enough, find the time to write too — it will clarify your own thinking.

Q: What’s next on your to read list?

A: Next up in fiction is Junot Diaz’ This Is How You Lose Her — I’ve only read a couple of the stories from this collection here and there. And, after reading Diaz’ super introduction in The Best American Short Stories 2016 about why he loves short stories, I need to get to this.

For nonfiction, I want to read The Lost Generation: Chronicling India’s Dying Professions by Nidhi Dugar Kundalia. These are centuries-old professions that still continue in some corners of the country today: street dentists who are not formally trained but conduct major surgery on open sidewalks; professional mourners who are hired to express the grief of a deceased person’s family members because their upper-caste status means they cannot display emotions publicly. Fascinating stuff.

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