“Writing Is About Connection”: A Conversation with Jenny Bhatt
By Suhasini PatniJuly 18, 2022
After writing the collection, Bhatt turned to literary translation, starting with the works of one of the most prolific Gujarati writers, Dhumketu. The collection The Shehnai Virtuoso (July 2022, Deep Vellum) features some of the author’s most well-known stories that showcase his strengths as a writer: the ability to shed light on the daily lives of the working class and the sensitive portrayal of independent women.
Though Bhatt describes her “aborted” MFA experience as “not good at all,” both her fiction and her translation work have been immensely successful. Despite the challenges the publishing industry faced promoting books during the pandemic, Bhatt worked valiantly to amplify South Asian literary voices. In 2020, the year both her books were released, she launched her podcast Desi Books to “help desi writers find their readers” and “to celebrate the plenitude and diversity of South Asian literature.” What started as a modest program now has several channels, featuring conversations on craft, book reviews, and even video episodes.
In this interview, conducted over email, Bhatt talks about her journey with creative writing, translation, and her podcast, as well as the lessons she has learned along the way.
Author photo by Praveen Ahuja.
SUHASINI PATNI: You won a short-story competition conducted by Femina when you were 10. What prompted you to write and submit this story?
JENNY BHATT: My fifth-grade English teacher, Sunila Singh, discovered this children’s contest at Femina — a totally different magazine in the 1980s, mind you — and made the submission for me. In English class that term, we’d been reading Tolstoy’s short stories in abridged form, and I remember her calling on me more than anyone else, asking me questions, engaging with me. She’d also make me read out my own work, such as it was then. So, I’m guessing she thought I showed a certain aptitude for storytelling.
What books and languages did you read growing up?
Growing up in Bombay, though we went to “English medium” schools, we were also fluent in Gujarati, Hindi, and Marathi, as are many Bombayites. I’d spent a couple of early years in Dhanbad in Bihar (now Jharkhand) and had picked up a smattering of Bengali from our neighbors. And we had Parsi, Punjabi, Tamil, and Telugu neighbors. Oh, we also learned a decent bit of Sanskrit from memorizing religious prayers and songs. Multilingualism was as natural as breathing.
My mother was a big Gujarati reader, so I pestered her to help me learn to read the language. That way, in addition to the modest set of English, Hindi, and Marathi books we got at school, I could access her stash of Gujarati magazines and periodicals. We also had the odd video library around that stocked English comics, Enid Blytons, and American thrillers.
At university in the United Kingdom, I studied German and then French because my engineering apprenticeships and internships required working in those countries. The biggest thing multilingualism brings home — at least for me — is that language is an ever-evolving, imperfect communication tool, and we all bring so much cultural bias and baggage to our interactions and interpretations. This is also what makes literary translation an endlessly fascinating practice, though.
It seems to me that if you are an immigrant in an English-speaking country, you are always in translation (like your newsletter “We Are All Translators”). How did you keep in touch with all the languages you know? Do you think differently in each language?
Yes, I feel like my entire life has involved translation. While I was in India, it was due to the multilingualism. After leaving India at age 19, living in various countries — England, Germany, Scotland, France, the United States — has involved not only speaking different languages or dialects but also translating myself across cultures and borders.
When I first moved to the United Kingdom, it was cool to hear all the different British accents and dialects at university. But I soon missed that cacophony of different languages I had daily in Bombay. I had my mother’s letters as a way to stay connected with a language from home. I’d read and reread them until some of them got torn to shreds.
Yes, we do think differently in different languages. Simply because the vocabularies vary. In Gujarati, for example, there are at least 12 words for rain. Not so much in English. Recently, I read an essay with a glossary of migration-related words in English. It struck me that, although India has such a long history of migration, I don’t really know a lot of migration-related words in any Indian language that could form a similar glossary. It got me wondering about other such groups of words that I’ve either taken for granted or simply don’t know about in the non-English languages I work with. I’m sure we’ve all got such gaps in our vocabularies, and therefore our thinking, no matter how many languages we may know.
Did your parents encourage your literary ambitions?
No, they didn’t. Nor any professional ambitions, really. We were a conservative, middle-class, suburban Gujarati family. Even with the typical options of higher education in medicine or engineering, they were adamant about us sisters not doing anything more than a bachelor’s degree because, they said, the men in our community didn’t study much and it would be harder to find good husbands if we were “overeducated.” The end goal was always marriage because that, to them, meant security for a woman. In fact, they never mentioned the Femina competition after I told them about it because, as my mother told me years later, they didn’t want me to get ideas.
I do appreciate how, having grown up in rural Gujarat, their decades of struggling in Bombay had shaped their worldview. As with most parents, they gave us the best they could. But they also worked to prepare us for the road rather than prepare the road for us.
In 2014, you moved back to India two years after quitting your corporate job in Silicon Valley. That’s when you started your blog Indiatopia, reacquainted yourself with your mother tongue, and started work on your story collection Each of Us Killers. Can you talk about what prompted you to work on so many projects simultaneously?
From 2012–’14, I was living off my savings and was writing, but without much conviction. A part of me still wonders if I should have applied for fully funded MFAs. But my prior, aborted MFA experiences hadn’t been good at all, and I didn’t want to put myself through that again. I did other things: became a certified financial planner, ran a digital literary magazine, managed my family’s brokerage accounts, took some more writing workshops, and launched Indiatopia (an e-zine for folks who had “returned to India” like me). All these projects were, in hindsight, elaborate ways to procrastinate from writing. And yet, they’ve all helped me considerably to become the writer and person that I am now.
I can imagine that the move back to India must have been difficult, considering how conservative Indians can be with single women, especially ones in creative fields. Personally, I find it difficult to be taken seriously by my extended family as a freelance writer (especially with all the unpaid labor it involves!). What was this phase of your life like?
I moved back to Gujarat, in mid-2014, after my mother suddenly passed away and I realized that my savings wouldn’t last me more than another couple of years in California. If I was going to finish a book, I needed to remove all other excuses or reasons to procrastinate. I thought I’d just keep my head down and write.
But India comes at you from all directions. People want to know you, especially if you’re an anomaly as a single, older, gray-haired woman writer. Like you said, it was hard to explain to my own family what I was doing and why. Giving up a high six-figure job in Silicon Valley to live in a small apartment on the outskirts of Ahmedabad and write a book. Crazy, right?
Yet, Each of Us Killers is the book it is because I wrote it in Gujarat, India. I could never have written it sitting in the United States. Modi had just come into power as prime minister. Gujarat, his home state, was in such a volatile situation. There is a story behind every single story in that collection.
And the literary translation work would never have happened if I hadn’t inherited my mother’s personal library. She had all of Dhumketu’s novels and short stories. I began revisiting them and felt such jolts of joy, shock, recognition, and more. She had often suggested we translate his stories together and I had dismissed that, saying I needed to do my own writing first. I began the translation work as a way of reconnecting with her after she passed away.
In an article on LitHub, you wrote about how your family shunned you for a few years because you refused an arranged marriage. Later on, when you started working as a full-time writer, you experienced ageism in the industry because you debuted in your 40s (and being a woman of color certainly wasn’t helpful either!). What pushes you to continue to work on your own terms? Are there things you feel you could only do because of these particular impediments?
The roadblocks have definitely not helped more than they’ve hindered. The amount of cognitive and emotional energy it takes to endure can be exhausting.
I came to the United States on a work permit while I was still paying off my UK student loan, which took me another three years. This meant I couldn’t change jobs or do other kinds of work. Legally, I was bound to that employer until I got my green card. To find the time and money to study the craft of writing and shore up confidence in my work was a constant challenge. I began publishing the odd short story in 2000 but only started querying the collection that became Each of Us Killers in 2017. After some weird agent and publisher experiences, it was published in 2020. In the United States, for a non-MFA writer of color with no literary connections, this is how it goes.
When I was a younger writer, I lacked role models and representation because it was all mostly white writers or the token brown writer with a particular literary pedigree. Now, there’s more diversity in the publishing world, but we still see entire reading lists (even those for AAPI month!), award lists, and even anthologies and university syllabi that miss South Asian–American literature beyond the usual names of Rushdie, Roy, Ghosh, Lahiri. I’ve written a Twitter thread about how in a study about the “most studied authors and texts over the history of Asian American literary studies,” Jhumpa Lahiri was the only South Asian author. And none of her books made it into the top 10. You remain invisible unless you fit an expected mold. If your work doesn’t “fit,” it’s still an uphill struggle.
What makes me keep going is that I don’t give up on something unless I’ve done everything within my abilities. So, if/when I do give up, I rarely have regrets. I also don’t rush into things or make quick decisions. For example, I’d been thinking about Desi Books since late 2018. I floated this idea on Twitter in 2019. And it became a real thing in April 2020.
All that said, even though I wish things had been easier and smoother, the person and the writer that I am today is because of the sum of all my work/life experiences.
You’ve also said that working in the United States made you want to become like an “ideal immigrant employee.” Did you feel similarly when you switched to full-time writing?
During most of my corporate career, I was at my employer’s mercy for my green card. It’s a precarious position to be in because, if they decide to let you go, you can’t just take that work permit to get another job. The need to always be the model immigrant worker becomes a force of habit. By the time I switched to full-time writing, I had my citizenship. I was also older, more weathered, and clearer on what success meant for me.
That said, while I no longer feel the pressure to be the “ideal immigrant” anything as a freelance writer now, I see how the publishing ecosystem — and I always say that writing and publishing are two entirely different things — exacts its own dues. So, to the extent that it’s possible, I say to writers who ask: define your own value system for your work, and don’t let this industry do it for you. You get to decide your worth; the industry gets to decide what they’ll pay you. But these are not the same thing.
Both Ratno Dholi and Each of Us Killers came out during the early pandemic, and then you launched Desi Books. It’s already been two years since you’ve been running it (congratulations!), and you’ve got an impressive lineup of authors, collaborations, and reviews. Can you talk about your journey thus far?
Thank you! I’d been wanting to do something like this since late 2018. The literary podcast landscape for South Asian literature at that time was sparse, even in South Asia.
The journey has been fascinating with some ups and downs. I chose not to go the public funding route because I don’t have that kind of energy. I do invest my own time and money, so there’s a limit to what can be done and how. Here’s the good stuff:
• People keep telling me they discover books they’d never have known of otherwise. And creating awareness and visibility has always been one of the foundational goals.
• We’ve featured at least 500 books in our monthly roundups now and almost 150 writers in our other channels. Showcasing the multiplicity and diversity of our stories has also been a foundational goal.
• We’ve got loyal followers from all around the world. Reach matters because it makes scalability easier when you’re ready to grow to the next level.
And here’s the not-so-good stuff:
• Building something like this — a startup, essentially — in public means that you’ll get unsolicited opinions about what some folks believe you’re doing right or wrong.
• I’ve lost connections with people I assumed were friends and whom I’ve helped when asked. It’s a sad thing, and it happens in a community that’s as fragmented as ours and still dealing with that narrative of scarcity.
• Things take longer than I sometimes anticipate, and I’ve had a steep learning curve with the “tech stack” we have for Desi Books because this is still a bootstrap venture. There is a long list of apps/tools I’ve had to learn on the go.
Whenever someone has spoken to you about your collection, the story “Mango Season” has come up. This story unabashedly explores all the supposed clichés that Indian writers are discouraged from writing about. You wanted to problematize the idea of the South Asian story. Is this something that you keep in mind when you work on your podcast as well? Are there any authors or books you particularly seek out?
Oh, yes. That story became way more popular than I ever thought it would. I thought it would get thrown out of the collection entirely. I did put in every single desi cliché I could think of just to prove the point. And I’ve mentioned this in the “Mango Discourse” roundup at Desi Books.
With Desi Books, I definitely aim to pick books that are different from what we might find at the big media venues. But we have some of the latter books too, for balance. In the long run, I’d love to have different channel hosts and let them choose the books. But I won’t ask people to work for free. I’m trying to figure out how best to get sponsorships so we can pay such hosts. We’ve also experimented with collaborations, like one with Brown Girl Bookshelf. I’d like to do more collaborations that are consistent for both brands. And, in July 2022, we’ve supported our first-ever community read — proposed, organized, and hosted by the author Naheed Phiroze Patel — to celebrate 25 years of Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things.
In your interview with Purple Pencil Project, you said: “In the end, writing is about connection.” I see connection as a recurring theme in all your work — especially in Desi Books, a podcast that showcases the literature of a globally scattered diaspora. You said in an interview with Bomb Magazine: “We literary citizens, at the very least, need to be more responsible in terms of which books and writers we amplify.” Can you talk about what the term “literary citizen” means to you, especially after creating a community with Desi Books?
Oh, goodness, yes. “Literary citizenship” now has both positive and negative connotations, at least within the larger US writing community. First, I don’t see how anyone can be an active participant in any capacity within the publishing ecosystem today and not see the need to do community work to address all the inequalities, class, caste, race, gender, age issues. If this stuff bothers you enough in other parts of our world, guess what? It’s going on right in your own backyard. So, if you’re any kind of social activist, don’t you want to clean up your own house too?
Second, I see a lot of people talking about community and literary citizenship, but in terms of actions, all they do is amplify the works of their friends. To me, that’s not about community or literary citizenship. That’s about creating a clique. And it’s fine if that’s all you’ve got the time and energy for. But then, let’s not do the virtue-signaling thing by calling it something else.
Third, having skin in the game as I’m doing with Desi Books means doing it for the long haul — not just when you have a book of your own to promote. Look, I know it’s tough out there and everyone has to do whatever they can to promote their book. They’ve invested so much of their lives into it. I’m not saying everyone needs to do what I’m doing. But let’s recognize and acknowledge that someone sharing the works of friends and the writers who blurbed them is not the same thing as using your time in the spotlight to pull many other deserving writers under it as well.
Suhasini Patni is a freelance writer based in Jaipur and Delhi. Her work has appeared in Asymptote, Words Without Borders, Mekong Review, and elsewhere.
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