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October 9, 2018

Chaya Bhuvaneswar's Playlist for Her Story Collection "White Dancing Elephants"

White Dancing Elephants

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Chaya Bhuvaneswar's brilliant debut collection White Dancing Elephants is filled with stories about diverse women facing violence.

Kirkus wrote of the collection:

"Stunning, evocative, exuberant collection."

In her own words, here is Chaya Bhuvaneswar's Book Notes music playlist for her story collection White Dancing Elephants:

My debut story collection, White Dancing Elephants was written over several years – so music was definitely a major thread. In the hospital, where I practice as a doctor, music is essential – whether blaring from a janitor’s iPod (I still actually have a mix-tape of Regina Belle that a janitor once gave me in a hospital cafeteria) – or playing in my car on the way to work, when I listen to songs and sometimes record a sentence or two that comes into my head with tunes in the background.

Recently I told a friend whose musical taste runs to the passionate: my stories are about people who are unexpectedly aroused to fury. While writing, I listened to proud, assertive women pioneers of rock; but it has also been important to listen to songs from Indians in Uganda, the Caribbean, New England, even Portugal, because these are voices from our diaspora, and these voices tell the stories in my book as well. And running alongside the narrative engine of instances of violence are loss and betrayal – like two dark figures racing each other. I search around for them in songs.

White Dancing Elephants
A story about a woman at the London Zoo, on the grass near Magdalen Park, a woman trying to go anywhere, away from her grief. "Ever So Lonely," by the wonderful British-Asian vocalist Sheila Chandra is the song I’d set to this story, all the more so because of how transient the beauty of that voice is, how perfect and fleeting, with Chandra no longer able to sing now because of vocal cord paralysis. A story and song both inadvertently on loss.

The Story of the Woman Who Fell in Love with Death
Would have to be "Learning to Fly" by the late, great Tom Petty, whose voice I imagine as being in the thoughts of the young boy learning how to live without his beloved sister.

Since this story juxtaposes the deep, abiding intimacy between a Korean-American and Indian-American woman with Bette Davis movies, I feel like I’m entitled to be a little nostalgic and pick Kim Carnes' "She’s Got Bette Davis Eyes," which also speaks to the fascination that the title character, Talinda, has for the narrator, Narika.

A Shaker Chair
There might be such a thing as a perfect song, independent of whatever story it’s attached to, though I can almost hear the heartstrings being plucked of the main character in this story, by Joan Armatrading singing "The Weakness in Me." “I have a lover/ Who loves me/ How could I be such a fool? But still you’ve got my attention” as the song sways into erotic inevitability, regret, a ruin that really satisfies.

A story about a painter with his masks on the walls, the dancers in his head and in his dreams, the shadowy paid lovers he visits. What helped: the stunning Ravi Shankar score of the black and white dance movie, Anuradha, based on a Bengali short story inspired by Madame Bovary. Lots of my friends’ parents know the song that starts “Kaise din”, the English translation of which starts,” How I spent my nights and days, My beloved has no idea.”

The Bang Bang
Mainly because the father-poet character in this story draws on Sanskrit of his childhood – I listened (or should have listened more) to the religious classical singer, MS Subhalakshmi singing “Kamakshi Suprabhatam,” good morning to the mother goddess. Sung in Sanskrit, in her uniquely heavy, pious, joyous, piercing voice. It’s like no other experience.

Orange Popsicles
In this story, there is one sweet thing for a character who survives violence and rape. Hint: it’s not a popsicle. Hence that song from years ago by the amazing Mary J. Blige – "Sweet Thing," her glorious cover of a Chaka Khan song, and those lines, which in this story apply to the heroine’s artwork and not a person: “You are my heat/ You are my fire/ You make me burn with soft desire.”

Bhopal 1984. Told from the perspective of a child looking into a mirror, a child traumatized by the chemical gas leak that killed thousands in India exposed to a Union Carbide pesticide factory, the story made me think of children’s songs, like Peter, Paul and Mary singing "Puff the Magic Dragon."

Chronicle of a Marriage, Foretold
The push and pull of this story, between male and female will, between the animate and paralyzed, got summed up by this song by Bonnie Raitt that I favor during any karaoke outing: " I Can’t Make You Love Me." What can any of us make any other person do, ever?

I swear I couldn’t possibly have written this story if it weren’t for the soundtrack of the movie Inside Man, where Spike Lee appropriated A.R. Rahman’s score for the Bollywood movie Dil se, particularly the fast moving, celebration "Chaiyya, Chaiyaa," which despite being spelled differently, is actually my name. I’ve watched that movie, Inside Man, about a million times (not the least for a killer seductive Jodie Foster, OMG…AND an almost as seductive Clive Owen, at his most-est when interacting with the little boy he’s pretended to kidnap) – I’m positive it seeped into my brain and got transmogrified when I wrote this super short twister of a heist story about Indian-Portuguese slaves in the 16th century.

All I’ll say about this second heist story is that in the getaway car, Vinita is listening to Britney Spears’ song, "Toxic." As I must confess I myself do at least three or four times a week.

Asha in Allston
Imagining the wife in the garage with an android – can’t help but thinking of Carrie Underwood singing that song I like enough to put aside her (possible red state) politics: "Before He Cheats," the one where she uses a Louisville slugger on the guy’s doomed headlights.

The Life You Save Isn't Your Own
Because there’s so much hope and light in this story, because it involves a ferry and Sausalito and because I love Vienna Tang – a song my partner hates because it’s a “chick song” – "Harbor." “The light in me will guide you home.” I sang that song over the phone to my partner many, many times while I was writing these stories. Many.

The Orphan Handler
This story, narrated by someone whose cynicism is cracked a bit by the unusual orphans she encounters, had Elvis Costello (sexiest cynical voice I know) in the background, invisible, "Watching the Detectives" – even though, sadly, there are no detectives anywhere to save the girls in this story.

In Allegheny
“I’m in so deep/ You know I’m such a fool for you/ You got me wrapped around your finger…” is probably the line that the heroine, Michelle, sings while she’s driving up the Allegheny Mountains, toward a distinguished-looking Hindu temple next to a Hooters bar. I love "Linger" - R.I.P. Dolores O’Riordan, of the Cranberries.

The Goddess of Beauty Goes Bowling
If the girl in this story could sing along to this song she would: "Cool like dat" by digable planets. There are a million good songs on that album, their debut, including appointment at the fat clinic just based on titles alone, but that song “We zoom like dat/ We out” is so comforting, and would be to the title character, the lonely girl so radically without a ‘we’, except for the ‘we’ her father feels she stole from him, the ‘we’ of this girl and her mother.

Since this story is about two women who break each other’s hearts a million different ways, and yet like the breaking and rejoining enough to never ever stop craving it, that heartbreak unique to what each of them can do to each other, there’s really no other song to sing but "Constant Craving" by k.d. lang, and yes, go to karaoke with me and I’ll show you how it’s done.

Chaya Bhuvaneswar and White Dancing Elephants links:

excerpt from the book
excerpt from the book

Foreword review
Kirkus review
Publishers Weekly review

formercactus interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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