The PEN Ten: An Interview with Shruti Swamy
1. What was the first book or piece of writing that had a profound impact on you?
When I think about this question, what comes to mind is not any book in particular, though one of my parents’ earliest gifts to me was a sense of unforced delight around reading and a lifelong love of the public library. More than any one text, though, was my dad’s bedtime stories. He told me one every night (at least in my memory), making them up on the spot. As a writer, you are at such a remove from your reader that by the time the story reaches them, it is in a certain way dead to you, like the light of a distant star—you as the writer have lived in it, journeyed through it already, and came out on the other side. But as a storyteller, with the audience of a child, you are living through the story with her, you are shaping the story, actively, to delight her, and to delight yourself. I think seeing that in action—the power and pleasure of language, the deliciousness of being able to say what happens next to someone who wants to know—was my earliest introduction to writing.
2. What does your creative process look like? How do you maintain momentum and remain inspired?
There was a terrible year I had a terrible job that made me grind my teeth in my sleep, which was ironic, because I had taken that job with the idea that the schedule and the relative simplicity of its tasks would allow me to write. I didn’t write. I read slowly, tried breathing exercises, cried in the park on my lunch breaks, and tried not to lose all faith in myself. But I had intense, vivid dream—some of the most beautiful of my life. In one dream, I was in a wild, lush park populated with chattering birds. “This park is being re-wilded,” someone told me. “This was all wasteland before.” I was looking up, and as she said this, a tree was releasing a cloud of birds into the sky from its branches.
That is to say: I don’t always maintain momentum and remain inspired. And yet, even in the times when I am not writing, there is a part of me that is still awake to the possibilities of language and story, listening, absorbing. Much of my creative process has been recognizing and respecting these fallow periods, which often have coincided with difficult times as well as times of transformation—times when the work is subterranean. I am still working on remembering that what counts as writing doesn’t happen only when I’m literally putting words on the page. What counts as writing, to me, can be at times indistinguishable as what counts as living, as dreaming.
“I am still working on remembering that what counts as writing doesn’t happen only when I’m literally putting words on the page. What counts as writing, to me, can be at times indistinguishable as what counts as living, as dreaming.”
3. What is one book or piece of writing you love that readers might not know about?
I think Eleanor Davis’s work is incredible. The stories in How to Be Happy span a tremendous range in content—some of them are incredibly surreal—but somehow, her focus is so precise. So many of them sit at the center of longing and grief, which holds a tremendous lightness, humor, and even joy. Actually, How to Be Happy was a New York Times bestseller, so maybe readers know about it already!
4. How can writers affect resistance movements?
I have been, unsurprisingly, thinking about this question a lot recently. There was a long period in my life in which I believed—or at least said I believed—in the power of stories. I believed that seeing oneself on the page or onscreen could be transformative for someone who feels culturally invisible (like a certain Indian American teenager in the early 2000s), and that, conversely, seeing an aspect of shared humanity in someone you thought of as “other” could, like, end racism. It’s not that I don’t still think representation is important. But no story in the world is going to make a racist person less racist, to stop someone being shot by the cops or patted down at an airport. And writing a story for representation’s sake alone—rather than out of curiosity and compassion for a character, out of specific love and interest—is not ultimately going to be alive enough to represent anyone.
Still, books matter. Ursula K. Le Guin, in that stunning acceptance speech at the 2014 National Book Awards, said, “Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope.” Those hard times are here: I think the kind of writing where we imagine alternatives, imagine what could be possible, to delineate both the dream and the nightmare, are necessary now more than ever. And I think that could be explored in the ways people are in relation to each other here on earth, as much as it could be imagining an alien culture. Audre Lorde says this too, about poetry, in Poetry Is Not a Luxury: “As they become known to and accepted by us, our feelings and the honest exploration of them become sanctuaries and spawning ground for the most radical and daring of ideas. They become a safe-house for that difference so necessary to change and the conceptualization of any meaningful action.”
Books are not protests; their work is subtle. It can be hard to trace the consequence of a book’s life. Nonetheless, I believe in them. If nothing else, we can make a refuge with our books, for those who need to live inside those other realities for a little while.
5. How does your identity shape your writing? Is there such a thing as “the writer’s identity?”
Everyone’s identity of course shapes their writing, but there is an understanding in this country that only certain books deal with identity, and those written by white men generally are considered universal. Many writers have pushed back against being called a “woman writer,” for example, for reasons I understand: “Women’s writing” has been taken less seriously than “writing” (which is by men), and being a writer of color often means that you are responding to a host of expectations about what you will write about and how you will write it even if that response is a refusal of them.
And yet, I am joyfully a woman writer, a brown writer. I am interested in the ways these aspects of my identity—and many others, like my identity as a mother—show aesthetically in my work as well as in my subject matter. There are choices I have explicitly made; for example, every story in my collection centers a person of color, even though that part of their identity is not the “point” of the story, or at least the point of conflict. But there are other choices I’ve intuitively made, I see now as I look back: circling around the dreams of my characters, reworking myth, rejecting—in some cases—a linear understanding of time, exploring and honoring the sensory experience of the body—which feel to me very specific to my identity as a woman of color.
“Books are not protests; their work is subtle. It can be hard to trace the consequence of a book’s life. Nonetheless, I believe in them. If nothing else, we can make a refuge with our books, for those who need to live inside those other realities for a little while.”
6. What advice do you have for young writers?
I wonder if any young writers have any advice for me! When I was just starting out as a writer, I was in a position I don’t think I fully appreciated—that of being new, of being a novice. You mimic the models you encounter to learn how you want to do it yourself, of course; you’ll probably write a very terse Raymond Carver story at some point. But if you allow yourself room to experiment—to fail—you might hit on something that I think is sort of hard to recapture when you gain more skill and muscle memory. I’m referring to a kind of wildness, a burst of inventiveness, a way of doing something or saying something that hasn’t been done or said before that comes when one hasn’t figured out one way of doing things, so every possibility is still open. It is hard being new at something—and maybe not very good at it yet—but artistically, that can be a very rich place to write from.
7. Which writer, living or dead, would you most like to meet? What would you like to discuss?
Though both Toni Morrison and Ursula K. Le Guin gave us so many books before they passed, when they died, it felt terrible to know they were not in the world anymore. Over the last few years, I reached out to both of them in my mind when I felt scared about the daily catastrophes populating the news cycle; it comforted me to think that they were just existing in the same world as me with their luminous, compassionate, and precise ways of thinking even if they were just as angry and heartbroken as the rest of us. At this moment in our history, I am the most frightened I have ever been. I would like to sit with them now. I don’t know if I have anything to discuss. There’s a concept in Hinduism called “darshan,” where just sitting in the presence of someone holy is a blessing. I don’t want to make them into saints—they would, in my mind, have a full and complex humanity, with flaws and imperfections. But it would be receiving darshan for me to sit with them now, to be in their physical presence.
8. Your debut book, A House Is a Body, is collection of 12 stories set in the United States and India. Prior to its publication, your stories won multiple awards and were published in numerous outlets. Did you have a specific project in mind when you began writing the individual stories? If not, was there a moment when it dawned on you that this was a book? That the stories were building relationships and experiences for yourself, and eventual readers, out of their seemingly randomly connected parts?
I always knew I was writing a book, though the shape and logic of the book changed many times and quite profoundly from start to finish. I think a good short story collection can offer more than just a series of interesting events or characters—by casting its eye over a range of situations and people, it can train you to see as the writer did, and apply that beauty-hungry eye to your own life. I remember reading Gina Berriault and feeling very keenly that I was walking around in her city, with its endless pale hills—suddenly, everything in my life was more beautiful because I had borrowed her vision. I could feel her voice very close to me, helping me make sense of my own life. This was the kind of collection I wanted to write. So I was not worried that my characters, locations, situations, etc might feel unrelated as I was writing them. I had faith both that connections would emerge between them without me needing to add them artificially, and also that my voice and vision would be consistent from story to story.
“I am joyfully a woman writer, a brown writer. I am interested in the ways these aspects of my identity—and many others, like my identity as a mother—show aesthetically in my work as well as in my subject matter.”
9. Your stories play with storytelling techniques that are original and confident. One of the more interesting structures to me was in the collection’s first story “Blindness,” where reality blends into dreams. In other stories, some of the more pivotal revelations and plot points are subtly woven within captivating prose. Can you speak on the aesthetic relationships from story to story? What were the formal and thematic components and decisions behind the order in which the stories are arranged in the book?
There were a few things I was trying to balance when I put together the collection. There is the obvious spilt to me between my first-person stories and my third-person stories: In the first person, I feel like the voice is more plain spoken; the third person, I think, tends to be a little more immersive on the level of language—the title story being the most extreme example of that. There were points where I toyed with the idea of an only first-person collection—which as a reader I love; for example, Deborah Eisenberg’s first collection—but something felt missing when I did. Though there is that split between my first and third, they are circling around the same themes, events, and sometimes even images—just coming up on them from different angles, which ultimately felt like an asset instead of a flaw.
Another split in the collection are the stories that follow a sort of liner arc, that might fall into the category of a more traditional short story—and the stories that are weirder, like “Blindness.” So I wanted to make sure that all these stories were balanced against each other, feeling interesting against each other, speaking to each other, and also offering space. And right from the first story, I wanted to invite the reader inside the world of the collection, but also put all my cards on the table, aesthetically and thematically.
10. With restraint and brevity, the stories in A House Is a Body present glimpses into the lives of fallible characters that remind readers of the most “human” of moments. What’s your relationship like with the short story form? Would you say that short stories are the ideal form to capture life’s fleeting, yet significant moments, and if so, why?
Having spent several years working on a novel, I confess I’ve come back to the short story form slightly bewildered. What does this form “mean”—what is it trying to do? What makes a good story, and why? I guess I am in the position of being a novice again, which is terrifying even if I believe in it. The closest answer I have now is what I feel when I watch music videos by Christine and the Queens. Chris’s body moves with so much control that every movement feels intentional—yet there is a looseness there too, a sense of ease and even playfulness, a pure and evident joy. I think a good story should move this way too, and I think I might spend my whole life trying to write one that does.
The winner of two O. Henry Awards, Shruti Swamy’s work has appeared in The Paris Review, McSweeney’s, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere. In 2012, she was Vassar College’s 50th W.K. Rose Fellow and has been awarded residencies at the Millay Colony for the Arts, Blue Mountain Center, and Hedgebrook. She is a Kundiman fiction fellow, a 2017–2018 Steinbeck Fellow at San Jose State University, and a recipient of a 2018 grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation. She lives in San Francisco. A House is a Body: Stories is her debut book.