Writer Sindya Bhanoo Explores the Lives of Ordinary Women in New Short Story Collection

Sindya Bhanoo wants you to pay attention to the mundane, ordinary moments in life. It’s one of the center themes of her collection of short stories, Seeking Fortune Elsewhere, released this past March by Catapult.   

The eight stories in the collection—four set in India, and four set in the U.S.—offer a glimpse into the day-to-day lives of mostly ordinary women: A widow living in a retirement home. A woman whose childhood classmate is an actress-turned-politician making daily headlines. A divorcée at her daughter’s wedding. A grieving mother who lost her son in a school shooting. Only one of the stories focuses on a man—a professor accused of misconduct by students after he seemingly uses them for free labor around his house—but even that story centers his wife.   

Bhanoo wanted to tell the stories of Indian and Indian American women in particular, she says, because of how much India has changed over the years. Her parents are Indian immigrants, so she grew up in the United States but visited India frequently, and her childhood memories feature shoddy infrastructure and a lack of foreign investment in the country. But as she continued to visit, the country modernized, and women started to work alongside their husbands. She’s particularly interested, she says, in how the role of women changed and didn’t change.   

The Alcalde chatted with Bhanoo, a journalist and 2019 Michener Center graduate and current visiting faculty, about these women and what it means to leave—or be left behind.   

One of the first things that struck me about your book was the epigraph: “Do you understand the sadness of geography?” from the film The English Patient. Why did you choose that?  

I think the people who understand it, understand it, and those who don’t, don’t. Many things have changed about the immigrant story. Technology has changed many things, and travel has changed many things. People can go back and forth. But what never changes, and what will never change, is that family is left behind. Weddings and funerals are often missed. Families don’t get together the same way that families that are closer do. And I think there’s a sadness that hovers even during the most joyous of moments. Each of my stories is exploring that in a different way. It exists in every story, no matter who the characters are, no matter what they’re struggling with.  

All of the stories in this collection have to do with either leaving or being left, or the choice between staying and going. What made you want to explore that topic?  

My parents are immigrants from India, and I was born and raised in the United States. I saw my extended family very infrequently—I didn’t grow up knowing my cousins and playing with them or really knowing who my grandparents were. None of that was really mine to experience and it never will be. My parents grew up in India with their family and cousins and grandparents and aunts and uncles, and my kids have that experience here. But I will never know it. And I think that I will keep trying to understand it through my fiction.   

Your characters are so different. How do you get yourself into the mindset of all these perspectives?   

When I’m working on a story, I sometimes start with something I’ve seen in the news, and that helps me create a setting. Then sometimes I also have an image, and I use that to enter the imagined world. So I have a place to start with, much like a reporter has something that they’re starting with. You don’t know the story quite yet. But you have some information, some data, or a character or a contact—you have that lead that lets you in. And then you have to go in and do what is, essentially, a reporter’s job—walk around and observe the world very carefully and observe your characters. Then there’s this job of asking your characters a lot of questions, and sometimes a lot of personal questions. And just as a reporter doesn’t always get a straight answer right away, as a fiction writer, you don’t always get the honest answer or even an answer. I don’t start writing until I feel like I have enough. That process is very similar to reporting for me.  

There’s a theme of women claiming or reclaiming their power in some of these stories. Can you talk about that?  

I was interested in exploring women claiming and reclaiming power in a very specific way. I think our society celebrates CEOs and movie stars and people who make a good headline, but I think that the women in my stories are doing important, groundbreaking things in much smaller ways that affect them and their families. I was interested in these smaller actions that are still incredibly powerful for a person and for family.  

How did your time at UT and the Michener Center shape you as a writer?   

It was really kind of magnificent. You get to work with these amazing writers, teachers, and these world-renowned visiting writers who come through, and then you have a peer group of really serious talented writers who are all doing their own work.   

What do you want readers to take away from your book?  

I really wanted these stories to be part of the record. I wanted them to exist. The seeds of a lot of these stories have been floating around in my head for many years. As a journalist, I believe in the power of the archive, the importance of documenting people’s lives and stories for that to be there now for the public, but also years from now. I feel the same way about these stories. I hadn’t seen these characters before in the books that I read, and I really felt like if I didn’t write these stories down, they would never get written down. It would be like they never existed, both for myself and for the generation that will follow me and my children, but also just for everyone. So, I hope people read these stories and get to know these people and step into someone’s shoes just for a brief moment. And I think that that, in turn, just influences the way that we exist in the world as people. As a journalist, we cover these big events … and we don’t get to stop and linger and pay attention to people’s day-to-day lives and ordinary moments and mundane moments. But it’s actually through those observations that we really understand who another person is.  

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

Credit: Brian Birzer


No comments

Be the first one to leave a comment.

Post a Comment