Struggle Becomes Second Nature in Chaya Bhuvaneswar’s ‘White Dancing Elephants’

An author leans on the pangs of life experienced by women of color in her debut collection.

White Dancing Elephants Chaya Bhuvaneswar Book Review
White Dancing Elephants Book Cover White Dancing Elephants
Chaya Bhuvaneswar
Short Stories
Dzanc Books
October 9, 2018

A woman grieves a miscarriage, haunted by the Buddha’s birth. An artist with schizophrenia tries to survive hatred and indifference in small-town India by turning to the beauty of sculpture and dance. Orphans in India get pulled into a strange “rescue” mission aimed at stripping their mysterious powers. A brief but intense affair between two women culminates in regret and betrayal. A boy seeks memories of his sister in the legend of a woman who weds death. And fragments of history, from child brickmakers to slaves in Renaissance Portugal, are held up in brief fictions, burnished, made dazzling and unforgettable.

In sixteen remarkable stories, Chaya Bhuvaneswar spotlights diverse women of color—cunning, bold, and resolute—facing sexual harassment and racial violence, and occasionally inflicting that violence on each other. Winner of the 2017 Dzanc Short Story Collection Prize, White Dancing Elephants marks the emergence of a new and original voice in fiction and explores feminist, queer, religious, and immigrant stories with precision, drama, and compassion.

The short stories in Chaya Bhuvaneswar‘s White Dancing Elephants are an eclectic collection of life that takes readers through the spectrum of experiences faced by women of color. The stories, though they take place around the world, share common themes of feminism and womanhood, trauma and violence and sexuality, though most primarily existing as a woman and person of color.

Bhuvaneswar sets the tone for her collection with the title story, which follows a woman coming to grips with her miscarriage while sauntering the streets of London. It is a powerful starting point to a collection rife with gut-punching moments; and as she imagines the life of the baby she’s lost, you can’t help but feel the narrator’s imaginary yet unwavering hope. It is “White Dancing Elephants” that foretells even more loss and trauma to come, yet the author finds a new way to devastate us.

Sexuality is perhaps nowhere more explored than in “A Shaker Chair,” as Sylvia, a bi-racial therapist, finds herself “repulsed” and innately attracted to her patient Maya. Sylvia’s always aimed to be the picture of poise, never wanting to give anyone a reason to doubt her, but dreams and feelings of the wild, erratic Indian woman sitting on her couch jeopardize that.

Probably one of Bhuvaneswar’s best instances of storytelling is in “Orange Popsicles” — the harrowing tale of Jayanti, a college student who blames herself for her own sexual assault after getting caught up in a cheating scandal. The way that Jayanti tends to see the world through an artist’s eye and tries to relate things back to the beautiful, even while she is struggling to keep herself together is what makes her story so compelling. Jayanti is demure and reserved, even before the assault, while her roommate and confidant, Becca, is a loud and rebellious feminist who sounds the call to arms after finding Jayanti in their dorm room and never gives up the fight. It is an interesting conveyance of the duality of women and the culture surrounding the conversation of sexual assault and misconduct.

These challenges, though seemingly rare in the extraordinary and impossible in which they are written, are actually disturbingly commonplace. Bhuvaneswar narrates through a diverse cast of women who experience traumas often overlooked, even though they are just as likely to outlast them like any other woman.

In both “Jagatishwaran” and “The Story of the Woman Who Fell in Love With Death” Bhuvaneswar’s shifts gears, exploring the impact and absence of women through male perspectives, each recounting the ways in which women have transformed them. In the latter, our protagonist is learning to become a man, but never without thinking of the sister who went missing when he was just a boy. While only present in memory, she’s shaped the trajectory of his life, which becomes all the more profound to him in her absence.

One of Bhuvaneswar’s most consuming tales is “Chronicles of Marriage, Foretold,” in which a woman named Mikki finds herself in an unhappy and unfaithful marriage with a man who isn’t meeting her expectations. This drives her to fabricate a new man in her mind, a man made of several other failed lovers from Mikki’s past — a man who may just become the love of her life. Despite playing her role in their marriage, she is still left wanting; she is still not the one her husband wants nor is he for her.

The suffering, the joy, the emotion construed through all of these stories are nearly palpable in the way Bhuvaneswar builds worlds so precisely like our own. A prime example of this is in “Ahsa in Allston,” in which a woman’s fight for her life pushes her to the brink as her husband continues his affair with technology of his own creation. Whether it’s technology or some other presence, this sense of having something in your life that could one day drive you to the point setting the world alight is a feeling so strangely universal.

Bhuvaneswar has a way of tipping readers to the edge of their seats with every turn, much like the transition from “Heitor” to “Newberry”: one an account of a legendary slave who risks his life for a woman to live freely; the other witnesses a woman pulling off a great heist to immigrate with her boyfriend. Both stories range from the lyrical and disjointed stream of consciousness to gritty no-nonsense tales not for the faint of heart.

Each woman bears the scars inflicted upon them by society — both their own and those into which they’re attempting to assimilate. Each story is a wound, a mark of survival Bhuvaneswar uses to explore the importance of feminism and women vicariously through the male lens. Several times over, White Dancing Elephants gives a stunningly unafraid and honest account of the roles men play in the lives of almost every woman.

The author has a distinct, at times brutal voice that manages to balance the severity of real life with the beauty of the written word. Although there are male narrators and protagonists present in White Dancing Elephants, this is a series of shorts for and about women. Women of cover every age, class,  and social group but are all distinct in ways that only strong women can be. In all, this may be Bhuvaneswar’s first collection but it is an exceptionally promising beginning.
Rachel Gonzalez
the authorRachel Gonzalez
Staff Writer
Rachel is a writer from Arizona who recently finished her BA at Northern Arizona University. Her four years in a mountain town got her a degree in English coupled with certificates in creative writing and literature and minors in journalism and anthropology. Her passions outside of reading and writing include RuPaul’s Drag Race, film and fitness. She loves YA fiction and comedy and hopes to turn those two loves into a novel in the near future. Favorite books: Looking for Alaska by John Green—actually, everything by John Green, Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, and It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini