Chaitali Sen’s short story collection “A New Race of Men from Heaven” was just published by Sarabande Books in January and has already won the Mary McCarthy Prize for Short Fiction. The Austin-based Sen authored the novel “The Pathless Sky” (Europa Editions, 2015) and her work has appeared in Ecotone, Shenandoah, Electric Literature, LitHub, Los Angeles Review of Books, Catapult, and others. She received her MFA in Fiction from Hunter College and is the founder of the interview series “Borderless: Conversations on Art, Action, and Justice.”
In the midst of her current book tour, we conversed over email.
Thao Votang: First, congratulations on your short story collection. The cover is a beautiful container for this stunning collection. In the acknowledgements, you mention that the writing of these stories spanned years. Did you find yourself heavily editing the earlier stories? In what ways did you notice your writing changing when you revisited your stories?
Chaitali Sen: The earlier stories had already undergone a lot of editing for publications in literary journals, but it was interesting to work with these earlier stories again, and there were some changes that were made. Sometimes it takes many years to find the unnecessary phrases or words that can be cut. I also played with some of the dialogue, sharpening it up and giving it more energy and forward propulsion. I think my earlier writing was much more linear by chronology. In my later stories, the past and present are more collapsed.
TV: How do you keep enough energy to write while doing your day job as an educator and all of that other life stuff?
CS: I don’t do other things like gardening, yoga classes, or long walks in the park. I also don’t have some of the pressures that other people have, like young children, but like anything else in life, it’s a matter of choices and priority. I only have so much energy, and sometimes I don’t have the energy to write because there are too many other important and competing things I must do. I find that if I go too long without writing, it affects my mental health, so I find the energy for it.
TV: The story “The Catholics” still gives me shivers. It follows this couple that has moved out of the city. After the 2016 election a friend-couple visits. They don’t even say it to themselves, but they are trying to heal. Trying to get their fight or flight reaction down. While they are taking refuge in each other, this religious in a no-birth-control way neighbor comes over uninvited. There’s this moment when good manners supersede the inclination for safety. How that burns! The story continues from there. Nothing physically bad happens but wounds like that don’t always show immediately. That scene encapsulates so much that was felt, in our gut, about the last presidency. And that’s just one small sliver of the elements and questions that are weaved into that story. All this made me think about how you’ve said that writing is the way you contribute now whereas in the past you were an active organizer. Do you intentionally map out these sorts of interactions and themes into a story before you write? How does following the character bring you to what they will experience?
CS: Throughout the years that I’ve worked on these stories, I’ve also spent time as a public school teacher and as an activist. As a teacher and activist, the goals and outcomes you’re seeking are much clearer. But when I’m writing, I’m thinking on a more micro level and don’t usually go into it with clear intentions. I started writing “The Catholics” thinking about how neighbors interacted with each other during the last presidency. I discover these moments of clarity or resonance as I write, as I’m feeling my way with the characters into a story. To me it is very much about the questions. In “The Catholics,” there are more questions than answers. Should Laurie and Sharmila make friends with their neighbors? Is this group of four friends losing their will to fight against injustice? Is it enough for Kiki to offer her reassurance to Laurie and Sharmila, while they may well have voted for someone hostile to them? I was also interested in the silences around this issue, what we avoided talking about with our neighbors. I like the idea of this story having different interpretations that could be debated.
TV: In “North, South, East, West,” the main character is this woman who has bucked under the constraints of her life and has resigned to it. Gradually, with such thoughtful pacing, you bring about this change. An opening. It made me think about how hard it is to work up the courage to change oneself. Could you tell us more about how that story came to you?
CS: This story came to me from hearing some snippets of stories about women who were wronged or abandoned by their families — either by husbands or by their first families. Stories I’ve heard all my life, really. It was a way of me trying to understand, on a day to day level, how one survives these terrible situations and where there might be opportunities for transformation. Once I started writing about this family though, those other stories fell away. This family became their own unit, with their own story, living within a patriarchal structure but perhaps willing and ready to question those constraints.
TV: I kept going back to the collection, searching for something that really stuck with me but not knowing exactly that it was. Eventually, I realized it was that you wrote with so much trust in your reader. Trusting that they would know what your characters were going through as immigrants, as people fearing for their safety, and/or as people facing the ideological threats of our time. I loved this trust. It made me feel valued and because of that, more safe, which is so incredibly rare these days. How do you keep from doubling back to explain to readers who don’t understand and stay so focused on those that do?
CS: I love this question. Thank you. You know, this may be actually part of my training as a teacher and an activist. I always had trust that my students were capable of learning, and if I organize a protest, you have to rely on each other, the people, to keep each other safe and focused. When you’re writing, you have to respect the reader enough to want to entertain them and give them the information they need to enjoy the story, while trusting that they are thinking, feeling people on their own and able to bring their own knowledge and life experience to the story.
TV: Your debut novel, “The Pathless Sky,” was published in 2015. How do you approach the expansiveness of writing a novel in contrast to the distillation of short fiction? Do you find the difference in form and space difficult? How do you know which form fits a story best (or vice versa)?
CS: I’ve realized recently that when I’m writing a novel, I’m thinking of a character’s arc or journey, but when I’m writing a short story, although of course the characters are important, I’m led more by the situation, a certain contradiction or problem. Whether or not that situation is resolved is a different question. There are a lot of choices there – not resolved, partly resolved, resolved but with another problem creeping up behind it, resolved outright. I’ve always found short stories very difficult to write. I just love the form and that’s why I stick with it. Writing novels comes a bit more naturally to me.
TV: I read that you are working on another novel — maybe even two? Is there a favorite image or scene from the novels that you can tease us with? I can’t wait to see your next books come out.
CS: Right now I’m revising a novel about a 12-year old Bengali American girl in the 1980s whose mother suddenly goes back to India. She is left by her father to live with another Bengali family in Yardley, Pennsylvania, and here her search for a mother figure is both rewarding and troublesome. I get to revisit some pop culture moments from the 80s, like the terrifying TV movie about nuclear apocalypse The Day After.
TV: What have been the most moving, comforting, or entertaining books, artworks, films, or songs you have experienced recently?
CS: The last movie that really moved me and stayed with me long after I left the theater was “Women Talking.” It follows a group of women in a Mennonite community who have to make a decision after a series of sexual assaults. The dialogue was incredible, but it also makes you realize how few scripts there are of women talking about things that matter.