Shruti Swamy’s debut story collection, A House Is a Body, vibrates with life on every page. Her characters are often grieving a loss or working through a major transition. They suffer through the depths of depression or anxiety and either feel abandoned or struggle to be present for those around them. Though these scenarios can sound dark, the book is full of moments of levity and light. Swamy so vividly depicts her characters, that in reading, one melts into their lives.
This is in part due to Swamy’s keen awareness of the pleasures of the body. One woman describes how the name Rishikesh “in her mouth felt cool, like water running against a great thirst.” Another woman watches her brother, “He never hid his fists in his pockets or the folds of his coat, each hand with the bony elegance of cats.” And in the story, “Mourners,” you have this wonderful rendering of a child’s growth: “It is the courage to live in an expanding body, with limbs lifting outward, with teeth pushing up, with hands and mind growing finer, with eyes settling on color, with body unbending from the earth and standing upright, balancing perilously on two legs, and then moving forward, walking, running forward, teeth losing, filling, knees scraped and healing, voice gaining depth and sureness, hips and breasts accruing, skin darkening, stretching, blood slipping out from the thighs, and death always, always, at the back.”
The stories in Swamy’s collection have won two O’Henry Awards, and appeared in The Paris Review, The Kenyon Review Online, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere. Swamy and I spoke over Zoom about the short story form, writing the body, and more.
— Alexandra Chang for Guernica
Guernica: I saw in Publisher’s Weekly that you said this story collection is about “being alive.” But I also noticed that many of its characters are intimate with death. Still, there’s a persistent joy—the characters find pleasure in their children, in the Earth, in their relationships. For example, the queen and narrator in “The Siege,” in the midst of grieving her dead son, thinks while interacting with another woman: “When I looked at her there was kindness in her eyes and mouth. It was enough that for a single instant my pain subsided, and, despite everything, joy rushed into the space it had opened.” Is this intimacy with death tied to a feeling of being fully alive?
Shruti Swamy: Many of these stories are records of my deepest fears. Right now, I’m working on a story where this woman is dealing with the death of her baby, which is my own very worst fear.
Especially with the death of a child, we say the words “unspeakable” or “unthinkable” when we talk about it. Some of my work as a writer has been saying and thinking and speaking those things that we put an “un” in front of, because it’s so horrible and terrifying if you find yourself in those moments of intense grief and loss and looking at death. We need to be able to think and speak those things. We need to imagine into them. We need to be able to reach out to the ones we love, who might be experiencing those things. We might be there ourselves.
But yes, to me, there is also a lot of joy. I just had this idea, which was like, if this child died, how can I live? People live after that. How can you live after that, not just going from one place to the next, but really live, really be alive? How would somebody do that? A lot of these stories ask that question. We are in a terrible time right now. We were when I wrote this collection. And yet here we are in our lives, still living, still finding moments of joy, and I wanted to write—it’s like an act of hope—stories that have those moments, have those spaces open in the middle of really difficult, terrible sorrow or grief or loss. It feels important to me to imagine that those spaces could be possible in those moments.
Guernica: Speaking of being alive, I also really admired how all of your characters felt so alive on the page, partly because of your acute awareness of their bodies. There’s this strong and active relationship between the mind and the body in your stories.
One of my favorite passages in “Earthly Pleasures” is when Radika, the narrator, describes the effect silence has on her body: “The tricky thing about silence is its weight, the heaviness it gives a particular word or name that sits unspoken on your tongue. That word or name may grow over time, filling your mouth, your lungs, your belly, with the evil and beauty of its absence. I have never met a person who has been able to bear the weight like I have.” Later, she makes herself cry in a mirror to witness the distress on her face and how it changes her. Could you talk about how this body-mind relationship functions for you and in your fiction?
Swamy: People have often described my work as being very interested in the body, and because people have pointed this out to me, it calcified into a kind of interest or identity that I wouldn’t have necessarily articulated. I realized that it’s because that’s how I actually experience and find meaning in the world.
When I was pregnant, I was so sick for the first trimester. I was so depressed and grumpy and felt so horrible. I realized that it was because when my body’s not feeling good, I can’t function. Not just because I like to feel good, though that’s part of it, but there are a lot of things that give me small, daily pleasures through the body. That’s the instrument we have to receive the world. It’s not just a fleeting pleasure. It’s a pleasure that holds meaning for me.
The ability to experience and share pleasure, and the pleasure that absolutely exists in the body, is the heart of my experience as a human. I do feel like my writing has always been oriented towards that. I look for it in my life, and I’m often tuning myself to that when I’m writing.
Guernica: Many of your stories feature a woman who is pregnant, a new mother, or in early motherhood. These stories range from 2008 to 2015, before you became a mother yourself. What was it about motherhood that fueled your imagination?
Swamy: With a couple of them I was like, what would it feel like to absolutely fail a child? “A House Is a Body” is an example of that.
Guernica: I had so much anxiety reading that story!
Swamy: When I read the draft a few years after I wrote it I was like, Oh, I think I literalized a panic attack. The sentences are really suffocating. It does feel to me like what it is to be in a loop of anxiety. What’s the worst thing that can happen? What’s the scariest thing? The scariest thing is to really fail somebody who’s depending on you and not even know it. That’s a very monstrous thing, in some ways. There’s also lots of context for that and it also happens. Children are failed all the time.
I’ve always been interested in motherhood. But I have no explanation for why. I can offer the very pedestrian answer which is that in my mid- to late-twenties, I was starting to imagine what that might be like for me. I was constantly looking at different angles of parenthood. There are mostly young children in this collection, because I was most interested in that since it’s where I would be starting from. I was asking, What would this do to my body? What would happen to my identity?
When I was thinking about having children, I was also grappling with the idea of bringing a person into this world. I thought, I will ask someone to come and if they come I will have to respect their tremendous courage for joining me here. I think we forget how hard it was to be a kid and how high the stakes felt to us, and how embarrassing things were or how much things really hurt. Kids have so much courage going out there with their tiny little bodies and trying to live in the world. I feel really moved by that.
Guernica: Has anything changed about the way you write about the parent-child relationship after becoming a mother? Is it still something you’re very interested in exploring in fiction?
Swamy: I think I’ll always find writing about children interesting. I’m not comparing children to animals in all the ways, but very young children who don’t have much language and animals both have a particular way of knowing you. They have experiences that are real and meaningful yet they have no language to express them. That to me will always be fascinating as a writer because my medium is language. The idea that somebody is having all these experiences totally unmediated by language, and that they are in relation to you, somebody who has language—that feels so compelling. What that often means is that they’re communicating fully through their bodies. Dogs show up in a lot of my stories, and I think that’s similar—the joy of a dog’s body, they’re so expressive, without words. That feels really pleasurable to investigate. I do think that I will probably be even more interested in stories about teenagers and their mothers, or even adults and their mothers.
Guernica: I loved “The Siege” and “Earthly Pleasures”—they’re both the middle stories, which I think of as the anchors of a collection. They’re also inspired by Hinduism, specifically the Ramayana epic and the god Krishna, who is a major character in “Earthly Pleasures.” How do you go about writing fiction based off of stories that have been passed down through millennia? Does it differ from writing a straight realist story for you, or do you find the processes are similar?
Swamy: They’re very similar. Especially with Krishna, of all the gods in the myths I grew up listening to as a child, he was always a sort of friend. He’s Arjuna’s friend. He always pops up when Arjuna needs him and gives Arjuna advice. When I was little, these stories felt no different to me than the stories that I heard about my parents growing up, or what Bombay was like, or my grandparents’ childhoods. Especially because I lived in America and this all took place in India. My parents’ childhoods took place in India, so did Krishna’s childhood. I always felt comfort and familiarity with Krishna in particular.
However, I did do a lot of research for “The Siege,” which was different from any of the other stories. In particular, there’s a book called The Hindus: An Alternative History, in which a lot of the multiplicities of Hinduism, the incredible diversity of stories, is laid out, as well as the evolution of various rituals and ways of thinking. Other than that, I gave myself a tremendous freedom to inhabit these characters and ask questions about them and ask questions to them, because they always felt like mine, because they were like my childhood friends.
Guernica: I really admired how you structure your stories, especially the frame story and “My Brother at the Station,” which is very short, but skips a lot of time. I found it very moving, because of its structure, which I think is a strength of the short story. What about the form appealed to you?
Swamy: Stories can be so fun. You can do more stuff in a novel, but there’s something thrilling about having only about ten pages. The tightness of the frame of the story is really interesting and compelling to me. I used to feel like I had a way to write a short story that I understood. Over the course of the last few years, I actually don’t know what a story is anymore or what it should do. I’m rebuilding my understanding of that. A lot of the aesthetic considerations of the story that we’re taught have to do with minimalism, like paring down the language, paring down the emotion. It’s all subtext. Things bubble up through dialogue or there’s a river of emotion that flows under, but we won’t speak of that. That feels to me like a masculine value, in terms of a culture we praise and aspire to. The attitude of, I don’t have feelings and I’m just going to keep it cool, not be some hysterical woman screaming about her feelings or whatever.
I want to understand what it means to write a short story as a woman, as a woman of color, and what the aesthetics of that looks like. “A House Is a Body,” the title story, has an intensity of language. It’s saying everything—it’s overwhelming you with what it’s saying. That seems to be one response. I don’t think the short story even needs to be totally, radically reinvented, but I just don’t really know what it means anymore.
I also think that it’s good to be bewildered. It’s very weird that I spent so much of my adult life learning how to do something and then I have no idea how to do it and have to learn it again. That place of bewilderment is a very important place in terms of artistic growth. I don’t resent my place here.
Guernica: Do you have a favorite story in the collection?
Swamy: Yes, “Earthly Pleasures.” It was a story that was so pleasurable to write. It taught me so much. It was a moment, artistically, where things were coalescing for me, in terms of how I thought about stories and language. Process wise, that was a story that surprised me so much. I had no idea where it was going at all. It’s different from writing novels; you don’t have to worry about going somewhere and spending the next ten years on it. I had three pages. I had this feeling about Krishna, that he was a real guy. Then the whole story came from that idea. I was like, This isn’t a real story, I’m just going to write it because it’s a fun idea for me. Then it did become a real story. It’s not autobiographical at all, but it does contain a lot of my thoughts about life and art and friendship. At the time I was writing it, even though Radika is not me, I did picture her at exactly the same age and wearing my exact sweatshirt.
Guernica: It does seem like that story holds most of what the rest of the stories do as well—the grief of having secrets and carrying those secrets, what it’s like to live with depression and anxiety, the joys of the body… I have this fear sometimes where I think my stories are too similar, they’re all about the same kinds of things. But I realized in reading your collection how much I love story collections where the author approaches the same ideas from different angles and perspectives.
Swamy: I feel that way too sometimes. I’m writing about the same thing, but then that is one of the pleasures for me about story collections—when the writer is looking at similar things but through different lenses. Reading a story collection is like being very close to the eye and the mind of the writer in a way that a novel isn’t. With the novel there’s just the scope of it, but with the story collection you can move around more. You’re in so many different people’s consciousness, you could be in different cities, you’re literally looking at different things. What’s consistent is the writer’s voice and what the writer is looking at. The story collection can offer that to you more than the novel can, because we’re seeing more of what the writer sees of the world than we typically do through a novel. That’s one of the great pleasures of it, because then you can use that eye to look at your own life.
Guernica: I love that way of thinking about a story collection. Who are some of your favorite story writers?
Swamy: The writer who taught me to see story collections in this way was Gina Berriault, whose Women in Their Beds was very important to me when I was working on the collection. Some short story writers I currently love are Ambai, Lucia Berlin, Elizabeth Tallent, Mimi Lok, and Asako Serizawa.
Guernica: Could you share a bit about your current project?
Swamy: I am currently working on a novel called The Archer, which is about a young woman coming of age as an artist, as a Kathak dancer. Kathak is an Indian classical dance form which is rigorously mathematical and astonishingly beautiful. She is also grappling with the difficult legacy of her mother, a mother who is very compelling and unknown to her. It will be out in Fall 2021 or Spring 2022.