Stories About the Worst Things Possible

Shruti Swamy, author of "A House Is a Body," on how fiction can't prove someone’s humanity

Photo by Matthew T Rader on Unsplash

In one of the stories in Shruti Swamy’s debut collection, A House Is a Body, the main character says this about her own state of mind:

“The screen dropped from my self in those moments without me even realizing it; the terror came later, when I noticed it had fallen, when I was trying to gather myself up in raw handfuls, but I was like sand all over.”

The woman is, interestingly, a professional laughter artist for hire. To a large extent, the stories here are about exactly such singular moments in their protagonists’ lives when that inner screen drops and they perceive their own deep vulnerabilities.

Swamy examines these moments and vulnerabilities in her characters with language that is both precise and moving. Whether the character is a mother, a father, a sibling, a lover, a re-imagined mythical demon’s wife, or a contemporary version of a Hindu god, each is trying to occupy the various spaces they’re allowed with a self-awareness that isn’t insular but all-encompassing. Swamy’s narrative style gives their musings a dream-like intimacy so that we, as readers, do more than bear witness; we find ourselves, much like the dog with the cobra in “Night Garden,” in thrall.

Shruti Swamy and I exchanged emails to discuss how motherhood became a dominant theme in A House Is a Body and why space—physical, emotional, intellectual, or liminal—features so frequently, especially for mothers who are also women of color.

Jenny Bhatt: Several of the stories here feature mothers of various stripes trying to balance motherhood with their other relationships and their own physical and/or emotional needs. The struggles create various layered tensions that then play out in myriad ways. You’ve also written briefly elsewhere (a Catapult essay on learning to swim, which was my first introduction to your writing) about your relationship with your mother and your grandmother. To be clear for our readers, I’m not suggesting the entire collection is about motherhood narratives but that it is one of the main themes. What fascinates or draws you to explore the mother-child relationship throughout the collection?

Shruti Swamy: None of these stories are about my own mother, at least not directly, but I remember something that happened first as a young adult, when I looked at a familiar picture of my mother as a young woman and realized with a shock that she had been a person before me, not defined by me at all, with her own moods and thoughts and desires. I was around the age she was when the picture was taken, and I wondered, what was she like? Would we have been friends? The glamour of your mother, as soon as you can see her like this, an adult looking at an adult, and the mystery of her—I find these aspects very compelling. 

On a more simple level, the mothers (and father, in the case of “Didi”) are mostly the parents of young children. During the time I wrote these stories, I was not yet a mother—fiction was a way for me to try that identity on, to play with the what-ifs.

JB: I agree. Whether we’re mothers ourselves or not, the mother-child relationship is a fascinating one to explore in fiction because it’s such an elemental one. We all have mothers, whether we’ve known them or not, loved them or not. That said, less than a decade ago, if there was a short story collection or a novel that honed in on motherhood as one of its major themes, it often did not get its due respect, got shelved under “women’s fiction” (which, as a genre label, is ridiculous, I know), did not receive much airtime from book critics or major literary awards, and more such. There are now, relatively speaking, more works centering on motherhood. Do you believe much has changed in the publishing world and among readers to make this a subject worthy of more respect and attention?

SS: I don’t think I’m qualified to comment on the publishing world! I can say that as a reader, I have always been hungry for stories about motherhood. It does seem like there were a great many books that were published all at once right around the time, coincidentally, I was pregnant with my daughter, and which were overwhelmingly written by white writers. There is room for many, many more stories still.

JB: Yes, I was thinking the same about how there have been a lot of recent books by white women writers exploring motherhood. They’ve been very good. I’m thinking of the most recent Want by Lynn Steger Strong (which, of course, is about more than motherhood but that’s an important aspect of the protagonist’s identity.) And, yes, we need more such from women writers of color.

Coming back to the mothers in these stories. One of the notable struggles they face is how to be a “good” mother. Certainly, it’s a rich vein to be mined because it’s not simply about living up to socio-cultural expectations or conditioning but also about figuring out and coming to terms with how motherhood fits in with a woman’s own sense of her identity and femininity. Could you talk a little about how you’ve worked, through these stories, to examine the ever-evolving alchemy of motherhood, how a mother’s relationship with a child is both draining and fulfilling, and how the intersections of race, culture, and class define “good mother” differently for all of us?

Culturally, we have an idea of who is a mother—whose bodies and bonds should be protected—and who is not.

SS: As a mother, I’m interested in what it means to be “good,” or at least, “good enough”, but in these stories, I was more interested in the opposite. I wanted to loose my characters from those neat scripts of motherhood and let them be human, to really fuck up. There was something exhilarating about letting them be “bad.” In the title story, for example, I was after this terrifying, giddy feeling I got when I read The Days of Abandonment [by Elena Ferrante]—what can go worse, how can things get even smaller and tighter around the neck of my character, what wildness will that provoke? Many of these stories, though, are interested in the worst thing that can happen, in motherhood and otherwise.

JB: Could you elaborate a bit more on the “neat scripts of motherhood” bit, please?

SS: To me, it’s less about the different definitions of “good” mothers across race, class, culture, etc, and more about visibility—who do we see

I had this weird experience when I was pregnant: literally into the final week of my pregnancy, most people, like people on the street, or colleagues at work, didn’t notice I was pregnant. I was like all on guard about strangers trying to touch my belly or whatever, but it never happened, the flip side of that, of course, was that people rarely offered me their seat on the bus or even just smiled beatifically at me like I saw them do at other pregnant women. The weirdest part was that, almost down to the one, the people who did notice I was pregnant were people of color. Once, in my 38th week, standing on BART, a Chinese auntie (who, as a senior, should have also been offered a seat) shamed these two white girls into getting up for me. My pregnancy was a strange, temporary condition, so these incidents were disconcerting, but not wrecking. Still, it was a taste of what it feels like to be, I think, so outside of someone’s narrative of what a mother looks like that you become invisible.

It’s not a controversial statement that mothers are treated like shit in this country, some more than others. A couple examples: Black women are dying in or after birth at far higher rates than white women, for example. We are persisting in separating mothers from their children at the border. The people who are contracting COVID on the front lines as essential workers are disproportionately Latinx and Black, many of them mothers. We allow these things to happen, culturally, because we have an idea of who is a mother—whose bodies and bonds should be protected—and who is not. I don’t want to put too much on books; I don’t think a story should have to, or even can, prove someone’s humanity. But I do think that books by and about mothers of color, especially Black women, should be uplifted and read with gratitude and care. Black feminism has so much to teach us all about how to be better citizens and mothers.

JB: The idea of “space” shows up both explicitly and implicitly in several of these stories. Whether it’s “The Neighbors,” where the protagonist, a mother, asks her new neighbor, also a mother, about how she finds the space to do anything else. Or, “The Laughter Artist,” where the protagonist muses on how a woman walking on the street is so self-aware of the physical space she’s occupying. Or, in the title story, where the mother feels as if her parenting takes up all her space and time, where she sees the house as not just a space to occupy but as a body that holds souls. There are more such examples. Why does the idea of space—physical, emotional, intellectual, or liminal—feature so frequently?

SS: Most of my life as a writer has been about trying to strike a balance between the time and space needed to do writing and the time and space to do everything else—to love people, to go grocery shopping, to make money. There was a terrible year when 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 really write. I read slowly and tried breathing exercises and cried in the park on my lunch breaks and tried not to lose all faith in myself. But I had intense, vivid dreams, some of the most beautiful of my life. That year was very cramped for me, emotionally if not temporally, but even still, my subconscious was reminding me lovingly of the vast terrain always available to me, the richness and wildness of my consciousness. Any explorations of space in my work come from honoring that inner space.

JB: A number of women in your stories are dealing with depression, anxiety, and/or pathological worry. And these stories were written in times different from the one we’re currently living in. Given the global pandemic causing even more life-threatening dangers and fears, how have your thoughts changed on these issues and the ways that mothers, like the ones in these stories, might be coping, choosing, prioritizing?

I don’t think a story should have to, or even can, prove someone’s humanity.

SS: I wrote these stories in slightly less apocalyptic times than the one we’re living in now, but only slightly. In my city, Alex Nieto was killed in 2014. Every year, “wildfire season” stretches longer, and California burns for months and months on end. As a resident of the Tenderloin, and then the Mission, walking down the street is a daily reminder of the human suffering caused by the homelessness crisis and income inequality. We are absolutely at an extreme moment right now, but this crisis has deep roots. That anxiety, the feeling of being on the edge of collapse, thrums beneath the feet of many of my characters. One of the questions I am asking in this collection is about that: how do we live here at the edge? How do we find meaning? Unfortunately, I don’t think that my thoughts have changed, maybe just intensified.

JB: Yes, that sense of living on the edge of collapse came through frequently for me in these stories. It made me appreciate how your language truly immerses us in the interior landscapes of the main characters. They’re very self-aware, these women and men, of what they’re experiencing both emotionally and sensorially. I’ve always thought this kind of deep immersion is good for both the writer and the reader because, if done with due care and attention that’s not merely navel-gazing, we both come out of the writing and reading experiences having learned something about our individual selves, not simply about the characters. That’s my take and you don’t have to agree with it. But I’m curious to know how you think such immersion helps you as a reader, first, and then as a writer.

SS: I love the feeling of swimming in language, the feeling of living through language in someone else’s body and mind: more than plot or even character, it is this quality that offers me the greatest pleasure as a reader. Proust looks at flowers, at the brilliant sheet of sea at Balbec, revels in clothes, and music, and conversation. When you look up, you see it too: how exquisite the flowers are on your own kitchen table! The clarity of your lover’s eyes! The feeling of your hair against your cheek as the breeze blows into it! This is why I come to books, to tune my eye to the writer’s so I can look with it at my own life. And it is my goal as a writer: to offer the best of my vision to my readers.

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