Writer and psychiatrist Chaya Bhuvaneswar on Yale, and mining the past
During a recent campus talk Chaya Bhuvaneswar ’93 B.A. said she would like to see more writers like herself who inhabit complementary, but distinct, professional and creative worlds. She mentioned as examples a friend who is both a doula and a poet, and Monique Truong ’90 B.A., the Vietnamese American author of “The Book of Salt” and “Bitter in the Mouth,” who attended Columbia Law School.
Bhuvaneswar is both a doctor (a psychiatrist) and award-winning writer. The alumna gave a talk on “Mining Your Life for Fiction” as part of the recent Yale Writers Workshop, a summer program that helps aspiring writers hone their craft.
Her story collection “White Dancing Elephants” explores her South Asian culture and queer identity through stories of characters coming to terms with death, infidelity, and mental illness. It won the Dzanc Books Story Collection Prize for 2017 and was named one of the Best Books of 2018 from Kirkus Reviews. The book was also a finalist for the PEN American Robert Bingham Prize for debut fiction, one of only five story collections selected for the honor in 2019. The collection also landed on numerous “Best of 2018” lists, including those in BuzzFeed, Entertainment Weekly, Harper’s Bazaar, Vulture, The Millions, The Rumpus, Huffington Post, Huffington Post India, Vogue India, Literary Hub, and Southern Living Magazine.
Bhuvaneswar said she is thrilled and grateful at the response to her debut fiction but remains committed to the practice of medicine. “Psychiatry is a therapeutic way to use language to help patients,” she said, “but it’s completely separate from the linguistic energy of writing.”
Bhuvaneswar, who came to Yale from Flushing, Queens, says “The love and support of the arts was real at Yale – it was palpable.” She adds that she and her fellow students “read because we were excited about Socrates, the Bible, Thucydides, and about identifying a canon we could then overturn.”
As a student at Yale, she recalled, she joined South Asian cultural groups on campus; studied diverse cultures from East African to Russian; and shared her writing with creative classmates like Anthony Chun ’93 B.A., now an Emmy-winning animator. Bhuvaneswar also worked on a feminist newspaper and was heavily engaged in community service and political organizing, particularly around the Yale Hunger & Homelessness Action Project.
“I sucked every good thing I could out of Yale,” said Bhuvaneswar.
During the summer, she worked at New Haven Legal Assistance Association through a fellowship funded by the Yale Alumni Association, and on graduation was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship. “The way I had experienced Yale helped me to try for a medical career to help people in need,” she says.
Creative writing was a constant in her life, said Bhuvaneswar, and she received encouragement: a scholarship from Time Magazine, and the Elmore A. Willetts Prize for Fiction for undergraduates. As a first-year student, she managed to get into an upper-level class taught by Donald Faulkner ’78 M.Phil. by omitting her graduation year from her writing sample. Faulkner, who passed away in April 2018, was a cherished senior lecturer who, Bhuvaneswar said, was really invested in his students, including the writers Susan Choi ’91 B.A. and Peter Rock ’90 B.A.
Bhuvaneswar learned at Yale that “writing can involve a lot of sacrifice,” she said, noting that writing was also a means to reveal her authentic self and to explore difficult themes of cultural identity and loss.
“Writers carry the past forward,” Bhuvaneswar told the audience in Sudler Hall at the Yale Writers Workshop on June 8. She encouraged the writing hopefuls to use their life experiences as raw material. Only when she found the courage to do this, she said, did her writing start getting published.
“There’s the temptation to only write what we’re not, or to immerse ourselves in another experience,” she said, revealing that she had mined her own experience of miscarriage in the book’s title story. In it, she writes:
“The rain makes it possible to wipe my face and have people think that I was caught in a downpour. I hate metaphors of rain, fecundity, gushing water from a hidden space. There wasn’t anything macabre in your passing — no gush of blood, no horrifying trickle down my legs. Just two clear stains, understated, as quiet and undemanding as your whole life had been; only enough blood for me to know.”
Explaining her choice, Bhuvaneswar told the writers: “I started there, because these are the types of experiences that affect you enough to write about.”