DECEMBER 1, 2021
SHRUTI SWAMY WRITES on the border of living and dreaming, exploring what characters do and what they desire with equal attention. In the short stories that make up A House Is a Body (2020), neighbors fall in love with the illusion of each other, a woman meets Krishna amid the debris of her drunken youth, mourners hover between the living bodies around them and the souls they wish to catch up with. Swamy’s debut novel, The Archer, published by Algonquin Books in September, follows Vidya, a classical dancer, through her youth in 1960s and ’70s Bombay. Having lost her mother early in life, Vidya is attuned to everything she doesn’t have, materially and socially. But her dream of being a professional kathak dancer subsumes all these concerns. The novel’s energy lies in Vidya’s striving to be both an artist and a woman, and in recreating the feeling of dance: a heightened sensory state where Vidya can encounter the self she lost in childhood.
Swamy and I spoke during a writers’ retreat at Salmon Creek Farm, a 1970s commune turned artists’ community in Albion, California. I asked follow-up questions at The Ruby, a space for women and nonbinary creatives in San Francisco. The communal atmosphere and company of women made Swamy gentle and open. “I don’t think I’m very interested in writing big stories or big books in a certain way,” she told me, an admission that seemed to run against the grain of much contemporary writing. “Ultimately, my aim is naming and praising the world and the experiences of the world. I’m mostly interested in the way that people are with each other.” True to that commitment, Swamy sent me an annotated playlist of kathak dancers, with observations about each performance. And when I was stung by a wasp at the retreat, she ran into her small cabin and procured a bag of frozen vegetables. We waited for the sting to cool before starting our conversation.
AKU AMMAH-TAGOE: Okay, so to start, we’re almost two weeks into our stay here at Salmon Creek Farm. What has this place been like for you?
SHRUTI SWAMY: Oh, it’s been really nice. I haven’t had this much alone time in three years. So, it’s been really lovely to have so much quiet time and space to form thoughts in, and also to spend so much time with you guys, that’s felt so nourishing.
In what ways does community impact you and your writing?
Broadly speaking, community makes writing possible. Writing is such a solitary act. You have to be so completely alone. And for me, I have to be quiet. I have to be so isolated from the world. But I’m a very social person, I need people around, I need connection with people. So having a community makes the act of retreating from the world possible because you know that you’re coming back to that. It’s been such an isolating year and a half, that I feel like a plant that’s drinking up the water or whatever.
That’s an interesting metaphor, because the balance of how much you water your plant is so important. If you flood it, then the roots rot and it dies. I’m curious, at this stage in the ongoing pandemic, how are you metering out that water?
I don’t, really. I think there is a certain point where I have a little internal mechanism, which is like, “You need some alone time. Now you’re feeling a little oversaturated.” I can feel myself sometimes when I get kind of quiet or I’m like, “Okay, you’ve reached capacity. You need to be alone for a little while.” Do you have a sense of that for you?
I’m always feeling it out. I need a lot of solitude and I need a lot of community.
I know. I always feel like I’m an extrovert, because I feel like everybody’s always identifying themselves as an introvert. But I love being around people. I guess I just don’t understand what an introvert or an extrovert is. It’s so contextual for me. I love going to parties and I do need solitude. But I think that everybody needs solitude, and everybody needs community.
One of the things that has helped me is the concept of an ambivert, which is just being both an introvert and an extrovert.
Oh, yeah. Yeah, I am.
It’s possible to be many things. And to be many things in different sequences. I will say that something I have noticed about your characters, both in your short stories and particularly with regard to Vidya in The Archer, is that they’re observers, which makes sense because your stories are told from their perspective. But many of them move back and forth between craving intimate relationships with the people around them and also holding themselves at a distance as observers. What’s going on for Vidya?
[Laughs.] You got my number. I didn’t really notice that, but you’re totally right. She’s always observing how she’s so different than all of them — her family, other dancers, and the girls in her college hostel. I think that a lot of the book, especially the early part, is about this idea that your parents are the containers of yourself before you are. As you’re forming yourself, one of the functions of a parent or caregiver is that they give you the structure so that you can fill in yourself. Then they leave, and in a healthy relationship, they give you more and more room until you don’t need them to hold yourself anymore. And because Vidya doesn’t have that, she has to go through this whole convoluted way to create a self; she has to create someone completely. And the way that a self comes into her is almost violent. It’s not the gentle way that everybody else gets. So, I think that often in these groups, no matter how much connection she longs for, she was always in the back of her mind thinking, “Yeah, but you guys had a self. You guys had people to help you make a self. And I didn’t.”
I’m struck by how you describe the drive of a young artist. Vidya encounters herself, her “I,” through dancing. She spends so much time feeling as though other dancers don’t have that “I.” I wonder why the existence of that self depends on others not having it.
I think that’s true to an experience of a young person. I don’t know if she’ll always be like that. The book is, in other ways, about the intense, ecstatic connection between her and everybody in the universe through movement.
Let’s talk about movement. Other art forms enter the book at many different points. There’s music, photography, playwriting, there’s all sorts of people making things. But your ekphrastic energy is really with kathak. Kathak is, in part, a storytelling dance rooted in particular narratives. How do you think of that form of dance in relation to writing prose?
Kathak comes from the word katha, which means story. All the Indian classical dance forms are very narrative. But interestingly, there’s also something called nritta, these ecstatic sections of pure dance. And kathak is sort of singular as a dance form. There’s a book I was reading, Finding the Raga by Amit Chaudhuri. He talks about that form of Indian classical music and the connection to modernism; he shows how the sounds have become divorced from meaning because of the way that these compositions are structured, that a musician will start singing even if they’re singing a bhajan. A bhajan is a devotional song that’s also kind of like a lullaby. Even if they use words, they’ll draw them out for so long, and they’ll use syllables like da, na, which are meaningless. And it’s about the sound of sound.
I felt a real connection to the way in which these moves, these moments of nritta, there is rapid footwork and the turns are not narrative at all. They’re expressing something outside of language and outside of narrative. That felt really thrilling to me to think about through language, because I think that those movements access something that I’m absolutely not able to access through language. Also, the parts of it that are really narrative require some cultural context, in ways that the other stuff kind of doesn’t, because it’s not about narrative. It’s about something, but it also transcends the cultural context in that anybody could watch it and be kind of awestruck by it.
Your writing often has a similar effect. I don’t mean in a modernist sense of trying to push beyond language, but pushing language to have the rhythm of life, or pushing language to be so close to consciousness as to replicate the experience of being there.
Well, in all of my work, the stuff that probably has the most energy for me, it’s just really rooted in the body. I think so many memories, especially childhood memories, are stored in our bodies and in our senses. When I’m really writing, I’m able to access the physical memory of being a child. How, I don’t know.
Can you read this sentence for me? On page 54 of The Archer. Maybe you could start at the beginning of the paragraph.
“I know this: one minute I was a girl dancing, a girl who watched carefully through her own eyes the world outside them, glancing down at the position of her hands, focusing all her effort on the movement of her hands and her feet both at once: impossible: the hands moved up and down as though gathering flowers, and the troublesome feet just managed to ride on the edge of their rhythm without falling out of place: then, suddenly, the feet began to gather the rhythm into them, to understand it, and the world flared open. The feet danced themselves: no, I danced them.”
This caught me because you continue with a series of sentences that play with colons, instead of periods. It’s hard to tell where they start and stop. The overall effect is going deeper and deeper and deeper into this thought. What are you trying to do?
Let me think for a second before I just immediately answer you. Let me actually have a thought.
Maybe you just like colons, and that’s good, too.
[Laughs.] Yeah, I think the rhythms of the sentences are very particular to me. That sentence was a really, really long rolling sentence that was stuck together, glued together with all those colons. I’ve always written like this, so I can’t say it matches the form of whatever. But it is true that I often use those sentences when Vidya’s dancing. There’s something about the rhythm, the rhythm, the rhythm of those long sentences. When you’re watching a dance performance, it’s one long stream that is punctuated. It has pauses, it has breaks, it has different movements. But a period is so final, it breaks the rhythm.
In earlier drafts of this book, there were just huge chunks of text. When Vidya is learning how to turn, she’s so reluctant to put a pause in between her turns. She just wants to keep turning. I too have trouble with that. I don’t really talk in sentences, and I don’t really think in sentences, and I don’t think that sentences are exactly the right form to express a thought, always, because it gives a little bit too much structure to something that has shades rather than different phases, like two colors next to each other, like one is blue and one is green, you know, so I think that I’m always putting in punctuation because I know the reader is exhausted by this. The reader’s like, “Please, just give me a little line break or something.” And my editor was like, “We gotta get a little light, we gotta get a little room in here because it’s a little bit claustrophobic.” I like putting in punctuation out of courtesy to the reader. But if I were left to my own devices, it would just be huge unbroken passages of text.
Something I don’t think people would necessarily understand from reading your work is that you love speculative fiction. In particular, you love Ursula Le Guin. And it does seem to me that you’ve picked up a speculative perspective. In your defamiliarizing language, you’re taking us into strange territory. It’s our world, but it’s this part that is untraversed, usually, in fiction.
There’s a lot about world-building in speculative fiction. I mean, Le Guin specifically, so much of her writing is about culture. It’s not about alien technologies; those are there only when it’s necessary for the story. But she writes about culture in such a specific and really helpful way. I am writing about a non-American culture, and the same kinds of decisions that you have to make when you’re describing a culture that is familiar to nobody because you made it up, and a culture that may not be familiar to your reader — those are actually similar calculations. She’s usually a “keep up with me” kind of writer, and it’s something that I like to do too. Culturally, I hope I am always erring on the side of saying, “You’ll figure out that context. You can Google it.”
I looked up a lot while I was reading, and I enjoyed that.
Yeah, I think it can be really pleasurable because there’s a way where you’re like, “Oh, I’ll figure it out.” Or like, “Oh, she trusts me.” You don’t feel like you’ve been coddled as a reader. I think it’s easier to do in stories than in a novel. I think there’s a lot of space in my stories, some more than others, for the reader to come in and make their own meaning and interpret things. In a novel, I don’t know how to do it yet, or I haven’t done it, or I haven’t figured out how to do it as much. But I wanted there to be a lot of space for the reader to come in. I wrote the book, obviously, but you’re reading it in your voice, in your head, and you’re imagining. So reading is a collaborative act, and I find that really thrilling.