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Interview with Vickie Masseus, St John’s University

V: White Dancing Elephants: Stories centers on people of color, diverse in terms of location, class, age, gender, and sexual orientation, but united by having to face racial violence, sexual violence, and to navigate intimate relationships and losses. Did you know that these would be the themes of your collection when you started writing the stories?

C: I did and didn’t know in advance. If anyone had asked me “What are your stories about?” at any point over the ten years I spent writing these stories – often writing them when I sat down to “just write something” not knowing what would come out – I would’ve said, “Race. Queerness. Sex. Mythologies.” But only after I’d written and published several did the stories start kind of speaking to each other. Like the title story, “White Dancing Elephants”, a story told by a woman facing loss, cherishing the baby that she’s lost, is somehow in dialogue with “Talinda”, which first appeared in Narrative Magazine and I guess evolved from intense feelings about how much some people, both women and men, can yearn to have children. And “Jagatishwaran”, told from the perspective of a trans/ mentally ill artist, offers a different way of looking at the family dynamics, between a young woman with mental retardation, and her immigrant father, in “The Goddess of Beauty Goes Bowling.” These two last stories, by the way, were only written with specific characters, specific events in mind – yet both ended up presenting views of what it is like to experience violence as a person with a disability. A vulnerability that is absolutely not the same as powerlessness.

V: One of the most striking stylistic elements of your collection is a kind of sustained intimacy with the characters. The effect of that stylistic approach teases out, I think, experiences that are oftentimes “unspeakable” or difficult to express, explain, or narrate to someone who didn’t have those same experiences. I’m thinking too of how your collection speaks to the works of Toni Morrison, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Sandra Cisneros. I see an affinity between your
collection and their work because they maintain the visceral intimacy of characters whose otherwise tangible existence could suffer from the weight of unusual and inconceivable events in the stories. Right? That’s one of the “difficulty” of telling stories that speak to the traumatic experiences of people of color. The reality of those traumatic experiences is one that
is talked about as being “outside” the experience of many readers. There’s specificity to the trauma, in that it might feel inevitable, brutal, and directed at marginalized groups/persons. There is a line from “Orange Popsicles,” which I feel echoes this thought: “like so many choices in life, like even coming to the US for her studies, the instant of cheating felt both unexpected and inevitable.” Could you speak a little about how “inevitability and brutality” play out in the stories? And about which authors’ works influenced you?


C: That’s a very rich and generous way of thinking about the stories, including that story, “Orange Popsicles”, which I must admit was based on real events that I was a close witness to in college – I knew a young woman of color who was gang-raped by white basketball players, whose very progressive, activist and feminist room-mate shut many of us out who hadn’t been part of her particular group of women activists on campus, for whatever reason. I never forgot how the woman who had been assaulted remained defiantly seductive and alluring after the rape, rather than hiding or seeing herself as “punished” by having been raped, which is a
Hindu way of looking at misfortune (and maybe not specifically Hindu alone). I’ve always been inspired by her. By the fact that coming to our college, as an overseas student, she refused, just by being visible, outspoken, unapologetically sexy and beautiful, to accept a place at the “margins.” She demanded attention and respect. And she didn’t stop demanding these things after she was raped. I do feel (and this helped me persevere, in completing the collection) that stories of trauma endured and resisted by people of color, particularly women of color, have been silenced so many times, that there is some value merely in my telling these stories, however imperfectly. That feeling gave me the courage to at least set down the stories, to make a start. Then reading many of the authors you mentioned, and also Louise Erdrich (whose novel “Tracks” remains a touchstone to me) – these readings gave me a different vantage point on the material I’d at first only sought to tell. Reading those writers, including writers of color but also, like Atwood (and to her I’d add A.S. Byatt) – futuristic, speculative writers – I found a way to expand the voice telling the stories, so that it wasn’t just a single story, but multiple kinds of story, including some stories within a larger frame, like in “The Story of the Woman Who Fell in Love with Death”, that held surprises for me too, as the writer. Even though I was the one telling the story.

V: A couple of the stories centered on the intimate and complicated familial relationships as well as between women of color seem highly alert to place/space. Are there places that are especially important to you and to these stories? Where were you when you wrote “The Bang Bang” (featured in Michigan Quarterly Review Fall 2017 issue) for instance?

C: New York is where I grew up, so there’s a primal, at times unwilling, affiliation there – and definitely not with “glossy”, competitive New York, which as a child and teenager I called “the city.” I have a strong identity as an outer borough kid, an outsider who took the subway for a 90- minute commute every morning and evening to and from Flushing to the Upper East Side, all the way up into Harlem, where the high school I went to was at the border and the next stop would’ve been 125th St. (I’m very proud to say I went to the same high school, part of the same system, as Audre Lorde and (many years later) Lin- Manuel Miranda, by the way). Other places really central to me – Cambridge, where I trained as a physician, and the Boston harbor, where I got married. The stark geography of the Massachusetts coastline, which Jhumpa Lahiri so beautifully describes in her story collection “Unaccustomed Earth” – that’s a set of landscapes and seascapes that has really grown on me. Finally, places I’ve lived knowing I would only be a visitor, but thoroughly enjoyed: London and Oxford, cities in the title story, “White Dancing Elephants” – where I lived as a Rhodes Scholar for two years, and where I cherished being automatically part of a sizeable and vibrant South Asian community – and the Bay Area, in California, where I completed medical school. I’ll be reading this spring in both these places – London and Stanford/ San Francisco – in testimonial to the way I found my “tribes” in those places, even though I knew I’d eventually move back East. And notice I did not say “India” right off the bat, even though there’s a distinctly South Asian context to most of the stories. But I think certain linear, nostalgic story of immigration, from India to the US, has been so co-opted by “readers looking for curry”, as the brilliant literary historian Naben Ruthnum has recently written. I knew none of my stories were going to be a “curry” story; like Jenny Zhang recently pointed out in how she came to write her beautiful collection, “Sour Heart”, I did not care if my stories of people agonized by trauma, loss and sexual violation made readers uncomfortable by failing to present images of “good immigrants.” And it has been a thrilling surprise to discover people are prepared to read and respond to stories by women of color that contain “dark magic”, to use Diana Abu-Jaber’s generous phrase, and stories that are
“unflinching” (to quote one of my writing idols, Amelia Gray, who was also kind enough to blurb) – rather than to stories that attempt to paint ‘respectable’ portraits.