Myth-making and Myth-breaking: An Interview with Jai Chakrabarti

Tayyba Maya Kanwal

Jai Chakrabarti’s fiction has a striking orality to it, a tone that emanates from his characters’ psyche and subtly permeates an entire story. On a 2022 panel discussion with Hannah Tinti, the editor of Small Odysseys: 35 Stories, Jai spoke about the experience of his writing being performed aloud by a professional actor as part of Symphony Space’s live literary program, Selected Shorts. Already a fan of his short fiction, I knew that evening that I would dive into his debut novel, A Play for the End of the World. The novel follows one man’s riveting journey of redemption as he traverses an astonishing cultural, geographical and historical span: from agonizing moments set in the Second World War, to a gritty New York City of the 1970’s, and through the heartland of rural India. 

“The Fortunes of Others,” a short story from his new collection, A Small Sacrifice for an Enormous Happiness (Knopf, Feb 2023) will be published in Gulf Coast’s upcoming print issue. The stories in the collection are tender, masterful explorations of love and family grappling with fate and history. Each story rang in my ear with its distinct voice, always faithful to its particular characterization, and yet laden with an authorial sensibility that threads the entire collection with a stirring melancholic wisdom. We conducted this interview over email, discussing his craft and artistic intentions behind an exciting new collection which features characters traversing multidimensional cultural and spiritual spaces.

Tayyba Maya Kanwal: Your work has been performed as part of the Symphony Space Selected Shorts project,  and concerns itself with memories of and a quest for performative storytelling. Language, names, orality often feature in your fiction. How does the culture of oral storytelling inform your craft?  

Jai Chakrabarti: Oral storytelling has been an important part of my life. As a child in India, my parents would take me to poetry readings; I still remember how certain poets would pause, listen to the audience, and repeat a particularly good line to extend the communal savoring. I also trained as a vocalist in a form of Indian classical music that depends entirely on mood, time of day, and a willingness toward improvisation. While living in India, I also became interested in street theater, which features strongly in my novel. In particular, the work of the politically involved playwright Safdar Hashmi, who performed plays on the streets of Delhi to thousands, advocating for systemic change.

Later, while living in NYC, I was part of the Louderarts Project, a poetry collective that met at a bar in Union Square every week for sixteen years. If you dropped by our open mic, you might at any time have heard Ocean Vuong, Ross Gay, Patricia Smith, and many others. At first, I wasn’t interested in performing my own work, a view I’d eventually come to alter when a mentor suggested that the act of performance could aid the revision process: by engaging in public performance, the artist shifts their role and becomes witness to their own work, appreciating anew the draftiness in an early draft, as it were. 

From these experiences, I’ve become more attuned to the music of the line, how it sounds when read aloud. In the lyric poem, you’re often striving to take the reader toward the ineffable—the thing that both is in and of itself but also can’t be named with words alone. For this delving, borrowing craft choices from music and poetry can help cross the divide.

TMK: Mythology plays a large role in the stories in your collection. Your characters come from backgrounds that they’ve grown out of even as they forge, and sometimes, shatter familial bonds in new worlds. They shun the dominating mythologies that might have oppressed them, but then create new stories in an attempt to control their own fates. Can you talk about personal myth-making as a concern in your storytelling?

JC: I grew up in a family that was enamored with astrology. When my father was born, my grandfather made sure that three astrologers were at the hospital just to record his firstborn’s birth time accurately. Somewhere in the world is a book that tells a story of my own life. Though I’ve never seen it, that book is an artifact of the mythology my parents held for me; this mythology includes a set of likelihoods about who I’ll be, which is probably a function of who they were, where they grew up, and what they came to love. 

Not every family makes a book of life for their children but being a parent now—though not one who refers to astrology—I’m still aware of the gravitational pull my partner and I exert on our son Surya. This is beyond genetic correspondences. It’s in the everyday: how we speak to each other, what we read, how and how often we cook, what we show him we value. As it was for me, all of this becomes the starting set of personal mythologies for Surya. I’m convinced that Surya, who is now proudly seven, will increasingly find ways to break this family-imposed mythology. He will reject essential parts of our vision of the world to create his own that will be for him: brighter, more personal. Some of this will likely be challenging for us to witness. To paraphrase the poet John O’Donohue, children don’t have to do anything dramatic to break their parents’ hearts: they simply have to grow older. 

So, in my collection, I wanted to explore these moments of myth-breaking as it relates to our families. We inherit mythologies from many sources, but so many are channeled through our parents. When we weave away from these, for better or worse, we become ourselves. These transitions are what my stories explore in different lights.

TMK: The stories in A Small Sacrifice inhabit the interiority of their characters so deeply that there is a sense of a psychological collapsing of the narrator with the primary characters. And yet, the stories sustain an irony, a lingering understanding, that surpasses the characters’ experiences. Talk to us about this dance between immersive characterization and authorial control over the broader story.

JC: This dance between psychological closeness and authorial distance is one of the gifts of the third-person point-of-view. In a single paragraph, you can weld in a phrase that sounds as if it’s in the voice of a character while slowly (or even sharply) providing an insight or sense of irony that’s beyond the character’s experience. So much of my love for this kind of writing can be traced back to Alice Munro: she has such great empathy for her characters that even when they err grievously and the story unsparingly provides that insight there is also the sense that she tended to them, cared for them in some deep way. As you note, this practice results not in a single voice for a writer but in a multitude of voices, a willingness to bend toward the consciousness on the page but also at times to retreat from it. 

TMK: Your characters frequently strive to control the trajectory of their lives. Often, they fail. They are surprised by something bigger, something unanticipated, sometimes something cosmic. What about this exploration calls to you in your art?

JC: Years ago, in my MFA in fiction workshop, there was a debate about whether a character needed to change for a story to succeed. On one side of the debate were those who believed that it was essential that a character undergo some transformation, some essential shift before the denouement, while others believed that the story could derive its power from something more subtle: a tonal shift, for instance, or the arc of the voice. What I now believe is that both versions are true, that there is no one good way for a story to be realized. But I also believe that some stories are richer when it is possible for a character to change, even if that change never materializes. 

To quote from the poem "Bonfire Opera" by Danusha Laméris:

A bird caught in a cathedral—the way it tries

to escape by throwing itself, again and again,

against the stained glass.

I love the repetition of the “again” transposed with the “against” in these lines, the image of the bird flying to the stained glass, and I aspired for that same energy to take hold of my characters in this collection. Whether it’s Nikhil who believes he can have a child with his gay lover or Tara who believes he can take his brother with him as he abandons his family or Malini who struggles to retain her cultural identity, there is a sense of striving against the cathedral ceiling. Nikhil, Tara, and Malini are all confronted by something that nears the cosmic: some sense of their own finitude, their inability to materialize their desired fate. And yet they persist.

 Tayyba Maya Kanwal is a Pakistani-American writer from Houston, Texas and Fiction Editor at Gulf Coast Journal. Her work has appeared in Witness Magazine, Meridian, Juxtaprose, Quarterly West and other journals, and has been anthologized by The Doctor TJ Eckleburg Review, and nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She is a 2022 Inprint Donald Barthelme Prize in Fiction winner and a University of Houston Creative Writing MFA Inprint C. Glenn Cambor Fellow. She holds an MS in Mathematics from the University of Oregon. She is working on a linked short story collection and a novel. You can find her on Twitter @mayakanwal