In Chrysalis (House of Anansi Press), author Anuja Varghese writes powerful, genre-blending stories of transformation and belonging that centre women of colour and explore queerness, family, and community. Chrysalis is the 2023 Governor General’s Literary Award winner for Fiction.
The members of this year’s peer assessment committee, Carleigh Baker, Neil Bissoondath, and Jessica Westhead, say:
"A passionate, sophisticated collection of stories that highlights Anuja Varghese’s impressive range, Chrysalis seamlessly blends realism with the otherworldly to achieve a work that is rollicking and wry, gleeful and ominous. Each story is complex and intimate, the characters served by rich, evocative writing that goes to the heart of their humanity. Confidently cutting across genres, Chrysalis is sparkling and downright delightful."
Anuja Varghese is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in Hobart, The Malahat Review, The Fiddlehead, Plenitude Magazine and others. Her writing has been recognized in the PRISM International Short Fiction Contest, nominated for the Pushcart Prize and shortlisted for the Writers' Trust of Canada Dayne Ogilvie Prize. Chrysalis is her first book. She lives in Hamilton, Ontario.
Imagine you could spend a day with any author, living or dead. Who would you choose, what would you do, and what would you learn?
I would spend the day with Ursula K. Le Guin, an author who has influenced my writing in fundamental ways. I would ply her ghost with good bourbon and pick her brain about being a writer who wants to straddle (or dismantle) the categories of "literary" and "genre" fiction. I would learn everything I could from her about being a member of a literary community and a mother to young children and a feminist and how those things intersect. I would try to tell her, inelegantly no doubt, that her work inspired my belief that compassion and imagination can change the world. That would likely earn me an eye-roll, but also, I hope, another round of shots with Ms. Le Guin.
What advice would you give your ten-year-old self about the future?
At ten years old, I wanted to be an actress and was terrified of failure. I desperately wanted to be tall and have straight hair. I wrote elaborate Babysitters Club fan-fic that I knew even then was something vaguely embarrassing. If I could give that kid some advice, I’d say you are going to fail at many things and it’s honestly okay. You are never going to be tall or have straight hair and it’s honestly okay. Don’t be embarrassed to call yourself a writer. Keep scribbling—honestly, it turns out okay.
If I could give that kid some advice, I’d say you are going to fail at many things and it’s honestly okay.
Chrysalis is your debut collection of fiction. How does it feel to be recognized with the Governor General’s award at this point in your career?
It’s obviously a tremendous honour, even to be recognized in the same company as the other GG finalists this year. I’m very aware that there’s a certain artificialness to literary prizes—we all understand there is objectively no "best" book. But to know that this collection of stories, which means so much to me, has resonated with the jury and will hopefully be able to reach and resonate with more readers because of this recognition, feels pretty spectacular. I also think it’s a real win for short stories, which don’t always get the love that novels do. If that sticker on the cover convinces more people to give short fiction a try—I feel great about that!
In an alternate version of the world, who would you be if you weren’t a writer?
Ten-year-old me would say I would be a very serious actress. No rom-coms. Only period pieces and/or prestige TV. Depending on the parameters of this alternate world, I also think I could have made a decent mage.
What was the last book by a Canadian author that changed you in some way?
Sydney Hegele’s short story collection The Pump.
I was really questioning my own writing and whether there would be an audience for stories that were weird and dark and queer and full of women who were unapologetically dangerous. Sydney’s stories blend queerness, hope and horror so beautifully—while also retaining a bizarreness that is startling and refreshing alike—that it almost felt like a permission slip to throw my work into the world, too.
Excerpt from Chrysalis ("Vetala’s Song")
"We followed the river down from the mountains to the city called Benares. Such a place I have never seen. All day and all night, they burn the dead. The men were restless and had coin to spend. Those that returned told a ghostly tale indeed, of a ghoulish creature who exists between life and death, who haunts the charnel grounds feasting on corpses and possessing discarded bodies to roam the city under cover of night. They call it Vetala. Some say it has a soul still, but I know not of any God who would claim such a wretched beast. Yet, this is a land of many gods and what price they might extract to answer a monster’s prayers, we will never know.” - Burton’s Bestiary, 1882
The river is vast and full of ashes. The rickshaw-wallah warns the foreigner not to drink the water. The woman adjusts her sunglasses, even though the sun has not yet risen, and the sky is still draped in purple, layered with the delicate lace of a pre-dawn fog. She peppers the driver with questions - first in English (with poor results), then in halting Hindi - about the river, the temples that line it, and the pyres that billow smoke across its surface. He is short on answers and only points her in the direction of the ghats. She pays him the agreed-upon sum and climbs down from the bicycle-drawn cart. He will take her no further than this.
I watch, veiled, cursing this half-blind corpse whose body I have borrowed. I see then what I have come here for. Under one arm, the foreigner cradles a silver urn. My kind consumes flesh, not ash, but for the woman in the urn, I will make an exception.
The foreigner begins to make her way down the steps and I follow. No one looks twice at a beggar woman with an acid-scarred face. At least here, by the water’s edge, the smell of rot that seeps through the cotton sari in which this body was killed is masked by all the other smells mingling together around me - dead fish and fire, sewage and smoke.
The woman has come dressed in a black salwar kameez. Black is the colour of mourning in the country she calls home. In this country, we wear white to part with our dead, and soon, the ghats will be crowded with men in white kurtas, women weeping, children scolded into solemnity, all there to feed the river the remains of those they loved.
But what of those who die unloved? What of those whose families cast them out, who will pay no priest to chant over their pyres and see their souls safely off? They are left to the charnel grounds. Not many cities allow such places anymore - abandoned groves of withered fruit trees, where dead bodies are left to decompose, unburied, unburnt. It is unsanitary, they say now. A risk to public health. But in this city, where I was once young and knew what it was to love defiantly, two charnel grounds still exist: one to the east marked by a bodhi tree, and one to the west marked by a naga tree. Today, you would have to be willing to make some dubious inquiries to find these unholy sites. Or, like me, you would have to live there, but I wouldn’t wish such an eternity on anyone, no matter what their crime. Mine was merely to love the woman in the urn.