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The Chat with Shashi Bhat

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Author Shashi Bhat explores the power of yearning, failed relationships, and pandemic isolation in her superb new collection of short fiction, Death by a Thousand Cuts (McClelland & Stewart).

Summing up the poignant beauty and sly humour of the collection, Liz Harmer says “Shashi Bhat writes scenes of contemporary life with such wit and aplomb you almost don’t realize they’ve also broken your heart. I love these stories so much.”

Shashi Bhat is the author of the story collection Death by a Thousand Cuts, and the novels The Most Precious Substance on Earth, a finalist for the Governor General's Award for fiction, and The Family Took Shape, a finalist for the Thomas Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award. Her fiction has won the Writers’ Trust/McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize and been shortlisted for a National Magazine Award and the RBC Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers, and appeared in such publications as The Fiddlehead, The Malahat Review, Best Canadian Stories, and The Journey Prize Stories. Shashi holds an MFA from the Johns Hopkins University and a BA from Cornell University. She lives in New Westminster, B.C., where she is the editor-in-chief of EVENT magazine and teaches creative writing at Douglas College.



Death by a Thousand Cuts is your new collection of short stories, following your Governor General’s Prize shortlisted novel The Most Precious Substance on Earth. Why were you drawn back to short fiction?

I view this story collection less as a return and more as a culmination. I think of myself primarily as a short story writer, and my two novels both employed short story structure for each of their chapters. In my day job as a creative writing professor and literary magazine editor, I spend a lot of time reading and considering short stories, and my ideas seem to naturally fit that size and shape. These stories are a selection of ones I wrote over the past fifteen years, and I was writing them alongside my novels.

I was also very lucky that my contract for The Most Precious included a second book, the short story collection. That offer—made on a nebulous one-paragraph pitch I delivered over the phone to my now editor—seemed like a massive vote of confidence, for which I am eternally grateful. Writing a short story collection under contract was a profound opportunity; it was like receiving permission to experiment.

You’ve been widely recognized for your short stories, winning the Journey Prize and having been included multiple times in the Best Canadian Stories series. What is it about the short story form that captivates you as a writer?

Two of my favourite things about the short story are its shape—its compressed narrative arc—and its opportunity for an emotionally impactful ending. I love how a story can end in a feeling of suspension or irresolution; it makes for an art form that feels the most true-to-life for me.

These are such rich and nuanced stories, and many explore loneliness and isolation, and the struggle for intimacy in personal relationships and in dating situations in particular. Why is this such a generative theme in this collection?

Thank you so much. I think yearning is beautiful. Conveniently, it also drives fiction. I was concerned that including stories about dating, especially contemporary app dating, would make people take my book less seriously. But dating is so fascinating on a character level, and so rich in conflict. The stakes can be very high—emotionally, yes, but also physically. There’s a sense of development: a first impression, followed by a gradual reveal of who a person really is. And there’s expectation—often clashing expectations—as well as risk, potential disappointment, and inevitable poignancy. I’m reminded of that Hemingway line: “All stories, if continued far enough, end in death.” Doesn’t dating always end sadly, in one way or another, if you wait long enough?

I also notice that social media and the online world—hello, Reddit!—come up often in the stories, in sometimes surprising ways. This feels so close to how we interact with the online world in real life. Can you talk about this a bit more?

I hadn’t spent much time on Twitter or Reddit until the pandemic. I was dismissive and even scornful of Reddit in the past, because of what I had heard about its misogyny, but I have learned that it can be a shocking and compelling window into humanity, and specifically into women’s shared experiences. I became interested in the idea of how social media and the real world intersect, how the former might act as a catalyst for something to happen in the latter, and that led to the story “Am I the Asshole.”

I find it hard not to think of them as two distinct places—online vs. real life—but it’s all the same people. It’s like when I’m talking to somebody in person and they bring up one of my tweets. I’m always so surprised. Like, “Oh, are you on the internet, too?”

There are also references to the pandemic, and how characters navigate the lockdowns. How did your own writing and creative practice change or evolve during the pandemic times?

Because I’m immunocompromised, I spent large amounts of time at home alone during the pandemic (which is partly what inspired the story, “We’re All in This Alone.”) I felt a persistent sense of melancholy and anxiety, punctured by bits of hope and connection and human kindness and generosity; emotions felt intensified, and that funnelled into storytelling. As a result, I wrote a fair amount, and acquired the bad-but-cozy habit of writing in bed, which I’m now trying to break!


Excerpt from Death by a Thousand Cuts

When the deliveries of groceries or medications came, there was a knock, but when I opened the door, nobody was there, just the bags at my feet and the sound of some- one leaving. If the delivery person had waited, I would have clutched their collar and stood too close and whis- pered what I’d learned: That solitude is the sister of hunger. That loneliness sharpens you into a scythe.

      The city began a nightly 7 p.m. celebration of health-care workers. Children screamed out of windows and banged on makeshift gongs; adults triggered their car alarms and set off fireworks in the empty streets. The ritual continued at full volume for a few months, then faded. I doubt anyone could pinpoint the day it ended. People just forgot. Or they moved on. I find it significant yet unsurprising that this encouragement was only offered when they believed the crisis would be a short-lived sprint with a distinct finish line, and not something to be quietly and indefinitely endured.

      People blamed politicians or social media or the healthcare system or their neighbours or the faithless or the Chinese government. But I blamed— I still blame— the body, which betrays and betrays, even when you care for it as gently as you would a baby or an orchid. The body doesn’t fight for you even when you fight for it. The body has no loyalty. Even the word body is full of hollows, its letters round and unknowable.

One night in early spring, I risked a walk down the nearby pier flanking a river. People milled around the boardwalk, chatting easily with neighbours, which surprised me. I’d thought everyone had been cocooned indoors, like me. On the way back, I passed a couple.

      The woman noticed me and broke away from her partner, and as she approached, I startled back, because I’d been alone inside a two-metre force field for nearly a year.

      “Excuse me, would you mind taking our photo?” the woman asked. She wasn’t wearing a mask.

      “Oh, I . . .” I smiled helplessly, wanting her to leave me alone.

      The woman frowned and said, “You don’t want to?” Feeling silly for my caution, I stepped towards her, took the phone, positioned the couple in the frame with the river behind them, and clicked once, twice. She wore a yellow dress. The man held her closely. Their beauty was ordinary and excruciating. I handed back the phone and made a note to myself not to touch my face before washing my hands.

      I hadn’t been out among others in so long. The air smelled cold and green. I was dazed by the number of people around, their dogs leading them without any knowledge that the world had changed. Was it possible I had missed or misheard some crucial announcement? It was as though I’d emerged after years in a bunker to learn that there had never been a nuclear war at all.

Excerpted from Death by a Thousand Cuts by Shashi Bhat. Copyright © 2024 Shashi Bhat. Published by McClelland & Stewart, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.


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