Shruti Swamy’s story in the Summer issue, “A House Is a Body,” blazes with the heat of a California wildfire. A mother who has been warned by firefighters to evacuate her home descends into a spiral of thought so intense that you can practically feel the pages singing as you read. There was much we wanted to ask her, but we limited ourselves to a single question.
Your story is an intense, dark tale of motherhood, grief, and madness. As an expectant mother yourself, how do the acts of creating life and creating art interplay? Are both a certain form of madness?
For the last few weeks, I’ve thought often about this question, which I had so eagerly volunteered to answer, thinking that as a new mother, I would have suddenly gained the insight I was looking for during the years before I had my baby. In truth, probably because of the sleepless nights, I feel like I have less of an answer now than I did before my daughter arrived, with one exception—her name. All through my pregnancy, I wrote my daughter’s name in my journal like a schoolgirl with a crush. It was a name so strange—singular—to my ear that I couldn’t imagine that anyone else in the world had, in this combination, already worn it. The act of writing again and again this name was like dreaming. Though I could see the changes happening to my body, they felt somehow strangely abstract, not unlike the way a story first feels when it begins inside me. An image, an interaction, an opening, and then the glow of possibility—not of the finished story but of the feeling of listening, following. Pregnancy to me felt like that, a work of the mind as well as of the body, even as the child felt impossible, as stories often feel until they fully arrive.
Four weeks ago, the baby—fair-haired, squalling, hot, and real—was placed on my chest as the doctors sewed up the wound they had opened to bring her to me. The name we had chosen was now printed on her documents in government ink. Seeing her name on the page was spooky—as though through the alchemical act of writing, I had conjured her into being. Though in fact, like many stories I’ve written, she was nothing like I expected, not the girl I had dreamed but a gorgeous stranger. I couldn’t have written her, and yet I did.
Many times I have felt when I’m writing as though I’ve opened the space for a story to happen, then I’ve called for something, and something has answered. The work happens around that central mystery—that I could ask the void, What happens? and receive, again and again, an answer. From where does that answer spring? Yet if I was once tempted to compare artistic creation to the creation of a child, I hesitate now. Four weeks of being a mother, and nothing seems less like a metaphor than a baby. Holding her to my breast, my body still so large—strange—from my pregnancy, and she so small, so pale, and dainty, always arranging her tiny fingers into mudra-like gestures, I feel like Koko the gorilla and her little kitten, fully, almost frighteningly mammal. Yes, it is a madness, a madness of the body—at least it seems so now. Writing, for all of the soaring feelings it has offered me, has never felt this way, for I could control it, at least ride it. To me, writing seems now like the opposite of madness—that is to say, the opposite of motherhood—a tall cool thing the mind does patiently or effortfully, but without the body, alone.
I don’t mean to say that motherhood has no mind in it—only that it hasn’t for me, not yet. And it’s so easy to devalue the work the body does, as though only mind work is worthy. All I know is that it will, somehow, change. You don’t get to watch a story grow up, once it’s written. It stays fixed in the world like a moth on a pin while you keep going. But a baby—already, there is a brightness in her eyes she wasn’t born with. Already, her mouth is shaping new sounds. And I, too, am new. Wrecked and rebuilt.
Shruti Swamy’s fiction has been included in the 2016 and 2017 editions of The O. Henry Prize Stories. She lives in San Francisco.