By Jody DiPerna
Pittsburgh Current Lit Writer
The stories all start with an idea. Something in the news will catch her eye. She’ll ruminate about a trip to Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky. She’ll find herself thinking about a beloved poetry professor. These are just some of the seeds that blossomed into Anjali Sachdeva’s collection of short stories, “All the Names They Used for God” (Spiegel & Grau, 2018). The stories have settings as disparate as English poet John Milton’s bedside circa 1670s and two young women from Chibok who survive their abduction by Boko Haram.
Raised in Pittsburgh, Sachdeva studied at the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop before returning home. She worked at Creative Nonfiction based in Friendship for six years. She taught at Carnegie Mellon and currently teaches composition at the University of Pittsburgh.
“It started with an image,” she told the Current. “I was thinking about glassblowing. This was weird, but I was thinking, what would happen if you breathed in when you’re supposed to be blowing out? Of course, what would happen would not be anything like what I described, but it just got me thinking in that direction.”
She’s talking about Glass-Lung, the second story in the collection wherein an immigrant steelworker is severely injured while working on an experimental process involving glass. The jumping off point may be inspired by the history of her hometown, but she takes the reader to unexpectedly beautiful, lyrical places that are all uniquely hers.
“All the Names They Used for God” won the 2019 Chautauqua Prize and has earned raves among literary sites like Tin House, The Millions, Kirkus and The Rumpus, as well as being named one of the year’s best by NPR.
These nine stories were written over a period of about a dozen years. Sachdeva admits to being a slow writer and says that it is extremely rare for her to finish a piece in under six months. She will take up to a year with a story sometimes.
The time she allows permits her to move around in these universes she’s created; world-building in short stories is compressed, but by spending so much time there herself, Sachdeva manages to convey very lived-in spaces. The patience of her process, her willingness to give ideas, situations and characters room to breath, is a balm in the world of hot takes and insta-culture.
In ‘Killer of Kings,’ she imagines John Milton composing his epic poem, Paradise Lost, with the guidance of a rogue angel who inspires mesmerizing descriptions of the devil. “Milton was devoutly religious and yet he wrote this poem where the devil is clearly the most interesting character. I wanted to think about what was behind that,” Sachdeva said.
It is a very different setting than ‘Manus,’ her dystopian sci-fi story, which she says just came to her. “That idea was there,” she said. “Unlike almost every story I write, the idea of having aliens cut people’s hands off was the seed and I cannot tell you where that came from.”
The original idea may be a mystery, but the details she brings make it come to life. The slug-like nature of the Masters and the workaday world of the humans, who are permitted to go about their lives, stay in their townhouses and barbecue on the weekends.
Sachdeva writes, “Bea and I spent most of the morning playing online Scrabble at our desks and sending each other links to hilarious or disgusting Internet videos, but around eleven, a Master slithered into the doorway and said, ‘Hey, anyone who don’t have upgrades needs to go to the conference room.’ The Masters all had the exact same voice when they spoke English, a high-pitched, androgynous blend of Long Island nasal tones and fat Midwestern vowels.”
With a collection this varied, turning the page from one story to the next can be like watching “Game of Thrones,” and then “Office Space,” followed by “The Deadliest Catch.” But Sachdeva is a gifted storyteller. She manages to bring whimsy and humor while also keeping the reader on the edge of their seats, creating suspense through intense situations and a bit of danger. It’s quite the balancing act.
“I usually start with a concept or idea,” Sachdeva said. “I really do think that short stories are a literature of ideas. You can use the space of a story to really explore one concept or one key turning point in someone’s life.”