Shelf Life

Brave Storytelling Wins a Big Prize

Book cover of "The O.Henry Prize Stories: The Best Stories of the Year 2016"

The fruits of a long apprenticeship are beginning to ripen for fiction writer Shruti Swamy (M.F.A., ’11), who cultivated her craft in SF State’s creative writing program.

Swamy’s short story “A Simple Composition,” first published in the literary journal AGNI, was chosen for a 2016 O. Henry Prize, one of the oldest and most prestigious literary prizes in the U.S. The 20 prize-winning stories, chosen by a three-member jury, are collected in The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories, released in September. The O. Henry is such an honor that, even though her work has cleared a high bar to make it into well-regarded magazines like Prairie Schooner, when Swamy got the O. Henry news, “I thought it was a joke,” she says.

“A Simple Composition” is narrated in the first-person by a South Indian woman who immigrates to Germany with her physics-student husband, then has a sudden sexual encounter with her husband’s academic advisor. It reads as though written in one inspired rush, but the actual account of its creation reveals the painstaking process behind a work of literature. Swamy chipped away at the story for three years, first writing a draft during her final year at SF State. The tale’s structure wouldn’t click — until she got the idea to start the narration much earlier, during the main character’s childhood music lessons on the veena, a Hindustani plucked string instrument. A sexual experience with the veena teacher presages the confused infidelity the narrator will later commit with her husband’s advisor.

“When I got the image of the veena teacher, [the new version] came quickly, within a week,” Swamy says. “But I realized later it wasn’t one thunderous birth. I had thought about the mechanics of that story for so long.”

She also had studied closely with SF State Creative Writing Chair Peter Orner, whose own stories have been described as “crystalline” and “astonishing” by The New York Times. He had her read widely in literature translated into English — “You read in a deeper way when you know the language is translated,” Swamy observes — and Orner carefully pointed to places in her story drafts where she could do more. “When he’d see my face fall, he’d add, ‘Just a line or two will do it,’” Swamy says. “He was so conscientious about reading my writing on its own terms.”

Shruti Swamy

Those nuance-producing terms include never outright stating in “A Simple Composition” that the narrator’s marriage was arranged and using Hindi words without italicizing them. “In the character’s mind that language is not an ‘Indian thing,’” Swamy explains.

Another important craft choice: Though the story was inspired by Swamy’s parents, who immigrated from South India to Santa Cruz in the 1970s and raised Swamy inside a yoga community, Swamy decided to set her story in Mainz, Germany — a city she found by

Googling German physics programs. “When [the story] was set in America, it felt like the well-trodden alien experience of Indians in America,” she explains. “I couldn’t imagine the strangeness of the character’s experience.” By moving the action to Germany, she could better imagine the isolation of being in a strange place. “I’m interested in deep loneliness,” Swamy says. “How it feels to be exiled not just from your country but from your own self.”

Creative Writing Professor Maxine Chernoff, who also mentored Swamy closely during her SF State studies, is confident that the O. Henry Prize is a harbinger of many future accolades for Swamy, who is at work on a novel set in 1950s Bombay.

“Her stories are emotionally precise, effective and brave,” Chernoff says. “I am so glad to see her career taking off in such a fashion.”

We’re Also Reading

Book Cover for "Miscalling"

The latest books penned by alumni and faculty including:

Hope in Hard Times: Norvelt and the Struggle for Community During the Great Depression (Penn State University Press, ’16), an in-depth look at one of the most ambitious government social experiments in American history, by Margaret Power (M.A., ’79), Timothy Kelly and Michael Cary.

High Hand (Copper Peak Press, ’16), a spy thriller with a secret of its own: author “Curtis J. James” is a pseudonym for three writers, one of whom is Gator James Ellenberger (B.A., ’72).

Affinity Konar’s (B.A., ’00) Mischling (Little, Brown & Co., ’16), an “exceptionally sensitive” and “unforgettable” (according to The New York Times) novel of Holocaust survival.

Department of Creative Writing Professor Peter Orner’s collection of essays celebrating bibliophilia, Am I Alone Here?: Notes on Living to Read and Reading to Live (Catapult, ’16).