Eleanor Walsh won the 2019 Ad Hoc Novella-In-Flash Competition. The winning book, Birds with Horse Hearts, is set in Nepal.
About the book
Avery, a young widow from Iowa, travels to Nepal to connect with her late husband‘s roots. Though she knows no more than that his village was called Baghmara, she is willing to visit every Baghmara in the country if she must.
But when she meets a young Nepali woman, Putali, and her mother, Khusbhu– two women also struggling to build new lives for themselves – Avery becomes more embroiled in the chaotic energy of the living then the histories of the dead, Pursuing a connection far deeper than the one for which she’d been searching.
Birds with Horse Hearts explores the entangled lives of three women as they navigate grief, freedom, and their own journeys to find people to call family and places to call home.
Eleanor Walsh: Yes – Khusbhu is imprisoned by societal expectations and Putali is confined by existing so far outside of them. They’re both restricted by expectations of femaleness. Khusbhu is a housewife who was married off as a child. She embodies the expectation of being family-oriented, domestic and agreeable, but like most women in the Terai, she works on land that she doesn’t own, so there’s no real alternative for her as she doesn’t have her own income. Putali imprisonment is different – she’s physically more liberated as she irks all societal expectations – but she’s a lonely outcast and is robbed of the experience of being part of a community.
Avery’s presence highlights these forms of confinement through her own comparative freedom. The presence of a white woman in a remote village in Nepal isn’t inherently beneficial to that village, despite what voluntourism culture might have us believe. In fact Avery has very little to offer Khusbhu and Putali; she arrives in Nepal with so few practical skills that she verges on being a burden, and she’s preoccupied with her own grief, so she misses the mark in so many ways. But because she is young, female and American, she does arrive with a rather ‘fourth-wave-feminist’ set of values and she doesn’t stigmatise Putali – in fact she recognises loneliness in her and that’s largely the basis for their connection. And so, in spite of Avery’s shortcomings, she forms a real and genuine friendship with Putali. That’s what the story is about really – women who navigate new notions of freedom alongside one another.
EW: A title should raise questions for a reader, and I hope this one does. It’s a grotesque image however you interpret it, but that’s appropriate because the novella has its own share of grotesque imagery. Birds and horses are important motifs in the story too because they’re attached to themes of imprisonment and escape. The duality between birds and horses is important in the novella – the parakeet is a real and literal embodiment of imprisonment and the horses are an epithet of freedom – and yet the horses remain almost entirely in the imaginations of the characters instead of being concrete features of the story.
Moreover, the story is ultimately about women who have nothing but each other: it’s a story of endurance and durability, of women refusing to leave one another behind. So I liked the idea of the birds – who seem meek and simple because they’re outwardly compliant – harbouring these secret resources of fortitude and loyalty.
EW: The first draft was just a mash-up of poems set in Nepal, with only a vague sense of narrative. Despite the fact that Avery is the narrator, she was a late addition to the novella. It was initially written in third person but I needed a way to bridge the cultural gap between the Nepali characters and the Western reader, so a Western narrator seemed the obvious way to do that. Avery’s late husband, who was Nepali, was a useful device in creating a narrator for whom Nepali language and culture were already a part of her life, and that was important because I needed Avery to be able to connect with Putali and Khusbhu without too much cultural misunderstanding.
I feel as though the ghosts of poetic device are still present, but I think that’s actually quite a standard feature of the novella-in-flash. The key element that separates flash fiction from prose poetry is that flash is driven forward by character or plot instead of by language. But if every piece in a NIF is a by-the-rules piece of flash then you’re going to rattle through the plot and leave yourself little control over pace. Including pieces that employ the features of prose poetry allows you greater control over pace and the fabric of the NIF. If you look at some of the very accomplished NIFs like Johanna Robinson’s Homing and Michael Loveday’s Three Men on the Edge, they clearly use pieces that would be categorised as poems – and that allows the reader to pause on key symbols and it brings important ideas to the forefront of the text.
EW: The obvious connection is the creative one: the privilege of doing years of fieldwork in the Terai of Nepal afforded me the opportunity to write about rural Nepal in a way that felt well-informed and authentic. But there’s also a theoretical element there. I spent years listening to and witnessing so many versions of female oppression, some obvious, some less apparent, and becoming concurrently aware of how these enormous struggles were not represented in literature. All cultures have a prescribed idea for how women should be. Just as the West is obsessed with female thinness and youth, Nepal is preoccupied with female obedience. I was living with women – low-caste, dark-skinned, illiterate – some of whom weren’t even allowed in other people’s homes. People were embarrassed of them; they denied knowing them, even. That was the main motivation in writing these women in the centre of my novella. In that sense I set myself a huge duty – to write something that could join a canon of literature that re-relegates space to invisible women.
EW: People usually think of the mountains when they think of Nepal, but the village where the novella is set is on the Rapti River in Chitwan which is part of the jungle region. The river is a source of livelihood for the community who largely rely on fishing, but it also isolates the village physically. There’s a surrealist element in the story where Khusbhu fantasises about having a canoe that she uses to come and go from the village as she pleases, so the river is a key symbol in the theme of confinement and escape.
I actually really struggled to find a photograph for the cover. There are lots of photos out there of the Rapti River but they tend to be taken at sunset and look lovely and inviting, and I was hyper-aware of avoiding anything that might connect the book to the ‘poor but happy’ narrative that is so often circulated in the West – of women who struggle with poverty being depicted as living simple and idyllic lives. Then I found this photo that had been taken about ten years before by an American nature photographer called Brian White. It was exactly what I wanted – the mist, the canoes tied up in disrepair, the slight hint of foreboding in the jungle beyond. I contacted Brian and he very kindly gave me the photo to use for the cover in return for a copy of the book.
Here among the dead garlands hanging in the kitchen I miss the wild parakeets I saw just once. Khusbhu cooks dahl bat and adds a scoop of chili powder, a generous amount, like blood for a stranger. It’s the colour of lipstick Putali wore uncarefully, not pressing her lips first to each other and then to a tissue, but a thick swipe for reddening cheeks and collars, for open-mouth laughing.
She’s in the colour of Himalayan salt that’s added to the rice—it’s her face, pinkened with mischief or greed, pink like the blossom trees where she used to sulk.
I inhale the cumin and it stings my throat. It’s all noise, like the rough sound of Putali playing with a balding street dog on the bus station forecourt, rolling on the floor while men stare in horror, pretending to be injured as it snaps at her face, pretending that it has caused her limp.
The jar of masala on the shelf is full and untouched because Putali bought the wrong kind. She had been taught to recognise the word chaat, but in the chaos of the market had confused it with chatur and bought what she imagined was a spice somehow made by the peppered birds that tuck themselves into a hole in the Himalayan salt cliffs.
“If I feed this to your father, then what?” Khusbhu had scolded.
“Then he will say, ‘Budi! Your cooking is bad! Here, I take another wife. You are free to go!’ And then we will go Aama! Off to Jomsom to see the horses!” she had laughed.
Khusbhu sprinkles cardamom and cries loudly from the kitchen, holding herself up by leaning on the wall, her sobs are too much noise for the small space—they go back and forth like a grieving parakeet in a low-ceilinged room, darting at the walls.
We’re out of black pepper. I know before I open the jar. She’s in its absence. We had gotten too used to being apart from her and letting her stay away for too long, always too satisfied in pretending that she was just one house away, or just on the other side of the trees, just across the river – and now it is ruining us – feeling that she is just there, there in a trace of pepper like the kiss of the moon on the daytime sky, printed lipstick pressed to a tissue. There’s nothing in the jar and yet I can taste it clearly, her mouth pressed to mine, teasing me.
I try to remember the name for a gathering of parakeets. A casualty. A cataclysm. When I can bring myself to hold Kumari, I find long black hairs tangled in her claws. I wind them tight around my forefinger, comb my nails endlessly through her feathers, looking for more. I love you, please believe me.