In Anjali Sachdeva’s debut collection of short stories, a young frontier wife who can’t abide daylight gets lost, perhaps fatally, in a mysterious cavern. A steelworker in 19th-century Pittsburgh is injured terribly in an industrial accident, but develops a strange power. A present-day fisherman encounters a mermaid. An in-vitro septuplet narrates the tragic fates of her siblings.
The wide-ranging premises are among those captured in Sachdeva's nine stories in All the Names They Used For God, released in February through Spiegel & Grau.
The book’s blend of realism and fantasy is earning national press, including positive notices in publications from The Wall Street Journal to Entertainment Weekly. Well-known writers who’ve praised her work include Dave Eggers, Roxane Gay and All the Light We Cannot See author Anthony Doerr.
Sachdeva was born and raised in the Pittsburgh area and is a graduate of the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop. She’s worked at the Pittsburgh-based Creative Nonfiction Foundation, and taught at schools including Carnegie Mellon and, currently, the University of Pittsburgh. She lives in Squirrel Hill with her husband and two small children.
All the Names draws on some 14 years of her writing. She said she's pleasantly surprised by all the attention.
“It's been completely thrilling for me,” she said. “When I was getting ready to publish the book, I was just so worried that it would come out and nobody would say anything about it.”
The stories span a range of tones, from the almost gothic feel of opening piece “The World by Night” (with the aforementioned frontier woman) to the darkly comic science fiction of “Manus,” in which blob-like aliens who’ve taken over Earth force humans to undergo a disfiguring operation. In “All the Names for God,” two young women abducted in Africa by a Boko Haram-like group fight back with something like magic; meanwhile, “Logging Lake” and “Anything You Might Want” are fairly realistic tales about personal transformation.
But Sachdeva said the book’s topics do share a theme, which is reflected in the collection’s title.
“I realized that all of [the stories] had some element of people struggling with forces bigger than themselves,” she said. “Whether that was religion or science or nature--just some effort to access something sublime or larger than them. And sometimes that works out well for them and sometimes it's tragic.”
Here’s an excerpt from “Robert Greenman and The Mermaid.”
Usually like all the fisherman Robert enjoyed being back on land after a long trip but now he felt restless. Sometimes he found himself in the middle of one of Carol's stories about the hospital ignoring her words and thinking that her voice had a shrill edge to it. He wondered why he had not noticed it before. He began to look for projects to keep himself busy cleaning out the attic and the basement repainting the tool shed. He did not know how to doubt himself, which would have been the easiest thing to do and so he was forced to try to live his life as though steady work and a watertight roof and a loving wife were still as important as they had been before he had seen the mermaid.
Some reviewers have said Sachdeva's stories have a dreamlike quality: the young woman’s discovery of the alternate universe of the cave; the weird and sudden disappearance in the woods of the male protagonist’s girlfriend in “Logging Lake”; Greenman’s chaste assignations in frigid water with the mermaid.
Sachdeva said none of her stories originated with dreams.
“But I definitely am going for that surreal or dream-like quality, at the same time, paired with really realistic settings and characters,” she said. “So I usually start writing the stories by focusing on some strange idea or often some strange fact that appeals to me, something that I read in a magazine or a scientific study that I think is interesting, and I kind of build outward from there.”
One story, the bracing “Killer of Kings,” depicts an iconic historical figure, the poet John Milton. Two suggest topical relevance, including “All the Names,” which Sachdeva said was inspired by a news article about the Chibok schoolgirl kidnappings.
“I learned that Boko Haram is pretty much continually kidnapping young women and also young men. For some reason I just couldn't--even though there are all sorts of kind of compelling and heart-wrenching stories in the news--that one I just couldn't get out of my head,” she said.
“And I sort of started playing around with it and was not sure that it was something that I could write about since it was a life so different from my own, but I kind of got myself through it by just telling myself that no one ever had to see it if I didn't like the way it turned out and just walked my way through it. And thought about how a magical twist would effect that story.”
The weirdly fascinating “Manus,” meanwhile, seems to comment on political resistance. The humans in the story are pushed around by the alien “Masters” in the most absurdly horrific ways, but because resistance seems futile, most just grin and bear it.
Sachdeva said the story doesn’t comment directly on current events.
“I wrote that story before the [2016 election], so it wasn't directly inspired by the election, but I was certainly thinking about how political power can be abused and misused, and not just political power. The various ways that we are willing to put up with abuses of power if it doesn't affect our lives on a sort of day-to-day level,” she said. “If we can still go to work or still, you know, watch TV at night, how easy is it to ignore those types of problems. So it was very important to me to consider what causes people to finally say enough is enough and rebel against that type of abuse of power. “
Yet for most of “Manus,” the tone is not that of horror but of bleak comedy, exemplified by the aliens’ choice to communicate to humans in “a high-pitched, androgynous blend of Long Island nasal tones and fat Midwestern vowels.”
“I did think, 'Yeah the aliens sort of sound like they're from there on Jersey Shore or something,'” said Sachdeva. “They have these these funny accents and they're just big blobs. And again I think it was this idea of, ‘We’re more hesitant to fight back against something that doesn't initially appear threatening.’ So if the aliens, you know, show up with claws and fangs and ray guns, everybody panics. But if the aliens just look like these big mushy blobs and sound stupid, maybe we don't react as strongly as we should. Even though they're doing these terrible things.”
Sachdeva said she hopes that her book makes readers “look at the world around them in a different way, consider not only current events, but their own lives with this sort of new possibility of the way that a surreal or a dreamlike or magical interpretation can change your view of the world.”