In 'All The Names They Used For God,' The Magical Meets The Harrowing Author Anjali Sachdeva spins captivating short stories around kernels of the otherworldly. She says it can be a way to overcome the impulse to look away from that which is unsettling or traumatic.
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In 'All The Names They Used For God,' The Magical Meets The Harrowing

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In 'All The Names They Used For God,' The Magical Meets The Harrowing

In 'All The Names They Used For God,' The Magical Meets The Harrowing

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On every birthday, Anjali Sachdeva starts a new story. She's a writer, so it's a way to mark the day and to force herself to cook up some new ideas. A few years ago, though, she found herself struggling.

ANJALI SACHDEVA: What can I write? What can I write? I didn't have an idea in mind to start with. And I just kept returning to this idea of aliens coming down and taking away people's hands.

CORNISH: Eventually she spun an entire world around that strange little kernel of an idea. The aliens called the masters summon humans one by one for a painless but off-putting procedure that replaces their hands with metal claws. In the meantime, life goes on. They keep their office jobs. They grill out on the weekend. It's a bizarre kind of normalcy. You can imagine living in this world. And that's what makes this short story work and others like it in Anjali Sachdeva's new book, "All The Names They Used For God."

SACHDEVA: I get to think through all the hows and whys and what the details would be. If you want the reader to really feel this world and feel as though they're part of this world, you have to have those elements at play.

CORNISH: There are many scenes where you are describing things that characters are doing with their hands. And it's very simple detail - you know, lighting a cigarette, cutting vegetables, just running your fingers through your hair.

SACHDEVA: As soon as I started thinking about this question of what would it be like to not have hands, then I just became hyper aware of everything that I was doing with my hands in a day. You know, all the things that I wouldn't be able to feel because within the premise of the story, these metal hands work just as well as flesh hands, if not better. But there are things that are lost not just in terms of sensation, but I think it ties into these larger ideas of the technological versus the biological or the human. I think there are things that can't be replaced by even the best technology.

CORNISH: And this idea of what we'll put up with, right? Like, you can get used to a lot. You can get used to aliens who will take your hands if you can still get to your office job.

SACHDEVA: Yes. And I think that's actually the more dangerous kind of power - right? - is the kind of power that you can ignore if you want to. You know, the kind of situation where you can keep getting your latte every morning I think is less likely to provoke a rebellion than the kind of thing where suddenly there are food shortages and you can't leave your house. But that's what makes it dangerous. It's the fact that we I think are often inclined to ignore these kind of things as long as we can. And if the people who are orchestrating them want to make it so that we can ignore them, sometimes we're just too happy to do that.

CORNISH: You're still alive, right? (Laughter) Like...


CORNISH: ...As far as alien abductions go, this is probably not the worst.

SACHDEVA: Right. And the one character says - there are all these theories out there in the world of the story of, you know, why are the aliens doing this? And she says, it's not about any of those theories. It's just about showing us that they can do it, that they can make us do this thing.

CORNISH: In another story, "All The Names For God," two young girls who had been living in Nigeria kidnapped by Boko Haram figure out a way to I guess take over the minds of their captors.


CORNISH: And they try and go home. But they are so different, right? They're so changed. They can't look even at their own male relatives the same way.

SACHDEVA: They've been away for years, right? And if you came back to your own family after years, and not only that but you had left as a child and came back as an adult and everything in the middle had been horrible, how would you be a different person? So a lot of it has to do with trust. There is a moment where the main character, Promise, goes home and meets her brother who was still a child when she left, and now he's an adult. And she is trying to separate him in her mind from the other men she's met in the intervening years who have done nothing but harm her or who she has treated as predators - any man she's met since then because of the experiences she's had. And now suddenly there's someone who she can't treat that way.

CORNISH: And when does, like, resistance cross over into being a person who inflicts the same kind of violence or power? When do you become the villain in your own story?

SACHDEVA: Absolutely, right. I mean, the story is to some degree about revenge. But there's a point where you are not doing justice anymore. You have crossed over, internalizing I guess these things that you hated about someone else. And Promise the character does come to this point where she decides that she doesn't want to do that. But I think that would be a very difficult point to come to.

CORNISH: Even if you have the powers of hypnosis.

SACHDEVA: (Laughter) Yes. Right. Especially if you do, especially if you have a power that other people can't resist it makes it all the more difficult because then you are the only one who can stop yourself.

CORNISH: Is there a danger in mixing the magical with the harrowing?

SACHDEVA: I don't think so. I mean, I certainly don't intend it to trivialize the harrowing in any way or the traumatic in any way. To me, it's a question of, OK, these awful things are happening all around us in the world every day. And if you are only looking at them in a purely realistic way, I think sometimes it becomes impossible to keep looking at them. They're too overwhelming. They're too terrible. And you feel helpless. Looking at them through a magical lens, for one thing, adds this element of surprise that I think pulls your attention back and makes you look at the issue in the face and not give into that impulse to look away.

CORNISH: Anjali Sachdeva - her new collection is called "All The Names They Used For God." Thank you for speaking with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

SACHDEVA: Thank you, Audie.

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