A Writer’s Insight: Shraya Singh

Shraya Singh’s story, “The Chicken Shop”, appears in the winter 2024 issue of The Southern Review. Here she discusses how Hindu-Muslim conflict impacts childhood, especially in the early 2000s, the realities of cleaning chicken, and deep, platonic childhood love.

Emilie Rodriguez, Editorial Assistant: The religious turmoil between Hindu and Muslim communities in this piece is always at the forefront, constantly influencing the narrator and Rahim’s relationship. Why choose two young boys to focus on for this story?

Shraya Singh: As a child, I had never truly considered what it meant to be from a non-dominant religion in a country like India, where religion is so culturally ingrained in the day-to-day and is something you have to experience whether you truly believe in it or not. Because of this, I knew of the differences between myself and those from other religions growing up, but it had never truly been at the forefront of our interactions or our relationships until we got older. This was why I thought that exploring such a relationship through the lens of two young boys would be a good way to explore how the views I’ve had, and those of others around me, have changed as we have grown up and developed a deeper understanding of our religions and how they interact or conflict with each other. Of course, I know that it is different now, since Hindu-Muslim conflict is at the forefront of a lot of people’s lives and younger children are more aware of the rising conflict over the past decade. That also dates this piece as happening around the time when I grew up, when it was easier for a Hindu-Muslim friendship to form without the constraints of other societal pressures and when it was easier to ignore all the differences between the two.

ER: There’s so much love that the narrator has for Rahim; getting Rahim books he doesn’t have access to, having dinner with Rahim’s family despite his own not approving, etc. When he no longer expresses it as openly as he did before due to the rising conflict, there’s still so much compassion for the narrator that I feel in your writing that goes hand and hand with the guilt he feels. How did you find that balance in writing him?

SS: I don’t think I was actively trying to seek that balance while writing him. I knew that I wanted him to be a character that people could sympathize with but could also hold accountable for misdeeds or mistakes [that he has made] and perhaps that is what led me to make sure that he was more complex than a boy who lost access to a close relationship. I think the retrospective narration definitely helped me achieve that balance, and in truth, I feel that it was the only way the balance could have been obtained because of the characters’ ages during the bulk of the story: it is easy to not realize the importance of even a tiny action in the moment, and it often only becomes clear in retrospect.

ER: One of the threads that I find so beautiful in your story is this idea of what it means to be brave. As Rahim gets braver, our narrator assimilates more and even dreams of leaving completely. Do you think that would have saved their friendship, if the narrator had been braver, or did they need to understand each other’s point of view more?

SS: I’m not sure that being braver would have saved the narrator’s friendship with Rahim. I think the narrator needed to go through the growth, introspection, and reflection that he did in order to reach where he is now, and without the slow disintegration of his friendship with Rahim, it never would have taken place.

ER: One of my favorite scenes in this story is when we see the narrator cleaning the chicken. It’s visceral and grotesque and a perfect cumulation of all of his feelings about his declining friendship with Rahim and the political turmoil. How did this scene come to you?

SS: When I was back at my parents’ home in Gwalior (in India) before moving to the states two years ago, I really wanted to make some chicken for me and my brother but my mom is a strict vegetarian, so she practically refused to even touch anything I planned on using to make it. I’m not sure if this is widely known, but it’s very hard to get frozen chicken in India (unless you live in a metro area) and so I ended up having to go to the vendor on the street and choosing one of the chickens in his giant cage and bringing the fresh meat back home. Even though I wore gloves while washing it and pulling apart the weird white stuff (the skin? the cartilage?) and rubbing all the blood off, it was slow-going and took me over an hour (with multiple breaks for gagging because the meat was still warm) and felt very uncomfortable. That scene in the story is the first thing that made it to the page and is pretty much how I felt during that whole experience. I don’t think I ever plan on making chicken again unless it’s cold and frozen and long, long dead.

ER: Have you wondered what would happen if they ever did meet again as adults?

SS: I have wondered but I don’t think I’ve ever been able to truly imagine what it would be like if they did. Of course, I want them to meet again, but maybe having them interacting directly isn’t the right move for the story (or any future extrapolation).

ER: What was the revision process like for this story? Were there other endings considered for it?

SS: In an earlier version of the story, it was not told from a retrospective perspective, and I feel like that version didn’t allow for the narrator to truly realize his guilt and understand the impact that his actions (or lack thereof) had on his friendship with Rahim. Apart from that, the revision process has been pretty straightforward, the story somehow shaped itself around the chicken shop and the meat washing scene and, in a way, the shop was as grounding for me during the writing and revision process as I feel it is for the characters (and readers!) within the story.

ER: Do you think romantic tension played a role in the strife between the narrator and Rahim?

SS: This is a touchy subject for me because at times I feel like literature places a greater emphasis on romantic love over platonic love and I dislike how, despite their being two different types of love, they somehow always end up in a hierarchy where romantic love is considered the deeper and stronger of the two. In my life, because of where and how I’ve grown up, I have always placed a greater emphasis on friendship when it comes to relationships and I think that is what I wanted to bring forward in this piece: how friendship and platonic love can be as intimate and important and beautiful as romantic love and how, for many people, it is more necessary. I do, however, think that there is a possibility of romantic tension between the narrator and Rahim, and I think their relationship could have evolved into something else had they been allowed to grow older together in their friendship, but as it is now, I was focusing more on the external pressures and internal conflict between them. I find that deep love in friendships when it comes to Hindu-Muslim relationships is underrepresented in the media that I have come across in comparison with Hindu-Muslim romance (which is a popular trope in Bollywood movies). If readers pick up on something more then maybe they’re onto something that I wasn’t putting in there, but still managed to slip in through the cracks!

ER: What was it like to write the narrator’s family, a family that pushed the narrator to ignore Rahim?

SS: It was easier to write than I thought it would be, primarily because I went to a Hindu-majority private school where kids would talk about things their parents said about other castes, religions, and economical classes all the time. Even though I heard the word “Muslim” or “Musalmaan” mentioned often, I didn’t quite truly understand what it meant to be a Muslim in an area that was Hindu-dominated, yet the comments were mean enough that they stuck with me all these years. I guess it’s something that many go through, not realizing how unjust the words spoken around them are until you’ve grown as a person yourself and understood more of where those comments are coming from and what beliefs they are rooted in.

ER: Are there other writers or pieces of fiction that influenced this story?

SS: I think the primary thing that influenced this story was The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini and how intimate the protagonist, Amir, is with Hassan despite the huge class imbalance between them. That was one of the few books that I had been recommended to read as a child that was not by a white author and the friendship portrayed is so deep and beautiful and remorseful, which was something I hadn’t seen done so well in literature before.

ER: What projects are you working on now?

SS: I’m working on my MFA thesis! I recently finished up with a novel workshop class and I plan on polishing the first 100 pages of my novel and adding as many more as I can by the time that I graduate in the spring. This way, I can get my advisor, Greg, to read them before he’s no longer obligated to or paid by the university to do so.

Shraya Singh is currently an MFA candidate at Eastern Washington University where she is also the Fiction Editor for Willow Springs magazine and a fledgling writer. She is from a small town in Uttar Pradesh in India and her work is often set in rural India and discusses themes around religion, religious intolerance, class and caste-based discrimination, as well as relationships that stretch across the intersections of these themes.

Emilie Rodriguez is a Latinx writer, originally from San Diego. She is the editorial assistant for The Southern Review, an MFA candidate in Fiction at Louisiana State University, and the former editor-in-chief of the New Delta Review. Her work has been supported by the Sundress Academy of the Arts Residency. Rodriguez won the 2023 Patty Friedman Writing Competition in the short story category. Her work is forthcoming in the Peauxdunque Review.

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