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

Mar 22, 2018
Originally published on March 22, 2018 7:47 pm

First, the bad news: Earth has been taken over by blob-shaped, toxic aliens, which kill humans on contact.

The good news: Although they have conquered humanity, they've left things more or less intact. You can keep your office job — but there's a catch. Each human is required to go through the painless but off-putting procedure of replacing their hands with metal claws.

The really good news is that this is all fiction, and it is part of a collection of stories that are all just as strange and captivating. The collection is called All The Names They Used For God, and it's written by Anjali Sachdeva.

In writing about what it would be like to not have hands, Sachdeva says she became hyper-aware of everything she did with her own: "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 I think there are things that can't be replaced by even the best technology."


Interview Highlights

On the idea that humans would adjust to aliens taking our hands (if we could still keep our office jobs)

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.

On the story "All The Names For God," in which two girls kidnapped by Boko Haram find a way to control the minds of their captors

I was reading the news stories about the kidnapping of the Chibok school girls, and it was the one-year anniversary. And The New York Times had published a piece that said essentially, you know, "We in America have kind of forgotten about this, but most of these girls are still not home." And so it just really got me thinking about what would I want if that was my daughter or my sister, and of course, you would want those girls to come home. But there was some part of me that just really wanted some kind of power for them or payback for them, and that's where that one started.

On if there is a danger in mixing the magical with the harrowing

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 everyday, 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.

Connor Donevan and Melissa Gray produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Sydnee Monday adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

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...

SACHDEVA: Right.

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.

SACHDEVA: Yes.

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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.