Hard-hitting Flash: Interview with competition judge Susmita Bhattacharya

Each place has its own identity, heritage, culture, but there is one thread that runs through them all – and that is humanity. Wherever we are in the world, we are all affected, to different degrees I’m sure, by emotions, relationships to people, place, history, and attachment. I have been very fortunate to have lived in and visited many places around the world. Whichever place I visit, I want to know the people, the food, the art, the history and this seeps into my writing.

For me, the place is not just about the setting, but about how the place relates to the character, how to both react to each other. The same place can mean opposite things to two characters – place is how one perceives and experiences it. 

After travelling around the world, I’ve found that even if we don’t speak the language of the people, we can still connect. For example, I was sailing with my husband on oil tankers when we visited Brazil in the early 2000s. Both of us spoke a handful of words in Portuguese – we didn’t have smartphone or Google Translate! I had a little Portuguese guidebook, which was of no use because I couldn’t find the right word at the right time! But our ship’s agent took us out for a meal even though he didn’t know English, and we didn’t know Portuguese. Yet, through sign language, broken sentences and lots of smiles and laughter, we managed to communicate and have a wonderful evening together. This was an important lesson for me. I’m not a very political person, but I’ve been aware of the worrying political scenario around the world, and how such things affect the common people. 

A parrot takes on the voice of a dead husband. Two women in search of god and marriage learn what it means to love. A man living in exile writes home. From Mumbai to Venice, Cardiff to Singapore, this collection of stories of love and loneliness in the urban landscape are delicately nuanced and sprinkled generously with sharp observation of the human condition.

A captivating first collection which introduces us to a powerful new voice.

“Graceful, poignant and beautifully wrought – a masterful debut.” Angela Readman

“These triumphant, sharp eyed humorous stories mark the arrival of an intriguing new voice; tender, poignant and wry.” Irenosen Okojie

“A winning collection. These stories are delicately shaped around sharp and tender moments rendered in rich, vivid prose.” Mahesh Rao

Flash fiction is hard-hitting, in your face, something that is rooted in reality, but exhibited in a very different way. And yet, it makes the viewer react to it, to think about it. I like to compare it to Tracey Emin’s art installation, My Bed. It is not traditional art that we’re used to seeing in museums and art galleries, where the novel compares to a big Rembrandt painting – so much detail, you can see the intricacy of the lacework on a collar, the fabric of the gown, the shine of the curls in the hair. The short story is like that of Picasso’s surrealism period paintings – graphic in style, maybe disjointed but you can still see the structure, the form and interpret it the way you want. I love all forms, and I think each form has a particular process, structure, message and audience.

A great flash piece will have some sort of reaction from me.

Susmita Bhattacharya

A great flash piece will have some sort of reaction from me. It doesn’t need to be punchy, or have a massive twist at the end, but it should take me on an unexpected journey, make me see and feel images and emotions differently. I think the element of surprise is important – the revelation is important. It could be a loud bang or a quiet reveal, it doesn’t matter. It must make me stop on my tracks and think about it, and really feel for the characters in the narrative. 

I love reading stories that leave room for interpretation, giving them a lingering quality that stays with the reader. I don’t let go of a narrative easily. I love reflecting on a story or a film I’ve been engaged with for weeks, thinking about the character/s, why they made the choices, what happened to them, or what could happen to them after the story has ended on the page or screen. I want the reader to care for my characters in the same way, to think about them and imagine what would happen to them after the story has ended.

I’m working on a novel at the moment – it’s going along at a slow and steady pace. But it’s important to write in your own time, in your own pace, and don’t compare yourself to others. I like deadlines, because I have to really get down to it and submit on time. I have a day job and a hectic family life with three cats and a dog, and human members too! So every day throws up new challenges. I’m also writing a lot more poetry these days, and working on a novella-in-flash, which is something I am very excited about.

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Susmita Bhattacharya is an Indian-born writer. Her debut novel, The Normal State of Mind (Parthian, 2015) was long-listed for the Word to Screen Prize at the Mumbai Film Festival, 2018. Her short story collection, Table Manners (Dahlia Publishing, 2018) won the Saboteur Award for Best Short Story Collection (2019) and was a finalist for the Hall & Woodhouse DLF Prize, 2019. Her short stories have been featured on BBC Radio 4. She teaches creative writing at Winchester University, facilitates the ArtfulScribe Mayflower Young Writers programme in Southampton and has been involved in several Mayflower 400 projects in 2020. She was a mentor on Dahlia Publishing’s The Middle Way Mentoring Project. She was also the Writer-in-Residence at the Word Factory, London in 2021. You can find her on Twitter: @Susmitatweets.


Published by Freya Morris

Author & Director of Oxford Flash Fiction Prize. West Country bumpkin who can't kill anything but characters. Loves to grow big stories and big plants. Always looking for omens and four leaf clovers.

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