Priya Sharma, whose first collection of short stories All the Fabulous Beasts was published in May, recalled as a child her brother reading comic books, her mother Hindu mythology, and her father Hitchcockian tales.
“I came from a house where books were treasured,” she told me of her childhood in Cheshire, England. “Stories were loved in all their forms.”
Her own tastes were eclectic. She read Hardy too young, she said. Later came Jeannnette Winterson, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Isabel Allende.
No wonder she became a writer. No wonder as well she first became a doctor. Her love of stories informs her human and humane interests. She still practices medicine, though only part-time, not far from where she grew up.
Doctors are “very close to the human experience all the time,” she said.
“I’m a family doctor. You’re very close, very personal in the lives of people,” she said. “You follow them from cradle to grave.”
Though the 16 stories in All the Fabulous Beasts are flecked with the magical and the bizarre, they are human.
“If we’re not writing about people, what’s the point?” said Sharma.
Reading her, I found myself thinking fairy and folk tales were the first fantasies, with snakes and birds masquerading as human, and gods getting involved in human dramas, as they do in Western and Eastern mythologies. Along with Hardy, Sharma’s influences include Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, a reworking of classic fairy tales that she found “beautifully written and actually quite subversive as well.”
Sharma is more gently questioning than subversive. Her themes are often dark.
“I think I need to definitely read more comedy,” she said, and laughed.
In her story Rag and Bone she explores her distress over the widening gap between the haves and have-nots. The haves of Rag and Bone are buying body parts from the desperate poor. In an example of Sharma’s deft and vivid way with imagery, the broker is left feeling “like a rat, gnawing on a dying man’s toes.”
In another story, Dr. Sharma laments that “the modern NHS requires that everything be quantified, even misery.”
The Ballad of Boomtown is set in a not-to-distant, poignantly plausible future. The economy has collapsed. Sharma doesn’t give us riots or warlords exploiting the weak. Instead, we read about the aftermath of a tragically failed romance.
Sharma often puts women front and center. The heroine of Small Town Stories has a superpower. But it’s a grace note in the character’s life, not the main theme.
Her debut collection includes stories published over more than a decade in anthologies and magazines. I don’t want to be a spoiler, so I can’t say much about the long title story. It’s not over-sharing to say it is fabulous and about the nature of beastliness, was first published in 2015 and shortlisted for the Shirley Jackson Award and won a British Fantasy Award. That it was considered both horror and fantasy is typical of Sharma’s work.
“My favorite writing definitely blurs genre,” she said. “A lot of what I write is quite hard to pigeonhole.”
A lot of what she’s reading these days is by fellow writers who are expanding ideas of what fantasy and science fiction can be. Among others, Sharma recommends Aliette de Bodard, Tananarive Due, Marlon James, Victor LaValle, Usman Malik, Kelly Robson, Sarah Waters and Isabel Yap.
“There is room for lots of voices,” Sharma told me.
I’m glad hers is among them.