Squirrel Hill-based author Anjali Sachdeva mines inspiration from the solitude of backcountry trails | Literary Arts | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Squirrel Hill-based author Anjali Sachdeva mines inspiration from the solitude of backcountry trails

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Anjali Sachdeva

There are no personal revelations in Anjali Sachdeva's short-story collection, All the Names They Used for God (Spiegel & Grau). If there are any references to her life or her family, they are discreet and known only to the author. 

Sachdeva is instead a keen and curious observer who relies on technology to collect “bits and pieces of information that just come to me in a stream-of-consciousness way,” she says. “Those pieces of information influence the way the story develops. It's interesting for me to think about if I would have been writing in a pre-internet era, how would these stories have been different, because it would have taken me weeks and weeks of library research to find the same information.” 

Sachdeva will appear with Clare Beams and Tess Allard on Fri., June 21 at White Whale Bookstore in Bloomfield to promote the paperback release of All the Names They Used for God, which recently won the Chautauqua Prize for significant contributions to literary arts. 

A lifelong resident of Western Pennsylvania who lives in Squirrel Hill, Sachdeva teaches English and creative writing at the University of Pittsburgh and in a low-residency program at Randolph College in Virginia.

Many of her ideas come while on hiking trips; she's traversed rugged backcountry trails in Iceland, Kenya, Mexico, and Canada. “There's a trail, but there's not anything else,” Sachdeva says. “I'm one of those people who, while hiking, prefers not to see anyone else, to enjoy the solitude of it. And I think part of why I like that is there's some element of risk or danger to a backcountry hike. Obviously you're not hoping that anything bad happens to you, but it's not the same as taking a nice walk through Frick Park.”

The stories are part-Aesop, part-Ursula K. Le Guin — fantastic and surreal and yet grounded by Sachdeva's lucid prose. Each story is a unique work of imagination: the young woman living alone in the Ozarks who seeks solace in a cave in "The World By Night"; the secret desires of the seafarer in "Robert Greenman and the Mermaid"; the two school girls abducted by Boko Haram in the title story, who escape by using magic learned from a sex worker.

Sachdeva wrote All the Names Used for God in reaction to a story she read a year after the Nigerian girls had first been kidnapped by the terrorists. “I was reading about what the girls' lives were like once they came home,” she says. “I think we like to imagine they escape and come home and their lives are back to normal, but in fact they face pretty significant problems and even prejudice in their home communities.”

Some of the stories — notably "Manus" and "Pleiades" — are closer to true science fiction. But Sachdeva's intent is to address questions that often cannot be answered by logic or reason. “I think that's why I'm drawn to speculative fiction,” she says. “It's like once you take the real world and twist it a little bit, to me, that actually makes the questions clearer. Like somehow by taking a step back from reality, it lets you look at questions head-on that may be a little too daunting in a realistic context.”

Between the Lines

Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Fredrik Logevall, author of Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam (Random House), will speak as part of the Vietnam War Speaker Series at Heinz History Center. 7 p.m. Thu., June 20. 1212 Smallman St., Strip District. $20. 412-454-6000 or heinzhistorycenter.org

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