Her Ex Writes a Novel

Fiction is a more subtle and sophisticated revenge porn.

February 7, 2024
Shashi smiles into the camera

SHASHI BHAT is the author of the forthcoming story collection Death by a Thousand Cuts, and the novels The Most Precious Substance on Earth, a...

a detail from a sliced orange

Courtesy of Penguin Random House Canada.

She unfollowed her ex a long time ago, but this morning she’s drinking coffee and scrolling Twitter when she sees a retweet from a mutual friend. *Book cover reveal *. Her ex’s name as the author. A link to the book’s page on the website of a major publishing house. The cover is apple green, featuring an elegant drawing of a thin, pale man with hair as moulded as a Ken doll’s, gazing out of a window. But there’s something glib about its tone; it reminds her of him. The book’s description takes care to point out that it is a work of literary fiction. She wonders if he suggested they mention that. She wonders if he wrote the copy himself.

There’s an excerpt on the website. She knows she shouldn’t read it, but who, in this internet age, would have the willpower not to?

The excerpt begins with a guy at a coffee shop, drinking cold brew and eating a blueberry oat bar and reminiscing about his childhood. Then, he mentions another character, an ex-girlfriend, and describes the last months they spent together. As she reads on, she sees the excerpt names the town where they lived and the town where she grew up. It names the region in India her parents are from, calling it “lush” and “premodern.” Exotic and primitive, these words seem to imply. The character has been given an Indian woman’s name. The character is her. He has written about her.

The excerpt is only a few paragraphs long, so she doesn’t know what else is in the book. Or what else he has said about her. Whether it’s true or not. Whether it’s objective or subjective truth. She was curious when, a couple of months ago, she noticed he had unfriended her on Facebook. Now it makes an ominous sense, though she wants to believe that he hasn’t written much about her, or that what is there is benign. After ten years, is he still writing about their breakup? The synopsis indicates it’s more about the aftermath; about brooding, bingeing, post-breakup ennui, and then heroically moving on. About a man searching for love and its meaning. Why couldn’t he have written about politics or geography? If a woman had written this novel, it would be categorized as “women’s fiction.” When a man writes it, it’s literature.

The breakup is the catalyst for his self-proclaimed character growth, his transformation. The snapping lever at the start of a Rube Goldberg machine. Has he transformed? Only in that he is ten years closer to death.

There’s a clip from the audiobook, in which the narrator pronounces the Indian woman’s name incorrectly. Does her ex pronounce it that way, too?

She checks the release date: one month.

She texts her three closest friends a screenshot of the lines that describe her.

Omg. It couldn’t be any more obvious that it’s you.

Are you serious?

What the actual fuck.

One of them phones and says soothing things.

“Why would he include these specific identifying details?” she asks her friend, her stomach a stone, or an anvil, or perhaps a concrete block, whatever someone ties to their ankle before stepping into fathomless water.

“He’s just proud he once socialized with a person who isn’t white.” This is a great point. She is likely the book’s diversity. It struck her with a humiliating jolt that the character’s first and most notable attribute is that she is Indian. This is how he must have always viewed her: as an Indian woman, as opposed to the other people he had dated, who were just women.

The second friend sends her virtual hugs the rest of the day. The third friend, who is himself an ex-boyfriend of hers, sends a string of voice notes advising her about libel laws. “First, you or someone you know has to read it.”

I’ll wait until the library has it, she texts back. There’s no way I’m buying it.


When she met him, she was twenty-three and they were beginning graduate school. In August, her cohort decided by email to meet in a café before classes started. Someone had put a sign saying Writers on the café table, which made her cringe: it felt too early to be calling themselves writers. They were the first two to arrive. She remembers him wearing a red T-shirt, khaki shorts, and a muddy green backpack, but it’s possible she has invented this outfit. They talked about how disappointing it was that presidents did not write their own speeches. Other than that, he left no impression.


The next time she checks, there’s a preview of the novel available on Google Books. Some pages are missing, but she can view most of the first chapter and a portion of the second. There’s . . . a sex scene. She—or the character based on her—is in it. Then another scene where she’s telling him mean things about himself. A third where she . . . picks up a chair and throws it across the room? Has she—real-life she—ever been that strong?


Who is the woman in this book? A shadow self. It is her and not her. It is his view of her, a sliver of her, a crescent moon of her. A her that has been melted down and remoulded to suit narrative purposes. Once you’re on the page, you become a character. She wonders how his version of her mutated as he wrote. What the first draft looked like versus the published version. What he added or cut and for what reasons. She fixates on the fake name—the only detail he has changed to conceal her identity. She has a cousin in Australia with that name. She imagines him googling Indian woman names, then scanning the list for one he liked the sound of. All he had to do was make the ex-girlfriend character white, and nobody would have made the connection. But he made her brown. Her specific variety of brown; except the last name doesn’t fit—it’s Bengali, though he wouldn’t know the difference. She has read the advance reviews, including the ones on Goodreads. Somehow none of them mention that the only woman of colour in the book is described as “behaving strangely,” her actions “disturbing.” It doesn’t use the word crazy. Perhaps his editor suggested he substitute these synonyms. The reviewers are all white, and all but one are men. Some reviews say he has created “complex female characters.” The female characters may be complex, she thinks, but did he create them?

He always wanted to shape who she was—he said as much—and now he has. He has total control over this fictional version of her. What’s that movie, where a male novelist designs a female character who is his ideal woman, but when she comes to literal life outside his typewriter, she still isn’t good enough? The actors are married to each other off-screen.

She wants to email readers and say: When a man portrays his ex as unstable and irrational and angry, shouldn’t you ask, what is the cause of that anger? Why is he aiming to discredit her? What would she have to say about him?

Ultimately, doesn’t this just demonstrate his lack of integrity? He is the sort of person who will pillage from the life of someone he once claimed to love—step on them like that tool you use to check your shoe size—to profit financially, though probably not much, because he has labelled the book “literary fiction” rather than “asshole’s navel-gazing memoir.” Asshole-gazing memoir. His whole personality is gazing at his own asshole and treating it like the mouthpiece of a golden megaphone. He thinks he’s Knausgård.


But what else is in the book?

She doubts he’s written about how, that first year, he insisted they keep their relationship a secret, creeping down the back stairs of her apartment building because other classmates lived there and god forbid they see him in the elevator. And he probably hasn’t written about flirting with their female classmates in front of her, saying he preferred them without their glasses, sitting close to them at summer parties with his legs flush against theirs.

He wouldn’t write about the time she solemnly confided in him about the suicide of her college friend, and he responded, “Do we have to talk about this?”

He wouldn’t write about telling her the books she read weren’t intellectually rigorous enough, that she talked too much about food, watched too much tv; that if he could “mould the perfect girlfriend, she would pick up a newspaper once in a while”; that she wasn’t concerned about the world outside herself—this is eye-opening now, given what his book is about.

He wouldn’t write about how he regarded her dips into bottomless sadness with impatience and disgust, or about the time she started crying on the phone and he screamed at her, “get a therapist!” and then hung up. She had, in fact, been seeing a therapist.

He’s written that she’s a novelist—she saw that mentioned in one of the reviews. But he most likely has not written about how when she was accepted to a writing residency, he told her that her successes made him feel bad about himself. And he wouldn’t write about how she was working seven brutal days a week in her first full-time teaching position, while he slept in and went on refreshing jogs in the city’s many spacious parks and complained that they weren’t having enough sex.

The sex scene. In it, she is on top of him, arms crossed under her breasts, arching her back, saying words she said in real life; she remembers saying them.

Fiction is a more subtle and sophisticated revenge porn.

He wouldn’t write about how he would leave used condoms on the floor next to her bed, for her to find and throw away. He wouldn’t write about how, after sex once, she said their bodies fit together perfectly, and he said, dismissively, “All bodies fit together perfectly.” Why was he so scornful of her sincerity? Why couldn’t he just be sincere?

If she had to assign one word to him, it would be withholding.

In the Google preview of his book, there’s a fantasy sequence where he imagines proposing to her. She has no idea where that came from. The real story is, out of nowhere, he once said, “I hope you’re not expecting me to propose anytime soon.” Who was thinking about marriage?

He probably doesn’t even remember the time they were lying in bed and she told him about seeing The Firebird performed by the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. As a girl, she had sat in the airy concert hall with the program balanced carefully in her lap, hearing first the opening notes of a low, octatonic scale simultaneously ascending and descending; later, the glimmering trills of a darting, lurching feathered thing, caged, then escaping; and finally, the music swelling into alarming full volume and speed, primal and dizzying. That precious half-hour had enlarged her world. Watching the conductor’s face covered with sweat, she’d been enthralled by the realization that a single human had composed the original score—Stravinsky had written it as a twenty-seven-year-old with something to prove, and here she was listening to his symphony a hundred years later. Stravinsky had proven himself. “Look at you, talking about orchestras,” her ex said, cutting her off, in the tone one might use to compliment a toddler on her mud pies. She played three instruments, had performed in choirs and musical theatre, and had eleven years of Royal Conservatory training in piano. He couldn’t even read music.

He wouldn’t write about how, during one of their many breakups, a man had stayed over at her place, because she couldn’t tell him firmly enough to leave. The night had scalded her with shame. Once she and the ex were back together, she confessed this to him. He said she would probably allow their future children to be bullied. Then he added, coldly: “You always take the path of least resistance.”

This list is merely a representative sample, but this is what life with him was like—the ground a carton of eggs she tiptoed across, inevitably cracking the top of each one.

Theirs was never a love story, though for years she thought it was. Once, she told him he was the love of her life. What did it say about her, if he was the love of her life?


One of the reading-guide questions on the publisher’s website asks: Do you think the narrator ever really loved any of these women? She imagines a book club—a circle of middle-aged white women eating crackers and brie, catching crumbs in their napkins as they nod their heads in agreement. No, he never really loved any of them.


He knows he can get away with writing about her, because she isn’t the sort of person who is going to write a ruinous tweet or Medium post or email his editor.

But she could, couldn’t she? There is no reason she can’t. Except she has her own reputation to consider. Except it might mean having to hear from him, and she never wants to hear from him again.


She composes a tweet:

My ex has put me in his novel. He mentions my hometown, the city I later lived in, my exact job, and where my parents grew up. He gave the character a generic Indian woman’s name and is calling this “fiction.”

She saves it in the drafts folder.

She writes another tweet, a poll.

The best revenge is:

  1. success
  2. murder
  3. living a good life
  4. autofiction

Saves it in the drafts folder.

By autofiction, she doesn’t mean the novel he has written, but the story she is writing—about him. About him writing about her. She drafted it in a week, livid and in disbelief, then reluctantly wistful, then enraged again. She can’t stop writing. Just as she rises from her desk, she sits back down. When away from her desk, she’s typing notes into her phone. While she is writing, it is only a story, one she writes inside a tunnel, without knowing where it will end. All that matters is writing a good story. The truth is liquid. There are his truths and her truths. Half-truths and full truths. And now they’re both calling it fiction.

Will she submit the story for publication? Maybe. She is still considering the ethics and the stakes. How far towards him—or, heck, below him—she’s willing to sink. And the possible titles: “The Best Revenge,” or “The Path of Least Resistance.” Or “Her Ex Writes a Novel.”


Why did she stay? The push and the pull. The way he’d end things and then send an email about admiring a sunset while eating ice cream and missing her, and she’d think nobody else would ever write her such a romantic email. The way he’d say he just wanted them to be friends but then suddenly hold her hand or suggest they rent a sexy Leonardo DiCaprio movie and watch it together while sitting on her bed. His opioid qualities that made it impossible to leave—his old-fashioned formality; how you could only tell from his eyes if he was joking; his intelligence; his resonant voice; his appreciation of beauty; his rare, unexpected praise; how even his seduction was laced with absurd humour—qualities that made her want him in this horrible, self-destroying, desperate way. The chemistry. The surge of relief every time he came back.

In the months after the breakup, she worked hard to suppress thoughts of him. She visualized each memory as an object floating in a tub of water, and she would poke it down, poke it down, trying to keep it submerged. Each time an edge popped back up, she poked it down again.

An edge of a memory: putting her hand on the top of his head after they kiss for the first time, and saying his hair is smoother than she thought it would be, and he smiles, maybe realizing she has been wondering what his hair feels like. (“Would it be strange if we kissed . . . meaninglessly?” he had suggested, and for some reason, she had agreed.) Another: eating salads together every day in the cafeteria, them both exclaiming, “What a salad!” because there are so many fresh ingredient options for such a reasonable price. Another: jiggling their upper bodies around in her living room and calling it a “torso dance party.”

She hasn’t thought about any of this in years.

Picking up jerk chicken rotis from the shop around the corner after a long walk in the city. They’ve been an official couple for two days. He’s agreed to start taking the elevator in her building. Perhaps they will even make the relationship official on Facebook. They are back in her apartment and sitting on the floor—she can’t remember why.

They are subdued. They have finished eating, and there’s a small garbage pile of tin foil and paper bags between them. The lights are off except for the ones in the kitchen. It’s summer, and she’s wearing a black floral cotton sundress from Forever 21. She’s barefoot. His socks don’t match. The top few buttons of his shirt are undone, over a white undershirt. Even now, remembering it, she feels a sickening pull.

She tells him, “This is the first time we’ve been subdued together.” Most other times they’ve been at parties and drinking or stumbling home or hands-and-mouths-all- over-each-other or arguing. He likes this, what she has said about being subdued. She is so happy that he likes this she is delirious; she feels so full of happiness that she might choke on it. Their whole relationship was her trying to reach past his remoteness, trying to say and do whatever it took for them to return to this feeling. But she never could, and they never did.


After they broke up, she cried for eight months. Then she sought therapy, took antidepressants and cardio kickboxing classes, and kicked at empty air.

At first, she kept reading their old emails and the postcards from when they’d been long-distance. Even seeing his handwriting was agonizing—she was charmed by the shape of the letters; angular, like him. Those notes from him were flirtatious and sensual, rich with understated humour; but there were others that stung, like when he gave her a cactus and a card in which he called the cactus a symbol of their relationship. Or she’d look at one of his postcards but then remember the phone call where he’d said he didn’t like the obligation of having to talk to her.

She deleted the emails and threw away the postcards and tickets to plays they’d gone to together. It would have been impossible to move forward if she had kept them, but now she suddenly and intensely wishes she had. She does still have one book he gave her, a slim erotic novel by Nicholson Baker. The inscription says only with love, and both of their names. How many of these artifacts has he held on to? She would not be surprised if his book includes actual messages she sent him. She remembers emails where she apologized for being sad, for not knowing how to act, for acting awkward, for not knowing how close to him she should stand.

The breakup conversation had been anticlimactic. And oddly peaceful, because of what she didn’t say: That she wondered who she would have become if she had never met him. That the thought of being alone filled her with relief. They even had a few amicable phone conversations after that, before she made the unspoken decision to fall out of touch.

She found friends online, which he would have thought embarrassing. She placed a hopeful Craigslist ad in that safe city by the ocean and received a tentative email from a potential friend. With this friend, she attended a Valentine’s Day speed-dating event at a bar where they did not speed-date but instead sipped bitter ipas and chatted and people-watched, though not in a judgemental way. Each date had a three-minute time limit. How much time does it take to know someone?

Through that friend she met another friend, and another. She answered ads and had friend coffee dates, and because the city was so small, they all answered each other’s ads and brought along their co-workers and the people they’d met in line at the corner store, and then there were more than twenty-five of them, which made it tough to book a reservation for Korean bbq. They vowed to buy a Groupon every week, which meant whale watching and surfing lessons and swing-dance classes and so many chicken wings. They had potlucks and movie nights and murder mystery parties and road trips and cottage weekends where they lit fireworks and played Dutch Blitz with fingers greasy from kettle chips and threw beach balls at each other in the ocean.

During that time, she travelled to eight countries, became a vegetarian, studied meditation, won a short story prize, published a novel, found a better job. By then she was in a relationship with someone else. They’d started dating after co-hosting a miracle berry party, where they served sour foods like lemon goat-cheese cupcakes with no sugar in the recipe, but then they ate the miracle berries and, miraculously, everything tasted like candy. When she was hired for the better job, even though it meant she would have to move six thousand kilometres away, and even though it meant the end of that relationship, the new boyfriend hugged her and said, “I’m so proud of you. You earned this. You did this all on your own.” She wishes every story could be about people like him.

She wrote a second novel. She sold the novel, bought a home.

She is 100% self-actualized. Or maybe it’s closer to 90%. Sometimes it’s more like 80%. There is a part of her that has absorbed a voice saying you are worthless, an acid on the thin membrane of her self-esteem. When she’s dating or has to give a presentation, she’s at about 70%. When she has to write something academic, it’s 0%. But she throws a towel over that voice, sops it up, tries to stay ahead of it, to pre-empt its corrosion.

Okay, so she’s not self-actualized, but she’s working on it. Still, she is better now. It’s like he chose his moment, waited until she was as close to being herself as she could possibly be, before reaching his hand out from the past like a zombie from the grave, to casually crush her again.


What would have happened if she’d met him at a different time in her life, when she was older, more confident, less lonely, and less afraid? She wonders not whether they would have stayed together, but whether she would have known to stay away.


What she might do is make a fake account on Goodreads just to leave a scathing one-star review. That would be a totally normal thing to do. There are already three reviews describing the book as boring, which gives her the weak person’s thrill of schadenfreude.

What she might do is like every single one of his tweets, just to disturb him. Ah, yes, there he is now, looking at the top of his phone and seeing the notifications, the black hearts popping up one after another.


“You should let this go,” a friend advises. “At most, you might write him a crisp email. But do your best to put this behind you.”


What she might do is attend his virtual book launch, her full name visible in the list of participants. Or instead of her name, the character’s name. Or she will be a stealth Zoom bomber—surely one of her computer-programmer friends can help her hack into the annotate function and vandalize the screen. In preparation, she practises drawing penises in Microsoft Paint, aiming for verisimilitude. She visualizes the very realistic penises appearing on the screen in a variety of colours and sizes; pictures him, clearing his throat, book open to the page he’s about to read from, glancing at his laptop and stammering, grabbing the mouse, the cursor moving around helplessly.


Her dad tells her, “Leave this behind you. Don’t read it. Even if he wins a Nobel Prize, don’t read it.”

“He’s not going to win a Nobel Prize, Dad!” she says, terrified that he will win a Nobel Prize and to avoid hearing about it she will have to leave the internet forever.


She imagines being interviewed about her own forthcoming book on a podcast, the host asking her an innocuous question about writing from life. Her ex is cooking dinner when he recognizes her voice and turns his head to listen. “If you’re going to base a character on someone you know, you get permission. Or you change the identifiable details. Or choose a person where there’s no chance in hell they’ll ever read it.” She has rehearsed this in her head, but her answer is slightly different every time. What she likes imagining most is his reaction, him feeling how she does— vulnerable, gutted, off-balance.


What she might do is travel to a bookstore reading in the city where he lives now, while wearing a hat and wig and glasses to conceal her identity. Then, at a crucial moment, she will stand up and whip off the hat and wig and glasses and shout, “It is I!” It is me?


How many people who read his novel will recognize her?


It is not so surprising, what he has done. In graduate school, shortly after they began secretly seeing each other, he wrote a story featuring barely concealed versions of several of his classmates, including assessments of the women’s bodies, an evaluation of whether or not he considered them “lovely,” and a long scene where he tried to talk a young woman in the program into sleeping with him. The story was elegant and callous, boldly misogynistic; he depicted himself as a tragic, romantic male figure.

He submitted it to workshop during the week she was responsible for leading the discussion. She tried to be cool about it. She believed his cruelty was a phase, that he was a top-notch person and she had just encountered him in the wrong slice of time, and that if she was patient, his goodness would emerge again. It is startling to realize he was almost thirty then. Old enough to think of other people.

The professor asked her to start by reviewing the story aloud for them page by page. She had spent the previous night restless with dread, hoping she would wake up the next day and people would be magically kinder. It was a punishment, having to print out the story and study and reflect on it as a work of art, this document that hadn’t been designed to hurt her—it was worse than that: he hadn’t thought of her at all.

During the critique, she would not show emotion. Instead, immense, eerie clarity: she would focus on the writing. That was what mattered. Balancing praise with constructive criticism, she spoke only of the work’s execution, and not of its inspiration or intent, while the whole class watched and listened, everyone except the professor aware it was a true story. What were they thinking about, she wonders, as she complimented its lucid prose, its unexpected swerve towards direct address at the end. She remembers pointing at a line of dialogue and saying, “I didn’t want to like that line, but I did.” That was the nearest she got to revealing how she felt. There was professionalism in how she handled herself, but also vanity. She would not break. She glanced up from the papers in her hands and caught the eye of a male classmate who nodded at her with an approval that made her complicit.

She now understands their lives were like two different films: His about which women in the program would or wouldn’t sleep with him. Hers about loneliness and sadness and unmet expectations and the fear that this was what adulthood would be like. In her emails from that time, she sounds so young. It’s embarrassing. When did her emails stop sounding young?

The trouble is that she wants to read his novel, as she used to perversely anticipate his workshop stories, and not because they were well written—though, yes, they were— but for the insight into his thoughts and feelings, for the ache of trying to guess which parts were true.


She comes across a Vanity Fair piece from a few years ago, about a novel by Linda Boström Knausgård, former wife of Karl Ove: “To describe language as ‘crystalline’ is a reviewer’s cliché, but it fits here, not merely for its reference to a translucent clarity, but for its geological meaning: the precise lattice that gives diamonds, metals, ice their strength. Here, she seems to be saying, is how you transform a life into literature.”


Has she used people from real life in her fiction? Yes, she has. In each case, disguised, or with permission, or in a flattering portrayal, or cut and pasted into Frankenstein.

Her story includes no identifying physical details, no names of cities, no insight into the birthplace of his ancestors. The only person who could recognize him is himself (and those aware of how thinly veiled his fiction is), and he would only recognize himself from his actions. Is this ethical? She isn’t sure. But her story is only the natural consequence of what he has done. If he 1) happens to read it, and 2) challenges her depiction of him, by even acknowledging it he will have admitted to his behaviour. She will respond: What makes you think it’s about you?

The story is both petty and ambitious.

Of course, it is merely her version of events. Isn’t that what all fiction is? One person’s point of view? The lie through which we tell the truth?


Perhaps he and she will be invited to give alumni author readings at their old university, in which case she will contact the organizers ahead of time and ask that he go first. As he reads the opening part about her, she’ll stare at him, willing eye contact. Polite applause. Then she’ll go up to the podium, say a word of thanks, and begin with the title: “Her Ex Writes a Novel.”


She heard somewhere that hatred is drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.


Hatred is drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.

Hatred is chopping off your toe and wondering why the other person isn’t limping.

Hatred is lying under a guillotine and waiting for the other person’s head to roll away.

Hatred is what’s left when you’ve poisoned and hacked and stabbed yourself. Hatred is a proxy for pain. A replacement for a soul.


The truth is, she was angry. There was a point, after they moved in together, when she was faced with the reality of him there, every day, in every room of the apartment, where there was no space for her, and she was not herself but the shadow self, and wasn’t this what she had wished for? And hadn’t she cracked like a dish? She thinks she recalls slamming her own laptop down on the table—or was it the floor? A single physical gesture of anger. In his novel, he’s turned the laptop into a chair, had her throw it across the room. When a man depicts his ex-girlfriend as angry, why does nobody ask what it was that made her that way?


She writes on an empty stomach and pure rage, with the glorious momentum of knowing what to say. She revises carefully. When she’s finished, she thinks, I shouldn’t have written this. I should have just let it go.


What does it take to move past the past? Do you have to forgive? What does forgiveness take? What does forgiveness take from you? Does forgiveness shift the blame from him to you? Are you to blame for letting him treat you that way? Are you? Well? Are you?

All of this only matters in your own mind.

This is more or less what the podcast says, blurring with her thoughts as she listens, walking up the hill and through the park. The people she passes are all in pairs, holding hands, walking dogs and stopping so their dogs can interact with other dogs.

The podcast says: if you woke up with amnesia, the past would not exist to you. That person who caused you so much pain—you wouldn’t even know who he was. The past comes in and out of existence as you think about it. When you sleep or eat or read the news—in those moments, the past vanishes. It only flickers back into existence when you think about it again.


Once she’s back at home, she writes this email:

Is that what fiction looks like to you? In ten years, could you not have picked a different ethnicity or city? I should have seen who you were from the beginning. Do not respond to this message. I will be blocking you after I send it. I have contacted your agent and editor and several literary websites and podcasts and a lawyer with this information. Don’t ever write about me again.

Clicks send, blocks him on email, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Goodreads. Installs a website blocker so she can’t google his name.

Of course, she hasn’t really contacted his agent or editor or the media or a lawyer, nor did she send the email. She just printed it out and set it on fire with a match over the kitchen sink—the protagonist of her own story. The fire lights her face a luminous orange as she holds the piece of paper by the corner until the flame grazes her fingers. Then she drops it. And runs the tap. Sometimes the smartest, best decision is to do nothing. The path of least resistance.


Imagine the story published in a collection of short fiction. An interviewer asks: “Is it a true story?”

“Oh, I can’t tell you that,” she says with an enigmatic smile.


The library sends her an alert when the book is on hold. She doesn’t pick it up. She’s willing to pay the fine. She will transcend this. She will not let him pull her into that muck again. Though she may or may not publish the story, which has grown on her.

Still, even if they stack his book at the front table of every bookstore she visits, even if he wins a Nobel Prize, even if the book is shipped to her doorstep and there it is, apple green with a thin man on the cover, his hair smoother than it looks, his gaze fixed on something out of frame— he’s searching glibly for love, this drawing of a person she once knew . . .

There’s another book, on a tall shelf in the library of a different, distant city. On the cover, a woman’s back faces the reader as she enters the clearing of a dark forest, aware of the smoke and smell of burning paper behind her. The trees are so twisted they seem to move. There’s something Russian about the design—the stage-dressing of a ballet come to life. A laptop becomes a chair and flies across the scene, but before it hits and shatters a lamp, it transforms into a bird, not a phoenix, but still more flame than wing, more rage than song, a source of light. She slouches towards it, the Firebird, drawn by those notes that seem to sink and rise at the same time, and then the stunning, radiant sound of a creature singing as though it had never been harmed.

So she will never read his novel. She never fucking will.

Excerpted from Death by a Thousand Cuts by Shashi Bhat, McClelland & Stewart 2024.

Shashi smiles into the camera

SHASHI BHAT is the author of the forthcoming story collection Death by a Thousand Cuts, and the novels The Most Precious Substance on Earth, a finalist for the Governor General's Award for fiction, and The Family Took Shape, a finalist for the Thomas Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award. Her fiction has won the Writers’ Trust/McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize and been shortlisted for a National Magazine Award and the RBC Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers, and appeared in such publications as The Fiddlehead, The Malahat Review, Best Canadian Stories, and The Journey Prize Stories. Shashi holds an MFA from the Johns Hopkins University and a BA from Cornell University. She lives in New Westminster, B.C., where she is the editor-in-chief of EVENT magazine and teaches creative writing at Douglas College.