Interview: Sharanya Manivannan

Sharanya Manivannan’s first book of poetry, Witchcraft, was described in the press as sensuous and spiritual, delicate and dangerous and as full as the moon reflected in a knife. She was especially commissioned to write and perform a poem at the 2015 Commonwealth Day Observance in London. She writes a column ‘The Venus Flytrap’ which began in April 2008 in the Zeitgeist supplement (Saturdays) of The New Indian Express and now appears in the Chennai edition of The New Indian Express. The High Priestess Never Marries, her first work of fiction, was shortlisted for the Tata Literature Live in the First Book Award (Fiction) category. One of the stories in the book won the ELLE Fiction Award. This collection has also won The South Asia Laadli Media and Advertising Award (2015-16) for Gender Sensitivity in the category of Best Book, Fiction.  

Suneetha Balakrishnan on behalf of ELJ.

Congratulations on the Laadli Award. What new responsibility does this award bring to you?

Thank you so much! I haven’t yet considered the notion of new responsibilities. I’m very much still basking in the goodwill and joy of seeing my book being recognized for its feminism. That’s why the Laadli Award, which is given specifically for meeting the criteria of ‘gender sensitivity’, means so very much to me. It isn’t a literary award. It is a feminist one. I wrote a book about love and loneliness, a book that would never pass the Bechdel test, a book that deals in subtleties and silences. For The High Priestess Never Marries to be understood, as epitomized by the Laadli Award, for its driving heart – feminine power – is one of the greatest accomplishments of my life.

Who are the people and what are the places and events that have mattered so far in your journey?

I don’t see art as being separate from daily life, because if I am not creating I am still consuming on a daily basis. So you could say, for instance, that if I fled to the hills with a broken heart and watched the rain while sitting on a sill in a cottage that I did that for my heart, but then it’s also a synonym for my art. And I would have walked back down the mountain carrying a poem. And maybe that poem would have been a balm on the place of pain. There’s a bit in the story ‘Cyclone Crossing’ from The High Priestess Never Marries in which one character ponders what the different measures of life are. I have enjoyed some beautiful moments on my journey so far, but they are neither the grain nor the sum of my being or doing. And I really feel like I have miles and miles to go before I sleep….

What do you love more: poetry or fiction?

As someone who works with a few forms, this answer is completely fluid. I will say this, though: poetry is inconstant in a way prose just isn’t. Poetry requires not only vulnerability, but a sort of safe space to hold the same, as it needs to be chiselled whereas prose is more accommodating of excess. You could say I miss poetry, although I love both equally.

What and who do you usually like to read?

I have a tendency to read and fall deeply in love with books and then forget their plot points and so on. I also tend not to reread, which makes the former a real pity. School libraries were my sanctuary through all my childhood years, a sanctuary both from friendlessness and family dysfunction. I always knew the world was bigger and contained more than how the people in mine treated me, and this helped me survive. So as a child I read not just the usual suspects but books meant for those older than me, and I am grateful for this too. I grew up in Malaysia and Sri Lanka, and went mostly to international schools, and there were particular turning points of influence in my reading as a teenager. One was the discovery of The God of Small Things, and with it the new information that desi and diasporic books in English existed. Another was AK Ramanujam’s translations of Sangam poetry. In my late teens I feasted on second-hand books from small American presses, and read an extraordinary catalogue of almost exclusively women writers of colour. These were the biggest influences on my first book of poems, Witchcraft. After that, my craft deepened in that I fell in love with research, beyond reading for leisure. My next book of poems, The Altar of the Only World, was built on seven years of sitting with the Ramayanas – in the plural, naturally, because Valmiki was barely in my personal canon, usurped instead by South East Asian versions and therukoothu performances and folk songs. With The High Priestess Never Marries, I explored the empirical but through an expanded canvas, doing things like journeying with honey-gatherers in the forest and bringing these experiences into the book along with a great deal of supplementary research about everything from agricultural techniques to the Black Madonna. My two current projects set in East Sri Lanka have me immersed in reading academic texts, scientific material and reportage as well as personally conducting fieldwork. I love research – learning is a kind of pleasure.

 

Your love for interesting words is obvious in both Witchcraft as well as The High Priestess Never Marries.  How do you manage this play between the need to hold the reader with a normal word repertoire and the need to experiment with vocabulary?

Many people in media, advertising and allied creative fields, as well as many people who create artistic work for mass consumption, start off on a footing of underestimation. They underestimate their own audience’s intelligence, their interest, their ability to respond – and so they focus on the lowest common denominator. I reject this approach absolutely. There’s nothing more condescending than a ‘dumb it down’ approach: how dare a maker presume she knows more, or is better, than a person who receives her work? I want to see and speak to people’s potential. Even when I write for children, I don’t write condescendingly – that’s the reason why The Ammuchi Puchi took so many years to get published, as its language is unusually heavy for the picture-book format. So except when writing in newspapers, I never feel ‘the need to hold the reader with a normal word repertoire’. What would a normal repertoire be? Most resourceful people can understand more languages than they speak, for instance. I believe with readers this is true too: what we understand exceeds our conversational usage. If I learnt these words through reading other books, why can’t someone learn them through mine?

Your fiction holds a distinctive Madras Bouquet. Your bold and unapologetic use of Tamil words interspersed with English lends a peculiar beauty and strength to your text and meaning. Did you ever fear this would not be accepted by the conventional publishing world? How did you overcome it?

Yes, I was afraid. I was afraid I would be made to use italics or a glossary, or to translate within the text. That I was not compelled to do any of these things is thanks to the book’s editor, Manasi Subramaniam, who – literally and on a more subtle level too – understood. The translingualism and the wide English vocabulary are fully related. It’s true I could have written the book without any Tamil in it. It’s true I could have written the book without readers having to use the dictionary. But then, would it have been this book, and would it have been true?

How and why do you choose your themes for stories? How do you choose your book titles?

Personal obsessions and preoccupations inform what become themes. Once I notice a pattern, I trace it further. It’s considered gauche among many writers to say their work originates in the subjective, but I find it dishonest to say otherwise, and I see no reason to not embrace a style of storytelling that is rooted in emotion, body and spirit rather than a certain remove. I haven’t always been great at titling individual stories or poems, but because I see my books in a cohesive form I arrive at titles that speak to something most deeply true about the works.

 

How about long form fiction? Could the readers expect a novel from you now?

I dearly hope so. I have tried to write a novel on and off for about a dozen years. I’m also working on a graphic novel.

What’s your take on the label of being a feminist writer? Do you think this is justified as regards your anthology? I am already thinking of the word ‘marry’ in the title.

Absolutely. I am a feminist. Some of my work is distinctly feminist. When I was younger, I worried about whether to claim this label, but now see its importance. My hesitation in my very early 20s was the reason why a poem like ‘How To Eat A Wolf’ was misconstrued for years as an erotic poem, when it was about an abusive relationship. Now, at readings, I correct this. Some of my writing wasn’t begun with a politically conscious intent, but I later saw that my sensibilities and principles unknowingly influenced the writing anyway. The best example of this is my children’s book, The Ammuchi Puchi. It’s a story about two children who grieve their grandmother, and how they learn that life is open to interpretation but love is eternal. It came out years after I wrote it, and I did not personally think there was a gender angle to it. Then a reviewer wrote that she was impressed by the strong female role model of the grandmother. And I thought – ‘wow’. I had wanted merely to write a character who was full of charm and love. But clearly, what defines charm and love for me is also a kind of strength, and that must have come through.

What’s your ambition for the rest of the words within you, waiting to be born?

That I can birth them. Some of them have been waiting for a very long time, for me to be ready.