An Interview With Sharanya Manivannan

The writing of Sharanya Manivannan is nuanced, evocative, and is unafraid to reimagine narratives. I have had the honor of having a conversation with Sharanya about poems, societal norms, resistance, and beyond.

SNEHA

When I first read your poems, what struck me almost instantaneously was a deep sense of familiarity in terms of the narrative and scope. I was quite intrigued to read, for instance, the reimagining of Sita and Draupadi as soul sisters. Could you tell us a little about the process of writing The Altar of the Only World?

 

SHARANYA

Can I begin by saying how grateful I am for renewed interested in The Altar of the Only World? I worked on that book of poems for almost nine years, but when it was finally published in December 2017, I was unable to give it attention as it made its way to readers, since I became immersed in the writing of my novel The Queen of Jasmine Country almost immediately after. But I believe that books have their own lives and own journeys, and I am glad you began by asking me about this one.

Writing Altar was a long, winding journey. When I began to write the collection, in early 2008, everything sprung from the image of Sita weeping in the wilderness, having been exiled again. By the time I finished writing it, in mid-2017, I had both expanded on the image and circled back to it. It was one of those situations in which I entered the project only having sighted its tip, and then it grew with me and guided me and gave me a way to parse my own life. Along the way, two significant mythic figures also became a part of the book. Lucifer, archangel exiled from heaven because of over-devotion (how similar to Sita), and then, because of Lucifer’s connection to Venus as morning star/evening star, Inanna – she who enters the underworld and ascends from it. In my life, I have often felt bereft of maps of how to make a life, instructions of how to live. I may have bristled at this insinuation before, but now I accept this: there is a didactic quality to my work. Having had to draw my own maps, I want to make them available to others.

The poem in which Draupadi speaks to Sita, “Fire-forged, Blood-born”, came very late into my writing of the book. I had wanted to fill in some gaps, make the book less esoteric, and during this process I was struck by a similarity between these two epic heroines which is so rarely mentioned. Sita, in a rendition in which she is Mandodari’s exiled daughter, was born after the queen consumed a grail of blood Ravanan had kept for a sacrificial offering. Draupadi, too, was born through a dark ritual. This is why Draupadi speaks to Sita. Because their origins are similar, chthonic in nature. Not because, in that unimaginative way, they are both women in the epics and must stand in for a whole range of projections.

 

SNEHA

There is a juxtaposition of the physical and natural world in your poems, a collation of voices having dialogues with one another. What do these combinations of landscape interwoven into representation mean to you?

 

SHARANYA

Many of my narrators, both in fiction and poetry, are in dialogue with the natural world first and foremost. This includes not only the trees and the sea and the mud, but the spirit that animates all life. If I understand what you mean by “representation” correctly, I can say this: unbeknownst to me, shorn of a political consciousness and from quite early in my life, I understood the elements of nature as being suffused with divinity. I now recognise these as challenging hegemonic understandings of the world, but at the same time, I am resistant in using this language because of the binarisation that can follow. I am interested in a counter-narrative which does not regard itself as a counter. Let me explain.

A few years ago, I spent time in Batticaloa, my maternal hometown, learning about traditions that may not survive much longer, and history being erased rapidly. When I returned from one significant trip, I found that I should not speak in detail for some time about the experience. I lacked the vocabulary to express it well, for even the ways we communicate with one another are a colonial after-effect, not just in language but in implication as well. This was made worse by attempts to tell close friends about what I had felt, and have them parse it through their Brahminical (and therefore, inherently violent) perspectives. So this is what I am trying to learn how to do now. To re-member, to honour without glorification, to make a thriving record. It is a larger, deeper endeavour of what I have always done. I have always, for instance, freely used Tamil in my writing without explanation, rejecting the notion that I need to make my work accessible to a wider (code for “whiter” audience in the West, but equally a North Indian one or a Malaysian non-Indian, in the contexts I have known). Now I want to go further, to work in the sovereignty of worldviews that don’t exist just to contradict our acquired terms, but did and would exist even on their own. Even if they are fading, ever faster.

 

SNEHA

I have to ask this question, perhaps because I’d like to understand how your sensibility would react to it—the adage of an “Indian poet writing in English”. How do you respond to questions about identity and language, in a world that often does not see both as being mutually exclusive?

 

SHARANYA

The main thing is that I don’t consider myself an Indian poet, or a poet determined by nationality or national affiliation at all. Cultural affiliation, despite its own complexities, is more valuable to me. This is my history in brief: I was born to a Sri Lankan Tamil mother and an Indian Tamil father, lived in Sri Lanka as a child, moved to Malaysia while also a child and lived there for 17 years, and finally moved to India at 22 when I got into trouble for critiquing the institutionalised racism of the country I’d grown up in. I held an Indian passport through all this; a bureaucratic document, not a sentimental one. This is what makes me an Indian poet, apparently. It isn’t enough. It doesn’t speak to the extent of my experience. A few years ago, I wrote an essay for a well-received anthology in which a crucial segment set in Malaysia, very much about cultural identity, was edited out because the focus was on the Indian woman. This is an example of reductionism that I hope to, and often fail to, resist.

I have lived in India for 11 years now, and I write in English because of colonialism, obviously. So this mantle of “Indian poet writing in English” is a vexing one. In the past few years, because of growing religious fundamentalism in India, I’ve grown rather suspect of any nationalist pride. Even feelings I held (and may still hold, in an internalised way) thanks to being a person of multiply diasporic identities, I hold more gingerly. We must we willing to recognise the dangers. Particularly because we often occupy marginalities and privileges at the same time, or in different contexts. It’s no longer viable to utterly cherish identity, not when compassion is the priority.

 

SNEHA

The Queen of Jasmine Country explores and reimagines Kodhai becoming Andal, a devotional poet that sings hymns praising Vishnu. I was particularly fascinated with an instance where a young Kodhai is reprimanded for wearing the garland meant for Vishnu, but Vishnu insists that she wear it first. I have once been, and have also known young girls put to task for occupying a space not conventionally offered to them. What were your thoughts while writing the book?

 

SHARANYA

This scene is a crucial part of the Andal hagiography, but not a very important part of my book for this reason. Throughout Queen, I am concerned primarily with the deeply human fabric of Kodhai’s nights and days. This is why, in writing the garland scene, I chose to focus on the transgressive aspect of it, on Kodhai’s father’s horror. I’ve heard women who simultaneously glorify but don’t identify with Andal (I want to stress that this is not the usual experience; for the most part, semi-secret identification with her sensuality and sorrow seems to have been the norm for many generations of not centuries) say that what she did was not transgression because she was divine. And I’ve asked the question: do you think she was aware of her divinity (with due reason: scholars posit that Rama is unaware of his in the Valmiki Ramayana)? The logic tends not to follow. The pedestal is preferred in these cases, and that kind of obstinate lack of empathy and thoughtfulness leads to the popularity of rightwing hatred in ordinary homes.

But, look – how could it not be transgression? When a woman’s body itself is deemed to pollute an ancient site of worship like Sabarimala here in the 21st century, how can someone tell me that a girl, and then a presumably menstruating teenager, wearing a garland meant for a temple idol was anything else? That her speaking is frank and erotic terms of wanting to be united with the divine, imagining kissing him, pleading to have her breasts touched, was anything else? How little love they must have for their Andal, if they refuse to see the aching that she lays so vulnerably bare in her own words?

 

SNEHA

I’m going to trace the ideas in your profound thought: “Do you love in ways that excavate your deepest wounds and hold them to the light, transformed? Do you love in ways that reject the ways that your family normalised abuse? Do you love in ways that are based on trust and respect, and not control and façade? Do you love in ways that flip the script? Do you love honestly? Do you dare to love deeply?” I admire the fact that much of your work has these webs of interconnectedness. There are myriad ways in which your poems, fiction, and non-fiction are informed by the fabric of life itself, as it were. I’m particularly drawn towards your work surrounding women and mental health. Could you speak about how resistance impacts your work?

 

SHARANYA

Occupying certain positionalities means that your work becomes sown inherently with resistance. I choose the word positionalities rather than identities, because not all of them are fixed, and certain vagaries can change them.

Where my writing is impacted by my politics is in the place that is at once battleground and sanctuary: the heart. Because: what are we fighting for? We are fighting for more people to have better lives. So what does that really mean? I am not content to stop at saying, for example – because of my feminist politics, I walked away from a potential relationship because I saw the early signs of a disrespectful dynamic, and you should too, girl, and more power to you as you do. That’s a Tweet. Pithy but incomplete. I need to tell more of the story – of the pain of that decision, the yearning, the bitterness, the hope, the liberation. And that’s where the poems and the stories come in.

 

SNEHA

The space we write in, one created for ourselves, and the one we make: of being a South East Asian writer, rooted in our everyday experiences has compelling layers. What is your advice to writers from the Indian subcontinent who have just begun this process?

 

SHARANYA

The subcontinent and its diasporas are too vast and too diverse for me to be able to speak directly to anyone, and my own fractured history complicates this further. As I said earlier, my own relationship with identity is not and has never been a politically correct one. I have preferred, always, to occupy the margins to which I have been relegated through a litany of painful losses. Even as my work becomes more visible, I want to insist that I don’t speak for anyone else. So perhaps that is what my advice should be, also: learn to hold all things with grace, go slowly – and when you raise your voice, acknowledge that it carries multitudes: ancestors, teachers, eavesdroppings, fated accidents; but ultimately is only your own.

Sharanya Manivannan

Sharanya Manivannan is the author of five books: a novel, The Queen of Jasmine Country (HarperCollins India, 2018), a short story collection, The High Priestess Never Marries (HarperCollins India, 2016), two books of poetry, Witchcraft (Bullfighter Books, 2008) and The Altar of the Only World (HarperCollins India, 2017); and a picture book for children, The Ammuchi Puchi (Lantana Publishing, 2016 & Puffin India, 2018).

Her column, “The Venus Flytrap”, appears in The New Indian Express.

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