In conversation with Filipino writer and visual artist Michael Mata, with whom I shared an intense, creative and destructive friendship in high school, and who I had not spoken to in seven years. This exchange took place online, mostly in March 2008.
Michael had read the manuscript of Witchcraft, my first book of poems (unpublished as yet). All poems referred to in this interview are from there. Some are available online, in text or recorded format (see Elsewhere section).
THE WORD WITCH
by Michael Mata
Michael: You know, I really like the first poem ‘Witchery’ though I find it very disturbing. What provoked you to expose your dark side? Why sorcery?
Sharanya: The book opens with the poem ‘Witchery’ because it introduces the persona who runs through the entire collection. It’s quite no-holds: I tell you straight up that there’s something a little sinister about how things are going to go. It’s both a warning and an invitation. That’s why the last line ends like it does. She says to the reader, “Do you want to find out? Or will you make your assumptions and close the book forever?”
I am generally a cheerful person, but am capable of entering a very powerful sort of darkness. It’s not sorcery, but it scares some people. It occurs to me that in different times and places, women like me were and are still being persecuted. Idiosyncratic women. That was one of the reasons why the collection ended up being called Witchcraft.
Another reason is, I suppose, more shallow – but it did ultimately make the deal for me – since I’m one of those ugly ducklings, I came into my own power through a great deal of pain. I was fascinated for years by something Anais Nin had written: “Women always think that when they have my shoes, my dress, my hairdresser, my makeup, it will all work the same way. They do not conceive of the witchcraft that is needed. They do not know that I am not beautiful but only appear to be at certain moments”. And that’s the other part of the persona. Her vulnerability. She is perceived to be so many things because of this great darkness that all her craft comes from. But what she really is isn’t nearly as one-dimensional.
Michael: Thank you for that insightful answer! It’s pretty obvious that you consider the philosophy behind your work very deeply. But I want to explore this idea further: You say that you possess a powerful darkness. What sort of darkness is this?
Sharanya: You know, to talk about it makes it almost trivial. But I’ve seen over and over in my life that I attract certain kinds of people. Lost souls, for instance. By the time I was 21 I already had someone make a serious attempt on my life. It makes life difficult, it makes trust difficult. I am told I have a dark aura, which magnetizes certain things and people toward me. There is nothing in my life that suggests otherwise. The only way to live with it is to subvert it. Somebody told me once that it doesn’t matter how long a room is left in darkness, once a lamp is lit in it, it is illuminated completely.
Michael: You come from India, a country that has long worshipped the feminine aspect of the God head. But it is a religious system that believes the feminine divine possesses a dark and destructive side. How do you feel this archetype affects your work? Do you believe archetypes unconsciously rear their heads in the expression of their progeny?
Sharanya: Absolutely. My cultural background, my interest in feminist spirituality and in mythology in general, all these have dramatically affected my work. I certainly believe that we are all composites of archetypes, and how we tap into each at different moments dictates our choices and our destinies. Speaking of destiny, there is always the danger of living out your archetype. Archetypes choose people, not the other way around. But there is a danger in believing too much, in projecting into epic forms our personal struggles.
Oh, I have heard some criticism that my poems channel Kali exclusively (Kali being the obvious choice for most people making the comparison). I don’t agree on two levels: first, to the reductionist approach to Kali as destroyer and darkness, and to the contention that no balance exists in my work. Kali is the ultimate duality. In my work there is a lot of nuance, a lot of vulnerability. The persona in my poems is driven by her weakness, not some superficial bravado. It’s the loss and abuse and pain in her that makes her what she is.
Michael: You know Sharanya, as you know, I am a Christian and I believe in a religion that considers witchcraft to be immoral. Witches and women with familiar spirits were actually stoned in Biblical times. What is your position on this divergent view? Is sorcery immoral? Where does it come from? Is it primarily feminine?
Sharanya: What patriarchal religions – and Hinduism today is a very patriarchal religion too, don’t forget – call sorcery and black magic are really things in nature. Things in nature which women had and could still have the potential to tap into and activate. Our bodies are connected to the moon, the moon controls the oceans, and all life came from there. Also, the “witch” excuse has been used for so long to persecute women who, like I said earlier, were simply idiosyncratic. Women who lived alone, for example. Women who liked to leave their hair down. The fear of the witch is really the fear of the woman. Patriarchy itself exists out of the terrible fear of female sexuality.
Michael: What are your spiritual beliefs?
Sharanya: I refuse to believe in a god who is not Ecstatic.
Michael: To return to what you said about persona earlier, does that mean that there is only one voice in the entire collection, one female persona? Reading through the poems in Witchcraft, I was struck by the different moods and ideas this persona projected. She could be loving and tender one moment, then frightening and dangerous the next. Are all these moods coming from the same persona or are there actually several in the collection?
Sharanya: Ultimately, yes. I should argue that there are possibly a few personas – the Karna alter-ego, who appears in a trilogy, the voice of my great-grandmother, who appears in ‘Parampara’, the gender-neutral and indistinct voice of ‘The Ten Idylls’ sequence, and the persona alluded to in the opening poem. But in my own approach to my poetry, I don’t see these voices as separate. Like the facets of a mirror ball, they catch the light at different angles and reflect it. But essentially, they are the same. So yes, that is how it is in this book. My work will probably change in future, and I hope it does.
To think of the persona as human helps bring her many voices or aspects together. We all have moods. As a writer, I don’t mitigate mine. They all manifest across the breadth of the collection. She’s a loud, bitter, brilliant, gorgeous, angry, fierce, despairing, joyous, violent, cruel, terrified, shy, melancholic, jealous, strong, impossibly benevolent, vain, spiritual, irreverent being. As we all are, or can be, if we let ourselves.
Michael: Your poetry is remarkable for being so distinctly feminine: You write about ideas and fears only a daughter, a mother or a wife could have. Also, your poems seem to be primarily birthed out of personal experience. Do you agree?
Sharanya: I do agree that my work comes largely out of personal experience. I know, because I am repeatedly told this, that my work is distinctly feminine. How this came to be, I am not sure. I did not consciously set out to write about or for women. I did not think about my femaleness as a particularly curious part of my style. I’d like to ask you – why do you think my poetry is distinctly feminine? This is not a challenge; I ask because I am curious why this so frequently comes up.
Michael: I think it has something to do with the perspective of your poetry: Your poetry is feminine because it is completely female in thinking. When you write something, it is from the perspective of a woman trying to understand the world, trying to understand men. It comes naturally to you, because you are completely and utterly feminine in your being.
Sharanya: I think I am androgynous. I really feel that the most womanly woman has a bit of man in her; the most masculine man has a bit of woman in him. We are not extremes. There is a balance and a bisexuality at each of our cores. How far we tap into this differs. Close friends and I have spoken about how it can be hard to reconcile the “utterly feminine” side of me and the side that comes across as a man-eater – I have had disputes with people I care about and who care for me because of this. I realize in image I am feminine, in thought and action I don’t fit so neatly into the pigeonhole. This unnerves some. Some people still believe that women should be box-sized, compact, easy fits.
Michael: What artists have inspired your work? You are a big fan of visual artists such as Frida Kahlo and Georgia o’Keefe. You also seem to admire Anais Nin considerably. How have these feminine artists informed your own work?
Sharanya: Frida Kahlo is my biggest inspiration. To live so full a life, regardless of such pain – can you imagine how strong she must have been, how buoyant her spirit, no matter how broken? And as an artist, she pioneered the confessional, the intimate, the created self in a way that has deeply influenced the course of my own artistic choices. Another big influence is Tori Amos. Boys For Pele, particularly. To go that far into one’s own darkness and come up with beauty – that that is possible at all, was what I learnt from her. And the idea of narrative. That the poem (or the song) is itself, but it must also be weaved into a tapestry of a bigger story, be bigger than itself.
Two men I admire greatly are Joseph Campbell and A.K. Ramanujan. Campbell because his work is so illuminating, when I read him I have to do it a page at a time because at the end of every page my knowledge is so much richer that I cannot swallow too much at once. And you know, his work was story itself. Ramanujan because his transcreations of the Sangam poems were, I realize now, an event in literature. Amazing, amazing, amazing. Discovering them changed my life, the landscape of my own work, more than the work of any other poet or translator.
Michael: You were brought up like a nomad: you lived in India and Malaysia, have visited several countries, were constantly being shifted from house to house, situation to situation. Did this constant state of being uprooted influence you? In what ways did it shape the nature of your poetry?
Sharanya: First of all, purely in terms of craft – a poem is a microcosm, it’s pocket-sized. For me to enter the mind space required for work on my novel, which has been lagging for years with occasional bursts of productivity, is a difficult task. But a poem floats down from somewhere else, is out on a page within minutes, and it’s done. So the shuffling, the moving, lent itself to poetry writing very well. The necessity to reach out and grab something, pin it down, and move on.
In my life I have lived in only three countries, and I did not even live in the country of my birth (India) until I was eighteen. But I have also lived in so many homes, slept on so many couches, on beds without mattresses, lived out of boxes and suitcases… The first home of my life was Sri Lanka. I lived in Malaysia for a long time but it was never home. Even as a kid, I never thought of it that way. The notions of nation and identity we observe around us impact us more than bald personal facts, I think.
I’m not going to tell you I’m a bohemian or something because the only people who do that really aren’t. I’ve got really far-reaching roots, but they kind of trail behind me like a jellyfish’s tentacles, you know? I take them and go, and go, and go.
Michael: Why are you so obsessed with the sea?
Sharanya: Coasts, my god, what pathos! They’re breathtaking, like thunderstorms. The power of nature, of the creator, of the world itself. And you know, my obsession is really about coasts. Not the marine stuff so much. Coasts are the mediators between what we know, what we don’t know, what is safe, what is dangerous. They are the point of change, the point at which worlds intersect. They are borders. You can see what that means to someone like me, who negotiates with identity and exile in my life so much. I would often rather worship a coast than an idol. They’re absolutely impossible to ignore. And so intimate, so subjective, in the emotions they evoke. My favorite beach is one which almost everyone I have spoken to about it completely hates.
Michael: What other images and motifs do you feel really inspire you?
Sharanya: It’s hard to pinpoint inspiration sometimes. Everything inspires me, but that epiphany moment itself is difficult to place. I’ve found that there isn’t really a formula. And often, certain things which reliably inspire, like music or substances for instance, don’t automatically translate into poetry or paintings. They elevate you to a state where you are better primed to receive. That doesn’t always mean that you receive. Sometimes you just enjoy things in the moment.
Michael: Okay! Now, let’s talk about something else: Are you a feminist?
Sharanya: See, I know there is the temptation to co-opt every powerful, strong or otherwise interesting woman out there into the “movement”. So while on a day-to-day basis, I think about feminism, write non-fiction about it, form opinions and make decisions either motivated by its ideals or as a result of options that I can access because of it, I do not want to be compartmentalized that simply. Ideologies don’t make people. And I’ve come to be quite disillusioned about feminism as it is today, because I’ve encountered too many people to whom it is a fashion statement, or who in their private lives embody all the worst about female rivalry and in-fighting. And you know, labeling someone or their work “feminist” is a kind of ghettoization. And like any other label, it gets in the way. It essentially means you can deconstruct my work or worse still, my life, in a certain way, and that to me is hugely limiting. Look at ‘The Bad Wife’, at ‘How To Eat A Wolf’. Are they “feminist”? In my worldview, maybe. But vulnerability, failure, weakness — those things are politically incorrect. I think it is far more important, if not better, for someone to live a full life, a feminist life if you must, than choose to be defined by that label. For myself, I might use it. But not for my work. No.
Michael: Define feminism.
Sharanya: Oh, tough one. Because there is what it is in theory, and what is in practice, and what it is in plural.
Michael: In the future, what would you ultimately use your fame for? What causes or ideas would you promote and live by?
Sharanya: It’s not something I think about. Success coddles the head. I want to just go on doing what I do, growing as a person and an artist. Look, I’ll be honest and say that I do hear that something I’ve done or something about me is inspirational in some way. And it’s a beautiful moment to hear it. I am always excited by good feedback, etc. But reality continues, my private reality and relationships and day-to-day concerns. I never let myself confuse those things. I’ve experienced cult success, and I hope to never become famous in a mainstream way. That would kind of be a nightmare. I would rather touch people in a way that is meaningful than in some mass, caricaturized way.
Michael: Would you ever publish a collection of short stories? What written prose works are you working on right now?
Sharanya: I’m not a short story writer. It isn’t my form. I may not even be a prose writer, as I’ve discovered in recent years. Not as much as I am a poet, in any case. But I am working on a novel, Constellation of Scars.
Michael: What do you hope to achieve through your written legacy? How would you want to be remembered?
Sharanya: I don’t know if legacy is what I hope for. I would like to be remembered as someone who loved, who felt deeply. I have no predictions.