Ugo Untoro + How To Eat A Wolf

I never did blog about the Utan Kayu International Literary Biennale 2007, and neither did I blog about the Singapore Writers’ Festival 2007 — both festivals which invited me and took care of me and fed my stomach, literary appetite and ego very well in all. Blogging about the first was sidetracked by preparing to move back to India, and as for the second, well — if you don’t know what kept me distracted at the same time, leave be! Am just thinking about this now as I’m heading off to Mumbai this week for another major festival, Kitab, for which I have the privilege of doing the first event open to the public this year.

The Biennale, I think, will remain in my memory as a pivotal career and life experience. It was my first real festival, my first taste of the literary high life (as opposed to the boho cult stuff, and utter mediocrity). It brought me closer to three friends, one of whom I in fact feel like I owe a great professional and personal amount to, and made me several more. It was a spiritual, thrilling, insightful ten days. I really must blog about the whole experience.

Reading at Borobudur was one thing, visiting Candi Prambanan was another, but this — this was the moment when I realised that I really and truly was what I always wanted to be. A writer.

Ugo Untoro's painting inspired by my poem

This was a very, very special moment. I am in front of the painting “Selamat Datang” by the Indonesian painter Ugo Untoro, which was inspired by my poem “How To Eat A Wolf”. Selamat Datang means Welcome in Bahasa, and this artwork was at the entrance of the exhibit, which featured various Indonesian artists’ interpretations of the prose and poetry of the writers participating in the Biennale. This was easily one of the proudest moments in my life, and completely unexpected — it had never crossed my mind until then that so large and beautiful a painting by a famous painter could somehow be attached to any poem of mine.

Cell Block Tango from Chicago

This song found its way back into my head yesterday, and I remembered that the clip below is one of my all-time favourite music/dance sequences in a film (that credit does not go to Bollywood, believe it or not!). I adore its wickedness. Female aggression — one of my favourite topics. I don’t really think that feminism has even begun to tap into it in its entirety.

The Foreword

The foreword to Witchcraft, my forthcoming book of poems from Bullfighter Books.


“There’s a ghost of/another language/shadow-dancing/under my words,” says Sharanya Manivannan in one of the several powerful poems in Witchcraft. Manivannan dances herself both on stage and throughout these pages. By dancing I refer to all sorts of movement: linguistic, emotional, religious. Manivannan assumes the mantle of Mahadevi Akka or some other devotional poet but her betrothal goes beyond Siva to include the lives and aspirations of her self and fellow mortals.

But this slip-sliding poet, who unravels shawls as she pirouettes in front of us, insists on embracing a reality greater than India. She seizes duende from Lorca and Spain, and shows an ear for Latin migrant and Native American sounds as she constructs imaginative space from iyari or heart-memory, and from the chicano rhythms of Sandra Cisneros, one of her guiding poets. Manivannan is well-read, and in the most surprising places. Eclectic is the right word and confident: the world’s poetry is her main course. Ambitious. She will draw from all the traditions that interest her, to make the Sharanya Manivannan poem.

That poem is bloody, sexy, beguiling as in a dance with veils. “Women with/blood/glistening in the partings/of their hair, they come to me in dreams.” (from Witchery).

Or does the poet’s name matter? Is Manivannan just a vessel, actor, for a drama both female and divine, which she explores in her poems? “Beware the bard in black lace, the naiad with/the nine inch nails.” (from A Horse Named Notoriety)

This is a first book, a glorious, chilling and sensual debut, waking up goose bumps and turning the libido into over drive. I find myself muttering lines over and over again from different poems “dipping ginger biscuits in hot plain tea,” and astonished by the daring of the poet’s youthful fearlessness. In How to Eat A Wolf, the persona of the poem says “I loved my wolf./I held him tethered like/a pussycat.” And later in the poem, “he snaked a tongue so/hungry in its kiss it/turned my body to salt.”

The daring is language. There is something charming and disturbing—and liberating—in reading the various crude and sassy words that grow like hibiscus flowers in these private gardens. The daring is also curiously to be expected, as if inevitable that a young poet must set off firing from the hip and the head. India needs a Ginsberg, female poets a model drawn from Sappho through Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz to Sylvia Plath . Manivannan puts herself right in that family tree. She has the linguistic gifts to keep tilling her gardens wearing black lace and listening to too much jazz at 3 am, and she has begun here a delightful, if risqué, career.

Indran Amirthanayagam won the Paterson Prize for The Elephants of Reckoning (Hanging Loose Press, 1993) and the Juegos Florales in 2006 for the poem Juarez. He is a New York Foundation for the Arts fellow and a past recipient of an award from the US/Mexico Fund for Culture for his translations of Mexican poet Manuel Ulacia. His other books include The Splintered Face: Tsunami Poems (Hanging Loose Press, 2008), Ceylon R.I.P. (The International Centre for Ethnic Studies, Colombo, 2001), El Hombre Que Recoge Nidos (Resistencia/CONARTE, 2005), and El Infierno de los Pajaros (Resistencia, 2001). He is a poet, essayist and translator, and works in English, Spanish and French.


Four months since I came back.

I have not been to the Marina once.

Beyond Pro-Life and Pro-Choice: Abortion in India

I’m now a regular contributor at Ultraviolet, the only (and possibly first) Indian feminist collablog. This post was cross-posted there, so comments are off here.

Not all of us may agree on whether or not abortion is ethical. Some may feel that it is sinful, but a subjective choice nonetheless. Others may approve in theory but with a dose of “abortion guilt”, to use Naomi Wolf’s term. Still others, I realise, may condemn it altogether. But wherever we stand personally on this spectrum of opinion, the fact that abortion (legal or not) is inevitable in any society should be regarded as the foundation of one’s argument. And as feminists, a certain understanding that real women’s lives hang in the balance between ideologies is a must. Simply put, in the absence of safe and legal abortions, hundreds of thousands of women a year would die or suffer bodily harm as a result of unsafe, illegal ones.

Recently, many American feminists celebrated the 35th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, the landmark case that led to the overturning of all laws in the United States that restricted or banned abortion. The new decision came into effect on January 22nd 1973, continues to be a heatedly-argued statute, and has come under threat since. (Do look up Cecilia Fire Thunder for a great example of feminist courage under fire in this issue).

Here in India, the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act was enacted in 1971, came into force the following year, and was revised in 1975. Because the law also provides for abortion in the event of contraceptive failure, all pregnancies –- not just those that endanger the health of mother or foetus, or resulting from rape –- can be terminated legally. Technically, any woman above the age of 18 can have an abortion with nobody’s consent but her own and her doctor’s.

When I came across this fact, I was thrilled by how sex-positive and decidedly unpatriarchal it is, and how lucky we are that it is so — but only for a moment. Like several of our laws designed to directly impact the lives of women in ostensibly positive ways, what is real on paper is not nearly as effective in practice. As with laws forbidding dowry or prenatal sex testing, or encouraging panchayat inclusion or girls’ education, such democratic protection when it comes to reproductive rights is not something that translates to the reality of the majority of Indian women’s lives.

Continue reading “Beyond Pro-Life and Pro-Choice: Abortion in India”

The Cover

The famous photographer has declined. His agency gave the reason as his decision to not allow the use of that particular image for any book cover.

Okay. As an artist, I completely respect that.

What this means, then, is that I’m now on the lookout for a new cover. I’m veering toward photography and not a painting or other visual art. But have no concrete demands and am completely open to suggestions at the moment.

Measuring Desire

I came across this fascinating found art project, Lovelines. The idea is to gather random information from blogs and other personal Internet sources, and place them on a scale between love and hate. The information in question relates to statements having to do with varying degrees of love and hate, pared down to the crucial. Updated every few minutes, the visitor gets to take the pulse of what people out there in the cybersphere are sharing at the time about their wants, needs, repulsions, hopes.

Like the addictive, often profound, Postsecret, these decontextualized statements have an interesting effect. For instance, I dragged the heart to “hate” and found: “I hate dates to a degree but in a sense am made up entirely of dates”, posted by a female. Immediately, I wondered, was that the confession of somebody whose social calendar is filled with what others’ expected her to do, or the musings of someone addicted to serial monogamy in a really masochistic way?

Neither, as it turned out. The person really was talking about dates. As in time.

There’s something very voyeuristic about the whole project. I think the trick is to not click through and find out what the rest of any statement means, just as I would personally not want to meet the person behind a postcard at PS. The pathos is in the blanks, in what the imagination comes up with. Seems like a great tool for those who use writing prompts.

Before publishing this post, I went back to drag the heart (you’ll see, when you get there) one more time.

“I love this whip,” wrote a male, three minutes ago.


The best LOL Dog so far…

loldogs, cute puppy pictures, mama, dairy queen, I Has a Hotdog

Just in honour of the fact that I am the very proud owner of my very first, very own laptop. :D

Well, strictly speaking, that’s not really true. But then I’d have to tell you the serendipitous story of the French soothsayer. Which I won’t. ;) 

What I’ve Been Reading…

So here’s an admission that someone who probably owns 700 or 800 books shouldn’t make: all of last year, I think I finished only one novel. I couldn’t read novels last year. I was dead in vast swathes of spirit, and none of what was left could accommodate the mindspace of a novel. I was living from border run to border run and then, difficult, surreal reorientation to the self not split between borders. If you have no idea how living that way shrinks the landscape of one’s system, don’t try to find out.

The only novel I remember finishing last year was something I would not normally have bought at a place like Kinokuniya. It was not even the Ondaatje one I bought at the equivalent of Rs.1200 on the day it came out — which I waited for for months and when it was finally in my hands, could not start. It was The Time-Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. I was splurging with purpose, a risk on something popular, possily pedestrian, on a bookshopping date. The book moved, sentimental as it was. I recommended it.

Over the weekend I got some bonus money for something I had already been paid for. I did what I firmly believe one must do with unexpected money — either splurge or give it away. I splurged. I bought five novels. Two by authors I trust. One out of curiosity. One the way I bought The Time-Traveller’s Wife, on simple faith. One whimsically.

And because my computer at home exploded and I am only in the office for three or four hours in the late mornings, I’ve been forced to return to something I used to love. I finished one book the day before yesterday, another the day before that, a hundred pages of yet another yesterday.

And yes, I did bring the Ondaatje back with me. After not reading it for so many months, despite having even given it to someone else (who did finish, and loved, it) I must wait for a quiet moment. It will call.

What I’ve been reading:

The whimsical choice: Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips

I started with this book because I had read the first two chapters in the bookstore, and knew that despite its suspiciously chick-lit flavoured cover, it was going to be a smart, funny read (and being the most expensive of the books, its purchase really did have to be justified). The Greek gods and goddesses, being immortal, find themselves in contemporary London. Redundant, reduced to less than almighty professions (dog-walker, TV psychic, phone sex operator) and filled with ennui, not to mention unable to discuss all of the above and the potential political struggle that could change things, immortal life really isn’t what it’s cracked up to be anymore for them.

The book is as cynical as it is funny — and, if you’ll excuse the snobbery, it is this cynicism that places it in a better literary situation than the average rom-com romp. The underworld is a dreary place. Haunting the upperworld as a ghost is no better. The sense of touch does not exist — so there go food, drink, sex, playing the piano. Hell, yes. And heaven? Doesn’t exist.

A good dose of blasphemy — Christianity, as it were, is the make-believe religion, which puts the converted Eros into a bit of a sad pickle — and perfectly commonplace incest lend themselves to a smug wickedness. The dynamics of the immortal (and immoral) family and the sad humour therein reminded me of the similar dysfunctions of those in Wes Anderson’s work. I think the novel will translate very well into film, even more entertainingly than on the page. You could snip-snip the actors out of The Royal Tenenbaums right into this plot but oh! — Kim Cattrall as Aphrodite, hands down.

An author I trust: Now Is The Time To Open Your Heart by Alice Walker

When I say I trust Alice Walker, I mean I trust her. Completely. She may be the bravest novelist in the world. Could anyone else could have written so wrenchingly, so frighteningly, about female genital mutilation as she did in Possessing The Secret of Joy? She writes out of her iyari, without fear. I believe her when she says she had an ancestor who was a lion. When she says she communes with their spirits. I believe her just because for someone who speaks out of their iyari, all these and more are possible.

Kate, a well-published author who’s somewhere between middle and old age, goes into the rainforest in a journey of self-discovery aided by natural hallucinogenics and the shamans who administer them. It is a journey she has undertaken before, and this time she goes because she finds that even Buddhism, that most practical of religions, has failed her. And she fears for the loss of the earth itself.

Walker herself is a shaman. I usually get tremendously upset to read or watch material about the destruction of the earth. It’s an issue that depresses me too deeply to consider at length. Reading Alice Walker is like having someone hold your hand and take you through it, the terribleness of it. And this book in particular — at the end of that journey is a truth no politician, no activist, can tell you. And it is profoundly reassuring.

Blogging on Red Room

I just cross-posted the previous entry on Red Room, a very interesting new website which describes itself as follows: “Welcome to Red Room, the official home of the world’s greatest writers. Through original, author-generated content, we offer a trustworthy and creative social network unlike any other. Here, you can connect with your favorite authors, access current industry news, and comment on engaging features. By fostering true community between authors and readers, Red Room showcases esteemed writers and inspires the next generation. We also give back to the community we aim to nurture with our commitment to the Causes We Support.”

I first heard about Red Room a few days ago (via whose blog, I can’t remember — but thank you!), and applied to be one of their authors, just trying my luck. I was surprised and honoured to learn that I have been accepted. Some of my favourite authors, including Amy Tan and Salman Rushdie, are involved as well. My page is here, but it is not up yet. Hopefully they’ll approve it, now that I’ve made a submission and added some other content. (Update — it’s up.)

Speaking of writing communities, someone asked me to share more about what happened last night. It was a small event at Eric Miller and Magdalene Jeyarathnam’s home, with special guests New Yorkers Bob Holman of the Bowery Poetry Club, Ram Devineni of Rattapallax Press and language conservationist Catherine Fletcher — as well as members of the local fishing community whose storytelling and oral narrative techniques were shared and discussed. Translations by the sportingly irrepressible Meena Kandasamy, a bit of folk singing from her father, and a debate about whether or not it would be appropriate to have mourning songs sung in a home with a baby livened proceedings up considerably. A personal moment I am proud of was when Bob asked me to perform a poem from memory impromptu in front a video camera, and I did “Witchery”, the opening poem from the book, and a few lines into in, all other conversations in the room had ceased. “You stopped time, you stopped the room,” said Bob. By the end of the evening, I felt very stimulated, very certain that what I’m trying to do in Chennai makes more sense now than ever before, that something is about to spark.

Notes Upon Viewing An Oppari

Tonight the oppari singer didn’t just stop singing when she was asked to. She wept as she stopped. She wept like it mattered — and it did matter.

We were in a home with a small baby and no death in sight. Only poetry. And yet she wept as she took her seat. Somebody took her in their arms and kissed her on both cheeks, led her to her chair. Someone else brought her, and the other singer she came with, fruit.

Their work is the mourning song. When asked to sing lullabies, they could not. Their melody could not change: it was entrenched in the work of grief, the work of allowing the bereaved to shake loose from their spirits the weights of loss.

The singer and the song. The poet and the poem. There is a moment of transcendence in which the two are indistinguishable, and this is rare. Epiphany. To perform is to be; to be is to perform.

Months ago, I wrote: “The work of the oracle is through body and voice. The work of the oracle is to give voice to the bodies upon which are inscribed our fates. The work of the oracle is to go beyond body-memory, to transcend into ancestral memory. To excavate. To restore. The work of the oracle is as much past as it is future.”

And so, too, is the work of the oppari singer. The one who serenades death and the departed, soothes those who are left behind. As much future as it is past.

It didn’t matter that only the song was real. No funeral. No reason to sing but an audience. Because the song was the only thing that did matter.

Sometimes I stand on stage and I don’t know anything but the page before me. I forget the life I must return to, the life from which I came. Sometimes I stand there and I cannot see a thing. I cannot feel my body. I am only a voice.

And sometimes I can feel my body but only because it is so small, it cannot contain me, it cannot contain this voice with which I am so full that I am fit to burst.

Koldovstvo Coming

The witching hour draws nearer and nearer. After six months of sitting on a secret, I’m finally able to talk about my publisher (for my book of poems, Witchcraft). Bullfighter Books is tiny, new, Asian-centric. Their vibe is indie, guerrila, curious. Other books they’re putting out this year include poetry by Inzaman Amjad Khan and two anthologies.

We’re negotiating the cover of the book now, because I have my heart set on a photograph by Somebody Famous. The photographer has to okay it, and then BB have to see if they can afford it.

Once that’s outta the way, and it’s the biggest thing at the moment, we’re all set to print. So we’re looking at April, May, maybe June. Before the end of July, because I want it out before I’m 23. It helps to have a deadline. And I’m just vain that way.

Oh — Koldovstvo, my translator informs me, is Russian for “witchcraft”. Work on the Russian version hasn’t started yet, so the publication of that hasn’t been scheduled. (No, really, it’s coming out in Russian! Surreal isn’t it? The translator found me through the Internet last June, contacted me asking if I’d let them translate, and… Bless the blog, I tell you!)

So this is the first of the Witchcraft posts. Don’t really have a plan in mind, but I know one thing for sure — as the example of my translator illustrates gorgeously, I owe quite alot career-wise to having had an online presence for almost a couple of years now. So it only makes sense to share my thoughts during the lead-up to an event I have been waiting for since I was seven years old, an event which may have still been a long way off had it not been for the… dare I say it?… fans (lurkers and loud ones both) being online has generated.

The first of the advance praise specifically for the collection has come in. Cyril Wong, whom I first got to know after he had published some of my poems in Softblow, and Mani Rao, who heard of me through the poet and blogger Sridala Swami, liked my poems on Softblow and got in touch (my life has always been saturated in heavy-duty synchronicity) have given their blurbs, both of which are in the About section of the blog.

In the next few months, I’ll share updates, a few poems, and interviews (if any).

But better not jinx anything. ;)

Chennai Sangamam

What I liked best about the Chennai Sangamam, performances aside, was how it had the air of a real festival. Performances weren’t preceded by speeches in English about culture and tradition and excavation. There were no tickets. No formal rustle of sarees and elite arts-patronage gossip. The night I attended, at Nateson Park, there was no stage. The crowds followed the sound of drums; circles formed of their own accord, within which performers stampeded and sang and shone.

I loved it. I loved how in my flat slippers, I could barely see above people’s heads. I loved how I could only hear the action most of the time, could barely photograph a thing, could only catch glimpses of bright costumes between the throng of bodies that was the standing audience. This was street performance at its truest. This was real, unfettered culture.

The festival was initiated last year, and mainly features folk dances, music and food from around Tamil country. Held over a week at various locations around the city, mostly public spaces like parks and beaches, I think it’s a wonderful way to encourage interest in heritage. Free of the co-opting and monopolizing that overpowers what we urbanites know of heritage, there’s a certain liberty to things. A certain authenticity.

Now that I’m on one of my sporadic trips to the land of the employed and days that end at 4am are no longer an option, I only managed to go one night of Chennai Sangamam. It’s an amazing addition to the city’s calendar of events, and I’m hoping that it turns into something as entrenched into our ethos as the Margazhi season — sans the cloying institutionalization.