Tag Archives: interviews

The Next Big Thing Interview

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I was tagged by Christopher Martin, author and editor (of Flycatcher: A Journal of Native Imagination) to participate in this blog meme. “The Next Big Thing”, is meant to find and promote new and in-progress books, by getting their authors to answer a series of questions. [I’ve seen some versions of this meme with one question fewer, but I’ve decided to answer them all]. I’m tagging: poet Monica Mody, who has a new book, Kala Pani, out soon; erotica author and editor Rachel Kramer Bussel, who always has an anthology in progress; and poet Anindita Sengupta, who has just completed her second collection. Looking forward to their interviews; in the meanwhile, here are my answers:

What is the working title of your book?

“The High Priestess Never Marries”. It’s a book of stories, short and long.

What genre does your book fall under?

Fiction. Literary fiction, preferably, with a distinctly feminist leaning. But if I’m realistic, some people will call it chick lit. And that’s okay.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

It was something I used to say to my friends, partly with rue and partly with sardonic pride: “the high priestess never marries”. After a decade of romantic complication, I had begun to see my life through the lense of the pseudo-historical notion (backed up by evidence from the devadasi tradition of South India to the oracles of Greek antiquity, among other cultures), that in order to retain her personal power, the “high priestess” – the free spirit, the maverick – had to disavow social norms expected of other women, such as the security of husband and household. In exchange, she was allowed freedoms, education and individual and political agency that most women did not receive. That was very much how it felt to me, as a woman in the early 21st century – that it was still a very either/or dichotomy, I could be an alpha female or I could be in a relationship, but not both.

So all the stories fundamentally grapple with the question of whether it is possible to both have love and be free. The story that probably best exemplifies this tussle might be “Afternoon Sex”, in which a woman is utterly devoted to her husband and the institution of marriage, believing both to have saved her life, but some primal part of her nature remains unexpressed and so she has this parallel life, another lover.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Stories of love and its consequences, underpinned by the motifs of sweetness, wildness and greed.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

My women friends’ and my own experiences, and some of the cautionary tales that the men we were in love with and whom we thought we wanted to be like turned out to be. Many of us spent a great deal of time in dramatically dysfunctional relationships, often with permeable boundaries and complex power dynamics. Some of them were happy (see “Gigolo Maami”); some of them not (see “Greed and the Gandhi Quartet”). All of them were rich experiences, but what was really interesting were the aftermaths. How it could take a year to admit to oneself that what had taken place was abuse. The bizarre self-flagellation that comes with cheating on someone who claimed infidelity was negligible. The fact that one’s libertine or bohemian ideas don’t exist in a vacuum, but remain subject to the mores of the time and society in which one lives, as well as to human nature. The latent misogyny in heterosexual relationships. The fact that no amount of theory, politics or ideology can save you from being blinded by longing. The consequences, basically.

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

Although the stories are buoyed by female protagonists, it’s the male characters who’d be really fun to cast. What you have are these wilful, out-of-the-ordinary women who are fatally attracted to these men who are either terrible for them or with whom they are somehow unable to reconcile that love/freedom schism they perceive. So you can imagine: young or old, stupid or cunning, cruel or seemingly benign… they are very sexy men.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I don’t have an agent or a publisher, so far. But the book is still incomplete, and until and unless it is completed I hesitate to go searching. But several of the stories have been published individually. They’ve appeared or are forthcoming in Flycatcher: A Journal of Native Imagination, Hobart, Verity La, Out of Print, Pure Slush, The Moth, Bengal Lights, Elle, Monkeybicycle, Erotique, Rose Red Review and the anthology Baker’s Dozen. One of them received an Elle Fiction Award from Elle Magazine (India) in 2012, another was a winner in this year’s Best of the Net anthology and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

Most of the stories were written in about ten months, and what followed has been a fallow period of almost a year. There are only a few stories left that I want to write, but it’s impossible to say when or if that will happen. Also, my own understanding of what I want the book to be is evolving. I’ve already removed several stories from the manuscript, for example. Narrative and emotional cohesion matter to me when putting together a collection, something I’ve done only twice in the past, with a chapbook and a full-length book of poetry. The pieces must feel like they belong together, and add up to more than the sum of their parts.

What other books would you compare yours to within your genre?

Sandra Cisneros’ Woman Hollering Creek for three reasons: its women-centricness is close to mine, its Spanglish inspired my Tanglish, and I love the easy mix of flash fiction and short stories, which The High Priestess Never Marries also has. Pam Houston’s Cowboys Are My Weakness, because those stories deal explicitly with that mixture of toughness and tenderness that independent, but empathic, women have. Gitanjali Kolanad’s very under-rated and graceful Sleeping With Movie Stars, which like my book is set primarily in Madras and also deals with love and lust as morally ambiguous articles. I didn’t think Junot Diaz’s This Is How You Lose Her quite fulfilled the premise he put forth in the media about the book – regarding a self-reflective masculinity and accountability in love – but the impetus is not dissimilar from my stories.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Right now, I am at a philosophical crossroads. For most of my life, I really did believe that a complicated woman could not have an uncomplicated love life. I don’t feel that way anymore. I started out writing this book as a way to broach and explore questions about choice, ambiguity and consequence – but as the answers started to come, the easy-breezy, bindaas agency of my protagonists started to look far less easy and far less like agency. I’m working now from a space of doubt, not from a space of deceptively balanced equivocality. So here’s what I have to find a way of reconciling now, and it’s important to me to be able to do so, because I do not wish to write in the absence of integrity, if not clarity: what if the high priestess archetype is also only a reactionary paradigm, or if that model is in fact a way of perpetuating a system by creating a space for exclusion within it? And what if the high priestess wants to marry? Is she then not who she thought she was, or had she only always been limited by the notion?

Some Recent Press

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I talked to Isahitya (October 2012) about vulnerability, mysticism and the book I’m concentrating on now.

And to Doodleblue (August 2012) about my old column, “The Venus Flytrap”, and what I dislike about India.

And to The New Indian Express from London (July 2012) about participating in Poetry Parnassus.

News and Poems

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First, the poems.

“August, The Year After” is in issue 1.3 of White Whale Review, an online literary journal.

“Possession” is in Volume 7 of A Cafe in Space, a print journal on and inspired by Anais Nin, out February 21. Although I hadn’t written this piece with Nin in mind, she has been a big influence, and I was honoured that the editor solicited my work.

“Chennai” appeared in The Lit’s Muse quarterly, also a print journal, in November.

“Cassandra’s Ghazal” will appear is in the third issue of Clementine, a web journal of persona poetry and photography some time this month. I’ll update this link when it does. (updated)

The Poetry With Prakriti Festival has also just published its first anthology, a collection featuring work by poets who read in its 2007 and 2008 editions. I have three poems, “This Hummingbird Heart”, “How To Eat A Wolf” and “Frida to Sharanya” (all of which were in Witchcraft) in this book, which will be launched later this month.

And the news: I was shortlisted for a Toto Award in Creative Writing this year. I didn’t win, but I did have a nice weekend in Bangalore, attending the awards ceremony, hanging out and shopping, and just enjoying the little break. I also received a nice Special Jury Commendation, which reads as follows: “[her poems are] sensitive and insightful, with strong images and metaphors… moments of intense beauty… a lot of promise, a lot of passion”. The winners were playwrights Abhishek Majumdar and Ram Ganesh Kamatham; the other two shortlisted nominees (from 158 applicants) were Joppan George and Hemant Mohapatra. The Totos are given annually to Indian artists under 30 who show potential in creative writing, photography or music, in the memory of the late Toto Vellani.

On the flip side of the coin, I judged IIT Saarang’s poetry competition this year. I tell you, this side of the coin is far less stressful. Hehe. Can’t remember if I mentioned being a featured poet at the first Poetry With Prakriti Slam in December, but ditto – I wouldn’t have wanted to compete. I always balk at the thought.

I’ve becoming increasingly lazy about my blog, which explains why I’ve just collated all these new links and happenings into a single post instead of letting you know what’s new as I go along. The fanpage on Facebook gets updated more quickly, and most of what’s above has already been posted there. And then there is Twitter. I’ve been meaning to redesign the blog – perhaps that might motivate me about it again.

Finally, I’m always open to doing small readings, if I’m in your city, and interviews for your personal blogs. If you’d like to discuss either, please drop me a mail at sharanya(dot)manivannan(at)gmail.com(dot)com. I’m a little curmudgeonly, and if you just leave a comment or (god forbid) tweet at or Facebook me, I will probably ignore it.

It’s Still The Witching Hour

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I had such fun being live on air with Chennai Live 104.8FM’s Jane Jeyakumar this afternoon that I wished I’d announced it earlier! Hope some of you caught me there. Here are a few more media snippets on me/the book. Rumjhum Biswas talks about the launch, Vaibhav Vats writes an article based on an interview he did last month, and Verve magazine runs a feature in their March issue – with a never before published poem.

After The Chennai Launch

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I woke up the morning after the launch with some badass blues. Readings normally leave me feeling exhilarated, but I was so sad that morning that it was over. Good readings are rare in Chennai. Very rare. That I stressed out over it, instead of just savouring it, left me regretful.

That being said, it went well. I think about 50 people came. If I didn’t say hi to a familiar face and give you a hug, I apologise. There were just so many people and so much to do and the press to speak to immediately before and after.

Speaking of press — big thanks to Niladri Bose of Hello FM, who ran a pre-recorded interview with me on his weekend shows. And to Sonali of Chennai FM, who recorded something just before the launch. Also to Ponnu Elizabeth Mathew of The New Indian Express for putting me on the cover of Monday’s Expresso. And to Shonali Muthalaly of The Hindu for this article in Metroplus. As tends to happen in print journalism, there are discrepancies — for instance I have never lived in Canada and do not consider myself a Sri Lankan refugee as to do so is to undermine the plight of people far less privileged than me (I’m assuming these two things were gleaned from an extremely literal reading of a certain poem in my book), and I’d probably said witches were persecuted, not castrated (!). I know that The Times of India ran an interview in three of its neighbourhood supplements but haven’t seen it yet. I’m also interviewed in this month’s Verve magazine, which is on the stands now.

But none of those made me quite as happy as Orange Jammies’ post here.

I’m deeply grateful to Ranvir and Devika of the Prakriti Foundation. I’ve known them for years professionally but only recently have gotten to know them on a more personal level. Both of them are inspirations to me in their own ways.

I’m also especially grateful to Salma, Vivek Narayanan, Tishani Doshi and Rumjhum Biswas, who all came to the launch. The support of other poets is so important.

And if anybody cares what I wore, I wore a ridiculous copper sulphate blue dress. :)

Review: “The Shape of the Beast: Conversations With Arundhati Roy”

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First published in today’s The New Sunday Express.

Over a decade after the extraordinary success of The God of Small Things, and somewhere before the publication of what will only be her second book of fiction, comes The Shape of the Beast. This collection of fourteen interview transcripts chart Arundhati Roy’s career as a political activist from between 2001 and the present, and thus comes almost as an exercise in taking stock, in looking both backwards and forwards. Its insight into the mind of one of our foremost public intellectuals is valuable.

In many ways, this is an extremely deliberate book, clearly seeking to fashion an arc of evolution with its snapshots of Roy’s opinions at particular points. Fortunately, it is largely devoid of the egotism one might expect from any such venture by a similarly larger-than-life celebrity. The hero of The Shape of the Beast is undeniably Roy – but her choice to speak for many is by far its central focus.

The Beast in question is, naturally, a political animal. In these interviews, Roy takes on, in her penetratingly poetic manner, the hegemonies of state, religion, imperialism, corporate entities and social constructs. All of them have been published before, so in themselves they say nothing new. But collected together they shed light not so much on the nature of the Beasts that democracy, egalitarianism and sheer goodness are up against, but on the woman who dares to outline their shapes.

What we get then are interviews which seek to understand where Roy’s perspectives come from, how her upbringing and life prior to and since fame shaped the logic behind her activism. The dialogues segue easily from the political to the personal, exploring the relationship between her background and belief system. Whether discussing American imperialism, Maoist insurgency, Narmada Bachao Andolan or Kashmir, the connection to Roy’s fundamental principles is laid bare. Unpopular as her views have been in some circles, both her stunning clarity of thought and refusal to be ignored are evident in these interviews. The Shape of the Beast thus functions convincingly on two levels: as a comprehensive source of the opinions to date of our most beloved and beleaguered activist, and, simply, as fodder for fans.

The most revealing interview of all is the final one, conducted in March 2008, in which Roy speaks about herself as a person, a writer and a celebrity and the private and public negotiations of these selves and projections. The political weight of the other conversations is absent here, and because of this it knits together the two Roys who have inhabited our common consciousness since 1997 – the glimmering, melancholic writer who gave us The God of Small Things and the fierce, incisive activist we have seen since then.

The book’s success lies primarily in the fact that it is neither mere defense for a decade of what some have seen as incidental activism, nor an exercise in self-congratulatory vanity. There is certainly some amount of careful persona distillation here, but hers is a voice that represents in equal measure both the disenfranchised and the simply far less eloquent. And for this, one remains grateful.

“I insist on the right to be emotional, to be sentimental, to be passionate,” says Roy in one of the interviews. This is exactly the kind of statement that does not endear her to her detractors, but it is also the reason why the rest of us remain so enamoured. She dares to be a subjective voice speaking on objective things, an anomaly in an arena of clichéd catchphrases and the politically fashionable, if not politically correct. Love her or loathe her, we need Roy. And this book, in a nutshell, is why.

The Word Witch

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By now, you know that plans for the book have come to a standstill. And I don’t owe you the story because I have to save something for the memoirs, right? Let it just be said that it was all pretty Twilight Zone. Is all, actually.

However, when production was still in full progress, I did an online conversation with a friend from a long time ago, as part of what we thought would be book-related publicity. There’s no sense in holding onto the interview for future use — by the time the book does come out, it may be outdated.

It’s a pretty comprehensive interview, and Michael is a wonderful interviewer. Rereading it, I was struck by something profound.

The day after I realised that my book was in total limbo, a dear friend had a vision of one of my past lives which revealed a great deal. It also told me that choosing to name the book Witchcraft was a decision with a wisdom I had not known at the time. But which I had also always known.

And that is why I do not fear for the book’s future.

I have posted the Q+A up on its own page on this blog, here.