Tag Archives: literary

Dead Centre

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The 50 poems since Witchcraft was published two years ago are perfectly halved into two different manuscripts. Which means I am either halfway through or almost finished with them, depending on whether you take the view that it’s 30 poems or 50 that make a volume.

Maybe I could tell you more about them.

Bulletproof Offering

The part about this manuscript that is easy to talk about is its mythic element. Set in what is essentially the Jungian forest, the poems deal exclusively with this suffering, an anguish so deep that one can hardly keep from burning down the forest herself. The sufferers here are Sita and Lucifer. Sita spends most of her life in exile, in the wilderness — and at one point she is exiled in paradise, the most beautiful garden on earth. Lucifer, in the Persian myth of his fall from grace, is exiled from paradise for refusing to bow to any other than God. Both suffer because of an impossible devotion to their divine beloveds. Both are demoted divinities – Sita is named in the Rig Veda, which predates the story of Rama,  not as the earth’s child but as a goddess of fertility and harvest in her own right, and Lucifer was the most exalted of the angels. Both enter the underworld, walking through fire.

At some point, perhaps when the book has come out, I would like to tell you about the odd cosmic synchronicity (and hilarity, a counterpoint to the cosmic heartbreak at the centre of all this) that helped my research. The Ramayana found me in multiple incarnations, in multiple moments, often in incredible scenarios. The motifs in the Sita poems are (naturally) of the earth, the trees, light and shadow, mirrors, and a mysterious place in the forest where she is loved and left behind. The Lucifer poems have a cosmic angle in the literal sense — Lucifer is the Latin for “lightbearer”, and is associated with Venus, the morning star, the planet of love. Before I began to work with this archetype, I had been pondering the pulsar, the dying star that emits a death song, imprinted in the universe for light years after And so the motifs in these poems are astronomical.

I tell people that Witchcraft is a very depressing book but many have told me they read it to cheer up (and as an aphrodisiac, in which case, happy to help and cheers). I think Bulletproof Offering is a very depressing book that is likely to do neither. But it means so much to me — these archetypes have been necessary for my very survival over the past two years, and I’m so attached I almost don’t want to finish the book and have to let them go.

Cadaver Exquisito

In the parlour game Exquisite Corpse (I prefer the European name for the working title, because the English one already belongs to a famous journal and many other things), a piece of paper is rotated around a room, and players take turns adding a new image or word to it without having seen the ones that came before. The simplest version might consist of three players, who divide a page into three and each draw a head, a torso and feet. The resulting creature might be grotesque or humourous — a cat’s face, a mermaid’s breasts, a chicken’s claws perhaps.

I’ve been consumed with the notion of dismemberment.

To have one’s feet in one location, one’s heart in another, and one’s ideas in a third is a sort of dismemberment. Having your life torn to pieces is another kind. Both inform this work. If Bulletproof Offering is the mythic, psychospiritual landscape I inhabit, then Cadaver Exquisito is its absolutely literal cousin, a purgatory I could pick out on a map. The soul a glass-stringed kite, tethered in this undergrowth, yearning for release. What you will read here are poems of the city, poems of inertia, poems of desperation and a displacement that cannot be romanticised (though, of course, I try a little).

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You may have seen a number of pieces from both books already, though some of what I think are the strongest poems have yet to find individual homes. At this time, neither collection has been committed to a publisher. I have yet to start my search, and I find the idea daunting. One of the only things I know for sure is that this time, I want to work with folks who have their distribution sorted out.

I feel very far removed from Witchcraft, and deeply immersed in these two manuscripts. I was confiding in a friend recently about the disconnect I feel from my readership, my uncertainty about whether my poems really have one, and he suggested that I do more to meet them halfway. So here I am, meeting you halfway, with my two halfway books, hopeful.

Ubud Writers’ & Readers’ Festival 2008, Bali

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Some highlights…


With Bernice Chauly. We look like we’re at Zouk, but actually, we’re on top of a gigantic lily pond at the Four Seasons. Preeta Samarasan and Kam Raslan are blurry but present too.

With Jean Bennett, author of 27 books.

With Sharon Bakar, Deepika Shetty and Eric Forbes. Sorry, Deepika, there was no better shot and I so wanted to put up one with you all.

With Vikram Seth. Yes, this pic MUST come out blurry, no?

I heart Alberto Ruy Sánchez (and so does everybody else). He could charm every pair of pants off a centipede if he wanted to!

With Preeta Samarasan, Bernice Chauly and Tishani Doshi at a wine-tasting (like writers need an excuse). Too many cameras at the table! Preeta is gorgeous.

With Stephanie Theng. It was gratifying to take this because I’m used to being asked to sign things and to pose by myself, but rare is the… “fan” (*cringe*) who wants to take a pic with me!

Portraits of me…

Cam-whoring, as usual. Top pic by Chriswan Sungkono. Remaining three by “her personal photographer”.

And by me…


My beautiful and brilliant longtime friend Bernice Chauly, whose most recent book is Lost in KL, a collection of short stories.

Lijia Zhang, who worked for a decade in a missile factory – and wrote the tale!

Thanding Sari – doesn’t she look exactly like me in profile? I love her singing.

The Venus Flytrap: Earthbound

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This is how it happens. I’m on transit in Singapore for a day. It’s too early in the morning for the part of Chinatown I’m in, but by luck, Kenny Leck appears just as I arrive at his bookshop, which supports my work. We talk business while the resident kitten pounces on me and gnaws at my handbag, and then I ask Kenny what I can do in the area. I have two hours to spare. That’s when he tells me about the firewalking.

The Ubud Writers’ Festival 2008 is over, and I am returning from a blissful week in Bali. Still, it hadn’t happened yet. I had sat beside a delightful and drunk Vikram Seth at dinner, made friends with the charmingly debonair Alberto Ruy Sánchez (who never failed to greet me with two firm kisses at every opportunity), and traded glamorous gossip with one of Asia’s foremost arts journalists in an airport lounge. I had left my lipstick prints and autographs on dozens of books and brochures, was confronted by the happy emergency of the festival’s bookshop selling out my book even before my first panel appearance, and had a session discussing sexuality in India land me an improbable but sincere invitation to perform at a Tam-brahm wedding. Readings, panels, a shoot for a documentary, a handful of print and radio interviews, and the more fulfilling private conversations with individual fans. All that. But not that.

It just hadn’t happened. I hadn’t been stopped in my tracks by the egomaniacal euphoria that is supposed to overcome an author upon the publication of her first book. My ambivalence was disappointing.

I seek out the temple Kenny has pointed me toward. It’s unabashedly touristy, with a mini-arena set up around the pit and coupons on sale for photographers. I am waved through in spite of my conspicuous DSLR. The actual firewalking has just ended, and a priest turns a hose on full force across the coals, rousing billows of steam.

Sometime during the processions – figures of Draupadi, Arjuna and Aravan’s head among them – it starts to rain, and I discover that I am tearing up. Something I have been holding within me for weeks is coming loose. I’m sure nobody cares – in a corner, four people try to hold down the wild, vibrating body of a woman in possession. There are chants and drumming. What happens in this temple, commercial as it is, is electrifying.

When I have had enough, I will lay my head on the ground outside the pit and weep into the earth. I have spent my week in paradise in muted fear: someone I love is seriously ill. Somewhere in the genes we share are the traditions of firewalking and Draupadi worship, traditions I have never witnessed till now. My book is beside me, and I know now it is mine. This is what I have been waiting for: a moment when there is no disconnect between the life I have known and the one I am consolidating. Affirmation that no matter how far I dare to test the tethers to my roots, all things move in circles.

Accomplishment doesn’t taste like the otherworldly thing I expected. Perhaps the most enduring success is not that which catapults a person into an unfamiliar stratosphere, but one that brings her back to herself, that gathers up all the rudiments of her life and binds them to her like a talisman for the length of the journey that is yet to come. I understand why I cried into the hot ground beside the coal pit: what was meant for me was not elevation, but that which, necessarily, must keep me earthbound.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my weekly column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.

Ubud Writers’ & Readers’ Festival

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I’m leaving tonight for for a week in Bali (and yes, on work!), to attend the Ubud Writers’ & Readers’ Festival 2008.

Other than general official engagements and anything that happens impromptu, my readings and panels, in case you’re there, are as follows:

Thursday 16 Oct: Performance Poetry Extravaganza, 19.30-21.30 at Warung Opera

Top performers and comedians from Australia, India and the Philippines present a riotous medley of rhythm, sound and song. Lexical dexterity will be at work in this high-energy, cross-cultural celebration of the literary spoken word. Tug Dumbly, Sharanya Manivannan, Edwina Blush. MC: Benito di Fonzo.

Saturday 18 Oct: Mindscapes, 15.45-17.00 at Indus

Novelist Charlotte Bacon tells us what happens “when geography rubs up against people’s emotional states.” Matthew Condon’s novel The Trout Opera was inspired by the stark beauty of Australia’s Snowy Mountains. Carrie Tiffany, an environmental journalist, explores agricultural issues and the lives of rural people in her fiction. Poet Sharanya Manivannan believes in the magical quality of water and coasts. These writers get together to consider the way exposure to different geographies shapes human experience and action. Moderator: Poonam Sagar.

Saturday 18 October: Wine Tasting, 18.30-20.30 at Casa Luna

According to Persian mythology it was a woman who first discovered wine. For that we are thankful! Join us as award-winning Indonesian wine writer Yohan Handoyo leads us through a menu of full-bodied wines matched with some of our most sparkling Festival writers and accompanied by tasty tapas in this celebration of wine, women and words. Featuring: Peter Zilahy, Tishani Doshi, Sharanya Manivannan, Dino Umahu. Cost: Rp. 650,000 | AUD $82.

Sunday 19 October: Poetry of the Body 15.30-17.00 at HSBC Lounge

Whereas poet and dancer Tishani Doshi sees the body as the place “where the spiritual and the sensual combine”, Sharanya Manivannan has a fascination with the ancient Tamil concept of a potentially malevolent force that exists in women’s bodies. These two Indian poets will discuss poetry, women, dance and the body along with readings of their work. This session will be followed by a 30-minute documentary film on Indian dance featuring Tishani Doshi and her teacher Chandralekha, legendary dancer from South India. Moderator: Debra Yatim.

I was really looking forward to another panel on sacred geography, but it was cancelled as the other writer is not able to participate in the festival this year.

On another note, Books Actually in Singapore will stock limited copies of Witchcraft from next week.

I’m told that the website from which you can order the book will probably go up while I’m away. More info will be available soon. Hold your horses please! Will let you know when I know. Ditto about launches, etc. And lastly, remember the Exec Assistant? Yeah, she’s out of the picture. Irresponsible would be an understatement. So for any enquiries relating to publicity, interviews and events, please contact either sharanya dot manivannan at gmail dot com or bullfighterbooks at gmail dot com.

Okay, I’m off to island-hop and shoe-shop… I mean, work. :) See you after the 20th.