Tag Archives: publishing

The Venus Flytrap: If Money Isn’t Found In Books…

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When I took a workplace sabbatical to become a consultant, one of the first things I researched was whether going many days at a time without wearing a bra causes sagging. I am happy to tell you that Google told me the opposite is true, but the reason I can enjoy this at all is because of another, far greater, luxury: to work largely out of home, at least for long as I can manage it. Lest you think I’m sitting in some posh veranda, blowing bubbles, bra-lessly contemplating Deep Thoughts and quilling Poems with a peacock feather – when I say working out of home, I still mean working for other people, writing or editing a variety of things for them so that they, in turn, can write me cheques. “Other work”, you see, is what all artists who don’t have inheritances, spouses with sizable incomes or a steady stream of foreign commissions or royalties must do. And that is the vast majority of us.

But don’t we make pots of money from our books, you ask? There are outliers in commercial fiction and selected non-fiction (like celebrity memoirs), but literary work sells very poorly in India. The agent Kanishka Gupta has written extensively about these nitty-gritties, but to break it down for you: the average author makes about 10% on the cover price of each sold book. I remember buying a box of sweets for my former office, a mid-sized advertising agency, when I signed a publishing contract and thinking – only if every single colleague bought a copy of my book would I make enough in royalties to cover the cost of that treat.

Like me, many authors work in allied fields like communications, journalism, media, academia and publishing. Then there are those who can’t or choose not to monetize their literary skills, whose breadwinning careers are unrelated. To give you just a few examples: Upamanyu Chatterjee is an IAS officer. Tanuj Solanki works in life insurance. Kaushik Barua works for the UN. Mainik Dhar manages a global food company. Amrita Narayanan is a psychologist. N.D. Rajkumar, by his own description, is a “coolie” on the Indian Railways. Poovalur Jayaraman, who is in his 80s, sells vadas and bondas from a pushcart. Kavery Nambisan is a doctor, as is Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar – who was suspended from his job as a civil surgeon last week because of a controversy about his writing.

As you can see, each person’s resources and financial security thus vary. At best, any literary income usually only supplements a base revenue from another profession. At worst, as in Dr. Shekhar’s case, even that is risked by the fact that there is very little respect for the arts and their makers in India.

Office?” people have exclaimed to me. “But I thought you were a poet!” It’s unfashionable to admit to having a “day job”, but I want to demystify the idea that we don’t need one. Unless one is extremely fortunate or already privileged, the pragmatic reality is that we do. Readers, this is what goes on behind the curtain. Aspiring authors, this is only some of what you’re in for…

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on August 17th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Even The High Priestess Has To Hustle

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In the classic Sex And The City episode, “A Woman’s Right To Shoes”, Carrie – a successful, single writer – attends a birthday party for the child of an old friend. She is requested to remove her shoes at the door. When she goes to retrieve them as she leaves, she finds that someone with the same size and very little impulse control has strutted off in them. Specifically, in $485 Manolo Blahnik heels.

After a few days, Carrie sheepishly goes back to check if the shoes may have turned up. Her friend offers to pay for them, balks at their cost, tells Carrie she finds it ridiculous and gives her less than half instead. She thoroughly shames her for what she calls her “extravagant lifestyle” and compares it unfavourably against her choices: kids, houses and the like.

Carries leaves, feeling awful, and eventually comes to her senses: if she has spent large sums of money on gifts for this friend at all the “milestones” of her life (most recently, her child’s party), why does her friend begrudge the achievements of hers, just because they don’t involve matrimony and mortgages? She finds an ingenious way to prove her point that plays right into her friend’s bourgeois worldview.

I recently watched this episode again after many years and found myself quite emotionally invested in it. I identified with Carrie’s shame and indignation, and wished for myself her audacity in fixing the situation. Instead of stewing in a pot of polite resentment, as I’ve been doing.

In October, I had not one but two new books published: The High Priestess Never Marries and The Ammuchi Puchi. My social media feeds right now alternate between the evocative red of the first’s cover and the vibrant jewel tones of the second’s pages. But each time I talk or share about my books, I feel guilty and apologetic.

Because you see, ultimately, devotion to art is not seen as legitimate in the eyes of most of society. It’s the thing you do because you’re selfish. It’s the thing you do because you snub approved goalposts. It’s the thing you do because a girl like you with so much time on her hands needs a hobby.

I don’t believe any of that. But I’m affected by it. What a catch-22: if I didn’t care, I wouldn’t have made the labours of love that I have made.

Why should I feel like I’m hustling when all I’m doing is showing you my heart? And my heart isn’t composed of hashtags, it isn’t crowdsourced attention, it isn’t app-friendly. My heart isn’t the hubris of overnight success, it isn’t borrowed or bought.

Not your baby’s first poop, but my baby’s first reader. Not my selfie of the day, but my selfhood, woven in words. Not a smile plastered on in hungover honeymoon photos, but the tears I wasn’t afraid to let anyone see. Not a posh new address on Papa’s money, but the sanctuary I am building with my own hands and the gifts and curses life gave me.

I cheer on the choices you make. Why can’t you cheer on the chances I take?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on November 10th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

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.

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.

The Venus Flytrap: Just Ask Jeeves

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I hired my first secretary last week.

Unlike most other collaborations in this book publishing process, I got exactly the person I wanted. She’s smart, young, confident, and the sort of girl who actually prints out an agenda when her grandfather holds a magic show at his apartment. She is also – fortunately – the kind of secretary I can hug, which was pretty high on my requirements list.

If you have met me, you may know that I have a famously fuchsia business card, and it was only fitting that she carry something suitably reflecting my, um, values too. This led to the question of what her official job title would be. As a relatively benevolent megalomaniac, I naturally opened the subject to debate.

There came the fictional character suggestions. Could she be the Smithers to my Mr. Burns? The Alfred to my Batman? The Herbert Cadbury to my Richie Rich? The Jeeves to my Wooster? And of course, there was the hardcore literary reference that’s actually been adapted into common lingo: Girl Friday.

I liked the Robinson Crusoe analogy, but Girl Friday was slightly sexist, and reminded me for some reason of Helen Gurley Brown’s 1960’s instructions to the working gal (“In taking a man to lunch, I suggest you not reach for the check with your limp little arm in his presence” would be an example). My secretary didn’t want to be named after a butler, so that knocked Cadbury, Alfred and Jeeves off the list. As for Smithers and Burns, well, the whole one-sided infatuation thing didn’t go down too well with her. Too bad, I personally quite liked the allusion to the fact that I am actually very much a sinister, balding despot with a prominent overbite and hands perpetually in the scavenger mudra.

“Would you like to be my right hand man?” I asked, hoping to slide a bit of subversion in sideways.

“Um… no?”

Then came the absurdly fancy and meaningless titles. I once held an NGO job in which I was officially the “Communication Rights and Media Advocacy Officer”. In other words, I did the press releases and copywriting. So we came up with: “Liaison Coordinator”, “Administrative and Liaison Manager”, “Administrative Specialist” and “Associate Publicity and Public Relations Aide”.

She said, “My god, when I submit my resignation, I would probably die of exhaustion before I finish typing that.”

Bringing up a resignation was not a good sign. So we moved along.

I summarily dismissed the demeaning options – minion, underling and gofer – because I’m a TV villain despot, people, not a bitch, and those are not even remotely endearing.

Which brings us to the mummy-baby names. I have the kind of megalomania that makes me sometimes think I’m the Messiah and sometimes His mother. Tyra Banks has the same kind. Fortunately, I happen to know this, so I refrained from suggesting “descendant”, “sishya”, “poppet” and “protégé”.

In the end, we settled for something suitably professional, not too pretentious, and which will not result in poor Shilu having to tell people she works for a crazy lady – Executive Assistant. The name came courtesy of our friend Anand, a former child actor who is soon going to outdo and exceed his claim-to-fame of having danced on a table with Silk Smitha, and will need his own secretary then.

So, friends, frenemies and future patrons of disorganized poets: if you want to schedule in some face or phone time with me in the next few months, kindly consult my Executive Assistant.

Now excuse me while I go and enjoy feeling smug about the fact I can actually say that.

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.

The Venus Flytrap: Surrendering To Serendipities

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A dear friend of mine resigned from her job today to be with her toddler – and see where life takes her next.

This is no small step for my freespirited friend, someone widely acknowledged as the blithely charming PR queen of her country, someone who has chased eclipses in Iran, honeymooned in Iceland and worn a dress of orange and blue to her wedding.

“I will honour my promise to you,” she said. “But I will be a humble stay-at-home mum from now on.” She had told me some time before that she was considering taking up an artform, an idea I had applauded. The truth is, other than her beautiful house décor and uncanny ability to pick the perfect present for anyone, I have no idea what her creative talents might be. But what I do know, and what I told her, is this: if she does art, she is an artist. No gallery, committee or critic needs to sanction her – or anyone – as such.

I wanted to be an author since I was seven years old. By my late teens, thanks to a series of serendipities catalyzing around my discovery of the magic of spoken word, I already had some semblance of a cult following. But I kept dreaming of having a book – a book would be evidence. A book would make my writing real.

I had the good sense, however, to not jump at the first fishes that bit. I rejected at least two offers to publish a collection because where they came from didn’t sit well with me: a print-on-demand run by a communist with a fetish for hijab-ed women in high heels, and a representative of a multinational that packages spirituality with pyramid schemes.

When I finally found the combination of people and promises that suited me best, I thought the rest would be quick and easy. Little did I know I had more to learn: three months ago, the funding for the book was abruptly withdrawn.

There was the brief, requisite shock at this bad fortune, but what alarmed me most was my surprising ambivalence. The ground had given away not because I’d lost my long-cherished dream, but because I was forced to acknowledge that it was no longer my dream. Other people wanted to see this book much more than I did – I was more infatuated with the process than the project. “You wanted to be a writer, right?” I asked myself. “Well, you already are. Book or no book.”

But this story doesn’t end with an excuse. When I finally, wholeheartedly, accepted that my book wasn’t going to happen (at least, not the way I wanted it to), the miraculous happened: a new investor showed up. Just like that. I hadn’t looked. I had asked only in the silence of my own heart. Most of all, I hadn’t expected.

And this is what I think holds me in good stead as I prepare to leave familiar waters. Whatever happens to this book, I am what I am. What I wanted in the first place was not fame or wealth. It was to write. I will do just that, and trust that all else will follow. I am humbled by this journey enough to see that I do not control it at all.

In Om Shanti Om, Shah Rukh Khan says that when you want something enough, the whole universe conspires to give it to you. What I’ve found to be truer still is that if you are something enough, if you own and inhabit that skin in a way that doesn’t fixate on its outcome, the universe aligns itself in equally serendipitous ways.

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.

Karna Poems on Kritya

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The only video of my readings that I’ve seen so far and liked was shot by Sze Ying Goh at No Black Tie, Kuala Lumpur on April 1 2007. You can find this video in the ‘Narc Is I’ section of this blog.

In it, I am reading “Karna Considers Yuanfen”. This was the first of the poems that reimagine the Mahabharata’s Karna as a woman and alter-ego, juxtaposing the epic character with personal history. When I first wrote it, I was not sure — it is a prose poem, clunky with text, drenched in heavy imagery. I did not think it could translate to the stage. But I found, repeatedly, that it was among my most popular works, the kind in which the audience stays silent for a moment after it ends before they begin to clap.

Although there are other poems outside of this trilogy, “Karna Considers Yuanfen” leads into “Karna Considers Light” and “Karna and Kunti”, neither of which have been published before. The former is a rumination on the nature of Karna’s relationship to her omniscient, unattainable father, the god of the sun, the latter a more traditional retelling of her encounter with her unknown mother on the battlefield. In the first poem, the closing lines are engraved on a plaque in the crypt of the astronomer John Brashear; the second contains a phrase from Ainkurunuru 13 (trans. Ramanujan). I realise my poems and blog have niche audiences who are probably already familiar, but Yuanfen is the Chinese concept of the apportionment of love one is destined to have in one’s lifetime.

All three are published in the April issue of Kritya. Click on the “more poems by SM” link there to take you to the second and third.

Why is Karna a woman, and why have I chosen this character to explore biomythography? Because the story of Karna is the story of why art has any meaning to me. It was the first story I ever heard that devastated me, that taught me immediately of both the power and pathos of storytelling and shaped my moral universe as a very young child. Karna is my mythological archetype, and the deeper I delved into creating my own art, the more I wanted to appropriate this story in a way that was truly mine.

Italian Intrigue

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The editors of the Quarterly Literary Review of Singapore emailed me a few days ago to say they had received a note from the Italian journal Buràn which said that they had published a translation of the excerpt from my novel-in-progress, Constellation of Scars, that QLRS had first published in 2006.

Neither QLRS nor I had been contacted for permission.

I am not upset (not even about the fact that they credit me to Malaysia, but hey who cares — never will that country be able to lay its claim to me again) but am certainly intrigued. Mailed it over to an Italian-speaking friend for an appraisal about the quality of translation. Any other Italian speakers/readers out there? What do you think?

The original is here.

Koldovstvo Coming

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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. ;)