Tag Archives: reading

The Venus Flytrap: Enough of Enid Blyton

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The UK’s Royal Mint has heeded the caution of its advisory committee and decided against issuing a commemorative coin to coincide with the 50th death anniversary of Enid Blyton, whose books have been a part of the childhoods of several generations of readers. The caution was because a backlash was feared; it’s difficult to miss the explicit racism (some critics allege sexism and homophobia too) in those books.

Those who think the Royal Mint’s decision was excessive argue that social norms keep changing, and that it isn’t fair to judge the people of the past by what is politically correct in the present. This would be a reasonable argument, since dead people don’t have the benefit of learning and evolving their viewpoints as the living do, except that Blyton was criticised in her own time for work which was already perceived as racist, even receiving a publisher rejection for a book long after she had established her career. What’s more evident here is not Blyton’s bigotry, which may or may not have been on par with her surroundings, but the bigotry of her defenders today, who are willing to overlook the damage that honouring a prejudiced person and their work can have.

Blyton died in 1968, and as far as I’m aware is not an author whose work has been kept in circulation through its inclusion in academic syllabi. Her books continue to be purchased by parents and libraries, with over 2 million copies reportedly sold in the last 5 years. This is not in itself a problem; no one with a respect for literature knocks a reading habit, wherever it springs from. But what is worrying is the context. A 2017 study by the Arts Council England discovered that just 1% of all children’s books published in the UK that year featured a main character of a minority ethnicity, despite nearly 33% of schoolchildren being from non-white backgrounds. When the literature being produced does not sufficiently reflect modern society, the continuing popularity of older work with problematic values is a matter of concern.

As it happens, assuming the ACE statistic could have applied to the year prior too, one of my own books – released in the UK in 2016 by Lantana Publishing, which was founded to produce culturally diverse children’s books – would have counted. When it comes to situations like this, one longs to not be among the exception. But when that book, The Ammuchi Puchi, was republished in India last year, it entered a vibrant, growing world of incredibly exciting work for all ages which normalises and celebrates darker skin tones, local names and environments, splashes of mother-tongues, folklore, indigenous artforms, progressive viewpoints, unusual storylines and more. Contemporary, original children’s literature is thriving here.

Any book-buying parent or educational facilitator in India who is still exclusively reaching for Enid Blytons or even Amar Chitra Kathas (with their colourist portrayals, among other uncomfortable things) out of sentimentality is depriving the reading child of a treasure trove. Give them your old favourites too; but know that they will be far more enriched by newer books, the kind we didn’t have when we were growing up.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on September 5th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Tacking The Tsundoku Pile

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Between the beginning of May and the end of July, I finished reading 37 books. These comprised of: 18 novels, 3 graphic novels, 5 books of poetry, 3 short story collections, 4 picture-books for all ages, and 4 works of non-fiction.

I hadn’t been held hostage in a library. I hadn’t become unemployed; in fact, my overall workload had increased during this period. I hadn’t had a windfall and splurged it; with few exceptions, most of the books were from my splendid tsundoku collection (the Japanese term for purchasing books and not reading them, allowing the to-be-read pile to become a heap, then several).

The having of books – or if one cannot own them, the solace of wandering the stacks at a library or a good bookstore – is one kind of pleasure and self-care activity. Reading them is a completely separate kind. My book binge was deliberate. It was to limit my social media usage, both so I would spend my time better and because I was increasingly noticing how it drained more than just my phone battery. Studies show how social media usage can negatively affect mental health, as well as physical components like sleep, something most users know from experience.

Many wonder how to rekindle (pun intended) their earlier interest in reading. Innumerable suggestions exist: take public transport and read on your commute, carry literature at all times so you can read during waiting periods through the day, commit to an hour before bedtime or wake earlier and do it before even brushing your teeth. Notice how every one of these suggestions ultimately requires the same thing: a shift in unrelated habits. The thing you need to tweak to bring reading back doesn’t have to do with books at all. Rather than deactivate my apps, I simply decided to do more of something else, and this made me see how little I actually need them.

These days, I work at a desk beside a well-earned wall of books, and I hope I’ll always remember being giddy with joy and surprise on the night I finally set it all up, when it was like I was staring at my childhood ambitions come true. “Now I am a Lady of Letters,” I thought, grandly. “An L. O. L.”

And that’s exactly why I plan to read fewer books this month. The downside to reading so voraciously was that I’d left myself little time to write. After three months of gobbling through pages like a silverfish, I confronted the fact that my book binge was also an exercise in procrastination.

Still, I understood this only through the reset I experienced thanks to it. I had gained greater clarity on my goals, and become more mindful about how I utilise or fritter my time. I didn’t have as many low moods. My sense of self was richer, less reactive to the vagaries of the fickle hive mind. Not least, I experienced the sheer pleasure that comes from immersion, when you don’t shift your attention just because of one slow-moving passage. Ultimately, I found that the many worlds of fiction held far less artifice than the online world.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on August 8th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: How Book Piracy Kills Book Culture

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This question is on Quora: “Where can I download the book The Queen of Jasmine Country?” As the author of the said novel, I’m uniquely qualified to respond. Not about where to illegally get a free digital copy of my book, but about what happens when you do.

Writers may be creatives, but publishing is a revenue-based corporate industry. Publishers invest in authors (from accepting their submissions to allocating a promotion budget) based on how their work is projected to fare on the market, and then does. If book piracy undercuts profits, it significantly impacts the author’s career, and prospects for future books in its genre.

You may think it’s just one little download – but just like “one vote” or “one plastic straw”, you’re not the only one. Collectively, that’s a lot of lost sales. To be considered a bestseller in India, a literary fiction book in English only needs to sell around 2000 copies. The author makes just 8%-10% on royalties. Once, I bought a box of sweets for former colleagues when I signed a book contract. As I stood at the counter, I calculated that in order to pay for it from my royalties, every single person in that mid-size agency would have to buy a copy. I think three did.

Which brings us to day jobs and side gigs. Here’s the secret: if they don’t come from or marry into wealth, authors in India earn their incomes from something other than their books. Mine is from content writing, ghostwriting and journalism. Tell me: if I’m hustling constantly for paid work, growing disillusioned because making literature is so financially unviable, how am I going to find the time and headspace to write more? It’s a practical question.

Even bestselling commercial fiction writer Durjoy Datta has gone on the record to say, “You cannot expect to pay rent or even the electricity bill with a writing income.” Imagine the situation for lit-fic or poetry.

Libraries and piracy are simply not the same; it’s not classist to oppose the latter. With a library membership, you contribute to and participate in reading culture in a meaningful way, keeping books in circulation, supporting spaces in which they are sacred, and making them accessible in a fair way. Book piracy, on the contrary, has detrimental effects on this culture. It actively limits which books enter the market.

Don’t have a good library close to you? Look harder. Chennai, for instance, has: Madras Literary Society, Connemara Library, Anna Centenary Library, British Council and American Consulate Libraries, Roja Muthiah Research Library – and these are just the major ones. You can also access free online collections, such as Open Library, which work in exactly the same way.

There are only a few cases in which the downloading of illegal e-books is marginally acceptable, such as for prohibitively expensive academic texts, out of print works and banned books. But for a new book available for the price of a designer coffee, and deeply discounted through online retailers? Why would you hurt the author that way? If you want more books by them in future, buy (or borrow) the ones they’ve already written.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on March 14th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

THE QUEEN OF JASMINE COUNTRY

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I am delighted to announce the publication of my fifth book and first novel, The Queen of Jasmine Country, in October 2018 by HarperCollins India. A press release from HarperCollins India contains further details.

My book is now in bookstores all over the Indian subcontinent, and online on Amazon India and other retailers.

Please see below the image for links to selected interviews, reviews and excerpts.

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“A rare and incandescent book”. – Trisha Gupta in India Today

 “Among contemporary Indian writers in English, there aren’t many who can write fiction as if it were poetry and do as good a job of it as Sharanya Manivannan.” – Tanuj Solanki in Scroll

“Manivannan’s writing is honest, beautiful and compassionate. Her recreation of 7th-century Tamil society is believable, and her storytelling, hypnotic. Her poetic prose serves as a delightful and sensual channel for Andal’s life, love and art. The poet-goddess could not have picked a better medium.” – Urmi Chanda-Vaz in The Hindu Business Line

“Manivannan weaves an impressive story that feels new while drawing from the familiar.” – Krupa Ge in Firstpost

“Kodhai’s every metaphor, every daydream is laced with the imagery of the earth, both local and distant. In Manivannan’s characteristically lyrical style, the prose is sensual and tactile. She mines the tropes within Andal’s own writing to create Kodhai’s unique voice which combines storytelling and poetry.” – Urvashi Bahuguna in Scroll

“The Queen of Jasmine Country celebrates both love and womanhood like never before.” – Soumyabrata Gupta in Deccan Chronicle / The Asian Age

“The quality of sensuality and earthiness in Manivannan’s writing goes right to the reader’s bones, and I have had to stop to breathe, to stay with and feel the feelings rather than rush on with the reading.” – Kiranjeet Chaturvedi, Birdsong & Beyond

“Remarkable… A torch song of both love, and freedom.” – Shreya Ila Anasuya in Verve

“Long after you have finished the little book, the warmth of Manivannan’s words and the intricately imagined world of Kodhai will continue to hum in your head.” – Devapriya Roy in ScoopWhoop

“There’s much lush lyricism here, born out of the natural beauty of Kodhai’s small world, and one wonders if this is indeed the poet-saint herself writing about her life.” – Pooja Pillai in The Indian Express

[A] lyrical fable seeped in strong, indigenous, sensual prose” – Resh Susan in Huffington Post 

“Exquisite prose and the journey of a sublimely emancipated girl whose ‘words will themselves become prayers’… [A] garland of a book.”– Lisa Rani Ray

“This book was just so beautiful! So, so damn beautiful!”  Booxoul 

“A compelling testament on art, beauty, poetry and magic in prose that is way out of the normal league. This is legend.” – Hey DJ – Spin That Wheel

“I’m in love with each and every page of this book.” – Ronak R. Shah

“I found myself immersed in the feel of the words: there is so much power and depth in the words strung together, like a garland, each word chosen with care and which are full of depth and rich meaning.” — Chitra Ahanthem in Books And Conversations

“[TheQueen of Jasmine Country shows you the power of language when poets pen down a novel, this is where the play of language and the elegance of poetry comes into play.” – Sahil Pradhan in A hindu’s view

“These words that Sharanya uses to describe what Kodhai (who later goes on to become Andal) felt in the book, might as well describe Sharanya’s own relationship with words. She weaves them majestically like they weave silk threads, delicately soft, yet strong, firm and unbreakable.” – Anushree K in Women’s Web

“It was like a thunderstorm of a love affair that leaves no scar yet lingers forever in who you become because of it.” – from an interview by Soumyabrata Gupta in Deccan Chronicle

“So who was she really – this young woman from over a thousand years ago? What filled her nights and days, and led her to write such intense, vivid poetry? This is what my novel is about – going beyond her legend, and reading between her own lines.” – from an interview by Rochana Mohan in The New Indian Express

“If you strip the fancy alangaram, the gem-encrusted hagiography, and see what’s really there – a young woman so desperate for love that she fasts and prays for it – I think you’ll see her as she came to me, too.” – from an interview by Kiran Manral in SheThePeople

“So Kodhai dreaming of the mythical landscape of Ayarpadi gives birth to another rendition of herself within that dream, committed to permanence in her poetry; and then there was me here in the 21st century spending my nights and days imagining Puduvai, conjuring up a whole life. Dreaming of the dreamer, who dreamt within my dream of her.” – from an interview by Nidhi Verma in Platform Magazine

“It was not the goddess Andal who came to me as a muse but a teenager named Kodhai, who lived in the 9th century and wrote incandescent and anguished poems, never knowing what would eventually become of them.” – from an interview by Varsha Naik in Free Press Journal

“Kodhai certainly knew the vision of those peaks. It is easy to imagine her: walking deeper into the forest, lifting her hems as she crossed small streams, stopping for elephant traffic, while the magnolia she tucked into her ear wilts through the course of the day. I lift my eyes to the mountains and drink in the certainty that what I see is very close to what she too must have seen.” – a travelogue in The Punch Magazine

“I felt as though a peacock had suddenly swept in from a place of camouflage, tail unfolded, and rearranged the world with its resplendence.” – an excerpt in Scroll

“I grew along with the fence of sugarcane. My teeth, when they came in, grew strong on the flesh of those stalks.” – an excerpt in Harper Broadcast

The Venus Flytrap: Ondaatje’s Bibliography

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A few months before I finished school, due to a set of circumstances that don’t lend themselves to a brief explanation, my siblings and I stayed for several days at the home of a friend of our mother’s. I was 15. The house had what I recognise in retrospect was probably a mostly decorative library, but it contained real books, and I spent hours perusing them. Some lines from a novel I found then remain indelible to me, and they return now to describe my chance discovery of it: “Who lays the crumbs of food that tempt you? Toward a person you never considered. A dream. Then later another series of dreams.” I don’t know what made me open Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, what tempted me toward what was an unusual choice for my reading tastes back then, but I do know that it permanently changed those tastes – and me. That was a book that raised me. I became an adult as I turned its pages, emerging in new skin, freshly initiated, as I closed it.

In the past few weeks, I’ve been slowly reading Ondaatje’s latest novel, Warlight. Like any Ondaatje after my first one, I came to it not with a sense of excitement but a sense of trust. Some books, and some bodies of work, are simply reliable that way. The time you spend with them is like seeing someone you share a long affinity with – sometimes you will speak of nothing special, but the point is that it is never transactional. Something caught my eye this time: on the page with the list of the author’s prior works, each title had a year in brackets after it. I’d read many of them, but what I’d never clocked was their chronology. Of Ondaatje’s 20 books, his first five – published between 1967 and 1976 – were obscure poetry collections. His life didn’t begin with his fame, and neither do decades of fame sum up his life.

Pondering that list gave me much for one of my current preoccupations: the deeply discursive questions of interior lives, and how, say, the volume of 20 books stands against every other method in which to measure 75 years of life. It reminded me of something my father innocently said when I signed a book contract once, for a work that wouldn’t be released for over a year later: “But what will the publishers do until then?” The same holds for what people imagine the author does, and this is true of everyone whose work requires a public presence. I nuzzle these contemplations often, applying them gently to everyone I encounter. This is bridge-work, for it helps me not only parse the lacuna between what is perceived of me and the true fabric of my days, but to also engage more meaningfully in those encounters.

These lines from Warlight say it all: “I could have entered and roamed within the story of their marriage as easily as I might have within the lives of others who had surrounded me in my youth, who were part of my self-portrait, composed from the way they had caught glimpses of me.”

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on July 19th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: A Reunion

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I am delighted that my column, The Venus Flytrap, is back in The New Indian Express after a 5-year hiatus! The first piece is below. An edited version appeared in the newspaper on October 26th. The column appears on Mondays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

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What do you say to someone, an old friend of sorts, after five years have passed, out of touch? Let me try. Think of this as me greeting you as you find most appropriate: with a hug, a handshake, or maybe just the hope that you still remember me. Do you? Walk with me a little while, if you will. Let’s take for granted that much happened, as was only necessary. Five years is a long time to waste, and a short time to spend. You aren’t the same person; I assure you that neither am I. Yes, I still love to laugh, and I live by the moon even more than before. Yes, there’s indigo in both our throats now – and on some nights, it’s an arrested poison, and in some lights it’s a hauntingly beautiful blush. You, I can see, still seek out challenge, are charmed by caprice, still wear your circumstances like a loose collar, so that nothing gets in the way of a deep breath. Still look for yourself in the reflections of others, and delight in how similar and similarly entangled we all are.

Let’s say, also, that some things stayed the same, even as others changed.

I hope you still have more fingers than mistakes to count on them, and that you do not do so often. Which is to say – I hope you always knew the difference between a risk and Russian roulette. I hope they threw carnations at you more than they did arrows (you know who they are). I hope all the love you ever threw out there yourself boomeranged right back, full force. I hope your elsewheres still fill you with sweet nostalgia, and your somedays have inched ever closer.

Me? There’s plenty of time for that later. But I will say this much: there’s a mountain inside each of us, beyond which no one can hear us screaming. I have conquered mine. But this is also true: Rumi wrote, “There is a kiss we want with our whole lives.” And I am still waiting. And that is probably why, my dear, that I am still here.

I still have a heart like a pair of saloon doors, swinging open at every chance.

What fills your life now? Who are you becoming?

I thought of you sometimes, and of what I would say if I knew you were still listening (and at other times, I thought we’d never see each other again). I thought of you when I wept with joy in the Tuileries one dying summer, and when I looked over a bridge into a lagoon in which a mermaid lay silenced through thirty years of war, and always when the Madras summer does to the jacaranda and rusty shield-bearer trees what a greater poet’s spring did to the branches of the cherry.

Any time someone allows you into their lives is a privilege. Any time someone takes two minutes of their own time to listen to you is a chance.

Walk with me, again, a little while. And thank you, old friend, for letting me walk with you.

 

An Interview, In Film & Text, On Luminarya

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The marvellous new Luminarya, a website celebrating women around the world, carries a lengthy interview with me, conducted both on film and in text, which also includes footage of me reading from my Devimahatmyam sequence of poems, “The Secret of Secrets”. See it all here.

Talking Erotica In Campus Diaries

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Campus Diaries recently interviewed me about writing and reading erotica.

CD: What does it mean for you to be erotic? As a personal definition and in your work?

SM: There’s a line from an Ani Difranco song – “Every time I move, I make a woman’s movement”. I think this is my personal definition.

Read the rest here.

On Bookstores: “Memory of Trees”

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My first paid job was at an independent bookstore in Kuala Lumpur’s fashionable Telawi neighbourhood. It was the summer before I turned 16. I had just finished school, and under circumstances I can only explain as a combustion of family dysfunction and personal callowness, neither plans nor ambitions existed regarding my future. I spent just over a month at that job. I could not get the hang of the cash register, and the entire situation – circumstantially and emotionally – was a little bizarre, but those weeks turned out to be pivotal. The seeming lack of direction in my life was a blessing in disguise; heading nowhere, I fell heart-first into the artistic subculture where my career began, thanks to friends made at the time.

I spent that month reading, reading, reading. I read Nabokov. I read Kundera. I read Kerouac. I read the classics so I could avoid them later. I read all the dead white men I would spend the next several years uninterested in, because after that first job at Silverfish Books, I found and fell into a compulsive affair with Payless – a chain that stocked books sourced from secondhand stores in the United States. I read Cisneros. I read Rich. I read Anzaldua. I read Marmon Silko. I read the obscure and under-rated. I would never complete a tertiary education. These books, bought cheap and in bulk, were my teachers. They taught me not just how to write from the borderlands, but also how to thrive in a certain kind of world as a certain kind of woman.

Five years into living in Chennai, I take the news that Landmark is phasing out its books section with sadness. Their annual sales used to put me into raptures. Of course, like so many other readers, I am complicit in their failure. When Flipkart and the even more steeply-discounted Homeshop18 came on the scene brandishing cut-rate prices and the magic mantra “cash on delivery”, I made the switch. (Psst – there’s even one terribly useful website, www.indiabookstore.net, that pulls up the all the listings from a range of digital stores).

Yet I hope that what is, effectively, the end of the beloved retailer as we know it will lead to the sprouting of secondhand bookstores. We won’t stop buying books, but we will certainly run out of shelf space. Pre-owned books come with many perks. In London a few months ago, I visited the iconic Skoob (its offshoot in Kuala Lumpur was another playground of my teens) and ticked a couple of titles off my wishlist. They were in great condition, and significantly cheaper even in the Queen’s currency than new copies bought in India. Out of print books abound in such shops. In the past, although it’s no longer an interest of mine, I’ve also found books inscribed by the author.

I still pay it forward, though. Whenever I come across shelves of free books or book swaps in cafes and other places, I press a lipstick print on the title page of my own little paperback and leave it for whoever is meant to find it. I may be a cheapo when it comes to purchasing, but I do believe in giving my own work away often. As off-putting as I found the staff of Paris’ famed Shakespeare & Company when I visited this summer, I blew a kiss to the ghosts of Hemingway, Nin and Ginsberg and left some copies there too. [Later, I learnt that the establishment that now operates under this name isn’t actually the one Hemingway – whom in rather trite fashion I was reading at the time – frequented, but you know what they (meaning I) say. You can’t unkiss a kiss.]

So no, I don’t like bookstores, however iconic they may be, which are burdened by their legacies. I do like ones that strive to mean something in the present moment, like Singapore’s Books Actually – which publishes chapbooks, organizes readings and has a friendly resident cat. There, I’ve never left books for free, because they care enough about indie authors to actually stock them.

I recently came across this word: tsundoku. A web meme defines it as follows: “buying books and not reading them; letting books pile up unread on shelves or floors or nightstands”. I remain old-fashioned: because I need to see the spines of books and touch their pages, I cannot convert to a more efficient electronic device.

I am comforted by the presence of books as much as by their contents. I don’t go to libraries because I am selfish, slow and scattered. But I do go to bookstores because they soothe me. I think it’s because they carry, tangibly, the memory of trees. To step into a bookstore is to step into a forest of stories. We lose our forests to far worse things than literature.

An edited version appeared in Kindle Magazine.

Reading at NIT-Calicut

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I will be giving a reading, followed by a Q+A session, at the valedictory function of Spitfire ’11, the National Institute of Technology-Calicut’s inter-collegiate literary festival. The event is open to the public.

Date: November 13, 2011

Time: 5pm

Venue: Auditorium, NIT-Calicut