Kindle Magazine has an all-poetry issue out now, and I am so pleased that they have republished “The Ten Idylls” – an old sequence of mine inspired by translations of 2000-year old Tamil Sangam poetry by A.K. Ramanujan. The poems were written in two bursts in 2002 and 2006 and published in a handmade chapbook, Iyari (2006), and then in a book, Witchcraft (2008). Here they are online.
The anthology Baker’s Dozen: The Elle-Tranquebar Book of Short Stories is out now from Tranquebar Press and available at all good bookstores, online and offline. It features six winners of the Elle Fiction Awards, including my short story “Greed and the Gandhi Quartet”, as well as seven stories from the Tranquebar stable. Aside from yours truly, the authors are Ruchika Chanana, Divya Sreedharan, Payal Mukherjee, Kim Kanagaki, Sanjay Sipahimalani, Nighat M. Gandhi, Tishani Doshi, Sheba Karim, Madhulika Liddle and Mridula Koshy.
In the media today we sometimes encounter the phrase, “the Sri Lanka story”, as though a singular narrative exists. Nayomi Munaweera’s Island of a Thousand Mirrors is an elegant debut that attempts, and more often than not succeeds, to complicate this notion. It is a classic diaspora story, only set against a backdrop still fraught with fresh wounds, with the author in the unenviable position of belonging to the defense. Although presented as an account of two sides of the struggle, the book’s more resonant voice is certainly Sinhala and relatively privileged. Starting out with these facts, Munaweera has crafted – in an unapologetic, unaligned tenor – a novel that succeeds in offering a new perspective to a situation that continues to unfold.
The novel opens evocatively in a double-storey house on Colombo’s Wellawatte beach, where one of its two narrators – Yasodhara Rajasinghe, elder daughter and eventual American immigrant – spends her childhood, and recounts with omniscience the lives and choices around her. The upper floor of the house is rented out to a Tamil family, the Shivalingams, over two generations. The riots of 1983 send them all scattering: Yasodhara, her sister Lanka and their parents to America and the Shivalingams to the north of the country. Neither sister completely lets go of the memory of their childhood companion, Shiva, or of the country they leave behind.
Elsewhere in Sri Lanka, another girl is growing up – intelligent, determined Saraswathi. Her brothers have disappeared into the civil war, and her ambition to become a schoolteacher is all that holds her family together. But Saraswathi’s life takes a tragic turn, and left with no other choice, she joins the LTTE. Her voice begins persuasively, but loses conviction along the way – perhaps partly a structural problem, because we are introduced to her so far into the book that – used as we are to Yasodhara’s strong, lovely narration – her appearance is unexpected and her story far more compressed. Yasodhara as narrator captures an idyllic childhood and nostalgia for the same perfectly, but the intensity of the arc of Saraswathi’s trajectory is not as impressively conveyed. What Saraswathi eventually becomes is someone stripped of her humanity, collateral damage turned pawn, but that transformation is in some ways predictable. But Saraswathi’s story is closer to the uni-dimensional “Sri Lanka story” we hear of often; it is Yasodhara’s that is a truly fresh perspective.
The strength of the novel lies in its clean, graceful prose. Munaweera’s language is expressive, tautly-rendered in such a way that its lush passages never slip into overwhelm. This is a difficult task for the diaspora novel, because in certain ways the book treads over territory already made familiar by American writers of Indian descent like Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni and Jhumpa Lahiri. Yet when Munaweera writes of the immigrant condition, she is neither clichéd nor cloying. Yes, there’s something familiar about “[s]o many lonely men dreaming in Sinhala, moaning in their chilly beds, wanting American green cards and perfectly cooked eggplant curry” – yet it is tempered by the eloquence of the line that follows: “[s]o much palpable need, such archaeologies of desire that I am suddenly afraid”.
Despite its emotional ambition, however, Island of A Thousand Mirrors falters a little when it comes to political scope. Though Munaweera handles the complexity of the early stirrings of the civil war well, and presents a nuanced and necessary voice, the novel ends abruptly with the death of Prabhakaran. The war is over – but only technically. Certainly not in the real world, where three years on Sri Lanka continues to struggle to find a meaningful peace. For the reader who knows this – i.e. the reader who was introduced to the conflict neither through this book alone nor through news of the killing of the LTTE leader – this feels like a cop-out. She quotes Rajapakse in the book’s final pages and makes an observation: “‘I don’t want to dig into the past. I don’t want to open the wound.’ He knows the wound is there, just under the surface, waiting to erupt. Over the decades we will witness how it heals or festers.”
But the novel too hesitates the same way. If Munaweera had extended this slim novel just a little way further into the post-war era and chosen to approach a few of the many current complexities, a well-roundedness that is otherwise missing could have completed an otherwise moving picture.
An edited version appeared in today’s The Sunday Guardian.
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.
I have a short story, “Sweet” in the Spring 2013 issue of The Moth, an Ireland-based print magazine.
Here’s the first paragraph…
They say that if you dream of the one you long for on a night when you have kept four lotus petals under your pillow, your love has not gone unreciprocated. In the French Quarter I see them, all pale formality and long-stemmed leaning, and smile remembering this. I have no use for the sad dignity of lotuses, not here. Tonight, in the other city, I will sleep alone for the first time in weeks, but this is how it works: while I am here, this is all there is. Nothing exists beyond the periphery of desire.
You can purchase the magazine here.
The Recovery issue of PIX — a photography quarterly — also has lots to read, including my poem “Tin Men”. Also includes poems by Annie Zaidi, Sumana Roy, Anindita Sengupta, Anand Thakore and an essay by Prayaag Akbar, as well as several wonderful photo features.
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?
My story “Nine Postcards From The Pondicherry Border”, which originally appeared in Flycatcher: A Journal of Native Imagination, has been selected for Sundress Publication’s 2012 Best of the Net Anthology, which honours fiction, poetry and non-fiction published in web journals.
From Kindle Magazine‘s March 2013 issue on reclaiming the female body.
A coquettish Maria de Medeiros, playing the moll in Pulp Fiction, lounges in bed, practically purring with a self-assured lazy sensuality. Sleepily, she fantasises about having a potbelly, how she would accentuate it with small tee shirts and how very sexy one is (but only, and she is vehement – and here I must respectfully disagree – on women). She praises the potbelly, while conceding its unfair reputation: “I don’t give a damn what men find attractive. It’s unfortunate what we find pleasing to the touch and pleasing to the eye is seldom the same.”
Who knows when the rounded belly began to be regarded as anything less glorious than the other womanly curves. The classical poets adored it; the sculptors chiseled its softness into stone. Among the customary markers of beauty were the three folds on the stomach – lines which inspired lines in religious and erotic literature. The paragon waist was tiny in comparison to the generousness of the breasts and hips, but the tummy itself ample of its own accord. The Lalita Sahasranamam, for example, extols not only the contours of such a stomach (Sthana bhara dalan madhya patta bhandha valithraya – “she who has three stripes in her belly which appear to have been created to protect her tiny waist from her heavy breasts”), but even the down that grows upon it (Lakshya roma latha dharatha samunneya madhayama – “she who is suspected to have a waist because of the creeper-like hairs rising from there”).
There are beautiful names, too, for this hair of the stomach, which runs from pubis to navel, and sometimes from navel to solar plexus: take the Sanskrit romaraji, and the Latin linea nigra.
How intriguing that such loveliness is ascribed in language for things which, in the pursuit or only the perception of fitness or hygiene, so many shun.
Only some women have the linea nigra naturally – but almost all women develop it during pregnancy, when the protuberant belly is celebrated perhaps most of all. Baby bumps contain miracles: among all the numinous places in the body, the abdomen announces most evidently of all that there is no meaningful distinction between science and mystery.
And as a reminder of this, we have that lovely vestigial mark: the navel.
The navel is our original point of connection to anyone else. Within the lovely convex bellies of our mothers, the conduit of the umbilicus does its work, nourishing and expelling and making us whole. Our belly-buttons are almost our first mouths, allowing us to communicate and to feed.
And also like mouths, later on, how kissable they become. Prudence Glynn, who researched eroticism and fashion, wrote that the waist is the first place that a man would touch on a woman when seeking to insinuate “more than a formal courtesy”. If the waist is a suggestion, the navel is sheer invitation. Widely regarded as one of the standard erogenous zones, and said to originate from the same common tissue as the genitalia, its exposure is considered taboo in many cultures – sometimes surprisingly so. The belly-button was considered so provocative for most of the 20th century in America that there was an actual law banning its display on cinema. There is a scene in Some Like It Hot in which Marilyn Monroe wears a dress that leaves very little to the imagination – despite this, a small piece of cloth was used to cover her navel specifically. In other films, costume designers glued decorative stones into or onto the navels of actors and dancers – perhaps the first spark of the later trend for the bejeweled belly-button.
Here in India, the partially (as when wearing a sari) or completely (as when wearing certain regional ghagra cholis) bared midriff has rarely caused ruffles, provided it is displayed in traditional attire. The female navel, however, has had its moments of both subtlety and scandal. In that odd way in which Indian cinema is a vehicle of both exploitation and expression, navel-kissing was permissive on celluloid at a time when lip-kissing was not (censorship laws later changed). One thing’s for sure: the navel is seen as sexual in ways in which the tummy, the obliques and even the waist aren’t quite.
It’s also spiritual. In Amerindian shamanism, below the navel is where energetic cords that bind us to other people, particularly lovers, emerge. In yoga and other systems of mind-body harmony, it is a particularly powerful point. To “navel-gaze” is to ponder, perhaps philosophically – not for nothing did St. Thomas Aquinas call the navel “the bodily metaphor for spiritual things”.
The stomach, on the whole, is is also regarded as the site of intuition – “I have a gut feeling”, we say – or profound emotion – “When he said that, I burned from the bottom of my belly”.
The stomach is also happily practical, of course. A full breath, one that will replenish the entire system, reaches all the way down to the stomach and puffs it up. When it comes to food, taste resides in the mouth, but hunger – desire – is felt in the belly. An aching belly, groaning and beset by pangs. Eating keeps us alive – not the act itself, as pleasurable as it is, but the process of nourishing, work that takes places deep within the body and out of sight.
And how lovely is the thing in sight. Earlier, we considered how traditionally, folds of flesh, “lines”, on the stomach were markers of beauty. Equally eloquent are all the other lines and marks that also occur here. There are, for instance, the stretch marks of growth and weight loss, and the scars of Caesarean sections and appendix operations and botched piercings. Like the palms or the face, the belly is also a canvas of skin, on which stories from our lives present themselves – stories of feast and famine, stories of self-denial and self-sacrifice, stories of birthing and wrenching, stories of coveting and covering-up. Of pain and pleasure and truth and beauty and creation and craving and a hundred other things that go far beyond the objectified view.
In Bengal Lights, a very short story, “The Black Widow”.
I have a poem, “Benediction For The Feast”, in Prairie Schooner’s online Fusion series. Guest editor Sudeep Sen has this to say about the poem in his introduction to the issue: “Sharanya Manivannan’s ‘Benediction for a Feast’ has a seductive oral quality to it—it almost urges you to be anointed through her wordplay”. Read it here.
I have a surrealist noir erotic story, “Sky Clad”, in the new issue of Erotique. Purchase details here.
My long story, “Afternoon Sex” is in issue 14 of Hobart.
I know it’s in a print magazine, and perhaps expensive for those of you outside the U.S., but I really hope you will read it. If it helps to convince you, it’s 30 pages long and I really put my heart into writing it. It means a lot to me that it has finally been published.
Hobart runs bonus materials on their website, so I’ve done something a little special for this story. Not only can you read the first page, but I also did a small acrylic painting, “Two Parrots”, to accompany the story. See both, along with the details for purchasing the magazine, here.