Monthly Archives: May 2010

I’m Keeping The Yellow, But The Rest Has Got To Go!

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In a curious oversight, given how much I was looking forward to it and how I love how it turned out, I forgot to pimp my redesigned website. It went live just before I left for Australia, and although it’s not fully done up just yet, I’m very happy with how it’s looking so far. There’s much more content, and it carries my vibe much better than the first design — which, while splashed with my darling Pondicherry yellow, reflected “me” so little that a close friend called it my “Gone Fishin’ ” look.

Here you go: www.sharanyamanivannan.com

Big thanks to Mihir Ranganathan’s fabulous design chops.

The Venus Flytrap: Places Called Home

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Long after most of the shops had closed in the small city of Darwin, we were having a late dinner of streetside gyros, when the interlude of an inebriated and entertaining stranger to whom we’d lied, saying we were all locals (until my clumsy handling of the gyros gave me away), veered the conversation toward homes and homelands. A mixed group of two Australians, two Malaysians and yours truly – new friends and old – in the city for a literary festival, all of us had travelled widely and were involved with culture, lawmaking or indigenous interests. I expressed the opinion that I find ethnonationalistic separatism deplorable, because it reinforces divisions instead of harmonizing them, and because identity relies on emotional geography, which political cartography can only brutalize. The other Ceylonese person at the table disagreed, citing the example of India’s state divisions upon independence, and the recently-sovereign Timor Leste. Just then, surreally, the Sri Lankan anthem began to play. Here on a hot night in northern Australia, a cricket match on TV, and there it was, emotional geography in a nutshell: memory, coincidence, the things that bind.

The following week, I was in Singapore, the city I most feel at home in, although I have never technically been a resident. It was the first time in two and a half years that I was there for longer than a day’s transit, yet I fell back into its pace and energy instantly. All of my old haunts: the bolt-rope beach which is the key setting of my novel forever-in-progress, the red light district where I would stay overnight in those poorer, madder days in which I lived in Kuala Lumpur on a visa that required me to exit that country every month, the mall in a far suburb where I’d visit a now-estranged uncle, where I’d ironically enough been invited to read. When people stopped me to ask for directions, I could give it to them. I can do without maps, I have had as many homes as a hermit crab, but emotional geography is something I cannot do without.

I felt like myself again: an antevasin, one who lives on the border, in sight of more than one world, belonging to either and neither. In Darwin I had chatted with East Timorese and Indonesians in Bahasa, in which I am fluent; in Singapore I felt at once shy and amused that two baristas were discussing how pretty I was in that same language, thinking I couldn’t understand them. I was ripe with a sense of belonging, deeply connected to every moment and at ease in it, comfortable in both my otherness and my familiarity.

How long does one have to know a place before an emotional geography is charted? In Chennai, which has been my base for almost three years, I have none. I know this because in the many contortions I have attempted in order to peg my angularities into this determinedly round hole (what kind I’ll leave you to guess), I have tried very hard to create it. But emotional geography is not something that can be willed, no matter how varied the experiences one engages in. Here’s a more relevant question, maybe: how long can one remain in a place without an emotional geography to it?

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

Readings in Singapore

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Because I’m just a genius that way, I went and practically double-booked myself for two readings on Friday May 21, genuinely thinking (until I pulled the two confirming emails up side by side) that one was on Friday and the other on Saturday. Some apologetic phone calls later, I managed to buy myself a half hour to dash to the other end of town, or rather, country. This should be interesting!

I had a wonderful time in Darwin at the Wordstorm Festival of Australasian Writing, and am taking a few days’ transit in my favourite city – Singapore. So, for the first time since December 2007, when I was here for the Singapore Writers’ Festival, I’ve got a couple of events scheduled for May 21:

4pm (sharp!) – A reading at FOST Gallery, 65 Kim Yam Road. RSVP Clarissa Cortes at clarissa@fostgallery.com or on 6836 2661.
5.30pm – A reading and discussion with Heartlands Book Club at Bukit Batok Public Library, West Mall. RSVP Kweh Soon Huat at soon_huat_KWEH@nlb.gov.sg.

Please note that RSVPs are required for both events. I will have copies of Witchcraft and lipstick, and at least for the Library event, an even breathier voice than usual thanks to all that running between venues!

The Venus Flytrap: The Artist Is

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I had never wanted to travel just to sit across someone in complete silence until I heard about Marina Abramović’s grand retrospective, currently ongoing at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. As fascinating as I find the most extreme of her works – ingesting medication for catatonia and schizophrenia to induce radical effects on the body and a ritualistic game of five-finger fillet among them – what truly transfixes me is her newest installation, “The Artist Is Present”. Abramović, in a single braid and an operatic dress of red, navy blue or white, sits in silence and looks at whoever wants to take the chair opposite her. Members of the public are welcome to participate. When the exhibit ends this month, she would have done this almost every day, during museum hours, for eleven weeks.

It could be argued that this is the least sensational or vulnerable of her productions. It does not endanger her physically, as most of her earlier works have done, or invade her privacy (by comparison, take the 2002 installation in which she spent twelve days in a gallery structure, exposing every moment of her life to onlookers), but it is probably her most revelatory. Its effects on participants have been profound. The Internet is full of images of those who weep as they sit across the artist and look her in the eye. Juxtapose this work against an early piece in which she remained passive for hours, inviting spectators to have their way with her using 72 instruments of pleasure and torture: Marina Abramović has long proven that she gives herself without limits to her art and her audience. But this is by far her most spiritually generous act – the invitation to be borne witness to. And for this reason, it is her magnum opus.

For an artist in the modern world – working in any discipline – it is becomingly increasingly difficult to make a lasting impact. Celebrity as we know it today is remarkably easy to achieve, and it’s become increasingly clear that “art” is tailored to suit our shrinking attention spans. Forget entertainment (which has its uses); we are in the age of distraction: anything to keep the viewer from switching tabs or channels. To be shocking or controversial is easy – too easy. To shake a person to their core, however, is a far more elusive reaction.

And so this is why I have been entranced by Abramović’s installation. The artist at the height of her powers, returning to her audience the gaze which it has trained on her for forty years, and thus becoming the artist as redemptrix. She has taken that common creative conceit of “witnessing the world” to the only level at which it truly matters – the individual, the smallest detail in a crowd.

As a writer who frequents the stage, this is meaningful for me both in terms of presence – personal elemental force – as well as absence. Language as distance, language as defense, language as disguise. Stripped of how we choose to present our inner workings, through speech, text or movement, what remains? What would get communicated anyway? If I sat before you and said (if only in my head), I myself am my poem – what would happen? Would you hear it, or see it, or most importantly, feel it anyway?

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

Review: Don DeLillo’s Point Omega

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In September 2006, in the thick of the United States’ war in Iraq, a man stands day after day in the shadows of a room at the Museum of Modern Art, watching an installation of Hitchcock’s Psycho slowed down and stretched to a 24-hour videowork. When the book opens, it is the second to last day of the screening, and he is watching the infamous shower scene with a devotional, and yet dispassionate, engrossment. He has spent five days immersed in this altered reality. We don’t encounter this man again until the epilogue, when weeks have passed in the lives of our protagonists, but he is still there, in decelerated time. It is the sixth and final day of the installation and when he leaves this room, his reality isn’t the only one that will be permanently lacerated.

At just under 120 pages, Don DeLillo’s Point Omega has the effect of a small, slick razor – the cut itself is brief, the sting far more lasting. A disturbing yet remarkably accessible novel, it leads to ponderings about human consciousness and conscience, heavy and even dark subjects, without resorting to labored rhetoric. The “war intellectual” Richard Elster has retreated into the desert upon retirement, which is where an experimental filmmaker named Jim Finley seeks him out. Finley wants to make a single-take documentary featuring an unscripted monologue by Elster, who in spite of his reluctance has invited the filmmaker to visit. The visit runs into weeks of dialogue and Scotch, and Finley stops counting the days, until Elster’s daughter Jessie also comes to stay, and an inexplicable event throws things into disarray.

Slim in pages and sparse in its prose, for a story largely about the distortion of time and space, Point Omega zips by rapidly. This makes it all the more successful; unlike the prolonged Psycho of its prologue and epilogue, it saturates the mind far quicker – densely packed as it is with ideas that might be described as almost post-apocalyptic. Having left his work under the Bush regime disillusioned (“They think they’re sending an army into a place on a map”), Elster’s mind turns increasingly toward concepts of reality and how it is experienced. Once a scholar who wanted the profound simplicity of a “haiku war”, and who traced the etymology of conflict jargon, he has begun to believe that language itself has lost its purpose, and that humanity seeks to devolve into a point of lower consciousness. Out in the desert, he aspires to a sort of disappearance into the landscape – a wish that proves to be ironic.

What this novel owes to cinema is reflected not only in elements of plot detail, but in its entire mood and pacing. It is not so much the gothic horror of Hitchcock that DeLillo takes as influence here, but modern films with a dystopian sense of foreboding, evoking, among others, the surreal desert landscapes of Bruno Dumont’s 29 Palms, or the unnerving noir of a David Lynch work.

Point Omega is a formidable novel, and deceptively enjoyable. Absorbed by the concepts of modern existence it presents, one forgets that the realities and probabilities it describes are neither fictional nor of a time other than ours. Like Elster, who believes that cities are built to keep out “the terror” (even as they are the arenas on which terror, as we know it today, plays out in the world), and yet is utterly unprepared to see it magnified and manifested in the desert, one emerges from this book disoriented by its power.

An edited version appeared in today’s The New Sunday Express.

The Venus Flytrap: Sharanya Manivannan And The Amazing Technicolor Magic Realist Life

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My friend the filmmaker says that cinema is about one thing only: pace. It comes down to choreography: internal rhythm, internal logic. You can tell any story, you can even tell a non-story, as long as you find its stride.

Like all people who use their life in their work, I tend toward the grandiose. I’m a hypochondriac, an obsessive, a constant connector of dots. Me and my Amazing Technicolour Magic Realist Life (complete with cinematic soundtrack). This is the only lens through which I can bear to look at all – it’s too much otherwise, too intense and too painful.

Yet, there are things I cannot absolve. I cannot fall into their stride, or find a way to absorb them into mine. It takes me months, even years, to name them – and to name something is to attach a value to it, incorporate it into a lexicon of reason. As a writer this is a fundamental of my world. Without this, I can only agitate, like a breathless creature throwing itself against the glass of the bottle that entraps it.

So here I am, replaying over and over in my mind the things I find irreconcilable, the things I cannot find language for. I cannot control them, I cannot rewrite them – and I cannot simply look away. Stripped of language, the power of baptism, I attempt to make this about the visual and the kinetic. Life as train wreck, life as narrative, chronology as dance.

And the body emotes, of course. I took ill, I coughed blood, and spent a night and a day crying, waiting to find out why. I thought – this is my lost voice, trying desperately to find a way out. I thought – this is it, I am going to die in this miserable place, all potential and no plot, a trailer with no film to follow. “The X-ray will show you I no longer have a heart,” I declared imperiously to someone who bothered to indulge me. All my usual dramatic tropes and deus ex machinae. I had a vision of myself as Neelakanta, the bitterness in his throat, eternally caught between belly and breath. To spit or to swallow? Do I deny the fact of these irreconcilable experiences, or do I wallow in them?

But here’s the rub: this amazing cinematic life of mine? I’m not the director. I didn’t even write the script. The control I seek is illusory. The truth, and the trick, is that one can never find a stride – at best, one finds herself having fallen into it. What I am doing then is hardly dancing. This is shadow-boxing.

Realising this, I stop in my tracks. The blood on my gloves is only paint. The gloves themselves, costumery. What if the pace of this time in my life is no pace at all – only stillness, silence?

We measure time in exacting ways. But we experience it with no real sense of its structure – the fulcrums of moments, the futility of years. Maybe it’s time for me to zoom in and take the pointillist view – to invest fully in that single dot, single shot, and trust that it means something. And let go, knowing this: even off-scene, a star is a star. And I’ll never be an extra in my own show.

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