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Sharanya Manivannan on the perils of writing from your soul

Jessica Kilbane

The first thing you notice about Sharanya Manivannan’s writing is that the focus is on women. But on closer inspection, one finds that her words resonate across audiences because they are ripe with individuality, identity and the infinite possibilities that exist for each of us. She handles topics with originality and intelligence, and a curiosity that her readers have come to know.

As Sri Lankan Tamil who grew up in Malaysia, the Chennai-based writer has journeyed across cities and cultures, but each experience has informed her message of self-love and self-acceptance.

We caught up with her to discuss her particular passions:

How old were you when you started seeing writing as work?

Work is a beautiful thing. There’s a lot of love in the labor of art. For me, and for most literary authors and poets in India (especially those who write in English), our books are not what we make our living from. People don’t buy enough of them for that. So there is a pragmatic side of my life, where I write things for other people, for clients, and this is what allows me to afford a life where I can give the best of my time to my heart’s work. Talent gives me emotional independence, and skill gives me financial independence. I secured both quite young, more by circumstance than choice. There are many meanings to the word “work”.

Are there patterns in your writing now that you attribute to your upbringing?

I have this crystallized image of myself at 12 years old which is a sort of emblem, a slightly romantic one in hindsight but actually a very sad one at the time. I started to write when I was 7 years old, and I was raised in a dysfunctional home and never really fit in at school. I learned early on to cloister myself in libraries to avoid being rejected socially. My siblings and I also changed schools every few years, and there were other sorts of constant upheavals.

So to come back to that image of me: I was in 8th standard and living in Penang, and my classroom was a repurposed chapel and I was always the first to arrive because of the school bus’s timings. And every single morning that year, I would use the time before my classmates arrived to write one new song in a notebook that no one could see. It’s so sad; if I heard of a girl like that now my heart would break for her.

But more than 20 years later, I love this about my younger self. I love how I had that core integrity, no matter what happened to or around me, without even knowing it would keep me alive.

At what age did writing start to feel tenable?

My writing will never be tenable, not for as long as I remain politically-conscious and socially aware. My writing will always upset people. It will always bring me the pain of losing prejudiced friends. It will always mean that gatekeepers will look at me with wariness, while perhaps also seeing me as a diverse, if difficult, token who makes their own work look good. It will always mean that readers will decide to stop buying my work because they loved what they’d read until they saw my politics online and decided (even unconsciously) that they would not support someone who challenged their status quo. There is freedom in getting to a place where one is okay with that.

I find I can go to places of truth in fiction that I am not able to reach or keep in non-fiction. Poetry, of course, is another kettle of fish altogether.

Your fiction is overtly engaged with themes of history, politics and feminism. How does approaching these questions as a novelist differ from another field?

This is the first time that I haven’t bristled at being called a novelist, because my fifth book – which I hope will be out at the end of this year – is indeed a short novel. My first and fourth books were poetry, and my second and third were a children’s picture book and a collection of stories. There were no novels for a long time except in my head and in my hopes. I’ve been trying to write a big one for 12 years. In the interim, I’ve written four other books – and now, a completely different novel!

My poetry and non-fiction are equally engaged with these themes, but fiction simply offers a different, sometimes broader, canvas. One in which it is easier to be flawed, whereas an essay for instance can become dated within even a year or two. I find I can go to places of truth in fiction that I am not able to reach or keep in non-fiction. Poetry, of course, is another kettle of fish altogether.

Do you feel that through your books you are trying to build on principles that exist in our culture, or are you trying to move beyond them?

All my work is about what is beneath the obvious – about the forgotten, and especially about silences and erasures. I am not interested in the project of restoring glorious pasts, imagined or with evidence. I am only concerned with what lies even beneath those stories.

There’s a lot of personal emotion behind your work. Do you feel that a writer could divorce who they are from what they write?

Yes, a writer can. It’s not a measure of talent either way, though. The more pertinent question for me is whether a writer necessarily should. My answer to that is No.

Do you worry about people you know seeing themselves in your stories?

You know that Carly Simon song “You’re So Vain”? The one that goes “I bet you think this song is about you… Don’t you? Don’t you?” I’m laughing! It might be like that song for some people, especially the ones who really hurt me. But the truth is that in my stories, or in my poems for that matter, the sublimation is so complete that no one needs to worry. The only recognizable person is me.

Sharanya Manivannan
The High Priestess Never Marries. HarperCollins, 2016.

Have you been surprised at the responses to your work? Does this affect your process in any way?

I never expected The High Priestess Never Marries to be received with the love it has met. I did not imagine that so personal a work could resonate with so many people, because all of those stories are really about aloneness and loneliness, and I remain so very grateful. I had been in tears throughout the proof-checking stage before the book went to press. We were so vulnerable, both my book and I.

What the response to Priestess did for me was that it emboldened me. Having felt that kind of love, I was sated. In the absence of hunger, I could take greater risks. I expanded the manuscript of what became my next book, The Altar of the Only World, which is quite an esoteric work, and is serrated where Priestess is voluptuous. And then, writing my forthcoming novel, The Queen of Jasmine Country, required total surrender to a voice, a vision and possibly even some consequences… But more on that later this year.

In terms of inspiration, which books or writers have been important to you?

So many. My early influences were women of color, particularly those who started their careers with small presses; they were Latinx, indigenous American, African-American and diasporic South Asian writers, too many to name. And discovering the Sangam poems blew my head open. Later, folklore, oral traditions and other forms of storytelling became more important. So my research in the past ten years, and my research for the future, involves less reading and more fieldwork. This doesn’t mean I don’t read for pleasure. I do, continuously. I average around 60 books a year, and read everything from children’s books to doctoral dissertations. I’d like to write a book like Alice Hoffman’s The Dovekeepers some day, something with that kind of scope but also that kind of intimacy.

Do you have any advice for writers who are trying to find their voice?

Listen closely to the voices of others. You may imitate them at first, but this will show. Instead, once you’ve found what you like, seek the source of each of those voices. They come from a specific place. Try to find yours – that place – and the voice will follow. It may be your love. It may be your grief. It is mostly, in the end, what you do with either.

This is the kind of scene that I like best – where I can see greenery, feel both my belongings and I are safe, stretch my limbs, play music, cocoon myself in words. It may be simple things –a flower, a comfortable tunic, your own bare skin made fragrant with oil. But it matters.

Where do you write?

I like to have plants within my sight, and in my bedroom full of books I work with my desk facing a balcony of potted plants and trees beyond it. But it’s really just about my computer and me, so I can actually write in many places. But this is the kind of scene that I like best – where I can see greenery, feel both my belongings and I are safe, stretch my limbs, play music, cocoon myself in words. I feel it’s important to have an unshakeable core, and then to do what you can to externalize that core. It may be simple things –a flower, a comfortable tunic, your own bare skin made fragrant with oil. But it matters. I keep telling myself that line from the TV show This Is Us, what Randall’s birth father William says to him: You deserve the beautiful life you’ve made. I find a way to remind myself of this every day, and so I work from a place of gratitude.

Featured image by Rahul Dev.

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