Monday, December 19, 2016

Notes from the Ancestress

Sharanya Manivannan with her book,
"The High Priestess Never Marries" 
Sometimes, you find the kind of poetry which creates itself with pieces of you even as you read it. Fissures and fragments of your life begin to collide in a cosmic movement and the very moment unwinds. Such is the experience of reading the work of Sharanya Manivannan. A fusion of passion, rage, and femininity dots her poetry and prose as words combine to recreate a language of love and calmness. Her participation in the Commonwealth Service (2015) bears obvious testimony to the power of Sharanya's poetry. At the ceremony, she performed a specially commissioned piece and was complimented by none other than the Queen herself!

Currently, Sharanya is looking forward to her latest book - The High Priestess Never Marries- Stories of Love and Consequence. This is how the conversation unfolded when our volunteers, Manmeet Kaur and Rebecca Varghese met Sharanya.

Could you talk about your childhood experiences and how they have shaped you into who you are today?
There were three things that shaped my growing years: geographical dislocation, family dysfunction and the presence of books. My family moved from Sri Lanka to Malaysia in 1990, and I lived in Malaysia for 17 years. I have held an Indian passport my entire life (my father is Indian; my maternal family is my only one), but only began to live here in my 20s. My documentation made me Indian, nothing else, for I was raised culturally Ceylon Tamil, and circumstantially Malaysian. Family dysfunction saw frequent changes in schools, periods of being unschooled, and an overall combustion of elements. Through all of this I disappeared into libraries. I started to write when I was 7 years old. Books kept me alive, consoled me, taught me of the world, inspired me. As an adult, I have not outrun these influences: I remain profoundly unbelonging, deeply wounded – and kept afloat on the curative powers of art.

What have your difficulties in negotiating with the society been, as a writer and as a woman? Have you ever seen your gender identity as a limitation?
As a ciswoman, my navigation of the world and the challenges therein are not unlike most ciswomen’s. The choices I’ve made may be different, and my struggles as a result of those choices (or as a result of my political and moral compass) may be different. My feeling is that the feminist movement in India is at a dangerous point because mainstream feminism is being shaped by people who are actually quite happy with the patriarchal status quo. Celebrity-style and social media-based activism, which have deep classist and other problematic linkages, obfuscate real concerns, and don’t demand lived practice.
As a writer, the activist nature of some of my work, particularly in journalism, has brought difficulties my way including serious trouble with the government of Malaysia in 2007. More recently, like every liberal writer I know, I work in the looming shadow of India’s current one. Fear and resultant self-censorship are on the rise. But do you know what we really fear? It’s not the state: it’s the millions of people in India today who seem to hold a basic contempt for freedom, human rights and expression. It’s they who keep that climate alive. It’s they who refuse to broaden their minds or their hearts. Ironically, they are more vocal than ever before.

In your poem 'The Secret of the Secrets', femininity and religion come together in the most surreal ways. Do you think that institutionalised religion can come to a peaceful acceptance of the 'Feminine' as easily in the society as well?
I think all major religions need feminist reformist movements. As a spiritual person, I am constantly jarred by the ways in which religion functions in the private sphere versus the ugly thing it is in the political machine. Which is to say that I’ve known people who are devout and benevolent in their own lives, but who will support – tacitly or explicitly – the larger project of wiping out other worldviews through oppression, erasure and violence.
I personally know of at least one holy place in which the deity, through oracles, has made clear that you may enter the shrine even while menstruating. This is far more radical than even what the #HappyToBleed protestors are asking for, which is to be allowed to go to Sabarimala while of menstrual age. But neither strictly intellectual nor rational approaches to feminist religious reform will work. Reform must come from within: in Hinduism, for example, it must come from people like me who are resolutely anti-caste, anti-discrimination, sex-positive, pro-secular, and also have a core of spiritual faith.

While in the process of shifting geographies in your life, have there been any compelling similarities or even stark disparities that you have noticed in people? Have you noticed anything that seems to hold essentially true in being human?
There’s a passage from a short story of mine, “Corvus”, which may answer your question: “The one thing I know to be true is not that love is all there is, or that everything dies. It is that everybody has want. It’s a tiny nerve, a vein of gypsum, that runs through everything—everyone—and sometimes I see someone else’s so clearly that it catches me by the throat. In every place I have been in the world I have looked at people and seen right through into their lives, into the one true thing for which this wretched bittersweet is worth enduring, and I have broken into pieces at the recognition of it. It’s the smallest thing. The smallest, smallest, smallest thing.”

Your upcoming book The High Priestess Never Marries seems like an absolute delight. What prompted you to write a book of feminist short stories? What are its major themes?
The High Priestess Never Marries is a collection of short stories that revolves around the conflict between love and freedom, the question of whether a certain kind of woman can have both, and what to do with her heart if the answer is ‘No’. The earliest story in the book is from 2010 or so, but almost all of it was written between 2011 and 2015. I didn’t set out to write a feminist book, but the more deeply I followed my personal and artistic trajectories, that is what it became.
A decade ago, I hid behind the idea that I could compartmentalise my creative and political lives. I would say that I was a feminist but my writing was not necessarily. But this was what led to, for instance, my poem on domestic violence, “How To Eat A Wolf”, being widely regarded as an erotic poem. It was years after writing it that I began to step up and say, ‘No, it’s not an erotic poem. It’s a poem about a woman who can’t bring herself to leave an abusive relationship’. That was my personal evolution, and I believe as artists and people we must honour our own.
So The High Priestess Never Marries was the book that my mid and late 20s crystallised into. A friend who read it commented on how elliptical the heartbreaks in the book are: we often seem to find the protagonists in aftermaths, without necessarily finding out what led them there. But from where I stand now, I see that that the true feminist stance is in, as Rilke put it, “loving the questions”. Not just the question of love vs. freedom, but the question of what next. What anyway.
As for that love and freedom question, if I ever find out that the answer is a straightforward ‘Yes’, I’ll write another book then.

What do you think is the key to both love and freedom? Are any of your characters in the upcoming book able to achieve both?
I arrived at the end of writing the book and found that I had an unusual answer. I looked back and what I saw was not a way to reconcile love – by which I mean partnered love – and freedom but a way to live with heartbreak. I don’t have a key, but perhaps that is only because there are no locks. By which I mean: nothing can ever be taken as granted, secure. Some of my characters possess this knowledge more easily than others. Some we interrupt in the midst of certainty: each palm contains either treasure (love/freedom), and while we know them, they experience both. Others we encounter amidst the fact of its impossibility. I’ll quote from another story, “The Huluppu-Tree”: “…I made a garden by scattering each kernel of unrequited longing and irrevocable loss I had experienced. One heartache turned into a hot-blooded hibiscus. One cruel twist of fate curved into a caveat of magnolias. One unspeakable trauma clichéd into a cereus cactus, with moonkissed white petals. One broken promise took wing as a bird-of-paradise, permanently bent and profoundly beautiful. This is how you live, with the knowledge of all you could not keep. You take all the love you intended for only one thing and you spread it out, wherever it can give nourishment (having so much, you need not take more). You let it thrive. And you live. I tell you – you’ll live.”

If you were to write a poem on yourself, what will its motifs be? Has there ever been a poem (written by you or by others) that you saw most of yourself in?
The strange thing about all created works is that they take on a life of their own beyond your incubation. There are feelings I’ve had, experiences I’ve engaged with, dreams that came to me, that exist only in the form of words now. Their memories may have long faded, or formed differently, otherwise. Each thing I’ve written has been true for me at the time of its writing. Thus, the answer as to which piece best represents me keeps changing. Right now, the story “Ancestress” in The High Priestess Never Marries tells you everything. Ask me again in two years.