Of Home, History, and Mermaids: A Conversation with Sharanya Manivannan




ONE OF THE unforgettable voices in Sharanya Manivannan’s 2016 book The High Priestess Never Marries says, “I opened my maw sometimes and let a primal cry slip free.” Making it sing with colorfully striking illustrations is what Manivannan has done in her new graphic novel, Incantations Over Water, and her children’s book, Mermaids in the Moonlight, both of which will be published this year by Westland Books. Set in Sri Lanka, where Manivannan grew up, the two tales explore family origins and cultural understandings in a complex, ultimately healing way. 

The author of five published books, Manivannan has received several literary awards in India, where she resides. In 2015, she was commissioned to write and perform a poem at the Commonwealth Day Observance held in London. She corresponded with me via email from India and Sri Lanka to discuss her latest work.

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RUSHDA RAFEEK: Mermaids in the Moonlight interlaces a fantastic multicultural world of underwater maidens with the realities of present-day Sri Lanka (the war, the tsunami, the one-time matrilineal system). Some of those issues seem inseparable from your own personal history. When did the idea for this book first emerge?

SHARANYA MANIVANNAN: I was 27 years old the first time I went to Batticaloa [the former capital of Eastern Province, Sri Lanka]. My early childhood had been in Colombo, and during the late 1980s, travel to the east and north of the island was easy. My grandmother died in 2008, still deeply longing to even just see the front porch of the home she had not been to in decades. Four years later, I sat on that front porch myself. Since then, I have returned to Batticaloa several times, but it was only possible to accept the complex emotionality of doing so because of the mermaids.

You see, what struck me during that first journey in 2012 was how mermaids were everywhere in Batticaloa — on the arch welcoming travelers into the town, on clock towers, on pillars, on public facades everywhere. When I was a child, probably because of Disney’s animated film The Little Mermaid, which created a frame of reference, my mother used to say that there was a mermaid who sang on full moon nights in her hometown. I had largely forgotten this until I saw them everywhere there.

It is true: on full moon nights, if you go into the lagoon in Kallady in a boat and dip your paddle into the water and hold your ear to its dry end, you can hear mysterious sounds from under the water. I have heard them. Like the swan songs of pulsar stars, they sound more romantic in theory. Researchers and fishing experts posit that certain types of “singing fish,” or perhaps certain shells, make these noises. Even so, the mermaids are everywhere.

They first made an appearance in my work in my short story “Conchology,” which is in my 2016 collection The High Priestess Never Marries, but that was not enough. I returned to Batticaloa by telling myself that I was doing research, because admitting that I just longed to be in a place so rife with loss (not only subjective loss, but on a larger scale) was frightening. The question of whether there was any local folklore surrounding the mermaid figure — and if not, why not — was my primary impetus. Chasing this answer over a series of visits over a few years opened everything for me. The mystery of how a mythic figure is everywhere but no folklore exists around her led me into the heart of a formerly matrilineal culture and gave me so much. I will be writing about these illuminations for a long time. Mermaids in the Moonlight and its companion graphic novel, Incantations Over Water, are just the beginning of my work in this vein.

You’ve stated that the books are “heartfelt evocations” that involve “salving personal wounds” and entail “rehoming.” It made me wonder about the sociopolitical complexities you must have run into during your research, given the divisive experiences endured by your community. In what ways do you think elements like myth and culture can help to strengthen roots bound by blood? 

By the time I actually arrived at the writing and drawing of Mermaids in the Moonlight, I had worked through some of the internal conflicts I had been experiencing about what my role as a creator is, and I went back to the original wound: at first, I had thought I was writing for the daughter I do not have, and then I realized that I was truly writing for the unloved daughter, my self, my inner child if you will. In Mermaids in the Moonlight, a mother from the diaspora takes her child to Batticaloa for the first time, and they listen to the mysterious underwater sounds in the lagoon. The child, Nilavoli, asks her mother about the story of the mermaid in the depths below, and the mother responds by telling the truth — she does not know — but also by sharing stories from around the world, interweaving them with information about heritage and history. The book is essentially a gesture of inheritance. Nilavoli is adopted, and her mother gives her a way to hold room for the mystery of what she cannot know about herself while also opening up the greater possibilities of the heart and the world to her.

Let’s talk a little more about your fascination with mermaids. I came across your newspaper column on the ancient phenomenon of “Suvarnamaccha,” the mermaid princess depicted in so much Southeast Asian art. What a gorgeous piece.

Thank you so much. What both Mermaids in the Moonlight and Incantations Over Water hope to do is to expand the canon of mermaid lore. That canon is already so rich, but as with too many cultural icons, we think of the figure in a Eurocentric way. There’s the version for children: basically, Barbie with a tail. And there’s the version for adults: buxom, fair-skinned seductresses. But the waters of the world are populated by mermaids of diverse origins, and Nilavoli’s mother tells her about several of them. Suvarnamaccha is one of my favorites among them. She is from Southeast Asian Ramayana renditions, and swims in the waters of northern Sri Lanka. The story goes that, as the leader of an army of mer-women, she keeps dismantling by night a bridge between India and Ilankai that the monkey-god Hanuman and his army are building by day. An angry Hanuman stays up one night and sees what’s been going on, but also falls for Suvarnamaccha. She agrees to help him, and when he leaves to continue his mission, she is carrying his child. For me, the Suvarnamaccha story in itself is charming, but it is also a powerful statement about the plurality of narratives, and indeed the plurality of human experiences and traditions (in most of the Indian subcontinent’s tellings of this epic, Hanuman is a celibate god). Those with large hearts can hold space for them all, even the versions of stories that contradict what one knew earlier.

The Ammuchi Puchi, your first children’s book set in rural South India, was a success when it came out in 2016. The story depicts the unexpected wisdom and perspective that grandparents can bring, but also the anguish of grief and loss. Tell me what you had in mind when developing such a sensitive situation. Why did you choose to explore the experience of death for an audience of children?

As must have been clear from the way our conversation began, my maternal grandmother is very dear to me (yes: is, not was). While I was grieving her, the thought of how I would have coped with her passing had it happened while I was a child crossed my mind. Even as an adult, I felt unsupported in my grief, and so I wanted to create a work that a child could experience on their own — especially if those around them did not know how to handle the subject sensitively, or were unable to because of their own emotions.

It is a sincere belief of mine that children are far more intuitive and intelligent than adults give them credit for being. We sometimes forget this about our younger selves, which offers an opportunity for introspection. This is why I incorporate heavy themes into my work for children without fear. Mermaids in the Moonlight touches on the Sri Lankan Civil War and the 2004 tsunami, along with introducing, through the mermaid tales and the dialogue between the mother and child, themes such as adoption, abusive relationships, gender dynamics, and more.

Your books have always had quite striking and appealing covers. Can I ask who selects them? Also, since your own work has moved into picture books and graphic novels, I’d also like to hear your thoughts on the relationships between visual art and writing prose.

Even when it comes to my purely textual work, I’ve always been invested in what the book looks like. I’ve had a lot of back-and-forth with my publishers in certain cases, pushing for a visual that I like. What a lot of people don’t realize is that a publishing company’s Sales Department always has the final say on the cover.

My interest in the look and feel of books comes from the fact that I’ve been painting since my teens. With Mermaids in the Moonlight, I taught myself how to draw and paint digitally. I took to it like, well, a fish in water — but I am still learning about a lot of technical details, like working in layers and so on. I am not a tech-oriented person, and the learning continues.

Mermaids in the Moonlight uses a lot of vibrant colors, which are meant to appeal to children, but I learned quickly that, if I attempt the same for the graphic novel, I need to either be working with a longer timeline or else prepare myself for a wrist injury. So, practicality has necessarily informed the color palette of Incantations Over Water. It takes its inspiration from cyanotypes and indigo fabrics.

For me, the question on art-making versus writing is a bit like any question on poetry versus prose. There’s no preference as such, and the exhausted pleasure at the end of a piece is the same.

During the late 1980s and early ’90s, your family moved around a great deal. This was also a troubling time in Sri Lanka. When did you come to understand the experience of migration? What was it like adapting to different identity profiles?

I did not have a good childhood, and it’s only now in my 30s that I’ve really begun to understand how us being a Tamil family on the island, and then from the island, during a time of such exigencies shaped some of the dysfunction in the ways I was raised (some, but not all: intergenerational trauma is real, but so are individual choices). Leaving the island was only the first of a series of traumatic displacements, and forging a new relationship with the island as an adult has meant that I often feel that losing Malaysia, where we moved the year I turned five, was the more terrible displacement. That happened for me at 22: after years of unstable visas, and a complicated personal life that did not permit the putting down of roots, I got into some trouble with the government of Malaysia after criticizing the racism inherent in their public policies. The displacement was truly hammered in not long after, through a series of betrayals that prevented me from returning and challenged my right to lay claim to a place that had been my home for almost all of my life. I have lived in India since late 2007, in a very friction-filled way.

Mine is a long, convoluted, dramatic journey. It is not unique, although it is unusual. I am old enough to know that healing takes its own time, and that settling is an unrealistic aspiration for some of us. Those who call themselves free birds should reflect on their privileges; there are others who have known not so much the choice of leaving as the circumstance of loss.

Many South Asian writers who have made a significant impact in the West write for an English-speaking audience, as you do. What would you tell someone who has just come to know that you are a person of the Ilankai (Sri Lankan) Tamil diaspora, someone who is exploring your work for the first time, perhaps in light of critical reactions to the latest movie adaption of Shyam Selvadurai’s novel Funny Boy?

In November 2020, I was roped in as a token consultant by a delegate of Funny Boy’s production team and treated disrespectfully. This triggered me into writing about how Indian Tamils exploit, appropriate from, and objectify Ilankai Tamils, which has been my experience as an Ilankai Tamil living in Tamil Nadu over many years now. The piece received a great deal of traction, and as you say it could well be what introduced me to some in the larger international diaspora. This was one of the reasons why I did not reshare the huge number of positive responses that the piece received. It was very important to me to not become stuck in a certain activist role in people’s minds, or become associated with one piece. I hope that those who were moved by or interested in it then went on to look up my books. In a world that demands “content” and instant takes, I feel it is a vital part of creative practice to keep one’s focus on one’s work, rather than be dazzled by brief opportunities for celebrity or notoriety. Those come and go, and I’ve experienced a fair number of such flash-in-the-pan moments throughout my career. I prefer to give my energy to building a body of work, rather than collecting a series of such moments.

To work in multiple genres requires a great deal of courage, strength, and faith for a writer. How do you manage as a woman, especially in the midst of a pandemic?

This pandemic has only underscored what was already wrong in our countries, societies, corporations, and households. In that sense, it was for me a deepening of challenges in the delicate personal situation I was already in, forcing me to confront the same and to make new choices. This will be true for many people, and I prefer not to speak about my experience at this time, but I will say this: creating Mermaids in the Moonlight helped me endure the situation, enabled me to keep my true self, my dreams, my spirit intact, in ways that I do not think I would have been able to in the absence of such an anchor. Diving into the deep helped me keep my head above water.

This takes us back to the theme of non-attachment, touched on earlier. Six books into my career, I know this: only what you feel during the creation and the crafting matters. There may be excitement and enjoyment beyond that, but nothing compares to the pleasure and profundity of the making itself.

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Rushda Rafeek is currently based in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Her poetry has been shortlisted for the Wasafiri New Writing Prize UK (2017), nominated for the Pushcart Prize (USA) twice, and has won the Nazim Hikmet Poetry Prize (USA) in 2018.

 

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