“The heart is as inexorable as a tidal wave, as thorny as an anchovy, as moon-girdled as a shell (and as punctured with eyelets). And life – even my life, so long and so equivocal – is just sea spray in the breeze.”
Ila is the narrator of Sharanya Manivannan’s debut graphic novel Incantations Over Water. Her name comes from the Tamil word for Sri Lanka, Ilankai, and she tells her readers the fantastical stories and myths about mermaids across time.
Born in India in 1985, Manivannan grew up in Sri Lanka and Malaysia. When she returned to Mattakalappu, the place her mother had grown up in, she realised that the stories about mermaids she had grown up hearing were not a Disney fantasy created by her parents. On full moon nights, in the Kallady lagoon, in certain places in the water, if one lowers the wooden paddle and holds the dry end to one’s ear, one can hear certain sounds. Mermaids?
Mermaids, Manivannan found, were represented in all public facades of the city. But there was no folklore about them. In this interview, conducted over email, she discusses her motivations for writing the book, switching to the digital art medium, and her everlasting love and fascination for mermaids.
We began our conversation in early January, 2022, a little less than a week after Incantations was published. In February, owners Amazon suddenly announced the shutdown of the publisher of Incantations, Westland Books. It was against this backdrop that some of the conversation was conducted. Excerpts from the interview.
You said in an interview with The Hindustan Times: “I reveal myself in all my writing, a way of being that comes with its wonders and its snares.” In many of your works, the mermaid is a recurring image or motif. What is it about the mermaid that draws you? I think about the last lines of your book as I ask this question: “My true voice – it is always here, has always been here. Listen.” Is this the motivation? To get people to listen to the many facets of the mermaid; to see the turmoil in the beauty (or vice versa)? What do you mean by “true voice?”
Like many children, I liked mermaids as a child, but my full-fledged love for them emerged only in adulthood. I certainly think that the very first time I saw the mermaid arch in Uranee (which appears in both books in the Ila duology) was a catalyst for this love. From that point on, I understood that mermaids were intrinsic to the place and the people I come from in ways that I instinctively understood but could not immediately explain. My long pre-existing adoration of the sea and the moon both melded beautifully into this new fascination.
The mermaid symbol has now come to mean two things to me personally. First, pursuing the mystery of why the symbol is everywhere in Mattakalappu / Batticaloa except in the lore allowed me to perform a journey that can be very emotionally dangerous for diasporics and exiles from traumatised populations. As a Tamil from Batticaloa who had never been there until I was 27 years old, but who had been raised in that culture and by people who longed for their homeland, having a question other than “Can I belong to the place that we lost?” be at the forefront of my mind on my visits there was a bulwark.
The primary question, instead, was about what the meen magal meant to this place. Heeding the mermaid’s call let me go back to that home, and forge a relationship with it that is entirely mine. Secondly, I made this duology during a time of intense exigency in my personal life, which included but was not limited to bereavement and the overarching role of the pandemic itself. My mermaids made sure I didn’t drown.
On “true voice”: the sounds that emerge from the Kallady lagoon are intriguing, but not necessarily pleasant to the human ear. I love the idea that meen magals make these sounds, especially as this would challenge the cis-hetero male sexualisation of mermaids and their dulcet voices. But the way Incantations ends insinuates that it isn’t mermaids who make the sounds within the lagoon.
Ila suggests, as you quote, that her true voice has not yet been heard. I am partial to ambiguities at the ends of many of my stories. I like to be open to possibility. I like the thought of Ila having withheld something precious from her listener, the diasporic Ilankai Tamil woman whom she addresses in the book, and offering it instead to something or someone else.
She also says, in essence, that there are more narratives than the ones we know, and we don’t know many of them because we choose not to listen. I find this especially important in the context of the Sri Lankan civil war, the nuances of which rarely seem to make it into literature made in or translated into English. These elements – silence, silencing, listening, believing, questioning, wondering – are ones I return to, across my body of work.
In the absence of lore about the meen magal, you chose to include stories about mermaids across the world and through time. What do you feel about filling that void with fiction? Do you describe Incantations as fiction?
I set out to acknowledge the void, not to fill it, but with the publication of this duology I’ve come to see that I am in a sense filling it also. I have more Mattakalappu mermaid stories in me, and hope to do a short story collection in the future.
Mermaids in the Moonlight is more clearly about mermaid lore from around the world, while in Incantations the myths and stories only form a part of it, and Ila chooses to tell the ones that also reveal something about her, and about what matters to her.
Yes, Incantations is fiction – that extraordinary form with room enough for the truth, and then some.
Ila, the mermaid of Kallady lagoon, is the point of conversation in Mermaids in the Moonlight. In Incantations, she’s the protagonist. Can you talk about this switch? How did it feel to write in Ila’s voice? The fact that the books are companions to each other is also so interesting – how did you reach the decision to make two books, one for children and one for adults?
The graphic novel was what I had first wanted to do, an idea that came to me not long after The High Priestess Never Marries (in which the story “Conchology” was my first iteration of a meen magal-esque piece) was published. Extracting from that graphic novel and creating a picture book seemed like a natural, and in some ways easy (or lazy), corollary. I had published my picture book The Ammuchi Puchi by then and making more children’s literature greatly appealed to me.
This was not how things played out. In late 2019, at a time when I was burned out on other fronts and had even withdrawn from discussions about a book of essays because I just didn’t think I could really write for a while, the plotline of Moonlight came to me suddenly. I piously heed all such flashes of inspiration. I saw quite clearly that the picture book was its own distinct entity from the graphic novel. They were bound by certain adamantine threads, but the picture book was not by any means merely an extract. So it became the first book of the duology.
I think I absolutely had to create Moonlight before I could make Incantations. Doing the former first shaped the way I thought of my protagonist, the waterscape and landscape I was portraying, and my material itself in the latter. It influenced my aesthetic direction too.
It surprised and humbled me how long it took me to write the graphic novel, because I had thought I would be able to do it over two or three weeks of intensive work. In actuality, the process had a staggered gait, and over the course of about three months I would sometimes write just a page a day (which is to say, a paragraph or two). By contrast, the paintings – which should logically have taken longer – flowed. It took me about only three months to illustrate the book too.
You said in an interview with SheThePeople: “Most of my characters are essentially alone – in solitude, or lonely. For this reason, the first-person narrative serves them best of all, because most of both their churning and their coming to clarity happens internally.” In Mermaids, I read Ila as a bond between the mother and daughter, who share her story over a boat ride. In Incantations, when Ila becomes the protagonist, I sense a shift. For me, her voice occupied a careful loneliness, but one that was drenched in hope. I think only first-person narration could achieve this. Is that how you feel? Was first-person essential for her story?
Incantations is a book drenched in magic, whereas Moonlight is far more matter-of-fact. Nilavoli and Amma never meet Ila, but in a sense they conjure her out of their love for each other. But Incantations belongs to Ila – she is narrator and protagonist, delivering a soliloquy, a jeremiad, a seduction. She may be omniscient. Her profound loneliness, which as you say is also careful (or cagey, I think) is the most human thing about her. Writing in her voice seemed only natural to me, but then first-person narration is what I employ across almost all my work. I have written again and again about loneliness, about lonely women in particular, and I think Ila must be the loneliest of all my characters.
5. Is Ila your loneliest character for any reason in particular? Her story comes from Mattakalappu: “a place of bloodshed, blood-sacrifice, beauty, and desolation,” as you say. For you, making that journey would’ve been emotional, and dare I say, lonely, as well. Does that influence Ila’s character in any way?
It was several journeys, between 2012 and 2019, some of them brave, some of them bewildering, some of them quite blissful (I say this with care – joy is a birthright, one which we cannot let trauma collective, generational or individual strip us of). I would like to always go back, and in the years since I was last there, I’ve been inhabiting that scape in my writing and art, and will continue to.
Ila’s loneliness draws deeply from my own – I think of Incantations as my darkest and most personal work yet.
You ask in your book: “How can there be a mythic figure without lore?” Although the book doesn’t answer this question directly, it dives into this void. I am assuming this involved a lot of research. How do you usually approach research for your writing projects? I’m thinking about The Queen of Jasmine Country too, a book which makes Andal the main subject in focus.
I enjoy research and tend to put years of it into any given project. Research can mean everything from extensive reading, obviously, but also travel, immersive experiences in other art mediums such as cinema and performance, interviewing people and more. Exploring the many Ramayanas over eight years for my poetry collection The Altar of the Only World was one such journey.
A large amount of synchronicity – which is to say an openness to receiving and seeing by a certain light – plays a part. I like this to be a slow process, I like the way that the research interacts with the rhythms of my life over a period, becomes a part of my consciousness and becomes my companion also. In this way, I had been researching Andal for a couple of years before I wrote The Queen of Jasmine Country; the writing of the novel itself took only six weeks, in a beautiful trance-like state I know I cannot replicate, but the thought and feeling I had consciously given to the project spanned significantly longer.
You could say that I had been working towards the Ila duology my whole life, but became aware that the meen magal was important to me around a decade ago, and had been immersed in that consciousness over the last five years. Working on the projects themselves, the actual creation stage, was shorter.
I would say that both Incantations and Moonlight do answer the question (on whether there can be a mythic figure without lore). Moonlight is a little more imprecise, since it’s a book that is even more equivocal about multiple possibilities, and gives equal weightage to the scientific research that indicates that the sounds are made by shells or fish.
But Incantations is more direct, since it’s narrated by a mermaid herself who contemplates her place in a certain place. Ila discusses the lack of lore while asserting her existence – she exists whether or not human belief or interest is there. The answer, the one I discovered for myself, was this: in a place like Mattakalappu, where the culture and consciousness are steeped in ritual magic and complex, charged faith systems, and the lived reality of people has included tremendous bloodshed, disappearances and trauma, it is not so difficult at all to absorb one more mystery or ambiguity into quotidian life.
That is why specific lore didn’t spring up – meen magals are but one element of the ethos. There are songs, as Amma tells Nilavoli in Moonlight, but not stories in either recorded or oral traditions (which is not to say that some woman didn’t make some up for her grandchildren – this must have happened; how could it have not?). To the best of my knowledge, Incantations may be the first in book form.
How did you decide Ila’s story had to be a graphic novel?
This is the strange thing: I don’t actually quite remember why I decided to do a graphic novel on the meen magal. I tend to have lightning flashes of inspiration – with most of my other books, I can tell you the exact moments when I just knew something crucial about what they were going to be, as I did earlier in our conversation about Moonlight. I think the spark may have had to do with the fact that I had returned to painting and drawing for pleasure (which I had been doing since my teens) during a fallow period of a couple of years when I did not write much and was uncertain about whether I wanted to continue to publish.
So in my mid to late 20s, I was quite often making small canvases for friends. In 2015, I experienced a meteoric change in my career, and went from an acceptance of relative obscurity as a poet to suddenly having signed three book deals. My personal life took a diametrically opposed turn just as I started publishing again, and I think the solace that visual art had been giving me must have gathered heft and become a desire to merge it with text.
I only know that when I look back on it, all of it seemed so natural. It didn’t strike me as being a great career shift as it was something I had been doing all along, but of course it was.
The shift to digital art is very new for your work. In your acknowledgments, you thank Amruta Patil for getting you to make this shift. You also acknowledge Ana Mendieta’s art as an inspiration. Are there any other inspirations that pushed you to shed away words in place of pictures?
All of Moonlight was drawn on a Huion tablet, using Clip Studio Paint software. Both are far more affordable than Apple products, and I share this to encourage those who are considering visual art too but find costs prohibitive. In Incantations, only the illustration that was used on the cover, of a mermaid within the island of Sri Lanka (made in 2017), was hand-drawn.
I had been afraid to colour it in, in case I didn’t do it well, and that year I happened to have a conversation with Amruta Patil, who suggested that I scan my drawings and then paint them digitally. This was brilliant advice, and I wound up extending it to all the art – and my initial hesitation about colour also helped me develop a palette for Incantations that is line-based and minimal, and inspired by indigo fabrics and cyanotype prints. Working through the pandemic, within a limited space, making art by hand, but not on paper, also helped to not have to carefully store physical copies of the work.
I distinguished Ana Mendieta from among the references in Incantations not only because of the power of her work, especially the Silueta earth-body series, but because the story of her life and death are so haunting. I found it resonant with some of the mysteries in the books, especially those that have to do with violence (these, to me, are the true mysteries of my Ila duology – “do mermaids exist?” is a lacklustre question, and that’s exactly how it was treated by those I spoke to in Mattakalappu). I absolutely believe that Mendieta was murdered by her husband, a fellow artist who was jealous of her rising star.
How this relates to me and to my book is quite complex, but goes back ultimately – personally and systemically – to silencing. The anthropologist Patricia Lawrence, whose work I have studied for my novel-in-progress, Constellation of Scars (which I have been writing since 2005, and which I am happy to say I am quite far into, finally ready for what the work has always demanded) describes Batticaloa this way: “Batticaloa is a region vulnerable to annihilation, where the psychological effects of political oppression manifest themselves in ‘silencing’, in learning not to speak and to know what not to know – ”
What has the sudden shutdown of Westland meant to you as both an author and a reader? You’ve been very active on social media, talking about how difficult it is to get books republished, and spreading the word on how to purchase copies. You say “not everything will return, though every effort is being made to salvage the situation.” Can you talk about these efforts?
Many of us are in grief. It’s important to remember that Westland was so ubiquitous and formidable a publisher that every person in India who reads books in English has read something they published, across their imprints. One must first understand the gravity and magnitude of the situation, which in terms of the catalogue alone affects hundreds of authors and thousands of books.
The immediate calls to action are: to purchase any books for oneself, to request libraries at institutions to put in orders, to donate to community library initiatives either monetarily or in the form of purchased books, to amplify that some independent bookstores are shipping internationally as well as nationally or locally; to ask one’s own favourite bookseller to bring in stock anywhere in the world; to talk and post about Westland books one has enjoyed so that other readers can get them quickly.
I know that the Westland team have been working very hard to find investors to revive the company, but there has been no official communication to authors ever since we were formally notified that our books will go out of print, the day after the news came out in the press.
I took to social media to spread the word in an aggressive fashion out of pure grief. I went through two losses during the time I made the Ila duology (my father and my favourite uncle), so I knew from recent experience that there is a practical side that kicks in while grieving – the side that makes the tea, fills the paperwork, performs the ceremony.
This is a collective loss, and if it was an expected one (if, say, Amazon had had the courtesy to offer a long notice), we as authors would have been able to take turns to take care of the practical side – ie, spreading the word to readers. But the shock has left many traumatised, and understandably so. It’s just my wiring, in my personal life too: I tap into my strength reserves as needed in the immediate. I collapse later on, and heal very slowly.
Your books are so personal and the shutdown of Westland, I can only imagine, would’ve felt like a huge personal loss. Outside of the devastating loss this has been to the country’s publishing climate, you’ve also spoken in support of independent bookstores and how helpful they’ve been, globally, in spreading the word. Is there anything you’d like to share with the readers of Westland?
I hope that this tragedy will inspire reflection and introspection on how we as readers, supporters, enthusiast (and consumers, in this capitalist world) fit into the system. This should be a sobering moment for readers, and I hope they understand just how much trouble English-language publishing is in in India.
We can expect industry-wide repercussions, and this is a good time for readers to get informed about some of the intricacies of publishing. Many have just been shocked by this event, and don’t understand how something like this can happen, and this is partly because so little is known about publishing at all.
So, a few questions I would invite readers to learn more about... Do they know that bookstores buy stock upfront, and routinely return unsold books, for which costs are deducted from author royalties? Do they know how small the vast majority of advances are? Do they know that most of us don’t see royalties, and that we make our income elsewhere? Do they know that pulping is standard industry practice, and why? Do they know that because of budgeting and scheduling constraints, even if they want to, other publishers may only be able to bring out a fraction of books they like from the Westland catalogue, and that too after they have fulfilled their current contracts over a year or two? Do they know what their purchasing power is, and why it matters? They should.