"Now and then you buy yourself a single red African daisy from a flower seller on the street. Sometimes you put it behind your ear. Sometimes you just keep it somewhere where you can look at it."
Sharanya Manivannan's The High Priestess Never Marries is part-manual, part-journal as characters navigate the space between romantic demise and acceptance, and between doubt and resurrection. The book offers little in the form of neat and satisfying endings for relationships – instead, it speaks of what is possible in the clearing.
Manivannan grew up in Sri Lanka and Malaysia, and currently lives in Chennai. Her first book of poems, Witchcraft, was published by Bullfighter Books in 2008, and is a precursor to this book in many ways in their shared preoccupations. The author's voice here is less exploratory and more reflective as she sets out to build a subversive book of romance where it is possible to forge a meaningful life without ceasing to be lonely. Excerpts from an interview, where she talks of navigating Chennai, constructing a life from what is available to her, bringing the forest home, and much more.
What is a debut short story collection that really spoke to you? Why?
I read Sandra Cisneros’ Woman Hollering Creek perhaps 15 years ago, and it remained a big influence on The High Priestess Never Marries because of two things considered risky in a form (the short story collection) that is difficult to get published. The first was her easy use of Spanglish and Spanish, which was what made me realise all those years ago that literature could have languages blended into it without the effect being either exotic or kitsch. The second was the mix of vignettes and novelettes and everything in between. My book has quite a bit of untranslated Tamil and Tanglish amidst the English, and a similar format in terms of story lengths.
I remember reading Gitanjali Kolanad’s Sleeping With Movie Stars when it came out in 2011, in a really interesting time in my life where love was concerned, and it was very special for me as an outsider in Madras, a maker of art, a holder of philosophies that contradicted societal norms. I remember the tough, tender heroines of Pam Houston’s Cowboys Are My Weakness, which went some way in helping me realise that I could write a book of love stories and have it be questioning and subversive. And the lovely, light-drenched prose of Leesa Cross Smith’s Every Kiss A War. I chose to name these books in particular because they address the same themes in mine. There are so many more.
Could you tell us a little about how you knew the book was ready and what goes into plotting and writing a themed collection of stories?
When I say I worked on The High Priestess Never Marries for five years, those are just numbers between start and finish. Contained within those brackets are long silences, abandonments, diversions, and things both mundane and difficult that life brought. Similarly, I have been working on a novel, Constellation of Scars, since 2005. I’ve written four other books while waiting for it to be done.
I didn’t set out to write a book about love and freedom. I simply honoured the stories that came to me, and the themes emerged because I trusted them. When I realised that there were three recurring motifs – sweetness, wildness and greed – I was almost done with the book in terms of the number of stories, and I more or less knew what remained to be finished and could approach it in a cohesive way. Life takes convoluted roads and the time between seeing the whole picture and having it in your hands is not reliably measured.
You said somewhere that Ammuchi Puchi was written with the intention to heal. What is this book's intention?
The healing power of art is something I believe in deeply. This book posits the refusal to be unhappily partnered, and the acceptance of being single, as a radical choice, but more importantly, I think of the book as a companion for those who have already made that choice. It’s not so much a decision to be alone as it is a decision to build alone with the materials life has given you. My own is filled, as I wrote in an essay elsewhere, with “…light and flowers, low moons and relished victuals, paintbrushes and precious objects, laughter and rigour and pleasure, perfumed pulse points, reflection”. And books, and music, and all the arts. It would honey my heart to know my book belongs to someone else among their own such accompaniments.
Two quotes in particular stayed with me. "You take all the love you intended for only one thing and you spread it out..." and "I want a boyfriend like a banyan tree. A man who's a forest unto himself...a matrix generous enough for the world." In a book filled with relationships that come to an end, it is interesting to see the characters try to find a willingness to give.
The book gets sweeter as it gets to the end, because hope is such a necessary antidote to the darkness of the broken heart. In my experience, there are two kinds of heartbreak: one that contracts, and one that expands. In the first, the damage of not being loved back or loved well enough causes one to withdraw and withhold from the possibility altogether. In the second, rather than coming from not being loved, the pain comes from not being able to offer it, in its myriad gestures, its loyalties and kindness.
But it is only a particular beloved who cannot receive these. The world at large, with its wounded wings, its gaping craw, can. We cannot choose how we will hurt or predict what will heal us. We can strive to not create more pain. We can transmute our pain into something of meaning by believing in goodness and beauty. It’s not about ceasing to be lonely, only about – as in the Japanese art of kintsugi – filling the damaged places with gold.
Some of the themes from your first book, Witchcraft, carry over into this book: geography, belonging, navigating ancestry and the past, chronicling love and its demise. Do poetry and fiction emerge from the same instincts?
Yes, very much so. And things like travel, forging friendships, rituals – these emerge from the same instincts too. As I said earlier, art is ultimately incidental to experience. Not because art is necessarily autobiographical, but everything we are drawn to, and drawn to do, has similar origins.
Speaking of building alone with the materials life has given you, the forest and the sea are two sources of nourishment for your characters. What draws you to the natural world? Is its presence essential to your writing practice?
The natural world has an enormous presence in my writing – specifically the forest and the sea, as you’ve correctly identified. Rock salt and running water if you cannot have the sea. A potted flower and the light through the leaves of avenue trees if you cannot have the forest. We must touch base often. If I am being opaque, forgive me, I know no other way to be but this – always in awe of, always offered solace by, the wild.
In 2011, this book was tentatively titled Always the Bond Girl. How did you settle on the final title?
In early 2009, I wrote a story named “Always The Bond Girl” as a 23-year-old outsider negotiating love and sex in Madras, and I already knew then that there was a thread there that needed following. As I began to write more stories exploring the subject, and as I got older too, a more complete sense of the themes began to emerge. As did political and spiritual groundings.
I wrote the title story, “The High Priestess Never Marries”, in 2011, which was the year that I saw the whole picture for this book. There were personal shifts in my life, and the subject too had shifted: it was no longer just a fun book about romance, but one in which feminist spirituality is really the grounding force.
There was a lot of growth between those two titles, the working one and the true one.
There was a rather popular short story of mine, “Public Kissing At The Periyamudaliarchavadi Junction”, which I removed from the manuscript because I felt that despite people seeming to enjoy it, it lacked power – the solitary or subversive power my other characters have. These are the kinds of honesties one must have to her greater vision.
I tend to be farsighted about projects, in part because I labour on each for so many years, so when I grasp a cohesive theme early on, I start using a title for my own reference. A true title emerges later. My next book of poetry, The Altar Of The Only World, was called Bulletproof Offering for many years, a line from the first poem I wrote for it. But I knew from that first poem, “Hanuman”, what I had in my hands. Seven years later, the vision was deeper, but the first sighting was true.
But Constellation of Scars, my novel in progress – that title isn’t going to change. I started to write it when I was 19 or 20, but I couldn’t have written it then. It needed all my life has contained in this time. And it needs where I am going, too. It’s a bigger, darker book than I ever could have imagined before. But that first glimpse was synechdocal.
You said you stopped writing for a while. What does it mean for a writer to be unable to write for some time?
This happens all the time. So many stops and starts. A year without writing. Two years without writing. The longest routes off the map. Like how I started one book (Constellation of Scars) and wrote four other books without finishing the first.
It’s not abnormal to not write for long periods, I think, as long as your vision of a work remains with you. But what’s useful is that sometimes one has to be cognisant that the drought is symptomatic of something else. Are you suffering from depression? Are you in need of leaving a draining work environment? Sometimes the ebb is circumstantial. We must be kind to ourselves.
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