meet the poet

‘What is it about heterosexual love that can make it incompatible with a truly feminist life?’

In an interview, poet, short-story writer and columnist Sharanya Manivannan has questions of her own.

Among other things, Sharanya Manivannan is the writer of an award-winning book of short stories, The High Priestess Never Marries, and of a children’s book,The Ammuchi Puchi, a poet (Witchcraft) and a resident columnist at the New Indian Express where she regularly catches flies with razor-sharp wit in The Venus Flytrap.

In her latest collection of poetry, The Altar of the Only World, Manivannan opens up a richly layered universe where mythical beings wander the wilderness, reflecting on solitude, exile, banishment and redemption.

“To be winged
is to be weighted by the memory 
of flight, the knowledge that 
to fly at all one risks fall from grace”

— From “Flight”, in “The Altar of the Only World”

In Altar, Sita “aches with memory” as she watches Lucifer’s fall from the heavens. Draupadi, forged from fire, speaks to Sita as a soul sister. A mutilated Shurpanakha, tells Sita of beauty. The Sumerian Goddess Inanna descends into the underworld to confront her sister, her shadow, and pays the price. Manivannan spoke to, explaining the genesis of the collection, her exhaustive and diverse research process and why she rejects canon. Excerpts from the interview:

Where did the idea of The Altar of the Only World come from?
Nine years ago, I was at the Adishakti campus outside Pondicherry. It was a time of great upheaval and pain in my life. Some of it centred around having lost my grandmother whom I was very close to. But through that grief, literally weeping among the trees, I found that Sita spoke to me. She wept under the trees too and something about that didn’t just speak to me, it sang to me. Adishakti were also working on the Ramayana extensively, and so I had access to dual resources: their scholarship and performances they brought, and the surreal, wild-spirited space itself.

Following Sita and immersing myself in what solitude meant eventually led me to Lucifer. In Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth, I read about this Persian myth in which Lucifer is god’s beloved, god’s most precious one. When god creates man, he (Lucifer) refuses to bow. He says – I will bow before no one but you. Because of this, he’s cast from heaven, he’s exiled. Like Sita, who was also exiled, and walked through fire because of this impossible love, for this divine beloved who doesn’t necessarily see it.

Lucifer opened the heavens to me. Because the Latin word “Lucifer” means light bearer, and he’s associated with the morning star Venus, I found Inanna, who’s also associated with Venus. She’s the goddess of love and war. Prior to that, it was a collection of poems, set outside of time, that dealt with solitude and exile. With Inanna, this became a story of resurrection because she enters the underworld, confronts her shadow and emerges. It destroys her, but she does emerge.

What makes you relate to the mythical characters of your poems?
Sita and Lucifer’s devotion and what they suffer because of it – I thought that core emotion was very powerful. The choice to be exiled. The acceptance, the grace with which they took this on, rather than conform to a narrative which would have made things easier for them. Inanna’s fire, her fearlessness. She’s angry, demanding, lost and wretched – so are Sita and Lucifer. But the willingness to stay on one’s path and just be true, even if it means being isolated, exiled, thrown out of comfort and conformity. I think those are things that are really appealing to me about these characters. That aside, the myths are beautiful…and strange and sad.

So when you dive into writing in their voices, what’s the homework that goes into it?
I love doing research. When something just clicks and you see a connection – it’s such a sensational feeling. For this book, I immersed myself in a lot of performance art – modern theatre, dance forms like Chhau, Therakoothu, Theyyam, shadow puppetry from Kerala (Tolpava) and South East Asia (Wayang Kulit), folk songs, and some films as well, including this iconic movie by Malayalam filmmaker G Aravindan, called Kanchana Sita, in which Sita is nature. She is Prakriti, the elements. There’s just so much that I couldn’t do in a bibliography. It’s not just books that went into this.

Publishing right now emphasises “strong, independent female characters” so much that I often see writers and editors casting aside the vulnerabilities of characters in that attempt, especially when it comes to love. You write beautiful female characters who love deeply. What is it like being a woman, and a feminist, who writes poetry about love?
I think love is a feminist project.

Thank you!
I truly believe this. Someone who’s written at length about this is Bell Hooks in her marvellous book All About Love: New Visions. Most of the time, when a person’s feminism reaches a roadblock, it isn’t a parent, it isn’t the extended family. It’s your partner, your need – biological or psychological – to remain within the heterosexual paradigm. We need to interrogate what it is about heterosexual love that can make it incompatible with a truly feminist life. This is something I explored a lot in The High Priestess Never Marries. What is the paradigm for love?

Coming to The Altar of the Only World. First, I think not all mythical figures can be rehabilitated to fit our current socio-political analysis. Sita is somebody who routinely fails that. Knowing that, I didn’t go into writing Altar as a feminist retelling of the Ramayana. The feminism that creeps in anyway is because that’s what I believe in.

I decided to just feel her, be with her emotions, rather than judge her choices or try to prove how her choices were subversive. They weren’t really, going by the standard epic narrative. If we question our interlocutors and say, “Well, this is that rendering of the story, what was her rendering of the story? What drove this woman to do these things?” That was my only concern.

At a time when Hindutva is reviving its unhealthy fixation with Ram, your poems give voices to the experiences of Sita, Ahalya, Hanuman, Shurpanakha. Characters whom today’s dispensation would consider supporting cast at best. Please talk about that choice in the context of our time.
Dangerous question (laughs). You know, Hanuman is a lot like Sita. Profoundly loyal. Even his loyalty is questioned. I found that all these “peripheral characters” were complex, human and interesting with so many colours and variations in their emotions. This moved me because they’re essentially obsessed with the so-called principal character, who exists in my book only as an absence.

This is an extremely multi-faceted story, which has captured the Asian imagination – it’s not just India, it’s Cambodia, Indonesia, Nepal – for possibly thousands of years, and then been retold in so many languages and voices. It’s so sad for art and humanity that only one version of that story is held above all the others. Why is somebody’s grandmother’s version of the Ramayana – cobbled together with her poor memory, a rumour she heard once, the TV serial she watched, and something she read serialised in a Tamil magazine – why is that less precious than a Ramayana in a language most people cannot read? I neither put myself on a feminist nor political project but that’s what I’ve unintentionally arrived at. The characters spoke to me because the mythology has always spoken to me.

On that note, I must ask. In the opening poem of the book, are you making references to the mermaid Suvannamaccha from Thai folklore who loved Hanuman and had a son with him?
Magic, magic, magic. I love that reading of this poem, because I’m not sure if I knew of Suvannamaccha in January 2009, when I wrote it, but somewhere in the interim years I began to think of her a great deal. She is, among others like Sedna and Melusine, in one of the books I am currently working on – a graphic novel centred around the mermaid or “singing fish” of Batticaloa in Eastern Sri Lanka. In Altar, I kept the beloved, the betrayer, ambiguous. It doesn’t matter in the end who abandoned you – it only matters who you make of yourself in the afterlife of that love. Sita, Suvannamaccha, Surpanakha – we’re all of them, and they’re all the same.

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