On full moon nights, if you enter the Kallady lagoon in Mattakalappu, Ilankai (Batticaloa, Sri Lanka) and dip a paddle or oar into the water and hold its dry end to your ear, you will hear mysterious sounds from deep underwater.
These sounds are real, and have been recorded and documented, and are widely believed to come from “singing fish” or mollusks. But everywhere in Mattakalappu, on all kinds of public facades – from the arch in Uranee, at the entrance of the town, to pillars and clock towers and even a tsunami memorial plaque – there are mermaids.
The symbol of the meen magal, as the mermaid is known in Tamil, is a part of the the town’s identity. Even more mysterious perhaps than the phenomenon of the singing fish is that this mythic figure exists here, but without stories.
I have heard these sounds emerge from under the water, leaning over a boat to listen to the lagoon’s secrets. I have looked for the mermaids, or at least their meanings, myself. My family is from Mattakalappu, and as a member of the vast and variously-traumatised Ilankai Tamil diaspora, this quest allowed me to heal certain parts of myself.
I had initially envisioned my research as translating into a graphic novel for adults, out of which I could carve out a selection of pages to create an abridged children’s picture book. But the mermaids had other plans for me, and it was the children’s picture book, Mermaids in the Moonlight, that emerged first as its own fully-realised and distinct entity. The graphic novel, Incantations Over Water, will follow.
I have been drawing and painting for pleasure since my late teens. Along the way, I published fiction, poetry, children’s writing, essays, columns and more. I realised only when asked that I can’t really pinpoint exactly why I decided to embark on illustrating books too, although I know (based on the timing of my travel and research endeavours) that the idea came to me around 2016.
To me, bringing my art and my writing together seems natural. I am self-taught, and learnt how to illustrate digitally through the process of creating this book.
In Mermaids In The Moonlight, a child and mother from the Ilankai Tamil diaspora visit the lagoon, where they listen to these sounds. Little Nilavoli asks her Amma to tell her the story of the meen magal of Mattakalappu. Amma acknowledges the absence of folklore, and then offers Nilavoli mermaid stories from around the world instead.
On this page, Nilavoli hears the underwater sounds for the first time. She is a little disappointed, because they do not sound like a woman singing. The two underwater species represented on this page are tritonia arborescens and cerithium palustre. Both are among the candidates that the scientifically-minded believe may be the cause of the music. The fish here is whimsical.
Doubt and faith are equally valued in this book: as a work steeped in collective loss, and which taps into collective lore, I have taken care to acknowledge lacunae, and to leave open-ended questions exactly as they are.
Mermaids In The Moonlight is not about a touristy adventure. It is a story in which a Tamil woman who left the island as a child, due to ethnic conflict, brings her own daughter to her homeland and imparts to her geographical, cultural and emotional aspects of her heritage. The image on the right of this panel is a tribute to the Mothers of the Disappeared movement.
An emotional crescendo is intended here: the destruction of property on the left is almost neutral, the child soldier in the middle deliberately complicates wartime narratives and demands greater ethical inquisitiveness, and then there is the final image – the wailing woman holding a photograph of her missing beloveds. Unequivocal, and which transcends all analysis.
The mermaid symbol is not Eurocentric at all, even though many think it is. This book features mermaid stories from around the world, from the Arctic Circle to Africa to Oceania and beyond. On this page is Menana of the Ottawa Nation, who shapeshifted from human girl to star to water-spirit and then back.
I tried to work as sensitively as possible with legends from different cultures, and to acknowledge that I only know what I know; the endnote of the book encourages the reader to seek out more sources and more stories.
There were also creative choices to be made: should I reference Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid in this book? (No, I didn’t – but that story is in Incantations Over Water). Where is the famed Mami Wata of the African continent? (I can hardly explain her absence, except to say that she didn’t come to me, but Yemanja did – heart-tugged me and embraced me and even sent a necklace of cowrie shells to my door on the day that I wrote her page).
I declined my editor’s suggestion to have a map in this book because these stories are but a fraction of what is out there, across the world’s waters.
Mermaids In The Moonlight is about many things – mysteries, love stories, tragedies, histories – but most of all, it is about listening.