Interview with the Author of The High Priestess Never Marries’

By: Michelle D’costa

Sharanya Manivannan

Sharanya Manivannan’s latest book is The High Priestess Never Marries (Harpercollins India, 2016), a collection of stories on women, solitude and desire which was shortlisted for the Tata Lit Live! First Book Award (Fiction). She is also the author of a book of poems, Witchcraft, and a children’s picturebook, The Ammuchi Puchi. 

In this interview, we will be discussing her short story collection, her thoughts on marriage and more.

1- Most of your stories from the collection are published in online journals.  Did your publication credentials play a pivotal role in your MS acceptance at Harper?

It was actually poetry that brought me to HarperCollins India. At the end of 2013, I got a note from ManasiSubramaniam, who had just moved to HCI at the time from Karadi Tales in Chennai, where I had previously worked with her on an audiobook for children. She asked if I had a poetry manuscript for her. It was mid-2015 by the time I did, but a beautiful and miraculous thing happened: I finished both the poetry manuscript (The Altar of the Only World) and a manuscript of short stories (The High Priestess Never Marries) within a couple of months of one another.

I was given a choice about which I wanted to have published first. Most of the stories from the collection are not online actually, although several vignettes are. Many of the most substantial ones (such as “Conchology, “Cyclone Crossing” and “Sweetness, Wildness, Greed”) have never been published anywhere else. But what is true is that many years of publishing poetry, fiction as well as columns and other prose in various places did bring my work to the attention of both readers and publishers.

I would recommend that to anyone who writes: send your work to journals as you work on a lengthy manuscript, otherwise it will be very difficult to get noticed from the slush pile.

2- The prose drips with carnal desire. What motivated you to write on this theme?

I see desire not as a means to an end, both on the page and off it, but as a way of being. I know what most people think of here is the eroticism in my work, but I expand my definition of desire to cover all states of longing.

There’s a passage in the story “Corvus” that encapsulates this: “The one thing I know to be true is not that love is all there is, or that everything dies. It is that everybody has want. It’s a tiny nerve, a vein of gypsum, that runs through everything—everyone—and sometimes I see someone else’s so clearly that it catches me by the throat. In every place I have been in the world I have looked at people and seen right through into their lives, into the one true thing for which this wretched bittersweet is worth enduring, and I have broken into pieces at the recognition of it. It’s the smallest thing. The smallest, smallest, smallest thing.”

But I’m not going to shy away from the eroticism in my writing. It’s there, and why not? It isn’t there to titillate. It’s there, like everything else, only to tell the truth.

3- What is your idea of feminism and according to which story in your collection portrays that idea the best?

This is a nicely challenging question, because so many of the stories are deeply feminist in my view. Even when the character in question isn’t necessarily a feminist herself, her choices reveal something about the effect of the patriarchal paradigm on women. Like the married women and how they choose to operate within that scaffolding.  And then there are the wild, petal-soft and trauma-toughened women of “Corvus” and “Sandalwood Moon”, for instance.

The latter story contains the genesis of the book, this line: “And if I could not teach you how to love, I would teach myself how to live alone”. But I’m ultimately drawn to the narrator of “Ancestress”. She tells the story of the goddess Kanyakumari, who is deserted on the day of her wedding, and about how she herself – an ordinary human with her ordinary human loneliness – ritualistically marries her own ancestral goddess. I’d pick that story because it is so completely about devotion and self-possession and purpose in the world. And these are the things that inform my feminism.

The author Tanuj Solanki discussed with me in another interview how my women seem to be feminists not in response to a patriarchal paradigm but as a natural state. I agree. The Sanskrit word “swayambu”, or self-manifested, comes to mind. Fighting the system from within is passé. Things have evolved: free yourself.

4- Have you ever been told not to write so boldly like women are often told not to do many things?

Absolutely. Like any woman, I have been told to not be, not do, not love, not live.

5- Do you feel contemporary Indian fiction in English lacks anything and does your book fill the void in any way?

I actually think that, when you include all the work that is being translated from other Indian languages, Indian fiction in English is quite diverse. I’m not sure if there’s a particular void my book fills, even though I’ve been experimental both in terms of story lengths and language.

6- When one reads your collection, there is a feeling that all stories are of the same woman. One woman. How often have you been asked if they are autobiographical and do you like the question?

To be honest, how I respond to the question depends a lot on how I respond to the person asking it. If I sense voyeurism of any kind, I bristle. If I sense sincerity, I am more forthcoming. While biographically the women differ, there is certainly something similar about most of them at their core. And I share that core with them, if not always the details. I’ve never been married (“Afternoon Sex”), I’ve never had children (“Cyclone Crossing”), and god knows I haven’t committed murder while literally having sex (“Sky Clad” and “Salomé”), so sometimes the question is odd. Ultimately, I think that intangible core is what makes the book cohesive. Our circumstances are not who we are, there’s something deeper in each of us that informs our every stirring, our every step.

7- Indian women writers who have influenced your style?

Arundhati Roy’s The God Of Small Things opened my world. I read it when I was 14. The language was exquisite, and I think that was one of the first books that made me sure that a wide vocabulary was no hindrance to simple storytelling. But my influences are wider than only women or Indian writers.

I’d be remiss to not say that I educated myself on a literary canon of women writers of colour. Among them: Sandra Cisneros, Joy Harjo, Louise Erdrich and so many more.

And men: Michael Ondaatje, for example. What would my work, my world, have been without his? AK Ramanujam’s bhakti and Sangam translations were another experience that expanded my heart and mind when I was much younger. For someone who reads as widely as I do, it’s reductive to name only Indian women as influences or favourites.

8- What led you to start penning stories? A person?A book?

I loved books from before I could read to myself, and loved them even more once I could. I started to write poems when I was 7 years old, and still experience the headiness of it. To be able to feel a thing and to give words to it – it’s intoxicating, and it made me feel powerful even as a child.

9- I got the sense from your stories that you have paid emphasis to each line of each story. And a single line can be so profound, it is obvious much introspection has gone into framing it. Like this:

there was one man who seemed to discover the eloquence of kissing the hand, because the way he then took mine and did the same suggested unfamiliarity, wonder, the simplicity of imitation. I would later grieve thinking about the other women he would confer the same upon, this tenderness I had given him. As though anything in any of us is truly new, unclaimed.’

-Corvus

Any comments?

Every line, yes. I’m a poet at heart, and always will be.

10- The vocabulary in your book is rich. I have never heard of some of the words.

Do you think of an ideal reader when you write your stories/Are you concerned about losing readers for the complex language?

I can only write a story in the ways I know how, and my large vocabulary and my belief that every word has its place are tools for the telling. Just as if I were to narrate something to you over a kitchen table, my eyes would speak, my voice would reveal, and my hands and the tactile sensation would finely detail the story. Those tools aren’t there when it’s between a reader and a book, when the printed word is all there is. For me, the honest desire of a story to exist, to be spoken, to be seduced onto the page, is the only guiding light I concern myself with.

I wrote a children’s book, The Ammuchi Puchi, that didn’t get published for several years because the language was too heavy for a picturebook (it was eventually released by Lantana Publishing – in the same month as The High Priestess Never Marries!). For it too, it was the same thing. I can only tell a story as I know how to tell it. I trust that every reader the story will encounter will share my heart. Even though I know that isn’t true, but I write and release my work into the world in that good faith.

11- I would like to discuss the title story a bit.

(i) As the context of the story is set in India. I would like to know your thoughts about the way ‘marriage’ is looked at in India?

(ii) Do you think it is necessary for a woman to be married? If not, why?

I’ll answer the second question first, and simply: obviously not. Choosing to marry because you are investing in property together, having children together and so on make sense to me from a legal framework. But seeing marriage as a necessary life step, a life goal if you will, does a very dangerous thing to one’s sense of self.

Historically, marriage everywhere had a practical function rooted in hegemonies. Did you know that only 2% of Indian marriages are inter-caste? That’s the primary criteria (religion is already implied), followed by class. This means that even those who believe themselves to be liberated subconsciously toe the line. I think we’re in deep denial about how bigoted we are in this country, on so many levels: religion, class, caste, language, skin colour, eating habits, gender. And we’re unable to see that matrimony isn’t just about two people or even two families. It maintains and enforces political and social status quos.

Public discourse is very cowardly. We’ve speak about how marriage is difficult for women without actually interrogating the institution itself. As long as we don’t do this, the problems that women have faced for centuries: dowry, giving up one’s career, moving into the man’s home with his parents, being responsible for childcare, etc, will be the same one’s that we’re working out. It’s also necessary to delink sexuality and marriage completely, which we haven’t done. We’re still talking about pre-marital and extra-marital instead of removing the word “marital” from the equation altogether. And the social unit of the family itself needs to change its focus from this new rallying cry of raising strong daughters to raising kind sons.

I’m totally unimpressed by what is popular in Indian cities these days: the “arranged-cum-love” marriage. What a complete oxymoron. What it means is that you are casually introduced to someone of your own background, already vetted through subtle and overt cues. You perform together for six months or a year, presenting the social impression that you are dating. When in fact, there’s a sword of Damocles hanging over your head: you know you were informally engaged to this person from the day you met them.When that six month or one year milestone arrives and your families are about to make a public announcement or put down a deposit on a wedding hall, can you say No? Only technically. In actuality, the pressure makes it very difficult. This is how marriage has evolved in urban India for my generation, which is why the next generation will comprise of so many children whose parents are divorced. That’s the generation that will hopefully make a more meaningful change.

All this being said, the title story of “The High Priestess Never Marries” was such fun to write. I’ve loved hearing people laugh out loud as they read it or heard me read it to them. I think it surprises people that such a heavy title belongs to such a light-hearted story. But it does. The High Priestess never marries because she has better things to do, babe.

12- Your book has received great reviews. When you were writing it, did you anticipate a negative feedback- the ‘morality’ of the protagonists questioned?

I never expected the warmth with which The High Priestess Never Marries has been received. Even when we were in the final stage of proofreading, I couldn’t get enough distance from the manuscript to be able to see it objectively. All I saw was my vulnerability, my blood, my desire to hold my heart up as a torch to light my own way and anyone else’s. There were pieces no one had ever seen other than me and my editors; I was so close to it that even my dearest friends hadn’t read some of it.

There is moral policing, yes. I come from a conservative and dysfunctional background, and I live in a conservative city, so I am used to being morally policed. And I’ve always fought it but I would be dishonest if I said it hasn’t at the very least left scratches on me. That will happen despite all the positive responses to the book. But there is another type of moral-shaming that also takes place, which disguises itself cleverly. The book received one sexist review by a male critic, who tried to dismiss it by saying that it contains no mythology or history and is preoccupied with the body.

Can you imagine – a book which contains Scheherazade of the Arabian Nights, Sara-la-Kali of the Romani people, Lilitu and Inanna of ancient Sumeria, the Biblical Salome, Kali in coitus with the corpse of Shiva, the Shivalingam not as penetration but as birth, Kanyakumari as an abandoned bride, Narasimhar placing his bride on his benediction-bloodied lap, rarely heard narratives of women mourners and women honeyhunters… and much more! – being charged with this? The reason is sleazily simple: if one is unable to situate a woman’s body as the site of its own stories and histories, if one’s gaze only clocks her as an object of pleasure – ah, how much else is unseen, unexperienced.

13- I enjoy reading contemporary Indian fiction. I have to admit I haven’t seen women portrayed in the way they are in your book. Do you think India is ready for such women?

We will live and love and die with or without that sanction. We always have. We always will.

14- I feel your stories have a perfect union of content and form.

Content:  Short stories about relationships that do not materialise into something significant or that most people would consider failures.

Form: Stories without a beginning, middle or and end.

We often wonder after a failed relationship. Oh what was that for? Or after reading a story, oh what was that about?

Your stories have used content and form very well to portray your theme.

Example: It’s not necessary they should lead to something like a conventional end to a love story- A marriage.

It could just be about their memories.

Any comments?

What a lovely question. I do feel that The High Priestess Never Marries is a book of love stories that subverts the romance genre. It puts the woman at the centre of the story – her emotions, her personality, her weaknesses, her choices – and the end goal isn’t to attain another person’s partnership, but to build a sense of belonging for herself that isn’t tethered to external variables. The emotional project of independence isn’t something we often discuss. We talk about it in terms of financial liquidity, qualifications, the fulfillment you get from your job, the ability to travel if you choose, the free time you have and how you spend it, the friendships you forge. But I’ve seen over and over again how, given a chance to have that coveted romantic partnership (or frankly, just the social legitimacy of matrimony), people will give all those things up. The investment in selfhood is revealed to have actually been quite shallow, a waystation. It’s very demanding to shake off the deep conditioning that makes us this way. My life has forced me to do so, and I’m now deep enough into my own emotional project to be able to say confidently – another way is possible.

15- Tell us a little about how your ‘traditional’ autograph came about. Your sign with a smooch.

I’ve been signing that way since my first book, Witchcraft, came out in 2008. I love flamboyance and romance (there’s a line in The High Priestess Never Marries: “I like my fights dirty, my vodka neat and my romance anachronistic”), but even more than that, I love connection. Someone told me at my book launch in Chennai that I take way too long to sign each book – a press of lipstick, their name, a quote and sometimes a note, my name and sometimes a little chat or a hug – but it’s a gesture of gratitude and a personal touch. Everything I make, I make with love. You don’t have to like what I make, but you can’t deny the love I put into it.

16- What is your next book?

The Altar Of The Only World, which I mentioned earlier, comes out with HarperCollins India in 2018. It’s a book of poems that began with Sita in solitude, musing deep in the forest. She looks up at the night sky and watched Lucifer’s fall from grace – cast out of heaven because like her, he was too devoted. And in the stirrings in the underbelly of the Earth, there is Inanna – who demanded to be allowed into the underworld, and was stripped of everything before she got there. It’s a book of poems about grace and resurrection.

 

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