Meet the writers: India edition

In the lead-up to the publication of Influenced: Stories from the Lockdown, we're sitting down to chat with all the contributors to the anthology, and give readers a bit of an introduction to everyone. In the second instalment, we're talking with our most far-flung correspondent, Sharanya Manivannan (pictured below), a writer from India. 

Chris Armstrong (CA): Thank you so much, Sharanya, for joining me today for this quick interview for your story in Influenced. How are you?

Sharanya Manivannan (SM): I’m good Chris. Thank you so much for having me, and I’m really excited about the Influenced anthology.

CA: I am too, and I’m excited to have your story in it. Before we talk about the story, would you mind telling me a little bit about yourself? I know you’re a published author.

SM: Sure, I write poetry, I write fiction, I write children’s literature. I write non-fiction as well, essays, columns, that kind of thing. And next year I make my debut as an illustrator as well, beginning with a children’s book and a graphic novel. I’m really excited about that. Some of my works include a short story collection called The High Priestess Never Marries, and a novel called The Queen of Jasmine Country. The books coming out next year both have to do with mermaids and mythologies from all around the world. So I think there might be something in those books for a wider international audience. The children’s book is called Mermaids in the Moonlight, and that should be coming out in January.

CA: Mermaids in the Moonlight. That has a poetic sense to it. I like that. So, why did you get into writing? What do you like about it?

SM: I started to write when I was seven years old. And I think a lot of children do that: it may be writing, it may be art, or it may be music. You know, so many creative things that schools and parents sometimes only regard as hobbies. But I think I was very fortunate that it just became something which I held on to.

CA: I’m glad you did. It’s a beautiful story, so let’s talk about that for a second. “In the Forest, Under a Claw-Shaped Moon” – first of all, great title. I love the image of the claw-shaped moon right off the top. Without revealing too much about the story, could you tell us what it’s about?

SM: It’s a re-telling of a Bengali folk tale, which concerns a goddess named Shashti. She is the goddess of child birth, and she has a cat familiar. The cat may be her familiar, or it may be her vehicle, or it may even be a manifestation of her. I came across this folk tale, and the story goes that this black cat is in a house where there’s a gluttonous daughter-in-law. And this woman always blames the cat for stealing food, when it’s actually her. So they have a kind of rivalry. The cat decides to steal this woman’s babies as they’re being born. Every year, it steals the baby and takes it to a shrine in the forest, to the goddess Shashti. This is the basis of the folk tale. I decided to tell the story from the cat’s perspective, because what would motivate this severe crime? Not just once, but over six or seven years. Is it possible to have redemption for that? What’s the cautionary moral, or the ethical or even philosophical learning that we can take from this story? I thought about all of those things when I began to write it. As for why this happened at all, it happened because an editor of mine wanted a cat story. She was looking for stories about cats, and because I’m very interested in mythology and folklore, I thought I should research and see if there’s anything from this part of the world. And this was the only story that really stood out to me. It’s not directly from my own culture. I’m Tamil, this is a Bengali story. Although, the goddess is worshipped in different forms in a pan-South Asian way. So I sort of wrote this story for her, but the project that she was putting together fell through, and I had this in my laptop and it was waiting for its home. When I heard about the Influenced anthology. I thought, this is a beautiful global project, and I have this story that doesn’t have a home, and maybe this is it.

CA: I love mythology and folklore too, and obviously India has a rich tradition of that. I’m not too familiar with all the traditions in India, but could you speak to that? Obviously there’s the direct influence of the tale that you mention. But how else has the folklore of India influenced you as a writer, or even this story in particular?

SM: That’s a great question, and in fact there are multiple traditions and multiple cultures, so many languages and dialects and sub-cultures. And there’s a real richness of stories in this part of the world. And unfortunately, I think the rise of religious fundamentalism really hurts the multiplicity of these narratives. One of the things I really see mythology and folklore being able to do is to challenge a kind of homogenous, monolithic idea of culture. That sort of political awareness is always in my work. Beyond that, from a very strictly personal realm, I think that – it’s kind of Jungian in a way, the idea of the archetypes. The idea that, in stories we can see ourselves and we can also project our own feelings and our failings, and very intimate and personal motivations. And also see ways in which to view those things. I really do believe that traditions of folklore and mythology have persisted for centuries, if not more, because there’s something in those stories that speaks to the core of human nature, even if centuries apart.

CA: Or even if the main character’s a cat.

SM: Yes, even if the main character’s a cat. Why not? I didn’t grow up in India. I’m from Sri Lanka, but I grew up mostly in Malaysia. And I’ve only lived in India for 13 years, I was an adult by the time I moved here. I think these things are also really important – they’ve influenced me, not just as a person, but as a writer because somewhere there is a sense of outsider-ness, which I think can actually be an asset to a creative person. But my cultural heritages, therefore, are also quite different from what I encounter here.

CA: That was a great answer. You covered a lot of ground there. Again, I’m not too familiar with Indian mythology, more Western European, even Canadian. Around here, there are a lot of Tsimshian myths that are just beautiful, mostly talking about Raven, who is sort of like a trickster. In a way, I kind of saw the trickster in the cat, as well, in your story. She does some pretty bad things with those babies, but she is kind of a playful spirit as well, at the same time.

SM: I would agree with that. And she’s obviously doing, like you say, a really bad thing, but she’s grieving and it’s her grief that’s manifesting as this. And her grief that ultimately needs healing. There’s something inexplicable about the nature of fate. Why does somebody else altogether have to suffer? And how are punishments really meted out? I think that’s really where folklore can complicate, like I said, monolithic religion and dogmatic ideas, because it is complicated.

CA: It is complicated, but it also in a way helps people through something like that as well, I would think.

SM: Yeah. Also: in the English renderings of the folktale that I was able to base it on, the cat isn’t really the main character. And I wanted to make her the main character.

CA: It was a great idea, I really liked it. Now, you might have already answered this question, but is there anything you want readers to take from your story? After they put the book down, what do you hop you leave them with?

SM: I’d like people to enjoy the story. But also … I think one of the chief concerns of the story is about women, and the complexity of motherhood. When [editor] John Farrell and I had a chat, he asked why I repeated things in the story. First I had some descriptions of the women, and then after that I had names of women, and he asked why that was important. And I think it’s because individual entities are so often subsumed within roles. I think motherhood, in particular, is very much re-purposed for patriarchal agendas. I think these things are relevant in societies all over the world. The question of reproductive freedom in America, following the demise of Ruth Bader Ginsberg, is an example, as is the case in India and other places where there is female foeticide, or even just the pressure that comes with having to be a mother, that too a mother of sons. So this is very much a story not just about cats, but about women, as well as about secret motivations and grief.

CA: Yes, indeed. Well, thank you so much for submitting this beautiful story.

Influenced: Stories from the Lockdown
will be released in November 2020.