Excavating a Personal History: An Interview with Sharanya Manivannan – Michigan Quarterly Review

Excavating a Personal History: An Interview with Sharanya Manivannan

Sharanya Manivannan is the author of six books of fiction, poetry, and children’s literature, including The High Priestess Never Marries (winner of a LAADLI Award; shortlisted for a Tata Literature Live! Award), The Queen of Jasmine Country (longlisted for The JCB Prize; shortlisted for The Hindu Prize) and her picture book, The Ammuchi Puchi. Mermaids In The Moonlight is a picture book for children aged between 6 and 10 years. Vibrantly illustrated and rich with lore and culture, this book marks Sharanya’s debut as an illustrator. 

She was born in India in 1985 and grew up in Sri Lanka and Malaysia; she has been living in Chennai since 2007.

Priyanka Sacheti (PS): What inspired you to illustrate this book, which also happens to be your first illustrated project? How was it to simultaneously work on both the writing and creating the art? You are also working on a graphic novel for adults, Incantations Over Water. How did the experience of working on this book influence the making of the novel?

Sharanya Manivannan (SM): I had been painting since my teens, and it wasn’t until I was in the thick of creating the art for Mermaids In The Moonlight that this sixth book of mine – following the writing and publication of fiction, poetry, and another’s children’s book as well as a great deal of essays and journalism – was my public debut as an illustrator. Visual art had been a part of my life for a long time by then; because it was not new to me as such, it didn’t initially cross my mind that it would be new for my readers. During the course of making the picture book, I discovered that the illustrator in me had a greater say than the writer. Although the manuscript was written first, naturally, the illustrations were my focus when it came to accommodating both text and image on the page.

Mermaids In The Moonlight was supposed to be a spin-off project, an extraction from the graphic novel Incantations Over Water that had been my original focus. But I wound up creating the picture book first. The two projects became distinct entities, bound by two common threads: firstly, they are both set in Batticaloa, where, on full moon nights, mysterious sounds emerge from within the Kallady lagoon, and where mermaid insignia is found in all kinds of places (from an arch at the entrance of town to the roof of a little shrine to a tsunami memorial plaque, and so much more). Secondly, Nilavoli and Amma conjure up a mermaid whom they name Ila in Mermaids In The Moonlight; Ila is the narrator of Incantations Over Water, and she offers a soliloquy-seduction to a diasporic Tamil woman who ventures out into the lagoon alone in a small boat.

Mermaids In The Moonlight was published in February 2021. I completed Incantations Over Water in June, and it is scheduled for release later this year. Both these illustrated books were created during the pandemic. Making the picture book buoyed me through several months of isolation and despair. Over half the art in the graphic novel was made in the weeks of my father’s hospitalization and following his demise. The creation of both books gave me, at different points, solace, sanity, comfort, pleasure, and hope.

PS: This book is centered upon a mother-daughter relationship. Could you share how you conjured up the luminous scene of a mother and daughter on a boat beneath a moonlit sky as the book’s setting? Why did you choose the mother and daughter as the medium through which to narrate your stories?

SM: Some reasons were known to me, and some I did not comprehend until after the book was published. I wanted to create a feminist picture book so the lead characters being a little girl (Nilavoli) and a woman (Amma – “mother”) made sense. This bequeathal of stories that Nilavoli receives from her mother was a way to metaphorically honour the erstwhile matrilineal heritage of their ancestors. Batticaloa’s dominant Tamil caste was Mukkuvars, historically a fishing community that practiced matrilocal domicile and matrilineal inheritance. This heritage is my own, too, and beyond this, the reasons became even more personal. The picture book began as a paean to the daughter I do not have and then became a way to heal my inner child. 

PS: I understand you have an intimate personal connection with the location, Batticaloa, Sri Lanka, in the book. Could you tell us more about it? How did your particular connection with and experiences of the place inform the making of the book and the stories you chose to narrate in it?

SM: My mother’s side of the family is from Batticaloa, and we are Tamils. The large-scale conflicts and pogroms of the 1980s, during which many Tamils fled the island, impacted my family as well. Although my early childhood was in Colombo, we moved to Malaysia in 1990 (and subsequently to India, when I was an adult). I was already 27 years old the first time I went to Batticaloa, and when I did, I carried my late grandmother’s longing with me. She had not returned home since 1987 and had died two decades later with an unfulfilled wish to just see once more the front porch of the house she had raised her children in. I then went to this house, and I sat on its porch.

On my first visit in 2012, the ubiquitous presence of the mermaid motif around Batticaloa immediately caught my attention. My mother had told me when I was a child that there was a mermaid in her hometown who sang on full moon nights; I had not given this much thought in a long time, but to recognize that mermaids were, in fact, a vivid part of the Batticaloa aesthetic moved me. I began to be curious about whether there was lore related to this mythic figure, but no one I asked could tell me anything. This curiosity grew into these two books, both of which are the products of dedicated research, travel, and personal excavation. Truly, I went back to Batticaloa in 2012 because of the mermaids. I wouldn’t necessarily have had the courage to confront my palimpsest of intergenerational pain otherwise.

PS: Amma mentions in the book that a story can travel, just like a coconut that can float its way from shore to shore.” How was the journey of researching these travelling stories about waters of the world?” What was the process like of interweaving these stories into that of the book, as in which and how to include them? 

SM: Mermaid stories from around the world are bountiful – the ones that appear in both Mermaids In The Moonlight and in Incantations Over Water are but a small selection, that too only a selection from the textually documented. There was never a dearth anywhere except when it came to Batticaloa itself. I wanted to acknowledge that void, not fill it. How I made my choices about which stories to include were influenced largely by whether or not I was drawn to the story and moved by it. When it came to Mermaids In The Moonlight, there were questions of whether a story could appeal to children, was age-appropriate, could contain a meaningful lesson for them, and could expand their understanding of mermaids beyond the Eurocentric. Beyond this was another series of choices about diversity, sensitive depiction, respectful retelling, and more. I wanted to bring interesting stories from across the world to the young reader, who may not even know of any mermaid tale other than Disney’s rendition of Hans Christian Andersen’s. I was a child when that film came out, and as much as I love it, it is only one story. Between these two books of mine (I should note here that Incantations Over Water is meant for an adult readership and contains adult themes), Sedna, La Pincoya, Menana, Matsya, Mathabu’l-Bahri, Pania, and Atargatis, along with unnamed karukayn, rusalka, and ningyo and so many others, repopulate the reader’s imagination.

I did not shy away from heavy themes in the stories, including enslavement, family abuse, horror, and so on – but I tried to be careful with my phrasing, allowing silences to speak. Similarly, I did not shy away from the backdrop of the civil war – Nilavoli and Amma are not tourists but members of a traumatized diaspora, and this is a part of their conversation. Some of this conversation is visual or insinuated.

PS: Excavating buried and silenced women’s herstorical voices is an ongoing project for many these days. You mention that “on my first visit [to Batticaloa] nearly a decade ago, I was struck by how the symbol of the mermaid was a part of the town’s aesthetic, but strangely, there was an absence of lore about the same.” Your subsequent visits to the place involved both a quest for discovering more about the mermaids as well a “culture and geographical location that has often been sidelined in the international understanding of Ilankai Tamil life.” Did this book, in a sense, represent unearthing both women’s stories as well as ones tied to emotional and cultural geography?

SM: With regards to international understanding: most of what people, including Tamil people originally from the island, consider Eelam/Ilankai/Sri Lankan Tamilness is Jaffna-centric. Tamilnesses from other parts of the islands are erased, not even subsumed, and this has to do with longstanding rivalries and hierarchies. Batticaloa Tamilness, which itself is an umbrella term of sorts, is one of these. As a place with a women-dominant culture, non-Agamic worship practices, an affinity (rumoured or real) to chthonic ritual, lower economic status, and greater intermingling of castes – it posed a threat to the more patriarchal Jaffna culture, because of which a sense of distrust must have developed. This antagonism persists to this day, in the diaspora as well.

The sentimental and the personal, and their relationship to the cultural and the geographical, were the nature of the most important discoveries and excavations that this quest for mermaids gave me. Trying to uncover why the mermaid symbol is everywhere in Batticaloa, but mermaid folklore is not, was really a key that opened my heritage and personal history to me and showed me things I had not known. Not all of this is in these two illustrated books because most of it pertains to my healing and rehoming (from myriad things; it would be facile to say this is due to dislocation alone). But some of it will be in my future works, including a novel set between 1929 and 2006 entitled Constellation of Scars, in which there is a character based on my great-grandmother – a Mukkuvar woman who walked out on her marriage to a trader from Jaffna and lived alone on a plot of land that belonged to her through matrilineal inheritance rights for the rest of her life. My great-grandfather took custody of the children; only my grandfather survived childhood, and he was raised by his grandmother while his father travelled on work. He was allowed to visit his mother but could not stay – still, despite his father’s efforts, the boy was raised in the local culture and inherited his mother’s caste. On my last trip to Batticaloa, in April 2019 (just before the Easter Day bombings), I had a chance to visit the land my great-grandmother had lived on. It was uninhabited but with markings in the soil that indicated where a clay house had stood for a time. It was a very powerful experience.

PS: Your book powerfully captures the joy of both narrating and listening to a story, Nilavoli describing at one point even the moon leaning in to listen. What is the personal relevance of discovering and narrating stories for you? What do you hope your audience, whether it be children or adults, take away after reading this book?

SM: The gift of listening deeply and observing quietly offers the reward of knowing oneself and others well, and good storytellers know that these are vital elements of craft. Beyond the realm of art, listening and space-holding silence are core components of healing and relationship-building. They are not practiced enough.

Some silences come from erasures and deliberate elisions, and some silences exist because one is listening, creating the space for a truth to emerge. Both of these are honoured in Mermaids In The Moonlight and in Incantations Over Water

PS: In one memorable moment, Amma likens the humming in the lagoon to the time she and Nilavoli “heard recordings of imploding pulsar stars in space?” “The book navigates intersections between science and myth, suggesting that both are not mutually exclusive. Could you share your thoughts about that?

SM: Inquisitive children ask me this question when I do events around the book: “But are mermaids even real?” They also make declarations like: “Mermaids are from a fantasy land only!” So then I ask: “Where is this fantasy land, and what can it contain; if it exists in your imagination, do you want to make space for mermaids there too?” Or else I respond: “There is so much we as humans don’t know about this planet we inhabit and about its other inhabitants. Who is to say mermaids don’t exist or did not exist before?”

This openness to possibilities is one of the core themes of Mermaids In The Moonlight. People of a scientific bent of mind have long been interested in the phenomenon of the mysterious sounds that emanate from the Kallady lagoon. The sounds have been researched, recorded, and analysed. Reverend Fr Lange even published her musical notation of the sounds in The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society in 1953. The most widely-trusted scientific theory is that since fish are mobile, the sounds are unlikely to come from them since they are concentrated at certain parts of the lagoon. Mollusks such as Tritonia arborescens are the most likely candidates, as suggested by an experiment at the Edinburgh Philosophical Society around 1848.

I’m personally more taken by the mystery and the manifold possibilities therein than any attempt to resolve it, as may be obvious. But I felt it was very important to bring the scientific angle to Mermaids In The Moonlight to inspire young readers to think more broadly. While the science as such may be Western- and even colonially-oriented, it is also a way to disavow over-exoticisation, which Sri Lanka, on the whole, suffers from. Incantations Over Water, however, is more steeped in magic. In that book, the acknowledgment of magic is an assertion of an authentic worldview, one that exists with or without an extraneous gaze.

lsa logoum logoU-M Privacy StatementAccessibility at U-M