Recent Work By Sharanya Manivannan

There are still hours of the night
 when I can sense you, in the house
you have built at the end of eternity,

counting the moments between
  each glimmer of a pulse of light

 I had left burning in the far reaches
of a season beyond reversion, when

Tonight, the chhau dancer has a moon on his back,
and he clasps each of its crescent wingtips
above his head like an angel holding its horns.

When I said that I have looked for you in the bodies
of others, this is what I meant: these martial stances,
these masks, the way his shoulderblades convulse

in tandem with a shuddering drum, the way he raises
a foot to the level of the eye. Some of us are forged
salamandrine, enduring the universe with no more

than the will to be reborn. Others must wear falconry
hoods, and sometimes, when even I can no longer bear
to see, I think of you, once, your head in your hands

in a gesture of mourning, that night at the beginning of
the year of broken idols when a beautiful costumed
man ripped his chest open and showed you that secret

theatre, that solitaire, the hooked bijou of my heart.
Since then, the cosmos has been without choreography.
The seraph on stage unsheathes his trident. I wrap myself

in a serape of sadness and wonder how many dancers I
have watched on how many nights since; how many
I have torn my gaze from to beseech the sky,
as though the night numbered among
its many stars    the zodiac of your eyes.

Which of your current poetry projects—you have two manuscripts in progress—is the poem “Secret Theatres” from?

It’s from Bulletproof Offering, which is the manuscript that exists on a mythical plane (whereas the manuscript Cadaver Exquisito exists on the reality of the city of Chennai). It’s one of the poems in which the two mythological figures I’m working with in this book—Sita and Lucifer—come together in their own internal logic. The devil/angel imagery, the stars—that’s all obviously Lucifer. But these performances I’d been watching, the context in which I watched them, most of that was from the Ramayana and other Hindu mythology. There’s also the reference to Inanna (the line about the will to be reborn is from Diane Wolkstein’s book about her) whom I feel is the conduit between Sita and Lucifer. They all go into the underworld: Lucifer falls from grace from the heavens, Sita prays to be returned to the bosom of the earth after having endured exile thrice, and Inanna (the original hellraiser) demands to be let in, stripped of all she possesses, threatening to destroy the cosmic order if she isn’t. That choice interests me. The choice to perform that excavation, that initiation, the voluntary dismemberment of the self so a stronger one can emerge. Demanding passage, and paying the price. Here is more about the two manuscripts I’m working on.

So you’re working on two very different collections of poetry at the moment, and you’ve had a novel in the works for many years. But you also have a couple of projects that you haven’t spoken of much—an art installation and a collection of short stories among them. Can you say more about these?

Well, my novel is a prolonged love. Of all the things I’m doing, I think that might be the last to be completed. But I don’t know.

The art installation deals with my leaving Malaysia (where I grew up) a few years ago under very traumatic circumstances—which included getting into trouble with their government. I was quite consumed by Marina Abramovic’s The Artist is Present—it led me to think about absence, the intangibles, the ghosts of things. My friends are haunted to this day by my not being there—they keep telling me of how they entered some gallery and almost heard me laughing, almost caught sight of the flowers in my hair. I am haunted to this day by the circumstances of my departure. I’m still developing this project, which is currently called “The Country of Intangibles”, and it’s an entirely new genre to explore—above all because the installation pivots on my not being there, which is new territory for me, considering how much I love performance and bringing my aura and energy to a scene. So there isn’t a time-frame in which it might happen. As with all my many projects and passions, I’m doing it because I want to, and I haven’t a clue when or if the world will ever see it.

The collection of stories is tentatively titled Always The Bond Girl; the initial seed for it came out of the same period that the poems in my Chennai manuscript started emerging from. The idea of, you know, being always the Bond girl and never Bond—always the one left behind while the hero jets out of town. I would blanche if anyone said it was chick lit, but I’m definitely writing from a female perspective, the perspective of what it means to be a certain kind of woman in a certain kind of city.

And what does it mean to be a certain kind of woman in a certain kind of city?

I feel as though, in both life and art, I have to invent my own paradigm. The role models are insufficient. The coded and conditioned ideas about sex and relationships haven’t worked for me, but at the same time I’m not above them, I’m not above feeling battered and beautified and destroyed and validated by them. I do live in a misogynistic society, but it goes beyond that: the scenario seems little different for my friends, other complicated women, in other parts of the world. The challenge is to learn to be a person who loves deeply, but whose crux of power is not derived from an institution, a social standing, a marriage, a man. Which is to say—how can one love deeply, and not get swallowed within these institutions, these obligations, and either be able to co-exist with them or say fuck you to them and mean it? So you question the equations: you question commitment, but you also you question polyamory, you renegotiate what betrayal and belonging mean. The heart becomes this precious loot: you have to guard it with your life, but you have to let it breathe, it must constantly recalibrate to its own flights and whims. You can’t withhold it from the world. So that’s what I’m working on. Turning the house of the heart into something so strong and self-contained that it is enriched, and not vitiated, by its many transient guests.

How does this also hold true in art?

The currently available trajectories for a poet or for a writer in the South Asian Anglophone world don’t interest me. I’m not good at playing certain games, which would allow me success within the existing system. A large part of me is quite happy being on the fringes, being a cult artist. But it’s also hard—how do you keep perspective? What is your context? How do you stay true to your art in an inauthentic system, when the rewards of that system seem so alluring? So in my work I’m also trying to find a paradigm that feels honest, that accepts neither mediocrity nor manipulation, and which not only rejects but reinvents. My role models, if any, mostly come from outside the literary culture as well. So I guess I’d like to live in the countryside like Tori Amos, engage with life voraciously like Frida Kahlo and be badass like Mae West.

Is it true that you are a dangerous woman?

It’s true. And I am most dangerous of all to myself.

What’s your favorite joke?

A bus conductor notices a ridiculously sexy nun on the bus one day, and when she gets to her stop, he starts telling the bus driver how much he wants her.

The driver says, “Oh you could get her easily. Every night she goes to the graveyard to pay her respects at the tomb of a saint. Just find her there, and tell her you’re Jesus.”

So this is exactly what the conductor does. He goes to the graveyard, and indeed, in the darkness, is the nun is at the tomb.

“Behold! I am Jesus,” he announces. “And I want you to have sex with me.”

“Okay,” says the nun. “But I’m preserving my (problematic patriarchal definition of) virginity. So we can only have anal sex.”

And they do.

When they’re done, the conductor throws off his costumery and declares diabolically, “Ha ha ha ha! I’m actually the bus conductor from this morning!”

And the nun turns around with a big grin and says, “Ha ha ha ha! I’m actually the driver.”