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Interview: Mary Anne Mohanraj

By Salik Shah

Mary Anne Mohanraj is the author of Bodies in Motion (HarperCollins), The Stars Change (Circlet Press) and ten other titles. Bodies in Motion was a finalist for the Asian American Book Awards, a USA Today Notable Book, and has been translated into six languages. Mohanraj founded the Hugo-nominated magazine, Strange Horizons (www.strangehorizons.com), serves as editor-in-chief of Jaggery, a South Asian literary journal (jaggerylit.com), and directs both DesiLit (www.desilit.org) and the Speculative Literature Foundation (www.speclit.org). She received a Breaking Barriers Award from the Chicago Foundation for Women for her work in Asian American arts organizing, won an Illinois Arts Council Fellowship in Prose, and was Guest of Honor at WisCon. Mohanraj is Clinical Associate Professor of English at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and lives in a creaky old Victorian in Oak Park, just outside Chicago, with her husband, their two small children, and a sweet dog. http://www.maryannemohanraj.com.

When I first read “Communion,” I recall sharing Amara’s feeling of disgust mixed with a profound sense of gratitude and sadness for Gaurav, her alien savior. It’s among the most memorable stories I have read in Clarkesworld. Could you please tell us about the origin of this fantastic science fiction story? Is the funeral custom mentioned in the story based on any real community or tribe?

The seed of this idea came not from the real world, but from a story by another writer; Diane Duane wrote a Star Treknovel, The Wounded Sky, in which there were aliens who had a similar custom of eating their dead in order to pass down vital nutrients. I was fascinated by the idea, and thought it would be particularly poignant in the context of war, when families are so often fragmented, and people are lost, in one way or another.

“Communion” is a sequel to your novella The Stars Change, which remains a favorite among writers and critics. When did you first started plotting The Stars Change? How did your personal history and heritage influence the worldbuilding?

I started working on the novella in 2012, and it took about a year to plot and write. Much of my work is inspired by the thirty years of civil conflict in my native Sri Lanka; even though that war is finally over, we still struggle with its aftereffects, both in the homeland and the diaspora. During the 1983 Black July riots in Colombo, violent thugs went door-to-door, armed with government voter lists, dragging Tamils out of their homes to beat and murder. I heard story after story of Sinhalese people who hid their Tamil neighbors, at great risk to themselves, in those dark days. In The Stars Change, I wanted to explore what might lead ordinary people to step out of the safety of their own lives to help others in danger, even when those others were very different from themselves.

Brit Mandelo said The Stars Change “is an interesting take on the cultural, personal, and social relevance of the erotic: how something so simple as sexuality webs together various people and communities.” Why does erotica appeal to you as an artist? How comfortable are your Asian and American colleagues, friends and students either discussing, reading or writing about sex?

My college students are often a little nervous about discussing sexual matters, but I find that a matter-of-fact approach generally takes care of that within a few classes. Sexuality is a fundamental part of human existence, after all, and it’s always somewhat bewildered me that while we are all expected by society to perform the act (if perhaps only within the bounds of state-sanctioned marriage), we’re not supposed to talk about it. That leads to all kinds of problems, of course — I’d argue that a tremendous amount of damage is done by those silences, from facilitating date rape to marital difficulties and more.

And of course, there’s the literary argument for writing about sex — if literature is suppose to explore the complexities of the human heart, then what do we lose when we ‘fade to black’ in our most intimate moments? How you behave in bed reveals character, and character is what I find most fascinating about fiction.

You entered the field when there were hardly a few South Asian writers. Who were your heroes and mentors as a young writer? Who are your models now?

At that time (in the early 1990s), there really were very few being published in English, in America. Anita Desai was and is one of my favorite writers. Back then, I read everything available by Bharati Mukherjee and Chitra Divakaruni — I’d walk into a bookstore and reach for their books, with their red saris on the cover. I eventually discovered Amitav Ghosh, who remains one of my absolute favorite writers, South Asian or otherwise. Others who have influenced me over the years include Vikram Seth, Shyam Selvadurai, Rohinton Mistry, Salman Rushdie, and V.S. Naipaul. There are Jhumpa Lahiri short stories I love (though I have issues with her first novel).

These days, since I’m working on science fiction, I tend to read mostly SF/F writers. In that field, I’m currently paying attention to the work of Vandana Singh, Usman Tanveer Malik, Naru Sundar, Vajra Chandrasekera, Anil Menon, Shweta Narayan, and Indra Das. It’s an exciting time for our genre.

As a Sri Lankan American writer and editor who has been active in the field for nearly two decades, what are some of the challenges related to writing, publishing and distribution that you have finally managed to overcome? What obstacles remain?

There are really two areas where I’ve run into difficulty over the years. One is the market — it can be challenging when the American publishing industry wants one thing from you (perhaps a story of a young woman fleeing an arranged marriage to safety in the West), and you are trying to write something else entirely. If that happens to you, as a writer, you have to decide to what extent you want to change your work to try to meet the market’s desires. For the most part, I’ve tried not to compromise my artistic vision — which may have cost me readers and bigger publishing contracts; it’s hard to tell.

But the bigger problem is always more personal — finding time and mental space to create my best work. In my twenties, I had plenty of time, but was often lacking in discipline to really push my work as hard as I could. At thirty, I had a few brief years in a doctoral writing program when I really worked to my utmost at my writing, and I’m quite pleased with the book that resulted (Bodies in Motion). Now, at forty-five, I’ve developed the discipline to write for hours, to have my work critiqued and revise it — but with a full-time academic job and two children, time to write is in very short supply.

You have been an early pioneer in the field, responsible for opening the field for new writers from across the world with publications such as Strange Horizons and Jaggery, and pivotal organizations Speculative Literature Foundation and DesiLit. How do you divide your time between setting up infrastructure to support new and old writers, and your own work as a writer? What is more important to you—writing or activism?

In my first decade as a writer, I gained so much from the various organizations I founded — tremendous friends, a writing community; every minute I put into those projects felt well-rewarded. Lately, there just hasn’t been time — I put perhaps a tenth of the time I used to into that kind of community work, which I find frustrating, because it is so rewarding, in multiple ways. I’ve had to rely on all the other people who volunteer with Jaggery and the SLF — luckily, they are terrific.

I hope that now that my children are older and not quite so demanding time-wise, that I can find a little more time for those projects. There’s so much I would like to do with them that I just haven’t had time to implement yet.

You glide through literary and genre fiction effortlessly with a graceful disregard for marketing labels. Doesn’t it create a problem for your publishers?

Yes. I’m quite sure that if I’d stayed in one arena, I would be much easier to market, and I might be a much bigger success. But the writerly heart wants what the heart wants…

As a writer, editor and academic, who has seen ins and outs of the literary and genre worlds both in Asia and America, what do you like the most about a career in liberal arts?

Writing income is typically spotty, with highs and lows; it definitely helps to have a regular day job (or a supportive partner), to pay the monthly bills on time. I followed a pretty traditional path, doing graduate work so that I could support myself with a teaching career while I continued to write. That has worked splendidly well for me, but I have an academic sort of mind — I actually enjoy reading and discussing theory. If you don’t, then I wouldn’t recommend a doctoral program!

As it turned out, I love teaching — I am happiest when in front of a classroom, leading an exploration of a brilliant text. It’s the dream of my childhood as an ardent, somewhat lonely, reader — I get to spend my days talking with a whole host of people about fabulous books. That energy, and my students’ ideas, then fuel my writing. I write better because I teach. (If only there were just a bit more time for the writing part…)

What are some of the hurdles that we need to overcome to create a more diverse, healthy and vibrant literary culture in the Indian subcontinent and beyond?

 I am no expert regarding publishing on the subcontinent! But I would expect that more money would help — that’s often what new presses struggle with, becoming financially stable enough to survive. I’m hoping that new models of crowdfunding (Kickstarter, Patreon, etc.) might make exciting new ventures possible. And, of course, while globalization has its problems, in literary terms, it’s tremendously exciting, that we can publish writers from all over the world, both original work and translations.

I’d love to see more budget for translated writing, because I think English has something of an unfair advantage in the publishing realm, and we’re missing out on brilliant work. I’d like to see more women writers, queer writers, writers exploring class and caste and disability and more. I’m excited by South Asian writing that doesn’t center whiteness. Certain kinds of stories have dominated the publishing world for too long — there’s so much more to be said.

What are you reading and writing these days?

Here’s what’s on my to-read list right now: Leviathan Wakes (James A. Corey), The Paper Menagerie (Ken Liu), The House of Shattered Wings (Aliette de Bodard), Sorcerer to the Crown (Zen Cho), Runtime (S.B. Divya), Love is the Drug(Alaya Dawn Johnson), and The Art of Memoir (Mary Karr). And I just finished reading the newest issue of Jaggery!

As for what I’m writing — a SF novel that I’m hoping will turn into a series, featuring a young woman doctor on a South Asian-settled university planet (the same world as in The Stars Change), as the planet descends into what is essentially a race war, between those advocating for ‘pure’ humanity, the genetically-modified, and the aliens. More short stories in that universe. A revision to A Taste of Serendib, my Sri Lankan-American cookbook. Perennial, a collection of poems written during my year of breast cancer treatment, and a memoir / journal of that time. Arbitrary Passions, a memoir exploring love and nationalism. There are a few more, but those are the main projects right now. I try to only make my agent deal with one book at a time.

Salik Shah
Salik Shah is the founding editor of Mithila Review. His poetry, fiction and nonfiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Strange Horizons, Asimov’s Science Fiction and Juggernaut, among other publications. You can find him on Twitter: @Salik Website: salikshah.com