Saturday, November 14, 2009

Questioning Miss Kuzhali Manickavel

Halwa is
Halwa was
Halwa will be...

For (the) beginning: We have interviewed the very talented Miss Kuzhali Manickavel of Chidambaram, Tamil Nadu, a bantamweight wonder-woman of the written word, a flash fiction practitioner and connoisseur of all types of written/filmed/sung/animated A-1 100-per-cent quality stuff. Here is what her very excellent book looks like:

You can buy it here. You can also check out her brand-spanking-new blog here.

1) What makes you want to write, as opposed to being a deep sea pearl diver, or Tamil Nadu's premier reggae songstress, or a designer of personalized teleportation eggs that come in customized colors made from the shells of discarded tea kadai tea kettles?

I am going to take some advice from someone (a wise someone. A wise someone who is also my sister and insisted I refer to them as a wise someone) who said I should be more like Judi Dench during interviews. I’m not sure what that means but anyway.

I don’t know what makes me want to write.

That’s not a very JudiDench answer, I try better next time.

2) If you got an opportunity to star in a movie anywhere in the world, what would your dream role be?

I’m thinking something like maybe a village setting, there’s maybe a drought and everyone is dying and then like this women’s soccer team comes from America because they have this crucial game against this English or maybe German team so they need players who are awesome and unconventional so they come to India and they see me just walking through the fields that are all droughted and stuff and they’re like oh my god you have to play for our team, you’re so awesome and I’m like no and I’m sad and emaciated but I can speak really good English so they’re like oh no please you have to, you speak good English and I’m like no but then I say yes and then we go for the tournament and the other team are like playing dirty and they have black hair and they keep glaring at us in slow motion but we persevere and we win because we are awesome and unconventional and it starts to rain and I say oh my village needs this rain and I am here in this rain and my village is over there and it’s not in the rain and everyone cries but I don’t because I am awesome and unconventional.

3) Who have influenza beg your pardon influenced you as a writer?

You remember there was that song about virus fever? That was a cool song. I liked that song very much, I’m going to go find it.

I found it and it is not as cool as I remembered it.

4) What comes to mind when I say

a) Cut Piece-
sari blouse
b) Lithium-
c) Cycle Gap-
d) High Class Veg Hotel-
e) Leave Letter-
As I am suffering from fever,
f) One by two-
Qwattar with Wattar

5) Is the world ending in 2012?

I don’t think the JudiDench thing is going very well, do you? I try harder.

6) What are your favorite books? Please name between 4 to 7 (all good Tamil girls go to heaven!)

1. Jude the Obscure- Thomas Hardy

2. Catch 22- Joseph Heller

3. The Others- Robert Ferro

5. Brave New World- Aldous Huxley

6. The Phantom Tollbooth- Norton Juster

7. Behind the Attic Wall- Sylvia Cassedy

7) What is your take on Indian writing in English?


I think it’s good that more seems to be happening now with Indian writing in English than before. I think it’s especially great that graphic novels are being done and translations seem to be taken a little more seriously. I’m glad to see new publishing houses coming up. However it does seem to me that a lot of Indian writing in English seems to be very safe. It’s written adeptly and you can’t fault the writing in a technical sense (most of the time). But the themes, plot lines, narrative structures, sometimes just the basic ideas have all been seen/done before. I sometimes get feedback that English writing from India always seems to be dry, heavy, boring, completely void of humor. And I don’t think this is true, we’re very funny people. It seems like this vast category of Indian Writing in English is being represented by a very narrow field of fiction and a handful of writers. There IS more out there and it would be great if we could tap into that rather than just stick to what’s safe.

Secondly, I think there’s some baggage with Indian Writing in English that we need to deal with. There’s still this notion that English is a “better” language. And I think that is at the root of this truly bizarre notion that if you can speak English or if you read English books, that naturally qualifies you to write English fiction. I’ve read some truly horrific pieces of oh-my-gawd-just-put-sporks-in-my-eyes-to-make-it-stop-hurting writing by people who were already convinced their writing was excellent because they felt their English was strong- the fiction aspect of it was completely disregarded, it was written in English and that was somehow enough. And it’s hard to provide any kind of critique to this person because they honestly won’t understand what you’re saying. The baggage, the way we think of English as a language is really in the way and I think we need to come to terms with that.

My final point, which I guess ties in with my previous one, is that I think we need to accept Indian English for what it is, rather than think it is “bad English”. For one thing, I think it’s a supreme mindfuck to use this language in the way we use it and also have this deep-seated feeling that this language is wrong or bad because it isn’t American English or British English or whatever. That’s not healthy. We also need to be a little more honest about how we use other languages along with our English. Once I was just observing a casual conversation between friends and they were using six different languages in the same conversation. That’s pretty awesome when you think about it. When I try to write in Indian English (which I guess is a problematic term in itself) people laugh and then they say, well how are people outside India going to understand this? I don’t think that should be our immediate concern. When American writers write something filled with regionalisms or allusions to facets of American and western culture, I don’t think they are worried about whether the Indians are going to get it.

8) Chidambaram: temple city. Tell us about it from your own two eyes (as opposed to the ones you stole from the 18-year-old exchange student from Norway.)

The school I went to in Chidambaram once made a big deal about building nice bathrooms for us because we didn’t have proper bathrooms before and then they had a big opening ceremony for the bathrooms and they drew rangoli and they called in a special guest to open the bathrooms and make a speech which was probably about bathrooms and then when the ceremony was over they locked the bathrooms and said we couldn’t use them because they said we didn’t know how to use bathrooms properly. And the teacher’s bathroom was at the end of the hall from our class and whenever certain teachers went to the bathroom they would take off their chappals and wear one of ours (which were lined up outside) to go to the bathroom, which is gross and insulting so we had a chappal lookout who would say ‘blue chappal yaaru pa’ and the unfortunate soul who owned the blue chappals had to go to the water pump and wash them and sometimes other girls went with them for company and consolation and while the unfortunate soul washed their chappals and we would go to the stores and buy cheeni mittai.

The word ‘bathroom’ appeared in this answer 10 times. 11.

9) What do you get if you a cross a sand lorry with a meen body vandi and an old buffalo?

Why would you want to do that?

10) Your advice to the writer in all of us / to the ones who want to write for a living / or just for jolly-would-be?

I don’t think I’m qualified to give any kind of writing advice. Still, in the spirit of Judi Dench, I will try to answer this illustrious question.

1. Read Everything- I think this is in direct contradiction with a rule that says you should only read/write/school yourself in work of your own genre. But if your access to reading material is limited, then read everything you can get your hands one. Even if it is something you normally wouldn’t read or aren’t interested in, read it anyway. Even if your access to reading material isn’t limited, I think one should at least see what else is out there and learn to appreciate it, make an effort to understand what makes different kinds of writing strong or not so good.

2. Read Bad Writing- I think this is also in direct contradiction with another rule but I believe a lot can be learned by reading really bad writing. The trick is not just to read it, but also to figure out why it doesn’t work for you. I think it’s interesting to do this with movies/TV shows (which I think is in contradiction with yet another rule that says writers shouldn’t watch TV. See? I really shouldn’t be giving writing advice.).

3. Read Work In Other Languages- I think the more languages you understand, the world is that much wider and you can learn and absorb a lot by reading/listening/watching work in different languages. If you can’t read in other languages, listen to radio plays, watch TV programs, street plays, etc. While the stories themselves might be familiar, it’s interesting to pay attention to how the language is used, how things are described, what swear words are used, how people describe love, how they describe happiness, states of wealth. I think this encourages you to use your own language a little differently, instead of relying on the same words in the same order, the same descriptors.

This was also too long.

11) In what direction does the crow fly?

I’ve never really understood what that means. Wouldn’t you know which direction the crow flies in if you watch it fly? As in wouldn’t you know it went that way or whatever?

I’m not being JudiDench anymore.