The secret resilience of women

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Poet Sharanya Manivannan speaks about how the essence of the Goddess is not about strength or superiority but rather about empathy and resilience.

Sharanya Manivannan likes to write for herself and women, for sisterhood and solidarity. | Catriona Mitchell

Sharanya Manivannan is a Chennai-based poet. Last month she had two new books published — her first book of fiction, The High Priestess Never Marries (HarperCollins), which was shortlisted for the Tata Lit Live First Book Award, and The Ammuchi Puchi (Lantana Publishing). Here we talk of female lineage, emotional geographies, fear & resistance.



The last time we met was in Kolkata. I remember we were sitting on a beautiful terrace and you had to leave because you wanted to wake up early to visit the Dakshineswar temple. Anyone who has any knowledge of your work knows that goddesses are as important to you as desire, portents, the sea. Can you say where this love of the goddess originates from and the importance of making pilgrimage for you?

Indeed, that evening I had come to the terrace with vermilion on my forehead from the Kalighat temple, mindful of having to wake early the following day for the drive to Dakshineswar. I am more than someone smitten by the goddess, I am someone coxswained by her. This makes me a reticent guest with an eye on the clock, and at the same time it makes me create whole paintings and sequences of poems in a matter of hours. Desire, portents, the sea, the forest, the stars, the heart, the Goddess — I cannot tell my love for one, or my pilgrimage to one, from the other.


An observation. Your new book is called The High Priestess Never Marries, and when you google your name, do you know what comes up tops? 'Sharanya Manivannan marriage'. What does that mean?


Oh god, are you serious? I had no idea. Can the bug-eyed emoji be conveyed in print? I daresay it says something about the quintessential and problematic need to peg people to other people, affiliate them to creeds, reduce them to labels. But there's an optimistic view I could take: which is that I've written many things interrogating the institution, and perhaps it is those things people are curious about.


I tested it out with other writers. And 'husband, wife' etc. pop up quite frequently. So, I guess people are interested in the personal lives of authors…

Speaking of, you were with your mother that trip in Kolkata, and you struck me as having a very close bond. In your work there are interesting lineages of women. So, I’m going to drag you back to the goddess question again and ask what it is specifically about the female principle/deity/anatomy/nature that gets you and why you feel compelled to explore it.


I'm so pleased to hear that because attempting to heal the fractures in my family has been one of my more significant dedications as an adult. I know I will never completely succeed, but I cherish the small wins. Female lineage is central to my work, yes, but this has more to do with empathy than it does with any kind of certitude. By which, I mean what calls out to me is the secret resilience of women, not the sexist assumption of their strength. Ancestral silencing is in the bedrock of my writing. The way whole lives were elided. So, I write for those whose names I know and those whose names were not spoken aloud even in their own times.

For instance, my great-grandmother Valliamma walked out on her husband and her infant son after her little daughter died. She lived out the rest of her days alone and autonomous. This was in Batticaloa in the 1930s. Can you imagine what that must have taken her to do, and how she managed it? Why she did it is not a tale anyone will tell, except embellished by the motive to conceal.


The undercurrent of the untold and unrecorded runs through my writing. But I don't believe in simple genetic inheritances, especially of noble traits: firstly, in the Tolstoyan dysfunctions of our own families we should all be able to see how untrue that is; and secondly, it is that type of pride that quickly becomes communal, national, structural, brutal.

It's easier to speak of women than goddesses, because the second are so much more esoteric. I resist the conflation between the two, and I resist the need to trivialise the Shakti essence as being, you know, just bad-ass. But at the same time, the feminine abstract (even as embodied in the female literal) is just irresistible to me. I must be vexing in my reticence about the same, but the relationship itself is a vexing one. The nature of grace is capricious.


There’s a line in one of your stories, “Emotional geography collects like plaque: a little carelessness and it’s there before you know it.” As one Madrasi to another, can you talk about how this city layers herself (surely, her, yes?) upon you in geographies physical, emotional, otherwise?


Like you, I prefer the name Madras — like that meme, it's an emotion, whereas Chennai is a location. But unlike you, my emotions about Madras aren't as secure. But what is incontrovertible is that it is the city in which I spent my 20s, that richly textured time in life when one is both old enough and young enough at once. I'm someone who still feels like an outsider, who still observes the codes without cracking them and finds no satisfying way to Tetris-turn her way into the city's flow, and in so many ways The High Priestess Never Marries came out of all of those: the jagged edges, the unsoothable losses, the exhilarations, the contradictions. So, while this city has made me lonely, etiolated and resentful, I cannot say it hasn't inspired me.


I was reading a lovely interview with Elena Ferrante about the charge of narcissism that women writers have to face and the question was so lovely I just had to steal it and throw it to you: have you escaped the charge of narcissism or have you received it?


I happened to read that interview too, and I was struck by what Sheila Heti wrote in her introduction: "[...] a distinctly female point of view: the point of view not of the natural victor but of one who has to fight for the right to observe." Ferrante's own response has another striking line: "The woman who practises surveillance on herself without letting herself be the object of surveillance is the great innovation of our times."

And they are right — women writers are often charged with narcissism, and I've certainly been on the receiving end of that charge. Look at Ferrante's own concerted resistance to surveillance, aided by the respect of her readers, and how even that was challenged because of two core misogynistic ideas: that a woman couldn't possibly write well, and that a woman couldn't possibly not be a narcissist, in the true meaning of the word.

But the general usage of the word is largely arbitrary. I feel with women writers it is used not to indicate solipsism but immersion in any world at all that doesn't pivot on masculine spectatorship or authority. And I think so many of us are doing things which are seen — the male gaze cast upon the female looking inwards — as narcissistic simply because we don't care anymore: we write for ourselves and each other, for the sisterhoods we create, for the solidarities we commit to.


Yes, I like how she described it as a cognitive tool and how we must absolutely be in love with ourselves before we can turn our gaze on others — to that effect, I want to steer the gaze away from books and on to two concerns I know you to be invested in — LGBT activism and alternative education. Could you speak to these involvements?


I'm almost saddened by the question because it seems to take so little now to be regarded as an activist. When the first Pride parade was organised in Chennai in 2009, I was much more involved with the actual work than I am now, but in recent years I have attended events as an ally and practised my principles in my personal life. But it says something about the movement's invisibility that even someone as peripheral as I am is seen as being entrenched in it simply by virtue of being vocal online or in print. That's not where the real work is. The real work is in our friendships, our families and our societies. And the real fighters — chances are, most people don't even know their names.

I believe in intersectional feminism and am continuously listening and learning and attempting the real work of putting my politics into practice. I try to be aware of where I should step back and where I can offer a unique perspective. Alternate education is one such point, because I have no tertiary qualifications. I started to work when I was 15 and I bounced in and out of college for a few years because the extreme dysfunctionality of my family at that time. My school life was also difficult for these reasons, and I went to a number of different schools with breaks in between.

Libraries gave me oxygen. I taught myself, and I'm very passionate about teaching other people. Because my paperwork is incomplete, how I get to do this is through the arts. I believe arts curricula, in every school and at every level, are the only thing that will save our broken societies and our dying civilisations. The arts teach empathy.


I believe there is a gathering — of efforts, of words, of actions, and while you may see your position as peripheral, your sensibilities are certainly visible in your work. I think we have time for one more — and this is going to be about fear. I remember sitting beside you on the flight to Kolkata, and you told me how terrified you were of flying, and yet you managed it, and also travelled to Australia a few months later. Can you talk about the place fears hold in your life, the nature of these fears, whether they have changed or held? And finally — since we seem to be moving into increasingly fearful times — can you speak to how we reconcile individual fears with collective fears?


That's right. I'm terrified of flying, but I've also taken a dozen flights in the last year-and-a-half. In fact, that Australia journey had a particularly scary leg, when the plane had a missed approach in a thunderstorm at Changi Airport. And still I went on, and came back, and travelled more (even all alone). I'll borrow the words of the painter Georgia O'Keeffe here: "I've been absolutely terrified every moment of my life — and I've never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do."

It's no exaggeration to say that most of us live with some kind of low-level depression and anxiety all the time, because what other natural response is there to the things we witness and endure? I'm not sure fear can be reconciled, except by way of submission, but it can certainly be reckoned with. At 31, I hold my naiveté close and prize it as a strength. Not naiveté as in a lack of awareness, but in refusing to give up the idea that goodness and beauty will prevail. Ultimately, each person can only work within their sphere of influence. A big part of resistance — as in resistance to systems of power — is in willingness. The willingness to look another person in the eye and tell them another way is possible.

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