Interview: Kuzhali Manickavel
Kuzhali Manickavel is the author of a full-length collection of stories, Insects Are Just Like You And Me Except They Have Wings, and a chapbook titled Eating Sugar, Telling Lies.
RM: Hi, Kuzhali. First of all, let me ask you a question relating satire and being “experimental” (which V.V.Ganeshananthan asked you about earlier), albeit with an addendum—a lot of your writing, including your blog, of course, is steeped in satire. From what I’ve read of contemporary Indian English fiction, satire, if considered a genre, isn’t doing particularly well. “Welcome to Barium” from Insects Are Just Like You And Me Except They Have Wings resonated with me because it exemplified the themes that permeate your entire project—everyday occurrences, expletives, naming and namelessness, and popular culture (cinema) and its absurdities. Considering the form of the book (short pieces) and your predilection for satire and surrealism, could we call you experimental?
KM: I’m not really sure what ‘experimental’ means but it’s definitely a word that I have used to describe my writing. I think I did this because I did not know what to call my writing and I really wanted to call it something. I had tried using the label ‘Indian’ but was informed that I sounded too pseudo-American to be Indian, pseudo-American apparently being way worse than ordinary American. The ‘Indian’ label also made some people say my English was really good and did I do this all by myself or did I write in my native language and then get someone to translate it for me. So I was like, ok. What can I do about this? So I thought, how about I call my writing ‘South Indian Experimental Fiction’. Because frankly I was very loathe to let that ‘Indian’ thing go and I felt like ‘South Indian’ was exotic and would also explain all the annoyingly foreign Tamil names that appear in some stories. I felt ‘experimental’ would explain everything else in a way that said ‘English is not my Second Language but Thanks for Asking.’ So I did this. And people said I was being pseudo-American and that my English was really good etc. But then also some people would say to me ‘I dig the experimentalness of your South Indian Experimental Fiction’ and I’d be like ‘Big ups to you for being smart and experimental enough to recognize the experimentalness of my South Indian Experimental Fiction.’ And you know, that was just really great. Also, if someone said to me ‘I didn’t really understand your story’ then I could say ‘That’s because it’s experimental, dumbass’ and they’d be like ‘Oh.’ Sometimes I would just look at the whole label ‘South Indian Experimental Writer’, marvel at how pretty it was and wonder why more people didn’t want to be my friend.
With regard to my book, I have to say that I don’t know if it is surrealist, satire, or experimental. I feel like if you call it any of these things, you run the risk of making certain surrealist, satirical or experimental people very angry. Also, I’m a little scared to say anything about satire in contemporary Indian English fiction because, who wouldn’t be scared about that, right? But I will say this. I think Indian Writing in English is a very serious thing, possibly because it’s in English but it’s Indian and that’s just a superserious situation. I have also heard that Indians have no sense of humor because a lot of them live in India and that’s just not funny at all. So it could be that also.
RM: How did you arrive at the idea of using diagramming insects and working with what is almost visual poetry in a book of prose and what were some of the challenges and the rewards of this particular collaboration of prose, poetry and visual art? Although there is metaphorical significance to these “diagrams” as well (especially when you write: “If you jump off a tree and flap your arms real fast, you will fly”), these diagrams combine feminism and satire in delightful ways. Is that what you initially set out to do?
KM: Yes! Actually no. Actually I feel bad because this is a great question but I can’t really remember how this all went down. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t planned, it may have just been a case of me seeing these insect diagrams and telling my publisher hay yougaiiz!!! I found these pictures, can I put them in my book? and my publisher saying yeah ok because they are great fellows like that. I also feel like I have been asked this question before and I have answered it differently, which makes me feel like I’m lying right now.
Rewards of this collaboration of prose, poetry and visual art- Some kind souls would tell me ‘hey, I liked the pictures in your book’ and I’d be like ‘REALLY!!!???’ and they’d be like ‘yeah, I thought they were neat’ and I’d picture us becoming best friends forever as they continued to encourage and support me in my future artistic endeavors but that never happened.
Challenges of this particular collaboration of prose, poetry and visual art – Some kind souls would tell me ‘Wow, those pictures in your book were the stupidest thing I have ever seen in my life, you should totally kill yourself’ and I would apologize and they would accept my apology but sometimes they didn’t either.
RM: Several of the main characters and narrators in your stories are female, and as you reveal them, sometimes with epithets such as “pavement piece,” or with specifics such as initials—“B. Lakshmi” and other times with no more than “she” or “character 2,” the female experience (both universal and local, i.e. specific often to India or Tamil Nadu) emerges in all its bleakness and peculiar inner violence. Whether it is the willingness to give away one’s kidneys, or the violence against one’s maid “Thieving WhoreQueen” ( in Eating Sugar, Telling Lies), these stupendous characters still seem to be disempowered, disenfranchised. Is this your perception of the reality of the Indian female experience and how language is used against it, or are there other reasons for this choice?
KM: I agree that those characters have some issues and baggage and stuff but I don’t think they are ‘disempowered’ and ‘disenfranchised’–I think this might be because I’m a bit wary about these two words. For me, they seem to be measuring something like ‘empowerment’ by a standard that works in one space but doesn’t necessarily work somewhere else. I don’t think disempowerment happens the same everywhere for everyone who has a uterus. I also feel like ‘disempowered’ and ‘disenfranchised’ are two words that seem to happen a lot when talking about the Indian female experience, like that experience is disempowered and disenfranchised by default because it’s Indian and female. I wouldn’t say these characters are my perception of the reality of the Indian female experience either, I think my own bigotry and prejudices prevent me from even beginning to understand many aspects of the Indian female experience, many of which would probably not be considered to be ‘female’ in the conventional sense of the word. I don’t know if any of that made sense or if I even answered your question but anyway.
RM: Oh, no, you did, and you called me on my bluff— the whole of notion of a unified female experience is problematic! Next—how did the language of Kuzhali Manickavel emerge? How, as you walk in spaces straddling both the surreal and the real (i.e. penguins and “export quality aadi velli” cola), do you arrive at “the glint of tubelight ricocheting weakly off their backs?” Do you consider your work to also be straddling genres—prose and the lyric?
KM: No, I think it’s just that my language is very messy. There’s a lot of things mixed up in it and there’s more than one language happening, so I guess that makes everything very polluted, which in turn affects the way I describe things. I’ve also found that my limited English vocabulary often doesn’t fit what I really want to say, especially when I want to write about something “Indian.” So I guess I end up using Indian English, which apparently is a very bad thing to do, or stretching words or smashing them together. I remember someone told me that they found my “lingo” irritating. And while I tried really hard not to judge them for using the word ‘lingo’, I felt really neat that they thought this language was mine and that it that was so powerful it was actually irritating them. I felt really bad also though. Mostly I felt bad.
RM: Do you think of yourself as a feminist writer, or is it something that just happens to be part of your overall writing project?
KM: When I do think of myself as a writer (which isn’t that often, which is bad, I know), I just think of myself as a writer. I think the ‘feminist’ part just happens to be a part of it like a lot of other things are a part of it. I think my writing gets labeled ‘feminist’ because… it’s all uterus-y and menstrual and stuff? I don’t know, it’s cool, though, because I think ‘South Indian Experimental Feminist Writer’ sounds really great.