November 2005

Sumita Sheth

features

An Interview with Mary Anne Mohanraj

"I'm particularly interested in the clash between social duty and individual desires, in the intrusion of political realities on private lives, in secrecy, in family, and in how all these issues play out in the arenas of marriage, love, gender, and sexuality."
(Mary Anne on her latest book "Bodies in Motion")

When South Asian literature comes up, the names usually thrown around are Vikram Seth and Salman Rushdie, with the recent addition of Jhumpa Lahiri, Monica Ali and Arundhati Roy. What authors used to write about was the South Asian life contained within the subcontinent's borders. Then, their interest shifted to portraying the "immigrant" experience, worlds colliding for children of immigrants as they adjusted to hybrid realities. Bucking such established trends, blazing her own trail through the night, is Mary Anne Mohanraj.

Brought up by traditional Sri Lankan parents to whom a career in medicine was as much of a given as good dental hygiene, educated in good Christian manners by nuns, surrounded by Tamil culture and the expectations of a close-knit family, her career path has been as much of a surprise to her as her family. In the seven years since she started writing erotica, she has been editor-in-chief of Clean Sheets, an erotica magazine, edited Aqua Erotica and Wet (both printed on water-proof paper!), printed her own erotica stories in Torn Shapes of Desire, run an "Internet Erotica Writers Workshop," and founded the Speculative Literature Foundation.

Modest, grounded, and genuinely generous, Mary Anne's motto is "What goes around, comes around." This may go some ways in explaining her willingness to share her hard-won resources and experiences with other artists. She says she shares because there is "no sense in reinventing the wheel," further illustrating that here for sure is an unheard-of phenomenon – an artist as human as her most likeable protagonist.

I read your latest book - it was beautiful. Its title, Bodies in Motion, seems to have many meanings, including hinting at the sexual core. There are a number of gay, lesbian and heterosexual encounters. Was the title's ambiguity intentional?

We wanted the title to mean many things, to have various connotations, for all the different readers. Some of it works, I guess. We wanted the title to speak to the experience of the various family members leaving Sri Lanka, going across to England, then to the US and even there, always restless. And then of course, there is the sexual connotation.

I have always been a bit of a sexuality activist. We need to accept that healthy sexuality is an important part of our world and we need to stop hiding it away like some dirty thing. This is reflected in my writing. For me it is important to imagine characters in their sexual element, because how people are in their bedroom is very different from their everyday life. There seems to be a barrier between their private emotions and the outside world for men. They can often only explore these emotions in their bedroom.

You were editor-in-chief and founder of Clean Sheets, an online erotica magazine (its stories selected for the Best American Erotica anthology every year) - did that help form your writing style or do you think your writing led you to the magazine?

We founded Clean Sheets in October 1998, and it was started because of an erotica workshop (now I teach workshops centered around sexuality, where we cover areas like craft, language and the value of honesty). During that workshop, we'd all found that what we wanted to write about were stories with more characters, more of a storyline and more emotions than what was accepted by erotica magazines at the time. On the other hand, there were either places that were too soft core, like Yellow Silk, or too hardcore for us. Of course, there was also Nerve, which had traits that we were looking for, but to us it seemed to have a tone of edgy New York-ness to it. We decided to form something that would voice our exact tone. Working on Clean Sheets definitely allowed me to focus on sexuality and what I could access through that avenue.

How was that whole experience? It is always difficult to manage sexual writing without having it spill over into becoming mere sensationalism.

I was not doing the actual editing; I was managing the various editors. It was a great experience. Of course, from time to time the editors would come to me with questions and we'd discuss them, but mostly they had their own decisions.

Did you get any complaints or strong reactions from the South Asian community? How did your family take it?

As for reactions, there were mixed ones. One story that went on to be the inspiration for Bodies in Motion -- almost a prequel, "Season of Marriage" -- was posted on Sulekha.com and I got a horde of comments. There were many very angry comments. Other people were very supportive.

My family was at first unaware. It's so funny -- you put your name to something never thinking that it will travel to your parents, but of course it does. My father is a doctor and almost everyone in my family has gone into medicine, so it was definitely a shocker to have people get in touch with my family and mention that my name was appearing as editor of all this erotica.

So "Season of Marriage" was the very initial inspiration for Bodies in Motion?

You could say that. That is the story where Raji (one of the characters in my book) goes back to Sri Lanka to get married. I had enjoyed doing that piece, so when I thought about what to write next, that story kept coming back to me. I had gotten good feedback on it. "Minal in Winter", which had also been published earlier, had gotten positive feedback too.

Do you feel that the South Asian society's open acceptance of sex, and especially gay sex, has changed in the past decade? If so, how?

Things are evolving. There is a lot more conversation around sexuality in the South Asian community than before. Not sure if that translates into actions yet. However, there have been films handling gay sexuality openly, like Fire, The Journey in Malayalam, and even popular cinema versions recently.

Would you say that you have a different message now, from when you wrote erotica?

Yes! (Laughs.) For the past, I'd say, six to seven years, I have used my writing to explore sexuality. Now I have started to study Sri Lankan history: the importance of various races, the war, ethnicity, culture and its impact on sexuality. It is interesting how culture affects sexuality. History also affects sexuality.

How does it feel to have your dissertation turn into this book, Bodies in Motion? Was it a long journey?

As it was a thesis for a program, I did expect to see it published, but things happened much faster. My agent at Random House had already been familiar with my earlier stories and liked how I wrote. He took my work and everything fell into place.

Cooking and food are a large part of your book. What's the reason behind this, besides your Sri Lankan cookbook A Taste of Serendib? What are your favorite Sri Lankan restaurants around the world? Are any of them in New York?

What can I say? I LOVE food! If you're going to write about the immigrant experience, you write about the connections with the other home. Food is a direct connection, whether it be people who move here as adults or their US-born children.
I came to the US when I was two, and although I am told that I spoke fluent Tamil as a young child, I grew to lose my fluency. When that happens, even if you lose your language, you always have the home food, the sight, the smells, the taste. As for recommendations, I don't know any Sri Lankan restaurants in New York, but there used to be a lovely place in Minneapolis. Unfortunately, now it’s gone. It was run by a family and they had the most authentic Sri Lankan cuisine – spicy and good. Curry Leaf in the Bay Area is another good one. I have also heard a lot about The Hopper Hut in Toronto from my sisters.

Who's your favorite person from all the stories in this book? And why?

Can I have a male and a female? My favorite man has to be Vivek, who stands for the kind of man who always has to be good to women. Although of course in his case, his woman is mean to him. The dilemma is that when a man doesn't want to be too macho or a bully, how then does he define himself as different from a woman? If you are too nice, you give others the opportunity to walk all over you, and people will do it. But at the end of the day, the responsibility for the pain lies with the doer. Maybe Vivek helped her, but she was the one responsible for his hurt.

As for the women, I empathize with many of them. But perhaps most with Mangai, the woman from “The Princess in the Forest and Shanthi,” even though we don't have everything in common, of course.

In the past, Sri Lanka has been less written about than the other South Asian countries. Did that bother you as little as, or more than, Thayalam, who is patiently doing research on on Sri Lanka while living in Berkeley?

I wouldn't say that it has bothered me. It was just an observation that Sri Lanka is mentioned less in old history books than the other countries in the subcontinent. And perhaps just to counteract that, there is a new surge of Sri Lankan voices emerging in literature. They are strong and purposeful and I have a feeling that there will only be more and more of them.

Now, a little about when you started writing: how old were you? What inspired you?

I was an English major in college, writing in connection with that. The other writing was just by chance, snatching free moments to jot down what came to mind that would then go online. Then, just by chance, a computer instructional manuals printer wrote to me saying that he could print my stories too. So that's how it happened.

Who were your favorite authors?

It's a difficult question. There were so many of them. I like Sri Lankan fairy tales; I like SF and fantasy. Ursula Le Guin, for her lyrical writing. Samuel R. Delany: a great SF writer, different with writing that makes you think.

Does writing run in your family?

Dad did think of being a journalist, but otherwise really everyone is into medicine.

Besides Clean Sheets, you also founded, and were editor-in-chief of, a SF/F magazine, Strange Horizons. This has also done really well, being nominated for the Hugo award for best website many times over. Have you written any SF/F?

I spent a summer over at Clarion West in Seattle writing an SF novel, and the guest editor told me bluntly that some of my SF stories were OK, but write mainstream fiction. I cried in my room after that. So that was my foray into SF writing so far. I have my four chapters of a young adult SF book based in Sri Lanka, and I'm sure I'll finish that novel one day.

So, what next? What have you been working on? What have you got planned for yourself over the coming year?

I have the follow-up novel to Bodies in Motion, The Arrangement, due in the next month. I also have a nonfiction memoir that I am working on, with a working title of Arbitrary Passions.

You are very, very busy. How do you find the time to do all this writing, teach, cook, work on all the organizations that you are involved in and help aspiring artists?

I make the time. I struggled to find the information, but I learned. I don't want others to lose hope, spending their energy trying to reinvent the wheel.