Dude, yes, I mean this, and I mean it in a Bill and Ted’s 3 kind of way. Like, totally. Be excellent to each other and READ THIS WRITER, Kuzhali Manickavel. Her writing is like familiar + familiar = delightful strange, and will leave you with the best kind of unsettled in the pit of your stomach.
A long time ago I joined Sepia Mutiny and saw Kuzhali Manickavel’s website (not necessarily in that order, although I think probably). And then I read her blog a lot, and then I laughed and laughed, and sometimes felt like crying, because she is so very funny but in a way that is also sad. And then I became the interim fiction editor of The Michigan Quarterly Review, and got her to give me a fabulous (FABULOUS) story called “The Underground Bird Sanctuary.” And then I got her to e-chat with me for Sepia. Kuzhali Manickavel is the author of a dark, hilarious collection of short fiction called Insects Are Just Like You and Me Except Some of Them Have Wings, which you should RUN OUT AND BUY BECAUSE OF IT BEING JUST WIZZOW. I do not use CAPS LOCK or WIZZOW lightly. Please do this in an independent bookstore, if you still live in one of the places on earth that has one. And if you don’t, via the Amazon link (above), which will support the Scoobybunkergang in a teeny tiny way.
The story in MQR begins:
Kumar’s bones were pushing up under his skin like silent hills. His ribs rippled up in hardened waves while his shoulders and wrists stood out in knotted clumps. In the afternoons, I would count Kumar’s bones while he tried to sleep. [continued] Questions for Kuzhali Manickavel
VVG: I’m absurdly excited that we have your story, “The Underground Bird Sanctuary,” in this issue of MQR. What can you tell us about the genesis of the story? A lot of your work seems to have to do with people doing extraordinary things with bodies–their own, other people’s, and animals’. [Ed: See, for example, "Cats and Fish," which begins, "He stood on the sidewalk, pulling small, white cats out of his mouth..."] Anyway, I thought “The Underground Bird Sanctuary” was an awesome title, and wondered how you’d come up with it. Title first, or story first? (“Suicide Letter is the Most Common Form of Letter” and “The Butterfly Assassin” are two of my other faves…)
KM:I’m also absurdly excited also! This actually started out as a story about monkeys. We were having monkey problems a while ago and they would swarm over the house, opening doors and windows, stealing food, throwing things. And the only thing to do was lock yourself in and wait for them to leave. And I was thinking how disconnected this was from the idea that I used to have about monkeys, which I guess was a very touristy idea of ‘oooh, let’s feed them’, ‘oooh let’s take pictures’. It’s very different when you’re watching them from the window and they’re literally tearing everything up and all you can do is watch. And I thought about how that happens with people too, there’s a disconnect between the idea of what you think is going on and what’s really happening and sometimes that only clicks much later on. That’s how the story started out, not sure how much of that ultimately came through.
Since this started out with monkeys and ended up with birds, the title was literally a last minute change. The title ‘Suicide Letter is the Most Common Form of Letter’ is actually stolen from a dream someone told me about. But apparently I was in this dream and I had written this in a note to someone so I guess that makes it mine kinda.
VVG: What can you tell us about your writing and editing process? When, for example, did you start this story, and how many incarnations/versions/drafts did it have? How long did it take? Has your approach to flash fiction changed since you finished your collection, “Insects are Just Like You and Me Except Some of Them Have Wings”? How?
KM: I tend to do a lot of revision and go through a lot of drafts but this one went through more drafts than usual. I don’t write continuously so I think I must have worked on it on and off for more than a year. I do think my approach to flash has changed after my collection. Things take a lot longer to write now and I feel like I’m spending a lot more time on editing. After finishing a piece, I don’t get that sense of happiness or relief I used to get, now when I finish a piece I still feel like it’s not done. I think I’ve also started trashing more work than I used to.
VVG: Have you done research for any of your fiction?
KM: I end up doing research for most of my writing but a lot of it is for things that never even show up in the story or end up getting cut. I recently did some research on typhoid and while I eventually ditched the story, I found out that one personal acquaintance had typhoid three times. And one another acquaintance had typhoid and didn’t know it and then when they found out they had typhoid, they were like, oh ok whatever. So there’s that.
VVG: Lots of writers have somewhat tortured relationships with blogging–they do it to be newfangled, they love it passionately, hate it passionately, feel it drains them, find it enlivens their world. What sort of relationship does your blogging have to your flash fiction, if any?
KM: I don’t know if there’s any connection between my blogging and my flash fiction, I see them as two separate things. My blog is just a blog, although I think it ends up being disappointing for a lot of people who expect certain things from an “Indian writer” blog and instead there’s RuPaul and gifs and “bad English” so I can see how that can be really disappointing for people. If my blogging started making me feel very tortured, I would probably stop blogging. I’m a big fan of not doing things that make one feel tortured.
VVG: Who is the funniest person you know? (I ask this because of #7 on this list.)
KM: After giving this question much thought, I have to say I don’t know. This could be because I don’t know a lot of people but also, there are so many different kinds of humor and it comes out in very different ways, I don’t think I could ever say ok this is the funniest. However, I do know someone who hates birds because they have beaks and their wings flutter. And once I asked them what they thought of ostriches and they said ostriches were sluts because they stick their heads in the ground. I guess you had to be there.
VVG: What measures do you plan to take to remedy your inauthenticity? How can I use these measures myself? (I’m following up here on some of the stuff you’ve written about being an Indian Writer in English.)
KM: I myself am too far gone to be able to take any remedial steps with regard to my inauthenticity. But as always, I feel like this shouldn’t stop me from telling other people what to do. I think an incredibly effective way for all brown people to gain authenticity is to write about slums. I’m currently working on a handy booklet called How to Write Your Awesome Indian Slum Novel but I don’t mind sharing some of those pointers here.
Have one Dalit family. The Dalit family is important because it’s your chance to dump every kind of terriblehorriblenogoodverybad thing onto one set of individuals who have no other purpose in life except to have terriblehorriblenogoodverybad things happen to them. Allow these people to smile wearily once during the course of the novel, to show that they are still happy even though all these terriblehorriblenogoodverybad things happen to them. Because it’s a very casteist thing to assume that just because they are Dalits, they can’t smile.
Have frustrated upper middle class housewife behaving inappropriately with voluptuous servant girl from the slum. Imbibe said servant girl with extensive knowledge of the Kama Sutra. Do not be lazy and say ‘she writhed like an exotic Indian animal’, be specific by saying she writhed like an exotic Indian snake. Remember, the only time specificity is not necessary is when you write about Africa.
Have one gang rape of a seven-year-old girl written from the point of view of the seven-year-old, making sure that said seven-year-old talks in severely broken English because all Indian seven-year-olds talk severely broken English in their heads.
Have one ‘colorful Hindu festival’. When describing this festival, have a color palette handy and ensure you mention each color twice.
Do not call any of the Hindu Gods/Goddesses by name. Instead, refer to them as ‘Elephant-faced God’, ‘Terrible God of Destruction’, ‘Blue-Hued Butter Thief’ and ‘Fierce Goddess Wearing Necklace of Skulls’. Call them all ‘Indian Gods’. Do not include Jesus in this pantheon because Jesus is American.
KM: I love pie charts! Especially when they tell us about gender disparity in publishing! I just have one favorite journal at the moment, Locus Novus. I’m not sure about the gender disparity tally in this journal. Hopefully Locus Novus will make some kind of multi-media pie chart flash thingy on that.
VVG: Who/what are you reading now? What movies are you watching? Music? Recommendations for our Sepia Mutiny readers?
KM: Right now I’m reading The Pickwick Papers and Death of a Salesman. I realize I should be reading some kind of underground Tamil magic realist and also realist novel but I’m not and I’m sorry. I haven’t watched any movies recently or if I have, I can’t remember what they were. I remember watching ‘Tideland’ a while ago, which I liked a lot. And ‘Audition,’ which I also liked. I’ve been listening to different mashups of Born This Way and Express Yourself because I think both of them together make a really neat third song that is getting lost in the Madonna Vs GaGa Internetz Wars.
My recommendation is if you shoot an arrow and it goes real high, hooray for you. I realize that’s not the kind of recommendation you had in mind but I like that quote a lot and I really wanted to use it somewhere.
VVG: What are you working on now? (Yes, I know CM sort of asked you this, but I want to ask AGAIN in case the answer has changed.)
KM: I’m afraid the answer hasn’t changed, it remains the same flaky response of ‘hopefully second book will happen at some point’. I feel like this answer reflects badly on myself and the entire writing community and humanity in general.
VVG: What do you consider “experimental”?
KM: I think a lot of the Doordarshan regional programming prior to the satellite boom was incredibly experimental for me. In particular, I would mention the patriotic songs they would put on in between the blank space that they put on in between the shows. These songs were often cut midway so we could go back to looking at the blank space although sometimes this blank space was substituted with blanched pictures of coconut trees or a flower or some cue cards that we weren’t supposed to see. And sometimes they would do very long, lingering close-ups of plastic flowers that had flies on it. I feel like a lot of Doordarshan programming should be viewed as ‘experimental’, it makes much more sense that way.
VVG: As you know, I am downright obsessed with your brilliant Tehelka piece, “M.I.A. Ruins Everything,” which is an awesome piece of satire. Any other celebrities, enemies of celebrities, or fans of celebrities who should beware your facile pen? I also noticed that there are two versions of your piece–the Tehelka one and yours on your blog. Thoughts on the differences and why they are important?
KM: Thank you very much for appreciating it and also, I do want to take this opportunity to say I’m really sorry to those who were offended because they thought this piece was anti-white people or anti-brown people or anti-MIA or just made irresponsible use of the word ‘uterus’. I’m not really sorry but anyway. I don’t think there are any major differences between the two versions of the piece, I think the one on Tehelka got slightly edited in the first para but I liked my version better so I kept that on the blog.
Also, I’m not a hater so if you make a sizable donation to one of my funds/societies, I won’t say anything bad about you on my blog. You may consider donating to the Society To Provide Infant Browntots In The East Indies With Flannel Waistcoats And Moral Pocket-Handkerchiefs, the I’m an Exotic Third World Writer So You Should Give Me Money Fund, the I Can’t Speak My Mother Tongue Properly Fund and the No One Cares About Sheila And Her Jawani Fund.
VVG: You have dissected, like insects, certain ideas about Tamil Culture. (I am always interested in how sure some people are they know what the Tamil Diaspora is and about the Quality of Being Tamil. What do you think makes someone Tamil? Speaking Tamil? Being 900 percent Tamil?) [Ed: That link's just one of my faves, but there are plenty of others.]
KM: Given the amount of diversity among people who identify as Tamil, I’m not really sure who’s deciding what the standard is when they say this is Tamil and this isn’t. Like this is a Tamil song.
But if you say a Tamil song has to be completely in Tamil, then this song fails spectacularly because a large portion of the lyrics are in English. And yet to say this isn’t a Tamil song is so ludicrous I can’t even say. I do get a lot of questioning and judging about my own Tamil identity but that’s something I’m not really interested in justifying or explaining. Besides, the Government of Tamil Nadu thought I was Tamil enough to get a ration television. With remote control. So bump ya’ll bitches.
VVG: Where is the Tropicool Icy Land Urban Indian Slum? If the Aadi Velli Special Non-Cola Cola is Export-Quality, when will it be exported? A few of your pieces of fiction circle around this spot, and I’m wondering if we’ll see more of your work return there.
KM: I’m afraid the Minty-Fresh Export-Quality Aadi Velli Special Non-Cola Cola will never actually be exported, it’s just export-quality. Like it could be exported if it really wanted to be but it opted to stay behind in India and be served among the native peoples because it is noble and awesome like that. This is also sometimes written as ‘import-quality’ which means exactly the same thing.
I certainly hope to write more stuff set in the Tropicool Icy Land Urban Indian Slum, I like it there. I would go there if I knew where it was.
More tasty chapatis! Mentions of Kuzhali and her publisher, Blaft, via the Mystery Man: The Blaftness of Blaft