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Book Interview: The Altar of the Only World by Sharanya Manivannan

Sharanya Manivannan is the author of the critically-acclaimed short story collection The High Priestess Never Marries, which won a 2016 South Asia Laadli Media and Advertising Award For Gender Sensitivity in the category of Best Book (Fiction). She is also the author of two books of poetry, Witchcraft and The Altar of the Only World, and a children’s picturebook, The Ammuchi Puchi. Her long-running column, The Venus Flytrap, appears in The New Indian Express. Sharanya was specially commissioned to write and perform a poem at the 2015 Commonwealth Day Observance at Westminster Abbey, London.

The Altar of the Only World

1. Why The Altar of the Only World?

Since I don’t know what Why means here, I will say – Why not?

2. With each passing book, the next is an evolved one. Do you agree? Explain.

I don’t think it’s anything so linear. We write books that are true for us at a given time. And books come to us, in trickles or torrents, when they wish to. We cannot control this process, but we can align our receptivity to meet it well. For instance, tell me why I’ve tried to write one novel since I was 19 years old but wrote five other books in the interim dozen years? Even the Altar was written over nine years, within which I completed and published two other books.  We cannot measure our evolution as artists or beings based on publication dates.

3. Sharanya, what are your three favorite poems in the book?

I don’t know how to answer this question, so I will be smart and name three, which haven’t been published anywhere but in the book. “Self-Portrait As The Island On Fire.”Nocturne With Crossed Stars” (which is in the voice of Arundathi, the star and sage’s wife, who along with Surpanakha and Draupadi visit and speak to Sita). And “River” (a ghazal with Sita’s name concealed in the last couplet).

  1. Sharanya, talk about one particular memory that is buried in the pages of the book.

There is a flower that was never given to a woman who was waiting for it. She did not know until much later that that waiting became breathing and that breathing became dreaming, and that dreaming became tending, and before she knew it, she was a garden sanctuary.

Poet Sharanya Manivannan Photo Courtesy: Catriona Mitchell
  1. Did you work toward any particular theme?

Yes, the three mythological figures – Sita, Lucifer, Inanna – and the journey through the underworld, carrying one’s broken heart before one like a torch. Over many years, the narrative arc of the book revealed itself to me. I began at first thinking only of solitude and fortitude. But the book and its characters showed me the way. So from a bereft place of abandonment and exile, through horror, then the will to survive, to finally remaking the burnt garden – the composite narrator travels, adorned by the motifs from the several myths: leaves and lapis lazuli, comets and deer.

  1. How did you know your manuscript is ready for publication?

In late 2013, I had given up on my writing ambitions and decided to try to publish the poems I had as a chapbook. Only days later, an inquiry arrived from HarperCollins India about whether I had a book of poems. I told them I had half a book, and they saw it and wanted to publish it once I expanded it. I was unable to develop it for over a year. The catalyst was when Veenapani Chawla, the theater visionary, passed away in late 2014. The book had always been dedicated to her, and some months after her sudden passing, new poems started to pour from me. By mid-2015 I had a manuscript, and signed a contract with HCI for the same – but then I completed a manuscript of stories shortly after and chose to have it published first (The High Priestess Never Marries, HarperCollins India, 2016). In 2017, the year Altar was to be published, I went back to the manuscript and expanded and chiseled away from it. I realized then that because my source myths were so costly, I could keep writing it, and it would be a different manuscript with each time, but for it to be a book, I had to stop. So I stopped. Succinctly, to answer your question – thrice, I thought I was done with the manuscript.

  1. Sharanya, which contemporary poets are you reading now? 

Right now, books of poems I plan to read soon include Whereas by Layli Long Soldier, The Hunt in the Forest by John Burnside and Shipbreaking by Robin Beth Schaer. I say early only because I have them on hand. The most recent new book of poems I read was Ranjit Hoskote’s Jonahwhale.

  1. Any book/s of poems, in particular, you would recommend? 

All of them. Any book of poetry you buy results in two things: firstly, it allows that poet to create more. This is on favorable terms – books that sell beget books being made. Secondly, it gives that publisher a reason to keep investing in poetry in general, perhaps publishing more of it because they can see audience interest. Which is to say: one day, your manuscript may be accepted.

  1. If you had a chance for bartering your poems for anything, what would that be?

Almost everything we do as poets is already a barter. Let’s deromanticize that notion. I was recently disappointed to learn from friends that a modern poetry house in this country doesn’t pay its authors royalties. My friends felt as many poets do that it was good that at least they didn’t have to pay to publish their books. So here is my wish: may readers buy books, may organizers pay for performances, and may poets stop pretending that we live on song and sex and smoke alone.

10. Three reasons why people should buy The Altar of the Only World?

i) Buy my book as you would any book of poetry, to support the possibility that more will be published.
The cover, designed by Saurabh Garge, is so beautiful. That black and gold will make your shelves, and your selfies look so good.
Because in my poems, I give you the forest and the stars, and fire, and oceans, and the depths of my heart.

International buyers can grab a copy of The Altar of the Only World by Sharanya Manivannan, here. Buyers from India, grab a copy here.

If you wish to be interviewed on P&P for your recent book of poems, email at mail @ poetryandpoets.com.

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