Mary Anne Mohanraj isthe author of several
books, including Silence
and the Word, Torn Shapes of Desire, Aqua Erotica (ed.), Kathryn in the City, The Best
of Strange Horizons (ed.), and A Taste of Serendib
(a Sri Lankan cookbook)
with Mary Anne Mohanraj
How long did it take you to write all the stories in your collection?
Mary Anne Mohanraj: It
depends on how you count. If you start with when I first wrote one of
the stories in Bodies
in Motion, well, Season of Marriage,
a story which isn't actually in the collection but which served as a
starting point for it, I wrote in 1993, I think, so about eleven years
from then to the book's final published form. If you start with when I
first got the idea to write a linked story, that would be Minal in Winter,
which I wrote in 1998, during my MFA, so that would be about six years
But if you start with when I first started consciously developing the
linked stories into a book, which is probably where I would start, that
would be at the beginning of my Ph.D., when I took post-colonial
literature and did an independent study in Sri Lankan history, along
with a whole mess of writing workshops, in 2000. I wrote the bulk of
the book during graduate school. So that would be four years.
TSR: Did you
have a collection in mind when you were writing them?
MAM: I had
of Marriage very early -- it was, in fact, the second
story I ever wrote. I wrote Minal in Winter in
part because I was in workshop, with a story due to class, and I was
hunting for something to write. Readers had liked Raji, the protagonist
of Season of
Marriage, and while I didn't have another story to tell
about Raji right then, I thought it would be fun to have her show up in
another story, that the readers might enjoy that. So I wrote a story
about Raji's niece, Minal, and Raji appears briefly at the end of the
story. A few years later, in workshop again, I wrote A Gentle Man, a
story about Raji's father. And from that point on, I started
deliberately writing more and more linked stories, about two families
connected by marriage and other ties, planning to finish with a set of
stories that hopefully could stand alone, but which also would be more
than the sum of their parts when taken together.
TSR: How did
you choose which stories to include and in what order?
MAM: I actually
included almost all the stories I wrote about the families -- I only
left out two because they seemed too slight, not really complete
stories in themselves. I tend to write short; it's a real struggle for
me to write enough to fill a book. In the end, I was trying to write
enough stories to balance the work overall -- to show an array of women
and men, across generations, who had made different (or similar)
choices about love, marriage, family.
Originally, I had planned a slightly convoluted order -- the book would
start in America in the present day, with one family, and go back in
time through three generations. Then, halfway through the book, we'd
switch to the other family, in 1940s Sri Lanka, and come forward to the
present-day. But both my advisor and my agent thought that the order
would be a little too confusing to the reader, especially given that
there are quite a few time jumps and point-of-view shifts within the
stories themselves. So they recommended a strict chronological order,
from 1940s to the present day. That's what I ended up deciding to do,
and I think they were right.
TSR: What does the word "story"
mean to you?
Conflict. Emotion. Change. Maybe even meaning.
TSR: Do you
have a "reader" in mind when you write stories?
generally. But when writing Bodies
in Motion, my advisor, looking at an early draft, said
that I seemed to be writing for white people, because I was doing a lot
of explaining of Sri Lankan culture. That really startled me, because
it hadn't been intentional. I stopped and thought about it, and in the
end, decided that I wanted to write that book for my sisters. It was
their experience I was trying to reflect, after all -- that of the Sri
Lankan-American immigrant generations. I wanted it to be interesting
and complex and subtle enough for them. And if I managed that, then I
wanted it to also work for other South Asians, other women, other
people of color, and finally, for everybody else -- in ever-widening
circles, if that makes sense. But for my sisters first and foremost.
TSR: Is there
anything you'd like to ask someone who has read your
anything at all?
MAM: Some of the
people who have read the book have found it sad, or bleak. Which always
surprises me, because I don't see it that way at all; I actually find
most of the stories quite hopeful. So I wonder -- how do you feel,
reading the book? What kind of tone did it have for you? And if you did
find it sad, what was it in the stories that led you there?
TSR: How does it feel knowing that people are buying your book?
MAM: It's always a
delight to have people reading my work. That was true back in 1992,
when I first started putting poems and stories on the internet, and
through all my online and small press publishing in the intervening
years. I hope that with a big press, I might be able to reach even more
readers -- that's the whole point, for me. To talk to people, to
communicate with them, offer them a few stories, a few ideas that might
have some meaning in their lives.
TSR: What are
you working on now?
MAM: Three different
books, actually. Right now I'm in the midst of Arbitrary Passions,
a memoir/travelogue, that splices together a month in Sri Lanka with
the rest of my life, trying to trace some of the connections between
love, marriage, monogamy and non-, ethnicity, nationality, and war. I'm
also writing a YA fantasy novel about a Sri Lankan-American girl from
Chicago who finds herself drawn into a land where a handsome island
prince begs her to help him fight a desperate war. And the last book is
a mainstream novel about a woman who was once one of the Tamil Tigers,
who is now a suburban stay-at-home mom in Chicago -- the woman actually
appears briefly in Bodies
in Motion, so the novel really is a continuation of the
TSR: What are
the three most recent short story collections you've read?
MAM: Sylvia Watanabe's Talking to the Dead. Le Thi Diem Thuy's The Gangster We Are All Looking For. And I'm not sure if it counts as stories, exactly, but I recently re-read an old favorite, Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities.