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Website: MaryAnneMohanraj.com

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)

Short story collections

Bodies in Motion (Harper Perennial, July 2005) 

Reviewed by Stefani Nellen

Interview with Mary Anne Mohanraj

The Short Review: 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 total. 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 written Season 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?

MAM:  People. Conflict. Emotion. Change. Maybe even meaning.

TSR: Do you have a "reader" in mind when you write stories?

MAM: Not 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
collection, 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 collection.

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.