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It came as a surpise to me learn that not all writers write for children! Is everyone else aware of this fact? In support of this new movement called “books for grownups,” I have an interview with a writer whose first novel, After the Tsunami (Stephen F. Austin State University Press, 2011), tells the story of young Siddhartha’s experiences in an Indian orphange in the years after a devastating tsunami.
Welcome to Annam Manthiram! I particularly wanted to ask Annam about her writing process and her thoughts on creating situations in which her beloved characters experience severe abuse and psychological torment. That is to say, this may be a book about children, but it is not, as I said, for children.
The perspective of your first-person narrator as he looks back on his childhood and discovers more meaning there than he was able to see as a child reminds me of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. I’m very interested in the differences between child narrators in children’s books, who are in the moment, and adult narrators looking back on their childhoods in adult books. How did you approach Siddhartha’s voice as you were writing?
I was with Siddhartha’s character for so long that over time, it became easy to embody him. And when I wrote the sections that take place in the orphanage, I wrote them as if he were really reliving them—not just looking back but physically and emotionally and mentally transported back to that reality.
I labored to preserve the integrity of his voice: one of an innocent boy/man who struggles to maintain a type of morality. Children in abusive situations often tend to grow up quickly and exhibit mature personalities. It is the only way in which they can survive, so the real challenge was in balancing this trauma-induced maturity with a naïveté that in some ways never really goes away. The sections where he is much older were written later, after the orphanage scenes were already committed. In this way, it was easier for me to write an older, more experienced voice (distanced from his younger self) who was then really just reflecting on his past without being sucked into it.
That might explain the brevity of those sections. They provide glimpses into his adult life, but they are supporting pieces rather than forming a separate narrative. Did you consider writing a plot into those scenes, or did you always want them to be these quick, almost disembodied flashes?
Siddhartha is eclipsed by his past, so the form is a mirror of the content. I needed the sections to be imbalanced. I realize that many readers will feel this imbalance personally—what is Siddhartha’s fate? Does he find meaning in his past, so as to live a meaningful future? Is he happy? The answer lies within the individual reader.
The brutality! I will say that it was difficult to read at times, but I mean that in the best way–that it touched me deeply. It seemed that hardly a scene went by that wasn’t somehow affected by the raw and horrifying conditions of the House. You must have done research into orphanages, but did you also play up the number of dehumanizing experiences children in those circumstances might undergo?
Yes, the brutality is immediate and urgent. Aristotle talked about how drama was a form that excited fear as a means of expunging it. I liken my novel to that comparison: by introducing brutality and depravity in such a forceful and repetitive way, I am making it commonplace, irrelevant. So over time, the brutality fades away and what is left is the human spirit: Siddhartha’s human spirit.
Much of what happens in the novel can happen in these situations; however, I did play up the dehumanization in part so as to make it rote and irrelevant. A desensitization happens to the reader as she is faced with this unrelenting saga, which mirrors the desensitization that happens to Siddhartha who must survive it. I want readers to embody Siddhartha in the way that I had to when I wrote this novel.
Now that you say it, I see what you mean!
Your ear for language, especially metaphor and simile, is wonderful. How does writing poetry influence writing prose?
Thank you. I was influenced by Indian cinema music growing up, and the cadences and tone of that music sometimes creep their way into my work.
Poetry has taught me how to condense an idea in prose. I also read aloud all of my work before I send it anywhere (yes, I did read After the Tsunami out loud in its entirety!) to make sure the flow is apt, the sound is right, and the language heightens the effect I am trying to create. It has also made me write better dialogue. There’s something about the musicality of dialogue in prose that poetry does so well, and I see similarities between the two.
The dialogue sounds very much like boys’ speech but, at the same time, has another quality to it, maybe having to do with the fact that you’re “translating” Tamil into English. Were you thinking of that as you wrote?
Yes, I was. I’m glad you caught that. I heard the boys’ chatter in my head in Tamil, and then I translated it into English. Not all the translations are apt or accurate as there are some words/phrases that do not transfer over perfectly, but my intention was to remain as authentic as possible to the dialect and various inflections in speech.
Is your next book going to be about bunnies and daisies and really nice things? Just kidding. I can guess by the title Dysfunction (Aqueous Books, 2013) that we’re in for something a little grittier. What draws you to these themes?
Yes, it is. How did you guess? Ha. Actually Dysfunction is much milder than After the Tsunami. When putting together this collection almost two years ago, I needed to come up with a theme in order to link them. None of the stories have repeating characters or situations, but the one element that kept cropping up was how dysfunctional all of these characters’ lives are. So a title was born.
I have always been drawn to the underbelly. What drives people to do the evil things they do? What are their motivations? Where is the breaking point, and do we all have one? I take some of these answers and push it to the extreme, twisting scenarios and behaviors and thoughts so much that the darkness becomes beautiful in its own right.
Perhaps I am drawn to these themes in part because I struggle with finding a purpose to them. Through my writing, I put them to work and deconstruct and then reconstruct them again as a way of assigning a greater meaning, and thus a particular significance.
I have to say, it’s pretty hard to comprehend the motivations of characters as depraved as the Mothers in After the Tsunami. Do you feel you owe it to your characters (or to your writing, or however you want to think of it) to offer the reader some insight into motivation that they might be able to understand, or do you prefer to present your characters and let the reader decide for herself or himself?
I am in no way whatsoever condoning the sort of depraved behaviors of the Mothers in the novel. But I feel as though I owe it to myself (having witnessed and experienced the failings of humanity as well as the triumphs) to explore this darkness in my work as a way of deciphering meaning. There is not always meaning, and sometimes violence is gratuitous, but in After the Tsunami, I was very careful in ensuring that the violence never crosses that line. It serves its purpose, and it is up to the readers to decide what that purpose truly is.
What are some books you read recently (and enjoyed)? Why?
I realized over a year ago that though I was reading a lot, I was forgetting the books I had read and the reasons I had liked/disliked them. So I keep a journal now in which I document books I’ve read and specific details. I note devices or mechanisms that may help me in my own work as well.
Recently, I read Jane Eyre and fell in love with the narrator—how socially progressive she is for her time. In searching for comparison titles to my own novel, I came across Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance. What I like about this book (besides its technical precision) is that it forces the reader to re-evaluate the meaning of happiness, and how one can find happiness no matter the desolation. That one person’s idea of bliss may be different than another’s, but it’s all relative to the situation.
I’m in the middle of a few books right now: Madame Bovary, which I’m about a third of the way through; Lost Girls by Alice Hoffman, which is a collection of interlinked stories; and a series of essays by Pankaj Mishra. I was doing some research on Bollywood and came across his essays. I like his voice. A strong voice is hard to imitate, especially in nonfiction.
I try to read as much as I can. I believe that in order to be a good writer, you must be a good reader AND a good listener. I wish I had more time! Ah, the lament of many.
Thank you, Annam, and congratulations on the release of your wonderful debut!
Annam will be appearing at readings in California at the end of the month, and in Indiana in November, and I believe she will be bringing me cookies sometime before Christmas. But I would have interviewed her anyway. Check out her book tour dates here.