A Space for Women of the World
“It is important for a writer to put herself out there—to be vulnerable like I was when I submitted my essay to Poets & Writers. Exposing ourselves helps us expose our characters in our work, and some of the best writing comes from this raw, bloody place. We need to know what that feels like if we want to create that kind of emotional poignancy in our work.”
Givhan: Why do you write?
Manthiram: I write because I don’t know what else to do. I feel comfortable when I write. It is like wearing a worn pair of shoes that you feel was made just for you. Sometimes there’s a sense of urgency in creating out of words, and a desire to create a truth right now that stems from my own experiences. John L’Heureux said that fiction writers aim to create a greater truth in their work. I strive for that both in my writing and in my personal life.
Givhan: How does your identity as a woman of color inform your writing?
Manthiram: Growing up, I often felt conflicted about my identity. My parents held onto Indian beliefs and customs after immigrating to this country, yet I was immersed in all things American. Which one was I? Was I both or neither? These questions recur in my personal life, as well as in my writing. I often explore this sort of identity displacement (predominant among those like me who are children of first-generation immigrants), as well as what I call “cultural dissonance” in my work. Having children who are mixed has also made me think about what their experiences will be like navigating the social constructs that tell them who they should be and how they should feel about who they are, and I bring these experiences into the fold too.
Givhan: As a writer of color and a mother, do you ever feel that you are breaking any barriers? Can you share any experiences you have with this?
Manthiram: Our household is multiracial. I am Indian, my husband is white, and my children are mixed. In New Mexico it is virtually impossible to go anywhere without someone staring at our unique family (curiously or with malice) or someone making an intrusive inquiry (are my children adopted?). Though I do write about these issues, as well as about identity and culture, I also write about nameless, identity-less, race-less people. I write across all spectrums, even masquerading as a male narrator, which I like to do frequently. It is a way of liberation, of freeing myself from the confines of race, culture, and gender. I believe it is important to write what you don’t know sometimes, the way Nabokov did so masterfully in Lolita.
Givhan: About your novel After the Tsunami, you wrote that you completed most of it in the two years after you had your son. You wrote, “Even when I had no time or was exhausted beyond belief, my faith in this book and my passion to see its completion never wavered. I worked on it in between feedings, nap times, evenings, and mornings. It was definitely a labor of love, and I am so happy that I am now able to share it with others.” How do you continue to find the balance between mothering and writing? Do you ever find the lines crossing in interesting ways?
Manthiram: I write most often when my husband gets home, well into the night. I am thankful I have such a supportive partner, and I don’t believe I could do any of this without him. It’s important that people realize that there never really is a balance. Time has to come from somewhere, and it does. For me it is important to show my sons that what we believe in—our individual passions and interests—is important too. How will they learn to respect and value themselves if their own mother does not respect herself and what she deems as important? Discipline and rigor are two traits that I believe are critical to success in life, and I want to instill them in my children, as well as the desire to be the best you can be with the resources that are given to you. Ultimately I want them to be good people.
Givhan: Have you found that there are particular challenges facing women of color than those of other writers? How have you overcome any obstacles you’ve faced on your path to becoming a successful, published writer?
Manthiram: One of the main challenges I see is that people expect me to write about being Indian or to write like Jhumpa Lahiri or Arundhati Roy (to emulate the current existing Indian canon). In fact, at a book signing I was approached by a man who, when trying to figure out if he would be interested in my book, asked if I wrote like Lahiri or if my stories were like hers because he enjoys her work. And while I deeply admire those writers for what they have been able to accomplish, I am seeking to create my own voice that is unique from the Indian experience and from the canon that has resulted from that experience.
It is a little troublesome how some readers approach work by Asian-American writers. There are preconceived notions in play, which I believe come from the American perception of India and the current body of work that is out there about India (literature, film, theater, etc.), and I find it difficult to get people to shed these notions. My first book (After the Tsunami) was instantly compared to the movie “Slumdog Millionaire,” even though it is nothing like it. When reviewing my collection of stories (Dysfunction: Stories), the Publishers Weekly reviewer relegated the tales to a “Sanskrit epic.” Though some comparisons are flattering, they are still, nonetheless, limiting and inaccurate. There are expectations there that my writing most certainly will be unable to fulfill.
I have also come across some controversy in my work among Indian readers. Any indication of a negative view of India in my writing is immediately discounted or criticized. I was challenged at a reading recently by some of the claims I had made about caste in my novel as well as in my presentation: claims that are well-researched and documented if anyone cares to look. India is a very insular society, and exposing some of its underbelly (as opposed to hiding it) is one step toward liberation, though many (including my own parents) don’t think there is anything to expose.
I hope that by continuing to write outside of this canon, experimenting and breaking cultural boundaries with my work, not withholding and shattering the image of India as ONLY an “exotic, lush, beautiful place” (which it can be, but every place has its beauty and its ugly), I can disrupt these perceptions and allow people in at face value.
Givhan: Who or what has inspired your writing life?
Manthiram: My children and husband inspire me every day to work harder and do better. I want them to think of me as a good person. I want them to be proud of me. I want to feel that the sacrifice is worth it.
I am also inspired by my mother who, at a very young age, came to this country and didn’t know how to read or write English. She overcame a lot of difficulties to learn, and when she did, opportunities opened to her, and she was no longer ignorant. She became powerful in her knowledge. My life is a cakewalk compared to what she has gone through, and I try to remember that when the writing gets hard or I want to give up. She didn’t; I can’t.
Givhan: What piece of work are you most proud of to date and why?
Manthiram: It took a lot of courage for me to submit my “Why I write” essay to Poets & Writers. It was certainly the most vulnerable piece of writing I’ve done, and I was terrified when I submitted it. I almost hoped it wouldn’t be taken, and when it was, I nearly had a heart attack. But I’ve read that the best writing comes from a place that is dark, uncomfortable, and scary. So I’ve been trying to roll with that feeling in the novel I’m working on now.
Givhan: What are three things you have on your desk right now?
Manthiram: It’s so very cluttered right now. I have a journal with notes about the current novel I’m working on, a snow globe that says “It’s Good To Be Queen” (a gift from a coworker trying to be funny), and a stack of books that I want to read. I have a lot more than that!
Givhan: What are you reading right now? Would you recommend it?
Manthiram: I’m reading Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, The Viral Storm by Nathan Wolfe, The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides, and the latest Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. I am a bit scattered right now because I have to choose books for different times of my day: when I’m feeding my son, when I’m eating breakfast, when I’m up in the middle of the night. Each serves its own purpose.
So far they are all intriguing. Ellery Queen is just a guilty pleasure that I allow myself when my son gets up in the middle of the night to eat. I think all writers should have their literary bonbon.
Givhan: An author friend of mine once asked me why I was so intent on getting my work published. I remember feeling surprised by the question because it I think getting work published is a necessary if one wants a writing career. But I also know writers who don’t submit work very often, others still who say they write for themselves, not for the public. You submit work regularly and have accumulated many publishing credits. Why is submitting work important?
Manthiram: Submitting work is important for validation. Because so much of what we do as writers is in isolation, we don’t always know if our work is meeting/exceeding the literary standards out there. A caveat: just because your work was rejected does not mean that it is not good enough. But if the same story or piece of writing is continually being rejected for the same reasons, there may be some merit to those rejections. And if your work is being accepted, you are probably doing something right.
It is important for a writer to put herself out there—to be vulnerable like I was when I submitted my essay to Poets & Writers. Exposing ourselves helps us expose our characters in our work, and some of the best writing comes from this raw, bloody place. We need to know what that feels like if we want to create that kind of emotional poignancy in our work.
Givhan: Have you any advice to share with women writers who may be struggling to continue their craft or to find the path toward publication?
Manthiram: As women we wear many hats. But don’t ever forget that what you need and want is its own hat, too. Wear it and wear it proudly. Take the time you need to write and find people who support you in your endeavors to create. Treat it like a job, but a job that is important to you.