In a candid and illuminating conversation, we had the pleasure of delving into the creative world of Saras Manickam, the brilliant mind behind the compelling anthology, My Mother Pattu.
The 2019 Commonwealth Short Story Prize winner (Asian region) not only shared the profound inspiration that fueled the creation of this anthology but also generously imparted invaluable wisdom about her writing journey and the intricate process of publishing this remarkable book.
Read on to discover the rich experiences and insights Saras Manickam shared in a candid interview with Eksentrika, shedding light on the genuine ideas woven into the pages of My Mother Pattu.
When We Are Young and Cartwheels on the Corridor feature themes of racism and classism. How close are the characters and storyline to your personal experience? Are they based on people you know or have met?
Let’s see: racism; discrimination based on ethnicity and colour of skin. On the ground level, to a student, this would translate into calling names, racial slurs, and being routinely rejected for scholarships despite academic achievement and financial want.
My question would be: how many students have faced this? And the answer: too many. These stories as well as Call It By Its Name are based on lived reality and authentic experiences. They may not all be my experiences but they are all real, lived experiences. Open a newspaper, browse through social media – and these stories are all there. I didn’t have to imagine anything. I merely recorded them as fictional stories based on real life.
Who were you thinking of when you compiled the anthology of stories in My Mother Pattu? Were they written for any specific audience in mind?
I’m a teller of stories. I wanted to tell authentic stories the best I could. And if they were good; if they struck a chord, there would be an audience. I didn’t really have a target audience in mind. What was running in my head was to not whine, not play the victim card. That was the main thing: tell stories of lived experiences and let the reader decide for themselves.
Not being terribly productive, I compiled the best stories I had into the anthology. In the end, I had just fourteen stories. That gives you an idea of my ‘productivity’!
What is the most important takeaway for you in publishing My Mother Pattu?
Two things: This book honours the people, teachers, coaches, and writing circle friends who encouraged, supported and nurtured my writing journey. Sharon Bakar, Teh Soo Choon, Mercy Thomas, Sharon Ohno, Richard Katrovas, Stuart Dybek. I stood on their shoulders. This book was written to honour their faith in me.
The other thing: As I wrote (and rewrote one gazillion times), I had to learn the courage to put things out there. I’m not a terribly brave person and also, we’ve been conditioned to sanitise our writing so as not to ‘give offence’. So, standing up and speaking up, was a journey of courage for me.
Also, I had to be mindful of honesty so that in writing about racism, for example, I had to share that many elements such as racism, discrimination, and abuse — are not one-way streets. The abused can also be perpetrators; victims of racism can be racists themselves. The difference lies in the scale.
Why did you set several of these stories in the fictional town of Mambang? Were you worldbuilding based on actual Malaysian towns?
It was for the laziest, lamest reasons. Mambang being fictional, I could design it anyhow I liked. If it had been a real town, I’d have to fact-check scrupulously many times to make sure the facts were true. So Mambang gave me the freedom to create.
Having said that, Mambang is representative of many small towns in Malaysia. I grew up in one.
Where did you gain the best results in the marketing and sale of your book? Between social media, local bookstores, or international platforms, which was the most effective?
Social media is what my friends and I, and Penguin, have posted on Facebook, Instagram etc. Other than that, I’m a social media doofus.
I’ve been fortunate to speak at bookstores and festivals. Both social media and directly talking to readers have been very important for me. There is some small international recognition and I’m deeply appreciative of it.
Apart from friends and family who’d buy your book anyway, I find that people buy your book if they feel a connection with it. Perhaps they grew up in a small town like Mambang. Perhaps they knew a woman like Pattu – the number of people who’ve told me I wrote about their mother/grandmother/aunt!
I have found that when I read extracts from ‘My Mother Pattu’, the characters talk to the audience. There is often an immediate connection and folks often want to find out more. So they buy the book. Or not…
Any tips for upcoming and struggling writers in replicating your success?
Sukhbir and Ista, thank you for calling it a success! I don’t know if it is. I don’t know if Pattu is successful for me from a financial perspective. It has been deeply honouring for me in terms of readers’ responses though! It would be icing on the cake if it brought in money too!
What can I tell upcoming writers? Read, read, read. Write. Always write. And read again and again. I don’t follow this advice by the way, except for the ‘read’ part. Half-sloth, you see.
Write to give space for the characters to tell their stories. The book is not about you – it’s about the characters, their experiences, their journeys. So, keep authorial interference in check. Write honestly and not to show off.
Cover image sourced Saras Manickam / Facebook.