Sharanya Manivannan on creativity, poetry, and inspiration

Dhanya: I came across Sharanya and her work early last year, immediately realizing she was just the kind of person I wanted to talk to for a real leader conversation. When I reached out to her, she sweetly agreed for an interview and last week, it finally happened. We spent a few hours in an old cafe house in Chennai, India and spoke about everything under the sun. She was thoughtful, patient, and most importantly – nice!

I carry one thing she casually said in our conversation – ‘People are wired differently’. Indeed! I do hope you enjoy a very different, yet usual RealLeader interview as much as I did!

About Sharanya

sharanya_thumbnailSharanya Manivannan was born in Madras, India in 1985, and grew up in Sri Lanka and Malaysia. Her first book of poems, Witchcraft (Bullfighter Books, 2008), was praised in The Straits Times as being “sensuous and spiritual, delicate and dangerous and as full as the moon reflected in a knife”. She is currently working on a book of stories (The High Priestess Never Marries), a novel (Constellation of Scars), as well as two manuscripts of new poems (Bulletproof Offering and Cadaver Exquisito).

She received the Lavanya Sankaran Fellowship for 2008-2009 from Sangam House International Writers’ Residency, an Elle Fiction Award 2012 (for “Greed and the Gandhi Quartet”) and was nominated for a 2012 Pushcart Prize (for “I Will Come Bearing Mangoes”, Rougarou, Fall 2011).

A journalist and columnist, she wrote a personal column, “The Venus Flytrap” for The New Indian Express from 2008 to 2011.

Noted in particular for her unusual charisma on stage, Sharanya has done readings extensively since 2001, at venues as diverse as an abandoned pier, a cemetery and the Borobudur Temple. Literary festivals she has performed at include Utan Kayu International Literary Biennale (Indonesia, 2007), Singapore Writers’ Festival (Singapore, 2007), Poetry With Prakriti (India, 2007), Ubud Writers & Readers Festival (Indonesia, 2008), Wordstorm: The Festival of Australasian Writing (Australia, 2010) and Poetry Parnassus (UK, 2012).

You can find access to Sharanya’s work here.

Interview Transcript



Dhanya: The first question is just your story. Where did you grow up? What was it like growing up? How did you get here?

Sharanya: I have a Srilankan mother and an Indian father. I was born here in Chennai in 1985. We lived in Srilanka and later moved to Malaysia when I was a kid. We lived there all the way through my teens. I shifted back and forth between India and Malaysia until I decided to come back here about 5 years ago. That’s probably my basic, where I grew up story..



Dhanya: So when did writing get into the picture?

Sharanya: I started writing when I was 7 years old. I loved books and started reading them. At some point I realized I could also try writing some poems. I started writing rhyming poems when I was 7. I tried my hand at prose. I tried to write a novel when I was about 8.

I was very much a lonely child at school probably because I shifted schools a lot. Writing was my sanctuary and solace. It was something I could count on, while there were various things I couldn’t count on in my life. It mostly a lot of poems and eventually some stories.

Things just started to happen for me. When I was a child, I published works in Children’s books. When I was 16, I started meeting people from the Arts scene. I started making friends, attending meetings, and getting my work across. I started with small publications, websites, magazines, and eventually online journals, etc. Also by the time I was 16, I started working on my journalism and that was starting to get published.



Dhanya: Would you say that the creative nerve you have, came from your parents or was it perhaps the influence of the books.. 

Sharanya: I think everybody is creative. I think everybody has that creative nerve. In terms of catalysts, I don’t think it was my parents. It was mostly the books I was reading.. I do believe in a spiritual understanding of what creativity is and I think it comes from somewhere within.



Dhanya: And do you think someone gets creative when they get in touch with this place?

Sharanya: The phrase ‘Getting in touch with that place’ suggests that we have control over it. I think its more of a calling. You are called to create something. That means you are functioning in your element and you do touch that place. But I guess it isn’t a controlled decisive thing. I know a lot of people who do various things to access the muse. I suppose it works for them, but that’s not my way of doing it.



Dhanya: Have there been places or people who help you get in touch with your muse? Or have you observed patterns when ever you do get in touch with them? 

Sharanya: There are many places I have been to, places which I consider pilgrimages for creativity. It maybe the beach, a house by the coast, the mountains, or the forests. In these places I feel more open, so to speak. But I have also come to notice that these are short term relationships. For that period in time, I have written things, dreamt of things, and pursued thoughts – all of which have been anchored by my love for that place. However, it fades away from your life at a point. I am someone who has lost a lot in terms of place, home, and sense of belonging. Once that fades, eventually some other place takes its place. It’s a very shifting concept.

One pattern I have noticed in my writing is that I can’t finish what I start. I have these tense affairs with particular manuscripts. I have these obsessions with themes I pursue, which are motivated by particular experiences. These obsessions stay for a year or 2 or even 3 and 4. At some point it does end and I go – ‘But I am not done with my book!’. I have 5 manuscripts which need some attention.



Dhanya: Are there routines which make you creative? I noticed when you described your creative peaks, there was nature involved; there was seclusion involved. If you simulate these environments, do you think it works?

Sharanya: Routines have not worked for me. That kind of pressure and force has just not been healthy for me. Through out the last year, I was in a self inflicted, isolated work environment. I was pushing myself to complete a book of stories and I burned out completely. When I look back on it, I am thinking of what I was doing all those months and why no one ever stopped me from driving myself to that unhealthy situation. That was when I decided to take a break from writing.

Prior to that, I was never a writer who had a schedule. There are writers who have a page limit or a time limit on the amount of time they spend on their writing everyday. They treat it as a job, they put on work clothes, etc – there are all kinds of things which work for people. Those things have never worked for me. It has always been an organic kind of situation where I need to want to write without having to write.



Dhanya: From what I hear, you only do it when you want to do it. Have you tried making this your secondary activity – i.e. coming to writing when you want to and keeping something else going on as your primary focus?

Sharanya: That’s exactly what I have been trying to do. I was married to my writing. It was my primary relationship. It is sad when what nourished you and helped you grow is no longer doing that. I realized that I was making a mistake with these things. I also realized that I had always regarding writing as an incidental activity. My mistake was trying to change that perspective. Now I am going back to the original idea. I wouldn’t say priority, I would say incidental. Incidentally creating a piece of art carries a deeper a sense of satisfaction along with it – atleast for me.



Dhanya: Have there been subjects which repeat themselves in your writing?

Sharanya: I fundamentally write about love. I have also written a lot of sad stuff and I am hoping that will change! There is a lot of nature and mythology. Loss is a recurring theme too. What sort of themes do you see?



Dhanya: I see a lot of metaphors coming from the environment, from the nature, and from your surrounding. Would you say there are social issues that you care about?

Sharanya: Women, human rights, environment, the disabled, children, and the elderly. These are things I constantly work with. In terms of my journalism, I try to write only about the causes that really matter to me. I am not an activist anymore. I used to be one earlier when I was moved by personal incidents, but not anymore.



Dhanya: What do you think about feminism? There was a period when men and women were equal; and then there was a period when that equality was looked at as inequality; and later things got exaggerated and morphed in their own directions I guess. Now we are sort of trying to understand the past and giving more attention to womens rights and feminism.. 

Sharanya: Looking at history can be helpful and unhelpful. Whose history are we looking at? Who wrote that history? Who approved of that history? All these things matter because we don’t actually know. What we do know is that there is a need now for feminism and human rights in general. That’s what we should work on.



Dhanya: I also noticed that there was a lot of seaside in your writing. Is there an incident that sparked this love?

Sharanya: It is part of the nature love to be sure. But when I do think of seaside I can think of a particular beach, which you might know of. It was the spark for my novel eternally-in-progress – Pasir Ris. Now I haven’t been to Singapore in three years and I don’t know what it looks like. When I first went there as a 19 year old, it was to me a place of equal desolation and beauty. I have always been very drawn to places like that. That beach did something to me. So much so that I constructed a whole novel with a woman who gets inspired by that place. Whenever she goes there, she gets healed, and centered by strange ways – even though there are unpleasant parts in the process of her healing. And if I do get back to any of my abandoned manuscripts, I would really like to write about Pasir Ris.



Dhanya: In all these years of writing, are there learnings which come from experience? Things which young poets can look upto..

Sharanya: Write what’s true; what’s true to you. Write when you want to; write when you have to. Don’t worry about the rest. It’ll come when it does.

Thank you for that heavy dose on creativity, Sharanya. We have a new perspective for looking at creative work, thanks to you!

Real leaders team