Some of us have wings: a conversation with illustrious flash fictionista Kuzhali Manickavel

Posted by lapata on February 01, 2011 · 17 mins read

Everybody knows who Yara Sofia is in Puerto Rico. And if you don't, then sorry darling, this is not your world.

--One of Kuzhali Manickavel's favorite quotes from Ru Paul's Drag Race, Season 3.

For the past few months I've been up to my earlobes in Blaft Publications. Last week (?) I posted an interview with Rakesh Khanna, editor of Blaft's Tamil Pulp Fiction series, and Pritham K. Chakravarthy, translator of same. Next week my Blaft extravaganza review will appear in Bookslut. For now, content yourself with this interview with flash fiction author and scintillating blogger Kuzhali Manickavel, author of the story collection Insects Are Just Like You and Me Except Some of Them Have Wings. Besides buying her book, which you should do before reading this interview, you should sample some of her very short stories linked from her website (there's a whole menu along the right side of the page).

Lapata: In a recent blog post on Indian writing in English, you title a section: "Do not have a name like Kuzhali Manickavel." You offer alternative names for other IWE writers (Vikram Seth=>Seth Victor, etc.), but not for yourself. I was thinking Carly McKnieval might be good, what do you think?

KM: I'm actually not qualified to be an Indian Writer in English (people have told me this so it must be true) but I feel like that shouldn't stop me from writing blog posts telling other people what to do, especially when it comes to authenticity for Indian writers in English. Having said that, I'm not sure if Carly McKnieval is the name I'd go with. Carly's fine but I have some reservations about 'McKnieval' because it sorta looks Jewish and Scottish at the same time, which might be confusing for people and may also force me to lie. Because if people were to ask me 'So are you Jewish or Scottish?' then I would have to say 'Yes'. And then if they say 'Oh, I had no idea there were Jewish people in Scottish…Land.' I would have to say 'Oh my God, Scottish Land is like the most Jewish place ever!'

Actually, I don't mind lying like that because writer authenticity is really important to me and I feel like you need to be prepared to lie and change your name for it and stuff like that.

Lapata: I read somewhere that you were discovered by Blaft 'on the internet.' How did that work, exactly, and were you making a lot of noise on the internet in hopes of being discovered, or were you difficult to find?

KM: I don't think I was making a lot of noise, I was just on the internet- my first publications were online, it's where I met other writers and learned about writing. I got a mail from the good people at Smokelong Quarterly, one of the ezines I was published in, and they told me that these other good people from Blaft wanted to get in touch with me. So we got in touch and things just came together very quickly. I don't know if I was hard to find because from my point of view, I was here only. 'I was here only' is also a great thing to say to people when they're like epic #outrage because they've been looking for you and you clearly weren't here only. Anyway.

Lapata: Some of your stories are really really short. The only other author I can think of off-hand who wrote stories that short was Manto. Are there other super short story writers we should be reading besides you and Manto? Is there a name for such stories other than 'really really short' (micro fiction?)? Despite your commitment to micro-fiction, is there any hope of a novel coming from you one day? Or maybe a novellette?

KM: I can only answer these questions as someone who loves to write reallyreallyshort stories but hasn't gone to ReallyReallyShort Story University or anything so kindly adjust and please don't judge me. I've noticed that there's a lot of different names for flash fiction (which is the term I like to use) and they differ based on word counts and how people choose to interpret these word counts. Some people consider anything under 1000 k to be flash fiction. Other people say it needs to 500 words or less. Some people say nono, that's not flash, microfiction is 500 words or less. Other people say microfiction is 300 or 200 words, some say it's 100 words. Some people say drabbles are 100 words. There's also nanofiction (55 words? I think?), tweetfiction (140 characters) and I'm sure there's a lot of other stuff out there I don't know about. It's a pretty big scene when you get into it which is why I'm always a little surprised when people get dismissive about flash and assume that because it's short it must be easy or it's not worth taking seriously.

There's certainly a lot of flash online but I think it probably exists in a lot of places. I remember I once got my hands on this very old copy of Krokodil and it was filled with very small stories, some just a paragraph long. And this is something neat which, to me, has a very nice flash vibe to it. I'm especially fond of flash fiction that plays around with form and media which is why I like Locus Novus so much. So rather than recommend other flash authors and possibly attract a lot of passive aggressive drama for not mentioning certain people who may feel like they should have been mentioned, I will just share some of my favorite pieces from Locus Novus.

Also, will I ever write a novel? Right now, I'm thinking no. But who can say?

Lapata: You mention in your bio that you are not overly fond of insects, contrary to what many may assume from the title and themes in your book. Has this caveat been ignored, and do ardent fans show up at your door or place of work with bottles full of insects as offerings in imitation of that guy in one of the stories?

KM: This has never happened. Although I think if it ever did, I probably wouldn't 'be alert' to what was going on because, as an acquaintance keeps pointing out to me, I'm just 'not alert'. My writing doesn't enter my “real” life at all so in those rare instances that it does, it's extremely bewildering for me and I'm sort of…not alert. I remember one time I was speaking to a truly illustrious person who kept throwing these random lines from my book into the conversation. And I had no idea where these things were coming from, a really large portion of the conversation was me going 'Why am I having so much trouble understanding this conversation? Why do you keep saying weird things?' and they were like 'You wrote this! Remember?' And I was like Oh! Oh right! But I feel like it was just very disappointing for everyone involved.

Lapata: You mention on your website that you might write another book some day. Are you writing one now? What's it about? When will it come out? How long do we have to wait?

KM: Hopefully second book will happen at some point, universe willing. If I was a better writer I would answer this question in a more informative manner but unfortunately, all I can say is hopefully second book will happen at some point, universe willing.

Lapata: Do you have a boring, soul-sucking day job? Or do you live in a utopian community for like-minded artists and writers? Or are you an heiress and write happily all day while the household in your large, airy bungalow hums quietly about you?

KM: I was once part of a utopian community for like-minded artists and writers but then I told one of them that their poetry was really emo and then they said I couldn't part of their utopian community for like-minded artists and writers anymore and I was like pfft, whatever bitches. That's actually a lie. Anyway, I do work and I guess it would qualify as boring and soulsucking but it would suck in a wayway worse way if I didn't have the job at all. I know a lot of people say that writers should 'do unemployment' but I'm a very strong advocate of employment because if you don't have some means of sustaining yourself, writing can be very hard. It can be so hard that you actually won't think of writing at all. Like if you're really hungry and you're not sure where/how next meal is going to happen, oddly enough flash fiction may not be the first thing on your mind, possibly because you cannot eat flash fiction. I get this feeling like it's easy to “do unemployment” if it isn't really going to hurt and it's more like unemployment tourism, where you do it for a while and it's fun like how driving through a slum is fun but only because you are DRIVING and also you are going THROUGH the slum, which is very different from having to live there.

I guess I could have just said, yes I have a boring, soul-sucking job.

Lapata: As a member of the Blaft stable, have you ever been tempted to write a lurid pulp fiction novel? You could totally go places with the insect theme in a horror plot.

KM: I haven't, although I am very fond of horror. I wanted to write a graphic novel once but that didn't really work out because I can't draw and that's apparently a big part of the whole graphic novel thing. This doesn't really answer your question but I wanted to tell you all about it anyway.

Lapata: Have you undertaken any training in creative writing, or did you spring fully armed from the head of Zeus, as it were?

KM: I'm afraid I don't have any formal training or degrees in creative writing and for the longest time, I wasn't very sure what an MFA was. This was interesting for me because a lot of people told me I totally needed to get one but I didn't really know what they were talking about and yet I got this very strong feeling that if I didn't get one, something terrible was going to happen to me and my loved ones. I have not attended any famous workshops or retreats or conferences or mentoring with famous people either but I feel like I learned a lot from noncreative, nonwriting, nontraining things like watching TV and stuff like that.

Lapata: If a reviewer were to compare you to any famous author (s), living or dead, to whom would you prefer to be compared, even if it made no sense, like, say, Edith Wharton?

KM: I've been thinking about this question for a long time. And I have to go with 'I don't know' though at various times, I wanted to say Frodo, Janice Dickinson, Tom Metzger (?!??) and Julia Child, even though none of these entities are primarily known for their authorial skills. Also there's no Indians on this list (but for some reason there is one white nationalist), which is just so unpatriotic of me and sort of proves how inauthentic I am.

Lapata: I remember reading something by Tennessee Williams somewhere about the author Jane Bowles. Williams said that whereas the likes of Carson McCullers just knocked stuff like The Heart is a Lonely Hunter out, as if it were as easy as breathing, Jane Bowles felt pain with every sentence she wrote. She *suffered* for her art. I think they all lived in the same boarding house in New York at some point, which is how everyone noticed that *some people* were having too easy of a time writing. Would you say that as a writer you were more like Jane Bowles in this scenario, or more like McCullers? You can choose Williams too, I suppose, but I'm not sure where he fell on that spectrum.

KM: I guess it's a bit of both, some pieces happen a lot easier than others. I think each new piece has a different process though, maybe that's because I haven't developed a method yet, it's very much 'write when you can' for me right now so it happens differently every time. But I've found that the pieces I'm satisfied with take a lot of work, whether it's the actual writing process or the editing, it does take a lot of time and effort, I don't think I'd ever describe it as easy.

At the same time, I wouldn't go so far as to say I *suffer* for my writing. I think we all have our own definitions of 'suffering' and based on my experiences with that word, it's certainly not one I would use to describe my writing process or even the down times. I'm not saying it's not hard, it is hard most of the time, it's frustrating, a very large portion of my writing goes absolutely nowhere. But I accept that this is just how it is for me and if I don't like it, I can go do something else. I realize this is a very inartistic thing to say but I consider writing a privilege, not a necessity, so if it's not working out, then it probably makes more sense for me to go do something else.

(The diagram above appears in Kuzhali's book, Insects Are Just Like You and Me Except Some of Them Have Wings)


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