DISTURBING DIALOGUES:
an interview with
Kuzhali Manickavel

Posted on September 9, 2010 by in The Melbourne Review Interviews

ALEC PATRIC

You have warned me not to ask you what life in India is like. I wouldn’t even have thought to ask you that, but I must confess, you’ve piqued my interest now. You also say you don’t ‘actually give a good interview’. So strange that you’d say that when it seems you’re in a constant process of interviewing yourself. Now, I suppose we’re always doing this as writers. We ask ourselves how we feel about something, and we explore that dynamic through characters and situations. You have evolved a more direct approach and often write in pure dialogue. Which is easier said than done. We use characters to give ideas shape and momentum. We dress our personal dilemmas in dramatic narratives to give them appeal and amplification. You have been able to sidestep these conventions through a wicked sense of humour, which almost always has a cutting political message at the centre of it. So I’m wondering if you could explore how this process of pure dialogue developed for you and how important the political message is in your work.

KUZHALI MANICKAVEL

I just get very nervous when people ask me what life in India is like because I don’t know what they want me to say. I think it has a lot to do with this suspicion I have that all questions about life in India are actually veiled questions about elephants. So I’m like, they want me to talk about elephants now, right? Is this an elephant question? Will they judge me if I say I don’t know anything about elephants? It’s just really stressful for me.

Anyway, I like dialogue and conversations, I like listening to how they happen in real life. Usually they’ll start in one place and end somewhere else entirely. And sometimes a group of people think they’re all talking about the same thing but everyone involved will be on totally different lines of thought for whatever reasons, so there’s this whole other conversation happening which is comprised of all these unrelated conversation threads. I also like the language people use in dialogue, words get stretched or chopped up or smashed together, words are used in the “wrong” way and a lot of times, people will say things without thinking.

I don’t actually set out to write anything political but sometimes, I’ll look at some situation or incident and think, that is so fucking crazy. I mention Warren Anderson in some of the things I write because I think it’s seriously mindblowingly nuts that he’s chilling in the States because I guess that whole Bhopal thing really bummed him out and returning to India to face consequences for that would just bum him out even more. I am totally against bumming out rich white corporate American dudes because it’s just so racist. So much of the Bhopal Disaster contains craziness like that. Like on the issue of compensation for the Bhopal victims, someone called Kathy Hunt, who I understand was a PR official with Dow Chemical at the time said,

“$500 [in compensation] is plenty good for an Indian.” http://www.greenpeace.org/india/campaigns/toxics-free-future/the-bhopal-legacy

How do you even begin to rate the fuckwittery on a quote like this? Why is she talking like she’s in some b-rate phail movie about the Wild West? Where did she get her awesome PR skillz? Was she wearing a cowboy hat when she said this? Did she think she was the sheriff? It blows my mind that she actually opened her mouth and these words came out and they are on record because obviously, it’s just Indians and it doesn’t matter that it was the worst chemical disaster in history because it’s just Indians so whatever. $500 is plenty good for an Indian. Everything else aside, I can’t believe she said ‘plenty good’.

Did I even answer your question? I don’t think I did.

ALEC PATRIC

Being an expert on all things Koala & Kangaroo, I feel devastated by your ignorance with your own national animals. Since you were born in Canada and spent the first 13 years of your life there, I’ll assume you’re an expert on the Moose, but I’m not as interested in the Moose as I am in Elephants. Maybe you can point me in the direction of Indian writers more culturally relevant. But since I’ve only got you at the moment, let’s talk about the micro-fiction of your collection, Insects are just like you and me except some of them have wings. I first noticed your work in an issue of Going Down Swinging we were both in. There was a snake in that story, so it seems beyond Moose expertise, and a fascination with insects, there’s also this penchant for the reptile. Do you feel a different focus with your short fiction? Are the inspirations for them different to the dialogues? Do you differentiate between micro-fiction and regular short stories?

KUZHALI MANICKAVEL

First let me say that I think it’s great that you maintain your Australian cultural relevancy and credibility by being an expert on all things Koala & Kangaroo. I personally don’t believe in Koalas but I can understand that people in other cultures may believe in them and I always think we should try and respect people for their other beliefs.

I think the initial ideas for the dialogues are a lot clearer for me than the ideas for short fiction. With the conversations, I’ll come across something and think ok that’s interesting but I’ve found that you really have to think them through beforehand. A lot of times the conversation won’t go the way I think it will and my initial thoughts about the issue will change as I learn more about it and work through it with the dialogue. And I think it’s important to do it honestly, and by honestly I mean without trying to stick in a funny line or agenda just for the sake of the funny line or agenda. With short fiction, I have a lot less focus, oftentimes no focus at all which is probably not the best thing for a writer to say but whatever. I might start with a line or an idea but the line or idea often won’t show up in the final, I go through a lot of drafts and things change a lot from the first to final draft. I’ve found that while I do a lot of editing with the conversations, I don’t make as many major changes from the first to final drafts. Also, I’ve found that the ‘thinking it through honestly’ process works a little differently, I feel I have more wiggle room with my short fiction whereas a lot of times the conversations will completely collapse if I haven’t thought them through enough or honestly enough. That could also be because the conversations are a tighter format so flaws and inconsistencies are not only more obvious, sometimes they’re harder to fix because I’ll often have to follow the thread back to my own thinking process and prejudices to see why it isn’t working.

I personally don’t differentiate between micro-fiction and regular short stories because I think that’s really racist. I guess I end up writing shorter pieces though but it’s not a conscious decision. I really feel I should say much more about this but I can’t think of anything else to say. So instead, I’d like to try and salvage some ragged pieces of cultural relevancy by saying that I like elephants. I don’t know them but I like them.

ALEC PATRIC

When I’m reading your work, sometimes I wonder whether you dislike Americans. Maybe you love Americans. Verity La will not judge you, either way. I talked to a Mexican once about this subject. I asked him what it was like living right next to America and he said it was like being in bed with an elephant. I know how you feel about elephants, but this is a true story. And I get the feeling that despite India’s distance, you are in bed with the same naughty elephant. Personally I prefer to get into bed with my wife, but if she’s missing, I prefer Koalas (as I might have mentioned). So what is the fascination with Americans? Are they tramping around your neighborhood in annoying ways? What kind of mattress do you prefer?

KUZHALI MANICKAVEL

This is exceedingly embarrassing. Does it seem like I’m fascinated with Americans? I am very embarrassed that you would ask this, particularly because it’s very unIndian to openly display overt fascinations for Americans. We’re supposed to do it subtly while loudly maintaining that everything American is cultureless and badbadbad and we would rather remove and eat our own gall bladders than go there. Also, I can’t even begin to explain the humiliation of being Indian and having more fascination for Americans than I do for elephants. It’s like sending Mel Gibson back to Australia because the Americans don’t want him anymore. Actually it’s nothing like that but wouldn’t it be funny if they did that? Ok, maybe not very funny for you guys.

Anyway, here’s the thing. We have Tamil movie songs with lines that veryvery sloppily translate like this ‘If I live, I will live here (meaning in India) and never run away.’ But we are also very keen to run away also, particularly to America and never ever come back ever ever ever. We do like to sing about not leaving though and I think ultimately, this is what is important. Is America an elephant? Is India in bed with this American elephant? Should I strongly repudiate the claim that India would ever get in bed with anyone or anything because getting into bed is against Indian culture? I have no answers to any of these questions. But I would like to share some things I have observed about us and Americans and America. These are my wholly imperfect observations so whatever.

If someone of Indian origin in America does something amazing, we like to dedicate vast swathes of media space to talking about how these amazing people are in fact Indian so their achievement makes India amazing by default. We are not bothered by the fact that these people may in fact consider themselves to be American. As far as we’re concerned, they are Indian. For instance, we really really really like to call Jhumpa Lahiri an Indian writer. I guess we do this because no one who actually lives here ever does anything amazing. Ever.

In the tiny corner I inhabit, all families have successfully managed to ensure at least one of their offspring, usually the male, is ‘settled in the States’. All of them. I’m not kidding. When you meet them for the first time, they will introduce themselves by stating that their children are in the States. This supersedes their own name, what they do in life, everything. The only person I know that doesn’t have family members in America is me. So my America fascination is probably just jealousy.

We like to blame a lot of things on America. I have seen people blame America for feminism, homosexuality, pants on women, breasts in art, electric guitars, ‘computer music’, short hair on women, long hair on men, smoking, drinking, loss of Indian traditions and values, English, pornography, MSG, gun culture, drug culture, and of course our personal favorite, no culture. And while there are certainly things happening in India which America seriously needs to answer for, it’s more funner to harp on how they hath wrought the danger and abomination of a woman in pants.

We have a popular flavor of potato chip here called American Style Sour Cream and Onion. We also have a Masala flavor which is far, far less fashionable than the American Style, even though some brave and honest people have admitted to liking the Masala flavor better and feeling that American Style Sour Cream and Onion smells and tastes sharply of packaged vomit. We also had an Australian flavor. That was cilantro flavored. Lemon and cilantro. Or something. You guys eat a lot of cilantro out there? That wasn’t very popular, probably because it wasn’t American.

I forgot to answer your mattress question. Oh whale.

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