Thursday 24 August 2023

Award-winning writer Saras Manickam dishes about authorial ego, complicated women and race discrimination in Malaysia in My Mother Pattu


Courtesy of Author

About the Book

My Mother Pattu (Penguin SEA, 2023).


Deeply humane, in turn wry and humorous, the stories in this collection haunt readers with their searing honesty. Authentic and unsentimental, each story celebrates the resilience of the human spirit even as it challenges comfortable conventions about identity, love, family, community, and race relations.

Saras Manickam, courtesy of Sharon Bakar

About the Author

Saras Manickam won the regional prize for Asia in the 2019 Commonwealth Short Story Contest. In 2021, her story was included in the Bloomsbury anthology, The Art and Craft of Asian Stories


Having worked as a teacher, teacher-trainer, copywriter, and writer, Saras Manickam’s various work experiences enabled insights into characters, and life experiences, shaping the authenticity which mark her stories. 


My Mother Pattu is her debut collection of stories. She lives and works in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.



EC: Congratulations on your brilliant short story collection, My Mother Pattu. I’m delighted to see the love it’s been getting. I’ve not enjoyed a short story collection this much in a while. I’m curious: many of the stories are set in Mambang (which also means haunting/spirit). Is your Mambang a fictional town or based on a real town (e.g. Mambang di Awan, Perak)? 


SM:  Thank you, Elaine, for your very kind words. It’s rather affirming that My Mother Pattu resonates with readers.


Mambang is not a real town. It’s fictional, and therefore gives me the freedom to craft the streets, houses, places in it. It frees you up, you know what I mean?


EC: You were the 2019 Asia Winner for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize for ‘My Mother Pattu’, and it’s an incredible story:  Pattu is at once a fallen woman and a larger-than-life character, and we cannot help but sympathise with how her life has been circumscribed by gender, class, race, and circumstances. And yet, what damage she wrought. 


SM:  Pattu was such a character, wasn’t she? Scorning pity, she lived her life on her terms by telling the establishment to eff off and boldly paying the price for her choices.  She wasn’t good but not wholly bad either. Complicated and raging and free, I’d call her that. She was an amalgamation of all the women I knew, shut in by gender and patriarchy, and fighting back. I’ve had any number of people coming to me to say: You’re talking about my mother. I heard that someone from the Bronx said the same thing too that she was his mother.


In a way, Pattu cut across race and geographical boundaries!


EC: Agree, there are more strong heroine stories out there now, but not enough, I’d argue, of complicated and raging and free women. There are several other stories here featuring flawed mothers, their rage, their instability, and the subsequent cost. 


SM: It wasn’t a deliberate intention to create women characters who fell a long way from the pedestal usually accorded to mothers. I just wrote of real women I knew or heard about when I was growing up in a town not unlike Mambang. 


I put them together from all the bits and pieces one reads and hears and imagines.  Flawed, raging, without real agency even when they were loved; the price that the women paid for making their own choices—I believe each and every experience described in the stories are lived experiences, which is why they struck a chord with readers.    


EC: One thing I loved is your punchy, wry, and oft times laugh-out-loud trademark style. I know you’ve been writing for a while. Would you share with us how you developed your style of writing and your voice? Were there trials and tribulations?


SM:  Oh Elaine, it’s always delightful when readers recognize that you’re being wry and humorous! 


How did I develop my style? The hard way. 


When I started writing, and for the longest time after, I tried to manipulate the story to how it ought to be. You know, the author knows best and this is the way the story ought to go and this is what needs to happen to the characters, etc. I never learned. I pushed hard and the stories pushed back. The story line became chunky. The characters sulked and became stick figures. Authorial interference made the stories ponderous and pompous. Nothing worked. It was awful. 


I had to learn to let go; to honour the characters and trust them to tell their own stories. It was a learning experience (for each story, mind you, because Saras Manickam the writer, thought she was too clever by half) to respect story arc, characters, and the real stories beyond what I wanted to tell. 


I needed to step back and trust the characters. Having said that, the first drafts (or the first dozen) were awful.


EC: Oh yes, the struggle between authorial ego and story beast, I relate. I loved also the rare glimpse into the lives of a Tamil community c. 1950s to 1960s in Malaysia. Did you feel a burden of representation writing into this space? What aspects were you consciously highlighting that you hope readers would appreciate?


SM: Your question is too grand, Elaine! I wasn’t thinking anything except writing to witness with honesty, without sentimentality. Also, by the time the final draft was done, I had learned my lesson (usually) and learned to let the characters tell their story instead of the story I wanted them to tell.


One interesting point: the Indian films of the 1960s painted the women in stark colours —on the one hand, good women, aka those self-sacrificing mothers and wives on a pedestal, and on the other, fallen women, who always came to a bad end. Darn—I feel rage even writing this —the way the women were manipulated into conforming. The first few stories in My Mother Pattu, set in the 1960s, decided they wouldn’t play ball, so there. From then on, almost no woman in the rest of the stories conformed to stereotypes. They were all complicated, all flawed—aren’t we all?


EC: Some stories, e.g. “Dey Raju” and “Invisible”, appeared first in the Silverfish anthologies more than ten years ago. This is a question I’ve been thinking about: for short story writers like us who have been writing for a while, do our earlier stories feel dated, or can they survive modern readings? How do you approach this issue?


SM:  Stories being dated—stuff of nightmares for writers, isn’t it?


I went through all the published stories again and again. One fear was the ‘dated’ tag. 


The other was whether the earlier stories lacked depth. Dey Raju was a light read that took a swipe at traditions, a reflection of its times, the mid 1960s. The story, Will You Let Him Drink the Wind?” still impacts after all these years, as readers keep telling me, the only story that ‘flowed’ out in one go. I was in a zone writing it. 


The stories needing tweaking included Woman in the Mirror”, not because it was outdated, but because it needed more depth. I had grown as a person and as a writer from the time I first wrote the stories and needed to see if the stories reflected that.


Having said that, the first story in the collection, Number One, Mambang Lane”, has an interesting aside to it. I finished the story, and set it aside. When I came back to it for this collection, I realised the last one-third was hogwash. It was me pandering to sentimentality (and Tamil films) and not being true to the characters at all. So I rewrote the last section, and this time, I knew it got better.  


The titular story, My Mother Pattu was different. It took me the longest time to write and the first dozen drafts were all about me wanting to punish Pattu but it didn’t work. I was full of self-righteous rage; it was my ego talking rather than the story. I had to experience life with all its love, laughter, friendship, grief, loss, pain to approach Pattu with more compassion, with love, even. Then, the story literally wrote itself. Does this make sense, Elaine?


EC: It does; I can’t remember which writer said this, but when a story pushes itself to the fore, the best thing a writer can do is get the hell out of the way.  I want to talk about the stories that touch on skin colour discrimination still rampant in Malaysian society (not just on a governmental level, but within the deepest of friendships, such as in “When We Are Young”). 


SM: Yes, discrimination has become endemic as it were. It appears so deeply embedded in our psyche, regardless of race or skin colour. We can’t run away from this, living in Malaysia. We can, however, have candid and genuine conversations. 


Perhaps these stories may create those necessary conversations. That said, I am a storyteller. There is no ‘agenda’ to my stories except to reflect as truthfully as possible, the realities that the characters inhabit, face, challenge and maybe surmount.


Someone came up to me after a reading and said: “I know I am privileged by race. But I didn’t quite think about my privileges when I was studying in England on a scholarship and travelling in Europe because the scholarship was ample. I never thought of all the other students of other races, who didn’t get what I got.” The person wasn’t apologising; it was an awareness that had just struck them. Stories do that, don’t theypeel off our comfortable notions?


Someone, a good friend, was surprised that Indians found the word “keling” offensive. “But it’s how the Hokkiens refer to Indians, she said. No insult intended.” 


That’s the crux, isn’t it? Do you stop calling a people by a slur when you realise they consider it offensive? Do you keep calling them that among your own folks because that’s what you’ve always called them”? I wanted to explore the insidious reality of racist terms. They dig deep within us. They carry not just contempt for others but a sense of smug superiority. 


Having said that, discrimination is them versus us in other ways. When the mother in Call It By Its Name asks, Who are these people? I don’t know their race, their religion, their caste… What plates will I set out?”, that’s racism too. My stories needed to call out both aspects, or I wouldn’t be credible as a writer.


EC: I think fiction that can spark these sorts of internal realisations in a reader has done what it’s set out to do. The author can dust her hands off—job done. In a world that feels increasingly divided, if fiction can do even this much, it’s enough.


Thank you for joining us, Saras. Good luck on your next project.


SM:  Thank you Elaine for giving me space here.

**My Mother Pattu is available regionally in local bookstores at local prices and internationally on Amazon.