Interviewed by Katharine Eliska Kimbriel
Noted author Mary Anne Mohanraj was born in Sri Lanka and came to the United States as a toddler. Her classical, traditional parents did their best to raise their eldest daughter for the life they expected for her—the educated wife of a man she might meet only a couple of times before accepting him in an arranged marriage. Mary Anne had other ideas. She looked around, decided that she wanted a different life, and headed for the University of Chicago, where a chance run-in on the early Internet with alt.sex.stories and rec.arts.erotica shocked her very soul.
Not the sex—the poor writing. Her English major soul could not take it. She had to see if she could write better than that, and it turned out that she could. Much, much better. With praise and encouragement from her readers (and no one reading her non-erotic fiction over on rec.arts.prose) Mary Anne quickly amassed a collection of short pieces on the many faces of the erotica. In short, she fell into writing about sex, but once there, she found many different reasons to keep writing about it.
Her life has been very full of criss-crossing the United States, acquiring an MFA in Writing and a PhD in English Lit/Creative Writing & Fiction, and now living in the Greater Chicago area with her partner, two children, and the traditionally cute dog. She teaches, she writes, and she is especially interested in exploring the intersection where individual desires, duty to society, and family expectations meet. Her interests have led her to teach seminars around the country and found the Hugo-nominated magazine, Strange Horizons.
Mohanraj is perhaps best known for her work Bodies in Motion, which was a finalist for the Asian American Book Awards, a USA Today Notable Book, and has been translated into multiple languages. She is the author of nine works, including the anthologies Aqua Erotica, Wet, and The Best of Strange Horizons: Year One. Recent works include the erotic SF collection The Stars Change, which she self-published via Kickstarter, and Without a Map, with Nnedi Okorafor, which is from their appearance as co-guests of honor at WisCon 34. Her latest ebook from Book View Cafe is Torn Shapes of Desire, which collects her earliest Internet erotic poetry.
Known as a sexuality activist, Mary Anne says that she is both a liberal with strong beliefs in intellectual freedom and a secular humanist. She is devoted to her work, her children, and her partnerships, and enjoys everything from renovating 1885 Victorian houses to cooking, gardening, and dance. All of it is grist for the mill, because she is always, always telling stories through poetry and prose.
1) Let’s jump into the question that everyone seems to want answered about your work. Why do you choose write so much about sex?
A) Sex is fascinating and dangerous, painfully intimate and terribly important. For a fiction writer, a person whose job it is to try to understand and represent some of the mysteries of the human heart, it just doesn’t get more mysterious than the place of sexuality in our lives—especially given the tremendous cultural taboos around discussing it. The people we are when we’re in bed with someone else are selves that we don’t generally show the rest of the world—they are human beings particularly naked, and not in a simply physical way. I find that irresistible.
I feel a peculiar ethical responsibility around this subject too—a need to tell the truth about sex, as accurately and honestly as I can, because so many people can’t, or won’t. And that omission does so much damage. Dr. Ruth, Dorothy Allison, and Carol Queen are my heroes.
I’ve tried to answer this question, of why I write so much about sex, many times and in many different ways over the last decade. I think my best response comes in my piece, “Silence and the Word,” so if you’d like to explore this further, I recommend you take a look at that.
2) Your collection Torn Shapes of Desire shows a huge range of questions about sexuality, sensuality, and passion. Do you continue to write erotica as exploration, commentary, query?
A) This collection is actually my first book, written twenty years ago and now re-released for the first time in ebook form. I wrote it in my early 20s; now, at 42, I’m still interested in questions revolving around sexuality, but now I would approach them in different ways. For example, a few months ago, I wrote a poem about sex after children—the hormones have calmed down, the exhaustion has ramped up. I gave a talk once to a group of mostly middle-aged women, and when I told them that my current sexual orientation was “tired,” the room exploded in sympathetic laughter. At twenty, my battles were external—fighting to claim a sexual identity despite family and society that disapproved. At forty-two, mostly, no one cares about my sex life aside from me and my partners; I’m not having to fight so much social policing. But fighting to preserve a sexual identity as I become older is its own kind of struggle, and in some ways, it’s even more difficult. It would be easier to just let that part of my life disappear, but I think that would, in the end, feel like a great loss.
3) Why writing to communicate your vision, and not art, drama, etc.?
A) Heh. I do a little art sometimes—I sketch, or make poetry collages. Mostly, my art skills simply don’t match up to the visions in my head; it’s not my native medium. I grew up in the library, immersed in a sea of words. Writing is where I’m comfortable, where my heart lies. But if a magical fairy showed up and offered me the ability to really draw, I’d sign up for that in a hot second!
4) Your ancestry and history give you some unique perspectives—as a woman, a partner in committed relationships, and a mother, and then down through your experiences as a young immigrant and the daughter of immigrants, as a Tamil—a very old people and culture who are a threatened minority in Sri Lanka—and as a person who is polyamorous. What kind of writer is born from all these truths and gifts? Is there an overarching theme to the stories you wish to tell?
A) You don’t stick to the easy questions! There are some connecting threads in my work, though. The danger of secrets, of people forced to live constrained lives. The power of honesty and bravery, to cut through damaging social conventions. And as I grow older, and become more concerned with larger questions of social justice (as opposed to individual battles), I am becoming increasingly interested in questions of community, and how we can use the power of community as a defense against violence and hatred. My most recent book, The Stars Change, centers on that question—it’s science fiction, essentially inspired by the ‘83 riots in Colombo, Sri Lanka, when Sinhalese people came together to defend their Tamil neighbors from murderous thugs in the streets. In my story, it’s human beings coming together to defend their alien neighbors. Same story, really.
5) You are a full time professor, both Clinical Assistant Professor of fiction and literature and Associate Director of Asian and Asian American Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago. What is the most important lesson that you want your students to take away from your classes?
A) I think all of us at the university, beyond teaching our specific subject material, are trying to teach our students how to think critically. It is so easy to go through life just swallowing the beliefs and attitudes of those around us. If we are to shape a better future, it’s essential that first, we be able to really see the truths of what’s happening around us, and then, that we may envision other options, other paths to what we might become.
6) The academic life is very different than it was even ten years ago. Do you advise students to pursue an academic career today?
A) Very cautiously, sadly. I’m happy to talk more about the current adjunctification crisis in academia; my own university faculty just unionized, and we have a walkout scheduled in a few weeks, possibly with a strike to follow. The situation is fairly dire. But if a student really has an academic mindset, and they understand that they’re aiming for a very selective situation, like deciding to be an actor, or a rock star—I’m not going to tell them no, don’t follow your dreams. I do warn them that there’s a strong likelihood they’ll end up fairly broke in five years, though. I hope the academic job situation improves, but right now, it’s terrible.
7) Do you think your “voice,” the thing that stamps your writing as uniquely yours, changes radically from book to story to poem, or can you see themes that reoccur in your work?
A) I actually think it’s very consistent throughout. I’ll occasionally get a bit more playful, or experimental. But if I were going to characterize my writing overall, I’d say it’s fairly clean and somewhat lyrical. Sometimes I think of it as a cross between Alice Munro and Guy Gavriel Kay. 🙂
8) You have written in so many different areas, fiction and nonfiction. Has writing taught you anything you didn’t expect?
A) Over and over and over again. 🙂
9) With your tremendously busy life teaching and raising a family, you still manage to continue writing fiction and poetry. How do you balance everything out, and what are you currently working on?
A) Balance is a dream, I think. 🙂 It’s more like overbalancing, over and over, in one direction or another. When the kids are sick, they take priority, and everything else falls down a bit. When I’m on a work deadline, I lean in that direction. And when the words are really burning up—well, I don’t get enough sleep. 🙂 I have a few projects in the work—I’m on my fourth draft of a nonfiction travelogue/memoir thing that’s hard to define, that’s in part about a month I spent in Sri Lanka during the cease-fire, and in part about sex and writing and love. I have the first volume of a YA fantasy trilogy (centered on a Sri Lankan-American teenage girl) out to an editor—if that gets picked up, I’m looking forward to writing the other two books in the trilogy. And I’m just starting an SF novel that starts right after the end of The Stars Change.
10) Have you decided yet what writing means to you?
A) When I take the Myers-Briggs test, I come out either ENTJ or ENFJ—my recommended careers are military general or charismatic religious leader. I’m not planning to lead any armies anytime soon. Writing started as a way to express my individual viewpoint, to define myself, as opposed to letting the world define me. But now—when I write a story, or an essay, or even a poem, it is also, I think, a little bit of a battle cry. I try to offer a vision of the world as it could be, a persuasive vision, in the hopes that others will resonate with it, will work in their own lives towards that brighter future.