I have a better idea now than ever before of what would have become of my writing if I hadn’t left Malaysia,” says Sharanya Manivannan, city-based poet and writer who has just returned from Poetry Parnassus, a non-competitive poetic Olympics conducted in the UK.
In the festival, Sharanya represented Malaysia, where she lived for 17 years before moving to India under difficult circumstances. Since Sharanya currently lives in Chennai and must technically have represented India, her participation not only stirred a controversy, but also proved to be a journey of introspection for her.
“From when I was invited to Poetry Parnassus till the festival got over, I have been pondering about the significance of this representation,” admits the young poet, who is best known for her debut book of poems, Witchcraft. “By agreeing to represent Malaysia, I was agreeing to take the responsibility to be on a world stage with my chequered history with that country on display and to engage with that history on that same stage,” she adds, emphasising that it was, by no means, a simple decision to make.
But when she got there, she discovered that she was not alone. “Nearly every poet there had either struggled with personal ambivalence, discomfort or a public backlash for being selected,” she recalls.
“We were told to bring ourselves and our poems and this is what we did. We represented ourselves. By speaking for ourselves, we spoke for the world,” she says.
Keeping in tune with the cross-cultural theme of the festival, Sharanya chose to read some of her older work which dealt more explicitly with the given premise.
“Culture, languages, exile and love were the themes of the poems that I had selected. The poem that Southbank Centre (festival host) chose to include in its anthology, which I recorded and wrote by hand for their archives, was Dream of Burying My Grandmother Who Has No Grave. It deals with grief and memory,” Sharanya relives her time at the festival.
Both of Sharanya’s readings were well-received and helped her move a fellow poet with her words. “One of the poets there told me after one of my readings that although she does not understand English too well, she was moved since I read with my eyes and my heart,” says Sharanya with an unmistakable hint of pride.
It is only natural that Sharanya uses her international experiences to draw comparisons between Chennai’s literary stature and world standards. But she says that what is missing here is not a dearth of funding, institutional support or public spaces. “I think places with even less than us have done more, and the reason for that usually has to do with a greater generosity of spirit,” she says.