In Conversation with Meher Manda
Meher Manda is a writer, poet, and journalist. She currently teaches poetry, fiction and composition at The College of New Rochelle. She’s also a teaching artist with Teachers & Writers Collaborative and Community-Word Project. Her work has been published in LUMINA’s print journal, and her poem "The Other" was selected as one of three winning entries for La Lengua's NYC Multilingual Writers Contest. Her debut chapbook, Busted Models, is forthcoming from No, Dear Magazine in Fall 2019.
R.Y., one of La Lengua’s co-editors, reached out to Meher to discuss her writing.
RY: Tell me about your background and how you came to New York.
Meher Manda: I grew up in Bombay (Mumbai), but my family is from Andhra Pradesh, a state bordering India’s southeastern coast. I’m culturally South Indian. My mother tongue is Telugu and I grew up speaking Hindi and English and understanding Marathi. Ironically enough, English is the language I’m most comfortable speaking and writing. For my undergraduate degree I studied advertising and journalism at Mumbai University’s K.C. College. Then I worked as a journalist for a few years. And while I appreciated how much writing my profession let me do, I realized I wasn’t writing for myself. I wasn’t producing the work that I grew up wanting to. So, in 2016, I moved to New York to pursue an MFA in Fiction at The College of New Rochelle. I graduated last year and now live in Harlem.
RY: You mentioned before this interview that you’re an atheist. Could you tell me more about that?
MM: My parents are Hindu, but I’ve been a left-leaning atheist since I was 17. As a teenager, I was influenced by writers like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins. I honestly find religious institutions to be problematic. I wouldn’t care to comment on someone’s personal faith, but I do take a very strong issue with mixing religion with politics and imposing it on children. As I grew up around faith in a country where religion is so prominent, I’ve witnessed how religion can easily become a tool for widespread oppression and marginalization, especially when it works in tandem with state machinery.
My atheism strongly informs the critical way I look at powerful institutions as a writer. It has educated me as I try to learn and examine my own privilege, coming from a family that belongs to a majority faith and caste.
RY: You mentioned Hitchens and Dawkins. What other writers influenced you as a teenager?
MM: Carl Sagan’s Cosmos opened my mind to the evolution of science and civilization. I read feminist writers like Simone de Beauvoir and Indian writers like B.R. Ambedkar, the father of the Indian constitution who wrote a lot about the evils of the caste system. I also read Arundhati Roy— both her fiction and nonfiction—Kiran Nagarkar, Kamala Das, Jayanta Mahapatra, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, and Salman Rushdie.
As a teenager, I loved Sylvia Plath, Jane Austen, Salinger, Murakami, but I name Indian writers specifically because their work taught me to look at my country from a distance, and engage with my background in a sociological way.
RY: You’re an Indian writer who writes in English. Could you elaborate on that?
MM: The fact is that I write and think in English. It is in English that I’m best able to articulate my thoughts. I grew up in Bombay with the Queen’s English that the British left us with, and my primary education happened in English. I think there is merit in being critical of the language that dominates academic discourse in India, but as a writer, I usually try to see what I can do with the tools I have.
I mostly write about India because it’s the world I know best. Most of the time, my short fiction is based in Bombay. What I’ve taken from “Western” writers is mostly structure and craft.
However, I’m aware of the gap created by the fact that I write in English, and how niche my readership can be. I’m aware that most work I produce is inaccessible even to my own mother, and that’s always a confusing feeling to have as a writer. It doesn’t help that I cannot read or write my own mother tongue, which I’m trying to rectify.
Growing up, I felt alienated from my Telugu background because I didn’t share the same beliefs and values as my family. But a few years ago, I discovered The Liberation of Sita, a novel by a feminist and left-leaning Telugu writer called Volga. The book is a revisionist telling of Sita’s journey in the Ramayana. I realized then that there’s a whole section of critical Telugu literature that I’ve unintentionally ignored, and I’m hoping to one day achieve the fluency to read and engage with those works in the language in which they were written.
RY: Living in New York and writing in English, for whom are you writing?
MM: That’s a very interesting question, which I’ve been dealing with since I moved to New York. I’ve never had a problem finding an audience for my short fiction because short fiction gives you the space to explain the milieu. Moreover, most of my stories are based in Bombay, a city whose architecture is accessible and can be explained to non-Indian readers.
The audience question comes up with my poetry, which can be very cultural and contextual. And I admit that my work can sometimes require deeper introspection. But what literature doesn’t? I myself don’t always understand the cultural context of the works I read, and I have to google names of places and people to understand better. Even when I was a kid in Mumbai listening to Hip-Hop, I had to look up the references to the civil rights movement or religious texts. I love it when a work of writing forces me to labor through it. There are so many writers, particularly Asian American voices, who retain the specificity of their works while still being painfully direct. Recently, Fatimah Asghar did it brilliantly in If They Should Come For Us.
I think I write for whoever cares about what I want to say. My forthcoming poetry collection is about Indian femininity and the context that shapes it. However, I’m also aware of all the people who don’t get to read my work, starting with my own mother. She speaks conversational English but doesn’t necessarily engage with literary texts. I grapple with the fact that I’m writing poems about my mother that she’ll probably never read.
RY: How does that feel?
MM: It feels confusing. Like a little ache. But it’s also liberating. Actually, I think my mother will still make the effort of reading every single page I write. She’ll ask me about everything she doesn’t understand and we’ll have a conversation about it. In many ways, I use my poetry to explain to her things I wouldn’t be able to explain to her otherwise. On paper, my mother and I become much closer.
RY: Why do you write? Do you see yourself as an activist?
MM: I’ve always been writing, and I’ve had great teachers who’ve encouraged me. I write to express myself. Growing up, I’ve always felt somewhat alienated from my environment. I had ideas that set me apart from family members and kids my age. I felt removed from the ongoing conversations and had to build my own. Writing allowed me to express these pent-up thoughts.
I’m not delusional enough to think of myself as an activist. I don’t think I’m influencing any real conversation yet. But I do think of myself as very political, and my work is very inspired by that. If you’re POC, a woman, or an artist, your work can never be apolitical, can never exist in a vacuum. It’s hollow if it does.
RY: What conversations would you like to influence?
MM: I want to talk about feminism, the female body and gender in a way that’s not gimmicky. I come from a family where women are expected to conceal their bodies and behave a certain way around men, and I’ve always challenged that. I want to be part of the corporeal revolution. I’m interested in the female body as a tool of resistance. You resist by asserting space in the public sphere and standing your ground when people ask you to step back. It starts in the family. If you can’t assert your body in your own family, how will you assert it in a relationship or in a professional space?
I also want an open conversation on faith, and I want to be critical of institutions that sustain and propagate regressive cultures and religions. I want to be able to sit down with my family and say: “your pride about your caste identity is built on centuries’ worth of oppression. We need to unpack that,” within a conversation that does not immediately become a fight, as it has in the past.
RY: To conclude this interview, do you have any advice for our readers?
MM: Always be critical. About everything. About anything you’re doing. Your past and current beliefs. Each book you read. Everyone should be constantly questioning everything.
R.Y. is a co-editor of La Lengua.