Kuzhali isn’t like you and me

Her debut novel, Insects Are Just Like You And Me Except Some Of Them Have Wings, was published in 2008, but the acclaim for Kuzhali Manickavel’s collection of “short short fiction” refuses to die down. In April this year, Damien Walter of The Guardian placed it among the best contemporary global fiction available online.

In June, Insects and her most recent e-chapbook, Eating Sugar Telling Lies, helped Kuzhali climb into Elle magazine’s list of 20 best South Asian writers under the age of 40. And in May this year, Kuzhali revived her blog (thirdworldghettovampire.blogspot) after a nearly six-month break, to the great relief of fans of her quirky writing style.
Any way you look at it, these have been eventful months indeed for Kuzhali, who’s also relocated from Chidambaram (which often finds mention in her writings and interviews as “smalltempletown” and where she moved from Winnipeg, Canada, at the age of 13) to the rather more metropolitan Bengaluru. Kuzhali claims it was an impulsive decision. “It was very much about a most illustrious acquaintance saying ‘Ohai, I’m moving to Bengaluru, you come off so we can split the rent’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, okay’,” she says.
Quiz her about how her earlier, more significant move (from Canada to Chidambaram) impacted her use of language, and she replies rather more seriously, “For a long time, I couldn’t communicate with anyone. I was in the rather interesting situation where I could understand what others were saying, but they couldn’t or chose not to understand me. That does make one think about how there are things one can perfectly describe in one language but can’t even find the words for in another. I realised that communication existed in ways that weren’t necessarily ‘right’ or ‘good’ but they still conveyed something and had worth.”
That understanding of language makes Kuzhali’s writing a joy to read. Her stories make a deep impression also because they have so much imagery (one possibly anorexic character inspires her friends to imagine that she’s “shaving down her shoulders and ankles, breaking off what was extra and hiding it in suitcases under her bed”) and you get the idea that the characters go on beyond the boundaries of the story itself. They certainly do for their creator. “If I start with a particular incident, I usually end up wondering how it happened, how a particular character was involved in it, so there’s a lot of going back or going sideways in some cases. All that rewriting and going back and forth opens things up for me in terms of understanding the characters and why they do what they do,” Kuzhali says.
And because Kuzhali spends so much time fleshing out these characters (and also because she can’t help but have some of her left-of-field personality rub off on them), they end up seeming very real. Her stories are a mix of fact and fiction, Kuzhali admits, qualifying that with a “But some pieces are probably more fictitious than others. Like the story Cats and Fish, where there’s this dude pulling cats and fish out of his mouth, that didn’t really happen.”
The surreal finds plenty of mention in Kuzhali’s stories. The very first one she ever wrote, at the age of five, was about a girl who lived in a tree and turned into a bat at night. “I don’t think I finished it,” Kuzhali says. “I remember finding it very hard to write, possibly because I didn’t really know how to write at the time.” Well, she’s learnt now, and how!

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