This month, I’d like to do something a little different and share an interview with a writer who’s worked in almost every genre BUT crime fiction: SFF (science fiction/fantasy, mainstream fiction, poetry, nonfiction, memoir, cookbooks, and erotica.
However, a lot of her work has to do with food and culture (particularly with the South Asian diaspora), two topics which I spend a lot of time thinking and writing about, both in my mysteries and on this blog.
Today, she’s going to share what it’s like to wear so many different hats, as well as a recipe from her newest cookbook, which is currently up on Kickstarter: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/feastofserendib/a-feast-of-serendib
Without further ado, welcome Mary Anne Mohanraj!
> What has your road to publishing been like?
At first, very straightforward and typical, I think — I wrote stories, got a copy of Writer’s Market, sent them off, collected my share of rejections along with a few acceptances. I went on to grad school, picking up both an MFA and a Ph.D. in creative writing, which helped me hone my craft, and by now, I’ve published with both big presses (HarperCollins, Random House, Penguin) and small (Circlet, Aqueduct, Lethe). I’ve even indie-published a bit.
But the main challenge, career-wise, is that I write in many different genres, and every time I switch from one to the other, I lose a segment of readers. That makes it hard to build up a consistent large audience.
> You write in many different genres, most notably SFF (science fiction and fantasy), but also mainstream fiction, poetry, nonfiction, and erotica. What’s it like to work in so many different genres? How do you know which medium/genre is best for which story?
Writing in different genres is pretty straightforward, actually — I bring many of the same skills to each, and usually the piece clearly wants to be one thing or the other. It’s marketing that makes it tricky!
> What does it mean to you to be a diaspora writer? How do you try to incorporate this concept in your work?
It makes me cautious, I think. I have a deep love for Sri Lanka, in some ways, beyond all reason, given that I moved to America when I was two years old. I’m drawn to write about it, in fiction and nonfiction and poetry and food writing. But I’m always wondering if I’m being accurate enough, authentic enough. In grad school, I spent an entire semester on an independent study in Sri Lankan history, just so I felt more confident writing short stories set in the 1940s there. And even now, when I want to write about the war, I find myself turning to science fictional versions of it, Sri Lankans in space, as a means of maintaining a clear boundary around the material, so readers don’t think that I, necessarily, can convey to them anything concrete and accurate about the specifics of the conflict that happened there. Instead, what I want to do is reflect it, hopefully in interesting ways, offer a different angle of view, a lens that might be useful.
> You’re incredibly open on social media about the various aspects of your life: writing, teaching, parenting, community activism, sexuality, etc. In a time where “Personal Brands” are such a big thing, there seems to be no separation between “Mary Anne, the Writer” and “Mary Anne, the person.” Was this a conscious choice?
You know, my blog is the 3rd oldest on the internet, according to the Online Diary History Project. So I think it’s more of an evolution? When I started, in December 1995, no one knew what blogging would become; we called it online journalling back then, before the word ‘blog’ was even coined.
For me, I’ve come to think of it as a vast extended memoir project. It’s an ongoing challenge to be as open and honest as I can — whether it’s about being queer and poly, or about the difficulties of parenting, or about medical issues like my bout of breast cancer or my recent ADHD diagnosis.
There are occasional difficulties — people can, in fact, be horrible at times. But in my experience, over almost 25 years, the vast majority of people I’ve interacted with online have been positive, kind, and incredibly generous with their knowledge and resources. My readers carried me through cancer; I would have had a much harder time without them, and I’ll always be grateful.
> What gave you the idea to write a cookbook?
Well, my first cookbook, A Taste of Serendib, I wrote as a Christmas present for my mother — I tried to write down as many of her recipes as I knew. I was as careful as I could be, and still, when I gave it to her, she pointed out the things I’d gotten wrong — I offered to do a second edition, with ‘Amma’s corrections’ in red. She didn’t go for that, though!
> Why do you think food and culture are so intrinsically tied together? Is this a topic you explore in your writing?
Can I point you to something else, instead of answering this directly? I run DesiLit, an organization that supports South Asian and diaspora literature, and we publish Jaggery, a South Asian lit. mag — here’s a little piece I wrote that talks about jaggery, dark palm sugar, and why we chose that name for our magazine: http://jaggerylit.com/about/
> Which recipe are you proudest of and why? Which recipe was the most challenging to get right? Would you mind sharing a simple recipe with our readers?
You know, I spent a lot of time researching more esoteric recipes, ancient dishes that were served at King Kasyapa’s sky palace in 5th century Sigiriya. But my favorite is still the first dish I learned how to cook, my mother’s beef and potato curry. If I were trapped on a desert island with only one thing to eat, this is what I would pick.
Beef and Potato Curry / Mas Kizhangu Kari
(1 hour, serves 6)
This was my favorite dish growing up, the one my mother always makes for me when I come home, and the first Sri Lankan dish I learned to cook, when I called home desperate from the dorms, begging her to teach me how to make it over the phone. It’s also the first Sri Lankan dish my husband, Kevin, learned to cook — I came home once from a long plane flight, walked into the house, smelled the scent of this curry, that I hadn’t even known he had learned how to make, and promptly burst into tears. Enjoy.
3-5 medium onions, chopped fine
2 TBL ginger, chopped fine
4-5 garlic cloves, sliced
3 TBL vegetable oil
1 tsp black mustard seed
1 tsp cumin seed
1-2 TBL cayenne
3 lbs chuck steak, cubed, about 1 inch pieces
1/3 cup ketchup
1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce
1 TBL Sri Lankan curry powder
1 heaping tsp salt
3 pieces cinnamon stick
3 cardamom pods
1 dozen curry leaves
1/2 cup milk
3 medium russet potatoes, cut into large chunks
2-3 TBL lime juice
1. In a large pot, sauté onions, ginger, and garlic in oil on medium-high with mustard seed and cumin seeds until onions are golden/translucent (not brown), stirring as needed. Add cayenne and cook 1 minute, stirring. Immediately stir in ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, curry powder, salt, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, and curry leaves.
2. Add beef and stir on high for a minute or two, browning the meat. Add milk, stirring. Cover, turn down to medium, and let cook half an hour, stirring occasionally.
3. Add potatoes, stir well, and cover again. Cook until potatoes are cooked through, adding water if needed to maintain a nice thick sauce (and to keep food from burning), stirring occasionally. Add lime juice; stir until well blended. Serve hot with rice or bread.
Mary Anne Mohanraj is author of Bodies in Motion (HarperCollins), The Stars Change (Circlet Press) and thirteen other titles. Bodies in Motion was a finalist for the Asian American Book Awards, a USA Today Notable Book, and has been translated into six languages. The Stars Change is a science fiction novella, and finalist for the Lambda, Rainbow, and Bisexual Book Awards. Previous titles include Aqua Erotica, Without a Map, and A Taste of Serendib (a Sri Lankan cookbook). Mohanraj founded the Hugo-nominated magazine, Strange Horizons, and was Guest of Honor at WisCon 2010. She serves as Executive Director of the Speculative Literature Foundation (speclit.org), has taught at the Clarion SF/F workshop, and is Clinical Associate Professor of English at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Mohanraj’s recent publications include stories for George R.R. Martin’s Wild Cards series, chapters for Ellen Kushner’s Tremontaine at Serial Box,and stories at Clarkesworld, Asimov’s, and Lightspeed. 2018 titles include Survivor (a SF/F anthology, stories of trauma and survival), Perennial (a breast cancer memoir / romance), and two Sri Lankan cookbooks: The Marshmallows of Serendib and Vegan Serendib. 2019 will see the publication of A Feast of Serendib. www.maryannemohanraj.com
Kickstarter link: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/feastofserendib/a-feast-of-serendib
Serendib Kitchen shop: http://serendibkitchen.com/shop/