It all starts when Nilavoli and Amma take a voyage down a lagoon in Mattakalappu, located in the eastern province of Sri Lanka. As the child listens to sounds of the deep, Amma embarks on a series of tales about mer-people and shape-shifting creatures. This new book of fantastical stories, folklore, myths and legends, titled Mermaids in the Moonlight, marks author Sharanya Manivannan’s debut as an illustrator. This is not her first time writing a book for kids. In the past, she has authored the popular picture book, The Ammuchi Puchi, besides writing fiction and poetry for adults such as the acclaimed The Queen of Jasmine Country. In this new book, one gets to meet the royal mermaid, Mélusine, of Luxembourg, Julnar, the sea-born from western Asia and the shapeshifting Menana of the Ottawa Nation. In an interview, Manivannan talks about how the idea of the book came to her and the research that has gone into writing Mermaids in the Moonlight. Edited excerpts from the same:
The book is a wonderful mix of real-life instances, mythology and fantasy. How did the idea of the book come to you?
My family is from Mattakalappu, and while I had spent my early childhood in Colombo, I first went to Mattakalappu myself only when I was 27. The long ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka meant that the east of the island, along with the north, were not easy to go to. On that first visit in 2012, I realised that something my mother used to say when I was a child—that there was a mermaid in a lagoon in her hometown, and that on full moon nights she could be heard singing—was not a Disney-influenced bedtime story. All over the town were mermaid figures. They were visual references to the phenomenon that occurs on full moon nights, when strange sounds can be heard from the Kallady lagoon. The town is known as “the land of the singing fish” because of this phenomenon, but it’s mermaids that you see everywhere.
Noticing those mermaids, remembering them, even writing about them a little eventually led me to wonder why I had not encountered mermaid folklore as well. Initially, I thought the shape my research would take would be a graphic novel, with a children’s book only being a spin-off. That changed: Mermaids in The Moonlight came first, and Incantations Over Water (the graphic novel) will follow. I also have half a dozen mermaid stories set in Batticaloa swimming in my head now. Perhaps more prose on the subject is still to come too.
How different was writing for children from your other work?
Mermaids in The Moonlight is my second book for children. The Ammuchi Puchi (illustrated by Nerina Canzi; Lantana Publishing 2016) was my entry into the world of children’s literature. So, I carried forward the insights I had learned from that experience into this work as well. One thing that The Ammuchi Puchi—which was a book on bereavement, and took over half a decade to find a publisher because it was prose-heavy, like Mermaids—taught me was that it’s okay to be fearless. It’s okay to write complex narratives and explore heavy themes when writing for children. They already feel everything. It’s we as adults who have sometimes forgotten or lost that capacity.
One sees interesting sociocultural narratives from across geographies getting enmeshed within the stories, from fish-tailed deities of west Asia to the Brazilian goddess Yemanja...
There was no dearth of mermaids and mer-beings from around the world to include in the book. The question was what is each one’s story, and how does it move within the flow of the night when Nilavoli and Amma enter the lagoon to listen to those mysterious underwater sounds? I didn’t just want this book to be a list. I wanted to bring in diverse stories, but situate them within the cultural, geographical and sentimental context where this conversation between child and mother takes place. I chose and sequenced the stories so that a certain narrative comes through. Amma tells Nilavoli tales that don’t shy away from painful things, but also those that privilege love and freedom. I wanted to try to strike a balance between the dark realities of the world—a world in which Yemanja crossed the Atlantic from Africa with people who had been enslaved, for example—and the beauty and joy that also exist in it, like Morveren of Zennor, who has a romantic happily ever after. The book also honours Mattakalappu’s own erstwhile dominant culture, which was matrilineal and matrilocal. The secret at the heart of the book is at the very end, when we understand why Amma is giving Nilavoli the whole world, in lieu of a question she cannot answer.
The mermaid, in the book, stands as a symbol of freedom, flexibility of making choices and transformation. Was that the intention behind choosing to base the book on mermaids?
The mermaid symbol’s connection to Batticaloa was the starting point of this book, but as I immersed myself in mermaid mythologies, the themes you have picked up on became clear to me too. In stories like those of Melusine (who married on the condition that she would have absolute privacy and freedom on Saturdays, when she would turn back into her true self and bask in a bath) and of the selkies (whose human lovers could keep them bound by hiding their seal-skins, which if ever they found again, they would use to leap into the water and leave behind even their human children behind), the themes of constraint vs personal expression become evident. Mermaids in The Moonlight is a feminist book, and these were themes that were deliberately emphasised in my selection of the tales.
You have always delved into poetry and medieval literature for your books. What was the research that went into this book?
When I began working on my two illustrated mermaid books, I did so believing that folktales about the meen magal had been erased, lost or were just not well-known. So, I visited people in Batticaloa who could tell me some—fishing people, writers, researchers, academics, my own next of kin. They didn’t have much to say about the meen magal, but instead they told me about fish tales, matrilineage, the 2004 tsunami, the nature of water, the prevalence of magic in the region, cultural impositions from Jaffna and from India, economic struggles, the long arm of the war and the pain that preceded it. What I gathered through these conversations fed into so much else, other writing I am doing as well as my own personal healing. Having accepted that there is indeed a folkloric void when it comes to the meen magal, I then embarked on reading mermaid tales from around the world. There is an incredible canon out there, and it’s not Eurocentric.
In your previous interviews, you have talked about how writing assuaged your lonely childhood and saw you through dysfunction. How does writing continue to be a way of understanding life as it comes?
Mermaids in The Moonlight is a pandemic book—created in the pandemic, released in the pandemic. I wrote the second draft as well as created all the illustrations in lockdown, and during the discomfort of my personal circumstances during the same. This is my sixth book, and I have learned over time that a book in the process of being made is its own cocoon, holding its maker, but conversely, once it is done, the maker becomes the emptied cocoon. Knowing this, I now rejoice in the making and cherish that stage of being cocooned within a work. Writing and illustrating give me solace.