Archive for February 12th, 2012

February 12, 2012

Kuzhali Manickavel, Eating Sugar, Telling Lies

I bought Insects Are Just Like You And Me Except Some Of Them Have Wings before I’d heard of Kuzhali Manickavel or Blaft Publications, purely on the strength of the title and cover. Since then I’ve grown rather evangelical about both author and publisher. Blaft published this e-chapbook of a new Manickavel story a few months ago and it was, unsurprisingly, excellent.

I wrote about Eating Sugar, Telling Lies for my Left of Cool column last weekend.


How long should a piece of writing be? At what point does flash fiction cross into short story into novelette into novella into novel? And how big does a book have to be before it is split into two volumes? There are approximate answers to some of these questions (mostly of the “I know it when I see it” variety); some are simply a question of categorising things for ourselves. Yet others are the result of the material limitations of creating books – what size of page is easiest to hold, shelf, and pack; how many pages it is practical to print at one time; what amount of paper can be securely bound.

If there’s one thing the internet has reinforced for us it’s that a piece of writing doesn’t need to achieve a minimum word count to be a complete work in itself. So you have writers turning even to twitter for their medium – Teju Cole, the author of Open City, works wonders within 140 characters. And it is possible now to buy works in electronic format that would never have made it through the practicalities of the printing side of publishing.

Kuzhali Manickavel’s debut collection of short stories, Insects Are Just Like You And Me Except Some of Them Have Wings, was published by Blaft a few years ago. Manickavel’s stories are often structurally experimental, usually dark and occasionally very funny. But she continued to work mainly with the short story form. Unless she were to write another themed collection, it seemed that those of us who admired her work would have to keep seeking her out in various short fiction magazines (and on her wonderful, infrequently-updated blog).

But then ebooks became a viable way to publish short fiction, and in 2011 Blaft published an e-chapbook of a new Manickavel story, Eating Sugar, Telling Lies. This odd little piece is set in Tamil Nadu, in a house that seems so big that its own inhabitants don’t seem quite sure what it contains. Secret stashes of Doritos or dead bodies could pop up in the next room.The maidservant appears to have abandoned her job, and her employers speculate over why. The narrator is one of these; her companions known only as “the Family Cataract” and “Gorgeous George”.  Various middle-class clichés about the behaviour and motivations of servants are deployed (they will steal anything, they like to be patronised by their employers) to explain the absence of “The Thieving WhoreQueen”, the only name by which The Family Cataract knows her. The truth turns out to be quite different.

Eating Sugar, Telling Lies is an uncomfortable fable about class and gender and the things we choose to look away from, and one which is far more complex than its length gives it any right to be. The Family Cataract cannot be bothered to learn the names of her servants and parrots various banalities about the tendencies of “these people” but she is also the one most strongly affected by the terrible discovery they make. The female characters make it clear that they know the threat of sexual violence, but they tolerate and have long friendships with GorgeousGeorge who claims to have had sex with a fourteen-year-old servant girl last year. The narrator herself seems the most sympathetic of the characters until the very last line of the piece. The tangled, contradictory and deeply dysfunctional set of relationships that these characters have to class, to sex, to each other and to themselves is revealed for the mess that it is. Set against all of this, the child’s voice reciting the nursery rhyme in the title (and there again, you’re forced to think about the English language and the implications of power it contains) is a brilliant, perverse contrast.

Jonathan Franzen was widely quoted this past week for suggesting that ebooks are damaging society. Franzen is entitled to his opinion, but when the existence of ebooks allows for the existence of brilliant, bitter pieces of work like this one? I think it’s very clear that he’s wrong.