Interviewed by Sharon Sajan – Lifestyle Manager, Ms. Brown Plus
In our cultures, our relationship with words & learning is considered a divine one. Many South Asian cultures have ceremonies to celebrate the first time a child writes words. How did you start writing? How have your experiences informed your growth as a poet?
I don’t think I remember a time when I wasn’t writing. I grew up in a household that loved the written word. My entire family is avid readers- to be honest, I read the least in the household. My dad used to write for various Tamil Newspapers and magazines. My dad encouraged me to do something with my writing, so he and I would do collaborations for Tamil papers. I never took it seriously, but I think a large part of me lacked the confidence to take my writing further. I think I needed to come into myself and build my confidence to share my vulnerabilities.
I remember using writing to cope with my life and reflect on my everyday experiences. I still have my old journals and love looking at them. I don’t think I had the intension of being a writer; I used to enjoy making up stories. Funny enough as a kid, I wrote more short stories and planned novels than poetry. I got into poetry in grade 7 and 8 for English class. After that, I submitted my work to school contests, but never really took it seriously. When I went to University and later on in my life, I would write poems in random places and my books.
My experiences inform all of my poetry. Poetry allows me space to speak about issues close to my heart and process my thoughts and feelings about events and incidents.
My poems are very much open letters from my heart. They are bits and pieces of me – fears, joys, sadness, all my moods that I am giving to the world. If you want to know me, simply read my poems, and it will tell you all about me, including my hopes and fears. That’s why sometimes it surprises me when my words resonate with other people – I am like I am not the only heart that bleeds or cries. It also makes it very hard when I put my deepest fears or hopes out there- a part of me is ready for rejection, and I know that rejection will hurt.
I think all artists struggle with this. – we openly invite the world to look into our minds, hearts, and souls and pray they don’t take too much from us.
You shared about losing your mom at a young age? How did that loss inform your identity as a woman, and as a poet? What other women, did you lean on for developing your identity and experience as a woman?
I was nine when my mom passed away, and at that age, I didn’t really understand what that meant. We felt her loss, for sure. I got in trouble at school for skipping and not doing my work – some of it related to her loss and partly because of bullying about my looks. Kids can be cruel, and I thank God that there was no social media back then. It was not the constant bullying of today. I went home to a supportive family and was able to rebuild my defenses. Overall, though I was pretty lucky, I had my family around me, and my dad and I had pretty open communication. However, that took time to grow and occur.
As I got older, though, I started to miss her presence – the idea of a mom in life. I missed having someone who could help me bridge the world of being a Tamil girl in Canada. Sometimes I really missed the concept of a mother. I knew her to be kind, loving, and brave, but I lost her when I didn’t know her as a person yet. One of the things that I really appreciated as I got older (in my 20s) was the stories that people told me of my mom as a woman, a feminist, a daughter, and a sister.
I was very blessed because I grew up with a lot of great female role models. My aunts (my mom’s brothers’ wives) and her best friends all taught a lot of being a strong woman. I also had a pretty amazing older sister who stepped in to fill some of the loss.
We forget that the women in our lives play so many roles, and are a unique composite of so many different identities. Losing my mom at a young age, I not only lost my mom and the ability to know her as a woman.
In 2016, you wrote a poem a day – completing 368 poems in a year! You are also a Senior Program Advisor at the Ministry of Health and Long Term Care, a thought leader, a ghost writer, and a content creator. How did you manage your time to do that? How do you incorporate self care into your life? What advice do you have for people who are struggling to find the time to explore their passions.
A lot of sleepless nights. I am not always the best at time management; however, I try to take a couple of hours to write or do some fun writing. Writing is my way of dealing with stress. When I have a lot on my plate, I will try to take a second and write down my thought. I try to make time for all the different things I am doing. Truth be told, they are things I enjoy and teach me different things that help me improve my writing. I wish I could say I am always on the ball, but somethings drop because I can get overwhelmed. For example, I don’t post as consistently as I should on Instagram.
Ghostwriting and content creation are side hustles, so I am responsible to my clients to deliver the products on time. At the same time, I will identify 2 or 3 personal writing or passions related goals for the year, so that do not let the things I want to do get lost. This year it is to put together a manuscript of poems for submission to publishers and apply for opportunities to have my own work published. Last year, I did a 2-month mentorship program with Toronto Writer’s Collective to further develop my skills.
Goal tracking is an important part of how I keep myself accountable and on track. I also Bullet journal (Bujo) and keep track of my goals and activities through Bullet journaling. Bujos are a fun and creative way that I utilize to stay on track. I have a 2-page spread in the book, where I track my progress monthly. I do a touch base with my goals and where I am at that month and how it feeds into my overall yearly goals.
My advice would be to try to set some time aside as a form of self- care. I think it is important to prioritize your mental and physical health through these times. You can start by setting aside 10 -15 mins a day – first thing in the morning or late at night to just do something you love. I find when I dedicate some time to my passion, my entire day feels better. I try to write morning pages – the practice of writing 3-pages in the morning no matter what. Sometimes I paint with watercolor for fun. I also practice self-care through organization/planning- lol. Planning my week and what I have planned and want to achieve is a fun exercise for me. Since I set it up every week, my bujo makes me get creative with script, stickers, and art. I like checklists, and ticking things off makes me feel accomplished.
You have shared some very vulnerable things – dealing with depression, loss, grief, trauma, etc. You have credited poetry to saving your sanity. Can you share a bit more about that experience, and any tips or advice you have for other women who are struggling?
I think it is important to recognize that it is not always an upward path. You can do great for a while, slide back, and go up again. The thing is to be kind and compassionate with yourself. It is okay to have down days, and cry – we need those days. They let us work out the negative in our lives.
It is also okay to ask for help. My friends knew I was having a hard time, and when Sandra suggested a poem a day, it was to get me out of the funk I was in. If you are not comfortable speaking to family or friends, there are great online forums, groups, and even paid counselors who can help as well.
Focus on the good things in your life, and take it day by day. The poem a day challenge gave me a chance to celebrate a small victory every day. Every day I wrote a poem, and I felt a sense of accomplishment. What I didn’t realize was that the time I took for the poetry was moments of self-care. I set aside time to focus on something that let me exercise my creative muscles and focus on myself. I made a promise to myself and my friend, so I was determined not to miss a day. I made sure to set aside to do this. I was setting aside dedicated time to do something I loved. Simply put, it made my heart happy.
I was able to create a positive feeling. It reminded me of how many things I had to offer the world outside of being a “worker.” I was unemployed at this time, and they really affected my sense of success and value. I also started to identify my purpose of sharing my voice and experiences through storytelling.
Lately, I have become a big proponent of meditation. It is not all roses and butterflies, and some days I don’t feel like doing it. However, it helps me centre myself. Especially when I have put out a very vulnerable piece of work, it helps me detach. I am learning how to sit with myself and be at peace with my silence. Meditation is hard work, and I have had days where I have cried during the practice. Meditation can be emotional, physically, spiritually, and mentally. Some days it gives me the answers I need and other days I sit there wondering when my 20 mins are up.
I would only be pretty.
So, keep your pretty words,
Because I am fresh, fierce, and confident.
I am me, and I am beautiful”
Beauty by Manivillie Kanagasabapathy
What does “body positivity” mean to you as an artist and as a woman? Why is it important?
I think the most significant impact on my perception of beauty came from growing up with a disability. I grew up with a hare lip and cleft palate. I remember one of the most hurtful comments was being called “ugly.” The comment made me feel as if there was something abnormal about my looks and face. My family was really supportive, and I thank God that I did not grow up in the era of social media. I got to go home and build my defenses before I went to school again. They did their best to alleviate the way I felt from bullying but Tamil families don’t really discuss this. So, I felt very alone. Even as I felt unpretty, I knew I couldn’t explain it to my family, who were doing their best to take care of me between surgeries. I missed my mom here, I think – I missed having someone who I could talk to about these fears.
My trauma about my looks carried into a large part of adulthood. I had internalized these bullies’ perceptions to a point where I unconsciously accepted that I was not beautiful and would never be. The perception really held me back in taking chances and stepping up in areas of my life. Looking back, it also made me overemphasize the role of beauty or attractiveness in today’s society.
The thing about confronting these traumas is that it is lifelong. Though I am doing the work and most days love the body, skin, and face I have. I generally love the way I look and celebrate my scars. I still feel uncomfortable receiving comments that I am beautiful or pretty. I still have days that I feel like the 9-year-old who didn’t quite feel like a normal-looking person. I still have days when I would trade my “unique look” to look like everyone else.
I am in-process, and I am okay with that. I am learning to forgive myself as I work through my past and issues. When I slide back into these thoughts, I remind myself that my worth is not just how I look. Society makes women feel like our value is concurrent with our beauty. I remind myself of all the positive things I have to contribute and give, the people around me, how I make them feel, and my belief in spirituality.
I believe people are beautiful when they are confident and embrace the things that make us uniquely us. When I write, I feel beautiful and grounded. I remember that beauty is in being you completely.
You often collaborate with other women in your work. You credit your friend Sandra for challenging you to write a poem a day. How has working in collaboration/your relationship with other women informed your work?
Working with other female collaborators pushes me to expand as an artist. Working with women, I know we share a lot of the same experiences and come from similar places. The collaborators I work with share their perspective on something that then makes me question the way I see things. Other collaborators bring different perspectives about issues that make me dig deeper and question my assumptions. I enjoy the process of giving and taking those collaborations allow to occur.
Good friends, especially women, always push me further than I imagined. I think it is important for women to have female friends who are our champions and cheerleaders. Having a strong circle of women around me has helped me grow as a person and an artist. Sandra pushed me to write a poem a day, my sister, Manimolie, and friends (wendy, Sathya, and Thiviyaa) are always pushing me to become a better artist. They don’t let me get away with not giving my 100%.
Women know and understand each other in unique ways. We understand the challenges that other women face, society’s pressures, and all the roles we play. So, when we cheer each other on it’s powerful. I am also over the myth that women are jealous and always competing with each other- that we succeed by dragging other women down. The women I know help each other grow and succeed; they are powerful and strong and make me proud to know them and be a part of their circle.
“The loudest voice,
in the world,
is the sound of your voice asking
a question to a room
of indifferent ears”
– Returning Silence by Manivillie Kanagasabapathy.
Poetry has always had a close relationship with hurt and pain. We are currently living in a world that is aching and a world that is slowly raising voices to indifferent ears. How are you reacting to our current realities?
Writing is something that keeps me sane and helps me adjust to my current realities. I mentioned before that it helps process everything that is going on in the world and my life. What I like about the power of art and creativity is that it connects people in different ways. It allows me to express a perspective that sometimes resonates with other people – and may sometimes resonate later.
Poetry is often described as a snapshot (a polaroid) of emotions at a specific time. So you can resonate with it somedays and not others. I have been using poetry to capture how I feel during these times of quarantine and social movements. Especially during quarantine, I would feel such moments of sadness because of all the things going on. I felt powerless, and poetry allowed me to work through some of those emotions and also question what I could do to change the world in my own way.
Writing allows me a place where I can heal and create hope. Hope is the most beautiful and precious gift, and as long as you have hope, things will always get better.
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Interviewed by Sharon Sajan
Edited by Sharmila Sivasankaran
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