From teacher to author, Saras Manickam’s journey from Teluk Intan to prize-winning storyteller

Saras Manickam has been named the regional winner of Asia for the 2019 Commonwealth Short Story Prize for her story ‘My Mother Pattu’. — Picture by Navin
Saras Manickam has been named the regional winner of Asia for the 2019 Commonwealth Short Story Prize for her story ‘My Mother Pattu’. — Picture by Navin

KUALA LUMPUR, May 12 — From her childhood days in Perak to being internationally recognised for her literary talent, it seems that freelance writer, language and creative writing teacher Saras Manickam has come into her own.

On Thursday, she was named as the regional winner of Asia for the 2019 Commonwealth Short Story Prize for her story My Mother Pattu.

But the former school teacher was all shy in her email interview with Malay Mail following her amazing win, after being shortlisted in April, alongside Lokman Hakim who wrote Pengap in Bahasa Malaysia, which was translated into English by Adriana Nordin Manan.

“You cannot seriously expect me to tell you my age – the Malay Mail is national media for heaven’s sake,” she responded playfully when asked for some personal details about herself.

She resisted revealing her age, but disclosed that she was born and spent her early years in Teluk Intan, a small town in Perak famous for having its own leaning tower.

Saras later left Perak for the national capital of Kuala Lumpur to read English at the University of Malaya, and received her Diploma and Masters in Education there as well.

She was a school teacher for some years, before going on to teach in teacher-training colleges.

“When I resigned from the government service, I became a freelance copywriter, language teacher and in the past few years, began to teach creative writing as well,” she said.

Over the years, her writing contributed to a number of school workbooks. She was a co-author for three English language textbooks for schools.

Saras said being shortlisted for the prize in April was both “amazing and scary”.

“It is brilliant that Lokman, Adriana and I were shortlisted, as it is the first time ever that Malaysians got onto the shortlist,” she said.

The scary part, she said, was due to the expectations upon her as a writer being raised several notches.

It soon became clear that My Mother Pattu was a work long in the making, despite it being a short story.

“I have been pottering with this story for ages, writing, rewriting, changing situations, even the title, dialogues, etc.

“I did submit an entry for this contest some years ago, but nothing came of it. This was my second time,” Saras said.

Taking place in Malaysia during the mid-1960s, My Mother Pattu is the tale of a woman’s violent jealousy and envy of her own daughter, who learns none can protect her from the abuse except herself, with an unexpected twist at the end of the story.

Saras described the eponymous character as a complicated one, who was loving to some but hateful to others.

“She was beautiful and fascinating and generous, and yet could be mean and horrid. I wanted to write to acknowledge her as a person, faults and all, without apology, excuses,” she said.

However, she said the story is not based on her personal life.

In many respects the story can be said to be a feminist one, where Malaysian girls and women of the period endured the unfairness thrust upon their gender, as well as society’s double-standard expectations of them. This is something the author seems to have reflected upon at length.

“Patriarchy rules even now, does it not? Women have to be willing to make their own decisions and stand by them,” Saras said.

Aside from this, My Mother Pattu also shows how the past clashes with the present in traditional families. Although it is told from the perspective of a Indian Malaysian family, Saras insisted it is not race specific but cuts across the board.

“Many parents do want to mould their children into whatever appears to be the right or proper choice.

“We also see young people breaking out of the mould, making their own choices, taking their own chances,” she said, adding she felt this to be an important factor.

Back to herself, Saras said she believes creative writing should be taught across the board in all colleges.

“It should be taught in all disciplines because it is such an essential avenue for self-discovery and self-expression and dare I say it, for understanding and healing.

“I have seen this all the time in my classes. While the students may not become writers per se, they become more aware of themselves and what happens to them,” she said.

In turn Saas said a light bulb of sorts suddenly gets switched on, and the students learn the courage to tell their stories. And that surely cannot be a bad thing.

My Mother Pattu, along with the other regional winners’ stories, will be published online in the run-up to the announcement of the overall winner by the literary magazine Granta.

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