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27th September 1998

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Afdhel Aziz speaks to M.A.Mohanraj a Sri Lankan living in the USA who writes erotica on the web

Ooh, that's a long...long list

While the likes of Ondaatje, Gunasekera and Selvadurai are all well and good, it's always nice to find fresh new Sri Lankan writing out there - as rare as it seems. So I was pleasantly surprised when someone sent me the website address of a Sri Lankan writer called Mary Anne Mohanraj - self-confessed writer of erotica and other literary genres, free speech activist and on-line publisher. Striking up a conversation with Mary Anne over e-mail, she turned out to be witty, articulate and open - and agreed to do an interview via email about her work and life. But who is she ?

A brief bio might be in order then, before we go on to our email conversation.

Mary Anne Mohanraj is the author of 'Torn Shapes of Desire'. Other stories of hers will be appearing soon in Herotica 6 and Best American Erotica: 1999. Her newest project is editing an erotic webzine, Clean Sheets.

She moderates the Internet Erotica Writers' Workshop, co-moderates a newsgroup, and is a graduate of the Clarion West 1997 Speculative Fiction Workshop.

She has received degrees in English and Writing from Mills College and the University of Chicago. She was born in Sri Lanka in 1971 and grew up in New Britain , Connecticut, USA.

Now, there's been a lot of controversy about sex and the Internet. My own personal view is that if you're old enough (ie. over 18) , what you choose to look for on the Net is your own business. But if you are the kind of person offended by this kind of thing , then read no further. If you feel that you're open minded enough to join the debate, then read on, gentle reader. But consider yourself warned.

When did you leave Sri Lanka and settle in the US?

Mohanraj: My parents came here when I was two years old; we lived in New Jersey for a year and then moved to Connecticut, where they still live. I've bounced all over since there Chicago for college, Philadelphia for a few years and now Oakland, California.

In some ways, I wish we'd come a few years later than we did (we came in '73) they tell me that I was reasonably fluent in Tamil back then (for a two-year-old, at any rate), but I promptly forgot almost all of it. I still understand my parents when they speak it, and I can count to ten in Tamil, but that's about it, which is a shame. I tried to learn it once when I was a young teen, but it's a lot harder than the Spanish I was studying in school!

Why did you purposely pick a masculine sounding pseudonym to write under?

Interesting question I don't think M.A. Mohanraj is masculine-sounding. Gender neutral, don't you think? It's just initials, after all... And it's hardly a pseudonym, since Mohanraj is my real name. I chose to use the initials because I did want to blur the gender lines. Among other things, people often didn't believe I was female when I first started posting to the net they just assumed that no woman would be writing about sex. So I think part of my reasoning was that I'd sort of sneak up on them I'd let them assume that I was male, since they seemed to want to anyway, get them hooked on my stories, and then make it clear that I was female. And for those who weren't assuming well, for them, I suppose I thought the gender of the author shouldn't be that relevant in any case.

In your mind, what's the crucial difference between erotica and pornography ?

In my mind, there isn't much difference. Oh, there's a writerly difference, in that porn usually doesn't bother with complex characterization or interesting style but there's good porn, just as there's bad erotica, and if I had to pick between those two, I'd rather read the good porn. I think those distinctions are largely arbitrary, and are often created simply as a way of justifying censorship (people get to say, "Well, let's ban the nasty bad evil porn, and keep the good, clean, wholesome erotica, the stuff *I* like...). The distinction often seems very hypocritical.

So you have no objections to being called a porn writer/pornographer?

Well, it's misleading, since most people do consider porn to be a different category than the kind of stories I write (which are really barely erotica at all they're more literary stories which deal with aspects of sexuality).

If I advertised myself as a pornographer, a lot of people who came to my pages expecting hard-core repetitive sex scenes would be disappointed. I think it's generally better to be as clear as possible.

So in the big debate over internet, porn - is literary better than the 'tacky' visual stuff ? Or is that again a matter of hypocrisy ?

Well, tacky doesn't usually do much for me, whether it's written or visual. I just like to see things done well whether it's Playboy-style cheesecake shots, or literary-style erotic fiction.

It's partly the audience's fault that there is so much badly done material out there many of the big companies are pandering to lowest common denominator. So if you're willing to settle for mass-market schlock, that's what you'll get. And if you demand better quality (and pay for it), then the producers and publishers will give you that.

What do you think about other Sri Lankan writers out there ?

I haven't read as many as I'd like (my reading list is *so* long), but I'm very impressed by Gunasekera's work.

I really enjoyed Monkfish Moon. I'd love to see more Sri Lankan women writing, more work coming out like that of Indian writers such as Mukherjee and Roy and Divakaruni.

How has your book done ?

Probably as well as can be expected for a small-press book with no advertising budget. We still have some copies left of the initial print run, but hopefully not for much longer. I'm just glad I didn't have to publish it myself!

Do you expect to release the book in Sri Lanka ? What do you think the reception will be ?

It's certainly available in Sri Lanka, through online bookstores.It wouldn't make financial sense for a small press to try to market the book in Asia, though we'd certainly be interested if a publisher there wanted to purchase foreign rights (and maybe translate it into Tamil?) I'm afraid I don't know what the reception is likely to be like over a broad sampling of the public; the Sri Lankans who have found my work on line have been generally positive, but they're somewhat self-selecting.

Who are your literary influences ?

Ooh, that's a long answer. Maybe best if I separate it into categories, yes? Poet who started me writing Anne Sexton, with her Transformations series. Early reading lots of science fiction, especially Asimov, Bradbury and Clarke (the latter wrote beautiful books about Sri Lanka, interestingly enough). Favourite fantasist Guy Gavriel Kay, a British author whose Fionavar trilogy still makes me cry, even on the tenth rereading, and whose novel, Tigana, is one of the best fantasies ever, in my opinion.

Favorite modern novelist ooh, that's tough. Probably Faulkner, if I absolutely had to pick someone (The Sound and the Fury was amazing), but I'd also want to add in Pynchon and Kingsolver and Erdrich and a little Hemingway. Favorite up-and-comer is perhaps Ginu Kamani, who I was lucky enough to work a little with in grad school and whose story, "Waxing the Thing", is hilarious. Gosh, I could go on and on (I haven't even mentioned de Lint or LeGuin or the tremendous Samuel R. Delany yet), so I'd better just stop. I read a lot, in case you hadn't noticed.

What are the benefits of publishing on the web ?

Well, it's free. Probably the biggest benefit for me has been the amount of feedback I've gotten support from readers all over the globe, from Antarctica to the Middle East to Sri Lanka. And from readers of a wide age range, and many different backgrounds and social classes. I don't think I would still be writing if it weren't for their comments and criticism and support writing can be such a lonely profession, and it's that interaction with the reader that keeps me going at times. As well, from a business point of view, it's given my work a much wider exposure than it probably would have received otherwise (at least this early in my writing career), which has been a very good thing in terms of reviews and contacts with editors and publishers.

How do people react to your site ?

Tremendously favourably. I think people really appreciate a site that is packed full of content, of many different forms. I've also tried hard to give people a sense of who I really am, through the journal and the rest of the material I've selected for the site, and I think they appreciate that. A reader recently told me that I was "too real for the web", which I think reflects how flimsy and fragile the web seems to many people. Too many websites are just thin strands connecting rather ephemeral places I tried to make my site a little more solid than that, the sort of place where you can settle down for a while and get comfortable.

Who are all those 'scammers' you talk about all the time ?

I'm not sure what you're asking. A 'scammer' is a person, usually a man, who hits on women, generally fairly randomly and persistently.

There are quite a few of them on the net, and if you ask pretty much any woman who spends much time on-line, she'll probably have encountered some of them, and have some complaints. It's annoying to have to deal with; it wastes time and energy. If a man wants to meet women on-line for romance, it makes a lot more sense to go to the forums designated for such purposes, such as the newsgroups and alt.personals.

What are your online and offline plans for the future ?

Well, the most exciting online plan involves my new webzine, Clean Sheets. It's planned to debut in October, and along with some other people, I hope to offer an intelligent, solid magazine full of erotic fiction, poetry, articles, artwork and more. Working on that is taking up tons of my time, and I'm really enjoying it I think this could be a great magazine. Offline, I'm currently about to start a tech writing job we'll see how that goes. I'm also considering teaching at the college level, either this year or next. And of course, there are a couple of book-length projects in the work (a fantasy novel and a collection of essays) there's always more writing to be done!

What's with the quote on your email signature ?("Times are bad. Children no longer obey their parents, and everyone is writing a book - Cicero")

Heh. I ran across that at one point, and it seemed so appropriate that I couldn't resist it.

For one, I love the implied equation between children not obeying their parents and lots of people writing books that they're both bad things, and of equal weight. I do think there's a proliferation of rather bad books out there right now. And since my parents aren't tremendously happy with what I do, it has a particular personal resonance as well... Basically, though, I think it's funny.

How has your family reacted to your choice of career ? Would they rather you weren't doing this interview ?

My family would much rather I were doing something else

I write porn for a living...

I write porn for a living.
I am not talking about erotica.
I am not talking about literature. Oh, I write that too, the serious stuff the literary stuff, the stuff I can't show my mother, but I can take to class, the stuff, sex stuff, that I can put on the net that I can sign my name to that I can be political with that I can try to change the world with try to get people talking
about sex_ All right, it's not easy. It bothers some people and shocks others and my mother now has something she can hold over me until the day I die look what you're doing to your father! But I have literature on my side.
I have a book in respectable bookstores
I have a reading at B. Dalton
I have an ISBN number
I have this book in the Library of Congress and so I can tell you with confidence that this is serious literature
and the ACLU
and the feminists
and the lesbians
and the whole left-wing is pretty much on my side. That is a formidable army. The porn is another story. Let me tell you about the porn. I write it for Puritan, for Sizzle, for Red Light. I'd write for Penthouse if they'd buy it; I might even write it for Hustler. The porn is not about sex and character. The porn is not about sex and stylistic variation. The porn is not about literary explorations of sexuality. The porn is just about sex. The porn is just sex.

-Excerpts from 'Confessions of a 26 year old Female Porn Writer,' Mary Anne Mohanraj

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