Just thinking about Mary Anne Mohanraj makes me tired (in a wildly impressed way). Is there anything this woman doesn’t do? She’s a writer, editor, founder of online magazines with works in erotica, literary fiction, speculative fiction, poetry, and even recipes. She’s an academic. She’s doing all this while juggling several long-time partners, a new baby, a blog, and (from the pictures she posts) a gorgeous home where she frequently entertains, serving mouthwatering dishes to her guests. She has one of the longest continually running blogs on the ‘net. She’s an artist. She…
Oh, the hell with it! I’ll just introduce her and let you meet this amazing woman yourselves.
How socially acceptable is it to be poly in the environment in which you live and work (i.e., academia)? Does it have real definition in people’s minds yet or is it still just treated as swinging?
I wish I could answer that question, but the truth is, I don’t think most academics we deal with on a daily basis realize that we’re poly. That’s mostly due to the nature of our current poly status; Kevin isn’t involved with anyone else right now, and my other sweetie, Jed, lives in California, so I only see him a few times a year. As a result, the subject just doesn’t come up very often. It feels weird, to be “passing” for monogamous—but it also feels weird to pass for straight (I’m bi), or for married (we’re not). Especially now that Kevin and I have a child, most people we meet assume that we’re straight, monogamous, and married, even though we don’t wear rings.
I’m still trying to figure out the best way to deal with that socially—it feels rude to be constantly correcting people. “So, will your husband be joining us for dinner? Does he like Chinese?” “Actually, it’s partner, not husband. We’ve chosen not to marry. And we’re not monogamous; we date other people. Sometimes boys, sometimes girls. And yes, he loves Chinese food.” See? It feels rude, not to mention awkward.
What usually happens is that eventually we get to know people better, and the poly/bi/married stuff comes up, sometimes six months or a year after we’ve first met. Academics seem usually more accepting than the general population of “alternative’” practices, and certainly there are plenty of bi and unmarried-in-long-term-relationships academics. (Maybe especially in the fields we’re in, creative writing and mathematics, ‘cause writers have license to be bohemian and artsy, and mathematicians are expected to be a bit weird.) No one’s ever given us any grief, but sometimes the poly conversation does completely derail the rest of the dinner party conversation, and it can turn into a little mini-lecture on Poly 101.
I don’t think most folks are familiar with the term “poly,” but I think they also don’t know much about “swinging,” so it’s not as if they automatically assume poly = swinging. They just want to know all the details of how we manage it, who gets jealous (or doesn’t), where does everyone sleep, etc. The usual thing.
On a similar note, how does the academic community handle your relatively “out” presence not just as a poly/queer woman, but as an erotica writer and a writer and editor of speculative fiction (which isn’t always considered “literary”)? Is there any conflict, or is your not entirely fitting the stereotypical academic profile part of the attraction?
There was a tiny issue when I was teaching in Utah—the department got a nasty letter from the parent of one of the student, “outing” me as a smut writer and demanding that they fire me. They called me in, but just to tell me about it, and to reassure me that they of course supported my academic freedom to write and say whatever I wanted. They did ask that I be sure to keep the material in the composition classes I was teaching appropriate to the course, which seems totally reasonable to me. Especially given what a religious environment Salt Lake City is (there was a notable case while I was there of a drama student who refused to perform various monologues because they involved speaking obscenities; she won that battle with the department on the grounds of religious freedom), I think my department did a great job of standing behind me.
Aside from Utah, I’ve never had any issues at all with the erotica or other sexually explicit material. Some of my students were a little shocked by some of the things I asked them to read for class, but some students are just easily shocked. They pretty much all got over it, once I explained my reasons for having them read sexually explicit material. (Again, in Utah, some of the students didn’t want to watch Pretty Woman for the Cinderella segment of the class—we found an edited version that their church permitted them to use, which seems a reasonable workaround.)
The speculative fiction is handled a little differently—it’s true that in some of my departments, some of the faculty more focused on traditional “literary fiction” had a bit of trouble with the spec fic at first. But it’s pretty easy to make the case for well-written spec fic vs. badly-written schlock, so as long as I’m focusing my courses on that end of the spectrum (LeGuin, Delany, Chabon, Link, etc.), everyone’s happy. And of course, there’s a whole branch of academic now that focuses on pop culture, and they don’t care at all about whether something’s “literary” or not. As long as it’s important in popular culture, it’s fair game. That’s not the area I focus on, but it’s becoming a pretty respectable field. If you want to write books talking about Spike vs. Angel in Buffy, that’s the place for you, and at least some academic departments will welcome you whole-heartedly.
Academic departments are also always looking for courses the students will be excited about, because that keeps your class enrollments up (which makes your department have a bit more weight in the university overall, and justifies more funding sent your way). So there’s definitely a gleam in a department head’s eye when they hear that I write about sex, or teach science fiction. :-)
How would you distinguish between literary and genre erotica, or it is fluid?
I’m not sure I know what you mean by those distinctions. When I use the term “literary,” I usually mean any work that’s striving towards artistic excellence. Well-developed characters, beautiful prose, complex structures, thematic depth—all of those can be elements of strong literary fiction. I’d apply the term “literary” as a modifier to pretty much any genre; i.e., you can have:
- • literary erotica (Anaïs Nin, The Story of O, Nicholson Baker, Pat Califia, hopefully my writing :-)
- • literary science fiction (Samuel Delany, Thomas Pynchon, Iain Banks...)
- • literary fantasy (Kelly Link, Ursula K. LeGuin, Michael Chabon...)
- • literary romance (almost anything by Jane Austen...)
- • literary westerns (Ledoyt...)
- • literary comic books (Sandman, Persepolis, Watchmen, Castle Waiting...)
- • literary mainstream (I imagine you can fill this one in)
- • literary horror (I don’t read or watch horror, because it gives me nightmares, but I hear Stephen King is a great writer...)
We often hear about writers who “move on” from erotica, or use erotica as a stepping stone to “better” things. Do you feel like this? Would you say you’ve left genre erotica behind? What about literary erotica—is that different from your literary fiction? Do you wish you could do both?
I worked primarily in erotica for about seven years, I think? I don’t think turning to mainstream immigrant fiction was a shift in literary quality—I was always trying, when I wrote erotica, to write as beautiful and artistically as I could. It’s a bit embarrassing to look at some of my early efforts, but that’s not because it’s erotica—just because I was such a beginning writer, and I knew almost nothing. I wrote erotica because I was deeply interested in sexuality and the human heart, in the interactions both between people, and between people in relationships and a wider society.
Around the time I turned thirty, I started being more interested in race and ethnicity, and specifically, the interactions between sexuality and ethnicity in a cultural framework. So that’s what I started writing about. But even with Bodies in Motion, my most recent and “literary” book, there’s still a strong focus on sexuality throughout the book, in almost every story. One of the stories, “Seven Cups of Water,” was first published as erotica, in Aqua Erotica, and then republished in Bodies in Motion as mainstream fiction. I didn’t change the story at all—only the marketing and audience changed.
Tell us what that transition to more literary fiction has been like. Do you feel as though you’ve carried your erotica writing experiences with you? How does it inform your present work?
For me, learning to be a better writer has been all about adding layers to my writing. At first, I focused on the sexual and romantic layers. Then I added ethnicity and race, with arranged marriage issues, interracial dating, desires to connect with one’s cultural heritage, etc. I started exploring generational issues, the way parents (and grandparents) and their grown children interact around sexual and other issues. The desire to have children of one’s own. And now, I’m starting to become more and more interested in the broader political landscape, in national identity, in war, and the way all of those issues intersect. I carry everything I’ve written about before with me—it just gets deeper and hopefully richer as I go.
Another way to think about it is that when I was writing pure erotica, it was a narrow focus (which perhaps allows for a certain depth)—as I continue as a writer, my focus has been growing broader and broader. The struggle is to try to maintain as much sharpness and depth as possible, on a wider playing field.
How does you feel that your readership perceives you having done both?
I’m not sure any writer can answer that question—you tell me! How’d I do?
Although I do admit to being a little sad that some of my erotica readers haven’t followed me to the immigrant fiction, thinking perhaps that because it has a South Asian focus that they won’t be able to relate to it. I’d like them to trust that if they liked my erotica, there’s a good chance they’ll like what I’m doing now. But I suppose that if they were mostly interested in the arousing aspect of the erotica, that it’s true they won’t find nearly as much of that focus in the mainstream fiction. It’s there, but it’s not the focus anymore.
You’ve also written a cookbook of Sri Lankan recipes. What role does food play in your fiction? Can you address food and cooking as “identity”? And how about the intersections of food, sex, and culture?
My characters tend to be a little obsessed with food, I think, maybe because I love it so. But truly, you’ll see a lot of food in most immigrant fiction, and I think understandably so. For many immigrants and their children, food is such a primary sensory connection to the homeland. The tastes (and scents) that you miss (the curry leaves that for years, my mother couldn’t buy in America, the exact blend of spices she used in her sauces, the coconut-milk hoppers that she couldn’t make, because they required a particular small hemispherical pan) become icons of home—and when you do finally taste them again, after perhaps years away, they explode on your tongue, a sensory overload that connects directly to your heart. Food is one of the primal needs—right up there with sex in its importance to our most primitive and powerful selves. What I don’t understand is how any writer can not write about food!
Let’s make a brief turn down the editing road. You were the founder of not one but two online magazines: Clean Sheets, which publishes erotic fiction and nonfiction, and Strange Horizons, which publishes speculative fiction (science fiction, fantasy, etc.). Both are highly respected and still going strong. Do you have different criteria for editing erotica than for editing speculative fiction (beyond the obvious “erotica must have erotic elements and spec fic much have spec fic elements”)?
Actually, yes. The way I usually think about it is that there are really two different types of genre definitions. Erotica and horror are what I’d call genres of mood—they aim to arouse a specific emotional/physical response in the reader. If an erotica story doesn’t arouse you, if a horror story doesn’t horrify you—it’s failed its task. Of course, not every story will work for every reader—we all have different tastes. But as a writer of erotica, my primary goal is to arouse—that comes first. It doesn’t matter how artistic and literary a story is, if it doesn’t arouse someone, it’s not really erotica.
As opposed to that, science fiction and fantasy don’t aim for any particular mood. Oh, maybe a bit of “sense of wonder,” but that doesn’t need to be the primary focus of the story, or even present in every successful speculative fiction story. Most genres aren’t genres of mood, but genres of convention—and I’d include “realistic fiction” as a genre by this definition.
Do you still read erotica (whether genre or literary) for pleasure? If so, can you name some of your favorite authors?
I named some above, although to be honest, I don’t read so much anymore. In part that’s because I’m scrambling to keep up with my other reading—I’m teaching an Asian-American literature class this spring, so I’m trying desperately to get up to speed on East Asian and SE Asian literature at the moment. And I’m working on a few books that focus on nationalism and war, so I’m reading a lot of military memoirs and history texts.
The other part, to be honest, is that since getting pregnant and having a baby, I’ve just been too damn exhausted to be very sexual lately, so the interest in reading about sex isn’t really there at the moment. (Someone asked me what my sexual orientation was recently, and I told them my sexual orientation was “tired.”) Hopefully the sex drive will come back, maybe when Kavya finally starts sleeping through the night!
You had your first child last year—congratulations! You’ve said in your blog that you had a pretty traditional upbringing. What are your thoughts on how you’re going to raise your own daughter and teach her about the world, particularly in the area of sexuality?
Heh. Well, I certainly now understand the desire to lock up your daughter until she’s 21! (Although I’m a lot less worried about sex than my parents were, and a lot more worried about drugs—they seem to have much more potential to actually ruin your life these days, and be much more pervasive in schools than they were when I was a kid.) I hope that Kevin and I will be able to be pretty open and honest with her about sex, including explaining to her why we hope she waits to have full-on sex until she’s old enough and mature enough to deal with any physical, mental, or emotional consequences. Gosh, I sound like a stuffy old parent already, don’t I? :-) She’s probably going to be sneaking out the basement window at fifteen to go meet boys, just like I did…
It’ll be interesting seeing how we handle the poly stuff with her; it’ll probably depend to some extent on what kinds of poly relationships we are or aren’t involved with as time goes on. I think the basic plan is to answer her questions as they come up. Hopefully we’ll have a good long while to think about our answers before she actually starts asking questions!
Mary Anne, thanks for spending the day with us! You’ve given us so much to think about and discuss. For anyone wanting to know more about Mary Anne, you can visit (and lose hours in the process) her her website. Meanwhile, though, let’s all go discuss in the comments!
(Note: Photos of author taken by Suzette Bross.)