Author Mariam Henna talks about shaping the novella with vignettes from her life, being a publisher, and more.

Mariam in a blue and white cotton Sari sits on a red couch indoors and smiles, her hair is let looseMariam Henna
Features Books Tuesday, January 24, 2023 - 19:58

Through the 116 pages of The Heart Flutters at Night, a novella from 2022, you’d want to stretch your hand out and caress Sarah ever so gently. Her name appears in the very first page, when she is 'caught' by a grief that comes unannounced. Mariam Henna, the author, plants Sarah unobtrusively into the picture, a frail figure passing from place to place without noise, almost transparently between her many worlds—from the unhappy childhood in Kerala to the unsettling adulthood she negotiates with. In the present, she is in Mallikad, a town shaped out of Manipal where Mariam spent two years as a student. It is there that the manuscript of this literary novella took form.

“It was when I was living in Manipal and pursuing my postgraduate studies in literature at the Manipal Centre for Humanities that I got the opportunity to work on a creative dissertation. A major part of the manuscript emerged during those four months of research and writing. I have also been lucky and privileged to have expert guidance from my mentor and a supportive community during the writing process. The Heart Flutters at Night is my debut book and it has its roots in Manipal (a vibrant campus town that has been home to me for a short period of my life), from where it all began,” Mariam says in an interview given to TNM.

When the memories of Sarah’s childhood slip out with such visual clarity, you tend to look for traces of her in the author. Sarah does not speak much, but in the few vividly described scenes of the past, you feel the helplessness with which a young child watched her grandmother and mother go through abusive marriages, and the pain with which she endured abuse on her own. Without explicit mentions, you understand how Sarah grew up in an orthodox Muslim family in Kerala, how it was too late for her grandmother to escape the system, but not for her mother, who walked out of the abuse with her two children.

“Before publication, I used to worry whether my friends and family would see this book as autobiographical. I remember sharing these concerns with my mentor and her thoughts have stayed with me since—that writing fiction is ‘as much about writing the familiar’,” Mariam says.

It was not her intention to have Sarah come out as a version of herself, she says. “But I will say this—writing (for me) is an act of utmost honesty, where I can voice and express fearlessly and passionately. It not only makes me feel and reflect, but also gives me the space to untangle and understand myself a little better. Don't we all leave bits and pieces of ourselves into any art that we create?” she asks.

In some ways, this is a comforting thought. When you let life spill into your craft, you get to see anew the good people who’d lent a hand and gave you that little push when you needed it. Sarah’s Gracie Miss has got to be real, coming to her life for just a year, but long enough to push her to writing, a place she finds solace in. For Mariam, writing the story in vignettes, letting the words flow into one another and piecing together a literary fiction helped.

“As the plot moved forward and as the character slowly revealed herself to me, fragment by fragment, I realised I could only write her story through these vignettes,” Mariam says.

Sarah is barely there in conversations, as she meets and makes new acquaintances in Gemvilla, that enviably free house that lets out rooms to young people and lets them live their lives without questions. As Shivprasad, Matthew, Ayesha, Pruthvi, and Adithya float into her life and speak to her, you hear her replies only in their responses. Not in her own words. Somehow, it suits the character you have come to know by then, and you accept it as something most natural, the way you take the camera’s place in films that let you. Sarah is letting you take her place, hear the words that are spoken to her, and form your own impressions and responses.

This was one of the most challenging and experimental aspects of the writing, Mariam says. “One of the details that revealed itself to me early on in the writing was the helplessness Sarah felt in not having any agency or a voice. By eliminating her dialogues, the idea was to position the reader inside Sarah's head (or mind) and have them see the world through her eyes and experience her emotions and her inner world without judgement.”

It works too. Even the vignettes of her past flow out without you ever hearing Sarah’s protests. When she is rebuked as a teenager for wearing shorts in the house and not covering her head like her cousins, you know the colour of her face has changed and humiliation has surged inside of her. When as a six year old she watched her mother get beaten by a drunk father, as a young girl molested on the road by an autorickshaw driver, or as an adolescent sexually harassed by an uncle in the dark of the night, you imagine Sarah’s pale face and hundred fears. The young woman of the present seems hardened by all of that, numb to suffering.

“Those vignettes (of the past) were the hardest to write emotionally, because I could feel the weight of powerlessness that they—Sarah, her mother and grandmother—were experiencing. The broader idea was to show the many manifestations of generational trauma. Why does Sarah behave and act the way that she does? How do childhood experiences trickle into one's exploration of the self during adulthood? What is the shape that grief and loss leave within us?  The hope is for a compassionate, empathetic, and kinder world,” Mariam says.

When she finished writing Sarah’s story, Mariam tried to find a publisher. Until the book ended up in a publishing house she founded with her partner, during the pandemic. They called it Magic Mongrel, and within the first year, published Gayathri Prabhu’s prose poetry, Love in Seven Easy Steps

Read: ‘Falling in love is often easier than claiming it’: Author Gayathri Prabhu intv

Even though, like every book lover, she felt dismayed by the closure of bookstores and/or publishers (like Westland), as a publisher, Mariam found joy in the efforts of individuals and communities to keep the literary culture alive. “All of this feels worthwhile because I have known a deep joy in the writing and making of books,” she says.

Also read: How the Brown identity in South Asian diaspora masks caste realities

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