sri lankan american writers on shaping an emerging literary identity #awp2017

A combination of Winter Storm Niko and a resulting spike in chronic pain has left me housebound in New York and unable to make it to my own panel today. However, since fibromyalgic brain fog compels me to draft remarks even for the most informal of speaking engagements, I’d already written an informal talk that I’ve decided to post here, in lieu of contributing in person.

Panel details and my five- to ten-minute remarks (including comments based on a structured question format) are after the jump. For purposes of accessibility, and because of my abiding faith in the power of multimodality, I’ll add an A/V link at the end as well.

My own recent publications pertaining explicitly to Sri Lanka may be found here, and here is a link to an interview conducted by my literary agent for r.kv.r.y magazine that might also speak to the panel theme.

Finally, many thanks to SJ Sindu for coordinating the panel, which I feel is especially timely given Sri Lanka’s history of ethnic strife and the current political climate enveloping a large part of the West.

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the author is in pain.

Written for and performed at Affect Theory Conference: Worldings, Tensions, Futures, “The Author is in Pain” is a project I consider my first foray into performance art scholarship, as part of the conference’s “Wreck the Format” stream. It is the first fully realized expression of my experience in the emergency room a little over a year ago, peppered with experiences in and out of medical and academic institutions. Inspired by scholars and artists including Elaine Scarry, Brian Massumi, Mel Y. Chen, Lisa Blackman, Ann Cvetkovich, Margaret Price, Petra Kuppers, and Leslie Jamison (in addition to being saturated with Foucault), this piece is intended alternately and all at once as a confrontation, an interrogation, a confessional, a demand for accountability, a request for aid in finding new ways of seeing and speaking with regards to invisible pain. It is my hope that this destabilization of typical perception can be extended to other forms of “passing disability,” and that it may serve as my own (if not others’) entry point into the dream of a language more common to us all, one only achievable if we recognize and work towards it together.

I am indebted to my close friend Sara Fuller for serving, sometimes simultaneously, as massage therapist, painter, photographer, and video editor for this project; without her, I wouldn’t have been able to realize this series of provocations as well as I have. I am also grateful to fellow Ph.D. student Fredrika Thelandersson for filming the presentation when it was delivered at the conference in October, which is why you’re able to access it now.

Let it speak for itself.

The transcript, with elements that do not translate to oration or visual performance, can be found here.

post-c&w reflections~

Reasons I love C&W: I can come here brain-dead after qualifying exams, and everyone I talk to has advice to help me better position myself between rhetoric, especially classical rhetoric, and media studies. My presentation ran a little long, about which I was slightly irritated at myself, and it wasn’t my usual posse in the audience–rather, people who may have been less familiar with 4chan and hence less understanding of the in-jokes—but the few comments I did receive were phenomenal. Someone told me he felt that he’d witnessed his own life and experience as a 4channer narrated back to him, and if I’m able to tap into the subculture that well, explaining without apologizing, then I feel like I’ve done my job.

I also feel like I have a better sense of the questions to ask, or the responses to give, when I’m asked “why rhetoric?” This may be a question I’ll struggle with for the rest of my studies, and perhaps on the job market depending on what I apply for, but I feel better knowing that I’ve at least found a starting point for thinking about it.

calling a spade a spade.

Lately I’ve been thinking about a horizontal eyebrow piercing. It’s an idle thought. I doubt I’ll ever modify any part of my face. My reasoning has less to do with how it might affect my employment opportunities, however, and more to do with issues like my tendency to develop raised scars, or the number of times I faceplant on my laptop or my bed, which can’t be good for healing. I’ve dealt with some difficult healing processes with the tattoos and piercings I already sport, and right now I’m not willing to modify my sleeping position further.

Talking about body modification may seem like an odd entry point to a discussion of information transparency in academia, but bear with me.I recently attended a conference that, historically, I have loved passionately; it occurs at the end of the academic year and feels like a simultaneous respite and revitalizing force, nonstop intellectual stimulation that is–dare I say it–diverse, poetic, truly interdisciplinary, fun. This conference inspired me to wholeheartedly embrace open access despite what it could do for my employment possibilities. It inspired me to rethink my philosophy about information transparency such that I wouldn’t feel hypocritical about it, and to be at peace with the notion that these choices–like all the choices I’ve made preceding this moment–could potentially affect my chances at tenure-track employment. This initially seemed daunting, but in truth, I never expected to be employable in the traditional sense of the word. I’m a writer. I’ve narrowly avoided being a starving artist, but I embarked on this career path knowing it was a distinct possibility, the point being that I’ve always been willing to sacrifice certain potentials in furtherance of a large goal that I’ve always perceived as fulfilling to self and community. Deciding to post drafts and publish only in open-access journals seems minor in comparison to that first, enormous decision.

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illustration, comics, animation

I haven’t been back to my alma mater since graduating, so presenting at the Illustration, Comics, and Animation conference at Dartmouth was wonderful for many reasons. Comics and animation isn’t my area of expertise, but I love presenting at these conferences, as I always find them enlightening and enjoyable, even if I experience a twinge of regret that I didn’t pursue it as a career. Geeking out about comics over drinks, and realizing I’m not the nerdiest person in the room, never fails to be an amazing feeling.

I presented a paper titled “Mobius double reacharound: The convergence of comics, animation, and gaming in Homestuck,” the online MSPaint webcomic that complicates notions of authorship, participatory culture, readership and ways of reading, and fandom. The Q&A was unexpected but illuminating, as the question I got stuck on concerned why Homestuck was interesting to readers, and (perhaps) why scholars should look at the text. I think I was stumped because I gravitate to difficult texts that ask me to look outside the text and learn, but maybe ultimately it comes down to that: a self-selecting readership that values difficulty and continually ups the ante.

Like Love and Rockets, Homestuck has a sprawling cast of characters, requires an immense time commitment to fully unpack its universe; it’s different, maybe, in that it requires readers to engage with or at least be aware of the values and quirks of other subcultures, particularly gaming and general Internet culture. Admittedly, I lost interest at the end of Act 5 when new characters are introduced, but I’m always like that—I had trouble making the shift from The Golden Compass to The Subtle Knife because I harbored resentment toward Will for displacing Lyra, and I had a hard time wading through Season 2 of The Wire (my all-time favorite TV show) because of the shifted focus on different characters. But I also know once I get over myself, I can continue reading because I appreciate being tacitly asked to be a smart reader and figure things out for myself if I’m unfamiliar with the material, be it ways of reading, memes, or other pop culture references I don’t immediately recognize.

digital graffiti for the lulz

Bedridden as I’ve been with pain, I’m stuck with a view of my cluttered room to my right and apartment buildings directly in front and to the right. The buildings to the right, however, have been augmented with graffiti. Most of it is written in white spray paint: initials, names, the bubble- and jagged-letter signatures of writers who somehow managed to reach these heights or write upside down. The building owners probably think of it as an eyesore, but I think it’s a gorgeous way. The writing, the positioning, and the size and style reveal aesthetic and political choices. Why these buildings? Why these locations? Why predominantly names?

Is it enough of an answer to say that my neighborhood has been a prime location for gentrification? That young people actively resent the closing of local mom-and-pop shops and what they perceive as the irrevocable alteration of quintessential Harlem? That the chosen placement of the tags heightens their visibility?

tl;dr, ITT I attempt to forge my scattered brain cells into a single unit capable of cogent thought, thereby relate graffiti and graffiti-writing practices as a metaphor for online defacement, and consider the ramifications of such an analogy.

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i’ve become a c&w groupie

I presented a paper titled “I think writing is a pretty cool guy. eh makes meaning and doesnt afraid of anything” at my first-ever Computers & Writing. My presentation was about the role of accidental grammatical errors in the selection of memes and evolution of 4chan’s dialect, and the purpose of memes perpetuating grammar mistakes.

I’ve had good conference experiences in the past, but Computers & Writing blew them all out of the water. Granted I’m easily starstruck, but this conference facilitated professional relationships, and everyone was so accepting, welcoming, and critiques occurred with warmth. I met Gail Hawisher. Cynthia Selfe(!) asked me about my research (and remembered it and me later on). I wasn’t brave enough to talk to Katherine Hayles but I did get into a debate with Tim Wu in a Q&A session and while I might have later psyched myself out, nothing about these “greats” was intimidating at all. I’ve made so many IRL and Twitter friends here, and exchanged research and advice with so many people with backgrounds as diverse as mine, if not more so. In short: this conference is love.

Also, Dan Anderson (@iamdan) is my new idol. Some day I’m going to create the way he does, because when I see his work, I can’t help but be moved with regards to pedagogy and my own personal way of being in the world.

All of which is to say that C&W has become my new home-base conference, and I will strive to present at it every year.

new narrative iv

I co-authored and co-presented ““We are Sri Lankan civilians plz save our life”: Photography and the spectacle of Sri Lanka’s civil war” with my sister, Anjali Manivannan, a human rights activist pursuing a law degree at NYU, on war photography, spectacle, and the Sri Lankan civil war. I handled the material on photography while she addressed the legal perspective. I was exhausted and unwell for most of the conference, but our presentation was solid, and our Q&A was marked by big questions about journalism, ethics, and the politics of the image in the context of mediating stories that, because they are so awful, may discourage even the very act of looking.

If you’re interested in the human rights law perspective, you can follow my sister at @Anji_Manivannan (JD as of 2014!).