All posts by Mary Anne Mohanraj

Cover Cover

Thinking about the semiotics of book covers. Leaving aside the actual design (I had a harder time doing the layout with the sari photo, because of where there was available space, but try to ignore that for now), these two covers send very different messages, I think. It’d make a good exercise for my students:

– who is each cover marketing towards (audience)?
– what are they trying to say?
– which is more appealing, and why?
– which one makes you want to cook?
– don’t forget to consider the cultural elements…

I wish Barthes had done one of his little semiotics essays on book covers…

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Winter blooms

It’s time to plant your paperwhites and amaryllises, if you haven’t yet. Fifteen minutes with some rocks (or soil, if you prefer), and you’ll have flowers in December, January, February, March.

You can find them at big hardware stores, like Home Depot, some big grocery stores, or via mail order. I usually get my paperwhites from White Flower Farm, because I like the Ziva a little better than the ones I find at a hardware store — they tend to give double-blooms on strong stems, and don’t get quite as leggy and floppy.

I succession plant my paperwhites, planting a few more (usually in odd-number clumps, three or five, for a more natural look) every two weeks, so I have blooms all spring. (They do have a strong scent, which I like, but not everyone does.) Paperwhites don’t generally re-bloom. I absolutely adore the tall green shoots and delicate white flowers; a note of freshness in the midst of a long winter. And they mix beautifully with traditional Christmas festive decor, especially when held upright with bright copper stakes.


I also do both South African amaryllis (which blooms in December-January), and Dutch amaryllis (which blooms in February-March). In theory, you can get them to re-bloom year after year if you plant them in soil and follow the right process; this is the first year I’ll be trying that. They usually will need staking too. Glorious on a holiday table; they also make a great gift.

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Local friends, I‘ll be performing here tonight! I’ll be telling three short stories about my life (which I need to finalize today, but at least one will probably be ‘how I ended up writing erotica’), and the comedians will be making fun of me. No, not really, but they’ll be improv-ing based off of my stories, which isn’t anything I’ve ever done before, but sound like it will be fun and funny. I’m trying to remember what people have asked me in ask-me-anythings — ‘how to get an agent’ is a popular one, I think, but I’m not sure how many aspiring writers are likely to be in the audience tonight. Hope to see you there — it’d be great to give them a packed house.

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It is November 8th, which means we have now endured one year since the American presidential election. Most of us (not all) have survived it, but hardly unscathed. If you are thinking that you wish you could do more to make a better world, there are a host of ways you can, and I’m planning to talk about some of them soon. But I wanted to take this moment to encourage anyone interested in running for office, to run, and to point you to the blog where I chronicled my own successful run for local office.

I’ll note that I did have to work pretty hard to win, in terms of doing LOTS of community events in a short time period, which was fun but tiring. But that was mostly because I was sort of starting from scratch — I’d done plenty of community-supporting work in the years before, but it’d been on a global arts stage, rather than a local politics stage.

I knew that I wasn’t ‘known’ in my community, and I’d have to work hard to get my name out there. If you start more traditionally, with serving on local commissions, PTOs, etc., and just attending lots of community events and talking to people there, then you won’t be playing catch-up quite as much when you decide to run. In large part, it’s simply a matter of meeting the voters. Go out, smile, and shake some hands.

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I like traveling. I especially like traveling for work, because it feels like a break and an adventure but still productive, rather than just skiving off on my responsibilities. And I’m quite excited about this Xprize future-of-housing lab I’m going to attend tomorrow. Should be fascinating.

But when the universe puts the flight from Dallas to Boston at the gate *right next* to the flight back to Chicago, I might have had a brief moment of missing my babies terribly and fantasizing about sneaking onto the Chicago flight instead.

Hilariously, I spent several minutes thinking about how I wanted to just go home and help Kavya sort out her clothes, putting away all the summer stuff and making room for winter. This is a chore that she detests, mostly because I make her try a lot of things on to see if they still fit, and I’m honestly not so fond of it either. And yet, it’s what I would be doing if I were home today, and I’d be doing it with her, and I miss her. Also, I want some Anand snuggles.

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My World Fantasy schedule for today:

Gender Fluidity in Fantasy
Friday 10 a.m., ExecSalon 2 (Ardath Mayhar) (WR)

Our genre is in a unique position to illuminate rather than conceal the variations in our sense of gender. The Tiptree Award regularly honors stories and novels that explore and expand the idea of gender — an idea that has had a secret history all its own. What does this look like in fantasy? How are today’s authors using, or mis-using, this keystone concept?


11 – 3: hide in my room and try to write, I think

3 – 4: Clarion West get-together (which goes from 3-5) in room 401


History — Secret, Hidden or Otherwise
3 Nov 2017, Friday 16:00 – 17:00, ExecSalon 2 (Ardath Mayhar) (WR)

Secret history is a tale where what actually happened in our world happened for very different reasons. It can also be a hidden history of events that happened in another culture whose import was ignored altogether, covered up, or simply misunderstood in the main historical narratives. Can a secret history bring to light a true aspect of history that wasn’t known or acknowledged before, or might it be a simple retelling of acknowledged aspects of history newly reclaimed and fully fleshed out to see the real truth behind the chapter in a history book? Does this relate to our concept of “The Other,” and how? Our panelists continue to define terms and tropes for discussion during the convention.


5 – 10: you can probably find me hanging out in the bar most of this time

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Novel Redux

At World Fantasy, you see old friends, and the conversation, over and over, is, “So, what are you working on?” And there’s this weird moment that happens, when I say, “a novel,” and they realize, or I just realize again, that even though I am somewhat known in some corners of this field, I haven’t actually published a novel yet. People are surprised sometimes, when they realize that. And then sometimes I try to explain that it’s not that I didn’t try. I’ve written three novels, all of which failed, for different reasons:

– The Arrangement, which was the mainstream novel I was contracted to with HarperCollins, which got cancelled when the publisher and I realized we wanted completely different books — the novel I’d written was more along the lines of Bodies in Motion, a queer poly novel with the Sri Lankan war intertwined, and the novel they thought they were buying was more chick lit with brown people and cheating. When it was cancelled, I pretty much gave up on writing for a year, and then I had babies, and had no concentration for anything long for a while. That novel is in a drawer somewhere, and I might go back to it at some point, but it’s been 12 years now, and I’d write it very differently now, I suspect. I kind of want a summer to just rewrite the whole thing before sending it out again.

– Rasathi, which was YA portal fantasy, set in a Sri Lankan-ish world; I think I wrote it when Kavi was a toddler? Maybe when Anand was a toddler? It all blurs together a bit now. It was the first book in a proposed trilogy, and I actually did have an editor interested in it, but the market was really slammed right then (right after Hunger Games hit it big), and she said they weren’t really buying trilogies, could I turn it into a two-book thing, and I thought about it, but I had my arc all plotted out, and I just wasn’t happy with the idea of trying to compress it into something different. My agent at the time also wasn’t getting any bites — he was having a hard time even getting editors to look at it, because they were so overwhelmed with YA fantasy submissions right then. I put it away after a bit, but I actually still really like the book, and I’m probably going to go back to it at some point. Contact that agent, ask him if he can get me a list of where he submitted it, see if Russ wants to send it out again. I could do that now, but Russ wants to send out a SF book, and I’m excited about that one, building on The Stars Change, so I think we’re just going to hold the YA fantasy for the moment.

– Flight, which I’m still sort of sad about. I worked hard on that novel for a couple of years, gave it to my agent in fall of 2016, but when he came back to me, he told me all the things he liked about the book, but also told me he thought the plot was irretrievably broken — too artificial, the characters’ motivations for doing the big things unconvincing. And, y’know, I’d sort of suspected that when I gave it to him, but I guess I was hoping he’d tell me I was wrong. I’m hoping to salvage a decent novella out of it at some point, because I do still love the characters, setting, etc. Need at least a couple of months to work on that as well.

So, three failed (or semi-failed) novels so far, and now I’ve headed into another novel. I wrote all this out in part to illustrate how strange and winding this path can be sometimes. But also, I think to say that it’s okay if your first novel doesn’t work. Or your second, or your third. I think I’m getting better with each one, and while I suspect I could find publishers for all of them right now, if I tried, I’d rather focus on writing a new one that is strong, and that reflects who I am right now, everything I’ve learned. That’s the hope, anyway.

It’s funny — with short stories, I’ve always accepted that some of them just won’t work, that I’ll have to put them aside, and that it’s part of the learning process. Maybe it’s sheer laziness that makes it harder for me to do that with novels. I put so much time and effort into them, the failure is a lot harder to take.

But eventually, I work through it, and start the next one. Twelve years so far, trying to write a good novel.

Fourth time’s the charm? We’ll see.

23, 946. Some of those words are notes, but that’s where the novel stands right now. I’m not explicitly doing NaNoWriMo, but hoping to borrow a little of that good novel-writing energy swirling around the internet to finish a draft this month. A novel draft is around 80,000 words, give or take 20K. I’m guessing this one will be on the longer side. Let’s see where it goes.

Oh, and one last note, for those on Facebook — I have a public group now, which you’re all welcome to. Mostly writing-and-other-project-focused. Feel free to share your own writing / reading notes and thoughts! Someone has already started posting anthology calls there, which is great. I’ll be curating it to keep it a pleasant space. I’m thinking of it as sort of like my post-convention living room.

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Wednesday Journal article on the Breast Cancer exhibit

“One breast cancer survivor has a cast in the show and also made her own artistic contribution. Mary Anne Mohanraj is an English professor at the University of Illinois Chicago, an author and a new Oak Park Public Library trustee. In February 2015, she was diagnosed by mammogram at age 43 with Stage 2 breast cancer. Although her prognosis was good, she underwent five months of chemotherapy, a lumpectomy, radiation and an additional year of follow-up infusions. During treatment, she missed little work, but ongoing fatigue from treatment negatively affected her early elementary school-age children and her writing.

“If you focus on what you lost, it’s not so helpful,” she said. “I do better when I’m communicating about it, especially to people who are going through it.”

Pressed leaves and flowers, plus lines of her poetry (“Thunderstorms, yes, the drops hammer against the windshield …”) peek through on a blue background covering her cast.

“I wrote poems during treatment, and gardening was a solace,” Mohanraj continued. “The exhibit is important because it destigmatizes something that shouldn’t have stigma — women’s health.””

Read more here.

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