Spring Sale!

I’ll be making Sri Lankan marshmallows with Kavya this week, and sending them out as part of a spring book sale. Will run it for just the first week of April, so if this sounds appealing, get your orders in quick!

Spring Books Into Flowers Sale!

In spring, a person’s thoughts turn to dreams of flowers, and how better than to sell a few books and artisanal hand-made Sri Lankan sweets and dark-roasted curry powder? I’m clearing out a bit more of the basement book stock — U.S.-only, I’m afraid, due to food regulations and shipping costs. Happy to sign / dedicate any books, of course!

– Bodies in Motion (Sri Lankan immigrant stories) hardcover: $15
– A Taste of Serendib Sri Lankan cookbook: $10
– Torn Shapes of Desire (erotic fiction and poetry: $10 (TS is out of print, so when they’re gone, that’s it…26 copies left)

– Cashew milk toffee (3 pieces): $12
– Chai spice truffles (2 pieces): $8
– Chili-chocolate truffles (2 pieces): $8
– Vanilla-rose marshmallows (2 pieces): $8
– Mango-lime marshmallows (2 pieces): $8 (note: experimental!)

– 2 oz bag homemade curry powder: $5
– 4 oz bag: $7

+ Shipping & Handling: $5 / order

Comment below or e-mail mohanraj@mamohanraj.com with the subject line SPRING BOOKS to reserve your copies; I’ll take orders as they come in. Please note which books you’d like signed, and if you want just a signature, or dedicated to someone.

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Going Deep

I am now two-thirds of the way through Newport’s _Deep Work_, and must begrudgingly admit that there’s some useful stuff here. The first 1/4 of the book, where he tried to defend the need for deep work, deeply irritated me on various fronts, and my recommendation is to skip it.
But if you start with Part II, there’s some promising elements there. I knew a fair bit of it already, but not all. And I’m going to try making some practical changes to my scheduling in the month, to see how it goes.
I expect the adaptation period (much less screen time, among other things) will make me super-grumpy, so y’all may want to avoid me in person for a few weeks. 🙂
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Gendered Pics

Thinking about my two favorite photos of the kids from our visit to the woods a few days ago. I was originally thinking of printing these as 8x10s and hanging them, but I got a little tripped up on gender politics. When I did my analysis of South Asian women’s book covers in American publishing a decade or so ago, there were some distinct differences in how women’s and men’s covers were presented.
Among other things, women’s covers tended to feature still female figures, with a strong focus on their bodies, often in close-up. Men’s covers tended to show male figures in motion, often quite small, but set against a large landscape or cityscape.
I didn’t mean to reproduce those dynamics when photographing my children, and maybe it’s just coincidence that these are the photos that came out well — or maybe I took more close-ups of Kavi’s face, and more distant shots of Anand moving through the woods.
Regardless, I can tell you one thing — I’m not going to blow these two photos up and post them alone on a wall anywhere. I don’t want them to internalize these images as messages of how they should be in the world. In a mix of other photos, they might be fine.
Kavi’s soccer practice starts tomorrow — I foresee a lot of action shots in her future. And I’m going to work a little on taking some close-ups of Anand’s beautiful face, even if I do have to work at it a little bit to get a picture that isn’t just him being goofy for the camera.
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Webs at Lightspeed

Delighted to note that “Webs” has been reprinted at Lightspeed, along with a host of other fabulousness.
“Webs” is a Charted Worlds story, in the same universe as _The Stars Change_, “Jump Space,” “Communion,” and “Plea.”
“Apr. 2018 (Issue 95): Our cover art this month is from Elizabeth Leggett, illustrating an original science fiction short by Will McIntosh (“What is Eve?”). We also have new work from Timothy Mudie (“The Elephants’ Crematorium”), along with SF reprints by Steven Barnes (“Mozart on the Kalahari”) and Mary Anne Mohanraj (“Webs”). Plus, we have original fantasy by Adam-Troy Castro (“A Place Without Portals”) and Ruth Joffre (“Nitrate Nocturnes”), and fantasy reprints by Carmen Maria Machado (“The Old Women Who Were Skinned”) and Ken Liu (“The Snow Train”). All that, and of course we have our usual assortment of author spotlights, along with our book and media review columns. We also have a feature interview with Angus McIntyre. For our ebook readers, we also have our usual ebook-exclusive novella reprint (“Lazy Dog Out,” by Suzanne Palmer), and an excerpt from Bryan Camp’s new novel, The City of Lost Fortunes.”
Available in e-book edition on Lightspeed directly, Amazon, BN.com, Kobo, and Weightless Books now. Just the issue is $2.99. You can also subscribe to 12 months of Lightspeed for just $35.88/year. Some of the content from the issue (including my story) will be available for free on the website later in the month, but if you want the whole package, you’ll need to buy it!
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Putting my dad to work — he kindly went through the TOC of the new Sri Lankan cookbook and corrected all my transliterations. I got a *few* right…

In my defense, the issue is that there are gazillion ways to transliterate Tamil words, and if you just google, you’ll get a lot of variations. Especially since some of the letters just don’t exist in English — three variants of an ‘l’ sound, or a ‘ng’ sound, for example. But my dad is something of a purist and a scholar about Tamil, so this way, we get pretty close to how it would sound in Sri Lankan Tamil.

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Measuring a Life

I’m trying to figure out at what point I started measuring everything in time. It was recent — I didn’t think this way in college, or in my 20s or 30s. Somewhere after 40, I think.
A few months ago, I started calendaring as many to-do items as possible, as I took them on, blocking out time in the next few weeks to do them. If I couldn’t find the time, then I had to say no.
This afternoon, I had a conversation about a possible task, and the only real question I had was ‘what’s the time commitment?’ (3 trips to D.C., plus a few conference calls. Manageable, esp. since I have a sister in D.C.) I told them that I’d commit to it for a year; no promises after that.
Last night, I blocked out vast sections of my calendar — 7:30 – 9:30 every morning for writing. 5 p.m. – 11 p.m. + weekends for family & relaxation. Somehow, all the other work (and internet!) is supposed to happen between 9:30 and 5 p.m. on weekdays, which seems sort of impossible now, but I am going to try my damnedest to get there. (Okay, there will clearly be a little FB on weekends too.)
Getting there clearly involves staffing out a good portion of the work, which demands money. Money can buy time, but first you have to have the money. Right now, I am spending money I don’t technically have, betting that the time I get back will result in more money in the long run. There are limits to how long I’m willing to bet on that, though. I’m not sure what the limits are yet.
This is the year I try harder to invest in my writing career and in my family. The first question and the last question is where do I spend my attention and my time?
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Sri Lankan New Year (2017)

Eep. This tells you how far behind I am on e-mail, that I am only now posting terrific photos that Elaine Allen took for me at last year’s Sri Lankan New Year’s party (it’s almost time for this year’s party, which means I had better jump on sending out invites). Thanks, Elaine! And belated thanks to everyone who came.


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Shallow Work

“Shallow Work: Noncognitively demanding, logistical-stye tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.”

I started off agreeing with the premise of Cal Newport’s Deep Work, that there are some types of work that demand focused, deep thought. I find myself seriously cranky about having it opposed to what he calls ‘shallow work’ in the quote above. Not that I disagree functionally about how those different kinds of work operate. But there’s a presumed value to deep work, and a consequent devaluing of shallow work that I think is deeply misleading.

Shallow work is accretive by nature, is the thing. Any random blog post I write here may be inconsequential, but the accumulation of a long series of them about cancer, or parenting, or writing can accrete into something valuable and worthwhile and even new. (Not that novelty is the most important thing either, and now I’m looking at doctoral programs that expect you to contribute something ‘new’ to the sum of human knowledge, and wonder who came up with that requirement anyway.)

Consider parenting — any given dinner you make for the kids, any given holiday you celebrate with special foods and activities, can probably be skipped without much trouble. (Though Kavi did get teary a bit when we told her that I had to cancel our Easter party and egg hunt to go help my parents this weekend; we were quick to console her with the promise that we’d do a belated one later this week. These things matter to children, beyond all reason.)

As an adult, you’re not going to remember one Christmas more or less, one dinner table or car errand conversation. Few of those individually will be significant. But a) a few of them will be significant, though you can’t predict which ones in advance, and b) the accretion of them creates significant value. Taking your elderly relative for a daily walk. Dropping off casseroles to the chemo patient’s families. Washing the children’s soiled bedding.

When Newport says these kinds of tasks don’t create ‘new value’ in the world, it’s true that they are unlikely to produce world-changing paradigm shifts, or brilliant, ground-breaking novels, or new math. Fair enough. But the world is made up of the bonds between people, and the daily maintenance of those bonds (women’s work, so often) is critical to the continued functioning of the world. It is the essential labor on which all else rests. If Thoreau’s mother didn’t do his laundry, would he have written Walden?

Seriously, if I didn’t have novels to write, I’d be tempted to write a companion book to this one, titled _Shallow Work_. Because that one quote made me just a little bit furious.

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I’m in CT for a few days, helping my parents with some medical stuff. I’d hoped to spend at least some of the time writing — on the plane flights, in the early morning and evening. I couldn’t settle down to writing on the plane, though — I alternated between playing puzzle games on my phone and reading. My brain is so scattered these days.

The reading was good, at least — I finished reading Roxane Gay’s _An Untamed State_, which was brutal and beautiful. I put it down feeling a little despairing, though — is there anything that woman can’t write? She just amazes me — short stories, essays, memoir, novel, all with her trademark combination of searing honesty and gorgeous prose.

I might have just gone back to my phone game after that, but they were serving drinks, so I ended up chatting with my seat mate. He asked me about my cool laptop cover (a photo I took in Sri Lanka, printed by GelaSkins), and somehow we segued into talking about what we do. I told him I was supposedly working on a novel. It turned out that he (Patrick Harlin) was actually a professional composer, heading to Connecticut for three weeks for a residency program. He was going to hide in the woods and write music.

We talked for a while; the contrast between our lives was so acute. He’s 33, finished a doctorate, composing full-time. He has deadlines he has to meet, but generally seemed to feel like he was able to support himself without compromising his art. Living the dream. I’m 46 now. At 33, I was in the midst of my Ph.D. program, and just about to sell Bodies in Motion. No children yet, no cancer, no political career — I had reunited with Kevin, and we were both so focused on our work.

If I believed in signs, I’d feel like the universe was trying to talk to me, seating Patrick next to me on that flight, heading off to his residency. Telling me it was time to stop being distracted, go deep. He was reading a book, _Deep Work_, which I’ve now picked up from Amazon. I’m not sure it’ll tell me anything I don’t know already (cut down on social media and other interruptions; make the space where deep work can happen), but it’s supposedly full of inspiring stories along with useful strategies. Maybe it’s like advertising — you need to see a product several times before you’re ready to buy.

(photo on my laptop: from the train ride from Colombo to Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka. Heading into something dark and green and unknown.)

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