Woman Up! Podcast: Episode 8: Amanthi Harris

Woman Up! Podcast: Episode 8: Amanthi Harris


Susan: Hello and welcome to Woman Up, the
Desperate Artwives podcast Series, in association with the Women’s Art Library. This episode
we’re speaking with Amanthi Harris. Artist and Author Amanthi Harris has written several
stories. Red Sari is now used as a teaching resource in Sweden and her Novella Lantern
Evening won a GateHouse Press new fictions prize in 2016. Hello Amanthi, welcome!
Amanthi: It’s great to be here! Susan: It’s great to have you. I have been
looking over your work of the last few years, and I would love to know more. For starters
your writing is often about Sri Lankan culture and Women. Does your writing come from personal
experiences or are you gathering stories of other people.
Amanthi: Probably a mixture of personal incidents perhaps or experiences that aren’t directly
used in the stories, but certain emotions maybe or settings and often the stories are
a way of exploring certain maybe discomfort or tensions to do with transitions I’ve made
personally. So the stories are constructions in a way to explore this and so personal experience
obviously lends the sort of depth to characters experiences in the stories, but also they
lend a sort of purpose to having had those experiences in the first place. Because then
you can use them and you can resolve certain things in the fiction that perhaps in real
life you can’t, and you have to give up on in real life perhaps. But in the fiction,
you know, things can be explored and changed and made into new experiences for the characters
which is kind of the exciting thing about fiction for me that you can make these worlds
make these people behave in ways that you’d like to see or outcomes you’d like to see
in real life. Susan: So in red sari, it follows the tale
of a young woman who is about to be married and who is having debates with her family
over what to wear. What inspired that particular story and those ideas around Fashion, I guess,
but also culture. Amanthi: So that was a big transition the
whole kind of becoming married and taking on a new role in that sense and also to some
extent stating who I was at that stage, which was very much a hybrid person who had grown
up in Sri Lanka, but very much a part of growing up in Britain as well and liking everything
about both places all at the same time. And so I wanted to look at the sort of conflicts
that I was experiencing but the story is fiction and the most of it is fictionalized but those
feelings in there were also real. So it’s this funny kind of juxtaposition of fantasy
and reality and wishfulness all go in to making a story.
And in fact that story was one of the first stories where I stopped writing directly from
experience and sort of allowed myself to play with elements. And that’s I think the first
story for me that really worked because, and it was nice to be for it to be recognized.
It was broadcast on radio 4 and that was a really beautiful recording that they made
of it and it’s been picked up since by other as you mentioned the Swedish textbook.But
it was very much a story that was made up but from lots of little pieces and elements.
It was working out the composition and that was really what was exciting and so I’ve used
that for subsequent stories that playfulness and sort of being free to let elements cohere,
create new compositions, but things that I already experienced.
Susan: I think it just seems like a really excellent way of exploring identity. Especially
across cultures. Yeah. So I advise people to go and find it and read it.
Amanthi: oh, it’s in Kin. It was edited by Karen McCarthy and published by Serpents Tail.
So it is available as an anthology, is part of an anthology.
Susan: Excellent. So that’s the, the Anthology is called Kin K-I-N. Thank you Amanthi. Could
you tell us a bit more about Lantern Evening the novella that one the Gatehouse New Fictions
prize? Amanthi: Yes, that was another story that
I experimented with initially and then really got into as I started to work on it and initially
it was, I was trying to explore that time when you’re waiting to give birth and you
really have no idea how it’s going to turn out and that feeling of inevitability, you
know this baby is going to come and you’re going to be a mother to it and you have no
idea whether you’re going to be a good mother or a bad mother. Or whether your baby’s going
to like you and you’re going to like the baby and all the fears and the… it’s about connection
I suppose. The fear of connection and the fear of it and the longing for it. And so
that was what I wanted to explore and also just the fear of change, that enormous transition
and once I’d realized that’s what I was doing then it was quite a fun and kind of scary
exercise to just play with other elements and memories and sort of invented sort of
characters and scenarios. And so I constructed this very much longer narrative than the usual
short stories I’ve been working on. Susan: Can you describe a bit more about the
story? Amanthi: It’s very much about a woman who’s
waiting to give birth, but she’s also looking back on her childhood. And that’s where I
kind of Drew on my childhood in Sri Lanka and having had a very lovely kind of, very
visually stimulating, kind of world in which I lived. So I drew very heavily on that and
it’s happening at the time of a very big Buddhist celebration where there’s lanterns and colors
and it’s all very magical. And so this was the sort of basis for the story and it was
essentially about sort of moving on and stories about how you can you know, transitions are
a good time for leaving behind things as well as embracing new things. And I wanted to show
how like when you’re pregnant you kind of, you’ve already got a little connection with
your unborn child. And so there’s sort of little bits of her, the character talking
to the baby, but and she’s sort of not sure at all what she’s doing, but she’s already
forming that connection. So I hope that comes across in the book. There’s
a sort of growing connect, that it’s going to be okay at the end of a day, but she doesn’t
know that and that’s what it’s about. And yeah, it was very very surprising to win.
I didn’t really expect much other than just to send this, work on the story and get it
right and it’s very nice to be kind of recognized. Susan: Absolutely. And where did, how did
you get to become a writer in the first place? Have you always written? Is this something
that you did when you were younger? Where has it come from?
Amanthi: I think I always have done it. It’s just something I just did in spare moments
on school holidays or at university. I studied Chemistry initially and then I read Law and
then I went on to train as a solicitor and it was when I, you know, none of that made
any sense really? I was just sort of doing these things… but I was always writing somehow
in amongst, and making Art, they were the two things I used to do. And in fact writing
was something I did as well as Art, in a sort of strange…, so I had had a very big publisher
take an interest in my first novel a long time ago, maybe about 12, 13 years and then
after a lot of sort of backwards and forwards with their marketing team and the book being
changed and them wanting big changes. And anyway at the end of it all the book didn’t,
they didn’t like the book or I didn’t like the book. Nobody liked the book! and so it
got dropped and I found it very….. it took about two years of doing this and so it was
a very sort of destructive process and I couldn’t really write at the end of that. So I started
making art and I worked on my portfolio and applied to St Martins and got in to study,
on the foundation, and it was such a wonderful time. I was making sculpture I was making,
it was wonderful and that’s actually when I started writing again.
Susan: ‘Cause it got you back in a good place, I guess.
Amanthi: Yeah, and it’s so Art and Writing are completely linked for me. So I mean I
always start my morning writing by painting and then I’ll sort of switch and and then
sometimes I switch back later on in the day just to play with other ideas. So it’s the
two things, are really important to me and you know, it’s wonderful and to be honest
that’s what, when I do sort of Community Arts work and stuff, that’s what I’m trying to
kind of get everybody excited about, you know, this idea that you can make drawings and paint
or make I don’t know make dolls or what .. Susan: so you mention the community Art, I
know you have a project called Story Hug! Can you describe that a bit more for us, please.
Well Story Hug is a very sort of varied project actually. It started off initially as storytelling
with children. I initially did it with my daughter just for fun making up stories for
her and she used to love being part of this story world that we’d make and I was making
especially for her. And it was very, you know, I think that’s something I really wanted to
encourage. And then I did a storytelling course at a place called The International School
of Storytelling, which is a wonderful place in Emerson College in East Sussex and it was
a very thoughtfully taught a course about how you connect to stories, all the traditional
stories, but finding meaning for yourself in these ancient tales and it was wonderful
for me at both as a mother and as a writer to see how these stories worked sort of inside
you. And how they make you feel and how the way you told them made other people feel.
So after that, I was sort of inspired run a little workshop session in a local community
garden and then also to run my own workshops in this little Woodland in a nature reserve
where children would come with their parents and we’d all make art together. And then with
the art that we made, we’d use in little storytelling sessions with puppets and things and I’d get
the kids to make up a story with me using little prompts and then I would have a prepared
story and tell them. Sometimes a traditional story, sometimes one I’d made up myself with
puppets and things and it was all really fun. And I kept thinking well I’m enjoying this,
maybe other adults will. So I applied to Arts Council England for funding and I got funding
to try this out with adults in different groups. I worked at Bernardo’s and Lewisham Seniors
a kind of over-60s project and Signal [?] Gardens which is a kind of mental health charity and
it was wonderful and it was so wonderful. And then that change things too because people
went away with just the ideas from the story and then they came back saying, oh we’ve done
the homework and I hadn’t actually set any homework. I’d just given them little strips
of paper with little quotes from the stories, but people had carried on working with all
this and they’d written their own stories which were wonderful and poetry and so I began
to think that maybe there’s a writing sort of thing. So now it’s becoming more of a writing
project for now. So I ran, I was with V-22 Studios and they have a sort of Summer thing
where you can try out a project so I tried it out as a writing project, using the same
idea as a playful kind of thing using little miniatures and making of spontaneous stories,
but then leading into a writing workshop and somehow that element of play that I think
is so important that I kind of tried to embrace in my own practice led to the most incredible
stories. And so I’m beginning to think that there’s
something here that maybe I’m going to run some more and kind of writing related stories
in the workshops to see what happens because initially it was art only and stones and now
maybe stories and writing as well … Susan; that sounds fantastic
Amanthi: .. it’s evolving story. Susan: And alongside this I know this year
you are finishing a novel which will be published towards the end of the year. Could you share
more about how this has happened and and tell us what you’re allowed to tell us about it.
Amanthi: Well the novel’s called Beautiful Place and it’s coming out in September 2019
and it’s been published by Salt. The book is about a little Guest House on the coast
of, the southern coast of Sri Lanka where there’s people coming. And it sort of stories
about the people who run the place and the guests to come there and all kind of looking
for ways of belonging and looking for Home in some way. It’s sort of like a little mini
world of its own, this guest house, and it’s really very picturesque, very exotic part
of the island but it’s also got its political problems. And so it’s got challenges for the…
and it’s also about family and how you choose your family, how you make Community. One of
the big things about my Story Hug work that I did for the Arts Council was the idea of
home and how the project actually was called Displacement Dwelling Home and the idea of
community as home kept coming up for me and in our storytelling. I sort of like the idea
of stories and worlds and people who make home together, through choice and sort of,
through choice and determination to some extent you need to want this when you when you make
community and to make the compromises that create community. So yeah, I really that sort
of what the book is isort of exploring. Through the eyes of different people. I love, I love
this ability that you know to go into each character’s sort of private world and explore
what’s going on and what they want and how they kind of feel about things and putting
them into situations where they show us. Susan: Well as a reader, I absolutely love
it when an Author does that for me so that I can explore these different worlds and these
stories from different perspectives as well. So Im looking forward to it! How did it come
about? You mentioned that it’s going to be published with Salt the publisher. Could you
tell us about about that process how you’ve managed to go from shorter stories and novellas
to the novel? Amanthi: Well Gatehouse press who published
my Novella have been so incredibly supportive. They passed, they asked me if I had anything
else and I had the manuscript for Beautiful Place. So they had a look and passed it on
to Salt and Salt decided to go for it and I’m eternally grateful to both parties, are
amazing! So yeah, and then it’s thanks really very much, that’s been the best thing ever
sending that Novella into Gatehouse and they’ve been so supportive with both the novella and
the novel. And yes, and so Salt now are really going to be publishing in September. So and
have given it the most amazing cover and it’s good. So it’s looking really wonderful. So
I’m really excited. Susan: That’s excellent. You mentioned how
the Writing and the Art kind of come in connection with one another in your life. You do both
most days and specifically how the Art kind of lets the writing flow. But how does the
writing influence the art that you do? If it does, if there’s a connection that you
see. Amanthi: Im not sure if I know there’s a connection
that way around. I think Art probably is where I am most sort of exploratory and at least
when I allow myself to be the most exploratory. There’s.., I sort of tend to,… one of the
biggest things I suppose becoming a mother maybe onwards, was being intuitive and allowing
that to happen and to trust things that seem very slight. Little whims and like I find
it easier to do that in my art and then that lends itself to me playing in my writing up
a more but initially I think it’s the art that it starts or for me.
I’ll, you know, play with,…I was living in the mountains in Spain and I made my own
.. [WOW – It was last year -Amazing] and I made my own paints with the ochre in the mountains
[Wow!] and so playing with the Earth paints led to something else and then that leads,
to that led to me thinking about the strange sort of female figures, dancing characters
I was painting, and that led to be thinking about Baba Yaga and you know, and it’s sort
of these and then other stories are coming out of that now that aren’t directly related
to those drawings or to the paint or anything, but I think I have a feeling they are linked
to the whole thing. Even if it’s just the way of being. I mean the little exhibition
I had in Spain, I had my own sort of exhibition in Spain last year where I made a little doll
out of clay or wood or whatever I’d found, a day. The idea was you had to make a doll
in a day. Okay. And so and then I’d fire, I paint them with the ochre and fire them
in the wood fire. And so that ochre would oxidized and change color. And so I ended
up having this big collection of weird dolls, and I created three installations of these
dolls and a sort of a narrative that sort of came and went. And that’s the wonder of
Art for me, that the narrative can be secondary, you can play with other things and the narrative
is sort of comes anyway, and I love that Susan: So it’s the process that has come first
for you in those ways. Yes. Wow. Amanthi: So yeah, I think it’s yeah the Art
that always leads for me. Susan: Okay, and finally for me you talked
a lot about Women you talked about connection with other Women and also the connection between
Women and Mothers and Daughters. So what is it that draws you to the connections between
Women and the connections between Mothers and Daughters in your in your work?
Amanthi: Because it’s so complex I think and it can be so painful and so enriching and
… motherhood for me has been this incredible enormous learning curve. And as I wrote in
my Novella, there was so much ambivalence for me personally as I was trying to explore
in the story. I really didn’t know how I was going to feel and I didn’t know if I was going
to like it, if I was going to be a good at it or if Im going to make a complete mess
of it.. Susan: It could be really scary, huh?
Amanthi: Yes, absolutely. And I totally Embrace that at the time I remember that, you know,
knowing that there was no choice now. This is it I was going to do it and it was it’s
sort of been more wonderful than I expected, you know a million times over so I think that’s
been….I don’t know. That’s probably the way I want the whole work as well to go, you
know to kind of explore that kind of possibility in connection with people, most people and
also when you know, when it goes wrong in it can be so, from a completely kind of writerly
point of view, it can be fantastic as well because there’s so much to look at then. And
so yeah, I think I’m interested in those sort of connections between people and anything
that’s complex obviously has so many layers to explore. That’s the appeal I think.
Susan: Excellent. Thank you very much Amanthi. So can you remind us once more the name of
your new novel and when it’s going to be out for everybody to look out for.
Amanthi: The novel of called Beautiful Place and it’s out in September 2019.
Susan: Excellent. Thank you very much Amanthi!. Amanthi: Thank you.
Susan: Thank you for listening. This was Woman Up, a podcast series by Desperate Artwives.

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