Q & A with Talia Lakshmi Kolluri, author of What We Fed to the Manticore
Interviewed by Moriah Hampton, PhD, an instructor in the University at Albany's Program in Writing and Critical Inquiry (WCI)
Talia Lakshmi Kolluri is a mixed South Asian American writer from Northern California. Her debut collection of short stories, What We Fed to the Manticore (Tin House 2022).
Through nine emotionally vivid stories, all narrated from animal perspectives, Kolluri’s debut collection explores themes of environmentalism, conservation, identity, belonging, loss, and family with resounding heart and deep tenderness. Read an excerpt.
In Kolluri’s pages, a faithful hound mourns the loss of the endangered rhino he swore to protect. Vultures seek meaning as they attend to the antelope that perished in Central Asia. A beloved donkey’s loyalty to a zookeeper in Gaza is put to the ultimate test. And a wounded pigeon in Delhi finds an unlikely friend.
What We Fed to the Manticore was longlisted for the 2023 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, the 2023 Aspen Words Literary Prize, the 2023 Pen/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Short Story Collection, and was selected as a 2023 ALA RUSA
Her short fiction has been published in The Minnesota Review, Ecotone, Southern Humanities Review, The Common, One Story, Orion, Five Dials, and the Adroit Journal. A lifelong Californian, Talia lives in the Central Valley with her husband, a teacher and printmaker, and a very skittish cat named Fig. (Photo credit: Sarah Deragon)
Congratulations on the publication of your first short story collection. What led you to write a collection entirely focused on animal life?
Thank you so much! I would like to say that this collection emerged organically, and in a way it did. The first animal narrated story that I wrote as an adult actually predates this collection, but I enjoyed the experience a lot, and when I was inspired to write the oldest story in this book (The Hunted, The Haunted, The Hungry, The Tame), I found that I slipped into animal narration quite easily. It felt like a comfortable and natural voice for me. And so, I wrote another one. And then one more.
But as I kept writing them, I found that in addition to reveling in a sense of play that closely resembled the feeling of playing make-believe, I was sharpening my focus on what feel to me like a creative mission.
I'm very curious about what animals think about the spaces we share, and I'm curious about what they think about the spaces we are absent from even as our influence ripples throughout them. This collection was a way for me to answer that question for myself.
A wide range of animals appear in the collection, all with distinct voices. How did you craft the voices of so many memorable characters?
This is always a bit of a challenge when writing a collection, even with human characters, isn't it?
I think when many of us write, we find ourselves reflected in fractions in each of our characters, and it wasn't so different with my stories. I think this makes for rich emotional texture, but the risk of course is that characters can feel repetitive or indistinct.
Looking back, I think I intuitively chose to infuse each of my animals with different aspects of my emotional life and personality. At the same time, many of these stories were inspired by journalism about real animals. When I wove these things together, personalities emerged, and the personalities informed the voices. I do want to note that I also had the benefit of a generous and sensitive editor who encouraged me to coax more depth out of stories when they seemed to echo each other too much.
The stories portray animals thinking and talking in their native habitats, such as wolves in the woods, so as not to humanize them entirely. When crafting these characters, what issues emerged as you sought to preserve their animality?
Probably the largest issue for me was simultaneously preserving both the animality of my characters and accessibility for the reader because sometimes those things can be in conflict. I wanted to ensure that my stories were understood as animals telling animal stories, but I didn't want to alienate readers by leaning so hard into defamiliarization that the narratives were swallowed up by overwrought descriptions of things.
I also felt that it was incredibly important to maintain as much scientific accuracy as possible with respect to animal behavior and perception because I am asking readers to accept that animals are telling stories that in some cases break with reality.
It is my hope that grounding the stories in believable animal behavior made the fantastical aspects easier to accept as features of a real animal's life. I ended up relying on a foundation of research into animal behavior and letting that shape how I wrote the ways they see the world.
So I incorporated things such as the ways they see color, whether that was more or less limited than our own color perceptions, and the way sound or smell may shape their landscapes. I coupled this with my own self-created scale of what animals may understand about the human world. I hope what emerged is a cast of animal characters that live alongside humanity to varying degrees, but who live entirely distinct lives.
Several of the stories deal with the negative impact of human activity on animal life, such as poaching and global warming. Do you want to say anything more about such activity and the role (if any) fiction has in bearing witness to it?
This is, perhaps, one of the single largest issues that I think about regularly. And I'm glad you asked this question because it gives me an opportunity to highlight a book that is very important to me. Partway through the process of writing my collection, I read The Great Derangement by Amitav Ghosh. I think everyone should read this book and a summary here won't truly do it justice, but one key concept that I want to bring up is that Ghosh emphasizes that it is absolutely essential that creative work today engage with the climate crisis, that literature in particular must acknowledge it directly and purposefully, and that to fail to do so is act of concealment.
And further, that concealment of the climate crisis is part of the system that perpetuates it. I know that The Great Derangement was written for everyone. But when I read it, I felt that Ghosh was speaking directly to me, that he was telling me that the stories I was writing were important and vital. This feeling carried me through many years of rejections and moments of doubt when I felt that very few people would be interested in what I was writing.
I have always been interested in animal life, and in the ways in which humanity impacts the environment. But at first, particularly in childhood, my understanding was somewhat abstract. I loved animals but didn't grasp the interdependence of species and ecological systems. I wanted to take care of my environment, but I didn't understand the scale of the climate crisis or the series of decisions over time that caused it.
In a deep-time sense, my lifetime is relatively short. But over my lifetime thus far, I have personally experienced the acceleration of the climate crisis in a way that alarms me. I have watched species go extinct, and more still reach the brink of extinction. I am watching the world be remade as we all live in it and live through its remaking. It affects every aspect of life in dramatic ways. I found myself unable to excise it from my imagination.
And so, I have examined it. I have magnified it, reflected it back, distorted it, and reimagined it. I have tried to understand our transforming world, the ways we have damaged it, and the ways that it could be redeemed.
Bearing witness to the world, meaning showing not just what it is, but what it could become, is vital to understanding ourselves and our place in the world now. But it also serves as a record of how we feel about the world. Many generations from now someone will look at what survives of our society to try to understand it. There will be things that remain that show how we lived, how our daily lives unfolded. Tax records, decaying buildings, systems of conveying objects across distance. All of these things will tell a certain kind of story about us. But it is art that will reveal what mattered to us. What we loved. What we feared. What we mourned. What we hoped for. What we refused to forget. I want to know that all the other living things struggling, thriving, and living alongside us were counted among the things that we remembered.
The final pages of the collection list sources consulted, including newspaper and magazine articles, for the stories included. How did these sources inform your composing process?
In some cases, they offered direct inspiration for a scenario that I wanted to explore from an animal's point of view. A few of the stories are a reimagining of true events, and I wanted to acknowledge that inspiration. But many of the sources were vital to me in imbuing my characters with accurate animal behavior and in establishing a strong sense of place and richly rendered environments.
The way I used the resources was first to immerse myself in an animal life in my first drafts, and then later as I revised, I returned to them to ensure that my stories, though often fantastical, were grounded in accurate animal behavior. I feel that I am asking readers to take several imaginative leaps in my stories: first, that an animal can tell the story at all; and second, that the animal is likely experiencing something extraordinary or uncanny.
I felt that readers would be more likely to join me in these imaginative leaps if we first began from a place grounded in reality, and in verifiable knowledge about the animals that I wrote about.
What advice do you have for writers who want to create fiction that departs from familiar reality, fiction that includes talking animals, for instance, or other “odd” dimensions?
My advice is to do it! Write whatever you want!
Your work exists first in your imagination and the contents of your mind are yours and yours alone to control. When I first started writing from animal perspectives, I found I faced two distinct reactions: people who enthusiastically went along for the ride, and people who told me I could not or should not write this way because there are rules to writing and I was not seasoned enough to break them. I chose to listen to the first group and ignore the second group.
I will always be thankful for those early enthusiastic readers and friends whose open minded support settled in the back of my mind as a quiet hum of encouragement for the past decade. I understand there are common writing conventions, but I don't believe there is any such thing as a set of hard and fast rules that a writer must somehow earn their way toward breaking.
Instead, what I suggest is to write freely and without inhibition. And then, when you return to your work while revising, ask yourself if you have communicated what you intended, if the image on the page is close to the image in your mind, and if readers will be able to understand what you are trying to say. When I ask myself these questions in revision, it helps me refocus on my creative vision, and it reminds me that creativity takes all kinds of forms and that making something new that feels like a departure from convention can be exhilarating.
What’s next for you? What project(s) do you want to undertake in the coming year?
I have a novel that I've been slowly working on for a couple of years and in the coming year I'll be returning to it in earnest. I really love research, so I plan to spend a part of the year on background research for my settings, and I'm hopeful that I'll make significant progress on my first draft. I will be delving into similar territory around animal life and animal agency, and I'll be seeing where that takes me.