Mani Rao is the author of eight books of poetry, two books in translation, and a New & Selected Poems forthcoming from Poetrywala India. She has essays and poems in numerous journals including Wasafiri, Meanjin, Washington Square, Fulcrum and West Coast Line and in anthologies from W.W. Norton, Bloodaxe and Penguin. Mani has performed at literary festivals in Melbourne, Vancouver, Hong Kong, Singapore, Chicago and New York PEN World Voices, and translations of her poems have been published in Latin, Italian, Korean, Chinese, Arabic, French and German. She was Visiting Fellow at the 2005 Iowa International Writing Program, and the 2006 University of Iowa International Programs writer-in-residence. She has an MFA in Creative Writing (Poetry) and is a PhD candidate at Duke University. http://www.manirao.com has links to her work.
In this interview with Kitaab’s editor Zafar Anjum, Rao shares the story of her journey as a writer so far:
You have an interesting name. Mani can also be read as Ma’Ni, which means ‘meaning’ in Urdu. Tell us a little bit about your name, your origins and how you came to live in Hong Kong.
In Sanskrit and related languages, ‘Mani’ means ‘gem.’ Mani is actually a part of my name ‘Nagamani,’ which means ‘snake-gem,’ or ‘the gem on the hood of a cobra.’ It comes from a dream my mother had when she was pregnant with me.
I was born in 1965, raised in India. At the time, our school only had the sciences, no humanities. Dad worked in atomic power project colonies, cosmopolitan spaces with a concentration of engineers and scientists — not unlike J.G.Ballardian locations. I had been writing since my early teen years, and was desperate to get into literature, so I went on to do a B.A. in English. Writing was my only marketable skill. I had two obvious career options—journalism, and advertising. Convinced that financial self-reliance was the most important thing for a woman in India, and expecting that advertising would be more lucrative than journalism, allow me to gain my independence faster, I joined advertising as a copywriter. After some detour, I landed in Mumbai as a copywriter, working in Trikaya (now Grey) and then, by 1992, I was associate creative director at HTA (now JWT). In the early 90s, the Indian economy was opening up to multinationals, and suddenly, one began to dream of bigger budgets and international markets. A couple of my colleagues were the pioneers, they sent telexes to ad agencies in Hong Kong, set up interviews, went there with their portfolios and found jobs! Urged by their success, I too went ‘shopping’ in 1990, to Singapore and Hong Kong, with my ad portfolio. I did not succeed right away, the gulf war was imminent, no one was hiring. Eventually – and that is another story – I moved to Hong Kong in 1993.