Mira Chandra is the author of Spanish Aquarium and the first place winner of the One Month of Solitude Writing Competition.
AE: How long ago did you start writing, and what prompted you to start?
I always enjoyed writing, even as a kid, but I began to write professionally during my sophomore year of college as a competitive platform speaker. Creating original pieces and then performing them had a positive impact on my writing.
AE: What are some of your favorite books, and/or who are some of your favorite authors?
A few of my favorite authors who have played major roles in influencing my thinking include Garcia Marquez, Toni Morrison, Michelle Alexander, Arundhati Roy, Malcom Gladwell, Betty Smith, Tolstoy and spoken word poet and writer, Javon Johnson. My favorite books include Love In The Time of Cholera, The Bluest Eye, Tar Baby, The New Jim Crow, Talking To Strangers, The God of Small Things, A tree grows in Brooklyn, War and Peace and Javon Johnson’s originally written spoken word “when the cancer comes”.
AE: Within which genre do you prefer to write?
Prose Fiction interlaced with political commentary.
AE: How would you describe your writing process? What environment allows you the most concentration?
My writing process, regarding literature, is intimately chaotic. I always begin by throwing all my ideas onto paper, in the most unorganized fashion. Then, I show one trusted individual, and one only. I take the edits, red line my work some more, ask my reviewer questions about what works, what makes sense; then, I reflect. I have a rule I strictly follow, and it’s worked for me for years. After getting feedback for my 12th draft, I don’t touch it for at least a week. This is so I can separate myself from my work and allow myself to think critically about my writing from afar. I believe, in the relationship between my writing and me, space is integral to the creative process. After a week, or maybe 3 weeks, I come back to my work with gusto. Shortly after, my work is finalized and I feel like we, my literature and I, are both in a good place.
The best environment for me is home. I love to write in my living room, lit by natural light, while the news is turned on loud. For me, this is the writing setting that has always worked. I love to curl up with a good blanket in the corner of my couch, turn the news on and just zone in. My dog, kip, usually joins in and sleeps on me during the writing process. To him, I’m his furniture, but to me, his presence is comforting.
AE: Why did you choose Spain as the setting for your story?
I traveled to Spain for an intercultural communications class a few years ago, and the experiences have lived with me since. During my studies, I developed an appreciation for the Spanish language and was deeply moved by Spain’s religious architecture and beautiful culture. At the time, Catalonia was fighting for independence from the Spanish government, and civil unrest surrounded my classmates and I. My unique experiences as a traveling student during the Catalonian resistance provided me with a strong understanding of what present day Spain looks and feels like.
In addition to my travels, the widespread suffering of Spanish people during the COVID-19 pandemic stood out to me, and I felt inspired to write “A Spanish Aquarium”.
AE: Why did you choose to focus on a community of sirenas/prostitudas in “A Spanish Aquarium”? What differentiates this community from those outside the red district?
Although prostitution in Spain doesn’t have the same stigma as it does in the United States, it is still an unregulated, dangerous and extremely exploitative business. According to a 2011 United Nations report, trailing behind Thailand and Puerto Rico, Spain is the third largest center of prostitution in the world. About 90% of sex workers are human trafficking victims and are recognized by the government as sex slaves who are sexually exploited and sold by pimps. As a certified human trafficking counselor, I was particularly interested in learning about the traditions of prostitution in Spain, especially since its decriminilization in 1995. I chose to write about prostitudas, because there really isn’t much literature that discusses their lived experiences. COVID-19 has been life altering for all of us around the world, but I wanted my story to create discussions about the pandemic and the sex trafficked communities of Spain during this truly heartbreaking and painful time.
Sirens have historically represented femininity, vengeance, seduction and transformation between the two states of land and water dwelling in literature. I chose to utilize these traditional definitions of sirens to symbolize the transformative period of the COVID-19 pandemic, from normal life to devastating illness. In addition to representing the unspoken timeline in my story, I wanted to utilize the vengeful and beautiful personas of sirens to challenge the normative and limiting ideas surrounding motherhood and femininity. Patriarchal standards in literature have repeatedly upheld perverse standards of what femininity and good mothering is, as well as villainized the bold, disobedient daughter or the angry, resentful mother. I did not want to do that. I wanted to dignify the realities of motherhood and explore the many complicated sides of mothering daughters through my characters, while amplifying the narratives of a young girl who is free by nature but not by profession. Furthermore, in mythology, sirens have often depicted attractive women who have suffered great injustices and, as a result, have turned vengeful and lured men to their demise. Although I intentionally did not include any significant male characters in my story, in order to give space to traditionally oppressed female narration and storytelling, I did however write the mermaids of my story to be the ones who experience the greatest injustice during the global health crisis, as their only livelihood, based on sexual exploitation, was taken away from them due to the pause of enterprise all around them.
Finally, converging the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic and Spanish prostitution, along with the mythological symbolism of sirens, fishermen and aquatic life might allow the reader to feel like they’re in two worlds at once. One world where they unpack the present day hardships of the pandemic, the other a symbolic treasure hunt where they must critically examine femininity, exploited sexuality, motherhood and POC-centered narration.
AE: What do you hope readers take away from your story? Alternatively, what is something you believe people in self-quarantine need to know?
I wrote my short story to create intercultural awareness around topics such as global health, religion, class, femininity, motherhood and international development. I want my readers to examine these subjects from the American perspective and consider how COVID-19 has affected Spain and sex trafficked women through these lenses.
In terms of advice and encouragement during self-quarantine… times are difficult right now, but I urge people to use their voices to speak up against injustice when they see it. Self-isolation is necessary, but it is also a great period in our history that will ultimately be defined by our ability to give in whatever capacity we can. Whether this is through words of affirmation, financial donations, community volunteering – all I encourage the readers of this short story to do is find some way to give something of yourself towards making this world better. Commit to healing your communities, and do your absolute best to stay safe and stop the spread of COVID-19.
AE: How do you think the COVID-19 pandemic will shape or influence literature from here on out?
Plague literature and dystopian fiction will certainly become popular genres to write about, now more than ever. More importantly, we can expect fantastic literature to emerge in support of the Black Lives Matters Movement. Literature, like many art forms, is a tool for social justice and activism. I am truly looking forward to the literary works that will forever immortalize the power of the B.L.M. movement and honor those who should have never died in the ways they did, such as George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tamir Rice…the list goes on. It is up to artists, in every sector of our world, to maintain the vibrancies of causes that seek out justice.