#DesiBooks10QA: Talia Lakshmi Kolluri on collapsing the distance between the human and the non-human in her stories

About the author

Talia Lakshmi Kolluri is the author of What We Fed to the Manticore, a story collection. Her short fiction has appeared in The Minnesota Review, Ecotone, Southern Humanities Review, The Common, and elsewhere. She was born and raised in Northern California and currently lives in California’s beautiful Central Valley with her husband and cat.

About the book

 What We Fed to the Manticore is a debut collection of nine emotionally vivid stories, all narrated from animal perspectives. It explores themes of environmentalism, conservation, identity, belonging, loss, and family with resounding heart and deep tenderness. 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. In striking, immersive detail against the backdrop of an ever-changing international landscape, What We Fed to the Manticore speaks to the fears and joys of the creatures we share our world with, and ultimately places the reader under the rich canopy of the tree of life.

Talia Lakshmi Kolluri’s story collection, What We Fed to the Manticore, explores themes of environmentalism, conservation, identity, belonging, loss, and family through animal perspectives. #DesiBooks10QA @DesiBooks


1. The desi book that made you want to be a writer (or changed your life.)

I have loved writing since childhood and wanted to be a writer ever since then (and, as a child, being a “real writer” meant having a book that I could find in a library.) But I was in my twenties when I started to take myself seriously as a writer and there are two desi books that were influential during that time. I also see these writers as very much in conversation with each other. The first is Arundhati Roy’s The God Of Small Things and the other is Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. I actually read The God Of Small Things first and a few years later read Midnight’s Children, and, at that point, I was able to see the interplay between these two writers. They both have a style that is rich in atmosphere and their writing feels so alive. I wanted to write toward that kind of aliveness.

[Editor’s Note: Catch up with the community read of The God of Small Things, hosted by Naheed Phiroze Patel, earlier in 2022.]

2. The desi book that your own latest book is most in conversation with and why.

Absolutely, without question, The Great Derangement by Amitav Ghosh, which speaks to the urgent necessity of including non-human narrators, as well as climate change in fiction. I know this book was written for a wide audience but, when I read it, I felt Ghosh was speaking directly to me and telling me that I could and I must continue writing through the voices of non-human narrators. I feel that much of my collection is an answer to the call in this book.

Talia Lakshmi Kolluri on the desi book that her story collection, What We Fed to the Manticore, is most in conversation with: The Great Derangement by Amitav Ghosh. #DesiBooks10QA @DesiBooks

3. The desi book that doesn’t exist (to your knowledge) but you’d love to read.

This request may be very close to the mission of Desi Books but it’s less a specific book and more of a category. I would love to see more and more translations of books across the spectrum of South Asian languages. My paternal side of the family is Telugu and it is challenging to find Telugu books that have been translated into English. I was delighted to see that Tilted Axis published a translation of Father May Be An Elephant And Mother Only A Small Basket, But…, which was originally written in Telugu and I’m really looking forward to reading that one. But I don’t seem to be able to find a large selection of translated Telugu books even though it is a widely spoken language! So it makes me wonder how much literature is out there in all of the other South Asian languages.

Talia Lakshmi Kolluri, author of What We Fed to the Manticore, on wanting more translations from South Asian languages because of “how much literature is out there in all of the other South Asian languages.” #DesiBooks10QA @DesiBooks

4. The desi book that you’re currently reading or planning to read soon.

I have The Immortal King Rao by Vauhini Vara sitting on the top of my stack and I have been desperate to read this book since I heard it was coming out. But I also want to really savor and sink into it, so I feel like I need at least one weekend with no commitments so I can be consumed by it. I have a weekend like that coming up soon so I am really looking forward to dedicating it to it. I am very interested to know how Vara writes the relationship between Athena and her father because I think sometimes the relationship between a diaspora daughter and her father can be very complex. Also, in the novel, I understand that King Rao immigrates in the 1960s to work in the tech industry. My dad immigrated in the 1960s as well and eventually made his way to Silicon Valley and knowing that a story like this one that feels both familiar and new is available to me to read is pretty thrilling.

5. The desi book that you believe should be read and known more and why.

I’m going to break the rules and name two: The Cowherd’s Son by Rajiv Mohabir and Insects Are Just Like You And Me Except Some Of Them Have Wings by Kuzhali Manickavel.

Mohabir is a wonderful poet but I think describing him as a poet is not expansive enough because his work also crosses into memoir and he does translation and just really pushes the boundaries of form. I came across his poetry years ago through a now-closed blog called Sepia Mutiny that I read obsessively. At that time, he came out with this early chapbook that just amazed me and I’ve been following his work ever since. I love how, in this book, he delves into complex identities, and family relationships and migration, and ultimately life in the body that holds all these complexities.

Manickavel is just really inventive and again this collection pushes the form. There are thirty-five stories and some of them are a few pages and some are just a few paragraphs. But they are all unexpected and, honestly, I was left feeling a little disoriented, which I loved.

The thing I want to say about these two selections is related to the fact that, as I was growing up in California, I had very limited exposure to South Asian literature. It was barely included in the curriculum at my schools. And while there were a few volumes in my home (The Satanic Verses and a Tagore translation stand out in my memory), there wasn’t a wide and varied spectrum of South Asian or diasporic literature for me to choose from. Finding desi books to read has been something I began doing by myself, at least and in part as a way to connect with and understand this part of my heritage. But I didn’t really know where to start. The starting place I found was mostly in literature set in Mumbai (then Bombay), and also books that included retellings of religious stories. I enjoyed and still enjoy these books. But I also want my reading to be expansive. South Asia is big and diverse and the diaspora is also big and diverse and I want to read things that lean into that diversity. I want to read work that is experimental, and risk-taking, and that dives into the multifaceted complexities of our various communities, even the things that are uncomfortable or difficult to confront. And these works, in addition to being well-written and interesting, are part of my journey to learn how varied desi writing can be.

Talia Lakshmi Kolluri, author of What We Fed to the Manticore, on her reading: “South Asia is big and diverse and the diaspora is also big and diverse and I want to read things that lean into that diversity.” #DesiBooks10QA @DesiBooks

6. What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

I had one wonderful workshop leader tell me that I shouldn’t worry about it if someone doesn’t understand what I’m trying to write about. That was pretty liberating.

#writingtip from Talia Lakshmi Kolluri, author of the story collection, What We Fed to the Manticore: “[I don’t] worry about it if someone doesn’t understand what I’m trying to write about.” #DesiBooks10QA @DesiBooks

7. While writing your latest book, how did you keep yourself motivated to keep going despite setbacks (if any)?

This may sound excessively sugary but I kept writing my stories because I just really love writing this way. It’s fun and interesting and I feel compelled to do it. I have had many years where all I did was collect rejections and that didn’t stop me at all because I love the whole creative process so much, and I love living inside my own imagination. At one point, I assumed I would only be writing for myself and I was comfortable with that because the writing is what means the most to me.

8. With this latest book, what does “literary success” mean to you?

Having the book published is always how I’ve personally defined literary success. So I’m already successful in my mind. But also, I want readers to feel something when they read my stories. I’m looking to generate emotion so if readers come away with a strong feeling—whether that’s sadness, joy, longing, or love—then that will mean success to me as well.

9. How have larger literary citizenship efforts or the writing community helped you with this latest book?

The writing community has helped me tremendously with both the practical and the abstract. I have the great fortune of a number of kind, generous, and enthusiastically encouraging writer friends who have given me thoughtful notes, supported my creative vision, interviewed me, reviewed my book, connected me with opportunities, and generally made me feel that I and my work are supported. I’ve been very lucky to find myself in the middle of a community that has embraced me so warmly. I’m very thankful for all of the advice and support I’ve had along the way. 

Talia Lakshmi Kolluri, author of the story collection, What We Fed to the Manticore: “I’ve been very lucky to find myself in the middle of a community that has embraced me so warmly.” #DesiBooks10QA @DesiBooks

10. What would you most like readers to take away from this latest book?

More than anything, I want readers of my book to come away with a sense of connection to the whole of the world around us. I want them to feel that the distance between human and non-human has collapsed to almost nothing and to remember that we are integral to nature.


Talia Lakshmi Kolluri’s story collection, What We Fed to the Manticore, was out in September 2022. More information at her website.

Talia Lakshmi Kolluri’s story collection, What We Fed to the Manticore, explores themes of environmentalism, conservation, identity, belonging, loss, and family through animal perspectives. #DesiBooks10QA @DesiBooks


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