#DesiBooks10QA: Catherine Menon on writing about secrets that fester through the generations

About the author:

Catherine Menon has a PhD in pure mathematics and an MA in creative writing. Her debut novel, Fragile Monsters, was published in April 2021 by Viking and her short story collection, Subjunctive Moods, was published in 2018 by Dahlia Publishing. Her short stories have appeared in a number of literary journals, including The Good Journal and Asian Literary Review and have been broadcast on radio. She currently works as a university lecturer in robotics.

About the book:

Mary is a difficult grandmother for Durga to love. She is sharp-tongued and ferocious, with more demons than there are lines on her palms. When Durga visits her in rural Malaysia, she only wants to endure Mary, and the dark memories home brings, for as long as it takes to escape. But a reckoning is coming. Stuck together in the rising heat, both women must untangle the truth from the myth of their family’s past. What happened to Durga’s mother after she gave birth? Why did so many of their family members disappear during the war? And who is to blame for the childhood tragedy that haunts her to this day?

Fragile Monsters traces one family’s story from 1920 to the present, unravelling a thrilling tale of love, betrayal, and redemption against the backdrop of natural disasters and fallen empires. Written in vivid technicolor, with an electric daughter-grandmother relationship at its heart, Fragile Monsters explores what happens when secrets fester through the generations.

Written in vivid technicolor, with an electric daughter-grandmother relationship at its heart, Fragile Monsters explores what happens when secrets fester through the generations. ~Catherine Menon on #DesiBooks10QA .@DesiBooks


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

Both Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children and K.S. Maniam’s The Return lodged in my head at a young age and have been evolving ever since. As a teenager, I was fascinated by the characters in Midnight’s Children, by the action and the love stories, and the way these were blended together into the first magic realism I’d ever read. As an adult, I’m still fascinated by the structure of the story and the way the novel’s evolution mirrors that of India. The Return is similar; there are at least three “returns” within the story, one of which is the entire book itself as an entity. As a youngster it astounded me: I didn’t know you could do that!

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

Fragile Monsters is most in conversation with Preeta Samarasan’s Evening is the Whole Day. Samarasan’s novel is the story of a Malaysian Indian family in the 1980s, with six-year-old Aasha taking the narrative lead. In Fragile Monsters, Durga—one of the main characters—feels very much like she could be Aasha grown up, or Aasha from a generation earlier. A lot of themes resonate between the two novels, including the search for identity and the way in which Malaysia’s past still affects the culture today. In Fragile Monsters, Durga returns to Malaysia after ten years away and vehemently rejects the idea that the country’s history could have anything to do with her. A lot of the novel’s tension emanates from that rejection—because, of course, when you come home, the scars of the past still itch.

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

I’d love to read a really gripping fictional account of the Paradesi Jews of Cochin. There are a lot of Jews in Cochin, but only a handful, if any, Paradesi Jews left. They built the Paradesi Synagogue, which is still very much in use, but the small society is now rapidly dwindling. I would love a well-researched book in a literary style that mirrors the tangled connections of cultural, religious, and ethnic inheritance; perhaps magic realism. Academic texts on the subject do exist, but I’m searching for the perfect individual story that can capture it.

“As a teenager, I was fascinated by the characters in Midnight’s Children, by the action and the love stories, and the way these were blended together into the first magic realism I’d ever read.” ~Catherine Menon on one of the desi books that influenced her #DesiBooks10QA .@desibooks

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

I’ve just started reading Madhuri Vijay’s The Far Field, which is about a woman from Bengaluru who goes to Kashmir to find a connection with her mother. The prose is compelling and assured, and Shalini is immensely relatable. The politics is incredibly well-researched and accurate, but it never feels too heavy.

5. The desi book that you believe is most under-appreciated and why.

Amit Chaudhuri’s Friend Of My Youth is such a breathtaking book in the autofiction tradition. It’s a love letter to Bombay, and we’re taken through it by Amit, a character created simultaneously by the writing and the life of Amit Chaudhuri himself. The book plays with the idea of homecoming and past selves. It would be one of the first books I’d lend someone who wanted to write.

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

An old writing tutor of mine once told me, “The world needs many books.” It’s important to remember that it doesn’t matter if someone else has already written about a particular theme, time period, or event because fiction can be endlessly refreshed. And equally, it doesn’t matter if someone has just had stunning success with a book that’s nothing like yours. The world needs your book as much as theirs.

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

I developed a very helpful and rather strict writing routine, which allowed me to spend the time I needed without it compromising my day job. I write first thing in the morning, before my mind becomes muddied by language. It’s immensely freeing to know that, when you wake, you can spend the time you need to in the silence of your own sentences.

#WritingTip from Catherine Menon: “I write first thing in the morning, before my mind becomes muddied by language. It’s immensely freeing to know that, when you wake, you can spend the time you need to in the silence of your own sentences.” #DesiBooks10QA .@DesiBooks

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

With Fragile Monsters, success meant being able to share the story with others and to know that it said the things I wanted. Literary success isn’t like sporting success: you don’t get medals for being the quickest, or the strongest. I think the best definition of success in the literary world is that you’ve completed a story that didn’t exist before you, and wouldn’t have ever existed without you.

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

I’ve found the writing community to be immensely helpful. I’m part of a South Asian writers collective in London called The Whole Kahani and their critical and personal support has been invaluable. More generally, I’ve been amazed at how generous the wider writing community is—from frequently-published novelists to short story writers to poets. There’s a real sense of togetherness and altruism.

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

I hope that Fragile Monsters encourages readers to consider the truth of stories. One of the major themes of the novel is the interplay between what’s true and what’s accurate—between stories and mathematics, if you will. Of course, it’s a false dichotomy to set them up against each other, but one which I think is very common these days. I’d love readers to come away with an idea about what their own stories might be telling them.

“I hope that [my novel], Fragile Monsters, encourages readers to consider the truth of stories [. . .] the interplay between what’s true and what’s accurate—between stories and mathematics, if you will.” ~Catherine Menon #DesiBooks10QA .@DesiBooks


Catherine Menon’s Fragile Monsters is out now. More on her website.

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