The year was 1991 and Mary Anne Mohanraj was a young Sri Lankan American beginning to make a name for herself as a writer – but her writing, which she described in a recent essay as “smutty and explicit,” came at the protest of her conservative family.
In her essay “Breathing Space,” published in August on the online anthology “Unruly Bodies,” Mohanraj describes her mother as “so furious that she alternated between screaming at me and not speaking.”
“My father said, ‘You have to take it down. Take it all down, immediately. Take my name off it,'” Mohanraj wrote.
“I responded, fighting back frustrated tears, ‘I can’t take it down – it’s not physically possible. The internet is forever.’ True enough. But it’s also true that I could have tried to take it down. I could at least have made the stories much harder to find. I didn’t want to. Mohanraj was my name too.”
Mohanraj, now 47, is among Oak Park’s most notable residents, making a career writing on a number of topics, including erotica, cooking, Sri Lankan culture, gardening and science fiction, to name a few.
She has authored 14 books and is an English professor and affiliate faculty in Global Asian Studies at University of Illinois at Chicago. She is executive director of both the arts organization DesiLit, which promotes South Asian and diaspora literature, and the Speculative Literature Foundation, which promotes writers in speculative fiction.
Mohanraj has written for years about her bisexuality and polyamory, she is a self-described Trekkie – a fan of the science-fiction show Star Trek — and she is the mother of two.
She received honorable mention in the Asian American Book Awards for her 2005 novel “Bodies in Motion,” which has been translated into six languages.
“All of my writing is focused on how do we be honest and transparent and look bravely at the situation we’re in, so we can think about how to make it better,” she said.
Although Mohanraj is relatively obscure in Oak Park, she’s made more of a local name for herself over the last year with her successful bid for Oak Park Library Board.
She said at the time that she felt compelled to get involved in politics after the election of Donald Trump.
The library board is just the beginning for Mohanraj, who revealed she is interested in seeking higher office – possibly Oak Park village trustee or mayor.
“I’ve been talking to some people about various positions I should consider. Village board is one of them, mayor is one of them, Cook County commissioner is one of them,” she said. “I’m still learning, I think. I need to learn more about what those positions really entail.”
Mohanraj, who emigrated from Sri Lanka at the age of 2, grew up in a Polish-Catholic community in Connecticut. She began her writing career in erotica because the conflict in her life at that time centered around dating and sexuality, she said.
“You tend to write about where the conflict is,” she said in a recent interview. “So I wrote a lot of stories initially about girls in college sleeping with boys they probably weren’t supposed to sleep with and working out their relationship issues. That kind of morphed to include more race and ethnicity materials as time went on.”
She distanced herself from her Sri Lankan roots as a young woman, but in her thirties she began exploring her culture. In her forties, Mohanraj has focused more on science fiction, blogging and political writing. Her sci-fi work is largely a vehicle for writing about issues for which readers may have preconceptions, she said.
In a recent story for the science fiction and fantasy magazine Lightspeed, Mohanraj wrote about the Syrian refugee crisis from the perspective of “refugees seeking solace and comfort from these aliens that are sort of like space whales.”
“Science fiction lets you talk about things that give you a little distance,” she said. “If you’re in space and you’re with aliens, you can talk through an issue and show various sides of it, and your readers are not immediately going to come in with preconceptions because they have no opinions about space whales, whereas they might have opinions about Syrians.”
“I think it helps. It’s always been a genre that lets us think more clearly.”
Most recently, Mohanraj published the vegan Sri Lankan cookbook “Vegan Serendib.” It is her second cookbook.
Her first cookbook “A Taste of Serendib” was for a girlfriend who was vegetarian and loves South Asian food, Mohanraj explained.
“In part this was for her and in part it was because people kept asking me for vegan recipes,” Mohanraj said. “As it turns out, it’s super easy to make Sri Lankan food vegan, because much of it already is, and much of it is gluten-free.”
What’s next for Mohanraj? Possibly a makerspace in Oak Park with woodworking and sewing machines and 3D printers, she said. That is, if she doesn’t seek higher office.
* This article was updated to correct Mohanraj’s position at the University of Illinois at Chicago.