Mary Anne Mohanraj: Defying Human Limitation

by Debbie Notkin

Mary Anne Mohanraj

Wait! What was that blur out of the corner of your eye?

That was Mary Anne Mohanraj, going at her normal speed, which is faster than your eyesight can process.

Think I’m exaggerating? Let me convince you.

Currently, Mary Anne is an associate professor of fiction and literature at the University of Illinois. She and her husband Kevin are raising two children. She is the executive director of DesiLit: A South Asian Arts Foundation, and of the Speculative Literature Foundation. In 2017, she ran for local office and won, and now serves on her community’s library board. She directs the Kriti Festival of Art and Literature. She is also on the board of her local garden club and of Plurality University, a futurist organization. She is the publisher of Jaggery, a South Asian literary journal.

Are you tired yet?

Her past projects include founding Strange Horizons, an online speculative literature magazine which has won the World Fantasy Award and been nominated for the Hugo, still going strong after very close to twenty years. She edited Jaggery for ten issues. She founded an online erotica magazine (now defunct). She has served on the futurist boards of both the XPrize and Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry. Oh, and she’s been on the FOGcon Board of Directors.

Despite these impressive credentials, you might still be wondering if Strange Horizons is the reason that she’s a FOGcon honored guest. Well, yes, and also her fifteen published books, which run the gamut from fantasy to science fiction to erotica to cookbooks to children’s books, plus several edited volumes. Bodies in Motion, which has been translated into six languages, was a USA Today Notable Book and a finalist for the Asian American Book Awards. The Stars Change made finalist lists for the Lambda, Rainbow, and Bisexual Book Awards. Her fiction has brought her an Illinois Arts Council Fellowship in Prose, a Locus Award and a Breaking Barriers Award from the Chicago Foundation for Women.

She’s also a visual artist, in many media.

That’s the public resumé, containing only information anyone can google. So what is Mary Anne like?

First, she is that fast-moving. She not only does all the things listed above, she’s also an avid board gamer. Unless her favorite game has shifted, you’ll find her in the hotel bar area, over at those tables to your left as you walk in, playing Terraforming Mars. You’ll recognize her by her graying braids, or her big child-like grin, or the way she is vibrating with excitement: hey, this person looks like she’s fun!

Yes, she’s thoughtful; yes, she’s well-read; yes, she’s interesting. So many people here are all of those things, but few of us are as alive as Mary Anne.

I was 2,000 miles away from her when she went through breast cancer diagnosis and treatment a few years ago. Of course, I was most afraid for her life and for the threat that her children would lose their mother. I was also very afraid that even if she recovered well, the treatment would dampen her unique spark—and I’m delighted to say that not only is she healthy and recovered, she’s every bit as engagingly vivid as she always was. Chemotherapy is brutal, but it was apparently no match for Mary Anne’s underlying energy.

The first time I ever went to a party of Mary Anne’s, it was for a maypole dance. Others that I’ve gotten to or missed include a Sri Lankan feast, a board games party, and a craft night. And I just can’t close an appreciation of Mary Anne without saying that “Seven Cups of Water,” the short story that begins Bodies in Motion, is one of the most memorably erotic tales I’ve ever read.

Striking up a conversation with Mary Anne is the easiest thing in the world (as long as you wait for a pause in the Martian terraforming process, or whatever world-changing plot she’s cooking up). The public resumé above is your playbook: ask her about Sri Lankan cooking, or marshmallows, or South Asian literature. Ask her about erotica, or being on a library board, or running for office, or futurist thinking. Ask her about her kids, or Oak Park, the town she loves. Ask her about teaching (did I mention that she, with her substantial reputation as an erotic writer, used to teach basic composition to first-year college students in Utah?). Ask her about starting online magazines, or foundations, or literary festivals. Or bring her your stories on one of these topics, or any adjacent subject. She’ll be interested and interesting; you’ll come in with a conversation starter and leave with the basis for a friendship. Just don’t expect her to stand still.

Debbie Notkin has been on either the FOGcon committee, the Board of Directors, or both for all ten FOGcons so far.