May 2013

Terry Hong

features

An Interview with Ru Freeman

Allow me to start with the simple end: Ru Freeman's On Sal Mal Lane is stupendous. I'll even embellish that verdict and add that it is actually fan-huththa-tastic... the tmetic meaning of which should encourage you to go get your own copy and check the "glossary" at book's end. You'll surely find some choice vocabulary there to aptly describe your own reading experience.

As in Freeman's absorbing 2009 debut, A Disobedient Girl, the intricate lives of young children take center stage in On Sal Mal Lane. In 1979, the titular Sal Mal Lane is a small cul-de-sac on the outskirts of Sri Lanka's largest city and former capital, Colombo; in spite of the diverse households, the residents live in relative peace. If they are not exactly friendly, then they certainly live as tolerant neighbors one and all. The Herath family of two parents, four young children -- Suren the musician, Rashmi the singer, Nihil the cricketer, and baby Devi the favored -- and their servant move into the quiet enclave, reshuffling friendships and alliances throughout the lane.

The Heraths are educated and cultured, and their four children, whose ages range from seven-and-a-half-year-old Devi to twelve-year-old Suren, "were different from all the others who had come and stayed for a while on Sal Mal Lane." In addition to each being neat and clean, well-mannered and talented, their devotion to one another -- "the way they stood together even when they were apart... every word uttered, every challenge made, every secret kept, together" -- is a gift to behold.

Even as the Heraths' lives intertwine with that of their neighbors, beyond the safety of their small street, the rest of the country is at an impasse. Ethnic, religious, and political differences among a population with a long history of divisions, colonizations, and suppressions foment through the years, leading up to a coming civil war that will break out in 1983 and last over a quarter-century. "Everyone who lived on Sal Mal Lane was implicated in what happened... the Tamil Catholics and Hindus, the Burgher Catholics, the Muslims, and the Sinhalese, both Catholic and Buddhist. Their lives were unfolding against a backdrop of conflict that would span decades... And while this story is about small people, we must consider the fact that their history is long and accord them, too, a story equal to their past."

Freeman surely doesn't disappoint. As she unwinds what happened -- with prose both lingering and breathtaking -- the children, even the lane's bully who could have been different with just the occasional kindness, will charm you, tease you, play with you, and when they leave you, they'll shatter your heart. "To tell a story about divergent lives, the storyteller must be everything and nothing," Freeman's prologue concludes. "If at times you detect some subtle preferences, an undeserved generosity toward someone, a boy child, perhaps, or an old man, forgive me. It is far easier to be everything and nothing than it is to conceal love."

What possessed you to write this novel? How did it come about?

First, I had been a little down about a magazine piece that did not work out. [The article] had to do with the end of the war [the Sri Lankan Civil War -- July 23, 1983, to May 18, 2009], and the editor wanted a very pared-down story with easily identifiable villains and saints. I wanted to write a more nuanced story. Second, I didn't set out to write this novel, in particular. I was just dabbling with this and that, sketching out some anecdotal bits about growing up down a lane like this one. It was one of my brothers, Malinda, who nudged me down this road. He started chatting back with me -- via Google Chat -- reminiscing about that time and there it was -- the novel I wanted to write. This story that was the one I had been trying to put into that magazine article, the one that was not easy but faceted and brittle and gentle and layered.

You grew up the youngest child in a household full of words and music, literature, and politics, not unlike the Herath home. How much of your own background inspired this novel?

I did grow up in a household whose movement sometimes coalesced around, sometimes was sundered by, politics and various forms of the arts, but what there is of that time in my life in this book are fragments. I've certainly taken moments that I remember -- singing around a piano, which we did, or my mother's irritation with the coming of a guitar -- and given them a significance they only possess in this fictional narrative. As a writer -- like, I suspect, all writers -- I reach into the things I know, however fleeting the "feeling" of that knowing, and expand from within those moments for the purposes of fiction. If I'm writing a scene of coveting something -- as [the bully] Sonna does -- I go into a personal experience (either mine or someone else's that I've been told of), and it serves as a door to a room. I go into that room -- of desiring something -- and I look around and I describe what I observe there. So it isn't biographical in that sense. It is all imaginary except for that one crossing of the threshold.

And the family and friends who ushered you into adulthood? Who are they and in what ways do they appear in these pages?

I think I was ushered into adulthood by a character called political violence, more than any one human being. Violence, the kind that unfolds here, obviously, but many other occasions of death and betrayal -- of people, of ideals, of political objectives -- were the real companions of our lives; they informed our views, they circumscribed our journeys, they dictated our relationships. The anti-government uprisings that were put down in the mid-late 1980s and in which my brothers and their friends were caught, the way we grew afraid of our neighbors informing on us for political expediency, the death threats my father received over the years, the phones that were tapped, and through it all, this drawn-out war in which we were all (every disagreeing political faction), under the threat of suicide bombers from the LTTE [Liberation Tigers of the Tamil Eelam, also known as the Tamil Tigers, a militant separatist organization based in northern Sri Lanka]. You live differently under such circumstances. You learn to expect bad news, to ask the question, "Did anybody die?," which is really asking, "Did anybody we know die?" because, of course, somebody has died, many people have died, and though we mourn them, we are also instantly grateful not to have to mourn the ones we know well.

There is that sense in these pages, the way in which we are, ordinary people, transformed by the politics, and the politically motivated violence around us.

How did the writing start for you? Who taught you? Who encouraged you? Who enabled you?

I have written all my life. It was never something I thought I had to learn. It was like learning a third language (I had Sinhala and English already) -- this language of describing what happens around us, our flights of imagination. Nobody had presented it to me as such -- as something we have to learn how to do properly.

What we were all surrounded with from the time we were born was the idea that we had to read. Reading was what my father did anytime that he wasn't eating or talking or making policies about this or that. Reading was what my mother taught as she recited poetry and plays and short fiction. If you read, you cannot help but write. If you go sit by the beach every day, one day you are going to get in the water and swim to be one with it. One day you are going to want to take those words that you've been reading and play with them for real. That's what happened with us all and certainly with me. My mother encouraged my writing by listening to the things I wrote, by being genuinely impressed with how I did it, from school papers to essays to articles. She gave me a place to put some of that writing, when I wrote for the magazines she edited at her school -- under my initials, RS, since it was a boys' school!

Where were you on July 23, 1983, when what would be known as the quarter-century-long Sri Lankan Civil War broke out?

I was at the school I attended then, Holy Family Convent [in Colombo]. I waited there not knowing what was happening except that the girls were being sent home, but only with a parent or with someone who had a signed note from a parent. My father came to fetch me -- something he had never done in person -- and we rode the buses home, whatever we could find, a circuitous route. So here's that autobiographical bit -- on our way home he did tell me not to speak in English (as Mr. Herath does in this book), and he was accosted by a thug asking for a light for his cigarette to which my father replied, as Mr. Herath does, that he only had matches, words he uttered in Sinhala.

A whole lifetime passed before war was finally over, although perhaps to say peace came is still, unfortunately, perhaps a bit premature. When the official end was announced, where were you on May 18, 2009?

I was here in the United States. I had been back home earlier that year, and I knew things were coming to a head. The entire country was heavily militarized. There were armed personnel everywhere. At that time I was writing -- in my capacity as a journalist -- about Israel's bombing of Gaza, which led to the deaths of 1,417 Palestinians and thirteen Israelis. And I found myself in Colombo, where every street corner had giant posters of the soldiers, and the entire country -- with representatives from every group, Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims -- steadfastly supporting the military and the possibility of an end to years of war. So I understood what it must have felt like on that day for Sri Lankans in Sri Lanka. It is what I felt -- not euphoria but relief, this lifting of a thick mantle of despair and hopelessness and dread that had lain on our heads for three decades.

They say when you give birth to a child you cannot rush to get back to looking the way you did before you became pregnant, that it takes as long to return to that state. It is no less true about war. You can't have thirty years of war and expect peace to follow in a month, a year, or even five years. What was torn down during those years will take as long to rebuild, less only if the country is allowed to heal without interference from parties who aren't interested in peace. You can rebuild roads, buildings, infrastructure of all types, but people, hearts, these take a long time to heal.

How will you mark the fourth anniversary -- which, since timing is everything, just happens to fall a few days after your publication date? Seems like a bit of poetic victory there.

The publication of the book in Canada falls on the anniversary. And although there was to be a big event there in conjunction with an organization called Sri Lankans Without Borders, a group that is committed to bring Sri Lankans who no longer live in Sri Lanka together, they decided in the end to cancel the event because of the fact that tempers are short this time of year for many expatriate Sri Lankans in Canada. This does not auger well for goodwill, but I am heartened by the fact that one of its chief organizers wrote to me personally to express how moved he was by this book, and to thank me for writing it. That gives me hope. And I will be in Toronto doing several public events which will also give me the opportunity to do what I had always hoped this book would enable me to do -- to speak of reconciliation the way only fiction can make possible, this reaching across and through the emotional barriers we all build and protect and that are the real obstacle to peace. Before Toronto, though, I will be in Washington, D.C., on the 20th, speaking about the book for NPR and I hope there, too, to commemorate the anniversary more by looking forward to the good we need than the evil that has occurred.

Do you ever feel you can separate the personal with the political in your own life?

Never. In my heart I have very strongly held beliefs about a variety of social justice issues and they do, and I insist that they do, inform my personal life in every way. You cannot, for instance, claim to support public education but send your own child to private school. You cannot say you support equality for all but remain silent when your gay friends are being maligned in every sphere of their lives. You cannot say you don't like policy x, y, z, but do nothing to stop it. I have opinions and I express them and I do so publicly and always under my own name.

There have been times when people who care have asked me to tone down this or that statement about some event or policy or political showdown because it may aggravate somebody or some group that may be good for my writing life. That is something I will never do. My writing life is my life and I am at the center of it. It isn't some separate, you know, potted plant I'm nurturing in some rarefied sunny window under pristine conditions of air and humidity. It is here, in this life we are all living together, and it is conducted in service to that larger, more inter-connected "us," and I want it to breathe that same air, be in the mess of it all.

What I will do in my creative writing, however, is look for the places where the people I may disagree with (even over those same social justice issues) and I can find some larger truth, some larger good, where politics and policies and crusades fall away and we are left -- they and I -- naked and vulnerable and, most important of all, indivisible from each other. In my fiction I can ache for Israel in a way that I cannot in my political journalism. That would be the extent of the separation -- which isn't a separation at all but an even tighter bonding.

In our brave new world of instant access, we seem to know all, all the time, without being able to actually understand the facts, images, demands, biases thrust upon on us incessantly without pause, layer on top of layers. Knowing what we do, can we ever be objective? Can we ever not take "sides"? 

I don't think we are ever objective and we are also, often, wrong in our subjectivity. When we think we're gathering information, we're usually merely eavesdropping on a murmured conversation uttered in another language. We look at a photograph from Tahrir Square and we think we understand the Arab Spring. And what we mean by understanding is usually some kind of ownership. Even as journalists, when we write of such events, we assume a language of authority that we don't ever possess. The only people who possess that authority are the people living that moment and whose hearts are completely invested in that historical moment, that place, that country.

The taking of sides -- this, too, is informed not by any knowledge of the ground reality which we do not know, but also by the assumptions we bring to an event based on our own background. So we have a subsequently discredited charlatan talking about WMDs in Iraq and off goes the nation to war. We have an expatriate [Sri Lankan] community in America throw out those loaded terms "minorities" and "genocide" and next thing you know, John Kerry is off to advocate for economic sanctions against Sri Lanka, and various American academics are churning out journal articles about a conflict they know next to nothing about. So yes, we take sides, but without real knowledge, often as puppets being manipulated by someone or some group who knows the right language and triggers and plays the game well.

Let's talk logistics for a moment. So you've got the activism, the journalism, and the daily grind of family responsibilities -- where, when, how, do you find the space to write your fiction?

I write everywhere and whenever I can. I don't have some kind of ideal condition that I am waiting for. Mostly, though, these are the shorter pieces - essays, poems, maybe a short story. For the novels I go away -- three weeks the most -- and I work non-stop. I have been fortunate to have been given that time at Yaddo to write the first draft of this book, and VCCA to finish editing it. With A Disobedient Girl, I went to Chebeaugue Island in Maine with two friends for a weekend and we three wrote in the mornings, and the rest of it was written while on spring break in Cobscook Bay, also in Maine. The computer (I had an IBM laptop) charger only lasted for two hours and it had to be charged with the car. So I had two hours each morning to write a chapter because I was forced to by those parameters! So, basically, I work with what I have.

As you've mentioned already, you were expected to be quite the reader even from birth. How old were you when you first read and how many times since have you read To Kill a Mockingbird? Does Devi embody a distant relation to Scout?

I had great difficulty reading when I was very young. I remember sitting on the floor of the one-bedroom flat we lived in at the time (my parents, older brothers and I), and watching my mother and her sisters get ready for a wedding. I was crying and so miserable because I was supposed to sit there and say "b, b, b" for the letter B and "d, d, d" for the letter D until I could tell the difference. At some point, my mother came over, yanked the book from my hands and yelled at me, calling her sisters over to show them how "this wretch has rubbed out the letter B!" which I must have done with my tear-soggy finger absent-mindedly. I don't think I earned one of her stinging slaps, but I do recall the book being flung down on my head. It's a miracle I love reading anyway.

To Kill a Mockingbird is one of my favorite books, and I've read it several times, but I think the comparison you and others make between Devi and Scout will have to be left for the readers.

Like Sal Mal, your first book also looked deeply into the souls of children. That transition period of childhood -- that unlimited potential -- obviously looms large in both your novels. Which characters inspired you as a child? What books shaped your childhood?

My favorites were two I mention in this book, fleetingly: Tutti and Suok from The Three Fat Men by Yuri Olesha. The magnitude of what was done to them, their separation from each other, the way they persevere, their love for and loyalty to one another in the end, these things moved me even as a very young child. My characters in the stories that I wrote as a child were always about my siblings and our friends. They were -- and remain -- richly veined with the stuff that makes for good stories. They were -- and are -- complex and rich and dark and funny and smart people. I go to that "well" repeatedly to draw out the bits and pieces that I can use to clothe something that I'm writing. I also read and loved Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons series; the enterprising, runaway, disobedient yet essentially good, nature of those kids was also fascinating to me.

Here in the West, we don't seem to have too many chances to read the works of Sri Lankan writers. We have a few East-West hybrids, including the venerable Michael Ondaatje and the edgy Shyam Selvadurai -- interesting that they are both Canadian -- to name a couple. Who else -- both Sri Lankan (in translation, if need be) and diasporic -- should we be reading?

Well, Shehan Karunatilaka (whose novel Chinaman was also published in English), is a new voice whose work won the Commonwealth Prize last year. Jean Arasanayagam and Romesh Gunasekera (based in London), are well known in Europe, though not so much here. There are many whose work would reach a wider audience here, if their work were available in translation. I'm working with Alane Salierno Mason who edits the Words Without Borders series to guest-edit a section on Sri Lankan literature (from Simon Navagaththegama, Ariyawansa Ranaweera, and Kalaivaathy Kaleel), in translation. That might bring some of Sri Lanka's best literature -- which is written in Sinhala and Tamil, not English -- to Americans.

Do you ever worry that you will be defined as being a Sri Lankan writer, instead of the less rigid label of "writer"?

I am a Sri Lankan writer and proud of it. Any good words that come to me about this book or any other book or writing or work that I ever do I owe in great part to the fact that I was born and raised in Sri Lanka, and go about the world with that cultural sensibility. I will write -- and have written -- stories set here in the United States, and most of my non-fiction and poetry is based on the reality of straddling these two countries, and I meet many people who automatically assume I am American because of my very non-Sri Lankan last name. It all comes out in the wash. Anytime I speak there is no doubt at all where my heart lies -- it is in what makes me Sri Lankan.

And now that you've ushered us to Sal Mal Lane, where will you go next?

I have an excerpt coming out very soon in collaboration with Guernica/PEN (in conjunction with this year's PEN World Voices Festival), "Siege," which is from a novel I've been working on. I'm sort of dancing around that work, trying to figure out how to make it work, finding a more immediate voice, and this is a way for me to see what the response might be to this iteration (though small and contained). I'm also looking at putting together some of my personal essays, thinking about larger themes and so forth. It's a kind of in-limbo space right now -- between a really intense book tour coming up and going home (where I'll be working on some non-fiction political pieces), and beginning to teach, for now, at Columbia in the fall.