Host Christopher Merrill talks with Sri Lankan writer Ameena Hussein about Hussein’s novel, The Moon in the Water, and its strong female protagonist. They also discuss Hussein’s sociological research on migrant Muslim women in Los Angeles, and Hussein’s role as co-founder of the Perera Hussein Publishing House.
Ameena HUSSEIN is a writer and co-founder of the Perera Hussein Publishing House which has established itself as the frontrunner for cutting edge Sri Lankan fiction from emerging and established Sri Lankan writers. Her novel The Moon in the Water was longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Award and the Dublin IMPAC Prize. Her first short story collection Fifteen was shortlisted for the Gratiaen Prize in 1999 and her second collection of short stories Zillij won the State Literary Prize in 2005. She has also edited three collections of children’s stories and a collection of stories for adults. Now she is currently at work on a novel.
Ameena Hussein Interview Transcript
I’m Christopher Merrill, and you’re listening to Origins.
Origins: The International Writing Program Podcast is an interview series with writers from around the world addressing the origins of their creative works, the literary and social cultures in which they write, and the art of language.
The International Writing Program is the oldest and largest multinational writing residency in the world. Since 1967, over 1,400 writers from more than 150 nations have taken part in the Fall Residency here at the University of Iowa, where writers participate in literary and cultural exchange. Visit the International Writing Program online at iwp.uiowa.edu.
This episode of Origins features Sri Lankan writer Ameena Hussein.
Merrill: Ameena HUSSEIN is a writer and co-founder of the Perera Hussein Publishing House which has established itself as the frontrunner for cutting edge Sri Lankan fiction from emerging and established Sri Lankan writers. Her novel The Moon in the Water was longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Award and the Dublin IMPAC Prize. Her first short story collection Fifteen was shortlisted for the Gratiaen Prize in 1999 and her second collection of short stories Zillij won the State Literary Prize in 2005. She has also edited three collections of children’s stories and a collection of stories for adults. Now she is currently at work on a novel.
We are recording this conversation from the University of Iowa on Friday, July 29th, 2016. We had the chance to sit down with Ameena, who is here as an instructor for the International Writing Program’s Between the Lines youth writing program. Ameena is also an alumna of the 2006 IWP Fall Residency.
So, Ameena, Sri Lanka has both a very high literacy rate—the highest in South Asia at 92 percent—and a rich tradition of storytelling. Could you talk a bit about how your work navigates between the written and the oral? And, as a member of the Anglophone Sri Lankan community, how has storytelling been a part of your life? How has it informed your writing?
Hussein: Hi Chris, it’s a pleasure to be here. So Storytelling is very much a part of our lives. We grew up with our grandmothers or our aunts or fathers, mothers telling us stories, and they are very much part of the culture that we live amidst. So because I was a Muslim we had a lot of Muslim cultural stories also that were told in addition to the traditional. And I remember at 10-years-old having to babysit cousins, and creating stories, and I would never be content with the regular fairytales like The Ugly Duckling – couldn’t just become a beautiful swan. There had to be a tragic end, a fox had to get it. So my little cousins who were used to The Ugly Duckling living happily ever after were kind of shocked into dismay when they realized the story hadn’t finished there. So I was trained as a sociologist—and in sociology you have to listen to a lot of stories, but when you’re writing a report you have to be quite dry and quite dispassionate. And that didn’t suit me because I thought these were marvelous tales I was hearing, and so I began to write these stories on the side. For me, stories are also a way of documenting history, documenting culture, documenting life. Because the technological age we live in at the moment changes everything so much, and so fast that I go back and I read stories written in the 1950s and the 1960s just to get a feel of how life was then. So I think writers of the world today are always documenting and storytelling and then they become oral stories and then they become written stories and it’s a perpetual cycle.
Merrill: And this applies as well to the Anglophone part of the Sri Lankan community?
Hussein: It does! It does very much. Even your traditional tales are, even though they’re told in English. Because we grow up with Sinhala and Tamil in our vocabulary, it’s this delightful mismatch of English, Sinhala, Tamil all in one story and you just understand it and it makes so much sense.
Merrill: I love the idea that your work grew out of your training as a sociologist, ringing changes on these old stories being the impetus for creative work and I wonder if you could tell me how this actually happened. When did you make that transition from sociology to writing your own stories?
Hussein: In the 1990s I started a PhD program, and I was I think 26. For my thesis I decided to do Migrant Muslim Women in Los Angeles. I was studying at USC at that time. I got access to all the South Asian immigrant households. It was a snowball effect so I would go to the mosque, make friends with one person and they would introduce me to their friends. And I realized I was hearing a marvelous account of first-tale immigration from the South Asian woman’s perspective and their difficulty coming from very, very traditional homes with traditional expectations to a country that didn’t have such expectations. And so I started writing down the emotional stories on the side in a little book and then the, you know, very sociological quantitative, qualitative work for my studies. And then I just started playing around, going back to Sri Lanka listening to my aunts talking about their lives and started documenting all that. So that’s how it began, but I never thought of myself as a writer, I never imagined I would become a writer till long after, till I was in my thirties. And then the NGO I was working in saw the stories and they said, “Look, we like them and we’d like to publish it.” But I was so hesitant that I published about three or four stories under another name, under a pseudonym. It was very amusing to me to go to dinner parties or go somewhere and have people be outraged at what this writer, who they didn’t know, was writing about because I was quite the feminist and quite the quite the human rights activist, and they would say, “Who is this person?” and I’d just sit there thinking, “Oh, so this is what they actually think of my story.”
Merrill: So, you’ve spoken of your writing as a way of documenting a culture and a way of life that is being irrevocably altered. Could you speak a bit about the community to which you belong and the ways in which it’s changing?
Hussein: So I’m a Sri Lankan Muslim. We are eight to nine percent of the population of Sri Lanka. We have 70 percent Sinhalese, we have 20 percent Tamils, and then you have eight percent Muslims and then you have—the rest would be Christians and we have a very small percentage of Zoroastrians as well. So we are really living in a multicultural country and I adore that about Sri Lanka. And it has taken me a long while to realize that the culture we were brought up in was very much the Sufi Muslim culture. And in the 1970s, late 1970s to the 80s when a lot of Middle East workers started going to Saudi Arabia and they started bringing back their version of Saudi-ized Islam.
Hussein: Wahhabism. That the community started a slow change. So what we saw virtu—we saw history happening in front of our eyes where and the first place of change is the dress of women, as is in a lot of situations. So the women started wearing black dress and black cloaks, actually.
Hussein: Hijab. And then the men started growing beards and they started wearing the white thob of the Saudi Arabians. And it was strange but it was not—it didn’t bother us at the beginning because you know it was not so many. But today you find, I would easily say 70 percent of the [Sri Lankan Muslim] population might be wearing this and for me the saddest part is that today everyone thinks if you’re Muslim you have to wear it whereas it is not so. My grandmother, you could say wore her kind of hijab, which was she wore the sari, which is a traditional dress. She wore a long-sleeve blouse, she covered her head with a sari and she wore a petti coat that never showed any skin. So actually, she revealed everything that the hijab reveals today, but she did it in the Sri Lankan way. She wore colored saris, so it showed an acculturation into the country that had—that we had lived in for more than a thousand years and I very strongly believe that we are as much Sri Lankan as we are Muslim.
Merrill: In the Sufi tradition, in my understanding of it, is more embracing, it embraces the diversity of a culture.
Hussein: It’s actually the religion of love.
Hussein: And I can’t think of a better faith to belong to than the Sufi version.
Merrill: So what do you imagine this is going to portend for your community and for your country?
Hussein: When it feels dire and I feel a bit depressed, all I have to do is jump in my car and go on a trip around Sri Lanka. And there you meet other Muslims who are very open-minded, who renew your faith in the multiculturalism of the country, who speak as if they belong very strongly to the country—that we are very happy to be Sri Lankans. And this happened when I did the Ibn Battuta trip. So when I went to around, I came back home after the three weeks that I’d spent traveling and I said, “I feel so much better.” Because actually Sufi Islam is also alive and well; we may not see it, it may not be that obvious, but it is very much there. And the Sri Lankan Muslims you know in South Asia we’re survivors not whether you’re Muslim or not, you’re survivors. After having gone through 26 years of war you learn to pick up the pieces and carry on. So, there might be dark times; I mean I think we’re currently going through a bit of a dark time where the Sinhalese Buddhists might think that we do not feel we belong as a community to Sri Lanka, but that is something we need to sort out on our own. And I think we’ll do it.
Merrill: You mentioned the Ibn Battuta trip. Could you say just a word about what that was and what inspired the trip? Tell us something about Ibn Battuta.
Hussein: So, first, before I say that, I have to say a big thank you to the IWP. Because if not for the Silk Routes, the Between the Lines program, and the conference we had in the Maldives, I wouldn’t even have thought to start this. So, when you gathered all of us there Chris, we were from countries like Kyrgyzstan, Maldives, India, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Pakistan. And when we were chatting, and the proposal of a project came up, I was listening to what everyone was saying and what was coming up—this one name kept cropping up. It was Ibn Battuta. And I knew he had come to Sri Lanka, but actually I did not know much else about it. So when I came back to Sri Lanka, I thought, “I think this is a good way to investigate this 14th century traveler.” And so I bought the books, I started all the reading, and the research, and oh my god, it just blew my mind that he had come, he had spent about three to six months there, he had gone on pilgrimage to Adams Peak, or Sri Pada, which the Hindu faith, the Buddhist faith, the Muslim faith all go on pilgrimages together. It’s a beautiful example of religions and faiths and communities existing side by side. And so all of last year I spent travelling and doing the project and this year I’m writing the travelogue.
Merrill: And he was quite a writer, too. Wasn’t he?
Hussein: He was an amazing writer. He was an adventurer, he was a—I like to call him a social climber. And he also gives you an insight into the way people lived and traveled and the co-existence and the—you know you couldn’t be rigid at that age, at that time. You had to be flexible, various things were thrown at you. You had to adapt and he was the master of that.
Merrill: And he was a great observer, too. He was so attentive to the local customs wherever he travelled.
Hussein: He was, and in fact it is because he came to Sri Lanka and he wrote about it that we know certain things that existed in our country in the 14th century; and of that I’m really glad.
Merrill: You yourself are quite a traveler. You lived in Switzerland and you’ve traveled extensively in the U.S., and the protagonist of your novel The Moon in the Water, Khadeeja, is a Sri Lankan woman who has left Sri Lanka to live and work in Europe. Has your time abroad changed the way you see women’s issues, for example, at home, or the way you advocate for women’s issues in Sri Lanka?
Hussein: You know I’m very lucky, because of the South Asian countries, Sri Lanka has the strongest women. We were the first country to –
Merrill: I believe that!
Hussein: Yeah, we were the first country to have the world’s first female prime minister. And so, actually, I have to thank and attribute the Sinhala culture we grew up in because the Sinhala culture gives women a lot of power, and of course it’s within a patriarchal framework, we must not forget that, but it is different. And so, I did have examples of strong women. But I think coming to the U.S. and doing gender studies and having the opportunity to meet and speak with different people—because America is the ultimate melting pot, you do meet people from different parts of the world—made me get stronger in my beliefs of how a woman should be, her rights, how she should live, and the agency she should have in the decisions she makes.
Merrill: And this comes on the heels of your work as a sociologist studying violence against women in more rural parts of Sri Lanka. Do you see a distinction between what you were doing then, or how you came to view the writing of this book? Did that inform the creation of this character?
Hussein: Of Khadeeja? Well the violence—not really. Khadeeja was an amalgamation of all the strong women that I had in my family. You know my family is the first—my first loot box that I will I will steal from, and so we’ve had very strong women. We’ve had business women, we’ve had you know even if they weren’t very educated they were people who felt they knew their place and their place was quite in the forefront of the family, certainly not at the back. So it’s Khadeeja’s mother actually who is representative of that generation, and Khadeeja is the modern, what I like to think of as the modern Muslim woman, who goes out into the world, who’s educated, who earns her living and also gets to choose who she would like to have an emotional relationship with. It may not all go well, but that’s what I would like to see, and I can see even though there are many women of the Muslim community who may wear hijab, they’re very self-confident you know forging ahead kind of women. So I’m happy there. It’s because of this strong women concept that even within the patriarchal construct you are always going to find women agitating for their rights and fighting also for people and for women who are less privileged.
Merrill: I had the good luck to hear you read from this novel when you were working on it here at the IWP. Can you say anything about what the experience of being here for the IWP meant for the writing of the novel?
Hussein: Oh my god, I cannot believe how indebted I am because I was at that point, you know, in Sri Lanka you cannot earn your living as a writer and also you do not have time and space to write. You have to do lots of other things—you have to earn a living, you have to deal with your extended family, you have a hectic social life so you’re running around. And you get involved in stuff, in a lot of, you know, social activities, not necessarily tea party kind of social activities but you know like I don’t want to say you know I don’t want to act as if I’m this human rights activist but there were lots of issues that we needed to get involved in and I would have liked to get involved in. So the chance to come to IWP and actually be given the gift of the time and space to write was just amazing. It is something that not many people have the opportunity to get. So I actually used that time to write a lot of The Moon in the Water here. And the good thing is because you are away from your country, you get to look at your look back at your subject matter with a different lens.
Merrill: One of the things that comes to mind in this connection is that you present an image in The Moon in the Water of Islam that has two faces: the private and the public. The recently widowed mother of the protagonist, for example, never performs her daily prayers, but she conforms fairly strictly, albeit begrudgingly, to the iddah, or the period of seclusion that follows the death of her husband, and she cites public opinion as the reason for this. You’ve also mentioned that a great deal of self-censorship is involved in your own writing, and I wonder if finding a space outside of Sri Lanka made it possible for you to look at that more objectively, and then if you could talk a little bit about how you found ways in which spaces for your characters to move within—and maybe without—their faith.
Hussein: So, I was here in 2005 at the IWP, and the novel came out in 2009. And yes, there is a certain amount of self-censorship, or if I wrote something I had to be really sure that what I wrote was correct. If it’s an opinion it’s okay but if there are some views held by people and they might think it’s a religious view, if I was going to dispute that I had to make sure that that was really right.
Merrill: Which is where the sociology training comes in.
Hussein: Yes, yes, exactly. Exactly. But I think now, eleven years later, a lot has changed. In the sense I think I’ve grown more comfortable in my skin now, I’m much more confident about who I am and my moments of self-censorship might be less and less much to the chagrin, I think, of others who might want me to censor more. I’m just I’m just happy with who I am and where I am and that makes a big difference in the way you write also. So the climate of everything has changed. In a year so many changes can happen and I think my family supports me. That means a lot to me to have the family support. That okay you’re a writer and you’re a publisher and you can live and do how you feel fit to live. And I think that is important and maybe in a small way I was fighting for that so I’m happy that I’ve got there. I feel, it’s funny, that yes there are people who practice any religion, be it Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, for the public space as well. I can think of plenty of politicians who will subscribe to that –
Merrill: In this country, as well.
Hussein: But I feel okay, that’s their choice, that’s the selection that they’ve made. And I will not pass judgment on it. What I’m actually more concerned with are the people who fervently believe in very extremist points of view and they worry me far more.
Merrill: So could you say a word about what you’re working on right now? The new novel that’s underway?
Hussein: I’m very excited—so in addition to the travelogue, I’m working on a novel. Part of the time I live in a small, small village thirteen kilometers off the first town that Ibn Battuta set foot in. It happened quite by accident.
Merrill: And did you know that before?
Hussein: I did not know that before, no. And in fact, after I started my Ibn Battuta study, my husband came home from a trip to the town and he said, “Come, I have a surprise for you,” and he shows me a photograph on his phone and it says Battuta Road. And I was delighted. I’m like where did you find it? And he said it’s close to the mosque. And so we actually went, and then I saw the road, and then I started asking people about the history and then I visited the mosque and spoke to the trustees—so they remember him very clearly. So the novel began because I live three days of the week in this little village. I run a coconut plantation and a cajou plantation. It is very, very small. I hate to use the word plantation, but that is the word we use in Sri Lanka we call them estates—
Merrill: And cajou means what?
Hussein: Cajou is the way we pronounce cashew. So, anyway, I live there and I’m very integrated in the village because I’m a sociologist, I mean I cannot remove that from me…
Merrill: And you know how to listen.
Hussein: And I know how to listen. And I’m interested. I’m actually interested in the stories, which I think they find intriguing, that a city person is interested in their lives, interested in the way they live. And we live in an off-the-grid house, so we do not have electricity and I’ve been living there for ten years. It also simplifies my life. When I started hearing these stories, I realized, these are not the stories that city writers are writing about the village, because they have a different view. And I decided to document the village.
So I had a little meeting and I spoke to a few people and said I’m a writer do you mind if I talk to you a lot and get stories about the village and I’m writing a book. I decided to be upfront because in case the book got translated into Sinhala, I didn’t want them to be shocked and surprised and disappointed. They were very thrilled to talk to me and so I started gathering stories and then I decided maybe not many people would want to read about a village, so I decided to make it a thriller. So my man commits a murder. And he’s in the village. So, basically, that’s what I’m writing.
Merrill: Yeah, and so you’re going between writing a novel and writing a travelogue. Do the two different books you’re working on feed each other, or do you feel drawn apart by them? How does that work for you in the writing process?
Hussein: Sometimes I feel schizophrenic. So this year, I mean when I go back to Sri Lanka, I’m going to take a break from the novel and I’m going to just concentrate on writing the travelogue because I’d really like it out as soon as possible because I think it’s very timely and then I’ll start writing the novel. But when I came to this time to Iowa and I was requested to read at Prairie Lights, I brought one of the stories from the village and I had to work on it and it was such a joy. It was truly such a joy to work on fiction that I thought, I really must get the travelogue out of the way. I have to go back to my first love.
Merrill: And you have a third love in the publishing house. Can you talk about what you do there and what books you’re excited about these days?
Hussein: So, the publishing house was started just before I came to Iowa actually, it was two years old then, now it is thirteen years old. We have grown a lot—not in personnel, but in what we’re trying to achieve. So earlier on we were doing only fiction, then we branched off to very select poetry because poetry is very difficult to sell in Sri Lanka, then memoir, we did some memoir, and this is very, very exciting for me because we are doing nonfiction. And I’m thrilled, because nonfiction is also where I wanted to go but I wasn’t sure if we were ready for it. The publishing house deals with Sri Lankan writers writing about Sri Lanka. We’re very Sri Lankan specific, but we’ve been very lucky and we’ve actually sold about three or four titles to international publishing houses. With the nonfiction, also I hope to sell it internationally because one is about the beginning of Eelam, for people who are not familiar with the Sri Lankan war, the Sri Lankan war was the call by the Tamil population for a separate state because they felt that they were not treated fairly and quite rightly so, I feel, quite justified in saying they were not treated fairly. I have reservations about whether the solution was a separate state, it’s not my, it’s not a solution I would have looked for. So, we came across this manuscript, and actually we had been sitting on this manuscript for six years because the political climate for us to publish such a, such a…well, what can I say, such a provocative manuscript was not good because we were under a previous government that was very fascist and very nationalist. This was, in the 1930s there was a politician called Mr. Suntheralingam who actually made the call for Eelam then in the 1930s and we got independence in 1948 and he was increasingly disillusioned and the cry just became louder and louder but people have forgotten that, so these are letters that he has written to his grandchildren about his journey as a politician and the journey of the Tamil community in Sri Lanka and how they feel that they have been unfairly treated. So that’s censorship in a way also, you know, it’s not self-censorship but it is, “Is this the correct climate to bring the book out?” So one of the grandsons who brought the manuscript to us and we just sat on it and the minute the government changed this year we decided okay, now is the time and we just had the launch like about two days before I took the flight to come here. So that’s one of the nonfiction books I’m thrilled about.
Merrill: So we have these books to look forward to and your travelogue and your new novel—what’s your new novel titled?
Merrill: Spoonflower, which—
Hussein: Yeah, it’s the name of the village. So I titled it after that.
Merrill: Well, Ameena Hussein, thank you so much for making this time to talk with us today.
Hussein: Chris, thank you so much for having me. It’s always delightful and lovely for me to come back to Iowa, it’s like coming back home for me. Thank you.
Merrill: Welcome home.
The International Writing Program is a nonprofit organization supported by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. Department of State. To donate to the IWP or to support a writer, please visit us online at iwp.uiowa.edu.
Origins is edited and produced by Kathleen Maris Paltrineri, with editing and design by Donna Brooks, and production assistance from Todd Johnson, research assistance from Hodna Nuernberg, Claire Jacobson, and Nathan Bläsing; music composition is by Noel Nissen with pianist Trevor Polk and music production with Brandon Darner and Micah Natera. I’m your host Christopher Merrill. For a transcript and more information about this episode, please visit us online. Stay tuned to our next podcast available March 15, 2017 where I talk with Sri Lankan writer Zhou Jianing.