Writing in & of the World: Silk Routes Grant Narrative, Sri Lanka

I grew up in a house which had books in every room.  We read everything we could lay our hands on. From well thumbed, back copies of my uncle’s Readers Digests to my father’s leather bound tomes of Anna Karenina, and A Tale of Two Cities. As little children our personal library consisted of all the Enid Blytons, Daphne Du Mauriers, and Rumer and Jon Goddens. In my father’s library no book was denied to us and long before we understood them, we had looked at Virgil’s Aeneid, the Mahabharata, the works of Aldous Huxley and even the original Arabian Nights.   

Perhaps it was no surprise then, that with all this reading, I would try my hand at writing creatively. My first writing memory was a poem I wrote at the age of eight, lying down on a coconut frond woven mat in our back garden. I went upstairs to show it to my father. He was seated by the window, reading a book. The evening sun streamed in and he was bathed in a glow of light. He read the poem carefully and in silence. I stood beside him anxiously - just the two of us in my parents’ bedroom - wondering what he would say. I remember nothing else of the poem but the line: The shadowy end of a perfect day.  My father thought it was a nice turn of phrase. And that was it. “Very good,” he said gravely and went back to his book. I went back to the garden. In Sri Lanka of the 70s children were most often seen and not heard. Praise was infrequent. Children adjusted to the adult world, not the other way around. And it was that maxim, I believe, which allowed my writing to grow at its own pace.

When I read for my PhD in Sociology, my specialization on minorities, migration, and Muslim women gave me a wealth of information obtained through field work and research. But dry academic writing frustrated me. And it frustrated my professors with me. I needed an outlet and thus began my secret. A large red binder became my ally. I was 27 years old, living in Los Angeles, in a relationship I wanted to end and floundering at graduate school. Writing became my outlet. For the next ten years I worked as a sociologist and moonlighted as a writer of short stories, even publishing some in Sri Lanka. In 1999 a Sri Lankan NGO working on ethnic issues published my first collection of short stories which to my surprise was shortlisted for the Gratiaen Prize - a new Sri Lankan literary prize established by Michael Ondaatje, the Booker Prize winning author of The English Patient. Only a handful of friends came for the shortlist event. No-one else knew I wrote – not my parents, not my childhood friends, not even my ex-husband. That was the beginning of my literary career.

If I am asked why I write, I don’t have a ready answer. My writing is driven by a desire to engage and prompt discussion on daily life from a variety of angles and influences. Initially it was my training as a sociologist that motivated me and perhaps that has never left me. For even now, when I write, it is never simply writing a story, it is always relating a story that will, if I am successful, stay with a reader at many levels. I am lucky that I live in a region that inspires effortlessly. One only has to look at expatriate south-Asian, and especially Sri Lankan writers, to know that regardless of many years of living in the West, their inspiration comes from the country they left behind. Ours is a small island that has endless themes. And yes, it is important to me that I live in the country I write about and that I remain close to my subject matter. It keeps me grounded.

My tales come from the world around me. A twenty-six year civil war, post-conflict life, the jostling of multiculturalism to find a happy medium, rising ethnic and religious chauvinism, and my life in a rural village, three days of the week, creep into my stories and essays.

To date, I have written two collections of short stories, one novel, collated and edited a collection of adult themed stories, two collections of short stories for children and numerous articles written for the print media.  I am currently writing a novel using a series of connected stories, set in a Sri Lankan village reflecting life in current times. It is not a familiar theme for me, and yet I see in the changing Sri Lankan village a story that resonates within. And when the story finds me, then I become a writer.