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Book review: The Boat People by Sharon Bala

Reviewed by Krishna Sruthi Srivalsan 

The Boat People

 

Title: The Boat People
Author: Sharon Bala
Publisher: Doubleday
Pages: 332
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In the world of the privileged, one is inundated with a plethora of choices – what to eat, what to wear, where to study, where to work, how to go to work, where to travel… each second, we unconsciously make decisions, choosing the best amongst the options available to us. It has become so ingrained in our psyche that we take choice for granted. What if you did not have a choice? Sharon Bala’s debut novel The Boat People examines this haunting question.

The book draws inspiration from an incident in 2010 where a Thai cargo ship named ‘MV Sun Sea’ docked at the coast of British Columbia, carrying on board nearly 500 Sri Lankan refugees. In the land of the free, the refugees aboard the ship found themselves suspected of terrorism, having forged ties with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, and detained. Having fled the horrors of the civil war in Sri Lanka, Bala’s protagonist Mahindan finds himself in frosty Vancouver with precisely this fate awaiting him.

While Mahindan is in the detention centre, his six-year-old son is taken away from him, and placed with a foster family. Priya, a law student of Tamil origin, finds herself embroiled in proving Mahindan’s innocence to the law and in the process unearths some dark secrets within her own family. Bala also weaves the internment of Canadian citizens of Japanese origin during the Second World War into her tapestry through Grace Nakamura, a government appointed adjudicator with the Refugee Board. Grace, previously with the Ministry of Transport and Infrastructure, is inexperienced in refugee law and has a bias against the refugees, partly due to the stand taken by her boss, a government minister. As she struggles with the burden of deciding the fate of Mahindan and others like him, her own mother who is battling early rounds of Alzheimer’s’, reminds her of the injustice meted out to Japanese-Canadian citizens during the war. Cruelly reminded that they were ‘aliens’, with slogans such as, ‘No Japs from the Rockies to the Seas’ openly chanted, the Japanese-Canadians were treated with suspicion and regarded as a threat to the harmony of the state until proven innocent. Kumi, Grace’s mother, slowly witnesses her own mind unravelling, and yet holding on to the strings of the past, she reminds Grace not to inflict upon people a gross injustice that had once been inflicted on her own ancestors.

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Poetry: Sunday by Dilantha Gunawardana

Sunday by Dilantha Gunawardana

Dilantha Gunawardana

Dilantha Gunawardana is a molecular biologist by training, yet identifies himself, as a wordsmith, papadum thief, “Best Laksa” seeker, poet of accident and fluke, hoop-addict, a late bloomer on all fronts, ex-quiz-druggy and humour-artist, who is still learning the craft of poetry. Dilantha lives in a chimerical universe of science and poems. His poems have been accepted for publication /published in Heart Wood Literary Magazine, Canary Literary Magazine, Boston Accent Lit, Forage, Kitaab, Creatrix, Eastlit, American Journal of Poetry, Zingara Poetry Review, The Wagon and Ravens Perch, among others. Dilantha has two anthologies of poetry, Kite Dreams (2016) and Driftwood (2017), published by Sarasavi Publishers, and is working on his third poetry collection, The Many Constellations of Home. Dilantha was awarded the prize for “The emerging writer of the year – 2016” in the Godage National Literary Awards, Sri Lanka, while being shortlisted for the poetry prize, in the same awards ceremony.
Dilantha blogs at – https://kite-dreams.com/


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Novel on Rajani Thiranagama gets ready for English readers

(From The Hindu. Link to the complete article given below)

Twenty-nine years after the brutal murder of Tamil human rights activist and feminist Rajani Thiranagama in Jaffna by an assassin allegedly deputed by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a powerful Malayalam literary work chronicling her struggle is breaking the language barrier to reach readers across the globe who continue to remain concerned about the cascading effect of the decades-long ethnic strife in Sri Lanka.

T.D. Ramakrishnan’s Malayalam work Sugandhi Enna Andal Devanayaki created a sensation when it was published three years ago. Now, HarperCollins is bringing out its English version on July 25, targeting a wider audience outside Kerala.

Crusader for justice

The novel is a powerful account of the life and times of the then head of the department of anatomy at the University of Jaffna, who broke religious and ethnic barriers to marry a social activist with Sinhala Buddhist background, and dared to become a distinct human rights activist in Sri Lanka by criticising both Sinhala chauvinism and the narrow nationalism of the LTTE as well as the alleged brutalities of the Indian Peace Keeping Force.

Read more at The Hindu link here


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Book Review: Geoffrey Manning BAWA: Decolonising Architecture by Shanti Jayewardene

Reviewed by Ranga Chandrarathne

Decolonising Architecture

Title: Geoffrey Manning BAWA, Decolonising Architecture
Author: Shanti Jayewardene
Publisher: National Trust, Sri Lanka
Pages: 237
Price: LKR 4800

In the monograph titled Geoffrey Manning BAWA, Decolonising Architecture, the author, architect and historian, Shanti Jayewardene examines the enduring architectural legacy of Bawa and how he sought to decolonize architecture from within the tradition, incorporating indigenous Sri Lankan motifs and spirit into the existing corpus of western architecture.

It is Bawa’s attempt that culminated in the birth of Sri Lankan modern architecture, which is now also known as tropical architecture.  The author emphasizes, in no uncertain terms, that the term ‘decolonizing’ does not mean anti-colonial and that Bawa’s architectural legacy should be looked at from a broader perspective, perhaps, as a part of the process of indigenous knowledge production.

At the very beginning of the book the author points out that the field of architecture and study of architecture, like almost all other subjects, was a colonial legacy and the essential part of ‘colonising the mind’ was to look down on the indigenous knowledge as unscientific and obsolete.

‘The architectural “profession” in Sri Lanka has a colonial lineage. Its birth in the nineteenth century announced and affected a distinction in knowledge through apartheid policies of employment linked with knowledge. Only Western-trained individuals were recognised as architects or engineers. J. G Smither was appointed architect of the Public Works Department (PWD) around 1864. The post was held by Britons until independence. In Colonial institutions indigenous knowledge was officially subordinated to Western or so called modern “scientific” knowledge. Overlap between two systems of knowledge was suppressed in the colonial culture.’

It was obvious that the process of colonization was not confined to conceptual level of architecture.  The author observes that one has to understand the process of decolonization from a broader perspective to look back and re-read Bawa’s work. ‘De-colonization is not simple anti-colonialism – it is “the attempt of the previous colonized people to reflectively work out a historical relation with former colonizer, culturally, politically and economically”.’

The study has been carefully divided into several chapters covering Bawa’s birth, the socio-cultural backdrop against which Bawa grew up, his education and his practice in Sri Lanka. Early chapters of the book help readers to learn the myriad of influences of famous architects, diverse architectural traditions, works and books on Bawa and how his Western education shaped his early practice as an architect and how deeply he studied the Sri Lankan age-old architectural legacy, which the author has quite rightly emphasized, was not pan-Sinhalese architecture. In fact it was a tradition which was made up of diverse influences such as ancient Sri Lankan architecture, Dutch, Portuguese, Islam and Tamil architecture.

One of the prominent influences on Bawa was his wide reading over the years. Some of the major influences which shaped his world view were the work of Ananda Coomaraswamy and books such as The Wonder that was India by Arthur Basham and Senake Bandaranayake’s Sinhalese Monastic Architecture (1974).

As observed by the author, a prominent architect who influenced Bawa was Mexican architect Luis Barragán (1902 –1988).  Barragán developed his own vision with an inimitable Mexican spirit. The author observes a characteristic influence of Barragán work on Bawa’s creations in areas such as the stairs, courtyards, pools and spaces. However, both architects never met personally but it was obvious that Bawa had read about Barragán’s work featured in I.E Myers seminal work Mexico’s Modern Architecture (1952) that he possessed.

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Writing to Reconcile: A personal journey

Last fall, in Toronto, I went to see a play that was written by one of the writers in this anthology, Sindhuri Nandakumar. The play was called A Crease in my Sari and told the story of a young Sri Lankan Tamil woman, born and raised in Canada who found herself in a relationship with a Sinhalese man, whom she had met in the coffee shop. The young woman, Maheshwari, had been purposely raised by her mother in a western suburb of Toronto, away from other Tamils who generally live in the eastern suburbs. So, apart from one Tamil friend, she had no real contact with her community and heritage. Now, however, finding herself falling in love with this Sinhalese man, Chanaka, she also found herself confronted with the realities of the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka. Chanaka, with all the naïve optimism that majority communities can afford to have, believed that love conquers all and that their ethnic difference was no barrier. This was partly his charm for her.

But the history of the country both young people had left was insistent, and it would not allow either of them to ignore it. It was the winter of 2009 and the war in Sri Lanka was in its last phase. Soon, Sri Lankan Tamils in Toronto were protesting against the Sri Lankan government, most famously carrying out a sit-down in the middle of a Toronto expressway. Maheshwari discovered that Chanaka’s father was in the army, and that Chanaka believed this was a just war, a humanitarian effort with zero casualties. As the play progressed, Maheshwari grew increasingly politicised and, in the end, their relationship was unable to bear the weight of history.

After the show as I walked to the train, I was lost in thought remembering my own thoughts and feelings during those months in 2009; remembering how I didn’t want to join the Tamil protesters because they were protesting under the Tiger flag, but how I also couldn’t join the counter-protest by the Sinhalese in Toronto, as they had taken up the zero casualties-humanitarian approach, which I found ridiculous.

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Writing Matters: In conversation with Nayomi Munaweera

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Nayomi Munaweera

Nayomi Munaweera was born in Sri Lanka, grew up in Nigeria and lives in USA.  In 2013, her debut novel Island of a Thousand Mirrors won the Commonwealth Book Prize, Asian region, and was long listed for the Man Asia Prize and the International DUBLIN Literary Award. In 2017, her second book, What Lies Between Us won the State Literary Award for Best English Novel, 2017. Along with renowned Sri Lankan writer Shyam Selvadurai, Nayomi has been a part of the Write to Reconcile Programme in Sri Lanka.

Sucharita Dutta-Asane: Nayomi, welcome to Kitaab. Congratulations on winning Sri Lanka’s State Award for your second book.

I’m intrigued by the titles of your books Island of a Thousand Mirrors and What Lies Between Us – the first visually evocative and the second ironic in its use of the word ‘Lies’. What led to the choice of these titles?

Nayomi Munaweera: I actually do not title my own books. It’s very difficult after you’ve worked on a book for multiple years, eight for the first, four for the second to find a phrase that encapsulates all the thought and complication that you have attempted to explore. Both the titles came after about 3 months of consultation with my publisher, my editor, my agent, my family. The first title came out of an 80 title list. It was a really difficult process to find it. The second was similarly difficult – I think we came up with 60 and before I picked this one. So I would rather write a 300 page book than title it. I leave that to other people.

Sucharita: What was it like to write Island from either side of the socio-political divide while living in a country removed from the scene of this trauma and then to rely on and deal with ‘memory’ as inherent to this story?

Nayomi: Hard.

I had a lot of fear about whether I was the person to tell this story. Whether it was mine to tell since I had not lived in Sri Lanka since I was three years old and only visited the country every year. I was very aware of my out-sider-ness. I think all writers deal with this. But if you stop there you’ve let fear swallow up your writing. A great deal of writing is about being recklessly, stupidly adamant that you will do the thing. It might not be good but you have to try. It was that sort of foolhardiness that got me through eight years of writing that book and the subsequent three years it took to find a first publisher.

Sucharita: What Lies Between Us leaves behind the politics and history of a country and turns inward to a space that is intensely fissured, to memory that is slippery. For you as the writer, living in the mind of a single character through the traumatic events she internalises, did her emotions, fears and responses come naturally to you, the organic process, or did it involve a lot of research?

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The Rumpus Interview with Anuk Arudpragasam

Editor’s note: Anuk Arudpragasam’s novel The Story of a Brief Marriage won the prestigious DSC prize for South Asian literature, 2017 at the Dhaka Literary Festival. In this interview with The Rumpus, September 2016, he talks about the book and his approach to writing it.

The Rumpus: One of the things that struck me most about the novel is how little historical context is given. Instead, the reader is utterly immersed in the present moment of the main character Dinesh. So often, we read a book set in war which also gives the reader a history lesson. I’m thinking particularly of Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie about the Nigerian civil war. Why did you decide to leave out this kind of context?

Anuk Arudpragasam: It is something I thought about, and there are a couple of reasons behind it. Because the subject matter of the novel is very graphic and it is so hard to be in the presence of, I think there is a natural tendency to find ways to divert one’s attention from these kinds of things.

To use a simple example, if you see somebody in pain or you see somebody suffering in some way, there are usually, if the pain is ordinary—of a conventional kind where somebody’s fallen say or somebody has been bereaved—there are established ways of providing some kind of therapy for the person who is suffering. If somebody is hurt you ask them if they’re okay. You give them a bandage, you rub them on the back. There are all these ways of helping them out. And then, there are situations in which there’s obviously nothing you can do in response to somebody’s suffering or somebody’s pain, and we tend to find other ways to deal with the person. You can’t actually help the person out, so you say, “I know how it feels” or “I’ve been there before” or you try to be with them in other ways.

There is an instinctive urge to act when confronted by the pain of another person, and I think this urge involves, in a way, a discomfort or anxiety about actually seeing that the other person is in pain. In trying to find a way to make their situation better, you’re doing something, and in doing something and in responding actively to someone’s pain, you are, in a way, free from having to contemplate the pain or reflect on the condition of the person. That’s not a bad thing at all.

I feel, though, when it comes to the suffering or the pain of people who are far away or in situations that are very different from your own, that the analog to giving somebody a Band-Aid or rubbing them on the back or talking to them is what you could call a political response. It is to say, “Who did that?” or “What was responsible?” or “When did this happen? How did this happen? Why didn’t anybody do anything?” And then to say, “It was these people. These people need to go to jail” or “These people need to be tried or taken to the international criminal court.” By making these kinds of political diagnoses—and I am not against them at all, they are natural and very necessary—by responding to the suffering of people far away in time and space in this very instinctive way, with some kind of plan for action, I feel that something often gets lost. And I feel that, at least in my case, what gets lost in my instinctive reaction to suffering is an understanding or a contemplation of the condition of the people who are suffering. So, in this situation, I wanted to give very little historical context and social and political context, so that this condition is forced on the attention of the writer or reader.

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‘Silenced Shadows’: A Fine Presentation of Compassionate Resistance Poetry in Sri Lanka

The Amnesty Intentional has published a collection of poems titled ‘ Silenced Shadows’. It’s a collection of 15 poems and translations of the said poems into all three languages, Sinhalese, Tamil and English. Originally, Amnesty International called for poems on enforced disappearances in Sri Lanka and selected 15 poems for publication. Five of the poems were written in Sinhala , five in Tamil and five in English. Now a very powerful collection of poems are available for readers in all the three languages.

The 20th Century generated a genre of poems which are now known as compassionate and resistance poetry. This particular genre of poetry was a response of the creative minds throughout the world to the changed circumstances of the 20th Century which can also be characterised as the most brutalised century in the human history. As the life got more and more inhumane and forms of human cruelty became one of the most shocking experiences of this century, the creative minds responded in reasserted the basic human values and protested against the widespread brutalisation and dehumanisation.

Sri Lanka was no exception to this general trend of decadence, violence and degrading the humanity and the human civilisation itself. Insurgencies And counter-terrorism, both relied on violence in its most extreme forms and the result was a widespread fear that was spread through the entire country. South, and North and the East were all affected by forms of violence which was hitherto unknown in the island. This island which was once known as the paradise of the orient began to manifest many aspects of hell not only for many persons but for the nation as a whole.

Most forceful expression of this situation was the enforced disappearances that took place in large scale in all parts of Sri Lanka. Enforced disappearances had all the characteristics of a perfected violence which combines extreme efficiency in execution of persons on the one hand and on the other, every form of the attempt to erase all evidence so that any attempt to ensure a justice to the victims will be almost impossible. Perfection of efficiency in execution is one of the most prominent aspects of 20th century violence.

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Six Decades of Sinhala Poetry

There is something unusual and distinct about poetry. Poetry in any context is hard to define, but somehow of the highest importance. As critics have often pointed out, the expectation with which we approach poetry is utterly different from the expectation with which we approach prose. This is more or less observed as a truth in the local context.

The folk poem for instance is more popular than any other literary genre as it embraces several social and emotional streams of expression. Over the years, Sinhala poems grew in strength and spirit as a result of the sensitive influence of folk poetry.

Those who toiled hard in the paddy field as well as the other areas of engagement took time off to voice their feelings via the sound of poetry. While that happened to be the breeding ground for the growth of Sinhala poetry more significant expressions too came way ahead.

In order to advocate the protest nature of the feelings towards the bonds of colonialism, the Sinhala poets made use of the poetic expression. These poetic messages are firstly seen in the poems of Ven S Mahinda Thera in his poetic works such as ‘Nidahas Dehena’ and ‘Nidahase Mantraya’. The great Sinhala journalist Piyadasa Sirisena took over the same poetic message via the pages of his pioneering national newspaper ‘Sinhala Jatiya’. More and more poets gathered round him with their minor and major Sinhala poems. Most of them come under the banner of Colombo poets or Kolamba Yugaye Kavi, with the stalwarts such as P B Alwis Perera, G H Perera and Munidasa Cumaratunga.

There were two observable streams. One was the print medium or instant poetic renderings called ‘hitivana kavi’. This period is covered from 1947 to 1956.

Finally when Independence was declared in 1948, the poets saw a certain degree of their function as put to practice. More and more social factors entered the poetic scene. The poets happened to honoured and at times state awards were bestowed on them. In 1956, as an honour to the great poet R Tennakone for his presentation to the poetic field, he was given the honour of a poet laureate, called Maha Kavi. Each year passed as honouring Sinhala poets on the part of the local cultural ministry functions.

The second trend happened to be the poetic studies taken seriously on the part of the university education. The university dons inclusive of the living figure of Siri Gunasinha ushered in a new era. From the Peradeniya seat of learning he clamoured for a visible detour from the mere conventional forms of poetic creations.

The term ‘nisandas’ though does not sound a good literary term nevertheless mean the detour to bring in a period of free verse of nidas kavi. The poets of the calibre of G B Senanayaka, Gunadasa Amarasekara, became the rest of the pioneers in the group of free verse.

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The Best Books on Sri Lanka Recommended by Ahilan Kadirgamar

Editor’s Note: fivebooks.com took this interview in 2009. They call it one of the saddest interviews on their site in which Ahilan Kadirgamar, the Sri Lankan activist, takes readers down the years tracing the best books written about and during the civil war and its many injustices.


So the first book you chose was written back in colonial times: The Story of Ceylon by Evelyn Frederick Charles Ludowyk. Why choose such an old book?

This is my favorite history of Sri Lanka, or Ceylon, as it was then called. It was written in the late 1950s, just at the time of the escalation of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism. Ludowyk grew up in Sri Lanka, he was a Shakespearian scholar, half Sri-Lankan, half British, I believe, who taught at the University of Ceylon. He taught my parents’ generation, the generation that saw Ceylon gain independence from Britain in 1948 and after he retired he returned to England and died there. But before doing so, he wrote this book.

And for me, it is like reading something written by someone from an unimaginable era. Ludowyk tells the story of Ceylon, and he is conscious where it all might be heading, and you have glimpses of where 50 years later it could all end. But what is so refreshing for me is that it is also clear from the book that it didn’t have to go in this direction. That for people of that generation, and my parents’ generation, it would have been almost impossible to imagine the militarized conflict that would subsequently erupt. And looking back, it makes me wonder what went wrong: Why couldn’t we resolve our problems politically? Why did Sri Lanka’s history become so tragic?

I read this book a number of years ago and it made an enormous impression on me. Also because it takes a very sobering look at the history, which is at the centre of many of the claims made by both sides in the conflict.

History is at the center of the conflict? In what way?

Nationalism was used to polarize the two sides, and that nationalism was partly based on history.

On one side there is the myth of Sri Lanka’s origins. This idea that the country was blessed by the Buddha. That’s a large part of the basis for Sinhala nationalism. And on the other side the Tamils claim that certain areas always belonged to them, that they have had a clear homeland since time immemorial. And what Ludowyk points out is that in reality society was very mixed, very hybrid. The nationalists used history to polarize everything, but in fact the two sides were very interlinked, even by marriage.

So your next book is written when the conflict is already well under way.

Yes, The Broken Palmyrah—the palmyrah being a palm tree and a symbol of Jaffna.

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