SRI LANKA FOR BEGINNERS
I Wrote a Story, Not the Whole Story
Yalini, the protagonist of my novel "Love Marriage," turns 25 this month. "I was born in the early hours of the morning, on a day in late July," she says in the book. "And as I entered this new world, my parents' old one was being destroyed." Moments after she is born, her Sri Lankan father watches on television as the country he left erupts into violence -- the anti-Tamil riots known as "Black July." With the anniversary of those 1983 riots, Sri Lanka's war also turns a quarter-century old this month -- and I find myself still debating how to describe it. In practically every interview I give about the book, I am asked an unanswerable question. This morning, in San Francisco, the interviewer is Aimee Allison of radio station KPFA. We're live, talking about Sri Lanka.
"Can you lay out what the landscape is there, and what is the source of the conflict?" she asks.
I never have more than a few minutes to capture decades -- centuries? -- of labyrinthine history. In recent years, especially following the 2004 tsunami and the collapse several months ago of a tattered cease-fire between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a separatist militant group, Sri Lanka has appeared in the news slightly more than usual. But even this isn't very much, so I can understand why the question is asked. Who's willing to give it more than those few minutes? I'm never sure, and so I find myself wrestling to construct responsible boilerplate that at least suggests Sri Lanka's historical and political complexity. Of course, when I wrote the book, this was not a job I aimed to do.
"Love Marriage" tells the story of the way Sri Lankan politics affect a family living in the United States. The story takes Yalini and her family from suburban America to Toronto, where they are reunited with an uncle who has left Sri Lanka after a life of militancy with the Tamil Tigers. The book is about specific characters, not representatives of a culture. Still, I had to do my homework to write it, so I did become versed in some history. Add to that the fact that my parents emigrated to the United States from Sri Lanka, and it makes some sense for reading audiences, reporters and others to ask me questions about the country.
An island about 25 miles off the southern tip of India, Sri Lanka is a complex place, with multiple ethnicities, religions, languages, loyalties and histories. In July 1983, long-simmering tensions there exploded into ethnic riots. An ambush of 13 soldiers from the country's ethnic Sinhalese majority by militants from its Tamil minority ushered in days of anti-Tamil violence in which the Sinhalese-dominated government was obviously complicit. Voter lists made it easy to find Tamil citizens, Tamil stores and homes were destroyed, and thousands of Tamils were killed. In the aftermath, many Tamils emigrated, finding refuge in Western countries, including Australia, Britain and Canada. Today, in those Western countries, the players in Sri Lankan politics are generally characterized as the Tamil Tigers, a militant separatist group fighting for a Tamil homeland in the northern and eastern parts of the island, and the government, which has discriminated against Tamils for decades.
The conflict has cost about 70,000 lives, and counting. Both sides have long been criticized for their human rights violations. On the government side, there are mysterious disappearances and killings of mostly Tamil civilians, journalists and aid workers and the long-simmering but never-concluding investigations into those incidents. Other evidence suggests that the government colludes with paramilitaries who have conscripted child soldiers. The Tigers, too, have a stained history: They have used suicide bombers and child soldiers and have killed elected politicians, dissenting Tamils and civilians. Many governments, including the United States, list them as a terrorist group.
But even the above paragraphs are only the beginning of a longer story. Like any war, the Sri Lankan conflict has roots stretching back to before its official beginning, and if you choose to play "They Started It," the game can last a very long time. The voices of those supporting the two major sides, the Tigers and the government, often shout loudest, but Sri Lanka has other populations that have suffered enormously. The Tigers expelled Muslims in northern areas from their homes in 1990, for example, and many are still displaced and suffering. And Sri Lanka has more than one distinct Tamil group: The country already had Tamil populations when British colonists brought Tamils from India to work on Sri Lankan tea estates. Now, the two groups of Tamils are sometimes differentiated with the terms Ceylon Tamil and tea-estate Tamil, and the latter group has its own troubled history of disenfranchisement. And what of Sinhalese who disagree with the government's policies? What of Tamils who don't support the Tigers? They exist but are rarely heard.
I am hardly a substitute for all these voices. But I cannot dictate how people hear me, and given these moments of opportunity to speak publicly about a place that I love, I feel compelled to take them.
I first really tried to explain the situation last year, in a graduate-level South Asian anthropology class at Columbia. I had prepared to present a reading on a specific aspect of Sri Lankan society, but the professor asked me to talk more generally about the country instead. How would you explain it to undergraduates with no knowledge? he asked.
I was completely thrown. I don't even remember how I began. Perhaps I picked up the chalk and drew the lumpy map of the country. (The professor: Does it really look like . . . that?) Or perhaps I began by trying to explain the ethnic conflict. (The professor: Who are these different groups? How did they originate? Can you explain the different groups of Tamils? What do you mean, Ceylon Tamil? And the up-country Tamils, who work on tea estates? And are the Muslims Tamil? No? But don't they speak Tamil?) Whatever I did, it was wrong -- or not right enough, or not complete enough. When the class ended, I was still trying to explain Sri Lanka. We hadn't even gotten to the book I had been assigned to discuss. I left the room stunned at my inability to put the country's history into brief, teachable terms. You'll thank me later, the professor said. Next year, when your book comes out, people will ask you that question -- and then they will dissect your answer.
Some people do, I'm sure. At readings around the country, I've met Sri Lankans, immigrants and their children, who thank me for writing about the conflict. But while I'm proud of my book, it certainly doesn't represent the voices of all Sri Lankans. It's the story of one family. Still, I know that some people at my readings may never hear much more about Sri Lanka than what I say. All I can do is try to understand why these questions are asked, be as reasonable and careful in my answers as I can, clarify that I am a novelist and emphasize that I am only one person answering -- while still being as complete and thorough as possible.
As a novelist, I should be free to write about whatever I want, without worrying about the political significance people will attach to it. Indeed, writing fiction means that I have license to diverge from historical facts. It shouldn't be my responsibility if some readers have little knowledge of Sri Lanka beyond what they read in my book or hear me say as a guest on a radio show. I also know, however, that regardless of the caveats I put before what I say, my words may carry the weight of an imagined community.