Sri Lankan Stories
Our families are large. They are oppressively interested in everything we do. They are overly concerned with who we've married, when we’re having children, how many children are we having, who will they marry... the humor and the levity is in who we are and how we live and how we treat each other – and the trauma of it is in what we've gone through and these things are inextricably linked.
With effects rippling into the present, the Sri Lankan Civil War, lasting more than 25 years from the early 1980s until 2009, has found an important place in our current cultural canon. Join lawyer and novelist of Song of the Sun God, Shankari Chandran, author of Booker Prize-winning The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, Shehan Karunatilaka and Anandavalli as they discussed the island nation’s turbulent recent history and its influence in their storytelling. In conversation with prize-winning author Roanna Gonsalves.
This event was presented by the Sydney Writers' Festival and supported by UNSW Sydney.
UNSW Centre for Ideas: Welcome to the UNSW Centre for Ideas podcast – a place to hear ideas from the world's leading thinkers and UNSW Sydney's brightest minds. The talk you are about to hear, Sri Lankan Stories features UNSW Sydney lecturer and author Roanna Gonsalves, lawyer and novelist, Shankari Chandran, Booker Prize winner Shehan Karunatilaka, composer and playwright, S. Shakthidharan and was recorded live at the 2023 Sydney Writers’ Festival.
Roanna Gonsalves: Good evening, everyone. I would like to acknowledge the Gadigal of the Eora nation, the traditional custodians of this land, and pay my respects to the elders past and present. And I would like to extend my respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people present here today. I'd also like to take a moment to remember that this has been a place of storytelling for millennia, a place of intellectual and imaginative labour, the work we are doing here today and the pleasure and delight that I'm sure you will derive out of this session today. It's not new, but exists in a long continuum here on this land, where sovereignty has never been ceded.
Welcome to the Sydney Writers’ Festival 2023. My name is Roanna Gonsalves. I am delighted to be facilitating this conversation about Sri Lankan Stories. The session sponsor for this event is the University of New South Wales. A big thank you to them. They happen to be my employers too. I am an Indian Australian writer, I am not Sri Lankan. And I'm quite conscious that I may be seen as yet another Indian meddling in Sri Lankan affairs and Sri Lankan stories. However, that is not my intention. My intention is to inhabit the position of a curious reader.
I'm going to introduce our panellists and then I would like to contextualise this moment a little before I ask questions of our panellists. And I will ask them questions that came up for me as I read or watched their work – so different, each of the works are so different from each other in every possible way. But with your help, we will make it work.
Towards the end of our conversation, I will open up the session to questions from you, the audience, and after the session.
S. Shakthidharan was meant to join us, but unfortunately, he's unwell. In his place, we have his mum, who is in her own right a very well-known figure in the field of dance and also performed in the play that Shaktidharan co-wrote and co-directed with Eamon Flack. In fact, the first play is really based on the lived experience of Anandavalli.
Alright, I'd like to introduce our panellists today, Shankari Chandran is an Australian Tamil lawyer and the author of, Songs of the Sun God, Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens, and The Barrier. Song of the Sun God was longlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award and shortlisted for Sri Lanka's Fairway National Literary Award. Her short stories have been published in the Sweatshop anthologies, Another Australia and Sweatshop Women Volume Two. Shankari is the deputy chair of Writing New South Wales. And I have to say that Shankari’s book, Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens has recently been longlisted for the Miles Franklin Award. Congratulations Shankari.
Anandavalli is a veteran classical Indian dancer. I'm not going to read the whole mini biography that you sent us because she's extremely accomplished, but I'm only going to read what's on the website of the Sydney Writers’ Festival. But she is open to questions later, so you can ask questions, and Anandavalli is a veteran classical Indian dancer with an international career spanning 45 years. Born in Sri Lanka, she performed as a young prodigy across India and Europe under the tutelage of dance luminaries from both the East and the West. Migrating to Australia in 1985, she founded Lingalayam Dance Academy in 1987 and the company in 1996.
Lingalayam’s work incorporates dance, live music, text, and design, and it really is. Anandavalli is deeply committed to advancing the cause of Indian dance as well as the broader scope of artistic development in Australia. She has presented guest lectures, workshops, and taught dance and movement at the University of New South Wales, University of Sydney, and the Australian College of Physical Education. From 1999 to 2003, Anandavalli sat on the dance board of the then New South Wales Ministry of the Arts and continues exploring new directions and developments collaborating with some of the finest national and international artists and most recently, in November and December 2022 with Belvoir Street Theatre. Anandavalli was the pivotal actor and dancer in the production, The Jungle in the Sea, which won four awards at the Sydney Theatre Awards, including Best Mainstage Production. Welcome Anandavalli.
And finally, we have someone here who won a prize. What was the prize again?
Shehan Karunatilaka: Was it the Oscar or the Grammy? I’m not sure.
Roanna Gonsalves: He's won the Oscar, the Grammy, the Nobel, and the Booker Prize. The Booker Prize – Shehan Karunatilaka, all the way from Sri Lanka. He won the Booker Prize in 2022 for his second novel, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida. He's also the author of the award-winning, Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Matthew, which was selected for the UK's 2022 Big Jubilee Read selection. I think that book also won the Commonwealth Writers Prize. Yes, it did. Born in Sri Lanka, he studied in New Zealand and has lived and worked in London, Amsterdam, and Singapore. He lives in Colombo with his family, his guitars, and his unfinished stories.
So, this panel has attracted a lot of attention from all of you here, sold-out session, but also from different parts of the world. Carol Andrade from Mumbai, who is a veteran journalist, editor, now Dean of St. Paul's Institute of Communications in Mumbai, India, said, "Oh, you're interviewing Shehan. It's such a wonderful book," just conveying that to you. And Vivek Menezes, who is the co-director of the Goa Literary Festival, said, "Ask him about the People's Power Movement in Sri Lanka and the storming of the palace."
So, before I turn to our panellists, I'd like to spend a few minutes contextualising this moment a little, so bear with me because it's a moment to be celebrated when one of the biggest, the most loved, and one of the best writers festivals in the world dedicates an entire session to Sri Lankan stories. It doesn't often happen anywhere in the world. And by showing up to this session, a sold-out session, you have shown that there is a need for more such sessions across the world.
One of the most moving Sri Lankan Australian stories of recent times has been the "Home to Biloela" campaign for the Nadesalingam family. Priya, Nades and the two children from Sri Lanka who were in immigration detention for many years and, after a huge nationwide campaign, were only granted visas quite recently when the Albanese Government came to power. The story of the Nadesalingam family is, of course, a consequence of the long entrails of the Civil War, which has infused the cultural production of the Sri Lankan diaspora in Australia and also, of course, great Sri Lankan writers who win Booker Prizes.
We have a long history of literature, fiction, nonfiction, plays, and films by writers of Sri Lankan origin in Australia. Right from Uncle Ernest MacIntyre, who is almost 90 years old now, to Professor Yasmine Gunaratne, who was the chair of English at Macquarie University in Sydney, to Chandani Lokuge, to the wonderful writer Rajith Savanadasa, both novelists based in Melbourne, Janaka Malwatta, a Brisbane-based poet and filmmaker, Visakesa Chandrasekaram, the artist, performer, and writer, Jiva Parthipan, the writer, curator, and reviewer Gary Paramanathan, the wonderful writer and educator Devika Brendon who works between Australia and Sri Lanka, Channa Wickremesekera, and Samantha Sirimanne Hyde. Emerging writers Hasitha Adhikariarachchi, Kalhari Jayaweera, and writer and reviewer Luther Uthayakumaran.
And finally, of course, one of the greatest novelists working in the world today, who is based here in Sydney, Michelle de Kretser, who just last month won the prestigious international Rathbones Folio Prize in the UK for her latest novel, Scary Monsters. That book is not particularly about Sri Lanka, but you could surmise that some of the characters might be. And I highly recommend all of Michelle de Kretser's work. She's really a great prose stylist who refuses to restrict herself and, in many ways, soars above the constrictions of the autobiographical and writes about all manner of time, place, and circumstance, such as the French Revolution, lost dogs, crimes committed in Sri Lanka, and in Sydney.
All of this is to say that this moment here at the Sydney Writers’ Festival exists because of all the work done by so many writers of the Sri Lankan diaspora in Australia. And of course, it helps when a Sri Lankan wins the Booker Prize.
I would like to now turn to our panellists and perhaps ask Shankari to begin with a reading. And I have to say, like all good writers, they're doing exactly the opposite of what I thought they would do: they'll be reading from books that I thought they would not read from. But I will let Shankari recontextualise the passage that she's going to read. Over to you, Shankari.
Shankari Chandran: Thanks, Roanna. Sorry as well. Well, sorry not sorry. So I'm reading from, Song of the Sun God, which is my first novel, but it has been republished recently in Australia at the end of last year. And the scene that I am going to read from is set at the end of the Civil War when Tamil people, refugees in their own country by this stage, the violence was escalating, and they were herded into regions safe zones by the Sri Lankan government called the no-fire zones, and then they were fired upon.
“Everything ends, she had felt the end so many times in the black ants of [unintelligible] the metallic darkness of a police station, the blood-soaked floor of the jungle camp, and now here. Here where children knew when and how to jump into bunkers, at the first trilling of missiles. The army said it wasn't using.
They saw the earth shutter and list, like the small fishing boats of their fathers, tossed by a careless ocean had the burst of sound that deafened for a moment, a beautiful silent moment, followed by screaming. Some children, the younger ones, tried to clamber out, reaching for their parents if they had any, or those who'd carried them this far, who were not their parents, but someone to hold on to when they'd lost everyone else who'd ever held them before. The older children knew better. They stayed in the bunker and waited, stacked on top of each other, like crumbled dried tea biscuits shoved back in a box. Here where they lined the children in lifeless rows and could not cover them because they needed the tarpaulins for shelter, and the sheets for stretches and the clothes for bandages.
So the flies covered them, and sometimes the mothers sat with them and wailed over them and beat their bodies in pain and anger and loss and more pain. They pushed the flies away, but the flies came back. They were hungry too. And when the shelling started again, mothers left their children because they had others to carry. The old carried the young, the young carried the youngest and the oldest. Sometimes the oldest just sat, they had run enough, they had seen enough, or they carried themselves because despite all the life they'd had, they still wanted more.
Sometimes mothers stayed with their children in lifeless rows, if they had no one left to carry. They heard the familiar drum of mortar fire, like the heartbeat of the Earth itself. Except the beat was erratic and its inconsistency, which kept them guessing, jumping, ducking, and running, became a consistency that they understood and learned to anticipate. Or so they told themselves as they jumped, as they guessed, jumped, ducked, and ran, because it made their death seem less random, less fickle, and their lives something they could control, even though they secretly knew they could control none of it.
And the mothers wondered, 'Is this how it ends?' They clutched their waisted children around them and placed their waisted bodies over them. They took shelter under the carcasses of fallen trees and fallen people and fallen words of conventions signed in faraway cities, by people who were certain they would see sunset and sunrise and another sunset and sunrise and thousands more. And they were angry, not because they'd lost their husbands and their homes and their homeland but because now they would lose their children. Then you're imagining terror, a chaos in their minds, a surge of adrenaline and vomit and urine, because they knew their children would die.
The mother, and the farmer, and the teacher, and the man who drove an auto and had never missed a day of work ran with the doctor and as the mechanic and as the woman who saw dresses and secretly loved her sister's husband, they all looked the same now, clothing torn, feet shredded, bodies covered in the red-brown dust of their village, and all the pounded villages, they'd marched through the muck of the jungles, the red of flesh of fresh blood, and the smelly black of old wounds. They'd often done their best and sometimes their worst, they'd lived as their parents and priests and teachers and the Gita had told them they should. And now they would die, as no one had told them they would.
Scattered, terrified and wondering, why then?, why like this?, why now?, when so much of life before was suffering, and so much of life ahead was unfinished. And when the sky rained fire, they wondered if the sun itself had been shelled, and broken into a thousand incandescent stars that now sought the soothing waters of the lagoon they were trying to cross. They gagged on muddy water and pushed through the tangle of bodies that floated and cluttered their path. They looked up at the sun and felt it thunder down in disbelief.”
Roanna Gonsalves: Thank you, thank you, Shankari, for that beautiful reading. I'd love for you to talk a little bit about writing that book and your other books and why you wanted to tell these stories.
Shankari Chandran: So with Song of the Sun God, when 2009 happened, when the end of the war happened – it was incredibly bloody, it was incredibly brutal, as all wars are and this was no different, and tens of thousands of Tamil people were, you know, herded and trapped in a region and then they were slaughtered. And it was clear that there would be no justice for them, for the living, for the dead in Sri Lanka, and that there would be no justice for them in an international court and in the International Criminal Court.
And I was so filled with grief, Roanna, and rage and guilt that we had survived and that our lives were so much better – and more rage. And I wanted to prosecute what had happened. I am a lawyer and not really a writer. And I wanted to prosecute what had happened through fiction, through storytelling. And so this was my attempt to say, “You've done this, you've hidden the bodies, and you haven't hidden the evidence, and you have a certain narrative”. But this is not what happens to us, and this is where in fiction, I would like to hold the truth.
And then that was my first novel and then I wrote, really, in order to recover from the vicarious trauma, was not my own trauma, the vicarious trauma of other people's lived experience. I then literally wrote for fun, a post-apocalyptic novel set in a world destroyed by religious wars and a global pandemic, and that was actually a lot of fun to write after you've immersed yourself in a real genocide that your own people have lived through. And so, after I wrote that novel, I then wrote a thriller set at the end of Sri Lankan Civil War, about a journalist who was assassinated, executed on the streets of Colombo based on a real-life journalist that we all know, and it's a political thriller about the role of international governments and superpowers and their intervention and non-intervention and the agenda that they run in regions, particularly in Sri Lanka. And no one wanted to publish it. Surprise, surprise, and so then I figured no one's ever going to read my work, right? So if it's not published, then just write whatever I want. And so then I wrote, I finally felt ready to write a novel about Sri Lanka and about Australia, my ancestral home and my chosen home, in which I looked at both countries, and I looked at what it means to be Sri Lankan Tamil and what it means to be Australian, and who gets to decide the ways in which historical narratives and cultural narratives are appropriated and manipulated and changed in order to tell a story about the formation of Sri Lanka and the formation of Australia. It includes some of us but excludes others.
Roanna Gonsalves: Thank you, thank you Shankari. Anandavalli, would you like to read from, I think we have a copy here of Counting and Cracking, and if you wouldn't mind telling us a little bit about just contextualising the passage that you're about to read?
Anandavalli: The few paras I’ve chosen to read are Act Three, the end of Counting and Cracking. The play revolves around Radha and her son, Siddhartha. Radha, she is deeply in love with Ceylon, and never in her dreams does she believe that she will leave this country. Let me read this before I do more damage.
“Radha: We lived on Military Avenue in Colombo, in a house your great-grandfather built. Our neighbours were [unintelligible] and [unintelligible]. During Ramadhan, every night they would bring over food, and her great-grandmother and [unintelligible] would serve a small feast in their honour. Everyone gathered on that porch, not just Arif and Salva, but also our dear friends, the Gunathilakas, [unintelligible] and Kumarihami from down the road. Even Bala, the fruit seller from Jaffna, that was Sri Lanka. That was Ceylon.
Your great-grandparents built a home, a whole world around us. The porch protected us within its walls. Growing up, I thought we were indestructible. But it wasn't. What we had built was so fragile. It was being worn down, brick by brick. Until one day, people were turning around and killing the person on their left, on your right, the person in front, or the person behind you.
Then Hansa told me your father, too, was dead. And I was like the air itself had become poison. How could Sri Lanka do this to me? The country had broken my heart. When I got on the plane to Australia, I promised myself that I would protect you. That I would build walls so high around you that we would be indestructible again. But I can't. I can't protect you. Radha gave Siddhartha an article. This article was published in the Leader newspaper today in Sri Lanka, “Read it, and for God's sake, don't ask me why”, “But why?”, “Don't ask me why, listen.
This article from the main independent paper in Sri Lanka was written by the man who freed your father”. Siddhartha says, “Thirru was freed by a journalist? Radha, read the article, it’s a man called Hasanga”, Radha pronounces the word, “Hasanga”. Radha says, “We used to call him Hansa, Hasa, I spoke to him on the phone, yes, Siddhartha?”
“Amma.”, Radha says, “Read it, Siddhartha.”
Siddhartha reads, “No other profession calls on its practitioners to lay down their lives, save the armed forces. And in Sri Lanka, journalism. Our stories serve as a mirror in which the public can see itself without makeup or styling gel. From us, you learn the state of your nation. In the course of the past few years, countless journalists have been harassed, threatened, and killed. It has been my honour to belong to all these categories. And now, especially the last."
Siddhartha says, "Is this safe, Radha? Two nights ago, Hasa was hit many times in a drive-by shooting. I have called his family and sent condolences."
“Today?” Radha says, "You know, Siddhartha, I do all sorts of things before you even wake up. Keep reading."
"Why do we do it?” After all, I have friends, I have family. Is it worth the risk? Many people tell me it's not.”
Finally, she says, "I love Sri Lanka. I still do. Not just the people, the land itself. I miss it every day. You know, if I had stayed for just one more week, I might never have left. I probably would not have left.”
Siddhartha says, “why?”
Radha says, “if not for you, that's why I left Sri Lanka."
Roanna Gonsalves: Thank you. Thank you, Anandavalli. And those tears are the tears of the diaspora, the first generation.
Anandavalli: That's what gives me great pride to see this, Shehan, Shankari, my son – Shakthidharan, is that we lived that war. We didn't just live it. We blinded ourselves to it. Now, I think in many ways, we ran away. I ran away because I couldn't face what my country was doing to each other. This is paradise on earth. It was paradise on earth. But when Counting and Cracking happened, and I had to face it, face the words my son had written, it brought to the fore what I had seen and what I had indirectly experienced. I realised that I was also extremely ashamed of myself, ashamed that we had let this happen. How do people kill each other? As I said, you know, it only takes for you to look at the person in front of you, behind you, on either side. You are capable of protecting that much. How to take cleavers and kill another human being. And this is a country where we knew no religion. I didn't. I was at a time when my mother had humongous faith, but she never preached Hinduism. I danced Hinduism, yeah. But we grew up in a society that had no religion. It was Ceylon. We were the people of Ceylon.
Roanna Gonsalves: Yes, thank you. There are so many resonances of course, with the work. The world is really influenced by your lived experience.
Anandavalli: No, but it's not directly mine. Mine came much later because I didn't speak to him. I didn't want to speak to him. It came because of his research and family. They sat down and talked to him, and then much later, when the script started emerging, I was asked questions. And as he always said, “It's easy for Amma to speak to strangers than to talk to me.” So that's where the story started coming out.
Roanna Gonsalves: Thank you, Shehan. I thought you would like to read from The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida but you've chosen to read from your first novel. Would you like to tell us why?
Shankari Chandran: Can I just say Roanna is never going to do a panel with a bunch of Sri Lankans again.
Shehan Karunatilaka: I'm a bit sick and tired of The Seven Moons…
Roanna Gonsalves: But please go and buy the book after this.
Shehan Karunatilaka: Yes, please go and buy the book. No I mean, it maybe work at the Sydney Writers’ Festival and I’ve been on a few panels, and I’ve read from Seven Moons but …
Roanna Gonsalves: This is a panel to be yourself.
Shehan Karunatilaka: But with this one, I just want to go back to my primary motivation for writing the first book Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew, I wanted to write a book about Sri Lanka that does not mention the war. And when I was also kinda Shinghana Buddhist, grew up in Colombo, insulated by the wall living in that Colombo bubble, which Maali Almeida complains about as well and he feels guilt for that. And I mean, that's his motivation for going out to these dangerous places taking these photographs because he thinks if the Colombo bubble knew what was happening because in the Colombo bubble, we went on, we watched cricket, we drank arak, we wrote novels and pretended that the war was happening somewhere else.
And when I got this idea for the first for the first book, I remember it was, yeah, so the mid-2000s. But I just felt that writing about the war, I didn't know if I had permission to do it. I didn't know if I knew enough about it and I also thought it was just appealing to me to write a story about characters who I mean, this is set in 1996 when we won the World Cup, but also that was the height of the war. And to have these characters who actually sat around drinking arak, watching cricket and the war, you know, it's there in the background, but it's not really. Yeah, it's not really front and centre, like Seven Moons and I thought, Is it possible to do that?, and that was my challenge to myself because a lot of Sri Lankan novels that I’ve read at the time, that seemed to be the go-to subject – it's either it's about the ethnic conflict, it's a star crossed love story, Tamil boys and Sinhalese girl and I just didn't feel that I had the authority or anything to contribute there and so, I wrote Chinaman about a left-arm leg spinner and a Chinaman bowler who was a genius and who played for Sri Lanka in 1985 and therefore, no one noticed him. He was better than Moralee, he was better than Shane Warne, but no one noticed him, and for me, this was the appeal. But of course, the war and the politics did creep in and so, this is the one passage where WG Karunasena and who's the drunk journalist who's going on this madcap quest to find this cricketer, contemplates about politics.
So I'll just give you a bit of context, so there's a character called Johnny Gilhuly, who appears in Seven Moons as well. In Chinaman, he's just a guy who had a big TV and a satellite dish and who could broadcast all the test matches so WG and his mate, Ari would go to Jonny's house and not drink arak, because he had every sort of Glenn as he said, so they drink Glenfiddich and watch Glenn McGrath.
And so, Jonny was a bit of a yeah, you find out more about Jonny and then his true self in this book, but in this one, he was just a guy they watch cricket with, but anyway, Jonny was an expat Englishman who lived in Sri Lanka for many years and built this luxury mansion, but he fell foul with the villagers. And they broke into his house and they shat in his pool and WG looks at these turds swimming in this pool and he thinks about Sri Lanka's ethnic conflict, as you do. And I'm just going to read that passage here. It's titled ‘Shades of Brown.’
“I'm watching football with Jonny. This is a long time before allegations and excrement in pools. He's cursing people from Manchester, a city just a few hours drive from his own. I asked him what is the difference between a Geordie and a Mank and he starts explaining the accents, both of which I find equally incomprehensible. I asked him how many accents his little island has, and he demonstrates through famous sportsman. He begins in Scotland with Kenny Dalglish takes me through the Northeast via Boycott, Trueman and Clift.
Then we visit Atherton's Manchester, the Midlands courtesy of Nigel Mansell, and end up in the east of London with Phil Tufnell. By the time he takes me to Wales by the great Gareth Edwards, my stomach aches from laughter. But I'm also amazed. One country, three nations, countless accents, but one united race.
(This was written way before the Brexit, by the way.)
The race of Britain's United long enough to rule the world, at least for a while. As much as Kevin Keegan hits Alex Ferguson. He doesn't refer to him as belonging to a different species. But sadly in Sri Lanka, that is exactly what we do. It is race and religion first, country last. “Okay, then, explain the differences between Sinhalese and Tamils,” asked Jonny and I am stumped. I could start with the stereotypes. Sinhalese are lazy, gullible bullies. Tamils are shrewd, organised, brown nosers. Tamils have moustaches and chalk on their foreheads. Sinhalese are less dark, though not as fair as Muslims or Burghers. The Sinhala language is singsong-y, Tamil is more guttural. Tamil names end in consonance Sinhalese in vowels. Tamil are Hindu, Sinhalese are Buddhists. Tamils mispronounce the word, Baldia and Sinhalese eat cow and don’t like people getting ahead unless it is them. But all this tells you nothing. I can introduce you to a fair-skinned Tamil who speaks perfect Sinhala and follows the teachings of Christ and his mother, or take you to Tamil places that end in vowels where you may visit a Sinhalese doctor named Kariyawasam.
Sri Lanka is filled with many shades of brown, not unlike the stuff that ended up in Jonny's pool. It is not so much the colours as the ideas that these colours spawn that I find objectionable. The united super race of Britain's may have started it all when they, among other things, segregated our cricket clubs, though it is perhaps unfair and inaccurate to lay the blame for racial problems on the streets of Downing or the palaces of Buckingham despite the existence of a Sinhalese sports club, a Tamil union, a Moors’ FC, a Burgher recreational club and the perversely Christian nondescript Cricket Club. Cricket as a sport refuse to be segregated, clubs grabbed talent regardless of vowels or consonants or moustaches or chalk, so much for divide and conquer.
By the 1950s, we began to develop our own dangerous ideas without any foreign assistance, the idea that the nation belongs to the Sinhala, or that the Tamil deserves a separate state – ideas that have clashed and exploded for the last 30 years. Perhaps one day, they will be replaced by an idea of Sri Lankan-ness that welcomes all shades of brown. Do I suspect my generation will have to die to give birth to it? India got independence a year before us. They are larger, more diverse, and more excitable than our Ceylonese but still embrace the idea of India above being a Bengali or a Sikh or a Muslim, something we have been incapable of doing.
We are smaller in every way, including being smaller-minded. If I had to explain it, I would adopt the approach of a famous divide and conquer man, Mr. Rudyard Kipling – Sinhalese are sloth bears, lethargic, cuddly creatures of modest brain who break things if riled, Tamils are carrion crows, resourceful creatures, resilient and peaceful, unless provoked. Forget this nonsense of lions and tigers, neither of which have lived in Sri Lanka for over a millennium. But then I look at the shades. I look closely at the shades of brown, and I see interlocking patterns. The Tamil Zion is called Elam, which derives from the same Sanskrit word as Heller, the singular word for sovereignty. Men from both races gobble rice and acquire bellies at middle-age, women of both races, oil their hair and spread malicious gossip. Both races can be equally feudal, equally cruel, and equally capable of turning on their own. Both can be proud to the point of stupidity. Explain the differences between Sinhalese and Tamils? I cannot. The truth is, whatever differences there may be, they are not large enough to burn down libraries, blow up banks, and send children onto minefields. They are not significant enough to waste hundreds of months firing millions of bullets into thousands of bodies. Thank you.”
Roannaa Gonsalves: Thank you Shehan. Thank you. I loved the trenchant critique of nation-making and nation-breaking, and you write about really heavy, traumatic things in a very light way, very skillful, light way. And in doing so, make the traumatic even more moving and affecting, I feel. And you, of course, do that so well in Maali Almeida, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida. I wanted to ask you a little bit about that process of working with traumatic lived experience, witnessing trauma, remembering trauma, imagining, you know, the work of the imagination as well.
Working with that really heavy material and making something so light and beautiful with it. And I want to ask the same question of you, Shankari, and Andavalli, too. What do you do as writers to help you get through this really heavy material?
Shehan Karunatilaka: So I try to avoid heavy material. I wrote a cricket book, okay. There's a little passage about Sinhalese and Tamils, but it's mostly a rollicking ride about arak and cricket, and the same intention for Seven Moons, I thought, “Okay, I want to write a really real ghost story, a murder mystery". Of course, I set it during '89. But that was the intention, where the corpses, the detective beyond the grave solving their murder but what happened is I had a cast of ghosts, so I researched all the unsolved murders of '89 and '90, and many of these ghosts that appear in the book are based on true stories. But I think in earlier drafts, I had a vast cast of ghosts. There were dead child soldiers, dead Portuguese sailors, dead slaves from the Negombo, and in the end, we pruned it down so there are only a few ghosts. But the problem was, the ghosts started talking to me, and the ghosts wouldn't shut up, and they would just start philosophising about Sri Lanka, and talking about trauma, and some of them were bitter, some of them were kind of sanguine about it. But yeah, the ghosts end up rambling, and the thing got mistaken for literature and got awarded a prize, and that's what really happened there.
So with both books, I wasn't really trying to write a political novel at all. But when these voices spoke to me, I had to listen. And I think the use of humour is not like you write a grim tale and you inject jokes afterwards, in the edit. It was, I think, the choice of narrative voice. So with the first one, I was writing a cricket biography, and I tried writing in the third person, but it was only when I decided that an alcoholic sports journalist, a drunken uncle, would narrate the story that it came alive, and I was able to tell very tall tales. And the same with Maali Almeida, it took different forms. But when I knew that this dead war photographer, closeted gay gambler, was going to narrate the story, I think his voice took over and he's got sort of this detached glib sense of humour and he's a bit of a catty kind of closet queen, a bit bitchy, and I think that helped me at least keep interested in writing it because he's watching his corpse being dismembered and chopped up and chucked in a river in the lake, the first scene.
But he still sees, he's still able to crack jokes about it or make some glib comments about it. And I think maybe that's my sensibility, that I choose narrators that have a sense of humour, even though they're discussing dark things. But I also think it's maybe the Sri Lankan sensibility as well because despite having all this history of trauma, it's not a grim, depressing place. You go there, it's quite a cheerful, happy-go-lucky, optimistic place, which is strange, you know and I think, you know, back to the cricket analogy, we watch our team lose spectacularly all over the world. And then suddenly, we'll win a test match against South Africa, Australia, and it's like, "Yes, we're back."
And then we keep watching the cricket and watch us lose again, and it seems like a metaphor for the political situation as well, even last year, during the height of the Aragalaya – the struggle, when we were storming the President's palace and had petrol queues and all of that, the jokes never stopped. I was following this not on BBC or CNN or even the local channels, I found this on Twitter, and the memes kept going, even during those petrol queues, four-five-day petrol queues. People were quite tense and anxious, but they were also playing cards and singing Baila and cracking jokes about the government. And I think maybe this is our coping mechanism that we either laugh at each other or we punch each other, and so it's better we laugh at each other and get on with it. So I think maybe that's where the humour comes in but I think also that's what keeps me interested because if I did a realistic nonfictional piece on '89 –'90, it would make quite a grim, gruesome read and I think being able to see the absurdity in it actually helps me as a writer and perhaps helps a reader as well.
Roanna Gonsalves: Yeah, yeah, that's great. And part of the distancing effect that the humour creates, I think, is also created by the in Maali Almeida, the Booker Prize-winning book, it's created by the use of the second person. So as I was reading, I just felt it's making me feel complicit when I'm not but it's also distancing me so it was a really interesting position that you put the reader and you as the author making the decision to use the second person. And it just is a different experience of reading and reflecting upon this complex representation of trauma and war and also, you know, this ghost who's watching his own body be dismembered and all of the jokes that surround it. So I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that choice to write in the second person.
Shehan Karunatilaka: Yes, that was just problem solving. What does a ghost sound like? What does a ghost look like? What does a ghost do all day? And yeah, I grappled with these complex questions.: What does the afterlife look like? And I did write it in the third person, I wrote it in the first person. But I think what informed the decision was, I figured the only thing that may survive the death of your body would be the voice in your head and the voice in my head is in the second person. I don't know what everyone else's heads look like or what the voices in your head sound like. But for me, it's the second person, it's like someone else telling me that I'm making a fool of myself or that I should shut up and so, it's almost like someone on my shoulder telling me this. And I think when I used it, also, you know, later you can rationalise it, but when you're writing, you're writing on an instinctual level. And before I knew it, I had 20 – 30 pages in the second person, so I thought, "Oh, God, looks like I'm gonna have to write a novel in the second person”, and I was waiting for subsequent editors to tell me, "Yeah, this is very jarring, let's change it”. But everyone responded to it, and I think later when I thought about it, it does give that distancing effect because the narrator who's saying ‘you’ is not quite the Maali Almeida who you see in flashbacks and Shivantha Wijesinha who did the audiobook did a tremendous job. I didn't talk to him before he did it, but I heard the results. He narrated it. So when he does the narration in the second person, and when he talks about Maali Almeida in flashback, it's a slightly different register that he uses, which I thought was amazing. And I think that's correct so the person narrating the story is Maali Almeida, but it's not quite the same guy who lived from 1950 to 1990. It could be the voice of his conscience; it could be the voice of his soul across different reincarnations. And also, he interrogates that, who is the ‘you’ telling the story? Who is the voice in your head? And I've often wondered that, we always think that our thoughts originate from ourselves, but maybe there's someone else, some spirit sitting behind us whispering these bad ideas in our ears because there have been many times you do something and you think, "What was I thinking? Why did I say that?". And Maali Almeida also wonders, "Am I the originator of my thoughts? Or is someone else whispering these bad ideas to me?" But that all stuff came later. I think it initially just started with, "What does the voice in your head sound like?" and the second person seemed to work.
Roanna Gonsalves: Yeah, that's, that's really super interesting. It's that whole idea of the fragmentation of the voice and of subjectivity, and also the accretion of layers of personhood, subjectivity, I suppose, identity. Yeah, really, really interesting.
Shankari, I would love for you to just tell us a little bit about your process in terms of trying to render on the page really, really difficult, as you said, vicarious trauma, but, you know, things that you said your people have gone through and continue to go through. So, how did you work with the material that you have worked with in your books?
Shankari Chandran: Yeah, so interesting that you say you wanted to write a novel, that Sri Lankan novel that wasn't about the war and about trauma and politics. And I think sometimes it's very hard to be Tamil and to be Tamil in the diaspora or Tamil from Sri Lanka or in Sri Lanka and to not write about the politics and the war because that is why we're here, right? That is why we have left and that is the struggle of the people that remain, and so the politics of it and the war is an ongoing, cellular feature of theirs and our lives. And you carry that with you, as you should, and so when you talk about the levity, it's also fascinating to me because I think you're exactly right. You do that so beautifully.
The levity that makes the tragedy even more tragic. And I think in my work, the approach has been that the levity of it, you know, I'm not trying to be funny, I'm not a funny person. It's just the legacy of the stories of both those two novels of Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens and Song of the Sun God is in the craziness of the chaos of a Sri Lankan Tamil family or indeed a Sri Lankan family, right? Our families are large.
They are, you know, oppressively interested in everything we do. They are overly concerned with who we've married, when we're having children, how many children are we having, who will they marry? You know, so, you know, to my grandmother's dying day, she would introduce me as her granddaughter that got into medicine but chose to do law. So, you know, the humour and the levity is in who we are and how we live and how we treat each other. And the trauma of it is in what we have also gone through, and these are inextricably linked and so my approach in writing Sri Lanka and the Tamil struggle. I don't approach people and I don't ask people because it is their lived experience. And what I do is, for example, when I go to Sri Lanka, particularly when I go to Jaffna, you know, it's a small place where this peninsula that we are fighting over is a very small area of land and when I go up, everyone is known to each other, right? And even if I leave, so when I go there, I will be with certain people, with priests and with doctors from Jaffna hospital and so on. And so the community knows that I'm there and they will come and say, "So you are here, you're Chandran’s daughter", and, you know, “So I hear you're writing a book, it's a shame you didn't do medicine”. And so, you know, “Let me tell you this story”. And then they share their stories with me. So I don't approach them, and I don't ask for the story and then I tell them that, “You know, I'm writing, do you want your lived experiences, because I'm going to hold this now for you? Do you want that to be woven into the fabric of the novel?” And then, and in fact, in many ways, I don't have to ask, they ask me, but then I re-ask so I think it's really important to re-ask and be sure that the person who is telling you their story understands the ways in which that story might be incorporated into the narrative that you are writing.
I think it's an incredible burden and privilege to carry that for people or to be a part of it, to listen to it, and enormous courage that they have to share that story and to relive that trauma. I mean, I couldn't even make eye contact with Aunty Anandavalli as she read that piece, reliving that trauma, right? And it's a privilege to listen to it and to then try to honour it in the stories that I write and the books that I write. And then, like, literally, at the end of the day, if I'm writing that kind of work, I will literally do a headcount of the children because I'd like to know where they are and who they are, and now I have to track my daughter on her phone. And sometimes, then I like to sleep with them, at the end of a hard day of writing, I really need to just hold them and smell them, and feel the rise and fall of their chest and hear it and touch it and know that it's safe.
Roanna Gonsalves: Thank you. Anandavalli, would you like to tell us a little bit? What Shankari said just resonated a lot.
Anandavalli: Yes. Can I just ask a question, how many in the audience actually saw the play Counting and Cracking? So, I think that's enough people in the audience to understand what the play tried to say, and it says, it took my son 10 years, for Counting and Cracking to reach the Town Hall in Sydney. And thanks to Belvoir and Eamon Flack, the two boys had a beautiful dream and they made it a reality. I sat through… I initially thought my son was an idiot. He always wanted to do journalism, and he did very well. Many people offered him jobs which he said no to.
My uncle, my brother who is our rock, kept telling him to find a real job because he was brilliant. One of his professors and said, "I'm giving you 200 out of 100, I'm only not giving you 200 because the writing is so unreadable". He said it before, so he always had a passion for writing, always very good at it. And I didn't tell him the story of Sri Lanka because it's just too painful and as I said, you tie a blindfold on you and you live a life that you don't want to align, you don't want to cross because it's too painful. But I started going for the Counting and Cracking readings and the initial script was like about that big, and then it got smaller and smaller and smaller, and then it still became a three-hour script.
So all the work he did in Counting and Cracking started with my aunt, who we dedicated the play to. Sitting in London around her breakfast table, she told him who he was, that he was so and so's grandson, C. Suntharalingam, the politician and about his family and about his mother, who was a dancer. All the stories I never told him. She told him about his legacy, about his history, and he couldn't believe what she was telling him. And from there, the seeds were sown. And little by little, he started researching. He's very good at it, researching and listening to people's stories, and became aware of the stories. Everyone says Counting and Cracking is fiction, and so does he, but like The Seven Moons of Maali Almedia, I can tell you 95% of that man's jokes are real and it's so brilliantly written that you don't realise the trauma within those lines. It's so beautifully written. Same with this child and my son. They belong to a generation that took our burden, the wrongs of our forefathers, and now making all of us accountable for it. For that I say, thank you.
Roanna Gonsalves: Thank you. I am conscious that we have only a few minutes left, but I would like to open up the floor to questions if anyone has any questions to ask of our panellists. I think there are microphones.
Audience Member: So this question is for Ms Shankari Chandran. Hi, I'm Sanjali. I remember that the most impactful part of your book for me was Smrithi remembering Nala being set on fire, and the generational trauma that she carried within her without knowing. And when you talked about vicarious trauma that really sort of cemented that connection for me, could you tell us a little bit more about how your lived experiences impacted the work that you've done with Song of the Sun God?
Shankari Chandran: Have my lived experiences?... So sorry, what was your name again?
Audience Member: Sanjali.
Shankari Chandran: Sanjali, so thank you, essentially, for the question. So the thing is, right, that I have had, and I'm eternally grateful to my grandparents and extended family, and in particular my parents, for the wonderful lived experience that we have had, that this generation of Tamils have had in the diaspora, because of the choices and the sacrifices that they made. It is only through that, that we have escaped that trauma and the lived experiences of those characters in those books. And so that, that's the first thing, right and then the second thing is that when we are diasporic children, we feel or maybe I will put that into the first person, I feel very sad. You're neither one nor the other, right? For most of my childhood and my early adulthood, I felt very trapped in the middle of something and observers, to my parents, grief and observers, to their guilt, and you know, from childhood onwards, we were seeing them struggle with the fact that they had left, and that they had survived, they wanted to leave, they wanted to survive, they did that for their children, but they carry with them enormous guilt. And that manifests itself in different ways so all of my father's side of the family are very motivated about the political struggle and that was very much part of my political consciousness was learning from them, but also witnessing their grief and their guilt.
And then I have worked as a lawyer, with vulnerable clients, with clients that have experienced great trauma and so I've learned and been trained in how to work with clients like that. But I think nothing really prepares you to listen to somebody tell you about the horror of war, and the loss of their children and, and then you just try to put words on a page to, as I said, to try to honour that in some way and remember it. There's a beautiful line in your book, where you talk about forgetting something does not erase it. Yeah, forgetting something does not erase it. I'm going to use that line, by the way. It's going to be in the front of my next book, and I'm taking your nodding as permission to use it.
Shehan Karunatilaka: I forget having written that line. But yeah, you're welcome.
Shankari Chandran: So I think it's really important that we don't forget, and that we learn from what we are meant to remember. Thank you. Thanks, Sanjali.
Audience Member: Thank you for sharing your time with us. It's interesting to hear that motivations behind being here and being involved in these artistic pieces were maybe, denial and guilt, prosecution or discussing your narrative and I guess when I read all of your work, it was the same time that I had my first baby. And it was nine months ago, and I was catapulted to this sort of idea where identity became a big part of who I am.
What do I tell my children? Where do I come from, and my background is Tamil Sri Lankan. Growing up in Australia, in history, geography, you learn about cross generational trauma and the Indigenous story, you learn about, you know, ‘if you don't know where you come from, you don't know where you're going’, as though to the paramount of like, the massive issues in this country, but it kind of hit home to me. And then the Sri Lankan people, and I'm here with my family, all of us are not the same type of Tamil or Sri Lankan, we are a sort of a mixture of both and it's so wonderful to be in this atmosphere and have these issues discussed in an Australian forum. How does it feel to be catapulted to now being advocates or these people now talking about political issues on the stage? Because that doesn't seem like that was your initial agenda? It doesn't seem like that's not what you wanted. Shehan, maybe to you, yeah.
Shehan Karunatilaka: Yeah, what you say, catapulted to what?
Audience Member: An advocate. You’re now a person that talks about issues.
Shehan Karunatilaka: I’m no advocate for anything. No, no, I’m just the same ratbag who writes weird stories. That's my side of the street that I want to work on, and yeah, it has been challenging because yeah, I mean, Chinaman came out 10 years ago, or more and I've been writing this for seven years. And two years ago, no one wanted to publish it and I thought, you know, I'm gonna sit in Colombo, or Kurunegala and write in anonymity and that's fine and this what writers choose, and yeah, since the events of October, I've been travelling around talking about the book, and yeah, you do get asked. I mean, with the first book, I was asked, “Do Mahela and Sanga not get on, is that why Sri Lanka can't win a World Cup?” And I was like, “How the hell should I know?”, and now I'm being asked about, you know, slightly more deadly topics on it and I've always said, “Look, I have political beliefs. I have spiritual beliefs and all that, but I personally think it's irrelevant”. I'd rather the books get famous, I have no desire to be famous myself or be a spokesperson for anything but yeah, so the questions do get thrown at me and I try and sidestep them as well as I can.
There's plenty of political commentators, there's plenty of cricket fanatics in Sri Lanka, and I didn't see that I had to play that role. Um, so yeah, it's weird. It's not that I don't care about things to discuss it, but I don't feel that that's my place. So I am quite uncomfortable with that role and yeah, hopefully, in six months, there'll be a new book, a winner, and I'll hand over my sash, my tiara to the next place, and move on.
Roanna Gonsalves: But Shehan, you're always welcome to the Sydney Writers’ Festival again. And on that note, do we have time for another? Is there another? Is there anyone else?
Well, on that note, I would like to draw this session to a close. Thank you everyone for spending your evening with us and join me in thanking our lovely panellists.
UNSW Centre for Ideas: Thanks for listening. This event was presented by the UNSW Centre for Ideas and Sydney Writers’ Festival. For more information, visit centreforideas.com and don't forget to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.
Anandavalli is a veteran classical Indian dancer with an international career spanning over 45 years. Born in Sri Lanka, she performed as a young prodigy across India and Europe under the tutelage of dance luminaries from both the East and the West.
Migrating to Australia in 1985 she founded Lingalayam Dance Academy in 1987 and the Company in 1996. Lingalayam’s work incorporates dance, live music, text and design. Anandavalli is deeply committed to advancing the course of Indian dance as well as the broader scope of artistic development in Australia. She has presented guest lectures, workshops and taught dance and movement at the University of NSW, the University of Sydney and at the Australian College of Physical Education. From 1999-2003 Anandavalli sat on the Dance Board of the then NSW Ministry for the Arts. Anandavalli continues exploring new directions and developments collaborating with some of the finest national and international artists.
Shankari Chandran is an Australian Tamil lawyer and the author of Song of the Sun God, Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens and The Barrier. Song of the Sun God was long-listed for the International Dublin Literary Award and short-listed for Sri Lanka's Fairway National Literary Award. Her short stories have been published in the Sweatshop Anthologies, Another Australia and Sweatshop Women (Vol 2). Shankari is the Deputy Chair of Writing NSW.
Shehan Karunatilaka is the winner of the 2022 Booker Prize for his second novel The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida. He is also the author of the award-winning Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew, which was selected for the UK's 2022 Big Jubilee Read selection. Born in Sri Lanka, he studied in New Zealand and has lived and worked in London, Amsterdam and Singapore. He lives in Colombo with his family, his guitars, and his unfinished stories.
Roanna Gonsalves is the award-winning author of The Permanent Resident. Her series of radio documentaries, On the tip of a billion tongues, commissioned and broadcast by Earshot, ABC RN, is an acerbic socio-political portrayal of contemporary India through its multilingual writers. She received The Bridge Awards' inaugural Varuna – Cove Park Writing Residency 2019 (Scotland). She works as a Lecturer in Creative Writing at UNSW Sydney.