Image from Write to Reconcile
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.
I hadn’t thought about those months in a long time. In fact, I hadn’t considered them as constituting a “memory”, by which I mean something that one recalls as a seminal moment, something worth mulling over. The protests and news from Sri Lanka had taken their place in the daily busyness of my life – made up of teaching, marking papers, shovelling snow, waiting in the freezing cold for buses, cooking, shopping, cleaning, going to the opera and theatre, and reading some good books. A good part of those months was spent worrying about the health of my ailing aunt, making many long trips to an eastern suburb to help her cope, taking turns with my sisters in the hospital when she was admitted for a few weeks. All these realities diluted the effect of the protests and the end of the war.
Yet now, because of the play, those months had become a “memory” – a historic moment I had lived through. Because of the play, the memory of my thoughts and feelings and awareness of the ending war had detached themselves from the multiple distractions and busyness of my days, as lived in that time, and become crystallised as a memory. Had become metaphorized.
This is what good narrative does. It takes an experience or moment in history, isolates it from the quotidian business of living, and holds it up to us – that moment now glistening like a newly cut gem. The experiences of the young man and woman in the play were very different from my own. I was much older than them, for one. Unlike the woman, I was born and brought up in Sri Lanka and had, over the years, maintained contact with the country. Unlike her, I was very clear on what my position was during those last months of the war. Unlike the young man, I had no naivety about what was going on over there. And yet, different as our experiences were, the narrative I had seen unfolding on the stage had rung a bell in me; had brought to the surface my own experience of that historical moment, lifted now out of the soil of the mundane. Good narrative does this. It opens up our own memories and feelings and helps crystallise them.
It is my hope that this anthology performs a similar function. Though the experiences the reader reads about might be very different from their own, I hope reading these pieces lifts their own experience of the war and post-war period out of the mud of daily existence and raises it up to the light. I hope that they keep these memories with them, because to forget them means that our violent shared history runs the risk of repeating itself.
This is the third year of Write to Reconcile and very likely its last. It is hard to believe that this project, that I conjured up in my head in 2012, ever came to fruition, and even harder to believe that there have been three instalments of Write to Reconcile, each producing an anthology of work about the war and post-war situation.
For those who are not familiar with Write to Reconcile, a short word on it: the project was born out of my belief that good literature has the power to heal wounds in a situation like Sri Lanka’s, by initiating a conversation between its divided communities. Good literature gives people a chance to look into the lives and experiences and points of view of the “other”; gives them a chance to see the “other” as human just like them, with points of view that, although different from their own, are also valid.
At the beginning of each Write to Reconcile, we put out an island-wide call for applications and selected participants to represent a diversity of experiences – ethnic, religious, geographic, and economic. The project was open to Sri Lankans living in the country and from the diaspora between the ages of 18-29. It was also open to all Sri Lankan teachers and professors, as I hoped that the creative writing craft I taught during the programme would be used by them in their classrooms. The entire programme was free of charge. At the beginning of each Write to Reconcile, the selected participants met for a week-long residential workshop, during which they got to know each other and also learnt the craft of creative writing from me. We made it a point to hold these workshops in different parts of the island with the goal of exposing participants to the different ways the war affected different communities. Past Write to Reconcile workshops were held in Colombo, Jaffna, Kandy and Batticaloa. This time, the residential workshop took place in Anuradhapura, because I was keen to expose participants to the Sinhala Border Villages and the Vanni, in the hopes that the experiences of these people might be reflected in the anthology – either directly, or as a felt experience transformed into another context. The Vanni, where the last phase of the war was fought, bears the deepest scars of the war. We were very lucky to meet so many people there who were willing to share their experiences with us, to let us into their lives and painful histories. I think we were all deeply moved and changed by this experience.
Following the residential workshop, each year Write to Reconcile conducted an online forum where every participant workshopped 2 pieces of writing. This year, I introduced an innovation to the forums by allowing a selected amount of diaspora participants, who had not attended the residential workshop, a chance to participate only online. I felt this increased access for diaspora participants, many of who do not have the means or the time to fly to Sri Lanka. Following the online forums, each participant picked one of their submissions and worked with me to refine it for this anthology.
One of the questions I am often asked is how Write to Reconcile has influenced and changed my own writing. This is a difficult question to answer because “influence” works in a strange and indirect way. Often it takes many years for a period or important incident to work its way into my fiction. So, time and distance are necessary before I will be able to know how this program has affected my own work.
There are, however, some things I can say about how Write to Reconcile has changed me as a person. Before I started this project, I had very little contact or even access to other Sri Lankans outside my own family and social circles. Sri Lankans outside of my social world seemed as foreign as non-Sri Lankans. I didn’t know how to bring myself, with my own sets of beliefs, attitudes and personality, into interaction with these other Sri Lankans. The 74 participants I have worked with over the three Write to Reconcile programmes were carefully selected to represent the widest spectrum possible of Sri Lankans. They have, through their generous goodwill, given me a chance to learn how to bring myself into an easy relationship with Sri Lankans different from myself. I have also got to know the thoughts and feelings of the younger generation, all of who were born and raised during the war and to whom this post war period – which was the “normal” my generation longed to return to – is strange and abnormal. I have got to know these 74 people not so much in a social way but, rather, through editing their work. You really do get to know the mind and soul of a person when you pore over their words for long periods, when you spend a lot of time in the worlds they have created, absorbing their unique vision and then helping them shape and sharpen that vision. It is a very profound way of “knowing”, to engage in this way. It is this “knowing” I take with me from the project, this feeling that I have lived and experienced these other different realities; which has also made me socially at ease in these other realities. I am curious and excited to see in what way my work on Write to Reconcile will change my own work some years from now.
An excerpt from the Introduction to the Write to Reconcile 111 Anthology due out at the end of March 2017. Submitted to celebrate Groundviews 10th Anniversary.