Photo courtesy of the American Academy in Berlin by Annette Hornischer

V. V. Ganeshananthan, also known as Sugi, is the author of the novels Brotherless Night and Love Marriage, which was longlisted for the Women’s Prize and named one of the best books of the year by The Washington Post. She teaches at the University of Minnesota, where she is an associate professor of English.

Born in Connecticut, Sugi grew up in Maryland, where her family had moved for her father’s work. A voracious reader and writer, she remembers hearing her parents, relatives and family friends tell many of the stories that would later appear in her fiction.

A former vice president of the South Asian Journalists Association, she has also served on the board of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop and is a founding member of Lanka Solidarity and a member of the board of directors of the American Institute for Sri Lankan Studies.

Both of her books are based on the civil war and its effects on the community in the north and the diaspora.

Sugi answered questions from Groundviews on why she chooses to write about Sri Lanka, if reconciliation between Sinhalese and Tamils can be a reality and her hopes for an united and pluralistic country.

Since you were born in the U.S., what motivates you to choose to write about Sri Lanka?

Because of family connections, I grew up hearing stories about Sri Lanka, specifically Jaffna, in the 1980s—the period that forms the bulk of the story in Brotherless Night. In writing about Sri Lanka as a fiction writer, I have the opportunity to ask powerful questions. Because of the nature of the genre and the forms in which I work, I can explore multiple answers, or situations with no answer at all. There is room to explore gray areas.

And Sri Lanka has a fascinating past, which is full of every possible kind of story. Very often, you can see in its history parallels to issues that happen elsewhere in the world. That said, I do want to emphasize that I find Sri Lanka important on its own. I am often frustrated when I see it viewed only as a lens through which to understand other places (frequently, in recent years, China and India). Sri Lanka is interesting in and of itself to me. The people of Sri Lanka are interesting in and of themselves, and are worthy of the attentiveness of writers, as are any people in the world. For me, perhaps the question is, why wouldn’t I write about Sri Lanka, as writers write about any place?

How were you able to connect to Jaffna and Tamil culture?

I am Tamil, and although I did not grow up in a Tamil place, I did grow up with Tamil culture and people around me. I also come from a family that has ties to Jaffna. I have family in Jaffna. I have a parent who grew up in Jaffna, and I grew up on stories of that place, which I have visited. I grew up with its history and lore. I wrote the book in part out of a desire to examine the idiosyncrasies, mythologies, contradictions, and facts of Jaffna. To set a book there.

Of course, there are people from Jaffna and Tamil diasporas virtually everywhere. Working on the book, I was fortunate to speak to people in a number of different countries. I heard what people all over the world thought about Jaffna, remembered about it, what people wanted for it, what people remembered about its beauties, particularities, and problems. Those were all things that I was able to bring to bear on how I thought about the book. I’m very grateful to those people, and also appreciate the conversations I’ve had since the book’s publication, many of which are in the same vein.

Do you come to Sri Lanka to research your books?

I come to Sri Lanka to be in Sri Lanka. Of course, as a writer, it’s impossible for my experiences to not affect how I think. But it’s important to me to come to Sri Lanka because many people I care about live there, and because I care about the place itself—the actual geography of it, the settings, the space, the history. And as someone who visits Sri Lanka, I am always absorbing what is around me, which is a tremendous influence on everything I do, not just my writing.

How were you able to describe life of people in Jaffna during the war so vividly?

As I mentioned earlier, there are, of course, people who are from Jaffna now living all over the world. Often, as a result of the events that transpired during the first decade of the war, many people went overseas as immigrants. Many of those immigrants were refugees or asylum seekers, and a lot of them were willing to talk to me.

I was able to connect to people who had endured that time period, many of whom were really generous in sharing their experiences: what it was like to live in proximity to state security forces; actions in the peninsula; what it was like to attempt to pursue medical education during that time; what it was like to be a young woman; what it was like to be a young man; what it was like to be a parent; what it was like to face the demands of various militarized actors, specifically Tamil militant groups, state security forces, and Indian peacekeepers; what it was like to deal with the impacts of those three groups of people, all of whom had weapons; what was it like to be a civilian living in that space; and what kinds of choices were available to people attempting to live ordinary civilian lives.

People were often willing to talk to me in great specificity, and I’m really grateful to the people who took the time to do that. I also drew on a wealth of written material, including, but not exclusively, the University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna) books and documents, some of which really focus on this period. Those writings contain a lot of individual stories in them as well. They’re incredibly well written. So, I found that to be extraordinarily compelling material.

Did your training as a journalist help with the research?

My training as a journalist did help with the research. First, it positioned me as someone who was willing to start with something I was interested in and knew something about, but didn’t know everything about. I was willing to do research. I also started, essentially, with a journalist’s presumption that if information was available, I could find a way to access it. It also gave me an increased comfort with interviewing. I had a fair amount of experience interviewing, had thought about a lot of different ways to do it, had training in different methods, and I think that was really useful.

I often approached people with certain questions in mind. For example, having had some training in oral history, when people chose not to answer my questions but to redirect the conversation to things that were important to them, I tried to let them do that so they weren’t just following my agenda, but were also telling me what they thought was important.

I also think and hope that my journalistic training helps with the clarity of the writing itself. I probably learned as much from reading The Washington Post every day as a kid as I did from reading novels. The clarity with which journalists present the information that they gather is really important, and makes that work accessible. Of course, I’ve also seen a lot of bad writing about Sri Lanka over the years, much of it in the mainstream Western media. As I spoke to people, I also tried to hear what they thought was wrong with the way the story had sometimes been told and to work to correct that as much as possible. Often, those were questions of precision and nuance. For example, a lot of histories of the war address the Tigers almost exclusively, whereas there were multiple militant groups, particularly during this time period. So that was something that I tried to depict.

Most Sri Lankans have not experienced direct war. Do you hope your book can bring about some understanding and empathy for people who have lived through it?

I might question the premise of this question. I suspect that most Sri Lankans beyond a certain age have experienced war on some level, in a way in which, for example, most Americans have not. But I guess it depends on what you think direct war means. Direct war—meaning your home was shelled? Direct war—meaning there was a curfew? Direct war—meaning you knew someone in your village who was an economic conscript, and could find no other job to sustain their family? It seems to me like most Sri Lankans were in some way or another impacted by the war. Of course, degree, scale, and duration would have varied, but some of the most privileged populations in Sri Lanka were still dealing with things like curfew or perhaps, bombings, etc., right? In Colombo, for example, there was violence. I know people who experienced that violence as part of their growing up, and I don’t want to minimize that. I do hope my book can bring about some understanding and empathy for people who have lived through experiences that have not as frequently been discussed.

It’s also worth noting that the book does not actually attempt to represent the full variety of experiences of people who lived through the war, because it does not focus on the period between 1990 and 2008. It also has a very specific geographic focus in the North. I’m not depicting, for example, the experience of a working class Sinhalese person who decides to join the military. That wasn’t something I was attempting to put on the page.

I do think that the experiences of people in the Northern province and in the East could be more substantially represented. People who have connections to those areas are aware of what some of the costs were. I’m not sure that is clear in other parts of the country. It is, of course, entirely possible the opposite is also true, that people who were living in the Northern Province don’t necessarily have a sense of what was going on for people in the South. What was the impact of the JVP uprising, for example?

I think and hope that all of these stories are in conversation with each other, and that not only my book but also others are bringing the understanding and empathy to which you refer.

How do you think reconciliation between Sinhalese and Tamils can be brought about?

On a very basic level, more communication between different communities would be a good start. Language parity is the law in Sri Lanka, but in a variety of places and situations, it isn’t followed, enforced, required. In some cases, it appears to be a lack of will. In other cases, it seems to be a lack of capacity. But of course, people can’t understand each other if they can’t speak to each other. If they can’t read, write, talk, and have those conversations translated.

There are, as far as I can tell, many fewer trilingual Sri Lankans now than there were before the war began, and I think a focus on language education would be a very point from which to promote better communication between communities and a higher level of political discourse, which might also lead to better governance.

Do you have any hope that Sri Lanka can be a genuinely peaceful, pluralistic and united country?

As in many places, this rests in part on the efforts of civil society. I certainly see an interest there. I see a lot of very powerful grassroots organizing in different communities. People are working very hard under incredibly challenging circumstances to try to make change. As long as I see people doing that kind of organizing, I do have hope. Who am I, living in the United States, to second guess the people who are on the ground, working for that outcome?

I was heartened that during the aragalaya, we saw people from different sections of the community come together to have a conversation that didn’t seem, before that, to be happening that much. Of course, that conversation could be still larger and more inclusive. It could still more powerfully acknowledge complex histories that preceded the socioeconomic downturn, specifically those of minority communities. All of that is connected. Sri Lanka engaging with its own history is something that can only strengthen a discourse that would lead to a genuinely peaceful, pluralistic, and united country.

Pluralism, again, requires communities to communicate with each other and within themselves. Looking at Sri Lanka’s famously strong and free education, there is a history of people trying to create democratic space for argument and dialogue, to try to come to better policies, things that will enable people to live free and peaceful lives, secure in the knowledge that they are living in a place where everyone is interested in justice. We’re talking not only about peace, but also security and justice for all communities, which may seem a tall order, but which I have to think is not impossible.

You recently visited Jaffna. How did you find it?

I love to go to Jaffna. It’s one of the places where I am most myself. Every time I come, of course, it has changed, and so has its welcome. This time, I noted new traffic, new buildings, and a continued military presence. I also missed loved ones who had passed since my last visit, even as I was happy to see familiar faces and to meet new people, including some writers, scholars, and readers who were generous enough to be in conversation with me.