Sri Lankan American Writers on Shaping an Emerging Literary Identity #AWP2017

A combination of Winter Storm Niko and a resulting spike in chronic pain has left me housebound in New York and unable to make it to my own panel today. However, since fibromyalgic brain fog compels me to draft remarks even for the most informal of speaking engagements, I’d already written an informal talk that I’ve decided to post here, in lieu of contributing in person.

Panel details and my five- to ten-minute remarks (including comments based on a structured question format) are after the jump. For purposes of accessibility, and because of my abiding faith in the power of multimodality, I’ll add an A/V link at the end as well.

My own recent publications pertaining explicitly to Sri Lanka may be found here, and here is a link to an interview conducted by my literary agent for r.kv.r.y magazine that might also speak to the panel theme.

Finally, many thanks to SJ Sindu for coordinating the panel, which I feel is especially timely given Sri Lanka’s history of ethnic strife and the current political climate enveloping a large part of the West.

I’ve never heard of that country: Sri Lankan American writers on shaping an emerging literary identity
Panelists: SJ Sindu (moderator), Sunil Yapa, V.V. Ganeshananthan, & Yours Truly

Remarks

I think I came to writing, whether fiction, nonfiction, prose poetry, or scholarship, out of this need to figure out why we do what we do in the face of adversity, when pushed to extremes. I like to say I wrote my first failed novel at age 11, followed at age 15 by a YA novel about hybridity, coming of age, and queer sexualities, a stint in a Fiction MFA program that taught me to bend genre and merge my academic and creative craft in experimental lyric forms. I’m a Ph.D. candidate in Journalism & Media Studies now, teaching news writing and media ethics and consumer culture, and multitasking between a genre novel; an autoethnographic dissertation on institutional mediation of chronic pain and the sensory hierarchy; and the final revision of a creative nonfiction manuscript about vicarious trauma, the Sri Lankan civil conflict, and the parallels echoing in America’s contemporary political climate. To paraphrase something I think my co-panelist Sugi once said, it’s been like living in a hall of mirrors since election day, in which the reflections are grotesque but not unfamiliar, because of the paranoia in my household over Sri Lanka’s war, and then 9/11 in the U.S.

This last project has forced me to acknowledge and come to terms with the fact that I am Sri Lankan-American, despite the fact that I grew up in a household that always promoted that particular hybrid identity. But through most of my writing journey, and especially when I was younger, I rejected the Sri Lankan/Tamil part of that identity, despite my own recognition of it as a consistent throughline in my work. Whatever the genre, I’m always trying to represent violence-in-process, to make conflict visible and insist that it’s worthy of visibility. And I think maybe that’s my experience of being Sri Lankan coming to the fore, how my heritage crashed into me like a time-bomb I’m still trying to defuse. Not one marked by customs, religion, or even fluency in a mother tongue, but by overheard phone calls and newspaper articles and images on Rotten or Ogrish online. I think in part because of that, I have incredible difficulty divorcing the idea of an emerging Sri Lankan-American literary identity from the overwhelming guilt of not being there when it counted. If there’s a central conceit to all of my work, from scholarship to genre fiction, it would be that I am an impostor who has survived nothing, who can’t reconcile that fact with the act of daily survival.

And this theme doesn’t feel uniquely Sri Lankan to me. But at the same time, like any other literary identity, being a Sri Lankan-American writer shouldn’t be about producing content relevant to or even necessarily evocative of Sri Lanka. I’ve had workshops where peers suggested I “write what I know,” presuming that meant Sri Lanka because of my ethnicity, but I was born in New York and grew up in the States. I’ve only been to Sri Lanka twice, both times during the war, and my travels were more or less limited to the eastern province. I understand but don’t speak Tamil. I don’t like or wear saris. I prefer antiqued brass to gold and I’m scarred and tatted up. So when I write about Sri Lanka, I do so as a stranger fumbling towards it. I’ve written about always being in transition when disaster strikes, and with Sri Lanka, my vector always seems to be away even as I try to approach. And maybe that constitutes a diasporic subgenre within this literary identity: this kind of narrative sense-making about an underreported, sometimes falsely reported war and a hybrid identity born away from it, which feels a little like reaching for a capital-A Answer while rejecting the notion of absolute Truth. There isn’t an answer. I was never really there. I never really wanted to be. I still don’t. It doesn’t call to me like it does to others I know.

And of course not all of us write solely about the Sri Lankan war, or use Sri Lankan characters, or take Sri Lanka as a setting, and the search for a capital-A Answer in and of itself characterizes lots of genres. I’ve never liked the idea of the stable, fixed categories, even though I recognize the need for them, and for this one in particular. It’s another kind of insistence on visibility, and a label that signals a unified identity instead of succumbing to the binaries particular to this dichotomizing conflict that gave us Tamil versus Sinhalese, Hindu versus Buddhist, elite versus populist. I guess what I’m driving at is that I interpret this literary identity as one that perceives and expresses through the lens of surviving some violent something, which can apply to far more than just the Sri Lankan-American experience. The violence of living and laboring with fibromyalgia without time or money for proper self-care. Queer and disabled, subject to the violence of erasure. Female, and especially now, the wrong color on the American landscape, facing the violence of subjugation. So I think the literary identity I’ve fashioned for myself, as a Sri Lankan-American writer who lives and writes at a cultural remove, is one constituted by themes: the processes and processing of violence, and of survival, of guilt, of the need for personal, familial, national reconciliation. So I end up with a category that reminds me I can’t shed my skin, but I can live in it and write and still have room to breathe.

Moderator Q&A
*In the interest of time/space/pain, I’m only posting answers to questions that add to what I’ve written above.

  • It’s cliche to say, but in general I was heavily influenced by Michael Ondaatje, who “gave me permission” to write. The woman who first inspired and encouraged me to write was Rita Dove, whose work I adore, and whom I met when I was in third grade. More recent influences include Garcia Marquez, especially his work on authoritarian regimes; Dennis Cooper for his linguistic treatment of the body’s awful beauty in the moment of wreckage; graphic novelist Alan Moore; and poet Zbigniew Herbert, in particular works featuring his alter-ego Mr. Cogito, for his treatment of war and the shadows that linger through any kind of survival.
  • In the future, I hope to see the Sri Lankan-American literary category become more established, in a way that revolves around certain themes rather than content explicitly about Sri Lanka.
  • That said, I can’t not write about the war even when I’m not writing about it. Presently I’m fine-tuning an MS that received a few revise-and-resubmits that is about vicarious trauma and the war, but more about sense-making and hauntedness. A central conceit of my work is that I wasn’t there. All I had were stories of something I would never live through, the ghosts of which have come home to roost in the landscape of American politics today. It’s this hall of mirrors I’m writing about currently, and I do it to offer a partial perspective, partial truth, to suggest the legitimacy of vicarious trauma, to construct one experience of having to reconstruct this war. Because so many people “have never heard of this place,” because I can write about it from a very specific point of intersectionality where a lot of sense-making is already required: not just Sri Lankan-American and Tamil, but queer, the kind of queerness that resists a fixed lesbian or bisexual identity, and a fibromyalgia patient, a disability considered medically suspect. I check off most of the boxes for disenfranchised minority. It’s an important space to speak from. The sense-making I learned as a young person attempting to comprehend a cultural-political war with only hearsay to go off of, offset by the littler wars of coming-of-age as Sri Lankan or American or Tamil, significantly informed the way I write creatively and academically. I’m nonlinear whether the product is or isn’t. I ask my readers to perform the same processes of closure and masquerade I have always had to perform just by being in this skin. It’s my hope that this works as an empathy exercise, for more than just messy Sri Lankan politics, but for larger issues of identity—race and ethnicity, sex and sexuality, disability—and maybe at the core of all of these things, feeling like an impostor, an unreliable narrator, and wanting to be believed.

Audiovisual link forthcoming.

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