the exclusions always matter.

It’s the anniversary of Sri Lanka’s independence from British rule, thus also the kairotic moment prompting me to finally collect my thoughts around a range of social media content appearing on my feeds lately, primarily around tourism and programs of study in Sri Lanka. I’m used to seeing ads encouraging tourism in Sri Lanka, and tourism is often deployed to boost a postwar economy, especially in countries whose “beauty” is extolled. In these ads and travelogues, I find a fairly consistent discourse of (ancient) exoticism, the (ancient) beauty of nature, an (ancient, mystic) spiritualism that leans Buddhist and New Age/self-help, attended by a rhetoric of healing. And all of this discourse is harmful, exclusionary, reinforcing and benefiting victors’ nationalist narratives and revised histories, of who the country really belongs to and how “Sri Lanka” as a country should be defined: as west, south, and center, neatly cutting out the Tamil-dominated north and east. I find abstract violence in this, but it’s one thing to see it in tourism ads, or the Twitter feeds of a couple of obliviously vacationing non-local (usually white) friends, colleagues, or distant acquaintances. It’s another thing to see it embedded and produced in/around study abroad programs whose aims and destinations don’t take “Sri Lanka” as a whole, and whose promotional and instructional materials seem to gloss over Sri Lanka’s grim post-conflict realities in favor of flowers, sunsets, energy, healing, celebration, and (especially) the importance of contemplating and recognizing beauty.

As a graduate student/newly minted FT faculty member, it still feels risky to publicize my reactions to established programs, instructors, directors, but. The idea that students become implicated or trained in this way of seeing, and that scholars I admire or teach respond positively to this way of seeing. That feels like actual violence. That’s what the educator-activist in me can’t let go.

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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.

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breaking radio silence.

Today, I stand inside my apartment, in front of a closed door, as I have done each morning since Donald Trump became president-elect. The last time I had this much difficulty breathing, I was fresh from an appendectomy that excised the organ but couldn’t repair months’-long internal damage. My anticipated full-recovery date was November 13, my thirty-first birthday. This weekend, I turn 33, what some call the Jesus Year, the year we are meant for greatness. Three days ago, I watched the election results in the throes of a terrible cold that refused to let go, without surprise, with a rising mixture of feelings akin to what I felt during the climax of Sri Lanka’s civil war. I vomited once, and later that night, coughed up bloody phlegm. It felt as real as anything else, meaning it didn’t feel real at all.

Fibromyalgia means any bout of illness destroys me, physically and mentally, but for once I am grateful for this cough scraping the flesh from my throat, lungs, diaphragm, energy reserves, because it legitimated canceling my classes, it allowed me to stay in bed for days, to let my apartment go to shit, to utterly lose momentum on my dissertation, to wear the same pajamas day and night, through sweaty night terrors and takeout stains, and call all this something other than depression.

I can’t work up the courage to step outside.

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new narrative iv

I co-authored and co-presented ““We are Sri Lankan civilians plz save our life”: Photography and the spectacle of Sri Lanka’s civil war” with my sister, Anjali Manivannan, a human rights activist pursuing a law degree at NYU, on war photography, spectacle, and the Sri Lankan civil war. I handled the material on photography while she addressed the legal perspective. I was exhausted and unwell for most of the conference, but our presentation was solid, and our Q&A was marked by big questions about journalism, ethics, and the politics of the image in the context of mediating stories that, because they are so awful, may discourage even the very act of looking.

If you’re interested in the human rights law perspective, you can follow my sister at @Anji_Manivannan (JD as of 2014!).

bearing witness.

This month marks the first anniversary of the bloody end of Sri Lanka’s civil war.

On 2009 May 17-18, depending on how you look at it, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (தமிழீழ விடுதலைப் புலிகள்), also known as the LTTE or Tamil Tigers, were routed by the armed forces of the primarily Sinhalese government. The war, which was the product of years of ethnic tension between the Sinhalese majority and Tamil minority, lasted 25 years and was marked by the ruthlessness of both government military and paramilitary campaigns and guerilla warfare and suicide bombing employed by the LTTE, both with little regard to the cost of civilian life. We saw this magnified in the end stages of the war in May 2009, when the LTTE brought over 80,000 civilians with them into a tiny spittoon of land in the northeast, using them as human shields and impressing them into service (“Sri Lankan Government and LTTE Must Heed Demands from UN Security Council”), and the Sri Lankan army indiscriminately shelled the shrinking warzone, as it had hammered designated no-fire zones such as hospitals, bunkers, and other areas in the Vanni with a known civilian presence in flagrant disregard of the laws of war (“Sri Lanka: Repeated Shelling of Hospitals Evidence of War Crimes”).

In May 2009 my sanity was eroding and I cried almost every night, barely slept, was made numb by President Rajapaksa’s victory speech. People celebrated in the streets of Colombo and throughout the country. Like many others, most of whom were Tamil, this victory felt hollow and strange. Thousands upon thousands of civilians died in the months leading up to May 17. And while I personally condemn the actions of both the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan government, I didn’t know what to think when confronted with the news of LTTE leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran’s corpse. On the news segment his forehead was covered. There were flies. I wanted to see the bullet hole for myself. Wanted proof. Felt like a part of my life had ended. At that point I hadn’t lived my life outside of the shadow of Sri Lanka’s war.

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