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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authenticity and approaching literature

I’ve been thinking about the question that I brought up in class on Monday, about the impact of fiction versus nonfiction, and how genre shapes our reaction to a given piece of literature.  I have to say I was surprised at the prevailing sentiment that nonfiction delivers more of an emotional “punch,” if you will, than fiction—but then, this is the most common approach to the issue of genre.  So why was I surprised?

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when broken glass floats

“We are like the dust of history being blown away.”

Him, When Broken Glass Floats, p. 330

When I start thinking about war or genocide, I go to the images first.  Maybe this is so I can feel as though I’ve survived something.  Reading the narratives puts it into perspective, or assuages (or feeds) the guilt, that I feel this way when I’ve never experienced it for myself.  Call it whinging, posturing, or vicarious trauma.  I don’t know that the impulse goes by a name.

Chanrithy Him’s When Broken Glass Floats is, to date, the most emotionally difficult survivor account I’ve ever encountered.  She describes her experience living under the regime of the Communist Khmer Rouge, which instated a policy of social engineering that resulted in genocide.  Agricultural “reform” measures and the insistence on total self-sufficiency in the matters of food, water, and medicine led to widespread famine and disease.  By forcing the entire Cambodian population to work as farm laborers, the Khmer Rouge hoped to institute a classless society under a totalitarian government.  Intellectuals, as well as those who only appeared to be educated, were executed; books were destroyed; money and symbols of Westernization, including Western medicine, were looked down on.

This system led to the deaths of approximately 1.4 to 2.2 million people.  Half those deaths were likely by execution, the rest by starvation and disease, such as amoebic dysentery, edema, and cholera.  The Khmer Rouge ruled from 1975 to 1979.  The phrase “Year Zero,” which we use to mean “building from the ground up,” was coined in relation to the 1975 Khmer Rouge takeover of Phnom Penh, as it immediately set about destroying all previous evidence of Cambodian culture and substituting new revolutionary ideals in its stead.

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born to write

“She’s more than a college student; she’s a force of creative nature.”

Also, infamously, this article in Dartmouth Life publicized my penchant for rolling out of bed and attending class in my pajamas even in the face of Dartmouth winters. Former professor and dear friend Brenda Silver softened the blow by adding that “Whatever she does, she does intensely and well.”

“it’s crunch time”

credit: valley news – james patterson

I have to say, I think my favorite part of this interview is that I’m quoted as saying “it’s crunch time,” a statement I feel like I’ve never stopped saying, and probably never will. Also, I’m beyond flattered that professor/friend Brenda Silver described Invictus as “an extraordinary work for a 15-year-old, both in terms of its linguistic sophistication and its sense of how narrative works.”

Also, this interview may be the only print mention of the spectacularly failed novel I wrote when I was 11: a behemoth of about 400+ pages that I stupidly sent unsolicited and without an agent to Tor Books. The thing was riddled with plot holes and cliches and what have you, but I received a kind, two-page rejection letter that explained what needed fixing and encouraged me to keep writing.

At the time, of course, I believed that the chief editor himself had actually written it (look, Mom, it’s signed in blue ink!), but now that I’m older and wiser, I know that it was likely an assistant, and I want to say thank you to that assistant who, circa 1994, was compassionate enough to compose and sign a letter to a kid who needed encouragement.

These little moments, they pay off.

all news begins with this

Yes, I realize I wasn’t even blogging in 2004 and only had three years of college under my belt, but for me, all news begins with this news: that I published a novel I wrote when I was fifteen, revised when I was sixteen, revised again when I was eighteen, was published, sans agent, by Pearl Street Publishing Company, who accepted the MS thinking I was a full-grown adult. While I like to say now that it’s a story of hybridity, negotiating otherness, and trying to escape the incessant ranking of identity factors, it’s essentially a sci-fi romp about biological robots. I should cite the Rockman franchise as a major influence.

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