‘Coexistence isn’t a slogan’: Ru Freeman
Photos Brenda Carpenter
By Jennifer Rodrigo
“I find it very difficult to read books about Sri Lanka (or any country, really) which are ripped from the headlines, which feed a certain easy narrative to a mostly western audience that can shake their heads and say: ‘Oh my god, look at the terrible things happening in Sri Lanka or X country,’ and then go about their business. That’s prostituting yourself as a writer, frankly. And there are people who do it. I’m not one of them and don’t intend to be.”
Sri Lankan and American novelist, poet, and critic Ru Freeman’s unvarnished words were powerful; refreshing, to put it succinctly, adding fuel to my already-piqued mind on the verge of asking her more questions.
Continuing my series from last Sunday where I speak to authors who deal with the themes of conflict in their writing, this week, yet another e-conversation led me to the city of New York, the current place of abode for Sri Lankan-born author Ru Freeman who was quick to point out that Sri Lanka is what she calls home. “To this day, I correct people who ask me where I am from ‘originally’ or describe me as being ‘originally’ from Sri Lanka. Technically, yes, I ‘originated’ in Sri Lanka, but I’m not originally from there, now from somewhere else. Who I am, what moves me, what has shaped my worldview, these are all Sri Lanka to the core,” said Freeman, author of “A Disobedient Girl”, and “On Sal Mal Lane”, who also writes for the UK Guardian, The New York Times, and The Boston Globe. She also blogs for the Huffington Post on literature and politics.
Freeman grew up in Sri Lanka, between Colombo where she lived, and Kurunegala, where she spent all her holidays. She schooled at Holy Family Convent, Bambalapitiya and Ladies’ College. Her mother, the late Indrani Seneviratne, taught literature and classics at Royal College and, after retirement, taught at several schools including Ladies’ College. “My father is a retired member of the Ceylon Civil Service. My brothers, Arjuna and Malinda, work for the betterment of our country as freelance writers and consultants.”
She got into the Faculty of Law at Colombo University and switched to arts at Peradeniya during the “Bheeshanaya” – “what law, I thought, under a lawless Government responsible for the disappearances of thousands?” She then left to study in the US on a full scholarship at Bates College. She currently teaches creative writing at Columbia University.
It’s not black or white
“On Sal Mal Lane”, her book which came out in the year 2013, is a heart-rending one, with the tremors of Sri Lanka’s civil war in its spine. The lane is quiet on the day the Herath family moves in, ruffled only by the cries of the children whose cricket matches, romantic crushes, and small rivalries colour the families that live there. As the neighbours adapt to the newcomers, the shadows of the brewing conflict in the country seep into their lives, threatening to engulf them all.
Her debut novel, “A Disobedient Girl” is a map of womanhood with its desires and loyalties, also set against the backdrop of beautiful, politically turbulent Sri Lanka.
“In both these novels, ordinary people must live out their lives within the boundaries that are drawn for them by forces outside their control. On the one hand, cultural and domestic, on the other, political and social. In the end, the choices that are made by the people in each of these novels come down to the trust, or lack thereof, built into their relationships with the people closest to them,” she explained.
In “A Disobedient Girl”, Latha, the servant girl, rises above her status and decides to embody an old saying that Freeman’s own mother liked to quote often: “Thama hisata thama athamai sevenella” (the only shade you have for your head is under your own hand).
“In ‘On Sal Mal Lane’, the neighbours make the choice to offer solace or reject one another during a time of crisis. The extent to which they choose the former depends on the extent to which they have spent time getting to know one another beyond the usual ‘ay-hondai’ formalities of daily life.”
Illustrating how the themes of conflict found their way into her books, she said that it all started when she was asked to write an article for the most widely read newspaper in the US in 2009.
“I wrote it. They did not want to carry it because they wanted me to describe things in stark black and white terms. Here are the good people, here are the bad people. But that is not the story of Sri Lanka’s war, nor the story of war in any country. It is not that simple.”
To write that story, she felt, would have been to discredit the thousands upon thousands of people who know the country in their bones, know its weaknesses and its strengths, and know great love and compassion in the midst of terrible heartache.
“So I decided to withdraw the article, and write a novel instead.”
What does it mean to be Sri Lankan?
“If you are Sri Lankan, you know that we stand by our family, come hell or high water. We may be harsh and judgmental, we may point out each other’s flaws, we may make fun of each other, but those things are done in private. In public, we stand by the people in our family,” she emphasised. Sri Lanka – the island, the culture, the people – is family to Freeman and she will stand by it and defend it until she is no more. “I see its flaws, I know its failures, I grieve its shortcomings, and I will do anything to help mend those things, but that is a private battle to me. It is not a spectacle for the world.”
Commenting on the country’s current state of unrest, she shared that claiming blanket sainthood or blanket villainy for anybody, any group, is disingenuous if you don’t know of whom and what you speak. “If you don’t know your Muslim, Catholic, Hindu, and/or Buddhist neighbours, but want to claim they are all innocent or all guilty, you are doing them, yourself, and therefore the country a great disservice. Coexistence must be practised. It isn’t a slogan.” Coexistence, she went on to explain, means recognising that the light and dark we carry in our own psyche is present in that of others. “Our neighbours of different stripes are no better or worse than ourselves. We are a collective made up of people with different histories but a similar, we hope, trajectory.”
To that end, she quoted a post from her oldest brother, Arjuna, which reads: “As we work tirelessly for peace and safety of all Sri Lankan citizens, let us know, fully, absolutely, unequivocally, that we are working together for civic nationalism. Towards this, regardless of how hard it is, I sincerely urge our Muslim brothers and sisters to stand with us, prioritising our collective Sri Lankanness and national unity over any real or imagined or self-imposed or externally-pressurised or externally-validated religious segregation, religious supremacy, or religious empathy. At the same time, I urge our Buddhist, Hindu, and Christian communities not to ostracise or reject our majority of peace-loving Muslim community. Let us all agree that our country is more important than the religious, racial, or denominational differences of its various and varied peoples.”
Referring to a researcher in Oxford, Maya Tudor, whose essay is in a new anthology Freeman recently co-edited (Indivisible: Global Leaders on Shared Security), she observed that Tudor talks about inclusive nationalism as the way forward for multi-ethnic, multi-religious countries like ours. “Human beings like to belong above all else, and if they don’t feel like they can belong to a country and its overall culture, they find ways to belong to other groups (religious, ethnic, etc.), which end up fragmenting and causing conflict. I hope we have learned that lesson, not only at the levels of power, but down our streets, and in our classrooms and neighbourhoods.”
Of terminology in literature
Whilst writers have always been at the forefront of articulating the preoccupations of a milieu, of a particular society, of individuals caught up in circumstances beyond their control, Freeman feels literature cannot be propaganda, even in the name of peace. “At least, not if it is any good!”
She thinks it’s important to consider what we mean by the terms “reconciliation” and “peace”.
“These words have been used frequently and easily and we may not all agree on what that means. For example, for some, at a certain time in our history, “peace” was about conceding to the terror unleashed by the LTTE upon the people of an entire nation. Reconciliation has meant devolution for some, even though others find the term contentious. But looking at that term, reconcile, it came into usage in late Middle English, from the Old French term ‘reconcilier’ or the Latin ‘reconciliare’ which both mean the application of intensive force to “bring together”; a pressure that can force the merging of things in ways that aren’t peaceful.”
“For me, that term reconcile means not so much a kumbaya moment, but “coming to terms with”. In other words, it means a real reckoning with our divergences, our particular sociopolitical, ethnic, religious, cultural, even linguistic histories.”
Those, she said, can’t be erased, but we can reconcile ourselves to them. “We can recognise them. We can say these are the ways in which we differ from each other, and these are the ways in which we converge. That liminal space is what is addressed by literature.”
“What ‘critics’ often miss is the story,” she explained, adding that they (critics) want a tale to throw light on something and the ensuing discussion is about pushing an author to do this or that with his or her work.
“It’s not that as a writer you set out to ‘paint a picture of hope or gloom’. We just come up with a story. Anyone can read it as gloomy or as hopeful. ‘Hope’ is usually framed by the political preferences of the reader.”
For Freeman, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which is full of unthinkable horror and loss, is one of the most beautiful and hopeful books she’s ever read!
Sri Lanka from beyond
The recent unrest in the country, no doubt, had its coverage in international media, often with terminology and tilting not everyone within the nation agrees with. Commenting on the dissemination of such news, Freeman said: “Western media transmits in terms of who has the ear of politicians and lobbyists which is always tied to money and America’s love for the notion of racial minorities and majorities — they are not so comfortable with the matter of class (there was next to no reporting of the massacres of citizens, mostly youth, during the Bheeshanaya, for instance).”
She illustrated how Ahmed Chalabi fed the Bush administration hundreds of pages of “intelligence” regarding the existence of WMDs (weapons of mass destruction) in Iraq – “he had powerful backers in and outside America, all of whom stood to gain through the escalation of war. It was the same story when I visited the offices of then Senator Casey, Chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on South Asia; I discovered that Senator Kerry (who worked under Casey), was heavily funded by the Eelam lobby in Boston and therefore would meet with them but not with anybody who did not support them, as I did not.”
Freeman thinks that with digital media, it is possible to “see” and “hear” places we cannot visit. “The nature of this kind of sharing of information dictates that the ‘packets’ of information are of a particular kind (gripping), and length (brief).” Viewers and listeners, she said, are duped into imagining that simply “seeing” or “hearing” very, very small bits and pieces about any place gives them a whole picture. “We could RT all we liked about the Arab Spring, but did we truly understand the internal logic of it? Or what drove the people participating in it?” she asked.
According to her, the kind of digital access and presentation that we are accustomed to in turn affects journalists who are, after all, supposed to translate other cultures, conflicts, and breaking stories to us. “The goal seems to be an effort to gallop off as fast as possible to some place and churn out a half-baked piece (but who cares, when we are only absorbing in sound bytes, right?), and call it a day.”
Referencing Sherry Ricchiardi, who wrote in the American Journalism Review, and used the phrase “parachute journalism” to describe this kind of writing, Freeman noted: “From coverage about Sri Lanka, from The Boston Globe during the war to The New Yorker, what I have seen is a deplorable lack of attention to fact and truth. What is sought after is a sexy headline, a quick black and white, and everything else be damned. Our responsibility as we consume these interpretations is compromised.”
In conclusion, she encouraged us all to watch a “groundbreaking” documentary titled “The Occupation of the American Mind” by Sut Jhally, a professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, which explores the way American media is manipulated by those with deep pockets, and an agenda that favours war, and a re-writing of history.
“It is free online. Everybody should watch it.”