Category Archives: Sri Lankan American

On Sal Mal Lane by Ru Freeman

On Sal Mal LaneSTARRED REVIEW
As in Ru Freeman’s absorbing 2009 debut, A Disobedient Girl, the intricate lives of young children also take center stage in this latest work. In 1979, the titular Sal Mal Lane is a cul-de-sac on the outskirts of Sri Lanka’s largest city and former capital, Colombo. The Herath family’s arrival with four young children – Suren the musician, Rashmi the singer, Nihil the cricketer, and baby Devi the favored – reshuffles friendships and alliances along the lane.

Beyond the safety of this quiet enclave, the rest of the country is at an impasse: ethnic, religious, and political differences stir among a population long plagued by divisions and colonizations. War looms, and tragedy proves inevitable: “Everyone who lived on Sal Mal Lane was implicated in what happened … while this story is about small people, we must consider the fact that their history is long and accord them, too, a story equal to their past.”

Verdict: Dates and events ground the novel specifically in Sri Lanka, but the universal narrative of family remains borderless. As witness and storyteller, Freeman never falters, revealing “what happened” with clarity and resolve in prose both lingering and breathtaking. The result is simply stupendous.

Review: “Fiction,” Library Journal, June 1, 2013

Tidbit: To find out more about both book and author, check out my interview with Freeman in the May 2013 issue of Bookslut.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ...Absolute Favorites, ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, South Asian, South Asian American, Sri Lankan, Sri Lankan American

On Sal Mal Lane by Ru Freeman + Author Interview

On Sal Mal LaneAllow me to start with the simple end: Ru Freeman‘s On Sal Mal Lane is stupendous. I’ll even embellish that verdict and add that it is actually fan-huththa-tastic... the tmetic meaning of which should encourage you to go get your own copy and check the “glossary” at book’s end. You’ll surely find some choice vocabulary there to aptly describe your own reading experience.

As in Freeman’s absorbing 2009 debut, A Disobedient Girl, the intricate lives of young children take center stage in On Sal Mal Lane. In 1979, the titular Sal Mal Lane is a small cul-de-sac on the outskirts of Sri Lanka’s largest city and former capital, Colombo; in spite of the diverse households, the residents live in relative peace. If they are not exactly friendly, then they certainly live as tolerant neighbors one and all. The Herath family of two parents, four young children – Suren the musician, Rashmi the singer, Nihil the cricketer, and baby Devi the favored – and their servant move into the quiet enclave, reshuffling friendships and alliances throughout the lane.

The Heraths are educated and cultured, and their four children, whose ages range from 7-and-a-half-year-old Devi to 12-year-old Suren, “were different from all the others who had come and stayed for a while on Sal Mal Lane.” In addition to each being neat and clean, well-mannered and talented, their devotion to one another – “the way they stood together even when they were apart … every word uttered, every challenge made, every secret kept, together” – is a gift to behold.

Even as the Heraths’ lives intertwine with that of their neighbors, beyond the safety of their small street, the rest of the country is at an impasse. Ethnic, religious, and political differences among a population with a long history of divisions, colonizations, and suppressions foment through the years, leading up to a coming civil war that will break out in 1983 and last over a quarter-century. “Everyone who lived on Sal Mal Lane was implicated in what happened … the Tamil Catholics and Hindus, the Burgher Catholics, the Muslims, and the Sinhalese, both Catholic and Buddhist. Their lives were unfolding against a backdrop of conflict that would span decades … And while this story is about small people, we must consider the fact that their history is long and accord them, too, a story equal to their past.”

Freeman surely doesn’t disappoint. As she unwinds what happened – with prose both lingering and breathtaking – the children, even the lane’s bully who could have been different with just the occasional kindness, will charm you, tease you, play with you, and when they leave you, they’ll shatter your heart. “To tell a story about divergent lives, the storyteller must be everything and nothing,” Freeman’s prologue concludes. “If at times you detect some subtle preferences, an undeserved generosity toward someone, a boy child, perhaps, or an old man, forgive me. It is far easier to be everything and nothing than it is to conceal love.”

What possessed you to write this novel? How did it come about?
First, I had been a little down about a magazine piece that did not work out. [The article] had to do with the end of the war [the Sri Lankan Civil War – July 23, 1983, to May 18, 2009], and the editor wanted a very pared-down story with easily identifiable villains and saints. I wanted to write a more nuanced story. Second, I didn’t set out to write this novel, in particular. I was just dabbling with this and that, sketching out some anecdotal bits about growing up down a lane like this one. It was one of my brothers, Malinda, who nudged me down this road. He started chatting back with me – via Google Chat – reminiscing about that time and there it was – the novel I wanted to write. This story that was the one I had been trying to put into that magazine article, the one that was not easy but faceted and brittle and gentle and layered. [... click here for more]

Author interview: “Feature: An Interview with Ru Freeman,” Bookslut.com, May 2013

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje

With utter certainty, I can claim that I’ve never ever been remotely disappointed by a Michael Ondaatje title. Until now, alas. Here’s my very best advice to you about this, his long-awaited new title, The Cat’s Table: read it page by page for yourself only; do not choose the audible option, even as the venerable Ondaatje himself narrates. Really. At least with this work, Ondaatje’s voice unfortunately expresses a sense of detachment so visceral that bonding with the book’s protagonist proves difficult at best …

Perhaps his distance might be explained in the “Author’s Note” at title’s end, in which Ondaatje insists, “Although the novel sometimes uses the colouring and locations of memoir and autobiography, The Cat’s Table is fictional – from the captain and crew and all its passengers on the boat down to the narrator.” That narrator, ironically, is also named Michael, also born in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), also moved to England at the age of 11, and also grew up to be a writer with a Canadian address. As if to downplay those similarities (but why?), Ondaatje’s voice unintentionally results in a disengaged, aloof narration.

In Colombo late at night, Michael, the 11-year-old narrator here, boards the big ship Oronsay alone: “… it was explained to me that after I’d crossed the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea and the Red Sea, and gone through the Suez Canal into the Mediterranean, I would arrive one morning on a small pier in England and my mother would meet me there.”

As the ship begins its journey, Michael is placed at Table 76 for his meals, also known as ‘the cat’s table’ – “the least privileged place,” he quickly learns. His tablemates include “two other boys roughly my age,” who become his adventurous companions throughout the voyage and beyond. One friendship will last a lifetime; the other will remain a spectral presence. Michael’s three-week passage will include other memorable characters – his beguiling distant cousin Emily, a mysterious criminal about whose offenses no one seems to be quite sure, late-night gambling bunkmates, and a young deaf girl who is magic on a trampoline. In between “Departure” and “Arrival,” Michael intersperses fragments from his adult life, fluidly passing from past, present, future, and back again, offering elliptical details of what followed that pivotal multi-sea crossing.

All my favorite literary elements are here: non-linear time, sparse but profound writing, characters with mysteries to be solved (or not), fateful reunions, etc. etc. If only had known to read, not listen; the iPod failed me for sure this time! So perhaps as I impatiently anticipate Ondaatje’s next book, I’ll have the time to re-read, re-discover. re-imagine Cat’s Table all for myself …

Readers: Adult

Published: 2011

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Canadian, Canadian Asian Pacific American, European, South Asian, South Asian American, Sri Lankan, Sri Lankan American

Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje

Regardless of what is actually happening on the page (even brutality, sometimes tragedy), Michael Ondaatje’s writing is something akin to a velvety, soothing dream. In a perfect world, reading (or better yet, listening to … in this case, to the lulling voice of actor Hope Davis) the Sri Lankan-born, Canadian-domiciled Ondaatje would be done in an uninterrupted flow …

Anna, Claire, and Cooper are three siblings unrelated by blood. Their widowed farmer father creates his family, taking in young Cooper at age 4 after his parents are murdered then bringing newly orphaned Claire home from the hospital with his birthdaughter Anna when he loses Anna’s mother in childbirth. Sixteen years later, the father will shatter that same family.

Almost two decades since the fateful storm that tore her family apart, Anna reappears in a remote French village, researching the life and work of late-19th century French poet and novelist Lucien Segura. Anna is living a “quiet and anonymous time” in Segura’s home, content to spend most of her waking hours at Segura’s own kitchen table … until she goes out one day to explore her surroundings and brings home a lover who has an intimate connection to Segura and this manoir home.

Back across the Pond and across the continent, Claire is working in San Francisco for a lawyer, her job having to do with a different kind of research. Most weekends, she travels back to the family farm to see their father in Petaluma; she is the only child who returns home. By chance, out on assignment, Claire meets Cooper who in his adulthood has become a professional gambler; she will once again need to save him.

Time, narrative, histories are all seemingly borderless in Ondaatje’s novel. From the 1970s to 1990s to the decades leading up to World War I, Ondaatje intricately weaves together fragments from two families – separated at the very least by thousands of miles and almost a century, and yet overlapping in so many intimate details of their very existence.

For readers to know so much more than the characters is almost aching knowledge … and still we can never know enough. With prose so beckoning, so addictive, finishing an Ondaatje novel always comes with both satisfaction and want.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2007

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Indivisible: An Anthology of Contemporary South Asian American Poetry edited by Neelajana Banerjee, Summi Kaipa, and Pireeni Sundaralingam

The title – Indivisible – the editors explain, is “a word taken from the U.S. Pledge of Allegiance.” Through the 49 diverse American voices represented here with roots in Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, Indivisible explores “[t]he issue of whether unity and pluralism may be reconciled …” The editors starkly remind that in a post-9/11 world, the “voices [of many South Asian American poets]  had been diminished by the tide of anti-Muslim and xenophobic sentiment arising after the attacks.” Given the recent Quran burning threats and the ongoing debates over who is welcomed as Ground Zero’s potential neighbors, that oppressive tide unfortunately remains challenging at best.

Regardless, creative expression will not be stemmed. Through many years of devoted labor, three tenacious editors – Neela Banerjee is a journalist, fiction writer, and editor; Summa Kaipa is a literary curator, psychologist, and magazine editor; and Pireeni Sundaralingam is a playwright, literary judge, and scientist – have created a remarkable collection that pays homage to a “multiplicity of languages, cultures, and faiths” while acknowledging the “inherent contradictions in grouping together writers of such differing backgrounds.”

Established, award-winning writers such as Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Vijay Seshadri, Amitava Kumar, and Meena Alexander, mix experiences with younger, break-out voices including Srikanth Reddy and Shailja Patel. From Reetika Vazirani’s search for elusive glamour in her prose poem “From the Postcard at Vertigo Bookstore in D.C.,” to Tanuja Mehrotra’s borderless memories laid bare in “A Song for New Orleans,” to Sejal Shah’s lost road trip through “Independence, Iowa,” to Sundaralingam’s own unique snowflake discovery in “Vermont, 1885,” these category-defying, form-pushing works criss-cross the country, searching, watching, discovering, being …

Lucky for us as we enjoy the journeys …

Tidbit: Co-editor Pireeni Sundaralingam makes her Smithsonian debut at SALTAF 2010 this Saturday, November 13. She’ll be sharing the stage with award-winning Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni … and me as their moderator. Uh-oh …

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2010

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Poetry, Bangladeshi American, Indian American, Nepali American, Pakistani American, South Asian American, Sri Lankan American

A Disobedient Girl by Ru Freeman

Disobedient GirlTwo seemingly disparate stories open this engrossing debut novel. Latha, who enjoys the smaller luxuries of life – bathing with a stolen bar of pink Lux soap – is both servant and best friend to Thara, the only child of the Vithanages with whom the young orphan girl has lived since she was five. Biso, who insists on her proper upbringing to anyone who will listen, can no longer bear her abusive husband, and decides to escape her seaside village with her three children hoping to seek refuge far away with her unknowing aunt.

Latha’s story, told in third person, weaves through decades of her troubled life. Initially brought up side by side with her employer’s daughter, she is unwilling to settle for a life of blind obedience. Her naive schemes – originally inspired by a jealous desire for a pair of new sandals – leaves her pregnant and banished to a convent where she bears a nameless child she is forced to relinquish. She is unexpectedly summoned back by Thara to the same painfully mixed existence in which she vacillates between invisible servant and all-knowing confidante.

The immediacy of Biso’s story, which lasts a mere few days, is presented in first person as if to add to its fleeting urgency. Traveling by train, Biso meets numerous kind strangers during her crowded journey: a frightened young pregnant girl, a caring gentleman traveling alone, an older vendor who helps feed her hungry children. Yet the kindness of strangers cannot save her from grave tragedy … which will ultimately weave the two narrative threads tightly together.

Watch for the white dress – it becomes quite the leitmotif for sisterhood, motherhood, family … and how we all literally shred the ties that bind.

Tidbit: More fabulous news indeed! This just in on July 28, 2009 … Ru Freeman will be joining us for SALTAF 2009 on Saturday, November 7. Mark your calendars NOW and be sure to grab a seat in our audience!

Readers: Adult

Published: 2009

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, South Asian, South Asian American, Sri Lankan, Sri Lankan American

Love Marriage by V.V. Ganeshananthan

love-marriageIn Yalini’s globe-scattered Sri Lankan family are two kinds of marriage: the Arranged Marriage that the obedient adhere to and Love Marriage which Yalini’s newly immigrant parents fell into shortly after arrival in their adopted country. More than two decades later, the family is sequestered in Toronto, where Yalini’s mysterious maternal uncle, Kumaran, lies on his deathbed, quietly sharing the family’s history of insurgence and civil war among the militant Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka. Meanwhile, Kumaran’s daughter, seemingly so similar yet ultimately so different from the westernized Yalini, will choose a politically-driven Arranged Marriage and fulfill her duty.

Review: “TBR’s Editors’ Favorites of 2008,” The Bloomsbury Review, November/December 2008

Tidbit: Ganeshananthan was a guest at SALTAF 2008 (South Asian Literary and Theater Arts Festival), a much-anticipated, highly-attended annual fall event sponsored by the Smithsonian APA Program and NetSAP-DC.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2008

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Bodies in Motion by Mary Anne Mohanraj + Author Interview [in The Bloomsbury Review]

bodies-in-motionLITEROTICA
Erotica Writer Mary Anne Mohanraj Goes Mainstream with
Bodies in Motion: Stories

Over the past eight years, Mary Ann Mohanraj has published 10 books, establishing herself as a master – or should that be mistress? – of erotica. With titles like Wet: More Aqua Erotica and covers not suitable for G-rated publications, Mohanraj is anything but shy when it comes to sexuality. “I’m …something of a sexuality activist,” she says. “I believe strongly that we need to bring healthy sexuality out of the closet and into mainstream discussion” – which explains Mohanraj’s recent move toward the so-called mainstream audience.

What began as her doctoral dissertation – yes, that’s Dr. Mohanraj! – debuted this midsummer as Bodies in Motion. Told through deftly interwoven short stories, Bodies is an engrossing tale of two Sri Lankan families and their American descendants. Her next book – her first novel – The Arrangement, takes three characters from Bodies, so the story continues. Too bad we impatient sort have to wait until next year to find out more.

Born in Sri Lanka and brought up in a small Polish Catholic town in Connecticut, where she was the only South Asian in her school until her younger sisters came along, Mohanraj was for awhile fluent in Polish (she can still count to 100). She went to the tony Miss Porter’s School, once considered the finishing school for fine young ladies. “It isn’t as much of a finishing school as it used to be; the emphasis is very much on academics these days,” she says. She adds with ironic humor, “My parents regret sending me there, though – they didn’t realize how much of an emphasis Porter’s places on teaching its girls independent thought, which caused them some trouble later on.” … [click here for more]

Author interview: The Bloomsbury Review, March/April 2006

Readers: Adult

Published: 2006

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Bodies in Motion by Mary Anne Mohanraj + Author Interview [in AsianWeek]

bodies-in-motionFrom X to PG-13 – ‘Sexuality Activist’ Mohanraj Goes Mainstream

In eight years, Mary Ann Mohanraj’s 10 books have established her as a master — or should that be mistress? — of erotica. With titles like Wet: More Aqua Erotica and covers not suitable for G-rated publications, Mohanraj is anything but shy. “I’m … something of a sexuality activist,” she says. “I believe strongly that we need to bring healthy sexuality out of the closet and into mainstream discussion,” which explains Mohanraj’s recent move toward the so-called mainstream audience.

What began as her doctoral dissertation – yes,  that’s Dr. Mohanraj! – debuted this month as Bodies in Motion. Told through deftly interwoven short stories, Bodies is an engrossing tale of two Sri Lankan families and their American descendants. Her next book – her first novel – The Arrangement, continues the story with three characters from Bodies.

Born in Sri Lanka and brought up in a small Polish Catholic town in Connecticut where she was the only South Asian in her school until her younger sisters came along, Mohanraj was fluent in Polish (she can still count to 100). She attended the tony Miss Porter’s School, once considered the finishing school for fine young ladies. Ironically, she adds, “My parents regret sending me there, though – they didn’t realize how much of an emphasis Porter’s places on teaching its girls independent thought.”

AsianWeek: So how did erotica become your genre of choice?
Mary Anne Mohanraj: I would say, rather, that I focused on erotica for about five years, and then switched primarily to mainstream literature, though still with an interest in sexuality, in the way people’s sexual choices influence their lives.

I tried [writing erotica], and found that I was deeply interested in the way character reveals itself around sexuality. I think most people are different in the bedroom, with a partner, than they are in the rest of their lives. There’s often a lot of buried tension there, and I love working within that intimate and emotionally charged environment.

Also, given that some of the hardest decisions in my life, causing the most conflict, have been around whom I date, whom I might marry, sexuality has always been a clear locus of dramatic tension. I think that’s true for most people, and especially for many young South Asian women. It makes for interesting stories.

AW: So how do you deal with the ‘why’s a nice South Asian girl writing that’-mentality?
MAM: Any writer working with sexuality has to deal with society’s hang-ups in that regard, and even more so in the Asian community. It’s much more taboo to write about sex than it is to write about violence. It would be funny if it weren’t so sad.

My family and I had fierce arguments for years about my subject matter, and my parents still wish that I would write children’s picture books instead. But I’m 34 now, and I’ve been doing this for more than a decade. They’ve figured out that however much I love and respect them, which I do, they’re not going to change my mind. …[click here for more]

Author interview: “From X to PG-13 – ‘Sexuality Activist’ Mohanraj Goes Mainstream,” AsianWeek, October 14, 2005

Readers: Adult

Published: 2005

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Between Heaven and Earth: Bird Tales from Around the World by Howard Norman, illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon

Between Heaven and EarthA collection of five tales, starring different birds, including a quail tale from Sri Lanka about the power of prayer and a swan story from China about lost-and-found ancestors.

Review: “New and Notable Books,” AsianWeek, December 3, 2004

Readers: Children

Published: 2004

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Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, .Fiction, .Short Stories, Chinese, Sri Lankan American