Category Archives: Sri Lankan

Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala

WaveConfession: I started Wave stuck in the ears, but didn’t get very far because the narrator seems to have a lisp – which is not a judgment about the reader herself, but my little ears had too challenging a time comprehending each sentence. This is a book for which absorbing every word is a must, so I resorted gratefully to the page. Bottom line: Wave is the most unflinching, illuminating memoir about horrific personal tragedy I have ever, ever come across.

The title begins in Yala, a national park on Sri Lanka’s southeastern coast, on December 26, 2004. What should have been the final day of an annual holiday break for a London-based family of four with their Sri Lankan grandparents is brought to a shattering end when an epic tsunami claims over 230,000 lives. Sonali Deraniyagala is her family’s sole survivor, losing her parents, husband, and two young sons. She wants nothing else but to join them: “I will kill myself soon.”

Over the next eight years, Deraniyagala – an Oxbridge-trained economist – progresses from utter “stunned” shutdown to allowing herself to admit the truth of her loss, to revisiting her memories little by little, and to opening her mind and heart to what her life might have become with her family intact. From obsessively bullying the Dutch renters of her Sri Lankan childhood home, to sleeping four years later in the unchanged bed of her London house, to finally being able to spend time with her sons’ maturing friends, Deraniyagala’s journey is simultaneously wrenching and remarkably hopeful.

Take note: the memoir is dedicated to “Alexandra and Kristiana” – the heart breaks yet again (and again and again) when you realize that entwined in those names are Deraniyagala’s children as they could have been, should have been. That a person can survive such loss is beyond comprehension; that she is able to share that experience with such unflinching, raw vulnerability is pure testimony to human resilience … and ultimately proves to be a literary gift of magnificent proportions.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

Leave a comment

Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, British Asian, South Asian, Sri Lankan

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

1 Comment

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

1 Comment

Filed under ...Absolute Favorites, ...Author Interview/Profile, ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, South Asian, South Asian American, Sri Lankan, Sri Lankan American

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

1 Comment

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

Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje

Before I let myself even open Michael Ondaatje’s newest title, The Cat’s Table, which hit shelves earlier this month, I was determined to read his previous novels that I had somehow missed. The realization that I have now earned access to Table is rather bittersweet as I know even more clearly that the wait for Ondaatje’s next book will be considerable (sniff, sniff).

Even more than his 1992 Booker Prize-winning The English Patient (which I feel I must now re-read), Anil’s Ghost proves to be a more lasting novel for me, as much for what appears on the printed page as what does not.

Anil Tissera, a forensic anthropologist, arrives in her native Sri Lanka after 15 years of living in the West, not so much because of family or cultural ties, but because she is sent by a Swiss human rights group to investigate the escalating numbers of alleged murders. The Sri Lankan government and various rebel factions have been carrying on a brutal, stealthy war for decades and the body count continues to multiply. Paired with a local archeologist, Sarath Diyasena, Anil is never quite sure whom she can trust. The two form an uneasy bond over a certain skeleton – dubbed Sailor (along with its companions, Tinker, Tailor, and Soldier) –whose murder Anil is determined to prove.

Fluidly passing back and forth from the present to disparate moments in the past, Ondaatje creates an elliptical landscape of a woman’s life in constant flux. Anil regularly discards parts of her life, from her given name (at 12, she buys her brother’s name from him for 100 rupees, a pen set, 50 cigarettes, “and a sexual favour”) to her married lover whom she leaves with a knife buried in his flesh with the admonition, “‘Remember this is what I did to you in Borrego Springs.’”

Her time in Sri Lanka will (predictably) be temporary; what she learns of her native country and especially its people – Sarath’s disgraced teacher-mentor, Sarath’s doctor brother Gamini, the sculptor Ananda and his disappeared wife – will eventually force her to flee. Her tenuous relationship with Sarath must come to an abrupt end, and she will again leave behind another unresolved life.

For every fact that Ondaatje (who is also Sri Lankan-born, and long Canadian-domiciled) presents, he invites new questions for which he does not offer clear answers. The ghosts throughout are many, not limited to Anil and her past selves, but even more the countless missing persons both named and unnamed. Part mystery, part thriller, perhaps even part memoir, Anil’s Ghost haunts long after the final page.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2000

2 Comments

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

At Home with Madhur Jaffrey: Simple, Delectable Dishes from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka by Madhur Jaffrey

What perfect timing! Madhur Jaffrey‘s newest cookbook makes for a toothsome companion to one of last week’s posts, Indivisible, the first anthology that brings together contemporary American poets who trace their roots to Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka.

Put the two titles together and you’ll be salivating over the unlimited possibilities for literary feasts: read a few choice pieces from Indivisible, then prepare and share some delectable delights from Jaffrey’s latest. Without a doubt, Jaffrey is the empress of the South Asian kitchen for the most delicious reasons and her new cookbook is a gorgeous, colorful spread for the eyes as well as the palate.

South Asian cooking often seems “daunting,” Jaffrey admits, because of what seems to be a complex combination of just-right spices and seasonings. But Jaffrey is determined to simplify some of those recipes for you here, and even promises to “hold your hand through the entire process with clear instructions and detailed explanations.” How can you turn away from such an enticing offer as that?

My tummy’s already rumbling again … Salmon in a Bengali Mustard Sauce, Everyday Moong Dal, Green Lentils with Green Bean and Cilantro, Peach Salad, all enhanced by the perfect cup of Masala Chai … read and eat. Read and eat some more … mmmm, mmmmm, mmmmmmm …

Readers: Adult

Published: 2010

2 Comments

Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Nonfiction, Bangladeshi, Indian, Indian American, Pakistani, Sri Lankan

Not Quite Paradise: An American Sojourn in Sri Lanka by Adele Barker

Three weeks after 9/11, University of Arizona professor Adele Barker arrived in Sri Lanka as a senior Fulbright Scholar to teach Russian literature, feminist literary theory, and American literature to select students at the University of Peradeniya. But her own education about the history and people of the island nation takes center page in her latest title, Not Quite Paradise: An American Sojourn in Sri Lanka.

With centuries’ worth of visitors – “[s]ome were blown off course; some came for the spices; some to conquer and rule; some, much later, simply to sunbathe” – much of Sri Lanka’s history can be summarized in its names given by foreigners: the Roman Taprobane, the Arab Serendib, the Portuguese Ceilao, the Dutch Ceylan, the British Ceylon, and finally “[i]n 1972, the people who actually live on this island reclaimed the name Sri Lanka.”

Settling into a sprawling home in Kandy with her teenage son, Barker initially insists, “I didn’t want people who are darker than me fixing our meals and cleaning for us.” With her landlord’s gentle prodding, however, she realizes that not employing the locals is more damaging to the tenuous economy than upholding her anticolonialist principles. With its Sinhalese owners, Tamil caretaker, and ever-changing international visitors, Barker’s guesthouse compound is an oasis amid the “civil war between the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil Tiger rebels … [that] had already been raging since 1983” and claimed 40,000 lives by 2001. But beyond the walls are daily reminders of war, from grenades to riots to murders. Sri Lanka, Barker learns, is a land of paradox: the endless violence “against the backdrop of something whose beauty is heart-stopping.”

In spite of perpetual conflict, Barker observes that she has never lived “with such a hybrid mix” of Sinhalese, Tamils, Burghers of Dutch and Portuguese ancestry, Moors, and Malays. Surprisingly, religion – Sri Lanka is majority Buddhist – “has never been a factor in this war.”

Barker’s academic year passes quickly and she leaves with gihin ennam, a Sinhalese parting used “‘when you are saying good-bye but know you’ll be back.’” While her first trip was marked by 9/11, her second, three years later in October 2005, follows the devastating Dec. 26, 2004, tsunami that claimed 30,000 Sri Lankan lives: “I needed to see things for myself.” As she travels through refugee camps, Barker witnesses the disturbing results of “competitive charity,” a term coined by a foreign aid worker, referring to international organizations with too much funding, working without enough understanding of local needs. While Barker’s first trip focused on the experiences of the southern Sri Lankans, Barker is determined to “find the balance” in the Tamil north, home of the Tamil Tigers, a group labeled by the United States as a terrorist organization. “Suicide missions are part of the ethos of this organization,” Barker learns, and near-daily violence is simply unavoidable. Resigned survival is the only goal. … [click here for more]

Review: Christian Science Monitor, December 30, 2009

Readers: Adult

Published: 2009

Leave a comment

Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, Nonethnic-specific, Sri Lankan

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

6 Comments

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

Swimming in the Monsoon Sea by Shyam Selvadurai + Author Interview [in The Bloomsbury Review]

swimming-monsoonSearching for Home
Shyam Selvadurai Debuts Swimming in the Monsoon Sea

While ‘home’ today for Shyam Selvadurai is undoubtedly Toronto, Canada, the ‘home’ that he plumbs for his books remains Sri Lanka, where he was born and lived until the age of 19. Selvadurai’s latest, Swimming in the Monsoon Sea – his first for young adult readers – returns to the Sri Lanka of his youth, a time before the bloody riots between majority Buddhist Sinhalese and minority Hindu Tamils precipitated the immigration of Selvadurai’s mixed Sinhalese/Tamil family to Canada two decades ago.

While Selvadurai originally thought he might find a life in the theater, the resounding success in 1994 of his first book, Funny Boy, about a young boy’s growing up gay in Sri Lanka where homosexuality is still illegal, cemented Selvadurai’s writing career. He followed in 1998 with Cinnamon Gardens, exploring the intertwined lives of the residents in a Colombo suburb of 1920s Ceylon which was then not-yet-independent Sri Lanka. Earlier this year, he edited the much acclaimed anthology, Story-Wallah: Short Fiction from South Asian Writers, capturing the diasporic South Asian experience through voices as diverse as Salman Rushdie, Jhumpa Lahiri, Michael Ondaatje and many others.

Debuting this fall, Selvadurai’s lush Swimming centers on 14-year-old Amrith, an orphan lovingly raised within the family of his mother’s schoolfriend, and what will mostly likely be the last summer of childhood when a new relationship with a mysterious cousin from Canada changes his life forever. …[click here for more]

Author interview: The Bloomsbury Review, January/February 2006

Tidbit: Shyam Selvadurai was a guest at SALTAF 2005 (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: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2005

Leave a comment

Filed under ...Author Interview/Profile, ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, Canadian Asian Pacific American, South Asian, Sri Lankan

Swimming in the Monsoon Sea by Shyam Selvadurai + Author Interview [in AsianWeek]

swimming-monsoonShyam Selvadurai’s ‘Swimming’ Debut

While “home” today for Shyam Selvadurai is undoubtedly Toronto, Canada, the “home” that he plumbs for his books remains Sri Lanka, where he was born, and lived there until the age of 19. Selvadurai’s latest, Swimming in the Monsoon Sea – his first for young adult readers – returns to the Sri Lanka of his youth, a time before the bloody riots between majority Buddhist Sinhalese and minority Hindu Tamils, which precipitated the immigration of Selvadurai’s mixed Sinhalese/Tamil family to Canada two decades ago.

While Selvadurai originally thought he might find a life in theater, the resounding success of his 1994 first book, Funny Boy, about a young boy’s growing up gay in Sri Lanka where homosexuality is still illegal, cemented Selvadurai’s writing career. He followed in 1998 with Cinnamon Gardens, exploring the intertwined lives of the residents in a Colombo suburb of 1920s Ceylon, which was then not-yet-independent Sri Lanka. Earlier this year, he edited the much-acclaimed anthology, Story-Wallah: Short Fiction from South Asian Writers, capturing the diasporic South Asian experience featuring such diverse voices as Salman Rushdie, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Michael Ondaatje.

Selvadurai’s lush Swimming, which debuted this month, introduces 14-year-old Amrith, an orphan lovingly raised within the family of his mother’s schoolfriend, and what will mostly likely be his last summer of childhood, when a new relationship with a mysterious cousin from Canada changes his life forever.

AsianWeek: Tell me about writing your first young adult book?
Shyam Selvadurai: Out of all the books I’ve written so far, writing Swimming in the Monsoon Sea was my favorite writing experience. I really loved my editor. … She laid down limits as to what YA fiction was and what a teenager could process and was interested in. I think I am a writer who really responds well to limits and, since writing this book, I have begun to wonder if I am really a genre writer masquerading as a literary one. All of which to say, I think I will definitely write more YA in the future. Perhaps even give up writing adult fiction altogether! …[click here for more]

Author interview: “Shyam Selvadurai’s ‘Swimming’ Debut,” AsianWeek, November 18, 2005

Tidbit: Shyam Selvadurai was a guest at SALTAF 2005 (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: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2005

Leave a comment

Filed under ...Author Interview/Profile, ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, Canadian Asian Pacific American, South Asian, Sri Lankan