Archive for April, 2009

28 April, 2009

pigs, not swine!

Well, I don’t know if I have swine flu. Maybe the question is, how would anybody ever escape any viral virulence when all I see are germs – on the train, in the metro, public rest rooms (which I prefer to call public distress room!), and the head-rests of seats anywhere.

The concern for me this morning is this: why is it so difficult to schedule a sick-visit with a physician in this great land of endless prospect and staggering wealth? Back home in Sri Lanka we go to the emergency room when our bleeding heads are in need of twenty-five stitches (or, sometimes, two). “The Emergency” as it is known, is a place to go to when in the throes of a medical emergency induced panic. We rush through red lights to such a place for there is no time to lose. Blood is always in evidence as are stretchers and a general sense of acute urgency. Tears are both audible and visible.

An emergency is defined as “a serious situation or occurrence that happens unexpectedly and demands immediate action; a condition of need requiring urgent action.” My father, suffering from sudden chest pains, was rushed off to the ICU in an army ambulance summoned by a now dead friend. I was hauled there without much ado as the white hearts on my dress turned red from the blood coming out from a hole at the back of my head. These were emergencies.

Needing to see a doctor because of a sore throat does not constitute an emergency, does it? The last time I was in the E.R. was because I had a sprained ligament in my toe and was unable to see a regular doctor because:

(1) I had decided to change physicians and needed all my documents transferred and
(2) I needed my insurance company to mail me a physical card with the new doctor’s name and phone number on it before I could be seen.

So I drove myself all on a weekday morning to the E.R. and was seen along with the dozens of other individuals with nothing apparently the matter with them that I could see. At the end of the examination complete with x-ray I was given one orthopedic sandal which made perfect sense since I am, as of now, fortunate enough to have two feet. I shuffled home and proceeded to develop a consequential pain in my hip. Insurance probably won’t cover that.

This morning I was told that I could not see a doctor for my clearly-strep throat until late afternoon tomorrow. Upon uttering the words “it is perfectly absurd that I am sick today but can’t see a doctor until tomorrow,” the receptionist asked me what my symptoms were. Suddenly, instantly, there was an availability. I’m in luck – the sick were being seen today after all!

So, do I have swine flu? Or do we simply live in a nation of health-care-industry pigs who are content to make money off a broken system? If I’m on the evening news, you heard it here first. Over and out, this is Ru reporting from the trough.

26 April, 2009

Obama’s DC

I should have written this while I was still sneezing among the dogwood, tulips and cherry blossoms, but DC has a way of taking up all available space, time and mind and I have a way of dancing to the music…

I was in the area for a multitude of reasons: community building, political advocacy, book promotion, policy wonkishness (I am, quite possibly one of the few individuals who actually listened to the Clinton impeachment hearings in real time), much of which coincided with the amazing South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT) 2009 Summit.

During the course of the last three days I met with a variety of senior staffers from the new administration including those from the Department of Homeland Security, Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office, the white House offices of Public Engagement, Intergovernmental Affairs, and Management & Budget. Having lived in DC in the past, and worked in the American national and international non-profit sector as well as the Federal government, what was most illuminating to me was the transformation of the way in which the business of governance is being conducted. To a person, the officials with whom I met, described a process where listening was giving precedence over talking, where partnership with community leaders was valued above the dictating of regulations, and where the underlying precept is that policy ought to be informed by the expertise of the people who are working in the field rather than implemented in an environment devoid of consultation. Even more staggering was the revelation that the new administration was committed to “preemptive strikes” whereby the problems that crop up in the field can be brought to lawmakers and solutions negotiated before they became poisonous enough to require lawsuits.

And all this transmitted to us by a sea of faces that in color and gender and sexual orientation reflects the awesome diversity of the nation itself. It is true, I suppose, that a country gets the leadership it deserves, and that such leadership is deserved only by a populace willing to do the work of bringing it to being.

Describing the best part of their jobs, the various White House personnel gave us a snapshot of a president as accessible as he is inspiring, but the words of Christina Tchen, Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, were particularly evocative:

“Everything you saw in him on the campaign trail is true. His is the amazing marriage of a brilliant mind and the power of the office. He is always the most intelligent and the most thoughtful person in the room. He listens, and when he disagrees, it is with the utmost respect of the person with whom he is disagreeing.”

I will have to write more about the conference itself in another post, but for now I will have to simply say that my delight – in discovering, in person, that the change I worked to make possible in my corner of the country, is coming to fruition – was tempered by the fact that the State Department lead by Hillary Clinton, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chaired by Senator Kerry and the Sub-Committee which deals with Sri Lanka, as chaired by Senator Casey, is yet to make a statement that is cognizant of the reality on the ground in Sri Lanka. It seems particularly jarring to me that a president who is known for his desire to know all the facts before he speaks is letting these bodies do the exact opposite. To have people who have never visited the conflict zone in Sri Lanka, or spent any reasonable length of time traveling within the country, put out press releases that run counter to the facts, unpleasant though they may be to take, is a deplorable repetition of the arrogance of the administration they replaced. I would have thought that in light of a new push into Afghanistan, the Obama administration would be more circumspect than that, and that the NYT or the the Washington Post would have had the guts to say what the Washington Times did, just this morning.

Lord knows that I did my best to get the offices of both Casey and Nancy Pelosi to agree to facilitate a multi-ethnic discussion within the Sri Lankan diaspora here. So far, campaign finance contributions appear to have ruled harder than civic engagement, commitment to America’s progress and place in the world and ideological support. Then again, the night is still young. There is such a thing as a learning curve. Perhaps this, too, will pass. I’ll keep y’all posted.

23 April, 2009

A Song

I am rushing off to catch various modes of transport to head to Washington, DC, but I wanted to share this beautiful song that I heard this morning. It is a song called ‘It Wont Be Like This For a Long Time.

I guess these are the thoughts that come to mind when leaving home.

22 April, 2009

Writing like The Wire

In an article in the NY Observer, Leon Neyfakh poses this question: ‘Should Literary Novels Be More Like The Wire?’ First of all, let me say that I am a devotee of the now safely in TV history series, The Wire, a world that was made available to me through access to Netflix, since access to Cable has been scorned within these four falls by all its inhabitants including myself and we are now too invested in the point to be made by this to turn back. For a terrific essay on the thinking behind the show, please read Margaret Talbot’s ‘Stealing Life’ in the New Yorker (10/22/07) which describes the genius of David Simon, its creator. It is Simon’s way of ‘storying’ actual events that is being celebrated in the NYO article. Here is the beginning:

“Walter Benn Michaels, the punchy professor of American literature and theory at the University of Illinois at Chicago, came to New York last week and delivered an emphatic message to novelists: Please start writing more about class issues and the social order of contemporary life! It was a rainy evening, and Mr. Michaels spoke as part of a panel at the New York Public Library. At the center of the evening’s discussion was a brief, polemical essay that Mr. Michaels had recently published in BookForum in which he argued that the leading voices in American letters had, in their work, rendered “the reality of our social arrangements invisible.”

In his essay, Mr. Michaels implicated three groups of writers: those who traffic narcissistically in memoir and self-examination; those who write fiction about past horrors like the Holocaust and slavery; and those who focus in their work on the tribulations of individual characters while ignoring the societal pressures that determine those characters’ lives.

None of them, Mr. Michaels argued, would ever produce great art unless they reversed course. What novelists need to do, he said, is take a cue from David Simon, the creator of the The Wire, a show that portrayed over the course of five seasons the inner workings of Baltimore.”

Frank Sobotka
The article goes on to quote others who neither agree or disagree but who each speak, in essence, about their personal need to create timeless stories whether they are based in fact of – sorry – fiction. But ‘The Wire’ does much more than make a story out of fact. It does what Toni Morrison does in Tar Baby and Vikram Seth does in An Equal Music. It puts us in mind of each of its many characters, even the vilest of them (I have a particular loathing for Stringer Bell), and makes us believe in their necessary viability, and champion their particular – often vile, in the case of ‘The Wire’ – cause, vice, or mission. In fact, it persuades us to do this even when cheering for or believing in any one of these people is a mutually exclusive proposition. The gift of Morrison, Seth and Simon lie in the fact that we are taken through that intellectual discombobulation with effortless ease, such that we can convince ourselves that every character is both deserving of their own truth as they are right, and that all these people can be true and right at the same time. It is precisely the sort of hastily assembled but weirdly harmonious chorus of voices we choose not to hear in our own lives. (Unless we’re Quakers.And, if you are one, I salute you. If you aren’t, I urge you to try it. I aspire but will fall short, I fear, forever.).

But back to the blog. The stocky but strangely elven Frank Sobotka, secretary-treasurer of the longshoreman’s union of checkers (a lead in Season Two, picture above), is a terrific example of the kind of unsung flawed hero that gets unglued from the script and creeps under your skin. We become invested in a visceral way in the trivial urgencies and unnecessary deaths that are being depicted and the violence (and hard-earned speedily dispensed with sex) never seems overdone or gratuitous; it is simply the unfortunate grist of these lives as they are conducted, the way in which the terms of existence are negotiated and the form in which each individual story must end whether that end is psychological, spiritual or corporeal.

The topic of exploring the reason for narrative and the forms it takes must be in the air. Ana Menéndez, who wrote The Last War, quotes Umberto Eco in an essay in this month’s Poets & Writers entitled, ‘The Future of Narrative: Storytelling in the Internet Age.’ The story is about a linguist, Thomas A. Sebeok, who is hired to transmit, for the ages, the fact that the radioactive waste that was being disposed of by the US govt. was dangerous. The struggle? How do we retain the viability of the term ‘danger’ when all such meanings are ridden with the virus of cultural historical context?

In a review of Tar Baby, John Irving quotes this section from the book:

”At some point in life the world’s beauty becomes enough. You don’t need to photograph, paint or even remember it. It is enough. No record of it needs to be kept and you don’t need someone to share it with or tell it to. When that happens -that letting go – you let go because you can. The world will always be there – while you sleep it will be there – when you wake it will be there as well. So you can sleep and there is reason to wake. A dead hydrangea is as intricate and lovely as one in bloom. Bleak sky is as seductive as sunshine, miniature orange trees without blossom or fruit are not defective; they are that. So the windows of the greenhouse can be opened and the weather let in. The latch on the door can be left unhooked, the muslin removed, for the soldier ants are beautiful too and whatever they do will be part of it.”

And perhaps that also is the goal of the literary writer: to blend human experience which is so often imagined – in the form of aspiration or desire or fantasy or escapism – not lived, and fact in the form of actual events, to create something that outlasts the conditions which created it including its author, and which retains the beauty of a truth that is independent of its form of expression.

20 April, 2009


On my way home from a visit to the radiology unit of the nearest hospital – where, it turns out, I was a week early but which enabled me to pick up an x-ray of my foot for free – the woman in front of me backed her car into mine. She got out and said I drove my car into hers. We were both stopped at a red light, so the backing and forwarding was done at such slow speed that nary a scratch remained. The point is that we are both equally convinced (of course, I’m right), that the other person was at fault. But the more interesting thing is that because she got out of her car making accusations and calling me, “honey” (which is the equivalent of strangers talking to little kids at top volume as if they are deaf in my book), in a disparaging tone, what could have been an “oh well, but thank goodness” turned into an escalation of note-taking and insurance card handling and calling until what was left was this:

1. Two angry people driving off feeling worse.
2. Her walking off with my note book, handed to her in my own state of agitation, without a backward glance.

I can deal with the feeling worse. In the privacy of home there are many remedies to that – a variety of warm and room-temperature beverages served either in cups or fine glassware, listening to Susan Boyle one more time on YouTube. I’m sure she has a store of rituals all her own for dealing with such days, too. Maybe hers involves cupcakes and flowers.

But walking off with my note book? Why would a middle-aged woman living in one of the most self-consciously forward-thinking, family-friendly communities on the Main Line do such a thing? Because, however she’d like to spin it, it’s called stealing. It got me thinking about kids, parenting, civic-engagement, community-spirit, the things that go toward making a person a human being. As Theodore Roosevelt is supposed to have said, “Character, in the long run, is the decisive factor in the life of an individual and of nations alike.”

I’m worried about the nation, of course. But even more about my community.

18 April, 2009

Cuba, Berlin, Sri Lanka

The photographs coming out of the Summit of the Americas, to which Cuba may soon return, are heart-warming in more ways than one. The absence of a shifty eyed, inarticulate representative from the United States and the presence of a new president on whom all of the member states, as well as the one absent one, has pinned very high hopes, is perhaps the most glaring of them. The three day summit, has a future-focused theme, that of ‘Securing our Citizens’ Future by Promoting Human Prosperity, Energy Security & Environmental Sustainability,’ all of which are high on the list of the Obama administration, and all of which appear to begin with a new American world view that speaks to listening over dictating, research over ideology and partnership over the flinging down of various and sundry gauntlets and revving up of missiles.

I was also heartened that books are once again on the world stage and chosen as timely gifts. Hugo Chavez is seen rising from the table to hand President Obama a copy of the Eduardo Galeano chronicle on the political interference of Europe and the West in Latin American nations, The Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent. The American president joked that he had thought it was a book penned by Chavez and that he hoped to give him one of his own, but chances are all those assembled have already read the Obama books – which probably explains at least some of the goodwill cards being placed face up on the table.

President Obama’s commitment to engage with Cuba by making the first overtures of good faith, the removal of restrictions on travel and the transmission of personal funds, elicited an in-kind response from the Cuban leadership to discuss issues which have been closed to negotiation before including human rights. Here is President Obama:

“I know there is a longer journey that must be traveled in overcoming decades of mistrust, but there are critical steps we can take toward a new day,” Mr. Obama said, adding that he was “prepared to have my administration engage with the Cuban government on a wide range of issues — from human rights, free speech, and democratic reform to drugs, migration, and economic issues.”

Here is Raúl Castro, Cuba’s president:

“We are willing to discuss everything, human rights, freedom of press, political prisoners, everything, everything, everything they want to talk about, but as equals, without the smallest shadow cast on our sovereignty, and without the slightest violation of the Cuban people’s right to self-determination.”

Praise for these efforts came from Presidents Fernández de Kirchner of Argentina and President Ortega of Nicaragua. The latter going so far as to express his shame at participating in a summit that did not include Cuba, and said that “I am convinced that wall will collapse, will come down.”

Perhaps there is something in the air, for, even as these events were taking place in Trinidad & Tobago, there was progress afoot in my own home country, Sri Lanka. In an article titled ‘U.S. has a choice: Are you with Tamil Diaspora for united Sri Lanka or with Pro-LTTE voices advocating a divided nation?’ in the Asian Tribune, the writer outlines the efforts of a group of Tamil Sri Lankans from the diaspora who went on a fact-finding mission to Sri Lanka and issued the following statement along with a more comprehensive call for change:

“…One of the members of “Tamil Diaspora for Dialogue” who along with another twenty Tamil expatriates visited Sri Lanka end of March, Mrs. Rajeswari Balasubramaniam, a writer by profession and Human Rights campaigner who lives in the UK said “This is the time for us, Tamils, to rethink anew whether war and destruction is the final solution for Tamils who have lost thousands of them when one looks back after almost 20 years and we Tamils who have borne the brunt of suppression, oppression, battered and bruised over the years must forget the past and think anew. We know that it is not easy to forget the past after what we went through was hell for many years it is not easy but you have to forget the past”.

She asserted “This message is especially for all those members of the Tamil Diaspora who are especially beating the war drums from the cool comfort and safety of their homes in foreign capitals around the world. They must think anew and learn to live in a united Sri Lanka where all could enjoy equal rights”.

Asked what made them to engage in a dialogue of this nature he said “In the overseas Tamil Diaspora the campaign by the LTTE is so negative and exaggerated. The LTTE is trying desperately to convince the foreign leaders and politicians abroad. But we really wanted to come and see what is going on and to speak to the Government leaders of Sri Lanka. Therefore we took part in the dialogue with the representatives of the Government and got the real picture of what is happening with regard to the North and East crisis”.

Dr. Rajasingham Narendran, one of the other participants, spoke at length about the care being given to the Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) in the welfare centers being managed by the government, including the statemetn that, contrary to the propaganda in the U.S., “…almost every one of them is happy with the IDP centers created in Vavuniya. The Government is doing its best to see that the IDPs are safe and looked after well. The people in the IDP centers are happy. There are shops, banks, medical centers, libraries and places of worship within the centers look into their needs.”

There is a lot of work to be done by the Obama administration, and beginning the task of getting accurate information, soothing ruffled feathers and facilitating respectful dialogue between neighbors in its own backyard is understandable and practical. But I hope that the impulse extends to a willingness to support similar efforts by other like-minded people with regard to countries such as Sri Lanka, particularly given that it is now front and center in Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings on South Asia and at the United Nations.

I am hopeful. In Europe, the last panels of the Berlin wall are being painted. A beautiful image.

16 April, 2009

PEN World Voices

It is a congenital defect (or strength), of mine, that I feel compelled to offer myself up where I feel I could be of some use. I am still waiting to see how this plays out now that I have a book coming out and another yet to be finished, a book tour and other promotional activities in between, not to mention my entire personal life, but I’m optimistic that all will be well, all will be well and all manner of things shall be well. This is the belief that drives the impulse to do the things that I do. Apparently we can delude ourselves into making self-destruction a sort of regrettable virtue!

As of this morning there is an underground/grassroots movement to be contributed to with regard to my country of birth, Sri Lanka, meetings to be had to advance the cause of my country of residence, the United States, news to be absorbed regarding both; there is reading and writing. But among the things I’ve signed myself up for, recently, is one that brings these worlds together in one place: the PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature. The festival runs from April 27th to May 3rd, this year, in NYC. I am, unfortunately, only able to be there for two and half days toward the end, but during that time I will be volunteering to help with the program and attending some of the events closest to my heart: the Moth Presents, which will include Salwa Al Neimi, Jonathan Ames, Petina Gappah, László Garaczi, and Salman Rushdie, and Readings from Around the Globe, which will include Bernardo Atxaga, Petina Gappah, Mariken Jongman, Michael Ondaatje, Daniel Sada, Hwang Sok-yong, Antonio Tabucchi, and Colm Tóibín.

The list of participants is incredible and presents an opportunity for anybody who can make it over there, to be exposed to writers and thinkers (are there any writers who don’t think?) from throughout the world. Among these writers are, of course, the iconic figures who are mentioned above, alongside younger and equally fascinating writers who are also activists, who include Laila Lalami (Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits and Secret Son), Edwidge Danticat ((Breath, Eyes, Memory, Krik? Krak! and Brother, I’m Dying, among others), and Nam Le (The Boat). If you can get to NY but were waiting for a good enough reason, then buy your tickets now!

I was struck while at a training for volunteers in NY on Monday, lead by the energetic and talented Nick Burd, whose own book, The Vast Fields of Ordinary, will be coming out in May, by the ordinariness as well as the palpable energy of the PEN American office. It reminded me again that the most loftiest of causes often have the lowliest of launching pads. I’m off to look for another such now.

12 April, 2009

New York, NY

I’ve been away from the blog for a few days on account of a last-minute rush to keep several fires going at the same time – the heart needs heat and sometimes that means more than one stove, apparently! Anyway, as I hopped on the Philly-NYC bolt bus for the sweet price of $10 and gathered my thoughts, I realized that they were barreling relentlessly toward the time when I used to work in the city and commuted in everyday from Northern NJ. It was much easier to be here then, and though I left in the aftermath of 9/11, heading toward the differently salubrious culture of Maine, it was still not quite such a challenge to get in and out of the city. But perhaps it is not the city that has changed, but me. I feel sheepish about my inability to stop a taxi – how is this a challenge for a Colombo-girl?! – and head to the managed-curb outside Penn Station to secure one, allowing the crackling voice and piercing whistle of the old man there to do what I was shying away from: flagging a quixotic driver.

I ride almost the entire journey in silence, re-imagining my old life here, but, almost at the end, I engage with the taxi driver, fresh here from Florida, accented like us all, less unhappy than happy about NY. “If you ask me, do I like, do I not like, I will have to say, I like NY,” he says, finishing and ending his sentence with me, but pausing in between to talk through glass to other, less patient, motorists around him. And I am reminded of a beautiful song, ‘Her Morning Elegance,’ beautifully articulated and magically illustrated, by Oren Lavie. If you are in NY, look out a window and listen. If you aren’t in NY, just listen.

8 April, 2009

If I hear the music…

Continuing the discussion on Hair, I post below an unabridged, uncensored anonymous guest comment from a good friend:

“Hair” opened on Broadway while I was in elementary school in New York City. It was a succes de scandale: naked women appeared in the finale (I heard at one of my parents’ parties) and they smoked joints on stage. It was the triumph of the hippies, the great unwashed. My parents, though they viewed themselves as bohemians, had no patience with “letting it all hang out”: they were old enough (and poor enough) to remember the ravages of parasites and venereal disease that have always accompanied free-for-alls.

The radio wouldn’t have been allowed to play the song which described (then often illegal) alternative sexual practices, but “Aquarius” played frequently, in the cool version of The Fifth Dimension, and we even learned it for chorus at school. “Harmony and Understanding…no more falsehoods or derisions”…that was certainly laudable. I am not so sure about the “mystic crystal revelations,” nor what exactly was meant by “the mind’s true liberation”, because everyone talking about this was stoned and not very coherent. I certainly wasn’t aware of it at the time, but this probably marked the point at which the public face of protest against the war switched from folk-singers to the acid powered. And then there was the endlessly rainy summer of Woodstock, where we returned, literally, to the primeval mud from which we emerged. The lean years followed.

I was in college when the movie musical came out and I went to see it with a group of friends. We were embarassed, not shocked, perhaps becauses it had been toned down a bit from the original, perhaps because times had changed. I remember thinking it was a reasonable summation of the senselessness of the ’60’s, but I also remember thinking how little I would have liked to have met any of the protagonists, even as portrayed by Treat Williams. They were too reminiscent of the stuporous teenagers and college students who had long roamed our neighborhood and the ones I met up with now that I was in college myself.

And, in case anybody wonders if this is the last word on the topic, pick up this week’s issue of the New Yorker and read Hilton Als (who writes the pithy, readable Et Als colums online for the New Yorker, and is the author of the memoir, The Women) His review ‘Not So Free Love,’ contains this observation with regard to the portrayal of blackness, particularly the stereotyping of Hud, the composite of the Militant Black Man:

“…In short, aside from the draft, all the “issues” in “Hair” seem to have to do with race, and the task of representing them falls on the overburdened black characters, who have to do almost everything here except tap-dance.”

I’d still like to go. As Shakima “Kima” Greggs says back in Season 2 of The Wire, “If I hear the music, I’m gonna dance.”

The Books:

The Books:

On Sal Mal Lane

In the tradition of In the Time of the Butterflies and The Kite Runner, a tender, evocative novel about the years leading up to the Sri Lankan civil war.

A Disobedient Girl

A Disobedient Girl is a compelling map of womanhood, its desires and loyalties, set against the backdrop of beautiful, politically turbulent, Sri Lanka.