Archive for May, 2009

29 May, 2009

Hugging Your Love

jovidushi-138I found today’s article in the NYT about hugging between teenagers extremely heart-warming. Back in Sri Lanka and, I gather, in many other non-Western countries, touching is common. Policemen in Sri Lanka stand about in the middle of streets, holding hands – usually with civilian friends – letting the traffic go haywire. Touch is a way of saying, “I wish I could spend more time with you but right now I can’t.” It’s short-hand. The bigger your rush, the harder the embrace. If they have a lot of time on their hands, men tend to pound each other on their backs, maybe indulge in a quick hug. There is no stigma attached to showering together – my girl friend and I did it all the time – or sleeping together (ditto). Public physical connection between friends of the same gender is not considered unusual or undesirable or inappropriate. Censure is usually reserved for PDA between men and women, something which it is believed to be a private affair not for flaunting.

I have often wondered how many young American girls and boys find themselves chastised or ostracized for being affectionate with someone of the same sex. Our American culture attaches such value to the 18″ of personal space around each person that I think it destroys our basic human instinct to express ourselves through touch. srilanka08-020At the same time, the permissiveness extended to public physical affection between men and women results, I think, in forcing us in general, and children/teenagers in particular, to think that the only acceptable type of affection is that which is male-female. I wonder how different the outcome in California would be today if the previous generations had grown as comfortable as this new one is becoming with the existence of deep affection and love between friends of any gender.

23 May, 2009

From a Distance

I have been away from the blog for a few days now – more on all that, I’m sure, at some later date when I have figured out how to talk about the latest discoveries of my life!

Meanwhile, I wanted to share this aerial view of Sri Lanka. I had never seen it before this and it is truly spectacular. It is true that, from a distance, everything in the natural world looks amazingly beautiful, and from an every greater distance, no one part of the earth looks better or worse than any other. So while I post the video, I also want to post the well-known reflection by Carl Sagan, excerpted from a commencement address he delivered on May 11th, in 1996. These thoughts are expanded upon in his book, Pale Blue Dot. View, read, tell me what you think. Alas, I seem to be unable to embed this media try as I might. I’m giving up and just posting the link here.

“(Look) at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.

The earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.

Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity — in all this vastness — there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. It is up to us. It’s been said that astronomy is a humbling, and I might add, a character-building experience. To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

17 May, 2009

After War

Reflections at the dawn of the ‘Post-LTTE Moment’

by Malinda Seneviratne

sandballThis is a momentous occasion for Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans, regardless of ideological persuasion and preferred Utopia. Whether or not, as some have (in my opinion injudiciously) predicted, the LTTE will revert to its guerrilla avatar, it is clear that a point of no return has been crossed. We are now officially in the post-LTTE era in that the LTTE of Velupillai Prabhakaran, the LTTE capable of UDI posturing, the LTTE of strutting around with a ‘Sole-Rep’ tag, the LTTE claiming authority over a de-facto state, the LTTE with something close to a conventional army, has to be spoken of in the past tense. No future LTTE will be that LTTE, just like the post-89 JVP could never be the JVP of ’71 or the JVP of 88-89.

For a nation that has been held ransom by this bunch of thugs for close to three decades, this is certainly a moment that warrants celebration, not least of all because this is a moment that many if not all insisted will never materialize. We were told, ‘the LTTE cannot be defeated’. We were told that Colombo will be reduced to rubble if Mahinda Rajapaksa decided to take on the LTTE militarily (as it happened, he didn’t have an alternative; the LTTE was spoiling for a fight and insisted on a military confrontation). We were told that we had no option but to sue for peace (read ‘surrender to terrorism’). In short, this denouement was not scripted. Or, to put it another way, it was scripted out. Nowhere in the grand plans that many, both here and abroad, had for Sri Lanka was there mention of the possibility that the LTTE would be so comprehensively defeated.

In a world where engagement with terrorism has engendered more terrorism, where nations far more powerful than us have floundered in such missions despite superior weaponry, larger and better trained armies, far more sophisticated intelligence networks and systems, strong and willing allies, the efforts of Sri Lanka vis-à-vis the LTTE, arguably the world’s most ruthless and resourceful terrorist outfit, surely deserves the highest accolades.

beachThis nation that has had to face two bloody insurrections, a monumental natural disaster, contend with political intrigue, suffer the interference of powerful external forces, deal with poverty and unequal terms of engagement in the global political economy, can and should applaud itself for achieving this particular ‘unachievable’.

Celebration can take many forms. There can be the usual fire-cracker explosion of euphoria, the victory rallies across the country, the making of political capital, the rush to take credit whether it is deserving or not, and of course the waving of the national flag. I see no wrong, I do not object. On the other hand, I believe this is also a time for reflection and in particular self-reflection.

graveFirst of all let us all remember those who are no longer here to celebrate with us, those who made the supreme sacrifice so that this day could dawn, so that these celebrations can take place. Let us remember all those who had to die because killing innocent people was ‘fair game’ for the mass murderer called Velupillai Prabhakaran, a fact that his apologists chose to ignore. Let us remember the fact that this war necessitated a diversion of resources from other vital areas of national interest such as education, health, agriculture and industry. In short there was an opportunity cost here; a massive foregoing, a forfeiture whose affects will never be fully calculated.

I call for a greater degree of sobriety because the celebration of this moment in this ‘moment after’ simply means that there was an unhappy ‘moment before’. Over 70,000 of our citizens perished before we could come to this ‘here and now’ of flag-waving. Property worth billions of rupees was destroyed. Infrastructure that could have changed the lives of millions of people never got built.

And then there’s ‘the enemy’, perceived and real. boyShould we not reflect now on the validity of perception? Should we ask ourselves if there is such an entity called a permanent enemy? Should we not walk a few miles along the pathways their thoughts have passed, reside for a while in the residencies of their concern, and test the textures now and then of the dreams they must have invited, entertained and allowed to take possession of their days and nights? Should we not do these things if we want to find out with what gaze we should look at them today, tomorrow and the day after?

There is the ‘hardcore’. No one is born with some congenital ability to differentiate the hardcore from the innocent, the one who is ideologically committed to killing for a cause and the one who is coerced into killing. This is why it is prudent to screen the thousands who have streamed into welfare centres. Empathy does not necessarily bar circumspection.

We must remember, however, that even if there wasn’t the bloodbath that the David Milibands and Bernard Kouchners predicted (and salivated for?), blood certainly was shed. That blood belonged to citizens of this country. tamilmenThat blood cannot be allowed to be orphaned. It flowed out of bodies; bodies that contained minds, hearts, aspirations, bodies that contained lips that would have broken into smiles or half-smiles, wry or coy, lips that kissed or dreamed of kiss, bodies that were made of skin, of limbs, cheeks and eyelids, all of which would have once been tenderly touched by mothers and fathers. Yes, they killed. They wronged the most innocent. They were wrong. In the exchange of fire that is war there is no space for any tenderness. In this post-war moment, it will be hard to feel pity, but it will not be impossible to understand why a 12 year old came to hold a gun in his hand or how a 13 year old blew herself up or how a 15 year old had to be shot dead since this was the only way to stop him from killing 100 people by exploding himself.

I just watched 3 young girls belonging to the LTTE’s suicide unit, recently captured, being interviewed on national television. Could we consider them hardcore LTTE cadres, replete with a sound understanding of the conflict, its historical antecedents, motives, logic, legitimacy etc? No. Kids. That’s what they are.

twogirlskuruConsider the IDPs. Consider the acronym. IDP. Internally displaced person. Well, one cannot for reasons of space refer to all the 200,000 persons displaced by name, but ‘IDP’ certainly makes them nameless, turns them into numbers. Today we know that some women decided to conceive so that they could escape (for a few years) forced conscription. Today we know that the LTTE deliberately burnt the temporary shelters of people living in the No-fire Zone so that they would be forced to spent sweltering days out in the sun, suffering dehydration and be rendered less able to make a break for freedom. Will we stop to remind ourselves again and again that these 200,000 plus people have at least 200,000 stories and that most of them cannot be happy ones? Would we see in the elderly man carrying a suitcase on his head and ‘sprinting’ to freedom our fathers? Would we each recognize our grandmothers in the breaking voice of the old woman lamenting the death of a child or heart-broken because someone near and dear didn’t make it and might have died? tamilgirlWould we see in the bewildered eyes of a child the incomprehensibility we never want to see in our own children? When we see a picture of a family clutching a bundle of belongings will we wonder what we would choose to take with us if we had to flee our homes at a moment’s notice?

Will we understand that almost every family from the Wanni would include at least one person who is ashamed of the fact that crimes against humanity were perpetrated by the LTTE in their name, that the LTTE brought disgrace to their community? Will we understand that in every family there was someone who died and that a child or a father does not cease to be a child or a father just because she/he died in battle, in uniform, or as a suicide bomber seeking to kill innocents? priestsWould we acknowledge that many innocents had to die, many whose only crime was being in the wrong place and the wrong time? Would we have anything to say to the loved ones of the unnecessarily dead? Will we commiserate with them in the same tone, heartbeat murmur and tear-temperature as we did with the near and dear of those who died in the Pettah bomb blast, the Dehiwala attack, the Borella attack, the attack in Kebithigollewa? Would the place names familiar to the Tamil dead roll off our tongues as easily as Aranthalawa, Kanthalai, Kebithigollewa, Dutuwewa etc., even as we recognize difference in purpose and method?

incenseThere was an ‘LTTE-time’. That was a forbidding time. The LTTE did not give any of us the space to think ‘human being’. Those who chose to think ‘human’ and to ignore the reality of ‘terrorist’ altogether, took us up the garden path and while we were sniffing the flowers the LTTE went around killing people. It was a time that required ending and it was abundantly clear that this time could not end unless the LTTE was taken out of the equation. It is not that the forces were inhuman or that we were and there’s ample evidence to support this thesis, but tenderness must necessarily be made secondary when fighting a brutal terrorist.

Today we are not in an ‘LTTE-time’. We are in a post-LTTE time.srilanka08-1337 I believe that this is a moment when we can, if we so want, look beyond identity and see human being, look beyond label and political familiarity and recognize ourselves in these ‘other people’. Seeing pictures of people who had fled LTTE-controlled areas, it occurred to me that my arms were not long enough to embrace all those who deserve embrace (and I was convinced that the vast majority are not unworthy of embrace). It occurred to me also that this country must cultivate a willingness to embrace; a readiness to engage, to tolerate, to affirm chosen identity but respect difference, to celebrate the defeat of a brute and at the same time resolve to recognize the vulgarity of celebration in certain contexts.

kovilIn this post-LTTE moment, in this ‘non-LTTE time’ let us also remember that the more arduous task of rebuilding our nation, resolving the problems of poverty, drugs, crime and political violence and creating a more democratic, tolerant and hard-working society has begun. Let us remember to recall the common humanity of all communities, the essential goodness of all religious faiths and the splendor of all cultural traditions and create a space for all these things to thrive in harmony.

I believe we fought the necessary fight, we fought it well and we have come through scarred, crippled but unbowed and with our ability to slay our ghosts intact. We have come through the long tunnel called a 3-decade war. planting It is time to welcome the dawn, the post-LTTE dawn — with pride, a sense of self-worth, with pomp and pageantry if necessary, but most certainly with reflection, humility and compassion.

Malinda Seneviratne is an award-winning journalist and reporter based in Colombo, Sri Lanka. His political commentary appears internationally and he was a part of an international team of election monitors during the U. S. Presidential elections. This article first appeared in The Nation, Sri Lanka. He edits the monthly magazine, Spectrum, and he can be contacted at

14 May, 2009

Sweet Blood

Charles Rice-Gonzalez

In August of 2005, I met someone who would turn out to be my kindred soul, my brother from another life, and a friend unlike any other. It was my first year at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, that place of much beauty, equal pain and a creative energy that all but makes these things inconsequential. I ran into Charles Rice-Gonzalez in the famous “barn” where writers go to linger, mingle, read or be read to, and to dance. We were not in the same workshop; Charles was working with the inimitable Percival Everett, I was working with the equally formidable Lynn Freed. We met because, I think, the universe felt that we needed to find each other. Over the next ten days, we drank a lot of wine, talked a lot of dreams and shopped at TJ-Max. Over the next few years I had the good fortune to see parts of Charles’ other life, at BAAD, meet his amazingly talented and generous partner, Arthur Aviles, and enjoy his hospitality in their home in the Bronx.

We were lucky enough to meet each other for a few more years at Bread Loaf, to bond in the way that only people at Bread Loaf do, and discover our various commonalities: ironing our clothes with religious zeal for instance, rolling with the punches, holding the bad in until we could share it in private, letting the sunshine out. @ Bread Loaf

Charles has helped me be myself more than I had permitted myself to be myself, and he has taught me a lot about blooming where we are planted. But the one thing that he said to me that I have carried with me every day is a comment he made about our writing life. We were standing outside, the clear Vermont skies above, a cold nip in the air, the heat of a blessed life lighting us up from within. With a glass raised in a toast he said,

“No matter where we get to, when our books are published, and everything falls into place, no matter what happens, this, right now, is who we really are. We are the people who hang with everybody. We aren’t better than anybody else here, or worse than anybody else here. We are part of this journey. Let us never forget that.”

barn dance

So perhaps we were a little high on our creative life right then, or the mood was right for deep thoughts. It was sound advice then and it is sound advice today. For all of us writer-types, we are like the dusty starry particles in the sky. If you look up from below, we make something beautiful – some of us shine brighter, other less so, but it takes us all to make the whole a thing of beauty.

So today I want to salute a guy who has the talent and the guts to tell the stories he does, and the humility and wisdom to make him also a beloved fellow-traveler and friend.

Happy birthday, bro – may the coming year be good to you.

10 May, 2009

For a Mother I Once Knew

In my purse, I carry a note which describes the clinical condition of a woman I knew. Tracy was not a good friend of mine in any real sense of the word; I did not share my life with her, not ask her for any help. For one, we moved in different circles, for another, Tracy was in not in a position to help me except by example. She was the mother of a little girl named Tessa, whom it had taken her seven years to conceive. She was diagnosed with cancer when Tess was very young, and by the time her daughter turned five, Tracy’s cancer was terminal, and all of her will was bent toward staying alive for one more day.

I assumed that I could help by getting Tracy more information because I have always found that knowledge is my best defense. Furious at the fact that her treatment had been delayed, and certain medications not administered to her because she did not have health insurance, I sat down with her and wrote those symptoms down. But instead of calling him, I waited two weeks until that Thanksgiving when I ran into my brother-in-law at the time, an oncologist, to ask him what he thought about Tracy’s situation. He looked at the drugs she was on, explained to me that they were usually given when there was nothing else that could be done, but that in some very rare cases, patients responded positively to them.

I didn’t tell Tracy that. I told her instead about the experimental drugs that she might be able to access were she willing to try them, by driving from Fairfield, Maine, where she lived, to Dartmouth, New Hampshire. She wanted to give it a go but, by then, her body was too far gone. Not long after, I stopped to talk to her as she sat in her car, waiting for her husband to pick up their daughter from school. She was so weak she could hardly speak. Thinner than it seemed humanly possible to be, and the fragrance of medicinal marijuana clinging to her, she had shown up, as she always did, to pick up Tessa, even if she could not herself get down from the car and walk to the door.

I saw Tracy one last time just before she passed away. She was lying in a bed that had been set up in her living room, with her husband and mother there to help. By this time she was simply receiving morphine so she could be comfortable while she waited to die. As someone who believes in the power of books, I brought one for Tessa that day, The Next Place, by Warren Hansen. I asked if Tessa would like to go home with me for a play date and it was incredibly poignant to me to watch Tessa climb up onto her mother’s bed to ask if she could go. It didn’t seem to strike her that her movements might be painful to her mother who was so wracked with frailty. Perhaps she knew that nothing she did could hurt the mother who had fought so hard to stay with her.

When she was told that I was going to leave, Tracy asked her mother to lift her up. She wanted to give me a hug, she said. I don’t know where she found the strength, nor what might have motivated her to try to do this for a woman she barely knew. Except that there was Tessa. I remember that I stood there saying, don’t worry, we will look after Tessa. I remember that whatever I said had the weight of a promise and though it wasn’t a request that Tracy had the capacity to make out loud, it was still one she articulated. That grateful farewell was all she could do for her daughter.

I meant well. But I moved from Maine. Tracy’s note stayed in my purse when I bought a new one. And Tessa stayed on my mind. One mother’s day came and went in the throes of selling and buying and moving and settling and bemoaning the mundane difficulties of a life lived with the blessing of good health. But this mother’s day, as I went through a series of medical tests of my own, I recalled once more my promise to Tracy. I called up the school she still attends, its tuition paid by her grandmother, to see if she was still there. I remembered that more than anything else, Tracy wanted her daughter to stay at the Kennebec Montessori School, within the inclusive, familial embrace of a high quality education transmitted by teachers gifted in the art of recognizing the unique nature of each child. Apparently, despite the loss of an elderly care-giver who had taken care of Tessa before and after school, her father is committed to her staying there for one more year. I am not sure what she will do this summer, but I hope I can find a way to help.

As a start, today, on mother’s day, I thought I’d honor both a mother of incredible courage and love, and keep a promise. I went out and bought a few of my favorite books, and a couple I had never heard of, for Tessa: The Great Nursery Rhyme Disaster (David Conway), A Child’s Garden of Verses (Robert Louis Stevenson), When Papa Comes Home Tonight (Eileen Spinelli), Incredible You: 10 Ways to let your Greatness Shine Through (Dr. Wayne W. Dyer), It’s Okay to be Different (Todd Parr), You Read to Me, I’ll Read to You (Mary Ann Hoberman) and You are my I love You (Maryanna K. Cusimano & Satomi Ichikawa). They are the kinds of books I imagine Tracy might have liked her daughter to have.

Tomorrow I will put them in the mail along with a note to Tessa. What I will say to her, I do not know. I know that she had read the first book I gave her many times, and I hope that these new books will help her navigate the parts of the world that are navigable. I cannot be like a mother to her, but it is not too late for me to be her mother’s friend.

4 May, 2009

Ailey II, Philadanco, Bliss

A few years ago I found myself in a packed theater in a small town in Maine. The Waterville Opera House is one of those gems that we want to keep close; complete with scrolled sides and ornately framed, curving proscenium, an orchestra pit, and sloped seating. Not to mention people with the arts in their veins. On that particular evening, the Opera House was playing host to Ailey II, the brainchild of Alvin Ailey who began the ensemble in 1974 by gathering together the most promising scholarship students from the Ailey School to study, perform and teach.

There is something hungry about the Ailey II dancers. Most of them are, by the very nature of the program, brand new and eager. They can do what most dancers in major companies can do, but they are still “en route.” That makes all the difference. Their potential sparks off their bodies, their dreams of success, within their grasp but just beyond, ignite the air. Their movements are, therefore, full of the quality that makes dance joyful. It pours off the stage and picks up the audience and makes us all, even the hardiest hardy-Mainer leap to his feet. During that particular performance, mistakes were made, entrances botched. At least one dancer’s legs trembled as his partner flew through the air to brief safety in his arms. But being able to see the human, his frailty, his vulnerabilities, underneath the awe-inspiring virility of the dancer, is what makes that kind of performance memorable, and other, more perfect, ones, utterly forgettable. Their grand finale, a completely exhilarating, defiant and sexy interpretation – complete with some pursed mouths and neck action – of the spiritual, ‘Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham,’ was the perfect ending.

Last night I was reminded of that performance when I went to see Philadanco at the Perelman Theater here in Philly. The program, New Faces, showcased the work of four young choreographers working with the talented ensemble. Again, the most striking of the performances were not the ones that were most technically perfect. The somber, controlled and well executed Red Envelope (Zane Booker, World Premiere) had less to offer than the story-told vibe of Be Ye Not (Hope Boykin, World Premiere) which was both moving in its depiction of the desperation of staying out/fitting in, as it was exuberant in the way it dramatized that tension with one just-short-of-perfect dancer and the shoal like symmetry of the rest of the troupe. And while Rapture (Tony Powell, Company Premiere)was beautiful to watch and uplifting, with its theme of the ebb and flow of emotional and spiritual being, its very fluidity lulled the mind. On the other hand, Those Who See Light (Camille A. Brown, World Premiere) which consisted of all the dancers moving now together, now apart in a sort of crazy-making, syncopated urgency which brought to mind mysterious worker bees striving at some unending task in a different corner of the planet, had the edgy, street-creds of using every part of the dancer including and most specially, their stomach muscles heaving rhythmically with the music, to draw us in. Having made those distinctions, however, I also have to say that they are negligible on the strength of the work of the choreographers themselves who have created something well outside the scope of the ordinary.

Both these things, the youth and future-focus of the Waterville performance and the creative spirit of the Philly show seem to have been captured in the latest experiment in happy ingenuity set to sweep the nation or, in this case, the world. Watch, listen, enjoy. The fact that the “starter version” of the track was done by the now deceased Roger Ridley just adds to what is left behind. Click for an unforgettable rendition of ‘Stand By Me.’

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.