Archive for July, 2009

30 July, 2009

One Week On

If I delay this post for one more day I fear I will have to make it a photo essay. My love of words is sandwiched by my love of dance and my love of photographs, and the camera has taken over my life this week! There’s a sample gallery below.

The first three photographs, culled from the gazillion I took on that evening, are from the launch party hosted by Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative to the UN, Ambassador Palihakkara, at the Consulate in NY. That was an evening to remember. While none of my Sri Lankan family could be present, they seemed to fill the room in the words of the Ambassador as he recalled his association with them, particularly my father, the poet and public servant, and my brother, the poet, activist and journalist. His pride in the achievements of, as he put it, “a compatriot” (first picture), were only matched by his admiration for the social justice work that they have done and continue to do back home in deed and in word. Standing in a room where those closest to the book, my absolutely amazing agent, Julie Barer and my editor, Emily Bestler (second picture in row) in the same space as the best of my friends (third picture) from my many worlds, my family and my countrymen, I felt as though I was at the sort of auspicious gathering that is arranged before any major event in Sri Lanka. It felt like the perfect place from which to toast both an accomplishment and a contribution, to celebrate what had transpired, what might be, and more than all of it, what was in that moment: good people, good thoughts and grace.

The next nine photographs are from the inaugural public reading at the fancy B&N on 86th & Lexington. My first time in the “green room” which was quite posh and lead directly into the lovely spacious events room that was set up by the staff. It was an amazingly successful reading followed by a Q&A. I had thought that being up on a stage, sitting (there went the high-heeled advantage!), with a microphone positioned before me would be strange, but it felt like the most natural thing in the world. I could have stayed there all night. The questions were fantastic – I think everybody in the audience had one! They were thoughtful, appreciative and respectful. I couldn’t have asked for a better kick-off event. Double the wow-factor, of course, with the huge screens that broadcast both reading and discussion throughout the store (mute) and with sound in the cafe. How extraordinarily new-century – I got the wamth of my group and the PR bang of the broadcast. I think it is a new series that B&N is starting and the event should be up on a website near you soon.

Best of all, of course, was the presence, again, of my editor and her assistant and my agent – I tell you these people never rest, and some of my closest friends all of whom hail back to happy times at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference. We took many photographs and collared sweet souls coming down the escalators to check out my book in its prime-time spot right near the entrance. Please see pix. of the guy in a white t-shirt checking out the book for evidence of our doings. He was wonderful and bought if for his wife.

We headed out from there to The Campbell Apartments in Grand Central Station only to be told – unfairly – that Charles could not get in because of his open-toed sandals. Even though I had open-toed heels. I supposed we could have switched? We then filed out looking for the Library Hotel and its good looking bar, Bookmarks Lounge. The journey involved walking through the streets outside the hotel where I came upon the beautiful brass plates which contained quotes from various literary luminaries. It bought to mind the essence of NYC which, to me, involves traipsing endlessly looking for a place that might welcome you, and being surprised and delighted by the gems of discovery that are found in unexpected places. It is obvious which photographs are from the bar, I’m sure.

And lastly (orange dress), the first local reading at the Borders in Wynnewood, PA which was enormously successful in that it sold out of books (Borders, Bryn Mawr was a close second two days later!), and which presented the added hilarity of trying to belt out literary fiction (from a foreign context) over the sound of the ice-incinerator right next to – it seemed – my head! I had my first mango something or the other which was cool and sweet and lovely. And my first casual Q&A which was similarly fresh and energizing. It is such a dream to have people who read ask a writer questions that go beyond the mundane. And such an enormous privilege to be able to offer some answers. The after-party at home was just icing on an already fantastic cake.

Bryn Mawr, later that week, where I read with Josh Weil, Lise Funderberg, Rachel Pastan, Elizabeth Mosier and Jim Zervanos, was similarly illuminating and truly enjoyable. We read to a packed group – people ended up perched on tables at the back! – who sat through readings by six authors most of whom were relatively new. How can you top that outside a writing conference? We had great questions, outstanding book sales and the after-reading drinks next door were not to be missed. It is always such a delight to gather together with writers in the aftermath of such things and to listen as lives are revealed, just a little more, and the real stories are told. I hope the rest of the tour unfolds with these kinds of serendipitous occurrences and receptive audiences. It will, won’t it?

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21 July, 2009

On Publication

There are people who take the comparison between pets and children very badly; I am one of those curmudgeons. I am quite certain that, similarly, there are many who would consider the launch of a book a sad and inappropriate approximation to childbirth. And yet, as I have discovered, there is something oddly familiar about the sensation of putting a book out into the world, the first of which is amnesia.

Over the last six months, I have managed to forget several things. I have forgotten who I was before The Book began to be read by people over whom I have no control. I have forgotten that no matter how hospitable a world I try to create for The Book, eventually it has to leave my forgiving embrace and grow its own legs and heart and ambivalence. I have forgotten that whatever I put into The Book through hours of writing and revision and fact-checking and editing before it got typeset and bound and dressed up in its finery and posed for its glamor shots, is its essence; the rest belongs to the friends it picks up along the way and the various juries of its peers who remain undefined by age or gender or national origin. I have forgotten that I can only speak of The Book in the language in which I wrote it, and that it has acquired languages I will never speak and, therefore, will move and grow and, perhaps, be crucified by words I will not understand. I have forgotten that before there was The Book, there was me, the writer, and that though the bond we share cannot be severed, we are two separate beings. I have forgotten that after today, July 21st, 2009, The Book and I will look at each other from a safe distance, loving and blaming each other and that we will both be right.

Publish, v.tr, means both to prepare for public distribution and also to bring public attention to (the document issued forth). Publishing therefore, is a strange bedfellow. To see publication as being reflective of success should come naturally to a writer and, objectively, I see that it is. I hand out my post cards, I speak about my book, I answer “I am a writer” when people ask me what I do. But in order to feel that publication is a singular achievement, to seek the attention of the world only to The Book, I would have to commit to defining myself as a writer and become comfortable in giving this aspect of myself primacy in my life. I would have to slough off my many skins and be this one thing: the writer of The Book.

Which makes me think of mothers who are not simply people who create children. They are human beings with interesting or even mundane passions, weird predilections, unspent talents, and reservoirs of energy for things that have nothing to do with the birthing, raising and nurturing of their children. Likewise, I am a woman who is involved in politics, who loves public life and making connections between people who do interesting things for the world, and freelances as a political journalist. I am a woman who is devoted to teaching and performing Latin/ballroom and Middle-Eastern dance, and also to public education. I am a woman who is upset by the fact that the best library of my suburban library system – which is ranked as one of the top twenty in the country – is slated for a $11.1 million renovation while the Philadelphia public libraries are being closed down. I am a woman who wants to make the donation of new books to those city libraries part of the fund-raising efforts of our national blue-ribbon ranked suburban public school system. I am a woman who, upon learning from my fellow patient at Lankenau Cancer Center, that there has never been a welcome-home parade for veterans of the Vietnam War, is wondering how to organize one. I am a woman who is deeply involved in raising three daughters. And I am a woman who writes fiction.

In thinking through and writing this blog post, I have remembered all that I had forgotten, the most important of which is that in writing as in motherhood, life, to paraphrase Audre Lorde, is not lived as a single issue but rather among multiple and often knotty, entangled threads. Today, therefore, I have decided to take a page from mothering. I will assume that blessed mantle and say a few words to The Book: You are not perfect, and I could have done better by you, but I gave all that was possible for me to give. You are not lesser or greater than your future siblings, or any of your friends. You are a part of me, but more than that, you are yourself. Go forth and prosper.

19 July, 2009

The Ups & Downs

img_6641The world is divided into two kinds of people. Those who are empathetic toward cyclicsts as they wend their precarious way on streets made only for vehicles of the gas-guzzling variety, and those who treat cyclists like flies at a picnic. I’ve been thinking about such things, lately, as I pedal my way back and forth from the hospital. I also find myself looking yearningly at other cyclists, all of whom seem a hundred times more fit and capable and at ease than I am. They are certainly more suitably clad.

I am rarely suitably clad for cycling though I’ve made some serious concessions. I don’t wear high heels, for instance, though I’d like to. Instead I shuffle about in sneakers masquerading as brown, real-looking shoes. I have to wear loose t-shirts back home, which means I have to wear them there. I don’t own many t-shirts, mostly because they come up to my throat and make me feel strangled, but after a few days of biking around in pretty blouses on my girl-bike rubike3feeling like a demure English maid of yore, I had to locate t-shirts. I finally hacked at a grey one a friend had given me (front: Be careful or you’ll end up in my novel). I comforted myself that this is, indeed, what writers do: they hack to make a story fit. I put on dangly earrings and sun glasses, but the helmet kind of kills the whole look anyway. The only thing that makes me happy about this whole disguise are yoga pants which at least bestow the wearer some shape!

It isn’t that bad, really. I get up every morning with an excuse hanging before me. It’s too early, you can stay in bed, you are allowed to be tired and unable, it says to me. I have to get past that road block and brush my teeth. Once I’ve done that and grimaced my way into the confounded t-shirts, I might as well get on the bike, so I do. Life is so much about disguise and performance. You get the right costume on (sneakers, t-shirt) stand before the props (bike, helmet), and the rest comes to pass. Which is probably why it isn’t good to loll around in bed or go out to greet the world on a normal day in sweatpants. You do that long enough and you become a slouch and a jock. I don’t think the slouch/jock life is a good one to get comfortable with.

But maybe that is just an inability I have to be okay with slacking off. That’s the other thing about the biking. I’m constantly meeting people who say complimentary things about me simply because I bike to the hospital. Those comments get under my skin and I think about them every morning as I zoom down the slopes (sometimes, just for the fun of it since there’s nobody to see, with ballet legs outstretched!), feeling like a fake. How could this be difficult, I ask myself, while the wind finds my skin every way it can, I’m going downhill for goodness sakes! Guilt washes over me. I feel I should stop talking about cycling at all since clearly I’m hardly pedaling! But then it struck me, surely if I’m going downhill at anytime, at least some of the time I must be going uphill too. But the uphills don’t register. All I see are the downhills. And the downhills make me feel like a fraud.

Which has, in turn, lead me to evaluate the way I look at myself, constantly seeing that which has been easy rather than recognizing anything that has been achieved with difficulty. It’s easy to learn to undermine ones own strength that way, and I don’t quite know how I became so used to doing it, but the bike thing has helped reset some of it. Monday looms. I’ll try to mind those ups tomorrow.

11 July, 2009

Things I Did Not Know

aprilbaird08-019When I first began blogging, I did it every day. I considered it a writing exercise that combined both the business of staying in touch with that of political commentary. A month or so into that I found that I was writing every few days and then once a week. It takes time to find ones stride I guess, and I figured that once a week was not a hideous track record. Then I reached the three week mark in radiation and all of a sudden I discovered fatigue. This wasn’t the fatigue of sickness, the kind where you lie in bed and long for nothing more than Theraflu and swear by Emergen-C, and Samahan, all of which I have done and will, hopefully, resume doing soon. This is the kind of bone-deep weariness that made sitting outside wrapped in a blanket on a cool Maine-like-but-wait-this-is-Philly summer evening, and watching the fireflies come out, too much. This is the kind of tiredness where the world seemed to actually roll by before my eyes like a movie and where I could not muster the energy to open my eyes.

Alas, that meant that I had to put away my bus-tickets and convention pass and skip an event that I had been looking forward to: the South Asian Journalists’ Association convention in NY. I managed, briefly, to regain some enthusiasm upon hearing the voice of my friend and gracious host, Nora Maynard (check out her cocktails here where she writes for Apartment Therapy), enough that I could pick one outfit and eat some lunch and even make a call to a neighbor for a ride to the train station. But that was all I could manage. Instead I gave up the good fight and chalked the words that have bewildered a few visitors since as they stared at them on the flagstones behind the backdoor:

I am a bad girl who did not go to NY : (

Which is a long-winded way of saying that I have fallen short of the 7 day post rule and, also, that even though this kind of exhaustion was not familiar to me and I did not believe the doctors when they told me about it, I am trying to absorb what I can of the world around me, some of which I want to share today.

I usually listen to the conversation around me when I sit in the waiting room along with the other early-morning folk, all of whom now happen to be men. Sometimes they talk to me and I respond, about my bike ride, about a dropped ID card of mine that one of them had found, about the cookies on offer, about how much longer we each have and so forth. Together with them I listened to ongoing coverage of Michael Jackson’s death which overshadowed with such, albeit deserved, tumult, the death from cancer of Farah Fawcett. I listened to news about the suburban swimming pool which rescinded its permission (and returned their payment) to a Philly day camp when the non-“White” kids from the camp showed up to swim. And I listened as one of the men mused aloud to his friend that there had never been a welcome-home parade for the veterans of the Vietnam War.

I asked him about that when I came out after my session in the radiation room where I had also learned anew about the masks that people are able to put on when they are undergoing treatment after the removal of brain tumors. “We don’t want to tattoo someone’s face,” the technician told me, “so we put on this substance that conforms to their face and then hardens. We make the mark on that.” I could not get that picture out of mind – the sensation that a part of them was being left behind, lined up on a shelf that catches my eye each morning when I lie down. It made me wonder what of me I leave behind each morning for surely there is something that is lost or shed or forgotten?

I asked the man in the waiting room, an officer at the University of Pennsylvania, about what he had talked about earlier, with awkward words: “I didn’t know that,” I said tentatively, “about the Vietnam War, what you said, about never having had a welcome home parade.” So he explained it to me, this thing that was like a thorn in his side, the fact – as he explained it – that other veterans who have spent “a few months in Iraq” get a welcome, but not them. “They just call us baby killers.” I tried to talk to him about Tim O’Brien’s book, The Things They Carried, which is what I am reading in full again right now. He didn’t read books about the war, he told me, because he wanted to forget.

It has stayed on my mind. Surely the matter of forgetting the things one has been forced to do comes from the forgiving release of being recognized for having been forced to do them. Even I, a foreigner, an avid political activist, and someone who has written frequently about war, can see that there is a distinction between the soldier and the war. From a small town in Maine I watched as poor families sent their children off wbfpjto war for reasons that had little or nothing to do with believing in the “cause” of the previous administration. I protested the war but recognized the dead, joining the members of a local peace group, Waterville Bridges for Peace & Justice, in a controversial action to commemorate the dead in Iraq when the 2000th American soldier had been felled. And of all wars surely the Vietnam War was the worst where most of the young men who went were sent against their will and better judgment. Those young men are old men now. They sit, like my friend, in hospital waiting rooms or lie among the garbage on the streets of cities like Philadelphia. It is unutterably sad they were never permitted the release that civilians who have known no war can and should give them.

I’ve started to read about this issue and just came across a statement by Michael Leon, a Vietnam veteran who saluted President Obama who, in word if not in deed, honored these veterans whom nobody else had seen fit to mention. I suppose that is a start.

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.


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