Archive for May, 2011

31 May, 2011

Making a Country Belong to You

This is a piece from a speech I gave not too long ago. A person who was there wrote me a lovely note and asked me to post the text of this particular section and so, here goes:

Perhaps the constant for any immigrant is our disassociation with a specific place even as we strive to maintain the relevance and worth of two particular places within the unfolding of our lives. Both of these countries have become vital to me, both places are home. What I have become is A Defender. I am a defender of Sri Lanka to Americans. I do it every time I speak of my country, in my writing through articles and opinion pieces and petitions to PBS against irresponsible journalists, and by trekking to Washington DC and building relationships with congressional staffers and joining other South Asian groups , appearing at South Asian festivals and using those platforms to speak of Sri Lanka. I do it even when I rant about one thing or another nearly every morning listening to NPR, shouting about something “stupid” that Americans are up to as if somehow none of it could be traced back to me; the media spin surrounding Major Nidal Malik Hasan, the Texas shooter, for example, and all the aspersions that were cast about his religious affiliations. It upsets me that Americans, make these judgments based on their own ethno-centric view of the world without any understanding of the depth and complexities of kinship as it is played out in other cultures. And when I say that, I know that I am standing firmly within the depth and complexity of my Sri Lankan culture, which is what enables me to have that perspective in America.

And I defend America by being attentive to its good. I love the fact that if you go to a swim meet or a track meet or any meet at all, the loudest cheer is for the person who struggles to cross the finish line last, sometimes after all the other athletes have left the deck. Despite two incredible dispiriting presidential elections – elections to which my brother had come as part of a team of international election monitors for the first time in US history – after those elections, I could still believe that in that country I could put my faith in a candidate so far from even being considered viable and never doubt that it would be possible to bring him to the White House. I could not only teach my daughter the Pledge of Allegiance but ask that she consider it her duty to honor her country by caring for it through word and deed, by fixing what was wrong. I think it is ludicrous to sing the national anthem at every small sporting event, and yet I also see that the beauty of the tradition is that the anthem has no “right” way – it belongs to every voice, however badly or well they may sing it. I could watch a program on the building of the Hoover Dam and listen to those workers talk about how they hold their hands over their hearts when they stand before that dam and understand exactly why they feel the country belongs to them.

A country belongs to you not because you are born there or die there, it belongs to you because you care for it. In some way, great or small, and in keeping with your system of beliefs, you care for it when you are in it, you speak for it when it cannot speak for itself. If it is broken, you fix it. If it is good, you celebrate it.

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11 May, 2011

Bussing Tables, Writing Books at Bread Loaf

I’m over at the Huffington Post today writing about the waiters at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. There’s an excerpt (see below). You can read the full article over at the Books site.

When the doors bang shut behind you, in that way that old, wooden doors do, and the odor of morning nourishments, the eggs, the blueberries, the toast, rush forward to greet you, the writer who has just come in, has but one thought, a thought only tangentially related to the business of writing: where the fuck is the coffee? Waiting tables has long been the fallback of artists — the entire city of New York is built on the premise that the dreams of artists will carry it through another 24 hour cycle of food and drink — but can it really translate into literature? Apparently, at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, yes.

It is May, and in approximately two weeks 25 people will find out that they are being offered a coveted “waitership” at Bread Loaf for 2012. While there is, surely, a large proportion of humanity that remains bemused that writers actually crave this lowly service-industry position, a fair number of them do just that and with good reason. At the moment of my writing this, this year alone, I count two former Bread Loaf waiters whose novels have reached the NYT best seller list, Dolen Perkins Valdez (Wench, Amistad, Reprint January, 2011) and Heidi Durrow (The Girl Who Fell From the Sky, Algonquin, Reprint 2011), and another two described, respectively, as “Written with the elegance and quiet menace of snowfall” (Alexi Zentner‘s spine-tingling novel Touch, W.W. Norton, April 2011) and “timely beyond measure, (conveying) with impressive precision and nuance how we are vectors on the grid of global capital; how difficult it is to even attempt to be an authentic, let alone admirable, human being when we are, first and last, cash flow” (Peter Mountford‘s A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, April 2011). Urban Waite has had his book (The Terror of Living, Little, Brown, 2011), lauded coast to coast, most recently in the Boston Globe, and Patricia Engel‘s Vida (Grove, September 2010), has just been optioned for a movie.

Add to that Laura van den Berg‘s collection, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us (Danzc, 2010), Paul Yoon‘s short-stories, Once the Shore (Sarabande, 2010), winner of the Iowa Short Fiction Award, Jennine Capo Crucet‘s How to Leave Hialeah (Iowa, 2010), and Tiphanie Yanique‘s How to Escape From a Leper Colony (Greywolf, 2010), not to mention a few books which bear mentioning though the publication date is in our, mercifully near, future, Eugene CrossFires of Our Choosing (Dzanc, 2012), Cathy Chung‘s Forgotten Country (Riverhead, 2012) and Justin TorresWe The Animals (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Fall, 2011), and you start to get the picture.

6 May, 2011

Osama bin Laden and America’s Celebration of Death

I am over at Azadnegar Intl. Free News Agency, mulling over the death of Osama bin Laden and, more importantly, America’s reaction to it. Here’s an excerpt (see below). The full article can be accessed over at Azadnegar or at the Tehran Times online.

One of America’s foremost writers, Joan Didion, in a memoir reflecting on the death of her husband (The Year of Magical Thinking, Vintage, 2006), quotes the English anthropologist, Geoffrey Gorer’s words in his book, Death, Grief and Mourning. In that book he writes that Americans (and the British) were pressured by “an ethical duty to enjoy oneself…to treat mourning as morbid self-indulgence, and to give social admiration to the bereaved who hide their grief so fully that no one would guess anything had happened.” It is a trend that has been taken to its extreme in this country where not only are the bereaved not expected to mourn publicly, but their public burials are sometimes beset by rabid groups who disrupt the restrained funereal proceedings by shouting slogans that denounce the dead, a strange custom that was recently approved as a “fundamental right” by none other than the Supreme Court of the United States.

For an immigrant American such as myself, whose cultural attitude toward death is clothed not only in deep respect and centuries old traditions but also a communal approach to grief – that this death is not mine alone to bear – it has often been disturbing to be present at the American tradition of memorial services, held long after the funeral is over, where the focus is on a joyful remembrance of the life lived and then a moving on to other business as if that life had never been, all sorrow hidden deep inside the individual. It is as though death is unique and uniquely mourned, that the only expression of emotion that would make the mourner acceptable to society is equanimity if not outright happiness.

How is it, then, that the youth in a country so uncomfortable with death could gather itself together to cheer the death of Osama bin Laden? Is there something about the American conscience, or lack thereof, that makes it impossible for an American to mourn their dead but make it not only possible but, by some accounts lighting up the blogosphere, positively commendable to cheer the death of someone whose crimes they barely remember? And if, as the American media has repeatedly emphasized, particularly during these last few days, Osama bin Laden was American’s Public Enemy #1, could it be that these kids know nothing of how their obscene celebrations might be perceived abroad, or of the people who might support bin Laden and even less as to the reasons why?

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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