Archive for June, 2014

22 June, 2014

What is Love?

I’m over at NPR.org talking about one of my favorite books, Alessandro Barrico’s Silk. You can read the full piece here. Below, an excerpt:

Silk

“Baricco has set down a story enshrined in the acceptance that nothing will change, there can be no reversal, no comfort in the certainty that the wish made will one day be fulfilled. In reading the book again, I came to understand that I had been so preoccupied with where I was that I was blind to the journeys I could take with my mind. If bliss can be found in the mere existence of another reality, a country or a lover, distance eventually becomes immaterial.”

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15 June, 2014

Poem for My Father

Cucurbitaceae

I do not need the label.
I know what it is,
this bitter gourd.
Curl gnarled knob vegetable
the one children avoid,
concealing it beneath that which is palatable,
its better-loved cousins:
IMG_1903 the ridged vetakolu, the smooth pathola, the tender cucumbers.
Who would shun the better-named, the ladies fingers, say,
such elegance attached to a bundle of sticks,
such variations in texture within, the slippery, the soft, the fibrous, the seed,
a cornocupiea of treasures.
But this one here,
this one served up as a curry, in chunks,
coconut gravy and briny spices,
green chillies and fresh onions,

doing their best to overwhelm that which resists;
as a salad, thin, spidery, pin-wheels deep-fried and tossed
with lime, and white flecks of capsaicin,
with salt to heal, not wound, and yet –
this one merits no mercy.
It is bitter. There is no acquiring a taste for it.
There is no love possible for it.
There is only an understanding of its virtues:
it reduces the high of sugars
it enhances the complexion
it counteracts the defects of birth
it staves off malignancies,
it reduce the infections of the four-lettered scourge of our milieu.
But in this faraway place, displaced from home,
I gaze at the bag that my father has sent.
Consumed, it is panacea;
left alone, long past its date of expiry, it is talisman.
I think of my father’s health.
I wonder, who will send me bitter gourd?

13 June, 2014

Mary, I Miss You Today

Last Friday, around this time, I was thinking of perhaps going to bed. The next morning, at 3.30 a.m. to be precise, I was going to join in a long drive from Philadelphia to a small town in Vermont to be present at a memorial service for my aunt through marriage.

The last time Mary posted on Facebook, this is what she wrote:

Mary Freeman shared a link via Northern Stage.
December 11, 2013
Mike and I went last night and it was great. Really put one in the mood for the holidays. Tonight we are headed to Norwich to a reading by one of my favorite authors, Ann Hood. Of course my favorite has to be my own family member Ru Freeman:).

She and Mike had gone to see Northern Stage (Vermont), put on a production of “White Christmas.” I don’t know what the days were like since then for her, I only know that by on February 24th, when I landed in San Francisco en route to Seattle for a conference (AWP), I turned on my phone to a voice mail that told me that Mary was very ill and was not going to make it. It wasn’t something I was ready to believe. I had seen her over Thanksgiving, and had a particularly lovely memory of that time: an almost adult who is rarely demonstrative, somehow cuddling up to Mary and resting her head on her shoulder.

IMG_1127

How could it be, then, that I’m sitting here now realizing that this particular image of Mary is the last one I have of her? Among the things we’d talked about that Thanksgiving were presents. Somehow, over the years, Mary always seemed to know exactly what to give me as gifts. One particular year, I had been looking at a calendar from Syracuse Cultural Workers that I liked, and also loving – in the gushy way I love and dog-ear and never buy other such things in catalogs – a gorgeous, mostly orange, serving dish for crudités. I never mentioned these things to anybody, I just tossed the catalogs away. And yet, that year for Christmas, she gave me those two very things that I’d been hankering after. In years since, she’s given me many gifts, among them two I treasure greatly – a pair of gorgeous Simon Pearce Thetford tea-lights that have sat on my dining table ever since she gave them to me. How did she know exactly which things catch my heart?

As I listened to the people from Mary’s life describe their relationship to her, and I learned about worlds I hadn’t known Mary was a part of, it occured to me that Mary knew far more about me than I ever knew about her. She had a way of asking questions about my life, not just the one that had come into being when I married her only nephew, nor the person I had become because of that, but the person I had been before I even arrived in the U.S. She was curious about my parents, my brothers, even my friends. She asked after each one by name. She remembered the details of their lives, their marriages and divorces, their struggle with employment, how many children they had. She knew the name of my best friend from childhood, and my best friend in my current neighborhood, and she knew the various estrangements that had occured between each, as well as the forgiving that had taken place. She asked about my writing, bought and gifted copies of my novels, argued with her husband about who might have modeled for the cover of the first, and read every blog post I ever wrote. She didn’t say much on Facebook, but if ever there was something I said that concerned her, or made her laugh, she would message me.

Things like this:

Mary Freeman
Who is taking flying lessons?

Mary Freeman
Ru–are those great nieces of mine giving you grief?? Just tell them that Jerry is coming to town (that should scare them-it would me if I was them). I hope you are in a better space today. Mary

Mary Freeman
Does this mean you won’t be wearing your sexy boots next week? Mike will be soo disappointed.

Mary Freeman
No crutches at the wedding–there is a slope. So, no flinging yourself at passing taxis.

Mary Freeman
I know you shouldn’t pick a book by its’ cover, but I often do and your’s is a beauty!!!!

This is an exchange I remember particularly well:

February 22, 2013
Mary Freeman
What is in Kansas City? Watch out for the twisters.
Ru Freeman
Ha! Winter Institute. Big American Booksellers Association meeting. Lots of socializing with booksellers : )
Mary Freeman
Have fun. Kansas isn’t all straight laced–Melissa Etheridge is from there. I’ve only been through in the early hours of the night. Say hi to Dorothy.
Ru Freeman
I will/ And try to stay on the ground : )
2/24, 9:48am
Mary Freeman
When are you flying home? NBC has Kansas City as the bull’s eye for a major storm–stay safe, my friend.

But most of all, messages like this one:

Mary Freeman
Ru, I hope you are happier than you look–you seem sad, but that can’t be (can it?). You must be exhausted and running on adrenaline. We have friends that are moving to Petaluna as I write this and I’ve told them about your appearance at Copperfield’s. Stay happy and healthy. Love, M.

It was to Mary – visiting me at an apartment in Holyoke – that I blurted that if things did not work out with the boyfriend (her nephew), I would never want to be involved with some guy again; it was too much work and trouble. She found that a bit shocking, given that I was just a freshman in college, what could I know of the blows of life and the viccicitudes of marriage after all, but she listened anyway, talking with me about things that concerned me, neither affirming this sentiment nor trying to talk me out of it, simply communicating, while letting me be.

Of her life, I only knew the things that she chose to tell me. Most of the time she talked about her friends (Michelle, Sue), and the various comings and goings between the households – often involving pets and Leah, her daughter – she told me about Mike and his caving, marathons, and work, and she shared her stories of Leah. Leah as a seven year old, Leah as a teenager, Leah with boyfriends, Leah in college, and Leah planning a wedding. But the reasons for the things she did, or the passion behind what moved her, these escaped me. It seems strange, looking back, that I didn’t ask her more questions than I did. It is a habit with me, after all, the asking of questions, the trying to understand what’s what with people. But not with Mary. She was so good at deflecting attention, and making it seem as though it would be okay to let all the light shine on me. Mary, in more ways than I can count, let me be a child, focussing on my doings, accomplishments, trials, and joys as though they were all that needed to occupy the space between us.

So much of the gentler moments in our lives come about because someone is willing to do what Mary was so good at doing – expressing repeatedly, year after year, how genuinely interested they are in us, and our evolution. At her memorial, I gazed out at rows of tables laden with quilts that Mary had made for her beloveds over the years. It seemed so fitting a display of the giving aesthetic of her heart, as well as the complexity of someone I had always enjoyed being with, but never knew completely. One day, some day, I imagine that the whys and wherefores of her life will be revealed to me through anecdote and memory. For now, there is only the steady knowledge that she loved me and was always willing to show it.

Candles

12 June, 2014

Books, Reviews, and all that Jazz

A friend sent this bit of the New York Times along to me yesterday, with the note, “how long have I had this now?” She had clipped it at my request, and not got around to sending it.

NYT

As I looked at the books on this list, I realized for the first time that Colum McCann (Transatlantic), and I made it on the same day with our books. I had been gifted that book before we did a panel together at the Brooklyn Book Festival and I was the book is signed both by the friend who gave it to me and Colum (something that the latter found a bit bemusing – how many writers have to sign a pre-signed book?)

Oh wow! I went looking for a link to the festival event that we did and came across this post from Greenlight Books which mentions our panel, and goes on to say where they heard about it – in the New Yorker! So what if I don’t have my fiction in there yet? That’s my name. In The New Yorker, people!!!

The Brooklyn Book Festival takes place this Sunday in Borough Hall Plaza, with dozens of free literary panels, workshops, and children’s events throughout the neighborhood. To name just a few: Hilton Als and the philosophers Alexander Nehamas and Simon Critchley will discuss the notion of beauty in the new opera “Anna Nicole”; Pete Hamill, Adelle Waldman, and Adrian Tomine will compare their literary depictions of Brooklyn; the Sri Lankan writer Ru Freeman, the Iraqi writer Sinan Antoon, and the Irish writer Colum McCann will discuss political conflict in fiction; and Jennifer Gilmore, Claire Messud, and Jamaica Kincaid will consider the role of motherhood in their latest novels. (Here is a full list of events.) Also taking place this weekend, Friday through Sunday, is the NY Art Book Fair at MOMA PS1.

Anyway, I loved meeting him and talking about our work on stage and after, about politics and the things that truly matter. And this clipping here – it reminded me of the high points we forget as we careen madly seeking the next milestone. I remember being so thrilled that I woke up at some ungodly hour in order to ambush the grocery store and buy 20 pounds worth of the NYT when the review itself came out. And then I left one copy lying around the house hoping someone would notice. Suffice to say, there wasn’t much notice – except of the “what’s for breakfast?” kind of notice that I wasn’t courting and certainly was not expecting on this biggest of all big days since I began writing.

Yet, no matter the reception on the domestic front, it was a magnificent moment and one I don’t for a moment take for granted, nor assume will ever be repeated. It reminds me of a feeling that came over me one early August morning in Maine as I got ready to head out to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Maine = pre-book deals, by the way. I remember feeling an immense sense of astonishment and gratitude thinking about myself, a girl who had come all the way from my small island country, without an aspiration in the world except to somehow do something worthwhile with my life though what that worthwhilian accomplishment would be was still a mystery. And how in that time I had somehow worked at two of the best organizatios in the U.S., The Institute for Policy Studies, and the American Friends Service Committee, and had also miraculously been invited to return to that campus in Ripton where so many brilliant American authors had first read their poetry and prose.

There’s a popular song, “Bubbly” – I can always come up with a popular song to go with my sentiments – talks about a feeling that starts in my toes/makes me crinkle my nose etc. That’s the feeling I get when I get to thinking about these things. They make me say, not that I deserved it, but that I was very fortunate. Somehow the people and events around me aligned right for these things to happen. Being at Yaddo is something I think about in this way, and being given the opportunity to converse with Jamaica Kincaid. Having a press that I admired for so long, Graywolf Press, publish my work, is another. As is having Julie Barer, someone I’d hoped might be interested in my writing, become both an agent and a kind and nurturing spirit in my life. And what about all the places I’ve been asked to come to, the people I’ve had the immense priviledge of meeting? What about that first publication of a personal essay, or the most recent, another personal essay? What about each small poem and bit of prose? What of all the deep and soul-sustaining friendships that have formed and thrived over these years?

So many things in this writing life of mine that have brought me such joy in such deep and immeasurable ways…There’s a vast world of generosity and beauty and real happiness that I’ve been asked to step into. How easy to forget.

It seemed important to note that gratitude in some way, to truly think about the fact that while we look to the end of a journey, we also climb and descend many peaks. Now is a good place to be, when I remember to be there.

5 June, 2014

Where Does Passion Live?

Delighted to be over at Words Without Borders, writing about my childhood home and city, Colombo, for the Words Without Borders, The City & The Writer series curated by Nathalie Handal. It was such a pleasure for me to write it and now, a few months on, to re-read what I had forgotten I’d said. Here is one of the sections:

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

I returned home in October 2009, for my mother’s funeral. One morning as required by Buddhist custom, my older brothers and I took her ashes to set them adrift in the Kelani River. I held the urn in my arms as we drove. It was a simple, round receptacle, so small. It felt like I was holding an infant, all of my mother’s body reduced to these ashes in this cool clay urn. I felt protective and bereft. I wanted to say I was finally able to give to her this thing that she had taught me to give to the world—to see the child, the “some mother’s child,” in them no matter how old they were. I had never given her that, she had always been bigger to me, more than a child, indefatigable, irrepressible, a deity. And I realized I could not. It broke my heart in ways I would not have believed possible. I believe that was her last gift to me.

You can read the entire piece here.

2 June, 2014

Enduring My Name

My favorite aunt, the last person my mother called on the phone before she passed away, wrote IMG_1853these words to me today: “What cannot be cured, must be endured.” She was talking about personal difficulties, the lives we’ve each lived, the set-backs experienced. I’ve been staring out of my window here in my study, thinking about those words and what they could mean.

In the popular philosophy of my American life, endurance is something associated with distance running and officially undocumented cross-border travel. It is a trait that yields the aquisition of something: accolade or livelihood. In the Buddhist philosophy of my homeland, the term ‘endure’ means something else altogether. It is still a positive, but it is associated with relinquishing the desire for change of any sort, rather than obtaining anything measurable in material terms.

I’ve been thinking about a woman I met in New York two days ago while I was there for Book Expo America. She is a Peruvian woman named Carmen. She spoke very little English and her sentences were punctuated with long strings of Spanish as though she were asking some invisible multi-lingual person for help in translation, and many repitions of the word ‘pero’ which means, ‘but.’ For my part, I speak no Spanish at all, though I can read it and make it sound like I can speak it and understand it. Still, we communicated. I understood what she was telling me: she worked in a hotel as a maid, her husband died of cirrhosis, her son of cancer, seven years after he was supposedly cured, her daughter attends LaGuardia Community College and works at the airport, her mother lives with her. She has tried to learn English but after menopause, she claims, nothing can be retained in her head. By the time she gets home, she is too tired to read or even watch TV. She showed me a photograph of her daughter. I told Carmen that she – Carmen – was beautiful. She is. She said thank you, and told me that people ask her what she puts on her face to have such lovely skin. She told me she puts nothing on her skin, no make-up on her face. But what struck me most was her resignation. She kept saying “no more, no more,” this was it, there was “no more” for her in life. She was searching for the word to describe what she felt, looking off into a distance the way we all do when we are trying to bring back to memory what we know but cannot yet recall. I said, “destiny?” Yes, she said, this was her destiny. To be here, to work as a maid at a hotel, to help her daughter pay for college, and take care of her mother.

I can’t get her out of my mind. I wonder to what extent the simple beauty she exudes comes from her deeply felt acceptance (endurance) of the circumstances of her life. The unmourned loss of a reprobate father of her children, the lasting grief of losing her son, the difficulty of navigating a new country where she is often among people with whom she cannot speak easily. She admired what I do – writing – and spoke about the importance of education. I don’t imagine she considered me beautiful and perhaps at least some of that comes from the fact that I do not practice acquiescence as she does, though I have endured. Maybe my endurance is different from hers, mine a form of suffering/tolerance, rather than a yielding to the way things are as it is for her. Mine is the endurance of wanting a different result, while knowing full well that there is never going to be one. It is the kind of endurance that my mother practiced all her life, staring directly into the pit of her despair while imagining that someone was going to step forward at any moment, fill up that vast depth, take her hand and lead her gently away into some better light. It is the endurance of continuing to stand facing in that same direction while holding on to the hope that such a benign presence will eventually materialize beside, convincing her that yes, that pit was an aberration, not a permanent reality.

It is the endurance of a person like me whose character is built around fixing and solving. To turn away from my version of that pit would not be hard for me. But to leave the pit unfilled as I walk away is impossible. Somewhere within me is the notion that if I could only fill up that pit, smoothen the edges, maybe even plant a fruit tree in fertile soil upon it, then all will be well in the world. Until then, I, like my mother before me, keep staring at the pit, wondering about its origins, looking around for the tool or asteroid that might have created it, figuring out if there is some greater purpose to its existence than I have the capacity to understand. My mother decided that it was her destiny in this life to endure her vigilance over the circumstances of her life. I don’t know what I have decided about my own version of that great unknown.

I am the child of a culture that believes in many lives. I live in a culture that belives that our many lives are our own to make and that all those transformations take place between one birth and one death. I come from a place where changing what we do not like is an indication of moral avarice. I live in a place that belives that we must strike out and secure the things we do not have, and that the ability to do so is a sign of moral strength. I often hear my aunt speak with admiration about other women of my generation who made different choices than she and my mother did. IMG_0406I wonder what my mother might say to me if she were to know the real details of my life that she either never saw or chose to ignore in the face of such seeming prosperity. I wonder if she would nudge me away, tell me that there is no merit to staring at emptiness, expecting it to resolve into a recognizable and human shape. Or would she say that what I have in my life is so much more than she ever did, and this alone is enough? I believe she would. I believe she would ask me to behave more like Carmen, who is a better, more calm, iteration of herself.

The name Carmen means many things, but the derivative the Carmen I met embodies is that of the Virgin Mary, and perhaps the tragic heroine of George Bizet’s opera. I was not named Carmen. The name I was given, ‘Ruvani’ means, loosely, everything that is precious. The name I go by here in the United States, ‘Ru’ is a dimunitive. It was an alteration that I chose because it allowed me to be favorably disposed toward the Americans who speak it, because it sounds like an endearment, unlike ‘Ruvani,’ a name they cannot pronounce correctly and which – that mispronunciation – always infuriates me. But it is not my given name. I wonder sometimes what aspiration was tied to the name I was given by my mother, this ‘Ruvani,’ which was a correction of the one my father preferred to give me and did, ‘Rushitha’ (which means the angry one), a correction that appears on my birth certificate, the first name crossed out, the new name written in. The ‘Ru’ that I go by now, the name that appears on the covers of my books, is what unites – and all that remains – of both my father’s recognition, and my mother’s hope. But I do not know what that name means.

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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