…is pretty damn awesome, I have to say. And the folk at Rochester University know how to make a girl feel like a queen. I’ve been all over the place but somehow the city of Rochester clung to me in a different way. I was sick, but felt compelled to visit the places that meant something to the women who were escorting me all over the place, I was full but had a nice burning hunger every time a plate of food came into view, and though the dance card feels fit to bursting most days, miraculously I wanted all of the marvelous people I met to become friends for life. And as if that wasn’t a surfeit of gifts, it was great that at least two friends from my life showed up to – well, whatdya know – eat and drink with me, thank you Mary Akers, thank you Jen Grotz. It was the experience of af a lifetime for me, and I loved every second of it, but none more than listening to Katherine Manheimer, deliver this gracious and thoughtful introduction. I have never listened to an introduction with more rapt attention than I did to this one. I can’t give you her voice – which is its own mellifluous miracle – but I can give you her words. And next time you want someone to do the audio of your book, consider this woman. She does voices beautifully.
In her novel On Sal Mal Lane, Ru Freeman has written what may seem a work of contradiction – namely, a novel of political history that centers on a group of children too young to vote or fight. Spanning the four years leading up to the Sri Lankan civil war, the book tells the story of the country’s building ethnic tensions even as it focuses its lens on the tiny, day-to-day dramas of the four Herath siblings, aged 7 through 12, who have just moved with their parents to a house on Sal Mal Lane.
The balance Freeman strikes between national politics and the life of this young family is enabled, in part, by her striking choice of narrator: omniscient and highly mobile, this voice can at once present us with the cynical, world-weary perspective of the adult citizens whose malice and self-interest drive Sri Lankan politics, but also the perspective of the child, with its curiosity, its candor, and its emotional chiaroscuro. At first, the omniscient narrator seems a figure we’ve encountered before – in the novels of Jane Austen, perhaps, or George Eliot. And yet, the acute insights that this narrator provides into her child subjects ultimately injects the book with a refreshingly modern sensibility. This child’s-eye view of the universe is what provides the novel with its joy and its poignancy, even as it portrays the hard realities of ethnic hatred.
Again and again Freeman’s narrator emphasizes the separate ways in which the adults and the children perceive social and cultural divisions. For example, upon first learning of the arrival of the new family on the block, longtime Sal Mal Lane residents Mr. and Mrs. Silva remark gratefully on the fact that the Heraths do not belong to Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority group:
“ ‘At least they are our kind. Far too many Tamils already down this lane…’ […] Mrs. Silva named the Tamil people down the lane, unfurling a finger for each one: ‘Mr. and Mrs. Nadesan, who hardly say a word, those piano people, Mr. and Mrs. Niles and Kala Niles, Old Mrs. Joseph, Tamil by marriage, and her son, Raju, even Jimmy Bolling, grandmother was Tamil, after all, so in that family Jimmy and Francie Bolling, the twins, and that dreadful boy, Sonna, and then the Bin Ahmeds, they are Muslims so they might as well be counted with the Tamils. That makes a total of fifteen Tamils down this one lane!’ She said this as if it were new information, not a count that she took on a weekly basis. She rubbed her fingers together as if shaking off all the Tamil people she had mentioned, and began the next count. ‘And Sinhalese? Until now Mr. and Mrs. Tissera and their son, Ranil, and us. Just seven! Now with the Heraths at least we’ll be thirteen.’ […]
‘It will raise the ratio of good to bad among the children at least’ [added Mr. Silva:] the bad to which he referred were the Bolling children, with whom the Heraths were soon to be acquainted.”
But this acquaintance takes a form very different from what we might expect, for the Herath children’s attitude reflects nothing of the prejudice and ill-will that has just been on display. Instead, when the children first meet young Dolly and Rose Bolling, their response is one of surprise, then sympathy. Having invited the twin sisters in for cookies, the Heraths are given their first opportunity to view at close range these girls whose deprived background is so unlike their own well-nurtured upbringing. Focusing, in particular, on the girls’ matted hair, seven-year-old Devi Herath suggests they “use some shampoo like Sunsilk Egg Protein.” The twins explain that they do not have any shampoo, and instead use a certain brand of antiseptic soap – when they’re lucky. At this the narrator pauses:
“All the Heraths grew quiet in the face of this information. Not having shampoo was one thing, but to have to use what their mother referred to as laborer’s soap on one’s hair, was out of the realm of imagination. [At that moment …] Devi resolved to give the twins the two special packets of Sunsilk that had come with the bottle her mother had bought for them, which Devi had been saving just for the sheer delight of feeling the soft-bellied pouches between her palms. [For] if she were Rose or Dolly she’d want someone to give her some Sunsilk too. She arranged her [tea-] treats in a circle in her saucer and separated the two halves of [a] chocolate biscuit. She brought it to her mouth to scrape the cream off with her teeth, but Rashmi [her older sister] touched her arm and shook her head no, and Devi obeyed, pasting the biscuit together again and taking a well-mannered bite off one edge.”
Here Devi, the youngest of her siblings – and herself clearly still in the process of mastering the rules of etiquette and cleanliness – is perfectly able to enter the mindset of these wild little girls from down the street. Indeed, because she is still alert to the sensual pleasures of the simplest things – a pillowy packet of shampoo as she palpates it in her hand; the feeling of her teeth slowly shaving a curl of moist frosting from off of its chocolate backing – this child of college-educated teachers is nonetheless able to relate to her awkward, unwashed neighbors: to what she knows will be their exaltation in real shampoo, in smelling sweet, in brushing their hair afterwards to a soft, sleek shine. In this moment it is Devi’s capacity for wonder in the world around her that ensures her continued humanity.
And in this serious, sweeping, and often heart-breaking novel, it is ultimately this glimpse into childhood’s natural sensitivity and emotional honesty that provides us with a sense of hope for the future – provides us with a belief, that, despite the violence that plagues our world, we may still possess some fundamental capacity for fellow-feeling and peaceful co-existence: for, after all, though we may be adults now, we were all children once.
The Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize, now in its thirty-eighth year, is awarded annually by the University of Rochester’s Susan B. Anthony Institute for Gender and Women’s Studies together with the Department of English. Janet Heidinger Kafka, a graduate of the University, was a young woman just entering a promising career in publishing when she was killed in an automobile accident; in Kafka’s memory, her family, friends, and colleagues established a prize meant to recognize and promote the work of women still at the beginning of their fiction-writing careers. Previous winners have included Ursula K. LeGuin, Toni Morrison, Ann Patchett, and Anne Tyler. It is our honor and great pleasure, then, to extend this award to Ru Freeman. Please join me in welcoming her today.