Archive for the ‘On Sal Mal Lane’ Category

30 October, 2014

Winning a Prize…

…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 IMAG2140full 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.

Share This

18 December, 2013

Bourbon & (Mothers) Milk?

I am over at American Short Fiction today, talking about my favorite good/bad mothers in fiction alongside a group of excellent folk like Xhenet Aliu, Alexi Zentner, Eugene Cross, Shann Ray, and J. Capó Crucet You can read the whole piece here. Below, an excerpt (this one from Xhenet):

When I read Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl,” of course I find myself oppressed by the mother’s admonitions and lessons. Of course I want to pluck the broom from that poor girl’s hands. Of course I want to insist that sluttery isn’t in the swing of a hip but in the eyes of those who are terrified of sex and any form that reminds them of their own fear. Of course I resent the overbearing, unnamed but monstrously present mother—and yet I find myself wondering, secretly, if the mother believes she’s actually doing something right, and if that counts for anything. I wonder if the mother thinks that doling out a little bit of pain will spare her daughter from a well of it. Even if the mother is wrong—about how best to armor a daughter, about where the biggest hurts spring from—I can’t help but find a teeny sliver of tenderness in there, the kind of maternal hardness that’s like an autoimmune response: a natural defense in functional, small doses, and painful, even fatal, when unrelenting.

26 June, 2013

A Friend of My Heart

I have a good friend, a dear one who does all kinds of favors for me, practical ones and impractical outrageous ones. Mostly, she listens to me. She reminds me of home. Recently I had a chance to visit her where she now lives, both of us far from the place where we were born, very far from the convent we both attended, even further from much of our convent ethics. But some things never change.

I was moved when she stopped her car in the middle of traffic to give some money to a man on the street. I always think of the fact that I came here from another country, she said. I’ve worked hard, but look at how I live. I imagine what I’d feel like if I had to beg on the streets of Colombo. This is his country and yet he is on the streets.

She talked of other things, the various ways we come upon our circumstances, the addictions we all have, but only fell a few of us. She remained quiet, mostly, on such occasions, she told me, but she took exception to the way in which people condemn others. People who drop a coin in a cup and then walk on thinking what is the point, he’s going to drink anyway. We recalled the teaching handed down to us, the ones which tell us that it is the intention that matters, not the outcome. You give what you can and you remain separate from whatever the person chooses to do with what is given.

We stopped by a home to pick up “home” food, an American version of the buth packets we all like to buy now and again from various street vendors back home. These came in plastic containers, not steamed banana leaves or newspaper, but it tasted the same. As we walked out I noticed a Buddhist temple across the street. I asked her if we could visit, I hadn’t been inside a Sri Lankan Buddhist temple in a long time. The doors were shut but we went around the back and found the head priest sitting there. He offered to open the doors, but we demurred, stating that we were just passing by, had only stopped by on a whim. He gestured us to come in, then, with the palm of his hand, and we obliged, taking off our shoes, both of us sinking to the floor, our legs folded decorously, our palms together, heads bowed. He blessed us with the most familiar of the opening lines, the pirith falling gently in that open verendah, that hot afternoon. It was only as we stood to go and she addressed him the way that one might address a Catholic priest that I remembered that she was not Buddhist.

It warmed my heart, this moment when I remembered once again the way things are back home, where for most people like us, religion is not a crusade but a grace, faith something to acknowledge wherever it is manifested, no matter if it comes from within chapels adorned in stained glass, or temples where we kneel on sifted sand. We talked about that, too, as we left.

We spoke about our parents back home, her lost father, my lost mother. I remembered a visit back home when I was sitting in a parked car with my mother and other family, waiting for my father to return from some store. There was a man outside, begging, clothed in rags, emaciated, almost repulsive. My mother searched in her handbag for change to give him. The driver of the vehicle said what did it matter, he’s just an alcoholic or drug addict who will go and waste the money that is given. I, a new mother, said, almost to myself, he has a mother somewhere who never intended a life such as this for him. I remember my mother turning to me and saying, I am glad you have learned something, at least one thing, from me in this life. If she were alive she might be happier still to learn that what I emulated has been passed along, something I noted in this article when Osama bin Laden was murdered.

I told my friend that story. We talked on through the evening about those things we acquire from the people who raise us, the way they continue to look at the world through our eyes when they are gone, the way we continue to see through theirs in their absence.

In all the travels I have done with this book, nothing meant as much to me as being able to remember my home and our parents in this way with her.

14 May, 2013

Pub Date II

A long time ago, it seems, I wrote a post here called ‘On Publication,’ during pub-week for A Disobedient Girl. I just re-read that this morning. Funny how clarity of thought about some particular things comes to each of us when it is necessary to have it. I realize, looking back, that this is still how I feel about publication. If there is a difference, then it is that I am even more aware that the life of a book is not so much about the book but about the people who surround it – those who bring it forth, those who receive it, those who hand it to readers, and the readers who give it their time.

Yesterday I had the pleasure of reading in my “home” town of Philadelphia, among many friends and family, most of whom had played some role in the making of this book, either by taking care of all the rest of my life while I went missing for weeks at a time to write, or by turning a blind eye to the state of sleep-deprived, deadline-driven misery that I require in order to finish anything of worth, that glassy eyed look that comes when I realize that the world is beautiful and the days are sunny and oh dear god I cannot move, I must sit, sit, sit, and read and write and read and write and doesn’t anybody care?! Oh! Why doesn’t anybody care?! Yes, those people were there, dressed up, taking pictures, asking questions and making me feel good.

There will be many things to write about, many images to share, along the way. But for now I’m going to share a few photographs from the time along the way, a visual reminder that the glossy dust jacket and the nicely bound book had its own story before it got there.

In my room where I sat for eight hours each day with breaks for lunch, chocolate tea from David’s, and a solitary walk, and wrote the first draft of the book.

The grove I stumbled upon on the day of my arrival, and where I went to spend the first anniversary of my mother’s death, which also was the day I finished that draft. The flowers I placed on that grave, which belonged to a mother who lost everything and still found a way to make such an enduring gift to artists, lasted a long time in the upstate NY Fall cold, and many of my new-found friends would tell me how they were doing long after I had gone. On that particular day, I read this poem in memory of my mother, a poem given to me by the poet who made it:

Spell to Be Said Upon Departure
by Jane Hirshfield

What had come here to do
having finished,
shelves of the water lie flat.

Copper the leaves of the doorsill,
yellow and falling.
Scarlet the bird that is singing.

Vanished the labor, here walls are.
Completed the asking.
Loosing the birds there is water.

Having eaten the pears.
Having eaten
the black figs, the white figs. Eaten the apples.

Table be strewn.
Table be strewn with stems,
table with peelings of grapefruit and pleasure.

Table be strewn with pleasure,
what was here to be done having finished.

Editing in a different space. I would write notes to myself in the night after all the work was done and I was in reading mode, and then paste them on the desk so I could cross things off as I went. I’d work all day with a break for lunch and a quiet, solitary walk (except for a post-dinner walk which often included the lovely Cathy Chung, in which case we’d be fleeing cows and shrieking with laughter.

There is always time to kiss the horses on a walk.

More editing. Work all day, with a break for lunch and solitary mostly walk but sometimes run sojourn. Quaker quiet before meals. And watching the night-blooming primrose flower, in real time, sitting on the bench silently with others at the Quaker retreat where I was staying.

Final edits. Such desperation. Such angst. Such panic. Really? You want me to put this into the hands of a mail carrier? You don’t want me to scan and mail? I’m impressed the mail-carrier did not care that I looked like an un-washed, un-rested, bug-eyed lunatic in my shabby lounge-about clothes and boots with no socks. Oh, and that the precious words made it from here to Minneapolis.

Which is to say, I went through a great many changes that paralled the changes being made to this thing of beauty, and some aspects of those things made their way into the language and direction of this book. I would have loved to have been able to sign one of these in gift to my mother, but also know that losing her was folded into this creation, the way that everything we experience transforms everything we experience after.

People often asked me – after the first novel – how my book was doing. Whenever I heard that question, I would think of my friends, the ones who were brilliant and talented, but had no publisher yet, the ones who were not as gifted but who did have their work out, published, and everybody in between. In such a world, how does one judge how well a book is doing? In such a world, I celebrate the absolute miracle of seeing the stories that came to me without my going in search of them, that got written through so much else in my life, that found welcome in the heart of an agent and an editor I respect deeply, and was then made, with the assistance of many hands more accomplished than mine, into what they are now, these books.

How well is my book doing? My book is doing great!

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.


Twitter