Archive for the ‘Sri Lanka’ Category

21 January, 2011

When Noam Chomsky is Hoodwinked

Last year, around this time, I was getting ready to fly home to Sri Lanka to attend the Galle Literary Festival, an event I reflected on afterward in a post titled ‘The Dutch, The British and the Galle Literary Festival,’ a post meant to consider its many pluses as well as suggest some direction for the points at which the festival failed Sri Lankans, particularly those Sri Lankans who write in their mother tongues, Sinhala and Tamil.

My visit to Sri Lanka coincided with the Presidential elections, the first held in post-war Sri Lanka and if you truly want to know, this is what the country felt like to a Sri Lankan on the day of the elections. During that time I had the dubious honor of being approached by the group The Campaign for Peace & Justice – here is a quick description of that exchange.

Which brings me to the letter I received – it was addressed to all of us who are participating in the Galle Literary Festival – from the director of The Campaign for Peace & Justice, asking us to make all sorts of noise about the allegations he puts forth regarding abuses he has not substantiated. I’d like to say go fly a blooming kite. Instead I’ll say this: “In Sri Lanka the average voter turn out is 80%, education and health care is free, women are liberated and smart, and we have a President able to end a war and rebuild his country (while fending off ignorant individuals who want to keep enjoying their NGO junkets on our beautiful island and triviliazing our tragedies by turning our complexity into sound bites for your rabid 24/7 news media). I don’t need you to tell me what to say at a festival being held in my country. I don’t need your talking points. I don’t need your advice. I don’t need your cautionary tales of doom and gloom, mister. I’m too busy celebrating our good.” Outside in the streets I can hear firecrackers. Salut!

A few days ago I read Jon Lee Anderson’s article in the New Yorker, a piece that was so full of errors of omission and deliberate misinformation that I was compelled to write a note titled ‘Truth in Journalism: New Yorker, you lose’ over at Barks, Bugs, Leaves & Lizards Here’s an excerpt:

I just finished reading a piece of fiction that had been misfiled by the editors of the New Yorker under a category – feature? expose? – that is commonly associated with non-fiction. i.e. truthful reporting. The article, by Jon Lee Anderson, would appear to the relatively uninformed American – and boy aren’t there a lot of us – to be one that covers the thirty year war in Sri Lanka from start to finish. Oddly enough, it is largely erroneous, its one nod to any “good” achieved by Sri Lanka’s government is contained in a parenthesis, as if he just ran out of time to get all the information but felt what he had was enough to pass muster. But what the heck, how odd is it when I am yet to see a single article in the American press that actually covered the events in Sri Lanka without prejudice against her government and her entire people, both Sinhalese and Tamil?

The problem with foreign journalists is one I’ve talked about many times here (Foreign Media) and here (Media and Truth) and here (All the News Fit to Print), as well as America’s (and her journalists’s) myopia viz-a-viz Sri Lanka. None of this is new to Sri Lankans though I am sure that legions of readers of the New Yorker imagine that they now have a full grasp of the politics and history of Sri Lanka. They would be wrong.

Noam Chomsky belongs in that same category of the wrong, hard though it is to say it; the man is certainly affable and smart (as is his daughter who was one of my professors in college). He is right about many things, but he, like most American leftists are easily co-opted by anybody who can string the words “minorities” and “human rights” together in a passable sentence. American leftists, no matter their vilification of ignorant Russia-from-my-own-backyard sayers, consider events beyond their shores to require no context. What happens somewhere else comes to them in the same sound bites it does to every other American. In this case, Noam Chomsky has lent his name to yet another missive addressed to participants of the Galle literary festival, a letter sent to me by Vincent Brossei the tireless, spear heading an effort by the equally tireless and often wrong and supremely opinionated Reporters Sans Frontiers, a group roundly taken to task by Sri Lankan journalist – and my brother – Malinda Seneviratne. Here’s an excerpt, but the full article is well worth a read:

In Loshan’s case, after two days, RSF Asia has deemed him ‘innocent’. Are these people experts on counter-terrorist operations? Are they intelligence-personnel-without-borders masquerading as reporters-without-borders? Or else, does this cocksureness come from full knowledge about who the terrorists are? I mean, is it because they know who is a terrorist and who is not that they can pronounce so boldly that Loshan is innocent? I was curious. I sent a quick reply which resulted in the following email conversation with RSF Asia (the original email was sent by one Vincent Brossel, the subsequent ones came without an author….perhaps they should call themselves ‘Reports-Sans-Names’!) : a quick question: is the assumption that terrorists cannot be journalists and vice versa?

RSF Asia: Of course it can be, but give us evidence…

Self: Give ‘us’ evidence? Who is this ‘us’?

RSF Asia: the people defending him and the others journalists detained. terrorism is a very serious charge, so we need to get strong and concrete evidence, not just rumor, gossip or allegations. thanks for your understanding

Self: i meant, who/what is RSF….and what kind of authority do you enjoy. yes, terrorism is a serious charge. it is a serious phenomenon as well. this is why, i believe, those whose responsibility it is to ensure the security of all citizens cannot spare any pains when it comes to investigation.

RSF Asia: RSF is a NGO working for more than 25 years for press freedom. You can challenge our authority but you will hardly find any mistake written or done. With thousands of members around the world and institutional backing in Europe.

Self: would you mind telling me who your principal sri lankan contacts are, the main sources of information?

RSF: many different journalists from different circles and communities, but for reasonable security reasons, I can’t give the names.

Self: ah….security is good for you, not for others? come on, you can’t be serious!

Since then, nothing. Dead silence. Should they re-name themselves ‘Reporters Without Words’, I wonder.

RSF takes umbrage at defence authorities that are given or give themselves blank checks, and rightly so. By the same token, however, they can’t give themselves blank checks either, one would think. There is something insidious about claims of universal caring, love and what not when it also comes with an absence of accountability and responsibility.

Now, the crusade is about Prageeth Ekneligoda. To the extent that the government and in particular the President is required to uphold law and order, there is grave cause for concern. At the same time not everyone who puts words together is a journalist. Ekneligoda’s writings are not the kind that any respectable journalist would be proud of. He was mischievous, bordering on slander, utterly without integrity and hardly impartial in any sense of the word. His disappearance bothers us all because he is a citizen and not because a bunch of ill-informed people who have a pretty dubious track record when it comes to reportage in and on Sri Lanka tag him as ‘journalist’. Many fellow-travelers have also freely travelled with terrorists and terrorism, engaged in fund-misappropriation, violated the fundamental norms of decency and have proven to have little or no scruples in the matter of reporting and making statements.

It is indeed strange that someone like Noam Chomsky asks, as Reporters Without Borders asks, in the name of expression-freedom that free expression be shunned for, when it – once again – asks participants at this festival to spout its untruths or half truths or political agendas, that is precisely what it he is and they are doing. Literature does not thrive only on account of guarantees of freedom but indeed in spite of the lack of such safeguards. As the sister of a journalist and an occasional freelancer myself, I am all for media freedom but would hardly stand with a bunch of ignorant, naive (at best) and ill-intentioned and malicious (in all probability) clowns to champion that cause. In my opinion it would do the cause a disservice. Odd, too, isn’t it that in this day of freedom of information, I can’t find Vincent Brossei’s bio – or any background on him – anywhere? So here is what I’d like to say to Vincent: grow a set and come out of hiding.

28 September, 2010

A New Prize for South Asian Literature

I am over at Huffington Post Books blogging about the new $50,000 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature. You can read the full post at this link, but here’s an excerpt:

I heard about being included on the long list for this prize via a google alert that also had one alerting me to the fact that someone was flogging a copy of my novel on ebay. I guess technology has a way of keeping us all humble. In going through the list, I was not surprised to find many of the books were written by women and/or related to themes that are usually excluded when the American powers that be decide to compile lists – of top hundreds, of best of, etc. (For a great overview on all that, read Alyss Dixson’s piece in The Atlantic, ‘On Invisibility, Gender & Publishing.’ )

The prize, as announced in the Hindustan Times, is a brand new one in the literary field. It was initiated in the belief that there was a need for a prize of substantial heft to allow the recognition of writing about South Asia that reflects not so much an eye on a Western reader as it does the particular complexities of the sub continent.

With a view to making it a little easier to access these stories, here is the complete list with the books linked to reviews that I felt understood both the content of each story as well as the intention of the author.

DSC long-list:
Upamanyu Chatterjee: Way To Go (Penguin)
Amit Chaudhuri: The Immortals (Picador India)
Chandrahas Choudhury: Arzee the Dwarf (HarperCollins)
Musharraf Ali Farooqui: The Story of a Widow (Picador India)
Ru Freeman: A Disobedient Girl (Penguin/ Viking)
Anjum Hassan: Neti Neti (IndiaInk/ Roli Books)
Tania James: Atlas of Unknowns (Pocket Books)
Manju Kapur: The Immigrant (Faber & Faber)
HM Naqvi: Home Boy (HarperCollins)
Ali Sethi: The Wish Maker (Penguin)
Jaspreet Singh: Chef (Bloomsbury)
Aatish Taseer: The Temple Goers (Picador India)
Daniyal Mueenuddin: In Other Rooms, Other Wonders (Random House)
Neel Mukherjee: A Life Apart (Picador India)

and in translation

Salma: The Hour Past Midnight (Zubaan, translated by Lakshmi Holmstrom)
Sankar: The Middleman (Penguin, translated by Arunava Sinha)

The shortlist will be announced at the DSC South Asian Literature Festival to be held in October in London, and the winner will be announced at the Jaipur Literature Festival in January, 2011. During a Q&A session at Fall for the Book this week, a student asked me what was different about being a published author. The difference, as I see it, is not the thrill that comes from recognition accorded to ones own book, but the recognition that arises within an author of the vast talent that lies on all sides of her among her peers. May the best book win, but in the meantime, may all of us authors add fifteen new books about South Asia to his or her reading list.

There’s also a nice piece by Nilanjana Roy on the Asian Novel at this link.

4 July, 2010

Many Rights, Few Responsibilities

I became a citizen of the United States on the eve of the invasion of Iraq. Sitting in a room at the University of Maine, I listened to a speech made by a senior administrator at the university that spoke not of the benefits of citizenship but of its responsibilities: to participate in civic engagement, to vote, to speak up against injustice. There was a note of despair to the address, in that way things sound when we speak of what we hope will happen while fully conscious of the horror of what is actually going to come to pass.

Why do you want to become a citizen?, I was asked, by a reporter from a local TV station as I strode over in my sari to cut a large chocolate cake decorated with an American flag – not because I had been appointed to do so but because everybody else seemed too terrified to disrupt the red white and blue! I want to demonstrate what it means to be a citizen, I replied, I want to give my daughters a model of citizenship where pride in ones country does not absolve one of working to mend its ills. I didn’t tell him that the biggest push to take this step came from my mother-in-law who was anxious about my political writings, an anxiety justified by the United and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act and the specter of Guantanamo, but, perhaps, a little too exalted a possibility for a small-time journalist such as myself; despite the fact that the Iranian newspaper delivered to my door came pre-shredded at the USPS, something I laughed about in a somewhat juvenile fashion, using it to torment my mother, alongside my “jokes” about the CIA and how my father resembled Saddam Hussein.

All these years later, though, in a climate where fear has released its hold on the citizenry, I find that my answer to the reporter still stands. I have a deep allegiance to the country in which I was born, and the call and response of this country in which I now live comes to me as a responsibility. I want my daughters to feel the depth of loyalty to ones country, they to theirs, I to mine, but in order to make that possible, I have to let this country seep into my veins. In the face of overwhelming evidence of my love for Sri Lanka, something they see in all that I say and do, I must demonstrate my love for America in ever more meaningful ways.

And so I have discovered that love is a responsibility that has little to do with rights. I have listened, time and again, to Americans who can quote the most popular of the constitutional amendments – the 1st, the 2nd, the 4th, the 5th. Rarely, if ever, have I heard my fellow citizens speak up on behalf of the other amendments. The 14th, for instance, which calls for working toward the betterment of community through public, volunteer work that may improve the lives of all citizens. No, that’s not very popular. What is popular is the chest-thumping demand for freedom to conduct private lives unrelated to our public existence as human beings. The right to free speech, for instance, without consideration for the responsibility of civility, morality or sensitivity to the humaneness of others. Or the right to bear arms without the responsibility to consider that the resale of small arms first purchased in the United States is responsible for a large number of the 300,000 people, mostly civilians, killed worldwide every year.

That interpretation of rights as unrelated to responsibility does not speak to me of love for ones country or of patriotism. Unless we are the sole inhabitants of a country, we live among others in a social agreement where the rights we codify in laws are but a guide to the responsibility we have toward and for each other. They are, always, the last word on our interactions, our behaviors. They are there to be summoned when all conversation is spent, when all negotiation is done, in other words, when we are broken. They are not to be held aloft like a banner in a time of war, as an indication of threat and defiance in the face of advancing enemy troops. That is not their purpose.

I read the title story by Bala Cynwyd author Robin Black, in her new collection, If I Loved You I would Tell You This, (Random House, 2010), which describes perfectly the essential difference between right and responsibility. In the story, a woman (possibly) dying of cancer with a child (possibly) in a facility for the mentally disabled, reflects on the motives of her neighbor who cuts down a line of 16 year old trees between their houses in order to erect a six foot fence on the – newly surveyed – property line. A host of inconveniences occur for a family already under duress. Did he have the right? Absolutely. Did he have a responsibility? Yes. But the right trumped consideration. In such an exchange there are no winners.

Love for a country must surely carry with it love for its many parts. To claim love for this country and yet care not a whit for the public education of other people’s children, or the speed at which one drives down a residential road, or the weariness of the check-out clerk who bags your groceries, or the forced enlistment of young people too poor to have any other choice but to risk their lives at war, or the abandonment of people whose homes sink under rising waters, or the impatience with the elderly lady trying to drive her car at rush hour, or the daily work of the thousands of teachers and coaches who show up at our children’s schools and sporting events, is to exist in a vacuum where you possess but a surface clarity about the meaning of those two words: country, love.

On a recent Sunday, during a query about integrity at the Haverford Friends Meeting, a lady stood up to quote a few lines from Donne. It was taken from his essay, ‘Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions,’ and although we are all familiar with it, it bears quoting again:

“…No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were. Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee…”

I grew up, as a Sri Lankan, understanding that what is given freely must still be earned. A free education must be earned by upholding respect for education and rigorous intellectual pursuits. Free healthcare must still be earned by the purchase and consumption and, if possible, the cultivation, of native vegetables, fruits and herbs. The freely given affections of parents and grandparents and extended family, must be earned by a willingness to tend to the elderly, consideration of the dying, with a transmitting of the same values to a younger generation.

The freedoms that Americans are so quick to mention are no different. They, too, ought to be earned. We ought to deserve them, somehow. That “somehow,” to me, does not come on the wings of a recitation of the pledge of allegiance but on the heels of attentiveness to the work that must be done, in any neighborhood, in any community, in any state, in any given moment. As I teach my daughters the American anthems that my mother strung on my vocal chords long before this American life came to pass, I favor less the desperate hope of the ‘Star Spangled Banner;’ it is that other anthem, the anthem of a beautiful country that I sing most often. And, perhaps, because words are the foundation of my life, they can hear in my voice the note of care that accompanies the celebration of a bountiful nation, to mend our flaws, to confirm our souls in self control, to refine our goals, to ennoble our successes, to ensure that selfish gain no longer stain the banner of the free. But, perhaps, most of all, I hope that they hear in those words the reminder that we are asking, not demanding, the grace that might bring us the brotherhood we still lack, and that I commit, as I expect them to commit, to doing the work that makes beauty possible.

18 June, 2010

On Being Poor

img_59801Poor. Poverty. Impoverishment. I’ve heard these words bandied about a lot recently. That last one in particular is a funny word. It sounds as though the state of being poor is a fact, that “impoverishment” is endemic to the place that is suffering from the condition. And yet, what impoverish actually means is “to take away” or “to make poor.”

It’s a word that is used often to describe countries from the old global “South,” countries like Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka. It’s the kind of classification I disagreed with even as an undergraduate, producing a 384 page honors thesis titled ‘The Dominant Ideology in International Development,’ where I argued against the idea that there were “rich” countries and “poor” ones, rather than what was the case, a trans-national capitalist class that is alive and well in every country, as were the so-called poor. There were certainly imbalances, but they were internal to each country, between the rich and the poor of that country, and they were transnational between the rich in wealthier countries and the rich in poorer nations. I refused to use those old terms, “developed,” “developing,” and “underdeveloped,” choosing instead to define the terms to more appropriately reflect our biases, as “industrially advanced” for instance.

I was reminded of that thesis recently when, during a local gathering, I met a woman who described herself as someone who worked “in poor countries.” I struggled to respond. The first thing that came to mind was whether it was really necessary to turn a friendly almost-summer afternoon into a bull fight. Can I change this person’s mind?, I asked myself. Is it worth it? Wouldn’t it be better to just shut up? (I often find myself in these situations, just for the record). But then I remembered Sara Stowell. vermont2010-2531Sara and I became friends during my first class on international politics at Bates College, a class taught by Professor Jim Richter. Sara was die-hard leftist from Vermont who had worked in El Salvador, was majoring in Rhetoric, spoke Spanish fluently and, also, helped me stage a fund-raising luncheon so I could raise enough money to go home at the end of graduation. We don’t see each other very much, in fact we recently got together after nearly seven years, at her parents’ farm in Ludlow, but Sara is often on my mind. What would Sara do/say, I often ask myself. I asked myself that question as I stood before this recent stranger that afternoon, paper plate and the ubiquitous potato salad in one hand, ear half tuned to so many babbling conversations. Well, Sara always chooses the words or action that would help change the world, however remote the possibility of that happening. I sometimes emulate her.

I turned to the lady and I said, “what countries?”
“Indonesia, Malawi,” she replied.
“Oh,” I said, giving her something of a chance, “You mean you work with poor communities in those countries?”
“Oh no, these are poor countries. Just poor countries,” she said.
Without the possibility of grace anymore, I said, “Well, that would depend on what your definition of poor might be, right? People call Sri Lanka a poor country, but when I think about its wealth of history, culture, social programs, civic life, education, healthcare, natural beauty, I am hard pressed to call it poor.”

(In case you’ve never seen Sri Lanka before, here’s a sweet video on youtube. )

Needless to say, we didn’t talk much after that. It depressed me, somewhat, that such a person, one who falls fairly into the category of a liberal democrat in the United States, who travels overseas and works with local populations, could still harbor such skewed perceptions of the world. There are days on which I believe I live in a country full of deprivation, the sort of lack which I associate with poverty. The poverty of the mind, for instance, which finds American students, at the end of high school, averaging at the bottom of the ranking among their peers worldwide, as indicated by this report by Dr. Forgione, U.S. Commissioner of Education Statistics, which is only comparing the US to other industrialized countries in the West, Europe and Asia, but not the so-called Third World, where the results would be even worse for the US.

In short, the tests showed U.S. fourth-graders performing poorly, middle school students worse. and high school students are unable to compete. By the same criteria used to say we were “average” in elementary school, “we appear to be “near the bottom” at the high school level. People have a tendency to think this picture is bleak but it doesn’t apply to their own school. Chances are, even if your school compares well in SAT scores, it will still be a lightweight on an international scale.

If we set the test scores aside and concentrate on the simple matter of education, we are clearly languishing in a state of poverty. We live in a society that values a quick buck via a reality show over a commitment to learning, where most people, given the choice, would spend their money on a new gizmo over buying a book. We live in a country where in the neighborhoods on this side of City Line Avenue, we can have nationally ranked schools of excellence, where the trophies gleam behind glass bookcases, and on the other side of City Line Avenue are neighborhoods where sending ones children to those schools comes from necessity not choice, and the only glass to be found is often on the streets outside.

I am struck by the spiritual poverty of a country where people choose to protect their own individual interest over the chance to protect a community. Where attention to physical wellbeing is reserved for the rich while the poor must simply make do or die, something I’ve written about before.

I am struck by the poverty of a country where an elderly person must languish in a home away from family and what is familiar, where visits are few and irritations many. How poverty-stricken it is to be abandoned in such a manner, where the first consideration is neither care nor gratitude but convenience?

What poverty there is in a country where the citizenry barely understands the platforms of parties for which they vote, if they vote at all. What a hideous lack there is in people who have such little interest or understanding of the globe of which our country is but one very small part. What poverty exists in classrooms where even the history of this country is taught with such a lack of complexity and depth, where the memorization of a date and a name is sufficient. How poor is a child who is graded with an A for mediocre work and rides off into the sunset to become completely disillusioned and depressed when he or she comes face to face with a world of peers who have been held to higher standards?

How utterly lacking is a nation where the people want their President to express rage and fury rather than reason, integrity and resolve. How intellectually impoverished this country is when those who are most highly educated – like this individual was – lacks the intelligence to understand that my presence at that gathering did not suddenly make me someone who thinks just like her, but rather, an individual with a personal history that might influence how I look at our common world.

I posted a link on Facebook a few days ago, about the discovery, by the United States, of rich deposits of minerals in Afghanistan. The sarcasm of the accompanying comment had to do with how wonderful it was that the U.S. military, which was ostensibly fighting a war in Afghanistan, had the time, inclination and resources to discover “huge veins of iron, copper, cobalt, gold and critical industrial metals like lithium.” Did they find them while they were, you know, digging a hole to hunker down in for the night? Did they come across these mines while looking for water? Did a local tribal elder show them the way in exchange for a bag of MREs?

The response to the post came from two sources. One, the immigrant voice, which articulated with a trace of bitterness that perhaps the search for minerals preceded the war, and the other, the American liberal, which celebrated the fact that instead of growing cocaine the impoverished country of Afghanistan could finally make an honest living. So there was that word again, impoverish.

Odd how in this case the word was correct. Afghanistan is a country that has been impoverished by a variety of groups, some their own, but others residing in White Houses (in America) and Parliament Buildings (in Moscow). America’s link to the cultivation of poppy in Afghanistan and its export out of the country have been widely documented. Here’s an excerpt from Wikipedia:

“It was alleged by the Soviets on multiple occasions that American CIA agents were helping smuggle opium out of Afghanistan, either into the West, in order to raise money for the Afghan resistance or into the Soviet Union in order to weaken it through drug addiction. According to Alfred McCoy, the CIA supported various Afghan drug lords, for instance Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and others such as Haji Ayub Afridi. In 2010, Russia accused United States of supporting the opium production in Afghanistan. Presently with resurgence of high out put production of opium and heroin in post-Taliban Afghanistan, there is an ongoing heroin addiction epidemic in Russia which is claiming 30,000 lives each year, mostly among young people. There were two and half million heroin addicts in Russia by 2009.”

It seemed so bizarre to me that anybody could imagine that any country in the world, however impoverished – in the past and now on an ongoing basis – by countries such as America, would be glad that the American military had invaded its territory, killed so many thousands of civilians – there appears to be a particular fondness for attacking wedding parties – and then announced that they had found an exploitable natural resource.

Somehow I doubt that the United States intends to leave those mines alone or that they intend an equal exchange of technological expertise for the sharing of wealth that belongs solely to Afghanistan. Somehow I feel that there is further impoverishment on the cards for Afghanistan. And, while that happens, the United States will continue on its own downward spiral of poverty. We are, after all, safely addicted to our own vices and myopia.

27 May, 2010

Media & Truth

srilanka2010-035Earlier this year I gave a couple of speeches, one at the State Department and another to an assorted collection of expatriates and Sri Lankans courtesy of the American embassy in Sri Lanka. The speech was on immigration, emigration and writing. Part of what I spoke about involved a sort of meditation on what it required of a writer who wishes to write of or about a foreign country. It involved a reference to the sort of ‘parachute journalism’ practiced by many reporters these days – supported, avidly, by their readers back home – and which describes the practice of “dropping in” on a “situation” in another country, sometimes for a couple of days sometimes for a week or two, firm in the conviction that one has the competence to understand everything that it is necessary to understand before one presumes to write about conflicts or, indeed, disasters or other catastrophes, that affect a culture not ones own. I have written about all that before, here (All the News Fit to Print) and here (Foreign Media).

As it so happened, however, that week’s New Yorker(January 25th, 2010), which I took on the flight with me, carried several excellent articles that spoke to the birth and nourishment of this phenomenon in America. The first of those was Ken Auletta‘s column, Annals of Communication (‘Non-Stop News’), which uses the Obama administration as a way of discussing the matter or, to be more specific, the President’s ongoing effort to educate and retrain the press corps. The issue, laid bare by the President in an interview on CBS’ Meet the Press, is exemplified by his comments to two journalists:

To Bob Schieffer: “I do think part of what is different today is that the twenty-four hour news cycle and cable television and blogs and all this, they focus on the most extreme elements on both sides. They can’t get enough of conflict. It’s catnip to the media right now.

And, to David Gregory: “What gets you on the news is controversy.”

Separately, the President is said to have used the occasion to chastise a press corps that has rushed to judgment, with “instant commentary and celebrity gossip and the softer stories that Walter (Cronkite) disdained. . . . ‘What happened today?’ is replaced with ‘Who won today?’ The public debate cheapens.” It is certainly laudable when the President sits through a two and a half hour long service, so he could deliver a sermon of sorts to the journalists who had gathered there to honor their fallen comrade, Walter Cronkite. Cronkite, the president argued, had earned his title as a trusted news person, through decades of “painstaking effort, a commitment to fundamental values; his belief that the American people were hungry for the truth, unvarnished and unaccompanied by theatre or spectacle.”

Listening to the President’s press conference today, I was struck by the relentless search for a soundbite that seemed to be the driving force behind many of the questions from seasoned personnel from the NYT on down. Indeed, minutes after the conference ended, we have this live-blogging take from Kate Phillips from the NYT, “…it remains an open question whether the measured tone that has become the soundtrack of Mr. Obama’s presidency – a detached, calm, observational pitch – served to drive the point home that he is sufficiently enraged by the fury in the Gulf Coast.”

As far as I know, being sufficiently enraged is reserved for us foot-soldiers, for activists at the front of a multitude of battles that need to be fought and won on the ground. Detached calm and observational pitch and, indeed, clarity of thought and perfection of diction – which continue to be refreshing in the post-Bush era – is what I expect from a President. But not for journalists, oh no. For them, for the newspapers they wish to sell, for the innumerable byte and pen-and-ink venues in which they wish to spew “the latest,” the “right here right now, don’t go away” version of what is important, rage and fury are what matter.

In that same article I mention above, Peter Baker is quoted as describing the difference between beat reporters from ten years ago and today thus:

“(He had) the luxury of writing for the next day’s newspaper. He had at least a few hours to call people, to access information, to provide context. Today, as much as you want to do that, by the time your deadline comes around you’ve already filed for the Web”—often more than once. In between times, you’ve filed for radio, and appeared on TV, and maybe done a podcast or a blog. “When do you have time to call experts? When do you have time to sort through data and information and do your own research? Even with a well-staffed news organization, we are hostages to the non-stop, never-ending file-it-now, get-on-the-Web, get-on-the-radio, get-on-TV media environment.”

Which is why I was particularly heartened by this interview with the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and author, Lorraine Adams (Harbor and The Room & The Chair), who states the importance of fiction in adding the nuance missing from the news, something I’ve written about before here (Global Civilians). It’s a short interview, and includes both Lorraine and Nick Davies (Flat Earth News), another journalist/author who has been critical of the press, and well worth a listen.

I have just finished reading Harbor, and am deep into Lorraine’s second book. As an immigrant who has experienced the underside of what it means to work illegally in the United States (I won’t say how or why), who has felt both cold and poverty in environments where wealth and privilege seem de rigueur and the lack thereof indicative of a deeper lack in oneself, who has known that the stories from “back home” were never the stories that would be told, who has understood, above all, that the news that is presented to Americans about left-behind countries are never, ever, comprehensive or truthful, Adams’ book, about a group of Algerian stowaways in Boston, was uplifting. Not because the themes contained therein were, but because in her fiction, Adams portrays the origins of perception and the vastness of the distances between us, as immigrants, as survivors, as Americans, as well as the acute intimacy of our inner lives, both proximate and divergent, with an empathy that unfolds what is true in a way that no amount of news coverage ever could.

If I want a soundbite, there are dozens of news blogs and news-aggregating websites and personal rants that I can access. But if I want to understand the human beings behind the story, if I want to truly understand a history, I go to fiction. Harbor was one of those books. Chimamande Ngozi Adiche’s Half of a Yellow Sun was another. Long may writers of fiction, particularly those with the skill to uncover both fact as well as moment, gift us with the truth that really matters and could, perhaps, change the world.

14 May, 2010

Birthdays and Prayers. Looking Back, Looking Forward

Today my best friend celebrates his birthday in a state, New York, which denies him and many of his friends basic rights and benefits that the rest of us take for granted.

As I think about that, I am reminded of a Fall morning many years ago, when I sat in a class on Black Women in the Americas, at Bates, and was told that we were going to watch the romantic saga that brought Vivienne Leigh to independent theaters worldwide. “Gone With The Wind? I love that movie!” I exclaimed. My friend, an African-American woman, stared at me, aghast: “But it’s so racist!” Thanks to our subsequent discussions, Mammy and Pork took up a full screen in my mental map of the movie, revealing a subtext that I, a foreigner, had missed in my awe over Scarlett’s waist and the beautiful green velvet drapes.

Recently, I revisited that moment in light of the debate over same-sex marriages in New York, and the attacks that have been made on those who have tried to bring equal rights to everybody in this country as well as those initiatives that seek to export our basest impulses overseas. In an article for the NYT early this year, Jeffrey Gettleman talks about three American evangelical Christians, who went to Uganda to give a series of talks about “curing” homosexuals:

For three days, according to participants and audio recordings, thousands of Ugandans, including police officers, teachers and national politicians, listened raptly to the Americans, who were presented as experts on homosexuality. The visitors discussed how to make gay people straight, how gay men often sodomized teenage boys and how “the gay movement is an evil institution” whose goal is “to defeat the marriage-based society and replace it with a culture of sexual promiscuity.”

The end result was a law, introduced by a little known politician with ties to the U.S., called the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, which will impose a death sentence on people exhibiting homosexual behavior. The role of individual Americans, (usually those with an agenda of proselytizing thrown in), in instigating and supporting bigotry in other nations, particularly in the recent past in African nations against gay individuals, is bad enough, but we have troubles closer to home.

Here’s the current status of human rights with regard to gays in the US: five states, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Iowa, New Hampshire and Vermont and the District of Washington DC, allow legal marriage between same-sex couples, along with the Coquille Indian Tribe in Oregon. Previously, the state of California granted the same legal right to marriage for same-sex couples, and then rescinded that right although it continues to grant the right to the benefits of marriage to same-sex couples, although only those who were married before November 5, 2008, are allowed the designation, “marriage.” In NY, Rhode Island and Maryland, same-sex marriages are recognized but not performed.

So back to that movie. I first saw the driveway to Tara projected on a screen at a private screening in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Apart from the movie, I watched a young man, Michael, who was wearing blue shadow on his eyes and had his arm around the shoulder of his boyfriend. My parents – an educator and a senior member of the Ceylon Civil Service – were deeply involved in the arts community, and Michael, new to the fold, became a good friend.

I went from 7 to 17, with a dawning realization that our home was a haven for my parents’ non-heterosexual friends. Neither my brothers or I or any of our friends ever questioned their presence under our roof. Uncle Eustace, trained in England and a Brigadier from the Royal Army, a fine actor who played Alfred Doolittle with aplomb, cheered us up when my father lost his job, and commandeered an army ambulance to get him to intensive care when he had his first heart attack. I called Uncle Tony when I needed a ride somewhere. There he would reliably be, a very large gentleman in a very small red Morris Minor, on time and ready to shuttle us where we needed to go. Uncle Damian, Director of the Dept. of Motor Vehicles, cleared both my American husband and me for our International Drivers Licenses. These men and women joined the many others who created the social backdrop to my childhood, coloring it with their generous spirits and purposeful lives.

It has been bewildering to me therefore, to watch each wave of fearful and vitriolic reactions to bills ensuring that the rights extended to all citizens and legal residents are not withheld from those who choose to consummate their romantic relationships differently than others. Much of the debate has been centered on God. As a practicing Buddhist who attended a Roman Catholic convent and then a Christian missionary school, reads both the Bible and the Qu’ran, worked for the Quakers, and conducted research on the Jewish and Druze faiths, I have come to see that there really is no God who is not present in every person. Among the words of wisdom that have guided me in how I raise my own three daughters, are the words of Jesus who said, “whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers, that you do unto Me.” (Mt. 25:40)

It is difficult for me to understand how some of God’s followers have taken it upon themselves to decide that they must judge other human beings. Not for the massacre of innocents or the pursuit of material gain at the cost of destroying all creation, but for how two consenting adults choose to conduct their private lives.

In trying to understand the motivation behind these assaults, I go back to that class I took as a young adult. Ignorance is usually at the root of our most repugnant and non-inclusive political positions, but it is also at the root of our blindness to what life might be like for someone other than ourselves. I learned, by seeing that movie through my friend’s eyes, that it both left things unsaid and stated other things loud and clear. It did not diminish my enjoyment of the chemistry between Scarlett and Rhett. It did not make me stop grabbing the unyielding soil of my garden from time to time and declaring that “as god is my witness I’ll never go hungry again!” It did make me understand her experience, it did enlighten me about American history. It broadened my mind, it made me a better human being and it made us real friends, the kind whose friendship is based not only on shared activities and interests but deep empathy.

Surely our lives should be defined by the people we stand up for, not by those we seek to destroy? One of the early Quakers, William Penn, once said that “Love is the hardest lesson in Christianity; but, for that reason, it should be most our care to learn it,” which is not unlike the verse in Colossians, Chapter 2:13-19: “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience…and over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.”

May my friend wake up someday soon to a home that recognizes that which is holy in every living being. Happy birthday, Charles.


20 March, 2010

Healthcare in America as it is in Sri Lanka

starry-nightI was born in a country usually described by those subscribing to the dominant paradigm of development as being poor and developing. Year after year, beginning from first grade, in our classrooms both public and private (we have a national curriculum), we learned mathematics, reading and writing, but also world history. We studied world civilizations, cultures, economic foundations, imports, exports and religions. We learned of most things as facts, only questioning choices – within political systems, for instance – when we reached the senior classes. There was, however, one thing that it would never have occurred to a Sri Lankan student to ask: Do American have the same access to health care that we do here?

In order to ask such a question, Sri Lankans would have to be suffering the same deprivations that Americans suffer today. They would also have to take it as a given that health care is something that is not commonly provided to all but, rather, reserved for a few. In the absence of those realities, no Sri Lankan child could conceive of a society where people are routinely denied medical care, where children remain un-vaccinated, and where the elderly perish because they cannot afford to visit a doctor. They would have to imagine a milieu where parents must decide between food and medicines, between dead-end employment with health care v. fulfilling work without health insurance, and between taking care of a sick parent and going into debt, or setting those parents adrift and saving for their children’s future. Indeed, they would have to conjure up a way of living that was routinely, relentlessly, psychotically preoccupied with the dread scepter of sickness rather than the much more joyful activity of the conduct of life.

Sri Lankans cannot do that. While I have joined this American life where all of the above have become my reality, every single one of my countrymen in Sri Lanka continues to enjoy first-class medical treatment in hospitals which provide it to them entirely free. Should a Sri Lankan not wish to avail themselves of free medical care, they have the option to visit a multitude of private hospitals. The same caliber of physicians serves at both. After a free education, Sri Lankan doctors are required to serve in public hospitals. They are also free to engage in private practice so long as that fundamental requirement – giving back to the country what it has given to you – is met. The decision of a patient to go to one or the other depends upon the patient’s idiosyncrasies; I have wealthy friends who have preferred to give birth in a shared dorm in a public hospital rather than in a private room at a fee-charging medical facility, my father vacillates between one or the other.

Yes, it is not perfect. Last time I checked, they do not have the capacity in Sri Lanka to separate twins sharing hearts or lungs. They do not have the Childrens’ Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), they do not have Memorial Sloan-Kettering. What they do have are the kinds of services, including advanced care services, which are pertinent and ought to be accessible to 99.9% of human beings. And what they do have is a society where should a particularly specialized form of medical care unavailable in the country be required by one of its members, citizens will routinely donate the funds necessary to send that patient overseas. It’s a lot cheaper to chip in the equivalent of about $5 to help a fellow-citizen about once a year than to live as we live (and die), now, here in America.

We are here today on the brink of a vote on making health care substantially more compassionate than it is currently is in America. It is a day that dawns with one of the last independent hold-outs from the left, Dennis Kucinich, deciding to make possible what is possible rather than wait for what will forever be denied. It is a day that alters the fate of three close neighbors, all of whom are professionals with doctorates and halves of two-income families in one of the wealthiest suburbs in America, who are trying to make ends meet without health insurance. They aren’t poor people, they have jobs; nonetheless, they cannot afford health care in this country. What then of the millions of others struggling with neither wealth nor employment? Which reminds me of a few words spoken on January 20th, 2009, in Washington DC by a new President:

“For as much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies. It is the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break; the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job which sees us through our darkest hours.”

This will, hopefully, be the end of that darkest hour for Americans. It is an hour that has lasted for more than five decades. Surely it is time for the leaders of this country to recognize their obligation to their fellow citizens. Surely one of the wealthiest nations in the world can finally do for its people what one of its poorest has done throughout its history.

12 February, 2010

The Dutch, The British & The Galle International Literary Festival

I keep being pressed to write about the Galle International Literary Festival at which I was a guest. Some of the requests have been the result of simple interest in my impressions as both native and visitor, others have been somewhat hostile. 22356_286179927125_647787125_3900085_8356772_nI have never been an either with us or against us kind of person; frankly I think that embodying extremism of any sort dilutes and otherwise sullies creative work and I would be hard pressed to identify any writer whom I admire that is guilty of it. It has taken a while for me to reflect on the festival partly because I was in London right after the festival and have only just returned, and partly because my thoughts are complicated by a variety of conflicting sentiments which encompass both my respect for the work that is done to make it possible – and the individuals who do that work – the depth of talent among those attending both as guests and as audience and my sense that everything that we do is a work in progress and therefore could stand to be transformed so long as the transformation is advocated for in a way that leaves intact, whenever possible, the self-worth of the people responsible.

When my novel appeared in its Dutch translation, my publisher asked me to write a note to accompany its release which referred to our shared history. After ranting in the privacy of my home, I sat down and wrote a note that mentioned the fact that many Dutch public works as well as the tombstones of the old Dutch lighthouseverendahGovernors are preserved in Colombo and that the journey of one of the chief protagonists begins in Matara where the Dutch fort, Van Eck, still remains. I tempered my sense of outrage with the request that, at some level, was asking me to celebrate the colonization of Sri Lanka by the Dutch, with my understanding that my modern day publisher may (a) have been unaware of the extent of her country’s involvement in Sri Lanka and (b) was not, herself, responsible for the doings of her compatriots and (c) did not intend to cause me any distress but, rather, was trying to personalize the publication of a book that was being released alongside hundreds of others, and therefore give it a little more heft. That is the nuance that tempers the black and the white.

At a festival that offered such a range of skill, expertise and intellect, I was disappointed that I was unable to attend several of the conversations signingand panels that I would have liked to be at, when the writers featured were excellent and there was much to learn from them. Gillian Slovo, Rana Dasgupta, Amit Varma, Shyam Selvadurai, Michelle de Kretser, Ian Rankin and Sybil Wettasinghe were all people I wanted to spend more time listening to, as they spoke formally, but with whom I did manage to have interesting and fairly lengthy conversations off-scene. Unfortunately, there were many others – Wendy Cope, Iranganie Serasinghe, Artemis Cooper and Michael Frayn among them – whose insights and perspective I missed altogether. My inability to go to all the panels/conversations had little to do with the festival organizers shyammeexcept to the extent that I was also trying to participate in the fringe festival – which showcased, for the most part, the breadth of local talent writing and speaking in English – which then made everything a conscious choice that posed the following question: Am I here for myself? (in which case I must go to all the panels and lectures and conversations taking place on site), or am I here for my fellow Sri Lankans? (in which case I must support them in whatever way I could, but primarily by being attentive to the events that highlighted their work, many of which were off site)

To be a Sri Lankan writer published overseas by the kinds of publishers that I have been fortunate to have, is, to me, both blessing and responsibility. The accomplishment, as I see it, is not mine alone, 22556_303365777125_647787125_3948633_7913511_nit is also that of the country to which I owe my particular world view; that fertile soil, rich in culture and heritage and custom and religion, which grounds me and gives me the right to say, I am a Sri Lankan American writer. I see myself, then, as an outpost of sorts, a vessel that contains all that I have left behind in Sri Lanka, and, also, as a spokesperson for others of my kind. How, then, would it be possible for me to converse and befriend my fellow predominantly foreign-based writers and not give equal attention to the writers who, based as they are in Sri Lanka, do not have access to the publishing world in quite the same way that we do? How would they get critical attention for their work if those of us who are a little further down along the road not only leave no signposts, but forget that there are others making this same journey?

As I walked around going from one session to another, I was struck also by the fact that this desire to immerse myself in the literary talents and preoccupations of a host country, even when it is my own, is probably shared by the other writers who come to Sri Lanka, in the same way they do when they go to the Jaipur Literature Festival or to the Perth International Arts Festival or the Man Hong Kong International Literary Festival. For a writer anywhere, there are two things that are manna from heaven: the company of other writers and exposure to new worlds. panelI would hazard a guess that writers like Slovo and Dasgupta and Adebago would be just as interested in listening to and interacting with a multi-ethnic cross section of Sri Lankan writers as well as Sri Lankan culture (a need that the fringe festival addressed whenever possible with panels such as ‘The Literature of Post-War Sri Lanka’ which featured writer and photographer Pradeep Jeganathan, journalist Malinda Seneviratne and former-soldier and writer, David Blacker, as well as the event titled ‘Stories at Sunset’ at the Closenberg Hotel which was organized by local author, Ashok Ferry, alongside the equally commendable offerings of the main festival such as the panels on art, photography and architecture and the drum and dance performances), as they would be in having meaningful conversations with each other. Indeed, such engagement is what gives a festival its particular character and distinguishes it from any other event at which these same writers may have occasion to gather together.

It is always easy to criticize an initiative that is taken by someone else. And it is easy enough to disparage the work of one or the other group of writers within a multi-language system such as ours. sunilaSlings and arrows are easy to unleash, it is the building blocks that take work and separates the slouch from the citizen and neither Sunila Galappatti nor Subha Wijesiriwardena is a slouch, clearly bringing a wealth of experience in theater and writing to their work and giving heart and soul over to managing every last detail of a large festival involving multiple personalities, some of them split! In that regard, I was disappointed by the way in which journalist Rajpal Abeynayake summarily dismissed the entire – albeit recent – canon of writing in English as being garbage. There is garbage. balconysceneWe all know it and we can all manage the delicate art of discussing garbage without throwing it around, in the interest of preserving human dignity. But there is also solidly accomplished writing and, more importantly, there is a serious attempt on the part of those writing in English to both reach their full potential as well as to translate into English those works from the Sinhala and Tamil canon that are translatable. (I admit I came late to this session – again, I was torn between listening to the panel on post-war literature I mentioned above and the one being facilitated by Sunila at a festival venue with Rajpal; both panelists had reached a point of testiness and there was a sort of restive fatigue apparent among the audience as well.)

The criticism that there is insufficient attention given to the work of the host country, the best of which is, probably, written in Sinhala and Tamil, is valid, but is is one that ought to be leveled with the understanding that any initiative is dynamic and changing; srilanka2010-1671the festival has evolved from the first in 2007 to what it is today and will, I am certain, continue to change. I comment on this aspect of the festival, therefore, in full knowledge that this year it has grown to include genres not part of the festival in previous years both in terms of its panels and conversations but also in terms of the off-site events and the cultural and childrens’ programming, and that such changes auger well for other, even more significant adjustments to be made to the makeup of the festival next year. It is true that, as feetDavid Blacker put it in a blog post he wrote last year, this is not a “Sri Lankan literature festival.” However, it is disingenuous to refer to a festival as being “international” if it quite deliberately excludes, for the most part, Sri Lankan writing in translation, particularly when the current trend among all of the publishing giants and anyone worth their salt in the field of international literature is toward translation, an effort to which the organization Words Without Borders has made a mighty contribution as have the various International PEN organizations in the UK, USA and elsewhere. This is the first paragraph of the mission statement for Words Without Borders and it is a far better description of why translation is important than I could manage:

Words without Borders translates, publishes, and promotes the finest contemporary international literature. Our publications and programs open doors for readers of English around the world to the multiplicity of viewpoints, richness of experience, and literary perspective on world events offered by writers in other languages. We seek to connect international writers to the general public, to students and educators, and to print and other media and to serve as a primary online location for a global literary conversation.

Literary achievement is never a zero-sum game and the respectful inclusion of each others work ought to be seen as a way of bolstering the foundation of our shared interest in the life of the word, rather than as a way of distracting or otherwise reducing the worth of a single person’s contribution. If it was possible to give Michael Meyler the opportunity to conduct an engaging and illuminating discussion about the well produced trilingual book, Keerthihan’s Kite, is it not possible, also, to present Sri Lankan work in translation using the same audio/visual devices? punchasloIt is entirely conceivable to me that the festival organizers could ask for the help of accomplished bi-lingual writers and translators like Malinda Seneviratne, Dr. Lakshmi de Silva, Thambiaiyah Thevathas and others like them, to handle that particular aspect of the GLF in future years or, at the very least, serve in some sort of advisory capacity to facilitate that conversation. If the festival is, as it has become, the international face of Sri Lanka with regard to its literature, then I do believe that it is obliged to represent the country’s breadth and depth of writing, in all its languages. And that is a responsibility that ought to be embraced as a privilege, not a hardship.

The issue of festival access has been raised often and, during the Q&A with Rajpal, I was aghast to hear a member of the audience (I was told later that this was Antony Beevor but since I never met the man I cannot confirm that), srilanka2010-170question the government of Sri Lanka for requesting that a festival which is largely private, pay taxes that are due to the country. The issue raised by the individual was that “there is no literary festival in the world that is expected to pay taxes.” Well, the truth is, as always, not quite so simple. Festivals that are free to the public are not taxed. Whenever an event, that involves as much private enterprise srilanka2010-1031as does this particular festival, excludes – because of its fee-charging design – a large portion of the resident population, it must necessarily be treated differently. One way to avoid this is to emulate our closest neighboring festival, Jaipur, and make it entirely free although I realize that this would involve a significant degree of fund-raising to take place prior to the festival. And since I dislike making a criticism without offering some solution, might I suggest that the festival offer the option of named patrons, as is done with regard to so many other ventures involving the arts (the Aukland Writers & Readers Festival operates along these lines) something I would imagine would be just as enticing if not more so, than purchasing tickets to private events? That would also make it possible to offer a choice of the ever-popular literary dining experiences to such individuals while reserving an equal number of seats to be awarded to festival goers by lottery.

(Which, by the way, is not to say that those who have paid the fees thus far ought to be condemned as being “air heads” (as referenced in Yasmine Gooneratne’s article on the festival), quite the contrary; I found most of the Colombo socialites to be well read and more than able to engage in knowledgeable discussions about literature and writing: Sri Lankans, after all, are a highly educated populace and the possession of wealth does not automatically exclude a person from that national character!)

The lasting impression of the festival for me is one of valiant effort – chiefly by its executors and volunteers – and one of learning to distinguish the writer – eminent or fledgling- who srilanka2010-188is willing to immerse themselves in place, moment and literary endeavor from the writer who is simply there to soak up the perquisites of a festival hosted in the near paradisaical setting of Galle, which is very tempting, given its history, location, Lighthouse Hotel, Sun House and everything in between. Mercifully, there were more of the former and, refreshingly, all of the writers from the subcontinent belonged fairly and squarely to that group. It was good to discover that noniseating kottu at an unsavory roadside stall with Amit Varma, downing pittu and katta sambol with Rana Dasgupta, walking to the kite-flying activity on the Galle Fort with Michelle de Kretser and stopping for tea and laveriya at Monis Bakery on the way to Galle with Shyam Selvadurai blended seamlessly with our conversations about our writerly lives, with signing books and holding microphones on stages which elevate us and our accomplishments, often only artificially and almost always only momentarily, from those of others. When human endeavor permits the human being their humanity, that is the true measure of success.


Note: The two photographs of me used in the first and fourth paragraphs were taken by Sharni Jayawardena

26 January, 2010

The Morning After

It is now 2 a.m. on the 27th of January, 2010 in Sri Lanka and the election results are 68.32% for President Mahinda Rajapakse and 31.32% for Sarath Fonseka. Maybe it is no big deal to win against someone who did not take the trouble to register himself to vote in the elections in which he was asking the country to vote for him. But it is a big deal to win against a candidate backed by major Western and European powers, and by native nay-sayers who would rather have a candidate who couldn’t find himself a party and was subsequently backed by two who had been responsible for much brutality in Sri Lanka throughout the 1980s than support the President who brought them peace.

This is the first time I’ve been home for an election since I left for the United States, and it is absolutely thrilling to be here. Sri Lankans are deeply and ruvani-0052passionately engaged in the process and in campaigning and if you want a beautiful description of what a country means to someone who loves it, read ‘Reflections on my Country’ by my brother, Malinda Seneviratne. It doesn’t hurt to have a household divided between the two candidates, my father taking up the solitary stand on behalf of the Opposition. I accompanied my journalist brother, Malinda, on travels around the city and down the Southern Coast and observed a process that had none of the problems that were being threatened us by those supporting the opposition candidate. The term “blood bath” has been tossed about, but I’m hoping to avoid that as well. It is a clear victory, and there is no doubt as to why the President remains popular among the people even if some of the Colombo elite despise his status as an outsider. Here are a few of those reasons:

1. He put an end to a war that has blighted the country for 30 years, something none of the leaders of other parties including those contesting him in this election were able to do.
2. While conducting the war, he did not compromise the welfare of ordinary Sri Lankans, or sell any of the country’s assets.
3. While pushing on with both a war and the post-tsunami reconstruction, he engaged in massive development projects throughout the country, including in the North and East; highways, ports, telecommunications and web access were all part of this effort. ruvani-008
4. He has subsequently repatriated most of the Internally Displaced Persons, the North and East have vast areas that have been demined and are being inhabited by people native to the land and there’s a sense of breathing freely in the entire country.
5. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, he put Sri Lankans in charge of Sri Lanka. As my sister in law put it, “In the past foreigners came in as consultants to us, now they consult us before they try to do anything in the country. He has given Sri Lankans the space to insist that the slogan “api wenuwen api” (i.e. us for ourselves), is the national standard.

Many foreign governments have attempted to push Sri Lanka in one direction or the other without the good sense to understand the context in which they were here or, worse, the damage they could cause to thousands of people including the loss of life. To have a President who is willing to stand firm against such pressure, including tremendous pressure from the United States, is simply fantastic.

Which brings me to the letter I received – it was addressed to all of us who are participating in the Galle Literary Festival – from the director of The Campaign for Peace & Justice, asking us to make all sorts of noise about the allegations he puts forth regarding abuses he has not substantiated. I’d like to say go fly a blooming kite. Instead I’ll say this: “In Sri Lanka the average voter turn out is 80%, education and health care is free, women are liberated and smart, and we have a President able to end a war and rebuild his country (while fending off ignorant individuals who want to keep enjoying their NGO junkets on our beautiful island and triviliazing our tragedies by turning our complexity into sound bites for your rabid 24/7 news media). I don’t need you to tell me what to say at a festival being held in my country. I don’t need your talking points. I don’t need your advice. I don’t need your cautionary tales of doom and gloom, mister. I’m too busy celebrating our good.” Outside in the streets I can hear firecrackers. Salut!


21 January, 2010

The Writing on the Wall for Independents

The week has passed by in a blur as I get ready to leave for Sri Lanka and then to London. Anybody in either place, do come to one or more of the events being planned. Click here for details

Meanwhile, last week, I wrote about Independent Book Stores for the Huffington Post Books blog about. Here’s an excerpt from the beginning:

“To reach the reading space at the independent book store owned by Mary Cotton and Jaime Clarke, Newtonville Books in Boston, a writer has to pass through a slim corridor accessed by a few steps, and the process puts one in mind of the entire work of writing poetry or fiction; the narrow access-way of anecdote or memory cleaved into the facade of the mind breaching, eventually, and giving way to robust characters and full lives containing singular pathologies. Make it through and one is rewarded by a soft lit showcase of the bookstore’s First Edition Book Club picks which reads like a who’s who of the writing world both established (Dave Eggers, Samantha Hunt, Salman Rushdie, Stacey D’Erasmo, David Sedaris, Julia Alvarez, E.L. Doctorow, Margaret Atwood, Edward P. Jones, Ha Jin and Lorrie Moore among hundreds of others), and new (Margo Raab, Josh Weil and yours truly). At last check, one could purchase one entire collection of signed First Editions for $10,000. But what is even more thrilling than the presence of those books upon the shelves are the signatures that fill the walls and trim of the waiting room and staircase. Spontaneous witticisms from the pens of Jonathan Lethem (a creature of uncertain origin with the accompanying statement: “Tiger or giant rat, you decide, chronically yours, J. Lethem”) and doodles from Bret Anthony Johnston (a surfboard beside which Amy Hampel issues a dire threat: “Look out Bret, I just read here!”), testify to the deep camaraderie among writers as well as to their humanity.”

Please click on this link to read the full article (complete with the actual links!), and do leave your comments on the Huff Po site. I’ve been working on several blog-worthy pieces, but have a tough travel schedule coming up and have not been able to get them up. I do hope to write from home about the Galle Literary Festival and, also, about what happens during the Presidential elections which take place the day after I get there.

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.