Archive for the ‘Sri Lanka’ Category

13 January, 2010

America’s Dementia: King-Making in Sri Lanka

This was an article that I wrote which was was intended for a news source here in the U.S. I am re-posting it here with the necessary links.

On Sunday, the NYT put Sri Lanka at number one on its list of places to go in 2010:

“For a quarter century, Sri Lanka seems to have been plagued by misfortune, including a brutal civil war between the Sinhalese majority and Tamil minority. But the conflict finally ended last May, ushering in a more peaceful era for this teardrop-shaped island off India’s coast, rich in natural beauty and cultural splendors.” (NYT, January 10th, 2010).

It seems, however, that the Obama administration is not quite as delighted with the peaceful state of affairs in Sri Lanka.

On January 26th 2010, Sri Lankans go to the polls. They vote for the first time in thirty years without the looming threat of terrorism. The incumbent President, Mahinda Rajapakse, is tipped to win this one, albeit by a closer margin than many imagined possible given the extraordinary support he had in conducting the war against the LTTE militants both from the public and moderate Tamil politicians. That war ended on May 18th, 2009 and, unlike in most countries where such victories are followed by the consolidation of power, President Rajapakse devoted his time, among other things, to the internal matters of clearing landmines from previously rebel-held territory, repatriating the displaced Tamil population and inviting the Diaspora to return and participate in the rebuilding of the North. Despite the extraordinary powers held by an executive presidency, the kind of power that could lead to equally widespread abuses and has in other countries where a head of state has had such tools at their disposal (Robert Gabriel Karigamombe Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Than Shwe of Burma and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia– a country with which the U.S. continues to have close ties – come to mind), Sri Lanka’s president chose to put his presidency to the test in the space of six months, announcing the election in November of that same year. Meanwhile, nearly a decade after 9/11, America’s searchlights mark the skies each September as if searching for help from God while its memorial honoring the victims of terrorism remains unbuilt, the 9th Ward lurches from day to day with its dispirited inhabitants flung across several states looking to recourse from Brad Pitt and the Make it Right Foundation, and we shall not even begin to discuss Iraq because America’s efforts at compensating that nation for its assault on its soil is, actually, laughable.

During the last year and a half the United States, perhaps due to its own preoccupations with the distribution of power between the Man of the Century, Barack Obama and the equally redoubtable Hillary Clinton, played two games. On the one hand, its back-channel negotiators attempted to maintain that they were against terrorism (as Senator Clinton did during her elections), and would welcome an end to the vice in which the people of Sri Lanka and, thereby, those within the Diaspora on American soil, were being held by the LTTE. On the other hand, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made successive statements decrying President Rajapakse’s government and expressing “concern” based not on fact but on conjecture, and pushed international organizations to sanction his government. (Hillary Clinton’s ability to be undiplomatic is, par for the course, as demonstrated by her comments about Pakistan on the eve of her visit there). Meanwhile, not far from Sri Lanka, America launched a new and improved war in Afghanistan, assaulting it with indiscriminate aerial bombing and pressuring the government of Pakistan to crackdown on so-called Islamic militants in exactly the same way in which it was asking Sri Lanka not to crack down on its lunatic fringe. But perhaps that was just American tunnel vision.We cannot seem to look at more than one country at one time and, like the multitude of Americans who are routinely diagnosed with dissociative disorder, our leaders cannot seem to remember what they learn in one place and use it to address a problem faced in another.

Given the dissatisfaction among the rank and file of America’s military (think Major Nidal Malik), and the security breaches on its airlines (think Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab), one would imagine that America’s foreign policy makers might consider the lack of prudence evident in deciding to back a ruthless former General, a military man with no experience at political leadership, to run what is, for now, a relatively stable landing-ground for American diplomats and personnel – both by air and by sea – in the supremely important neighborhood of America’s new war. America has had difficulties with President Rajapakse, there is no disputing that. Its difficulties arose not only because it presumed to dictate the conduct of internal affairs in Sri Lanka, but by its blocking of a much-needed loan from the IMF and by its determined effort to scuttle the end of the war even as the LTTE remains proscribed in the United States and even as its ties to the ongoing piracy on the high seas around the Horn of Africa – which has affected American industry – and its history of training suicide bombers in other regions of conflict with which the U.S. professes to be concerned were being established by America’s own intelligence personnel. But most of all, their relationship with President Rajapakse was strained by America’s obstinate refusal to engage with him as an equal and because they began to exert pressure on him by turning his top General against him.

American has had and continues to have some difficulty in understanding the vital role of cultural knowledge when it comes to dealing with countries whose beliefs run counter to its own. The failures in Iraq (after the original sin of invading it), can be traced back to that shortcoming and the continuing failures in Afghanistan and Pakistan and Iran and in Palestine all leave a clear and uncluttered trail that demonstrate the fact that American policy makers choose to shoot now and ask questions later. A policy which leaves nothing resolved and many people dead; a policy which, sadly, overshadows the considerable good intentions of many within the State Department who take up their positions with great faith in the power of diplomacy. The response of South Asian leaders as well as those who lead predominantly Islamic countries has always been to close ranks behind family when threatened. President Rajapakse’s response to American pressure has taken that familiar route – he looked to China, Pakistan and Japan, countries with which Sri Lanka has deep and long ties and, at home, to his closest advisers, including his family. The only people reeling with surprise and feeling betrayed are the Americans.

To work with the leader that the Sri Lankan people chose to take them out of the dark ages of terrorism into the freedom of peace, no matter the points of disagreement, would have been the way to go. Instead, America now finds itself anointing a military man with no experience in statesmanship, with a track record of brutality against the Tamil people and who, unable to stand on his own abilities has cobbled together a motley collection of dissatisfied political groups including the UNP and the JVP (which were, together, responsible for the murder of thousands of youth, most of them students, and whose combined shenanigans closed down the universities of Sri Lanka for the large part of two years). But it ain’t no entrance if you cannot make one on your own and you can’t lead – much less unite – a country when you are nothing more than the puppet of several warring factions who have merely come together for the purpose of ousting the one man who managed what none of these groups could: end the war and make it possible for Tamil people to once again speak their language freely in the streets of Colombo. It also finds itself in the surely untenable position of saying that it is alright with America to have people with American permanent residency vie to become head of state in a different one although here in America one cannot stand for election without first renouncing such fealty to any other places of domicile.

But perhaps a stable Sri Lanka is not in America’s best interests. Its former president was clearly comfortable with not merely making lists of bad countries and checking them twice, but actively attempting to shove the “good” ones over to the dark side. And our new President, deep though my support runs, has proved that he is not that different from the last with regard to his foreign policy. Either that or we are living with two presidents: the one who runs the country, and the other, Hillary Clinton, who is ruining the world. On January 26th, Sri Lankans may yet prove that she does not. If and when they do, the only hope lies in those top tier American policy makers who have had the opportunity to live and work in Sri Lanka and therefore understand, perhaps, a little more about what it takes to build a partnership with the leader of a nation whose literacy rates, equality of pay between the genders as well as the inclusion of women in positions of political office, thriving media, highly educated trilingual third estate and all round civic participation places it, in all these respects, above the United States.

26 December, 2009

Tsunami: Five Years On

lisasinhalabanner5Five years ago today, I was still fast asleep when the 2004 tsunami swept over large parts of my island country, Sri Lanka. A friend called me from Washington DC, where she was working, to tell give me this cryptic message: “There was a tsunami in Thailand but don’t worry, your brother Arjuna is fine.” In a house where a TV existed but was rarely turned on, I had no idea what she was talking about. The first time I heard my oldest brother’s voice was when I listened to Lisa Mullins talking with him on The World. Somewhere in my archives I have the link to his interview and to the interview that preceded his, which is mine. It was an encapsulation of our two realities – mine, on the other side of the world, and his, having faced the tsunami. I’ll post the links when I fine them, but here is an excerpt of what he said:

When the first wave came in, we were happy that we were seeing something that was really strange, but it was a very mild wave. Then the sea receded back, and we didn’t know what that meant. It was like someone had pulled the plug on the ocean, and crags and outcroppings of rock inside the sea were visible for the first time in years. We just watched it, and I was taking photographs of it. Then came this massive wall of water…The night before, I had been dancing. It was Christmas. We danced into the wee hours of the morning. With everyone, everyone bonded. There were Finns, there were Dutchmen and Dutchwomen, there were Brits, there were Japanese – I actually won a dance competition. The next morning it was like it was a whole big family of 150 people…I was on top of the continental ridge on the Rocky Mountains when 9/11 happened. I saw only one thing. What I saw, was what I heard – silence. You know what that the silence was? The silence was that all the planes had dropped out of the sky – and in America, at any given moment, if you look up into the sky, there are at least 10 planes up there. There’s a drone, that nobody really notices, until the drone stops. My nation is silent right now.

Over the next year, thanks to a phone call from the then pastor at the Universalist Unitarian Church in Waterville I directed the Sahana Project, sahana-churchdisplaya tsunami-relief effort from the state of Maine. When I say I directed, it was mostly a matter of traveling around Maine speaking to people about my country and receiving in return, not only the donations that people sent in, but acquiring a clear understanding of how easy it was, in every situation, to find our common ground. Easy even when I was talking about Catholic convents teaching Buddhism to Buddhists to the Congregational Church in far Northern Maine, in Rangely. mtmerici-kidswebsitepixEasy when talking to the sixth graders who raised $2000 on their own by giving up their class trip and soliciting their donations. Easy when chatting with the high school students who gave up a dollar for the privilege of wearing a baseball hat to school. As easy when speaking to Maine fishermen who go out to sea in frigid waters unlike their Sri Lankan brethren, as it was to speak stars2to the hundreds of people who sent in books and toiletries for the kids of the village we had decided to rebuild on the Southern coast of Sri Lanka, and the ones who sent celebratory gifts, individually tagged, with personal letters, to the thirty-five families who were moving into their new homes a few days before the first anniversary of the tsunami.

I recollect all this today because of all that was right about the Sahana Project. It had a fiscal agent, the UU Church, and it had a volunteer board comprised of individuals who had a history of commitment to community causes, juliabluhn-2including Mark B. Tappan and Lyn Mikel Brown of Colby. It had someone “from there,” i.e. myself, who could talk not only about the need at hand but about the country and culture, and make it a real place for the donors. It had a small state where people were willing to trust in someone’s word, to believe that if I said I was going to use this money to rebuild a village, that is what would happen. It had a local organization in place, namely the Green Movement of Sri Lanka, willing to channel all of the funds collected toward rebuilding and none of it for administrative or operating costs. It had someone we trusted, my brother, to liaise between the Greens and us.

thornton2It was one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life to watch civic organizations, community groups, private and public schools from Mt. Desert Island to Waterville to Kennebunkport, colleges like Bates and Colby, businesses like the Flatbread Company in Portland, churches and individuals who often did not have much in common with each other, come together to place their bit of the puzzle in the frame. Was ever a village rebuilt with such love? thomas9I don’t know. What I do know is that those thirty five homes contain the music of the zils and hip-scarves of belly-dance troupes, the laughter of Maine-born kids and the compassion of adults from age 18 to 90 who may never see what they made possible.

Visiting Sri Lanka for the opening ceremony in 2005, I wrote back thus:

(We) drove down the path that is being re-constructed by another group, with assistance from USAID, to the site of the old village. The road is bordered on both sides by the sanctuary, so there were a lot of wild birds to be seen, though the peacocks weren’t in sigh perhaps because it was late in the day. The drive to the ocean was also lined on the last stretch with the devastation that is still very much in evidence. Rasika (the matriarch of the village), named the people who had lived in each of the homes, and the ones who had died. The homes were either shells, entirely gouged out – literally plucked by the roots – or just foundations. There were roofs hanging like cloth from the sides of frail structures. It was unlike anything I could have imagined – even with the photographs. The village was between the estuary and the ocean, with parts of the marshy sanctuary in between. The villagers therefore were really hammered from both sides. The ocean rushing up the estuary as well as the ocean coming straight at them. I picture it being something like a volcanic eruption of water, with the villagers trapped in the middle. Seeing all this, I cannot fathom how the young woman who was two days away from delivery her baby, managed to escape with her young, three year old son. In fact, I think that if not for the trees in the sanctuary, we would have had no villagers to help at all.

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Just a few months ago, I had a note from the UU Church that there was, still, a further $10,000 left in the account that had been set up. Although the village was now rebuilt (the picture here shows the village at the time of the opening ceremonies; there are now thriving home gardens there),img_3363 and many other projects completed with the aid of USAID (which built a road leading from the new village beside the bird sanctuary to the old within it, by the sea), and the Norwegian Development Fund as well as other groups, there was still some left over, and it was sent to the Greens to use for one of the community development projects at Kalametiya. It was easy enough for us to get the money to them; my brother now works for the Greens, having given up his job in the for-profit sector.

0000-166-2Sri Lanka has gone through many changes. In 2004, the current President, Mahinda Rajapakse was not in power, but, as the Minister from Hambantota, and passionately committed to the protection of the country’s resources, it was he that blocked the efforts of multi-national hotel corporations from securing the pristine coastal area next to the sanctuary and, instead, handed it to the Greens. A year later he was President and the country embraced a new effort to address a thirty-year engagement with terrorism. Back then, in the aftermath of the tsunami, there was a time of goodwill toward each other that helped us all disregard the effect of terrorism. Jeff Greenwald wrote an essay, A Full Moon Over Sri Lanka, for Salon.com which speaks of that time and of the ways in which Sri Lankans cope with tragedy.

Today, five years on, there are still parts of the country which need to be rebuilt. There are parts of the country which also need to be de-mined and resettled and reunited. Success in all of these endeavors will not come because of speeches, declarations and focus-groups, even among the erudite and professional diaspora communities. img_3459It will come because of individual human beings doing what is right, because of compassion, trust and the ability to recognize the vastness of our common ground.

7 October, 2009

Move Your Blooming Arse!

This is a gripe about a trip with a few inconveniences. The Amtrak train that I was on was heading its peaceable way to Boston from Philly when its engine conked. As a woman with a near psychotic schedule, I was not overly perturbed to be given an extra hour on what I assumed would be a marginally delayed train. I smiled – and typed – through the walking-speed crawl toward New Rochelle, and unhurriedly gathered my belongings to transfer to the train headed to New Haven in New Rochelle. On that train I met a man, a father of two named Michael (one of my two favorite names, the other being Andrew), here visiting from Melbourne, Australia, who was a good conversationalist (we touched on the American health care system, public education, writing, Neil Postman and Tibetan and Theravada Buddhism), and easy on the eye. What was there to complain about? But I had to get off at New Haven, and there my sang froid began to rip and tare.

First, with a hundred milling passengers who were, by now, delayed by about an hour and a half, came an announcement that we were not to board the next train headed to Boston unless we had tickets for that particular train. Did I listen? Hell no. I had a reading to get to in Boston and there was no way I was going to miss it. So, board I did, along with a few other brave souls. Then I had to stand from New Haven to Boston and, unlike in Sri Lanka, there were no open doors to make that less claustrophobic and even thrilling. It was just a business of standing on a train with other disgruntled people, most ill-equipped by girth or height or age or type of baggage to squat or lean with any degree of comfort. I tried my best to dispatch a headache by alternating between trying to finish the book I had been cogitating over, Preeta Samarasan’s Evening Is the Whole Day, listening to Pitbull and Lou Bega, and texting my waiting friends in Boston. And third, I was forced to consider – with increasing outrage – all the able-bodied types who continued to warm their seats while old ladies and old gentlemen were struggling to stay upright while holding onto their luggage and whatever solid supports they could find.

People, it isn’t chivalrous to get up and give your seat to the elderly, pregnant women or children, it is basic human decency. It should be a hard-wiring in your brain that boots your arse out of your seat without you even having to think about it. It happens a thousand times a day in a thousand other situations around the world. It happened all my life when I lived in Sri Lanka. I was sometimes the benefactor, sometimes the one who reaped the comfort of another’s grace. I never once, in all my years in Sri Lanka, ever saw a pregnant woman, an older person of either gender, or a little child stand on a bus and the buses were invariably crowded.

So what is it with us here in America? What makes it possible for the limber of body and the, hopefully, blessed of mind, make eye contact with other human beings who have a need we can meet, register that fact, and then turn away or back to whatever it is that preoccupies us? To our laptops and iPods and books on tape and books on paper and newspapers and whatever else? I have to believe that it is our collective agreement to disengage from each other in this every-man/woman/child-for him/herself culture we have constructed around us. We don’t simply not care, we don’t see. We don’t connect unless there is something “in it” for us.

Somewhere toward Boston a seat opened up as one of the afore-mentioned individuals reached their destination. The seat was closest to me, and although I assumed it would be okay therefore for me to sit in it – by now there were only three of us standing and all of us were about the same age – I turned to the woman next to me and inquired, politely, “do you want to sit there?” This is what you would do back home in Sri Lanka. You would ask, and the other person would graciously say, “oh no, you take it.” Whichever one of you got the seat, the other person would at least feel acknowledged as having had a similar need. But I was not home in Sri Lanka. I was home in America. The woman said, “Oh, yes, I was going to sit there.” I went back to my book, leaving her to push past me to get to the seat which she occupied for all of about ten minutes before she had to get off. Getting up she told me “you can have my seat now.” I said nothing. I continued to stand the rest of the way. I wanted nothing to do with such people, nor with the places in which their sorry bottoms had rested. It was idiotic, I know, it proved nothing and only increased the fatigue that had by now enveloped me on this journey that had already lasted ten hours, several of those on my feet, but it made me feel holier-than-thou. Which was about all there was left to feel until I could reach Boston where a flurry of friends – most of them descendants of immigrants but an equal number born here – could restore my faith in basic human goodness.

3 October, 2009

I Do Not Hate Men

img_1505On the road with the book, there’s a question people keep coming back to that I find a little odd, and it concerns women and the strength of the female characters in my novel. I think Eric Forbes’ interview with me is the best example of this, and my response to him is the answer I usually give:

How did you go about creating two strong female protagonists?
I love women. I am drawn to them, I trust them, I think highly of them and I appreciate their gifts. Which, I think, makes me consider their strengths, the source of their resilience, and the difficulties they face with a particular empathy. It has to do with my gladness that they exist and that I am one of them, more than anything I could set out to do in terms of “creating” characters. There’s the famous quote “there are no ugly women, only women who do not know how to make themselves beautiful,” something like that. In my world, I don’t believe that there are weak-willed women, only women who have not realised their strengths. Strength is, for me, the default setting for women. They can improve upon it or disregard it, but it is always there.

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So there it is. That is what I think. But apparently it is not possible to express a love of women without generating the accompanying suspicion, “she hates men.” Just the other day, after what I thought had been a very enlightened discussion about the novel, a woman turned to the assembled and explained me to them as doing just that. So for the record, I want to say, categorically, I do not hate men. img_9979I am comfortable around them, having grown up with them – older brothers and male cousins and my mother’s male students made up my domestic landscape as a child – in a way that made boys a fact of life, not some mythical beasts to go chasing after or summon to my side with some beguiling charm. I was a tree-climbing, roof-scaling, wall-leaping, skinny, androgynous being who could, most of the time, outrun and outdo the boys. My mother has been known to haul me off to the barber along with her sons and I have emerged, at the age of nine with sideburns. I kid you not.

Perhaps being free not to have to define myself as being “other than a boy,” since I was quite clearly happy as a clam all but being one myself, img_1678made me look toward women with a particularly interested eye; and what I saw, growing up, were beautiful and intelligent and, often, burdened girls and women who displayed courage in spades. No woman in my life taught me to be afraid of anything. (I learned fear all by myself in America – and it has to do with psychopaths in parking garages and Hannibal Lecter types complete with night-vision goggles; men who want to hide women or eat women!!) What I grew up wanting to be was a woman like those women of my childhood: women with inner poise and resources of the spirit that nobody could touch or mangle or take from them.

What one wants to be or admires, usually informs the way in which a person approaches the world. I expect the women I meet to have a depth to the conduct of their lives that comes from inhabiting a world still tipping in favor of men, that their stories offer the kind of complexity I enjoy imagining, that their laughter has no bitter spring. I love women: I love the beauty of their physical selves, the abundance of their inner lives, their ability to see the threads in a tapestry, not just the picture it depicts.

I also love men. The men in my adult life have been and are a combination of the following: img_1825witty, smart, decent, funny, athletic, artsy, well-read human beings. Most of them can dance and are comfortable saying so. They are men who are confident enough in their masculinity that they can confess to a lack, define themselves by their thoughts and commitments, not their jobs and salaries, and who can be just as androgynous as grown men as I was as a girl. I approach the world as a woman who is at ease among them, who likes their company and can play all their games, and who is comfortable becoming any of the relatively harmless variations of female that men enjoy having around them. I never change who I am when I am around women and I have never been around a woman who has required that of me. And that is the simple difference in how I think about men and women. There is only a way of visiting with the world that finds me less on guard and more deeply engaged around women than around men. There is no hating involved.

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29 September, 2009

Raising Half & Halfs

I’m over at the Lost in Books site guest posting a few thoughts about raising cross-cultural children in America. There’s an excerpt below. Click this link for the full post and browse Rebecca’s other love, design through the Ruby’s Upcycled Designs site which has a hundred other links to gorgeous treasures made from something old.

“Sri Lankan children are unreservedly indulged from birth to the age of five. Mothers chase after them at lunch, with little balls of rice on spoons or, more usually, in their fingertips, cajoling the beloved to take one more bite of food. Water is warmed for their baths, they are coddled and cuddled and forgiven for all manner of travesties. They throw tantrums which are observed by smiling, sweet-tongue extended family. They are given the best of every luxury that a family is fortunate enough to come by, no matter their social status. At five, though, everything changes. That is when all children go to school; usually to montessori schools. At this point, they are expected to buckle down to the serious business of being not babies but children. Almost overnight, children realize – and appear to do so without too much trauma – that the honeymoon is over. They turn away from parents toward their peers, united by their common predicament. Parents, in turn, bond with those to whom their children are entrusted: teachers.

Sri Lankan children move, therefore, between what are considered two sets of parents, the ones who gave them life and those who teach them how to live. The first songs that children are taught in Sri Lanka are those that describe the respect due to both parents and teachers. And, in true Sri Lankan style, the lyrics are gut-wrenching! It is relatively easy for children to undergo this transformation because there is a universally accepted set of cultural beliefs to buttress the frame within which it takes place: respect for their elders no matter where they are found, the value of education, the importance of religious and cultural observances (Sri Lanka celebrates all four major religions of the world), the worth of hospitality toward guests and loyalty to ones friends.”

contd.

23 September, 2009

Update on Sri Lanka

Because of the book tour – and two periods of being pretty sick – I have been unable to keep up with the blog as diligently as I had tried to do before. Also because of these same things I have not been able to stay abreast of everything about which I am concerned – the health care issues here and the IDP issues in Sri Lanka. I’m going to try and redress the latter here with some updated information for those of you who are interested and ask me questions about these things when I am on tour. while the statistics and details below will give you an idea of the work being done through official channels, I want to mention that hundreds of small and large Sri Lankan organizations both in Sri Lanka and worldwide are participating in the reconstruction and reconciliation efforts throughout the island. I have been fortunate to be able to participate – albeit in a modest way – with the efforts of groups in Boston and Texas. As I discovered in the wake of the tsunami, those kinds of person to person initiatives have an extraordinary impact on both the giver and the recipient.

Last week, Lynn Pascoe, UN Under-Secretary General for Political Affairs, highlighted the progress made so far to rebuild Northern Sri Lanka to enable accelerated resettlement of displaced persons. That work includes the following:

Infrastructure, Roads and Transportation Development

Repairs on major highways of the Northern Province are under way. Roads now under renovation include the A9, A32, A 14, A 17, A 34, A 35 AB 19, AB 20 (Jaffna – Point Pedro) and B 229 (Murungan- Silavaturai). Work on access roads to highways and rural villages is also underway.

Health and Water Supply

The renovation of 12 rural health centers and hospitals in Killinochi, Mannar and Vavuniya district is due to be completed by mid-October. The Ministry of Healthcare and Nutrition is also planning to renovate the Killinochi base hospital.

Livelihood Development

Approximately 60 lorries of commercial goods and agricultural products were transported to and from Jaffna peninsula on the A9 ( Jaffna – Kandy) highway in August. Repairs to large irrigation systems in the Jaffna district (Thondaman Aru) and the Giant tank (reservoir) and the Agathimuruppu tank in the Mannar district have been completed. Fish production in the Jaffna peninsula has also increased and the harvesting of 1,731 metric tons fish production was reported in July. The production in May was just 774 metric tons.

Education: Displaced Children Take Entrance Exams

Of the Northern Province’s 1,011 schools, 575 are now open and repairs are underway in damaged schools. The Ministry of Education reports that the General Certificate of Education (GCE) Advance Level examinations (University entrance examinations) were held at 10 special examination centers in Vavuniya for 1,263 displaced candidates who are presently housed in IDP welfare villages. Among them were 166 ex-Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) child soldiers. The Zonal Education Office in Vavuniya successfully held grade five scholarship examinations for 5,465 children living in welfare villages and in the transitional camps in Cheddikulam. The Zonal Office and non-government organizations operating in Vavuniya district provided stationery for the children who sat for the exams.

Electricity

The Ministry of Power and Energy has initiated a program to restore the power supply in the Killinochi, Vavuniya and Mullaithivu districts. Power in the Killinochi town area, Oddusudan, Mankulam, Nedunkerni, Pallimudoi and almost all areas in Mannar district has been restored.

Monetary and Material Assistance

The Government of Sri Lanka will provide returning displaced families with $220, galvanized roofing sheets, six months of free dry rations, kitchen utensils and equipment required for daily living needs to the equivalent to US $ 35-$40, as well as agricultural seed and equipment and fishing supplies for coastal communities.

Rehabilitation of former Child Soldiers

Sri Lanka has implemented a comprehensive rehabilitation program for rescued child soldiers. The government has established two Children’s Protective Accommodation and Rehabilitation Centers (PARC) in Ambepussa, Kegalle (Central Sri Lanka) and Poonthottam Cooperative training School in Vavuniya Facilities for education and catch-up education, vocational training, recreational activities and special educational programs are also available. The centers feature telephone and meeting facilities that allow former child-soldiers to meet with parents, immediate family members and close relatives. Food and lodging for visiting family members are provided by the centers in collaboration with the UNICEF and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). The government continues to work closely with UNICEF on pending cases of underage recruitment.

De-mining

Initial surveys of Northern Sri Lanka suggest that there are as many as 1.5 million LTTE landmines and unexploded ordnance (UXO) over an area of 402 square kilometers. Sri Lanka has now purchased 10 de-mining machines from Slovakia and Croatia for $5 million. The machines can clear 5,000 square meters of land in a day, compared to 10 square meters for each human de-mining technician. The machines should significantly increase the pace of de-mining, leading to more rapid IDP resettlement. Seven nations are aiding Sri Lanka with de-mining: the U.S., UK, Denmark, India, Norway, Japan and Australia. At the end of August, a total of 445,370,401square meters have been cleared of mines and UXOs. The government of Sri Lanka has so far spent $64 million on de-mining operations.

Displaced Persons by Welfare Center
The number of IDPs housed in welfare village region:
Vavuniya District Relief Villages 224,394
Others in Vavuniya (schools, education facilities and elder care) 15,812
Vengala Chettikulam DS Division Welfare Centers 21,665
Jaffna District Welfare Centers 10,853
Trincomalee District Welfare Centers 6,842

8 September, 2009

The Lush Life of Bread Loaf

img_0932It is a little shameful that I have not written a word here since that last brief bleep from the mountain in the wee hours of the morning of the 14th of August. But only just a little.

Last year, the summer before Bread Loaf, I suffered a head injury as I charged around a house-to-be-sold in Maine trying to vacuum in the dark. I cursed and shrieked and woke up my sleeping neighbors and ended up in the ER demanding stitches. Odd how a year changes things. I suffered two physical injuries while I was at Bread Loaf this year. First, another bang on my forehead which resulted in a similar quantity of blood trickling melodramatically down my face. Forget the ER. I stuffed ice under a hat tilted rakishly over one eye and went about my business. Next I scorched myself by leaning – with relief, no less! – on a stove. This was managed by securing a pack of ice to my arm with the shawl that I happened to have draped around my neck that day. I sat thus through my entire workshop with the inimitable and wickedly funny Ann Hood, and thus avoided an unsightly blister and, indeed, ended up with a dark slash that looked more like a particularly edgy tattoo than a burn.

I recount these incidents because, besides being humorous anecdotes (and leaving the scars which I wear with some pride in retrospect), they had no impact on my frame of mind. Minor burns and head wounds are now within the realm of the controllable in my life. Indeed, during my time at Bread Loaf – to which I had fled literally from the radiation room – img_0780I had only one moment when the searing pain of those self-repairing nerve endings made me stop what I was doing and remember that I was not entirely whole or mended. And despite the fact that fatigue had dogged my footsteps every night on which I couldn’t get a sufficient amount of sleep all through treatment, while at the conference I could keep going on only two or three hours of sleep a night, night after blessed night.

There is something about Bread Loaf. I’m sure everybody who hasn’t been there is pretty tired of hearing that by now, but it is true, there is. Nothing that troubles me “on earth” – in my personal life, in my family history, in the world of wars, elections won or lost, not one of the things that move me to opine or rant – touches me while I am there. It isn’t conscious, it isn’t by design, it is just how the days unfold.

So it was a strange adjustment for me this time, knowing that the the first thing I had to do when I came back was see not one but three physicians. The first act, to take the first of the doses of Tamoxifen that I will be ingesting every day, twice a day for the next five years of my life, and have the surgeons and oncologists and pathologists look at me and declare me in one state of repair or another. 3,650 pills in all. A few days back, as I stepped up on to the scale to be weighed, a nurse exclaimed “You aren’t going to take off your shoes? And you’re wearing heels? Wow that’s brave!” And I smiled.

img_08221I realize that there are only two ways to talk about Bread Loaf. In silence, or with words that verge on the lushness that Charles Baxter nudged us to consider during one of his lectures; the kind of language that we have learned to shun because it is routinely ridiculed by critics. I am taking up Charlie’s challenge. Down the line, you will be able to access this years Bread Loaf lectures via iTunes and listen to what he says and agree that sometimes lushness is called for. Here are a few people I hold close, and what they had to say about being at the conference. Here is Alexander Chee whose post is titled, “Consider Writing an 86 Proof Sentence” (a quote from Charlie), and Eugene Cross, whose post for the Hayden’s Ferry Review Blog is titled, “What I learned from Charlie.” Hmm. Curious. Here is Christian Anton Gerard, poet and fellow staffer:

img_0155It’s occurred to me this week that perhaps one of the reasons we do what we do is because of the lack of time we feel in the world. We run to the top of a mountain to make time…We will tell our friends and family about that time in an effort to show how wonderful and perfect the world of writing can sometimes be, but like (a friend) said, “the beauty in our moments on the mountain is in the fact that we never know if we’ll be here again… Which makes every moment here a completely tangible, but slippery thing we will cling to for the rest of our lives, but never be able to fully explain to anyone else.”

It is indeed a gift for all of us to have been there, and perhaps even more so for us to have been there together, but the fact that we can always be there together because we’re all clinging to the same slippery time-rocks, which we share only among each other is a gift and something newly spectacular in and of itself, I think. If you need me. Any of you. I will be across a hayed field in the middle of a beautiful creek at the bottom of a wooded hill. I will be picking up rocks and loving them even as they slip away. I will be running after them, sitting atop them. I will be sated when you wade in with me.

img_03751So, did I care how much weight was added to the scales with my high heels? Is there a way to measure the weightlessness of finding ones soul-sisters and brothers, of knowing how to love and be loved in return by beautiful, brilliant strangers who become friends over the turn of a single phrase? What is the weight of the light that fills up my body and my heart when I am where I am always among friends, always among people who share the same dream, who are gifted not only in the art of creating worlds with words, but in committing everything they have to holding each other up? img_03882We’re all familiar with the way people look and behave when they have experienced grave danger, some disaster, or even some period of time which has been consumed by worry about their own fate or that of someone they care deeply about. They tip, tearful with relief into the arms of their beloveds. What happens at Bread Loaf is not unlike that. You get there and you realize that you have left worlds and lives bereft, most of the time, of people who know what it is like to nurse a craving for words, a sort of eternal itch that tangles the fingers and brain so that not to write and read and talk freely about reading and writing and muses and wordly habits is an acutely felt torture. You get there and you tip, delirious with relief, into the arms

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and minds

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and words

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and silences

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of your tribe.

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And you hold on

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until you have to let go.

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It is, indeed, a precious thing to recognize exactly what it is – what person or collection of people, what peculiar combination of forces or energies, what place, exactly – brings one the keen joy that renders a human being both full of oxygen and just as breathless. The body can endure all manner of slights from the universe so long as the heart can sing, and at Bread Loaf I always find that song, the voice with which to sing it and a heavenly orchestra to provide the music.

Here, in the one recording I have of the staff reading, are some of those musicians: Nina McConigley, Gerald Maa, Greg Wrenn, Zachary Watterson, Avery Slater, Ted Thomspon, Christian Anton Gerard and, at the very end, myself.

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As I think about the year to come, and all the success it will bring to the people who were beside me this year, I am moved to close this post with the fabulous Eugene Cross, in living color, reading a section from his short story, ‘Hunters.’ The full story can be read here at Hobart.

30 July, 2009

One Week On

If I delay this post for one more day I fear I will have to make it a photo essay. My love of words is sandwiched by my love of dance and my love of photographs, and the camera has taken over my life this week! There’s a sample gallery below.

The first three photographs, culled from the gazillion I took on that evening, are from the launch party hosted by Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative to the UN, Ambassador Palihakkara, at the Consulate in NY. That was an evening to remember. While none of my Sri Lankan family could be present, they seemed to fill the room in the words of the Ambassador as he recalled his association with them, particularly my father, the poet and public servant, and my brother, the poet, activist and journalist. His pride in the achievements of, as he put it, “a compatriot” (first picture), were only matched by his admiration for the social justice work that they have done and continue to do back home in deed and in word. Standing in a room where those closest to the book, my absolutely amazing agent, Julie Barer and my editor, Emily Bestler (second picture in row) in the same space as the best of my friends (third picture) from my many worlds, my family and my countrymen, I felt as though I was at the sort of auspicious gathering that is arranged before any major event in Sri Lanka. It felt like the perfect place from which to toast both an accomplishment and a contribution, to celebrate what had transpired, what might be, and more than all of it, what was in that moment: good people, good thoughts and grace.

The next nine photographs are from the inaugural public reading at the fancy B&N on 86th & Lexington. My first time in the “green room” which was quite posh and lead directly into the lovely spacious events room that was set up by the staff. It was an amazingly successful reading followed by a Q&A. I had thought that being up on a stage, sitting (there went the high-heeled advantage!), with a microphone positioned before me would be strange, but it felt like the most natural thing in the world. I could have stayed there all night. The questions were fantastic – I think everybody in the audience had one! They were thoughtful, appreciative and respectful. I couldn’t have asked for a better kick-off event. Double the wow-factor, of course, with the huge screens that broadcast both reading and discussion throughout the store (mute) and with sound in the cafe. How extraordinarily new-century – I got the wamth of my group and the PR bang of the broadcast. I think it is a new series that B&N is starting and the event should be up on a website near you soon.

Best of all, of course, was the presence, again, of my editor and her assistant and my agent – I tell you these people never rest, and some of my closest friends all of whom hail back to happy times at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference. We took many photographs and collared sweet souls coming down the escalators to check out my book in its prime-time spot right near the entrance. Please see pix. of the guy in a white t-shirt checking out the book for evidence of our doings. He was wonderful and bought if for his wife.

We headed out from there to The Campbell Apartments in Grand Central Station only to be told – unfairly – that Charles could not get in because of his open-toed sandals. Even though I had open-toed heels. I supposed we could have switched? We then filed out looking for the Library Hotel and its good looking bar, Bookmarks Lounge. The journey involved walking through the streets outside the hotel where I came upon the beautiful brass plates which contained quotes from various literary luminaries. It bought to mind the essence of NYC which, to me, involves traipsing endlessly looking for a place that might welcome you, and being surprised and delighted by the gems of discovery that are found in unexpected places. It is obvious which photographs are from the bar, I’m sure.

And lastly (orange dress), the first local reading at the Borders in Wynnewood, PA which was enormously successful in that it sold out of books (Borders, Bryn Mawr was a close second two days later!), and which presented the added hilarity of trying to belt out literary fiction (from a foreign context) over the sound of the ice-incinerator right next to – it seemed – my head! I had my first mango something or the other which was cool and sweet and lovely. And my first casual Q&A which was similarly fresh and energizing. It is such a dream to have people who read ask a writer questions that go beyond the mundane. And such an enormous privilege to be able to offer some answers. The after-party at home was just icing on an already fantastic cake.

Bryn Mawr, later that week, where I read with Josh Weil, Lise Funderberg, Rachel Pastan, Elizabeth Mosier and Jim Zervanos, was similarly illuminating and truly enjoyable. We read to a packed group – people ended up perched on tables at the back! – who sat through readings by six authors most of whom were relatively new. How can you top that outside a writing conference? We had great questions, outstanding book sales and the after-reading drinks next door were not to be missed. It is always such a delight to gather together with writers in the aftermath of such things and to listen as lives are revealed, just a little more, and the real stories are told. I hope the rest of the tour unfolds with these kinds of serendipitous occurrences and receptive audiences. It will, won’t it?

30 June, 2009

Who defines America?

underbellyIt’s been a couple of weeks since I got back from Chicago, but the conversation which I wanted to write about then is still on my mind and will be for a while. There was a bottle of wine and a group of writers discussing the matter of America, what could be better or less controversial? So I was a little bemused when one of our group uttered that infamous holler of ignorance, love it or leave it. Who, the writer demanded to know, has the right to come here and expect that “we” (Americans, albeit foreign born or recent descendants of the foreign born), know all about them? Be sensitive to them? What gives them the right to tell “us” what “our” country should look like, be and do? They should be grateful, the writer continued – it was a little difficult to thunder given the volume of other Friday evening conversations at an open air venue – and not come here and just “expect things.”

Which made me muse aloud – okay, I admit, it was a sharper than musing – about the right people feel to dictate who among us gets to define America. Earlier in the day I had listened to Deepak Unnikrishnan (there’s a bio here and a review of his book, Coffee Stains in a Camel’s Teacuphere) speak persuasively deepakabout the obligation he feels to his classified-as-Indian parents, to write and speak of their work and the work of multitudes of non-nationals to build and sustain Abu Dhabi. Two years ago, NYU created NYU Abu Dhabi amidst a clamor of support and dissent, the latter for all the wrong reasons. There was nothing new about yet another part of Abu Dhabi society (in this case education) being fortified by foreigners, that was, after all, the way the society is set up. What is wrong is what has always been wrong: the way in which Abu Dhabians perceive, and therefore devalue, those foreign nationals no matter their status. Whether one lectures on Aristotle or swills the toilets, a foreigner is simply a hired hand with no say in the ephemeral yet intensely meaningful civic life of the city they call home.

Thirty five years into their tenure, Deepak’s parents are not considered natives, nor will their life’s work give them the right to stay should they lose their jobs. Appalling, isn’t it? And yet, how different is an America where its citizens express those same biases? Is it no more than an Abu Dhabi, then, on a grander scale, with greater freedom? Or isn’t it the case that every immigrant here, no matter their legal status or newness, their degrees or lack thereof, their 401(k) plans or their intimacy with the soil in which they grow the strawberries for our tables while they are sprayed with pesticides from above, whose labor and starry eyes and acquisitions and tastes create the texture of this country, has an equal right to define it?

Recently I came across this clip of the spoken-word artist, YaliniDream, who performed at my friend, Charles Rice Gonzalez’ space, the Bronx Academy for Art & Dance (BAAD). This is Marian Yalini Thambynayagam, who is a second-generation Sri Lankan American. “I am not entertained by your confusion” she says in this particular piece, responding to the people who, like my young friend mentioned at the beginning of this post, don’t know where she is from, don’t care and don’t think they should.

Momma’s Hip Hop Kitchen Vol. II: YaliniDream from Jennifer Hobdy on Vimeo.

Listening to her was certainly difficult for me, a natural-born Sri Lankan with a strong sense of my country of birth, and a different perspective and sensitivity to the work she is performing. While there is deep yearning articulated by her speaking of the one tear that a Sri Lankan immigrant tries to catch in his or her hand just so she or he can taste the salt-soaked oceans of their past, knowing the terrifying complexities that abound for those still on that small island and being familiar with the self-indulgent fantasies of those of us within the diaspora, place a barrier between us that I find it difficult to cross. But there is great rage and anguish in her performance and she is a very gifted. Moreover, the entire piece articulates what might actually run through the mind of your average immigrant/from-somewhere-else/multiply-affiliated/tourist in response to a poorly placed question. manishaAnd aren’t those hidden thunderbolts precisely what drive us newcomers to say this is my country too? I will write my story, sing my song, speak my language, vote my politics, articulate my rage until I am no longer foreign to you?

I pick up books for no good reason; reason follows inevitably from the reading. And so, while re-reading the book, Half & Half: Writers on Growing up Biracial+Bicultural, I came across the following observation by Bharati Mukherjee:

In cities like San Francisco, where immigrants from Central America and South America jostle elbows with refugees from Cambodia and Vietnam, I’ve eavesdropped on thickly accented, enthusiastically conducted conversation “drive-through diagnostics” and “bun management” between people wearing fast-food-company logos on their shirt pockets. I want to think that in our multicultural United States, immigrants like them will play the stabilizing role that pride and history deny the major players.

The point is not to adopt the mainstream American’s easy ironies nor the expatriate’s self-protective contempt for the “vulgarity” of immigration. The point is to stay resilient and compassionate in the face of change.

Ah, at last, a happy balance where there is neither disgust at the people who “don’t understand” nor anger at those who long to be understood. Perhaps among the new, younger, truly multinational, Americans – like the President himself – there will be a recognition that patriotism is as patriotism does, and the same goes for citizenship. The country, any country, belongs to those who live in it, work within its borders, and help keep its many wheels turning.

19 June, 2009

Desi Writers Reflected in the Bean

chicagobeanIt’s been a week since I’ve been back from Chicago where I experienced a range of emotions. I got to be intensely frustrated, for instance, by having to look for a table as though we were trying to birth Jesus in a manger, and then having to wait an hour for no more than a pizza. I go to be bemused by my own interest in photographing my fellow-diners and myself as we were reflected in Anish Kapoor’s “bean” – more reverently named ‘Cloud Gate,’ – the giant polished steel-plated sculpture in Millennium Park that is like solid liquid mercury if such a thing is possible. I got to experience the happy oddness of being on a panel on politics which consisted of no less than four Sri Lankan (born in/affiliated) authors. More on that in another post, perhaps.

I got to watch one of my favorite things: a writer (in this case, Romesh Gunasekara), go from his ordinary life as an unassuming, gracious and quiet human being to embodying his art and electrifying his audience. romeshIt was too bad that I had to duck out after his first short story, set on a street in London where two men meet and are transported to the serendipity that might await them in an new life on Sri Lanka’s Northern shores. It was a marvelous picture-in-words of the possibilities people hold on to, whose very non-materialization is as important a part of their hold on us as is the prospect of making dreams come true. Romesh’s latest book is The Match.

I also had the good fortune of having deeply personal conversations with my host, Mridu Sekhar, who had opened her doors to me without ever having met me before; access to her food and room with a spectacular view and her lushly sweet and naughty grandchildren were add-ons. Mridu and I listened to Buddhist chants late into the night, and talked until 2 a.m. about the damage that can be done by kindness, the lasting hold that parents have on their children – she speaking of her father’s death, I of my habit of scolding my own for calling me every day, and about the way strangers meet and lift each other up.

bapsiprettyI have always been drawn to people who are several decades older than I am, particularly women – the more decades, the better! They ease my mind with their words and deeds, making me feel that I am not carrying some monumental burden on my own, that the world is being held up by someone with greater wisdom than I possess. Perhaps that is why my favorite festival moments were with Bapsi Sidhwa, who combines charm and wit and sagacity in a wonderful bouquet. I look forward to re-reading Cracking India now that I have heard it in her voice.

Meeting and listening to Amitava Kumar was also a sheer delight. He is one of those people who can be entertaining without being obnoxious, self-effacing without being condescending, and…there’s a third thing here since all things must come in threes, but I can’t find it. Suffice to say that his reading of The Immortals by Amit Chaudhuri accomplished the difficult task of amitavaadmiring a fellow-writer with the kind of clarity that serves as a guidepost to other readers, as well as an insight into his, Amitava’s, world view. I also enjoyed, for obvious reasons, his decision to read his essay on parenting his daughter, Ila. Having said all this, I was also acutely aware that he is not the sort of person to be a boor to an aspiring author, or anybody, really, but that he would not mince his words if he hated what you wrote. Which can be very funny, if it is not your own – bad – work he’s contemplating. Lord, may this not be my lot in life!! Before I go, and on that note, here is a clip of Bapsi speaking about forgiveness in her novels (this is the first youtube video I’ve uploaded!), and although it isn’t complete, it gives you a flavor of what she is like in person:

Overall it was great to meet all the South Asian writers, to share our experiences and grind our various axes. But it is always the conversations that stay on my mind. I’ll post on that soon.

The Books:

The Books:

On Sal Mal Lane

In the tradition of In the Time of the Butterflies and The Kite Runner, a tender, evocative novel about the years leading up to the Sri Lankan civil war.

A Disobedient Girl

A Disobedient Girl is a compelling map of womanhood, its desires and loyalties, set against the backdrop of beautiful, politically turbulent, Sri Lanka.


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