Posts Tagged ‘News’

9 August, 2009

I’m Leaving in a Mini-Van

The mini-van is actually a clapped out jalopy. When I take her into the local Firestone place down the street for inspection she is tucked way in the back. Parked, I kid thee not, next to the dumpster. People who are car-proud usually keep them sticker-free. Here are some photographs of the crazy stickers on the back of mine.


Anyway, I’m leaving in this Mini-Van today and heading out to the place in America where, I hope, when I am dead, my ashes will be scattered: Bread Loaf in Ripton, VT. This is where, for the past five years, I have had the enormous good fortune of attending the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. It is the first place where I ever sat in a workshop – which ended up resulting in the beginnings of my first novel. It is the place where I grew most into the parts of myself that I love, in my writing as well as in my personal life. The place where I felt completely at home and affirmed for the best iterations of my personality and where whatever was dark could be laid to rest. I will try to blog from there but I cannot promise to do so; there is an inviolable trust among its participants that I am not willing to break. But perhaps I will be able to write about the impact of a reading, a lecture or provide a guest post from a friend or two that will communicate what it means to be there.

Bread Loaf is unique for the fact that it is a conference where writers come to be around other writers rather than to write. Of course people come to Bread Loaf hoping to meet agents, make connections, and get their books published – I certainly did – but sooner rather than later, this desire is replaced by the realization that the best thing that can happen to a writer is to fall freshly in love with the art-form. img_1077The campus is situated on a loaf-shaped mountain in the village of Ripton, inaccessible by cell-phone – unless one chooses to go and perch upon a particularly craggy rock in the significantly tall grass, but why would you? There are pay-phones of the variety that is hardly ever seen anywhere these days, and phones linked by a network in small cottages which ring with a sound that most people in high school now would never have heard in their lives. Few Bread Loafers use the phones, in the end. There is wireless access in some spaces, and people will send the occasional email home, but there is very little time or, indeed, desire, to communicate with the world outside Bread Loaf.

The conference takes place over ten days and is charged from the get go with a schedule that brings the campus together for no less than four readings and a lecture by its distinguished and relentlessly gracious faculty and fellows each day alongside workshops in poetry, fiction and literary non-fiction, and craft-classes and panels and special talks and social gatherings. Most evenings are also given over to late-night readings by the amazingly talented waiters and staff (to which group I have belonged for the past three years as well as this), its accomplished scholars and fellows (Jhumpa Lahiri was a fellow img_1116 – the year her Pulitzer Prize-winning collection came out), as well as its faculty. Readings in the famous, and famously Spartan, Little Theater, go on until around ten thirty or eleven on many nights. There are also themed readings in the Blue Parlor, handled for the past three years and again this one, by the talented Nina McConigley whose book will undoubtedly be out soon. And there are informal readings arranged by conference participants during the day. And parties, and meals and conference-wide receptions and dances all of which revolve around being with and around and about writers and writing.

If I had to pick the one thing that made the dream possible, it was this one place. There’s a detoxifying atmosphere to Bread Loaf. Being exposed to 200 plus incredible writers at all levels of their career is like taking your seat among the blessed. You get a snapshot of the literary exercise, the journey, from before it img_1345 began to where it will still go, before you existed and after you are gone, and it is both sobering and heady. How can you compare anything to being able to stand and read from your very small contribution to the literary endeavor, in the same place where writers like Robert Frost, Toni Morrison, Eudora Welty, Anne Sexton, William Meredith, May Sarton, Ralph Ellison, Sinclair Lewis, Wallace Stegnar, Carson McCullers, and Edward P. Jones and a hundred others, have stood to read from their work long before they achieved greatness in their chosen field? A plain theater, hard seats, one light on a wooden rostrum and nothing but your words in the air, nothing but people who love words listening.

For me, Bread Loaf = heaven.

17 May, 2009

After War

Reflections at the dawn of the ‘Post-LTTE Moment’

by Malinda Seneviratne

sandballThis is a momentous occasion for Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans, regardless of ideological persuasion and preferred Utopia. Whether or not, as some have (in my opinion injudiciously) predicted, the LTTE will revert to its guerrilla avatar, it is clear that a point of no return has been crossed. We are now officially in the post-LTTE era in that the LTTE of Velupillai Prabhakaran, the LTTE capable of UDI posturing, the LTTE of strutting around with a ‘Sole-Rep’ tag, the LTTE claiming authority over a de-facto state, the LTTE with something close to a conventional army, has to be spoken of in the past tense. No future LTTE will be that LTTE, just like the post-89 JVP could never be the JVP of ’71 or the JVP of 88-89.

For a nation that has been held ransom by this bunch of thugs for close to three decades, this is certainly a moment that warrants celebration, not least of all because this is a moment that many if not all insisted will never materialize. We were told, ‘the LTTE cannot be defeated’. We were told that Colombo will be reduced to rubble if Mahinda Rajapaksa decided to take on the LTTE militarily (as it happened, he didn’t have an alternative; the LTTE was spoiling for a fight and insisted on a military confrontation). We were told that we had no option but to sue for peace (read ‘surrender to terrorism’). In short, this denouement was not scripted. Or, to put it another way, it was scripted out. Nowhere in the grand plans that many, both here and abroad, had for Sri Lanka was there mention of the possibility that the LTTE would be so comprehensively defeated.

In a world where engagement with terrorism has engendered more terrorism, where nations far more powerful than us have floundered in such missions despite superior weaponry, larger and better trained armies, far more sophisticated intelligence networks and systems, strong and willing allies, the efforts of Sri Lanka vis-à-vis the LTTE, arguably the world’s most ruthless and resourceful terrorist outfit, surely deserves the highest accolades.

beachThis nation that has had to face two bloody insurrections, a monumental natural disaster, contend with political intrigue, suffer the interference of powerful external forces, deal with poverty and unequal terms of engagement in the global political economy, can and should applaud itself for achieving this particular ‘unachievable’.

Celebration can take many forms. There can be the usual fire-cracker explosion of euphoria, the victory rallies across the country, the making of political capital, the rush to take credit whether it is deserving or not, and of course the waving of the national flag. I see no wrong, I do not object. On the other hand, I believe this is also a time for reflection and in particular self-reflection.

graveFirst of all let us all remember those who are no longer here to celebrate with us, those who made the supreme sacrifice so that this day could dawn, so that these celebrations can take place. Let us remember all those who had to die because killing innocent people was ‘fair game’ for the mass murderer called Velupillai Prabhakaran, a fact that his apologists chose to ignore. Let us remember the fact that this war necessitated a diversion of resources from other vital areas of national interest such as education, health, agriculture and industry. In short there was an opportunity cost here; a massive foregoing, a forfeiture whose affects will never be fully calculated.

I call for a greater degree of sobriety because the celebration of this moment in this ‘moment after’ simply means that there was an unhappy ‘moment before’. Over 70,000 of our citizens perished before we could come to this ‘here and now’ of flag-waving. Property worth billions of rupees was destroyed. Infrastructure that could have changed the lives of millions of people never got built.

And then there’s ‘the enemy’, perceived and real. boyShould we not reflect now on the validity of perception? Should we ask ourselves if there is such an entity called a permanent enemy? Should we not walk a few miles along the pathways their thoughts have passed, reside for a while in the residencies of their concern, and test the textures now and then of the dreams they must have invited, entertained and allowed to take possession of their days and nights? Should we not do these things if we want to find out with what gaze we should look at them today, tomorrow and the day after?

There is the ‘hardcore’. No one is born with some congenital ability to differentiate the hardcore from the innocent, the one who is ideologically committed to killing for a cause and the one who is coerced into killing. This is why it is prudent to screen the thousands who have streamed into welfare centres. Empathy does not necessarily bar circumspection.

We must remember, however, that even if there wasn’t the bloodbath that the David Milibands and Bernard Kouchners predicted (and salivated for?), blood certainly was shed. That blood belonged to citizens of this country. tamilmenThat blood cannot be allowed to be orphaned. It flowed out of bodies; bodies that contained minds, hearts, aspirations, bodies that contained lips that would have broken into smiles or half-smiles, wry or coy, lips that kissed or dreamed of kiss, bodies that were made of skin, of limbs, cheeks and eyelids, all of which would have once been tenderly touched by mothers and fathers. Yes, they killed. They wronged the most innocent. They were wrong. In the exchange of fire that is war there is no space for any tenderness. In this post-war moment, it will be hard to feel pity, but it will not be impossible to understand why a 12 year old came to hold a gun in his hand or how a 13 year old blew herself up or how a 15 year old had to be shot dead since this was the only way to stop him from killing 100 people by exploding himself.

I just watched 3 young girls belonging to the LTTE’s suicide unit, recently captured, being interviewed on national television. Could we consider them hardcore LTTE cadres, replete with a sound understanding of the conflict, its historical antecedents, motives, logic, legitimacy etc? No. Kids. That’s what they are.

twogirlskuruConsider the IDPs. Consider the acronym. IDP. Internally displaced person. Well, one cannot for reasons of space refer to all the 200,000 persons displaced by name, but ‘IDP’ certainly makes them nameless, turns them into numbers. Today we know that some women decided to conceive so that they could escape (for a few years) forced conscription. Today we know that the LTTE deliberately burnt the temporary shelters of people living in the No-fire Zone so that they would be forced to spent sweltering days out in the sun, suffering dehydration and be rendered less able to make a break for freedom. Will we stop to remind ourselves again and again that these 200,000 plus people have at least 200,000 stories and that most of them cannot be happy ones? Would we see in the elderly man carrying a suitcase on his head and ‘sprinting’ to freedom our fathers? Would we each recognize our grandmothers in the breaking voice of the old woman lamenting the death of a child or heart-broken because someone near and dear didn’t make it and might have died? tamilgirlWould we see in the bewildered eyes of a child the incomprehensibility we never want to see in our own children? When we see a picture of a family clutching a bundle of belongings will we wonder what we would choose to take with us if we had to flee our homes at a moment’s notice?

Will we understand that almost every family from the Wanni would include at least one person who is ashamed of the fact that crimes against humanity were perpetrated by the LTTE in their name, that the LTTE brought disgrace to their community? Will we understand that in every family there was someone who died and that a child or a father does not cease to be a child or a father just because she/he died in battle, in uniform, or as a suicide bomber seeking to kill innocents? priestsWould we acknowledge that many innocents had to die, many whose only crime was being in the wrong place and the wrong time? Would we have anything to say to the loved ones of the unnecessarily dead? Will we commiserate with them in the same tone, heartbeat murmur and tear-temperature as we did with the near and dear of those who died in the Pettah bomb blast, the Dehiwala attack, the Borella attack, the attack in Kebithigollewa? Would the place names familiar to the Tamil dead roll off our tongues as easily as Aranthalawa, Kanthalai, Kebithigollewa, Dutuwewa etc., even as we recognize difference in purpose and method?

incenseThere was an ‘LTTE-time’. That was a forbidding time. The LTTE did not give any of us the space to think ‘human being’. Those who chose to think ‘human’ and to ignore the reality of ‘terrorist’ altogether, took us up the garden path and while we were sniffing the flowers the LTTE went around killing people. It was a time that required ending and it was abundantly clear that this time could not end unless the LTTE was taken out of the equation. It is not that the forces were inhuman or that we were and there’s ample evidence to support this thesis, but tenderness must necessarily be made secondary when fighting a brutal terrorist.

Today we are not in an ‘LTTE-time’. We are in a post-LTTE time.srilanka08-1337 I believe that this is a moment when we can, if we so want, look beyond identity and see human being, look beyond label and political familiarity and recognize ourselves in these ‘other people’. Seeing pictures of people who had fled LTTE-controlled areas, it occurred to me that my arms were not long enough to embrace all those who deserve embrace (and I was convinced that the vast majority are not unworthy of embrace). It occurred to me also that this country must cultivate a willingness to embrace; a readiness to engage, to tolerate, to affirm chosen identity but respect difference, to celebrate the defeat of a brute and at the same time resolve to recognize the vulgarity of celebration in certain contexts.

kovilIn this post-LTTE moment, in this ‘non-LTTE time’ let us also remember that the more arduous task of rebuilding our nation, resolving the problems of poverty, drugs, crime and political violence and creating a more democratic, tolerant and hard-working society has begun. Let us remember to recall the common humanity of all communities, the essential goodness of all religious faiths and the splendor of all cultural traditions and create a space for all these things to thrive in harmony.

I believe we fought the necessary fight, we fought it well and we have come through scarred, crippled but unbowed and with our ability to slay our ghosts intact. We have come through the long tunnel called a 3-decade war. planting It is time to welcome the dawn, the post-LTTE dawn — with pride, a sense of self-worth, with pomp and pageantry if necessary, but most certainly with reflection, humility and compassion.

Malinda Seneviratne is an award-winning journalist and reporter based in Colombo, Sri Lanka. His political commentary appears internationally and he was a part of an international team of election monitors during the U. S. Presidential elections. This article first appeared in The Nation, Sri Lanka. He edits the monthly magazine, Spectrum, and he can be contacted at

26 April, 2009

Obama’s DC

I should have written this while I was still sneezing among the dogwood, tulips and cherry blossoms, but DC has a way of taking up all available space, time and mind and I have a way of dancing to the music…

I was in the area for a multitude of reasons: community building, political advocacy, book promotion, policy wonkishness (I am, quite possibly one of the few individuals who actually listened to the Clinton impeachment hearings in real time), much of which coincided with the amazing South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT) 2009 Summit.

During the course of the last three days I met with a variety of senior staffers from the new administration including those from the Department of Homeland Security, Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office, the white House offices of Public Engagement, Intergovernmental Affairs, and Management & Budget. Having lived in DC in the past, and worked in the American national and international non-profit sector as well as the Federal government, what was most illuminating to me was the transformation of the way in which the business of governance is being conducted. To a person, the officials with whom I met, described a process where listening was giving precedence over talking, where partnership with community leaders was valued above the dictating of regulations, and where the underlying precept is that policy ought to be informed by the expertise of the people who are working in the field rather than implemented in an environment devoid of consultation. Even more staggering was the revelation that the new administration was committed to “preemptive strikes” whereby the problems that crop up in the field can be brought to lawmakers and solutions negotiated before they became poisonous enough to require lawsuits.

And all this transmitted to us by a sea of faces that in color and gender and sexual orientation reflects the awesome diversity of the nation itself. It is true, I suppose, that a country gets the leadership it deserves, and that such leadership is deserved only by a populace willing to do the work of bringing it to being.

Describing the best part of their jobs, the various White House personnel gave us a snapshot of a president as accessible as he is inspiring, but the words of Christina Tchen, Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, were particularly evocative:

“Everything you saw in him on the campaign trail is true. His is the amazing marriage of a brilliant mind and the power of the office. He is always the most intelligent and the most thoughtful person in the room. He listens, and when he disagrees, it is with the utmost respect of the person with whom he is disagreeing.”

I will have to write more about the conference itself in another post, but for now I will have to simply say that my delight – in discovering, in person, that the change I worked to make possible in my corner of the country, is coming to fruition – was tempered by the fact that the State Department lead by Hillary Clinton, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chaired by Senator Kerry and the Sub-Committee which deals with Sri Lanka, as chaired by Senator Casey, is yet to make a statement that is cognizant of the reality on the ground in Sri Lanka. It seems particularly jarring to me that a president who is known for his desire to know all the facts before he speaks is letting these bodies do the exact opposite. To have people who have never visited the conflict zone in Sri Lanka, or spent any reasonable length of time traveling within the country, put out press releases that run counter to the facts, unpleasant though they may be to take, is a deplorable repetition of the arrogance of the administration they replaced. I would have thought that in light of a new push into Afghanistan, the Obama administration would be more circumspect than that, and that the NYT or the the Washington Post would have had the guts to say what the Washington Times did, just this morning.

Lord knows that I did my best to get the offices of both Casey and Nancy Pelosi to agree to facilitate a multi-ethnic discussion within the Sri Lankan diaspora here. So far, campaign finance contributions appear to have ruled harder than civic engagement, commitment to America’s progress and place in the world and ideological support. Then again, the night is still young. There is such a thing as a learning curve. Perhaps this, too, will pass. I’ll keep y’all posted.

24 March, 2009

Foreign Media

After a late night talking to John Zuarino for a sweet interview he did with me about the book, a night pushed through with the ingestion of Emergen-C and Samahan to stave off whatever illness is in the air, and a morning spent volunteering at a book fair, I was feeling pretty wiped. What, oh what, could I blog about? As usual, Facebook gave me an easy answer. Scrolling through the links my friends had posted, I came across yet another account by a foreign journalist, in this case an Australian, ranting about restrictions on travel into the areas in which the Sri Lankan government is fighting the terrorist group, the LTTE. That there are restrictions on travel into the Vanni is true. That usually is the case when there is a war going on. The government did not, and will not, allow this journalist into the zones where the LTTE is holding Tamil civilians hostage. They did and will allow Sir John Holmes, the United Nations Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator to travel through those same areas freely. Those restrictions are in place for the safety of the reporters themselves. As a case in point, my own brother, a senior and well respected journalist and someone who works for Sri Lanka’s media unit is, himself, required to undergo the same process to request permission in order to travel to the North as well as the security to do so safely.

It is all too easy for these fly-in journalists to put their neat articles together based on whim and fancy, and our desire to “access the latest breaking news” from anywhere, be it through bloggers or twitterers, makes us complicit in the creation of untruths. A journalist who wishes to cover a current conflict can only do so with any credibility if they have taken the time and gone to the trouble of learning about the country about which they want to talk. In a hard-hitting and prescient article in the American Journalism Review, Sherry Ricchiardi wrote about the age of “parachute journalism,” i.e. those who drop by and write about conflicts they do not understand. She quoted Ted Koppel thus:

Nevertheless, it still amounts to parachute journalism. “Look, I don’t care how good you are, how experienced you are, if you’ve never been in a country before, and you are just parachuted in to cover a crisis, all you can do is skim the surface of what is going on…You don’t have sources, you don’t have the background, you don’t have the context.”

Among the journalists who are commended in her article is Roy Gutman, who reported from 1989 to 1994 as Europe bureau chief for Newsday, work for which he was honored with a Pulitzer in 1993 and the George Polk Award for foreign reporting. Gutman’s claims the work he put into building a solid base of knowledge and “becoming intimately acquainted with the territory” he covered as his strengths. “You have to have experienced people who can figure out the big pictures as well as the little picture. The worst thing that can happen in a crisis…is taking the word of one side or the other and running with it and not understanding the context,” he is quoted as saying at the time.

It is bad enough when journalists take the easy route of interviewing a few expatriates – without investigating their political and economic investment in giving a particular slant to a story – or quote “sources” they access via a long-distance phone call. But it is particularly egregious to do so when it involves a small country on the other side of the world that most people have never heard of and whose fate, too, is not of import to a given international readership. But they are no less human, no less complex, no less deserving of respect than the people who glance at these stories over their morning cups of cappuccino down a street in New York City, or in a bookstore outside Melbourne.

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.