Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep. Musings from someone who sees stories everywhere.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

On Sal Mal Lane: book review

Further to my interview with author Ru Freeman, my review of her novel, 'On Sal Mal Lane' has been published in Deccan Herald

Ru Freeman's 'On Sal Mal Lane' revolves around the civil war in Sri Lanka. DH illustration for representation purpose only.This beautifully-crafted and memorable tale set in Sri Lanka in the 1980s is both heartwarming and heartbreaking. 

Ru Freeman’s gentle, lyrical prose brings to life a gracious past, where ethnic strife casts ominous shadows over a calm neighbourhood and its innocent children. 
Sal Mal Lane, a dead-end street in Colombo, is a microcosm of Sri Lanka’s multicultural society. 

The residents represent all ethnicities and walks of life, from the broad-minded and generous Herath family to poverty-stricken elders Lucas and Alice.

The Bollings exemplify promising lives gone to seed. Their son Sonna’s spirit is mangled with abuse. 

The Nadesans and Bin Ahmeds are cultured and reserved, yet gracious and accepting, while the Silvas are prejudiced hardliners.

As the omniscient narrator sums up; “Everyone who lived on Sal Mal Lane was implicated in what happened, including Lucas and Alice, who had no last names nor professed religious affiliations, the Tamil Catholics and Hindus, the Burgher Catholics, the Muslims, and the Sinhalese, both Catholic and Buddhist. Their lives were unfolding against a backdrop of conflict that would span decades involving intermarriage, national language policies, births, deaths, marriages, and affairs — never divorces — subletting, cricket matches, water cuts, power outages, curfews, riots, and the occasional bomb. And while this story is about small people, we must consider the fact that their history is long and accord them, too, a story equal to their past.” 
The author portrays with tender empathy how good intentions can result in warped and terrible outcomes. 

Cruelty, intended and unintended, to one person, can cause a chain of unforeseen and apparently unconnected disasters. 

Kindness can also come from unexpected places to usher in rays of hope. The significance of impersonal news reports of terror attacks, upheavals and the machinations of political leaders, finally reaches Sal Mal Lane. 

The author portrays their terrible effects on innocent children and well-meaning adults, as the residents of Sal Mal Lane stand bewildered and helpless before a tsunami of violence. 

The cultured and prosperous Herath family, particularly the four children, are at the heart of this story. 

The Heraths are Sinhalese Buddhists, who respect all religions. Mrs Herath sings carols during Christmas, and shares the festivities of her neighbours from other religions. 

They are generous people who assimilate even the shabby Bolling twins and the dim-witted Raju into their welcoming fold. The Heraths’ lives are filled with music, which enthrals Suren, the eldest son. 

Rashmi is the perfect Sri Lankan daughter, with her impeccable behaviour and top grades at school. Nihil, the younger son, is a budding cricketer who has a way with words. 

Devi, the lively youngest daughter, is born on an inauspicious date. Nihil takes it upon himself to protect their darling baby sister from disaster and premature death.

As the narrative builds up, we are shown how violence is taking over a peaceful land, and spilling into the lives of the people of Sal Mal Lane. 

At times, the ominous build up of the Tamil separatist movement is deftly crafted into the story. 

Raju, his mother Mrs Joseph, and their neighbour Mrs Silva discuss how Sinhalese hooligans burnt down the Jaffna Public Library, with its store of priceless manuscripts, and how Prabhakaran, claiming leadership over all Tamils, is leading them into a war against the state. 

What matters to these neighbours meeting for a chat is the here and now. 

“Only situation for us to worry about is trouble brewing in the North,” says Mrs Joseph.

“Soon, I’m told, it will all come spilling here, to Colombo. To our streets too!” At another point, old Mr Niles reflects how “the matter of language, not of street signs but of education and examination, had been manipulated by both Tamils and Sinhalese in turn, the one alongside the British colonisers, the other after the colonial power had been driven out.” 

At times, the exposition can get prolonged and tedious. 

The characters come across as mere mouthpieces explaining communal tensions.

From pages 190 to 199, we get dialogues which seem contrived to offer an account of how “Vellupillai Prabhakaran, who was leading a terrorist outfit from the jungles of Jaffna.
Prabhakaran is Tamil, Prabhakaran’s group is Tamil, but not all Tamils support Prabhakaran.

” The riots and its effects on Sal Mal Lane are beautifully rendered, showing the human cost of strife.  Violent death visits the lane, ironically caused by the residents themselves. 

The book ends on a sad yet hopeful note. 

The people of Sal Mal Lane are scarred forever. Yet each character, no matter how insignificant or apparently vile, shows some saving graces. 

Sonna Bolling, the ruffian ‘bad boy’, does his best to limit the destruction in his neighbourhood.
Jimmy Bolling, the insensitive and cruel father, goes forth to help his neighbours in distress. 

The neighbourhood shopkeeper refuses payment for food intended for riot victims.  Even the bigoted Silvas leave buckets on the road, for neighbours to douse fires caused by rioting. 

The children are weighed down by the knowledge that what has been lost can never be regained. 

Yet there is life beyond the ashes of arson, looting and death. 

Suren continues to seek solace in music, while Rashmi immerses herself in cooking delicacies Devi loved, and then sharing the treats with others less privileged.  
Nihil learns to put behind his resentment, emerges from his self-created cocoon of isolation, and reaches out again to Mr Niles. 
On Sal Mal Lane
Ru Freeman
pp 388
Rs 499

Monday, March 24, 2014

Ru Freeman: Author interview

Ru FreemanRu Freeman is a Sri Lankan–American writer and activist. Her debut novel, A Disobedient Girl, was longlisted for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature and translated into seven languages. She has been a fellow of the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Yaddo, and the VirginiaCenter for the Creative Arts. She blogs for the Huffington Post on literature and politics and is a contributing editorial board member of the Asian American Literary Review. She calls both Sri Lanka and America home and writes about the people and countries underneath her skin. Her first novel, A Disobedient Girlis the story of Latha and Biso, two Sri Lankan girls working as domestic helpers, who strive for a better life. Her latest work, On Sal Mal Lane, is a sad yet hopeful tale of children growing up in times of civil strife and impending civil war in Sri Lanka. This beautifully written novel has also been longlisted for the DSC Prize. Sal Mal Lane, a dead end street in Colombo, presents a microcosm of Sri Lankan Society. The well to do Heraths are kind and generous Sinhalese Buddhists who celebrate all religions, from singing Christmas carols to sharing Diwali sweets with their neighbours. The other neighbours are Sinhalese Catholics, Burghers, Tamil Catholics, Tamil Hindus and the reticent yet gracious Muslim Bin Ahmed family. The novel explores through the eyes of the children, the effects of increasing communal tensions. Riots, death and destruction visit this happy and peaceful community, and battle lines get drawn. The children realize that what is lost forever cannot be regained. They try to come to terms with this loss in their own ways.
This interview is published in Kitaab

 How do you develop your characters? Were Raju, Kala Niles, Joe Bolling or Nihil Herath, for example, based on people you knew?
My father, during my last visit, on whom I have based Mr. Herath: Ru Freeman
My father, during my last visit, on whom I have based Mr. Herath: Ru Freeman
Most of what we write is non-fiction, in my opinion. My characters are composites of people I know but they hardly ever appear as themselves. There are bits and pieces of Devi which were drawn from my own childhood, and that of my nieces and daughters, there is a piano teacher who still lives across the way from my parents’ home down a dead-end street in Colombo, but Kala Niles is not really her, and so forth. I don’t know where they come from, except that the story needs these people and so they arrive from memory and imagination.  

What were your influences in the early years?  And later on as you matured as a writer and published author?

I believe we all wrote because we wanted to escape certain difficulties in our lives. My parents had a hard personal life and my brothers and I responded to that by disappearing into books and writing. Still, we also admired them greatly and emulated some of what they did. My mother had written for documentaries and directed plays, so we wrote in that vein too, or tried to anyway. I’ve always written because I love doing it, but after I came to the U.S. I was exposed to more living writers and grew to also love the influence of their company. I owe a vast debt of gratitude to all of those people – Jane Hirshfield, Michael Collier, Ursula Hegi, Lyn Freed, Peter Ho Davies, Charles Baxter, Karen Russell, Cristina Garcia, Edwidge Danticat, NoViolet Bulawayo, to name a very few – who affirmed me as a writer and a peer.
Many authors say that there is a little of themselves in their stories and characters. Do you feel this is true of your own writing? Do you rely heavily on personal experiences, write from what you know, or do you rely more on research and external knowledge?
The two books I’ve written thus far were both set in Sri Lanka. My country runs through my veins. You don’t have to research your own blood! Yes, there is a lot of autobiographical detail in this book, but only as a point of departure. It is fiction.
Children play a pivotal role in On Sal Mal Lane, and you treat them with deep sensitivity and understanding. It is through their eyes that we see the escalating strife unfold. What were your reasons for choosing this approach in a novel meant for adults?
I like the way children almost always sense things, but never have all the information, all the pieces of the puzzle as it were. Having grown up in Sri Lanka through these years (I only came to the U.S. to go to college), I had very strong opinions about what happened. But in writing this novel I had to let go of what I felt/knew and tell a story that was compassionate to everybody. I felt that would be best accomplished if I went with the children. In telling a story through their eyes, I had to shut my own.
“The street where my parents lived and where I grew up and on whose configuration I have based Sal Mal Lane” — Ru Freeman. 
Do you also plan to write for children and young adults?
Well, it seems to me that there is a great deal of money to be made in writing dystopian novels for young adults, but, although I certainly would like to be wealthy, I am not sure I have the inclination or the skill, necessarily, to write those books.
Many Asian writers based in Western countries tend to write stories about the homeland left behind, rather than the land where they now live. What were your reasons for writing such a purely Sri Lanka story. Why did you choose this over east-meets-west stories favoured by expatriate writers?
I find the east-meets-west stories boring since I am living that life. It would be like detailing the minutiae of my existence which is dull enough on most days! As a Sri Lankan, I am engaged not only in writing stories, but detailing the history of my country and making it come alive for people who may know nothing about it. I consider that a privilege and a responsibility. I do write stories that aren’t set in Sri Lanka, but most of what I write (short fiction, poetry, personal essays), are about considering human beings, the things we lose when we imagine that we are gaining something.
What are you working on now?
A new novel that is not set in Sri Lanka – so far, anyway. And putting together two collections of short-stories. One set in Sri Lanka and another everywhere but there.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Writing requires a retreat into ones self. Interview with Ken Spillman

Ken Spillman is a multi-faceted author from Australia, whose writing has won legions of fans across Oceania, Asia and the world. With over 35 books spanning many genres to his credit, he is also an editor and a critic. Dr Ken Spillman is an examiner for doctoral and masters degrees. An entertaining and uplifting speaker, he has captured the hearts of tens of thousands of children in Australia, China, India, Malaysia, Oman, Philippines and Singapore.
Ken Spillman

Ken Spillman’s Jake Series is a smash hit with younger readers. His adventure series,  is attracting many fans in India, as is his novelAdvaita. His widely appreciated Young Adult novels, Love is a UFO and Blue have captured the hearts and minds of teenagers.
His writing has been shortlisted for a WA Premier’s Book Award five times in four different categories – for two wins. His impressive list of literary honours includes:
Creative Development Fellowship, Department of Culture and the Arts, Western Australia, 2010
Top 5 listing, The Australian critics’ Books of the Year, 1997
Winner, Fellowship of Australian Writers’ National Literary Award.
Over to Ken Spillman,. (This interview is published in Kitaab)
Your books are widely read and appreciated by readers all over Asia and worldwide. What’s your magic formula for infusing your writing with such universal appeal?
I don’t really think there’s a magic formula. Good stories well written travel all the time – after all, we read to enter other worlds. For a writer coming from outside the US and UK, however, finding global markets is difficult. For me, fun is the key. Sometimes I ask audiences, “Who likes fun?” – and of course they all raise their hands enthusiastically. I have a sense of fun and, beyond that, I can only say that I’ve worked hard for a long period, been patient, had some luck, and benefited from the guidance and example of others.
You are a PhD yourself, and an examiner for doctoral and masters degrees. That’s exceedingly serious business. How do you balance this grave and scholarly side of you with your fun and imaginative work as a children’s writer?
To be brutally honest, I did the doctorate for the scholarship money! Sure, I’ve always had an enquiring mind and enjoyed critical analysis, and I definitely found all of my tertiary education far more stimulating than high school. But all the while, I wanted to write my own stories. Writing for young people came easily because I’ve always connected well with them, not just at the level of fun but in terms of understanding their anxieties.
You are a native of Australia. But several of your books are set in India, with Indian characters. Is there any special reason for this? Perhaps a story behind those stories?
India captured my imagination immediately when I first visited in 2006. I connected at some deep level and can only speculate that the seeds of this were planted by 2 Anglo-Indian teachers I had in primary school. They spoke with such love about India, and their stories of childhood stayed with me. Anyway, after that 2006 trip I returned home to start reading a lot of Indian books for both adults and children, and planned my next visit. In 2008 I was selected for an Asialink Fellowship, funded by the Australia-India Council, which enabled me to write for nearly four months in Delhi. I had intended to write only one story, but I wrote several – I couldn’t stop! After presenting sessions at the Mussoorie International Writers Festival, I returned to Delhi and wrote Advaita the Writer – my first book with Indian characters and settings. I’m incredibly proud that this is now so popular, and recommended by CBSE. Subsequently, my many visits to Indian schools gave rise to Daydreamer Dev, while the sight of Indian kids in Australian classrooms inspired the Radhika stories.
How does the children’s writing scene in Asia and Oceania compare with the rest of the world? Do you feel that Asian cultures, with their penchant for tiger-style parenting, tend to give inadequate importance to imaginative children’s writing?
Writing scenes are similar everywhere – it’s the publication and distribution side that is different. In India, Oceania and some South East Asian countries, we have huge numbers of good writers and illustrators but we work outside the mainstream. It isn’t easy to sustain a writing practice without taking work to markets beyond our own. My conviction is that the industry in our region should focus on collaborative efforts to establish a third English-language powerhouse – to rival and ultimately top the USA and UK. Regarding your second question, I do think that creative writing is undervalued – but not just in Asia. It’s something we battle everywhere.
You’ve wowed audiences everywhere with your readings and presentations. With all the litfests, launches, readings and other hoopla being mandatory for writers these days, how do you balance it all with the hard work of writing?
The short answer is this: with difficulty. Writing requires a kind of retreat into oneself, an internal life, the loss of audible speech to some extent. My public life is the exact opposite, and it’s not easy switching from one mindset to another. I usually need a day or two of transition. For me, there’s no chance of writing after a day of speaking.
Do you identify yourself with any of your fictional characters?
I identify with all my leading characters in some way. In the Jake series, Jake’s imagination allows him to have fun, and that has always applied to me. He’s more of an action man than I was as a kid, though – less inhibited. I’m a daydreamer like Dev. I felt the way Advaita does in Advaita the Writer when I left Perth to go to university in Brisbane. Like Advaita, and also Oscar in I Am Oscar, I have used humour and crazy thoughts to get through tough times. I exaggerate things in my mind like Radhika does in Radhika Takes the Plunge. You name the character, and there’s a little of me.
Any favourites among your own books?
When kids ask me this, I say that they are like children – I love them all in slightly different ways. The ones that are not yet published are like babies – they can wake you in the night. The others are more grown up and, while I can give them a helping hand, they need to make their own way in the world, and all I can do is hope that they find people who will love them. Having said all that, I have think most often about I Am Oscar and Advaita, which depict young people dealing with very challenging times yet articulating their funny, imaginative selves.
What are you working on now?
Over recent years I’ve tended to work on several projects at once. I’m doing some final edits on another Radhika story – about my Indian girl who has moved to Australia. I’m working on another YA title, and a couple of picture books. I’m really excited about one of these – calledThe Circle, it’s for older readers, on the subject of displacement and refugees,  and it carries pictures by an Indian fine artist, Manjari Chakravarti. I will be setting aside time for a newJake book very soon, too.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Two novels by Nirmal Verma: a review

Days of Longing
Nirmal Verma, translated by Krishna Baldev Vaid  
2013, pp 224

The Red Tin roof
Nirmal Verma, translated by Kuldeep Singh
2013, pp 241

Celebrated Hindi novelist Nirmal Verma earned many honours, among them India’s highest literary award, the Jnanpith. In his fiction, he used exquisite descriptions of a realistic outer world to reflect the complex emotions and thoughts of his characters. These two smoothly translated novels are welcome introductions to Verma’s brilliant work for readers unable to enjoy them in the original Hindi. 

Verma’s protagonists are deeply sensitive, introspective beings throbbing with vivid inner lives. The young Indian student of Days of Longing is compelled to rough out the bitter cold of Prague because he can’t afford to go home for the winter vacation. His friends are other expatriate students from far corners of the world, who have stayed back in an icy alien city for the same reason. 

He has a brief but intense love affair with Raina, an Austrian tourist, who engages him as her interpreter and guide. The brightness of the world outside, “like a clean blank page in a dirty notebook,” reflects the transient warmth and beauty of their brief encounter. The lovers try to “squeeze the last drop of warmth and life” out of their “false spring” days. The beauty of Prague comes alive through Verma’s glowing descriptions. The lovers’ perceptions change as they pass together through picturesque places and buildings, the Little Quarter and the Palace on the highest point in the city.

As they grow emotionally closer, the protagonist feels “as if I was looking at many things through her eyes, for the first time.” Raina too, feels “as I walk with you, that I am not I, that there never was a war, that... there is no Vienna behind me.” Her painful past and hidden agonies are sensed by her guide and lover. “I felt the presence of someone other than... us. Someone who was there with us all the time.” For a brief moment of love and togetherness, they tremble “on the last fringe of fear, about to drown in each other.” The novel ends with a hint of optimism. When the inevitable parting comes, the protagonist retains memories of a significant, beautiful moment.

“Listen, don’t you believe?”

“In something that is not there?”

“That is not there but for you?”

The Red Tin Roof portrays a darker, lonelier world, where Kaya grows from a little girl to the cusp of womanhood. In this novel too, the inner and outer worlds coalesce seamlessly. The scenes and settings do not appear to be constructed “by deliberate choice or design... an unwilled yet unquestioned part of” her life. Kaya shares a room with her younger brother Chhote, in their isolated house in the Himalayan foothills. A few people, parents, uncles, aunts, cousins and servants flit in an out of Kaya’s life. But she is isolated, and shows “a vague ache, a bleakness in her heart.” She is almost “a stranger who happened to have taken refuge here.”

There are some inconsistencies in Kaya’s characterisation. She is too young and innocent to understand that her mother is unwell and growing because of pregnancy. Yet her solitude and heartache seem mature. There are many beautiful, memorable passages. “Her sorrows, like bits of straw, lined the eyrie in which she wrapped herself.” She is haunted, among other things, by the death of her beloved dog, Ginny, and by her own unwitting complicity in it.

“Beyond the door was the moonlight beyond the mountains and the noisy rush of bushes along the narrow-gauge railway track... that splash of pure white as Ginny opened her mouth one last time between the rails, her tail beating in fear, minutes before she died.” As Kaya sifts through her “teeming basket of memories, extracting them one by one,” she comes across as more of an adult than a young child. Meeta, Raina’s little son in Days of Longing, also seems like a tiny adult whom childhood has passed by.

Days of Longing, glowing with the sparks of an exquisite but ephemeral love, is overall a livelier and more positive novel than the gloomier The Red Tin Roof. The protagonist of Days of Longing is a more convincing character compared to Kaya. Unlike the much younger Kaya, he has his moments of youthful liveliness, and flashes of self-deprecatory humour. He wears a cheap duffel coat to beat the chill, and is amused at the thought that it may make passing strangers mistake him for a gangster. He ventures to make the most of stolen moments with Raina by inviting her to dance with him on a frozen lake. “If anyone had seen us, dancing with duffel coat and gloves and all, they would have considered us crazy.”
Both novels are beautifully poetic and memorable reads. This review is published in Sunday Herald