Writ­ing the is­land

Novelist Ru Free­man

Pasatiempo - - CONTENTS -

IN its rich de­pic­tion of chil­dren’s adventures and squab­bles on a cul-de-sac of Sri Lanka’s cap­i­tal city, the novel On Sal Mal

Lane finds an un­likely route to por­tray the is­land na­tion in the early 1980s. Just be­fore the out­break of a civil war that would last decades, fam­i­lies of dif­fer­ent faiths — Mus­lims, Sin­halese Bud­dhists, and Tamil Hin­dus, along with Catholic Burghers, de­scen­dants of the coun­try’s Dutch and Bri­tish col­o­niz­ers — live side by side, down the sleepy road of the book’s ti­tle. But the fo­cus here is the fam­i­lies’ chil­dren, who stage va­ri­ety shows, cricket matches, and bike races, all while un­know­ingly re­pro­duc­ing their par­ents’ ris­ing prej­u­dices.

“This book comes from hav­ing lived through that time in Sri Lanka. I was a child in the mid­dle of the war. It’s a por­tal into a world that I had lived through,” said au­thor Ru Free­man in an in­ter­view with Pasatiempo. “Through the lives of chil­dren in this small neigh­bor­hood, you can see an es­ca­la­tion of the small things that even­tu­ally led to the catas­tro­phe, the war. It al­lowed me to put my­self in a place I had once been.”

Free­man will speak in Santa Fe at 7 p.m. on Wed­nes­day, Sept. 21, at the Len­sic Per­form­ing Arts Cen­ter as part of the Lan­nan Foun­da­tion’s Read­ings and Con­ver­sa­tions series. She will be in­ter­viewed by New York-based critic and writer John Free­man.

On Sal Mal Lane (Gray­wolf Press, 2013) be­gins with the ar­rival of the Heraths, a fam­ily headed by a mother who is a Sin­halese Bud­dhist and who per­plexes the other women in the neigh­bor­hood with her love of singing re­li­gious hymns — Catholic, Hindu, and Mus­lim. Free­man writes that she “was given to tak­ing on other faiths ... of which she par­took like oth­ers tasted of side dishes, lit­tle plates piled high with crispy fish cut­lets and veg­etable pat­ties.” Mrs. Herath has a gre­gar­i­ous love of mu­sic and an open­ness to other faiths that she passes on to her four rau­cously de­light­ful chil­dren — Suren, Ni­hil, Rashmi, and Devi. They live for their imag­i­na­tive per­for­mances, va­ri­ety-show col­lab­o­ra­tions with a whole street full of kids of many faiths.

In marked con­trast to the tol­er­ant at­ti­tudes of the Heraths are the Silva broth­ers, Mo­han and Jith, who are rewarded by their par­ents for ex­press­ing prej­u­dice. Mo­han “had re­cently be­gun to un­der­stand that dis­lik­ing the mostly Hindu Tamil boys in school ... had earned him an in­flu­en­tial clique of wealthy, cos­mopoli­tan friends who had shunned him be­fore,” Free­man writes. “Lit­tle dif­fer­ences had now be­come his se­cret arse­nal. Things like the smell of the gin­gelly oil they used on their hair, which he had deemed dis­gust­ing and un­like the dill-fra­granced co­conut oil he used on his own head. And, even bet­ter than his new friends at school, was his sense that some­how he had earned the ap­proval of his fa­ther, who had al­ways seemed in­ac­ces­si­ble, locked as he was in his firm opin­ions morn­ing and night.”

For Amer­i­can read­ers, at least, the Silva’s prej­u­dices are a win­dow into the ways that dis­crim­i­na­tion is con­ducted, where “to the un­trained eye the phys­i­cal dis­tinc­tion be­tween the Sin­halese and the Tamil races was so sub­tle that only the na­tives could dis­tin­guish one from the other . ... But dis­tinc­tions there were, and the nat­u­ral or­der of things would even­tu­ally come to pass: re­sent­ments would grow. …”

Though the novel slightly ex­ag­ger­ates class is­sues, Free­man said the tit­u­lar street of Sal Mal Lane “is a mi­cro­cosm of the coun­try.” Even af­ter the end of the 26-year civil war in 2009, the coun­try’s ur­ban neigh­bor­hoods re­main re­mark­ably di­verse. “It’s a small is­land. It’s not like the U.S. where your kids move to Texas and you live In Philadel­phia,” said Free­man. “Peo­ple stay near fam­ily and live in neigh­bor­hoods that, for the most part, re­main very mixed.”

A writer on lit­er­a­ture and pol­i­tics for the Huff­in­g­ton Post, Free­man has served as edi­tor of Ex­tra­or­di­nary Ren­di­tion: (Amer­i­can) Writ­ers on Pales­tine (Olive Branch Press, 2016). Her de­but ef­fort, 2009’s A

Disobe­di­ent Girl (Atria Books), fol­lows the lives of two Sri Lankan women from girl­hood — one an or­phan raised as a ser­vant along­side the fam­ily’s priv­i­leged daugh­ter of the same age. On Sal Mal Lane, her sec­ond novel, was the 2014 win­ner of the Sis­ter Mariella Gable Award for fic­tion and the Janet Hei­dinger Kafka Prize for fic­tion by an Amer­i­can woman.

Most re­cently, she has con­trib­uted her tal­ents as fic­tion edi­tor of Panorama, a “jour­nal of in­tel­li­gent travel.” The in­au­gu­ral is­sue had her con­tem­plat­ing life in Marfa, Texas, where she spent last win­ter on a Lan­nan Res­i­dency fel­low­ship. Her ar­ti­cle is a re­flec­tion on the un­ex­pected gra­cious­ness she found in the re­gion’s cow­boy ranch­ing cul­ture, where “neigh­bourli­ness and good will must take prece­dence over the big city in­dul­gences of self: iso­la­tion and self-re­liance.”

It’s like Free­man to fo­cus on hu­man ci­vil­ity that gets missed in stereo­types. Af­ter all, her fic­tion, set in times of ris­ing class and re­li­gious con­flict in Sri Lanka, is largely de­voted to how peo­ple of dif­fer­ent castes and faiths build bind­ing ties of com­mu­nity.

As might be ex­pected, On Sal Mal Lane ends with the coun­try’s civil war in­trud­ing on the lives of fam­i­lies, crush­ing dreams and break­ing hearts. But it’s not the book’s cli­max and cer­tainly not its heart. That may be­long to a won­der­ful pas­sage, nearly one hun­dred pages from the novel’s end, when the kids pull off the in­cred­i­ble feat of bring­ing par­ents of dif­fer­ent faiths — their na­tion­al­ist hos­til­i­ties now stoked by the press and ri­val politicos — into a sin­gle house for one night for a grade-school re­vue of ABBA, the Bea­tles, and lo­cal folk songs. It is a cross-cul­tural mo­ment of peace that they will never again see.

“No day in the his­tory of Sal Mal Lane had ever seen a spec­ta­cle like that one. The sound of a band play­ing, a band that was made up of one Mus­lim boy, two Sin­halese boys, two Tamil boys and one Burgher girl, Rose, singing her heart out, a girl singing like she knew this was it, this mo­ment, this day, this per­for­mance, it was all she was ever go­ing to have to re­mem­ber when she was old, that kind of mu­sic was not of this world,” Free­man writes. “It was the mu­sic of days past and days that would never be. The mu­sic of still-fast friend­ships and the ab­sence of tragedy.”

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