Ru Freeman’s passionate about storytelling, her characters, life, and perhaps above all about her home, Sri Lanka, and its people and culture. I couldn’t help but let her passion trickle down to me while reading her debut novel, A Disobedient Girl (Atria Books, 2009). I won’t spoil the story by telling you too much about it, but I can say that as a relative ignoramus to all things Sri Lanka, Freeman’s writing inspired in me a desire to learn as much as I could short of dropping a few thousand dollars to visit the country.
And it’s not that Freeman paints a romantic luxurious picture of this tropical Indian Ocean isle; on the contrary, it’s the rich cultural heritage and social strife that makes for unforgettable characters and dramatic storytelling in her original and compelling writing. I admittedly resorted to encyclopedia-level learning about Sri Lanka, and while that was mere surface digging, Freeman’s writing is an excavator. The window her writing opens into her world lets in some much needed fresh air for me as a reader, and I think you’ll experience the same world of rich curries, colorful saris, and characters you’ll want not to part with when you dive into her fiction for yourself.
Jamie Iredell: What are your feelings about being a Sri Lankan writer writing in English and publishing in the U.S. to an American English-speaking audience? Do you feel constrained or liberated when considering what I guess I would call the “average American” reader’s tendency towards anthropocentrism?
Ru Freeman: English is taught as a second language in Sri Lankan schools and as such everybody is at least bi-lingual (Sinhala and English), if not tri-lingual (Sinhala, Tamil and English), so I write “for” Sri Lankans as well as non-Sri Lankans. I guess you would have to consider intent with my writing for it is meant to reveal something about Sri Lanka that Americans (and others), do not know or may not suspect. For an immigrant who maintains very close ties with their native country, as I do, the effort is all about saying “this is where I am from, these are my people.” When you add to that the fact that I also write political pieces—and understand the constraints of that form—it is liberating to be able to create all the space I need to say exactly what I need to say. I traveled a lot around Maine (where I lived), after the tsunami in Sri Lanka in 2004. I spoke to people who, on the surface, have nothing in common with me or my experience. Yet there was a deep yearning to hear of this other place, Sri Lanka. I took to carrying two slide shows with me, one for kids, one for adults, and I loved the questions people asked. It made me think—we are not different so much as we are ignorant of each other. It isn’t some fresh revelation, I know, but it took away my tendency to bludgeon people with information and replaced it with a desire to tell them a story.
Of course there are issues that grate on me when it comes to certain kinds of readers as well. I talked about some of those in my first post for the Huffington Post Books.
JI:I don’t know anything about Sinhala but it feels like the rhythms of your English prose in A Disobedient Girl and in “First Son”—and here, if I’m wrong, forgive my ignorance—attempts to mimic some of the natural rhythms of the native language.
RF: I write the way I read as a child, for the story, and the language that goes into the writing is English, but in a way that a non-native speaker of English might use it; I often see things in Sinhala but write it out in English. So the particular cadence you hear comes from that. I never “learned” to write, it was something the people in my family did. It did not seem to be something I had to go out and “acquire.” Which was a blessing and a curse. The blessing is that I don’t feel constrained by expectation, I just write however I want. The curse is in having to learn to revise! But having learned to write by reading, and as I have matured as a writer, I have been able to read texts on writing (like Boz’ The Half-Known World or Charlie Baxter’s The Art of Subtext), and hone in on exactly what I need to know to do x thing in my writing. I guess learning to write is mostly learning what you need to know. And you can’t know what you need to know unless you plunge in and write whenever possible and you read every day (even when it is impossible).
The blessing is that I don’t feel constrained by expectation, I just write however I want. The curse is in having to learn to revise!
– Ru Freeman
On the other hand, I try very hard to stave off the kind of hubris that often nips at a writer’s heels regarding how much I “own” my story. I love my readers, plain and simple. And I have no desire at all to keep them in the dark or unnecessarily mystify what is ordinary and universal. So you won’t find a lot of Sinhala words thrown in or too much culture-vulturing as I like to call it—you know, picking quintessentially “ethnic” tid-bits that authenticate but do not contribute to the story.
JI: Annie Dillard talks about what she calls “contemporary modernist” writers, for whom time is in “smithereens.” You take advantage of this effect in A Disobedient Girl. Say, for example, the way Latha contemplates the reasons why Mrs. Vithanage won’t give her her own money to buy new sandals, and asks Mr. Vithanage, too, and this whole exchange takes a couple pages. But a few pages later, when Latha exacts her revenge, the events of at least a few months occur in a few paragraphs. How did you decide to make your choices in terms of handling time in this novel?
RF: Ha! I love this question! I had two stories to tell, Latha and Biso. Biso’s entire life story unfolds over the course of approximately 72 hours. Meanwhile, Latha’s story takes place over several decades. The first person narrative was grueling for me. It is so close, so personal, and I had to stay inside that head and see everything from within it and it was not easy because everything that happened during those brief hours and all that had happened before, all of it is given equal time. There were many occasions on which I wanted to just keep writing Latha’s story but I knew that if I did, I would lose the rhythm of these two stories, so I would force myself at the end of a Latha chapter to work on Biso’s story. But in Latha’s story, I felt quite free to leap around, expanding and condensing as necessary. Her desire for those sandals was such a beautiful aspect of her character—such a simple thing and yet such a definitive thing—that I necessitated that time. Her revenge for not getting those sandals needed to mirror the impulsiveness, the sheer thoughtlessness that made her do what she did. It also mirrored the scant importance she gave to that particular boy’s presence in the life she led with Thara. In many ways she understood something that many women far older than her forget—that the friendship of a woman should rarely be compromised by the arrival of a man.
JI: In A Disobedient Girl you do some interesting things with verb tense: the “present tense” story told from Biso’s first person POV is told in the present, and Latha’s third person POV is told from the past tense, but we know that the events of Biso’s story are in the past in relation to Latha’s story? Why did you choose to structure the two stories in these ways?
RF: At the beginning it was a way to distinguish the two stories from each other. I began with Biso’s story—that first paragraph. The whole book was going to be about Biso and told in linear form, this happened, then that, etc., etc. But after I had her first chapter, I began the second and it had this little girl and she couldn’t sound like Biso, so I started writing her in the third person POV. It seemed to make sense. They both had very difficult lives and both made very serious choices about what they were going to do at various points, which path they’d choose at the crossroads, but Latha’s was the lighter spirit and it lent itself to that POV. Biso’s just did not. I look back now and I see that I was channeling my own mother through that character—a great many things Biso does and says were said and done by my mother too. But I couldn’t get that story right from a distance. I really had to crawl into her head. So I kept it that way. Perhaps in the end it also helped to keep the way the two women intersect shrouded just a little? That wasn’t the reason I did it, but it worked out that way too.
JI: Coming to your work as a white American reader, I was ignorant of all things Sri Lankan. But now I feel like I’ve gotten to know the country, the people, and the culture somewhat intimately (I did, of course, read as much as I could about the country, beyond your writing, because your work inspired me to do so), or as well as I can without having been there. This feels like part of your agenda—not only as a fiction writer, but also as an activist and as a voice for your country and people. The Nobel committee in the past has accused American literature of being too insular. Would you say that you attempt to defy that “stereotype” of the American writer? Do you consider yourself an American writer, or as a Sri Lankan writer who lives in the United States?
RF: Oh, what exactly is a good story? I mean is it insular when you have Junot Diaz and Chang-rae Lee and Luis Alberto Urrea and all these wonderful writers who are, in the end, absolutely American writers, products of an American life, writing their stories? You add to that the writing of people like Tim O’Brien and George Saunders and James Baldwin and Toni Morrison and Ntozake Shange and Donna Allegra, etc. etc. and you have the gamut. If such a statement is made then it can only reflect on a lack of reading widely enough on the part of the committee rather than a reflection of this country’s contribution to literature.
As for me, I am a Sri Lankan-born American writer. A very famous Sri Lankan once gave a speech upon having his photograph unveiled at the Oxford Union in which, while he thanked them for the honor, he said: “Oxford was the icing on the cake but the cake was baked at home.” Likewise, for me. I will always be Sri Lankan in my disposition—that means some basic things: you can borrow money from me anytime if you are my friend/family and you won’t be expected to pay it back, I don’t do potlucks—if I throw a party I don’t expect you to bring the food, I am unable to worry about college, the price of housing or having a health crisis (!) These are just not part of the equation for a Sri Lankan. However, I reside here in the U.S. and I am part of an American family. On their behalf I don’t borrow money (though I will still lend it and rarely save it), I persiverate a little about college, health insurance and a roof over my head. Similarly with my writing. I am fully Sri Lankan, but I also understand implicitly what an American reader can absorb and what I want them to absorb and both those things have a great deal to do, as you point out, with my life as an activist and a spokesperson for Sri Lanka. It is a real gift for me to do what I do, because when I write, I also get to speak and that is the real moment, the moment when I get to talk about the book and through that conversation about Sri Lanka, where these two worlds come together exactly as I want them to. In loving translation, both ways.
JI: Who are some of the writers you admire, and why?
RF: I’ll give you a very very short list of five or else this will have to be a personal essay! Ursula Hegi (for the way she makes one small act reflect an entire historical tragedy like in Stones from the River), Rohinton Mistry (for the way he makes every character, no matter how small, vital and beloved as he does in A Fine Balance), Chang-rae Lee (for the richness of his sentences, like in The Surrendered), Caryl Phillips (for pretty much everything—history, use of time, detail—in Crossing the River), Toni Morrison (for the way she makes me love the worst people again and again in the same book, like Tar Baby and for the way she puts into words what I feel about women’s friendships in Sula)…
JI: Gloria Naylor, in her essay “The Meanings of a Word,” talks about the strain of being both Black and American. Your essay, “I Am Not Now, Nor Have I Ever Been, An Adolescent,” seems to strike a similar chord. Some writers have written about this as a kind of schizophrenia—being both American and Other. Would you agree with that assessment, and could you elaborate on why you do or do not?
RF: Most of the personal essays I’ve written arise precisely from that schizophrenia but I have yet to learn how to write them well enough that they reflect something larger than my own very personal experience. I think I succeeded in that particular essay in doing so—the story of my growing up is just as interesting on its own as are my thoughts about not having had the chance, as it were, to be an adolescent. The feeling of dislocation comes down hard and suddenly. And I’m sorry to say that in my weakest moments I go into the “OMG I’m surrounded by White People,” mode even though I am wholly beloved by and wholly love just such a person 24/7 and have been for most of my adult life! Someone who knows me well enough to say, when I want to join the family expedition to the Jersey Shore for the first time ever, “Okay, Ru, but please don’t get there and start yelling about how freezing cold the water is and that you are surrounded by 10,000 white people.” And yet it does happen. But not always and therein lies the problem. It is easy enough to feel weird and un-belonging all the time. What is truly difficult is feeling that way only some of the time because the “some” questions the validity of the “usual.” Am I always the Other and have I only deluded myself into thinking that I’m not or playing the part of not being? Who am I then anyway? The part I’m playing or the one that I sometimes feel I am? Just this weekend I was out renting a canoe and this woman ahead of me was really rude to me and all of a sudden I felt very foreign. When I go home, I love standing in the supermarket in the city—it looks and feels just like any supermarket here except that I am the same color as everybody else. I can use hand gestures to indicate a multitude of things, I can speak with the movement of an eyebrow and I would be understood. Then I can walk outside that supermarket and go to the post office and have some chauvinistic twit talk down to me and I say what the heck is this place? Where’s the good old USPS??
JI: Religion plays a large part in your work, in your short stories and in your novel. Catholicism, Buddhism, Islam all act on and interact with your characters. How large a role does religion play in your personal life?
RF: I am Buddhist as is most of Sri Lanka. This means there is no real ritual to religious practice, though there are certainly many calming devices—statues of the Buddha, a shrine in the house, a place to meditate upon life. In Sri Lanka you are the religion you are born into—what your family is, that you are. There is no proselytizing in schools, and all religions are taught. One of the things I found particularly strange here was the uproar over school prayer. I attended a Roman Catholic convent and then a Christian Missionary School. At the convent we said prayers every morning. The Buddhist, Muslim and Hindu girls sat quietly in their chairs along with the Catholic girls and thought our own thoughts or listened to the prayers. I loved the prayers—I sang all the hymns! During religion we all went to our separate classrooms—the only time we moved—and learned our own religions. But the set-up of the country—we celebrate every religion with national holidays—meant that other religions seeped into our being. I never felt threatened by them—they were what other people believed. I went to midnight mass and even now I sometimes seek a church when I am upset and just want to sit. It is sad that so many churches in the US are barricaded except for Sunday masses. In Sri Lanka all places of worship are open every day all day.
I attend Quaker meeting—far too intermittently, I confess—because I crave the “sense” of a temple. But even Quaker Meeting Houses are too organized for me. The idea of meeting at the same time with the same people is distressing to me. I want to be able to come to the temple anytime and be in the midst of hundreds but never the same people—everybody is milling around going about their prayers or meditations, the offerings of flowers etc. but you aren’t engaged with each other. A person pours oil, lights a lamp, and sometimes another arrives, empties that lamp and relights it with a fresh wick. You aren’t attached to that. You don’t get mad. You are within your own world. And to me that is what worship ought to be—a deeply personal, very private engagement with the divine no matter what form that notion takes. There’s a lovely sequence in Tennyson’s ‘Morte d’Arthur’ where Morte d’Arthur:
“The old order changeth, yielding place to new,/And God fulfils Himself in many ways,/Les one good custom should corrupt the world/…for so the whole round earth is every way bound by gold chains about the feet of God.”
That pretty much sums it up for me, these different faiths, the same, but contemplation of that, yours alone.