Friday, September 18, 2009


ERIC FORBES chats with début novelist RU FREEMAN on writing, growing up in Sri Lanka and Sri Lankan authors, among other things

RU FREEMAN is a Sri Lankan writer whose political journalism and fiction has been published internationally. Her début novel, A Disobedient Girl, was published by Atria/Simon & Schuster in the US and Canada on July 21, 2009, in the UK by Viking in August 2009 and in translation in the Netherlands, Israel, Italy, Taiwan and Brazil. Freeman, whose novel has been hailed as one of the most impressive débuts of the year, delivers a searing novel about betrayal and salvation, the strength of the human spirit, and the boundlessness and limits of love. She lives in Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania.

Tell me something about yourself.
I celebrate my birthday on the feast of the Virgin Mary, September 8. Not that I’m religious, I just find that a curious fact. I take far too many photographs. My father gave me a camera when I was 16 years old; a camera was a luxury item back in Sri Lanka, still is, for most of the country. Printing costs a lot and it was not a digital camera, so I was more circumspect back then. Now I just carry the little camera that I have in my pocket almost constantly and take pictures all the time. If I had to analyse the compulsion I think partly it is because I write and so am usually in observer-mode and want to record what I see “for later.” But it could just as easily be that I don’t quite believe that the pleasures that I find in people and places are going to last so I’m already looking back at them through the lens of time.

When did you know you were going to be a writer? Was it something you had always set your heart on?
I don’t think being a writer is a choice. It is a habit with other habits attached to the larger vice of writing. People who grow up to be physicians usually spent a lifetime curious about the way human beings are put together, engineers were probably fascinated by inanimate objects and the way they could be manipulated. Dancers loved music and movement as children. Writers loved words. Even as a child my refuge and solace came from words and books. I appreciated what they could do for me—creating places in my imagination, being able to escape from a particular moment, the way I could record the preoccupations of my life, and, of course, the power of the well-written and spoken word. I am a great fan of our new and improved president [Barack Obama] for many reasons, and any criticism I have—and I do have a few—I find myself tempering and I know it is because I have an enormous respect for his mastery of language. Words are like that: they can crucify people, but they can also transform and be disarming. That is the real choice.

What do you enjoy or loathe most about your life as a writer?
There is nothing I find repugnant about my writing life. I consider it an enormous privilege to be able to live the way I do, with books and writers and readers as companions. Who could ask for more, really? I think there are things I crave: time, the absence of wireless, a cottage in Vermont, views of mountains, the sound of oceans, things like that, the kind of external conditions that would make writing so much easier than it sometimes is. But I also know that writing is not something I can have on the side, it is an integral part of the rest of my life, so I am grateful that it comes easily, that it is just as possible to write while sitting in an airport as it is to read while waiting at traffic lights, both of which I do.

I enjoy connecting with readers. I like hearing what they have to say, their reactions to stories, their perceptions, answering their questions. I love the fact that this novel, for instance, gives me a great opportunity to talk about my relationship with both my countries, Sri Lanka and the US, and where the two come together or diverge. Literature is a remarkably effective way to talk about those very complex things. And a book is the preamble to a conversation—not the end of it.

Was it difficult getting your first novel, A Disobedient Girl, published? Did you experience difficulty in finding an agent or a publisher?
Well, I wrote a different book first and it was rejected by about 50 agents—never saw a publisher. When I first wrote it I thought, naively, that it was a great and beautiful thing and that stardom was but a postage stamp away. I wrote thank-you notes to the agents who sent me personal notes. I wanted to put out good karma. Then I grew up and put it aside and wrote something else. So yes, the road is rarely easy. But, oddly enough, when I did finally begin writing better, being more interested in that than in publication, the road suddenly became smoother. I recall attending a meeting with an editor and as I was walking to it, I realised that I had absolutely no feelings of anxiety about impressing her or selling my book or anything. I realised that I had completely lost the idea that somehow if I did the right kind of dance, the publishing rain-gods would unleash the torrents! Having said that, I do believe in good karma. Writers—like anybody else—should always be kind and generous to other writers. That means buying their books, going to their readings, lending a helping hand. If you get caught up in your own little book and your own little world, I believe the world returns the favour.

Where were you born and raised? What was it like growing up in Sri Lanka? Where do you live now and what is it like?
I was born in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Growing up there was like growing up anywhere: fraught, full, replete with love and hate. Colombo is a cosmopolitan, crowded city. I grew up used to having people very close to me—not just physically but emotionally, too. We put up high walls and pierce them with broken glass to keep people out, but we are constantly in each others business for better or worse. Here, in the US where I live, the gardens slope and merge between neighbouring houses but lives are much less entwined. That is the difference I guess, though I try to go against the grain—I’m too interested in people to not want to know my neighbours!

Now that you live in the US, what do you miss most about Sri Lanka?
Apart from the above? I miss the variety of healthy, locally grown vegetables, the open markets, the relationships that are built between shoppers and traders. I miss the fishmongers who walk up and down the roads carrying fresh fish. I miss the knife-sharpeners and the sweet-carriers. I miss the sound of the postman’s bell and the way it made my heart leap up. I miss the warmth of the oceans and the colour of the shells that I can find it I get up early enough. I miss the way the roads are bordered with crazy-mad foliage growing wild. I miss the 20 kinds of mangoes and the 15 varieties of plantains. I miss people who don’t care about peeling paint and broken fixtures. I miss the cricket matches and the parades before and after. I miss the way guys ask you to dance at parties and clubs. I miss punch at the parties where the boys ask you to dance. I miss the smell of the laundry washed by the dhobi. I miss the sound of birds early in the morning. I miss the way the earth smells after rain. I miss the way people treat the merest droplets of rain as a reason to run for their lives. I miss the sound of firecrackers. I miss New Year in April. I miss holidays every full moon. I miss the national holidays and celebrations of all the four major religions: Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism and Catholicism. I miss the temples and churches that are open all day long every day of the year. I miss free education. I miss free healthcare. I miss doctors who knew me from the time I was born. I miss people who know my family or my friends or my schools or my teachers and therefore will be good to me. I miss hearing my language. I miss being understood. I miss my brothers. I miss my parents. I miss my extended family ... there is no most or least. I miss my whole country.

Could you tell me a bit about your first novel? What are some of the themes you dealt with in A Disobedient Girl? Were you conscious of these when you first set out to write the story?
I explore the way in which the close and intimate relationships that women have between them are affected by their involvement with men; about women’s friendship, its limits and boundlessness, and about how we—men or women—seek our destiny and look for refuge in unlikely places. The book deals with class, how it affects or transcends the way people feel about each other. It also deals with motherhood, how that is defined, what makes a mother, as well as womanhood: the extent to which its essence depends upon the way a woman is looked at by society. I was neither conscious nor unconscious of any of this when I was writing. Toni Morrison’s Sula is one of my favourite books and I admired the way she dealt with the complexities of women’s friendships, so perhaps that aspect of it was conscious. But I’m rarely conscious of wanting to tell a particular story.

What was the seed of the novel?
A writing prompt in a workshop at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Lynn Freed (left) had asked us to write a paragraph, any paragraph, in class. Since I am usually deliriously happy when I am at Bread Loaf, I decided to write something unlike that personality, something dark and sad and full of foreboding. The result was the beginning of Biso’s story which remained unchanged in the book. That’s where the book began.

Is Sri Lanka still a very rigid society given to hierarchical class structures and gender differences?
Oddly enough, I don’t consider Sri Lankan culture rigid at all! Compared to what happens in the US, Sri Lankan women are actively encouraged to participate fully and with a certain brilliance in civic and public life. Sri Lanka has claim to the first female prime minister and president, but apart from that, women are represented in great numbers in all ranks of government. Nobody would even consider putting down a woman who sought public office for the kind of clothing she chose to wear or cast aspersions on her role as wife/mother or wonder about her cooking habits as we see happen here in the US year after year. Popular songs in Sri Lanka celebrate the birth and gift of daughters and the female spirit, and girls are encouraged to attend school and thrive just as much as boys are.

There are hierarchies in place in Sri Lanka and they have to do with class and to some extent caste; the latter because it is often synonymous with social class as well. People who attend certain schools or are particularly fluent in English (Sri Lankan schoolchildren study both their mother tongue and English from kindergarten and sometimes another language which could be either one of the other official languages or French or German), usually accrue more social capital. In this regard it is not different to the way things work in the US. Here, too, a Harvard graduate can safely assume that people might take them a little more seriously at a job interview, and children in private school up and down the Main Line in Philadelphia are probably not going to end up with no college to attend when they finish high school.

The extent of rigidity in any social system comes from how a particular collection of individuals chooses to move within a society or is denied the ability to make those movements. In Latha’s case, the hierarchy dictated that she remain ungendered within the domestic arena even though the society as a whole celebrates women and womanhood. It is a story about very specific people which gives a reader a glimpse of that specific history, but it is by no means the history of every other family. There are a million stories that could be told about Sri Lanka. Just as there are a million to be told about people in the US.

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.

Did the writing of this novel require much research? Was this research of the oral kind or was there lots of research spent at the library?
It would have to be oral. I checked in with my father and one of my brothers on the details that pertain to truth or fact—which aren’t necessarily the same! Almost every technical detail came through those conversations. The only person who read the book before it was submitted, however, other than myself, was my brother Malinda.

What did you learn from writing your first novel that you could use in your next?
To finish writing a novel, you must first begin it. And to get it right, you have to get it wrong.

I am always interested in the kinds of books writers read during their early or developing years. What kinds of books did you read when you were growing up? Who are some of your literary heroes?
I grew up reading Enid Blyton, Tin Tin, Asterix, Arthur Conan Doyle, James Joyce, Shakespeare, Wole Soyinka, Homer and a host of dead white poets. Our neighbour’s son—who grew up to join the army—had shelves of Enid Blyton books which I would borrow one at a time when I went there to practice the piano (I took piano lessons but we didn’t own a piano). My father would also take my brothers and me to the People’s Publishing House bookstore which carried books sent by the Soviet Union, so I grew up between the world of Baba Yaga and Vasilissa the Beautiful, Dostoevsky and the Communist Manifesto and that of furry soft toys that sprung to life at night and where the bad people were usually the black teddy bears who were named “Golly,” etc. Every now and again my father would bring home a box of books stamped Gift of the Asia Foundation and those were often history books from the US, various textbooks and so forth. It really didn’t matter what the book was—my brothers and I loved books and pages and the smell of them, so we read whatever we could find. We opened those boxes with great enthusiasm. That was how one of my favourite children’s books, Arthur Ransome’s We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea (part of the Swallows & Amazons series set in the Lake District of England and written in 1937), came into my life; in a box mailed from the US by the Asia Foundation.

Who are some of your favourite contemporary novelists? What are some of your favourite contemporary novels?
Toni Morrison, Rohinton Mistry, Lynn Freed, Yehuda Amichai, Mahmoud Dharwish, Ann Patchett, Ursula Hegi, T.C. Boyle, Bharati Mukherjee, Francisco Goldman, Monica Ali, Wendell Berry, Vikram Seth .... But there are also younger writers I admire: Laila Lalami’s Secret Son, Paul Yoon’s Once the Shore, Preeta Samarasan’s Evening is the Whole Day, Josh Weil’s The New Valley and, this is one I’m reading now, Jennine Capó Crucet’s How to Leave Hialeah. There are also a couple of writers whose larger work is still in-waiting, but whose stories I have read and loved: Eugene Cross, Xhenet Aliu and Tiphanie Yanique among them. These are all people who write the kind of work that makes me leap off my chair.

Who are some of your favourite Sri Lankan writers? Could you suggest a couple of good reads that haven’t got as much attention as they deserve?
The Sri Lankan writer I most enjoy reading is my brother, Malinda, whose journalism is on par with the most incisive social commentators to be found here in the US. He’s also a poet as is my father. I have enjoyed Michael Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost and Running in the Family, and Shyam Selvadurai’s Funny Boy. I also think that Romesh Gunasekera’s Reef was a book that should have got more attention here. Most of the work that is really well written is in Sinhala and I am looking forward to the day that a group like Words Without Borders or another translation-focused body decides to dedicate one of its issues to writing from the subcontinent.

Do you think more competitions or creative writing courses are imperative in increasing the number of good writers and/or improve the quality of writing?
I think that the more competitions there are, the more recognition there will be for good writers. To answer the second part of that, I don’t think the quality of writing can be improved by writing courses if there isn’t a generous and high quality sensibility behind the writing in the first place. The more outwardly focused the writer (i.e., the more connected to the universe in which he or she exists), the better the writing. I don’t necessarily mean that writers need to plunge into thickets of activity at all times, but rather that they need to be concerned in mind and spirit with the predicament of human existence.

In your opinion, what are the essentials of good fiction?
Wouldn’t I be directing a writing program of some sort or raking in the dough some other way if I had the answer to this?! I only know what I like and don’t in a story. I hate, I absolutely HATE stories that are neat and well crafted. When I read a review that says that the writing is “pitch-perfect” I can rest assured that I don’t have to read the book, that it is going to drive me bats with its self-conscious perfections. Sometimes the language can be beautiful, the observations erudite and worthy, and the story still feel like pre-packaged deli meat. I like stories that are edgy and untethered and reveal flashes of gut. I want to feel that the narrator is bursting with the emotional weight of a story, but that the story is one beat ahead of the telling so that it comes out a little messy. I want to feel that there was this story, waiting, until the right person came along to reveal it. The story should be in control, not the writer. Which is not to say that I have mastered the art of writing such stories, only that I love them and aspire to having the good fortune to catch those kinds of stories down the line.

What kinds of books do you read nowadays? Any particular genre, and why?
I don’t read genre fiction (fantasy, romance, science fiction, etc.), but otherwise I read everything. Journals, magazines, newspapers, short fiction, novellas and novels, poetry and nonfiction. I read the text on paper cups, advertisements for summer camps, flyers for performances, bulletin boards, elevator maintenance certificates, everything. It so happens that most of what I’m reading now is the work of good friends; it is a wonderful feeling to share this space (of publications, first books, readings) with them. Right now I’m reading more and more collections of short stories in an effort to write better stories. I am a huge fan of short stories. With regard to that, Andrew Scott’s effort to get word out about short stories via his online site, Andrew’s Book Club, is a laudable thing. There isn’t enough push behind short stories but every writer loves reading them!


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