What led you to your new novel, Suncatcher (Bloomsbury, Rs 599)?
The story has been hanging around for a very long time, I didn’t find a way of writing it. I think 2013 is when I started on it but it was probably 2015 onwards when I worked on it in earnest.
Does one stay the same writer if a story lives with you for so long?
Absolutely not. Two things happen — we change and what we think is important might change. It’s one of the challenges but also one of the interesting things about a novel. A novel does take a long time and one emerges a different person. But, at the same time, there is a core of you as a writer that doesn’t change very much.
Why did you choose to set the novel in the Sixties?
I wanted to return to an era that I had written about in my first (Booker-shortlisted) novel Reef (1994), that was set in the late Sixties — in fact, go back a little further. I was probably only about 10 at the time the book is set in but those five years (1960-65) are quite strong in my memory. I’m interested in the political background to our lives, so, I was keen to look at the kind of pressures that existed before the Sri Lanka we know today or have known of in the last 30 years. It was the pre-war, pre-JVP (Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, a communist party) time. I wanted to see what these characters’ lives would be like. I realised that it was a very turbulent time. In fact, when I once spoke to someone about it, they said why not set it in 1972, when Ceylon became Sri Lanka, the republic? But, by then, politics had changed, and, it was, in a way closer to being more recognisable. Then, I discovered that 1964, when this book is set, was the time when this major left-wing party, the Lanka Sama Samaja Party, was beginning to change its identity. Some of its key leaders joined the government, others thought that was a sellout. In a sense, it was the end of that kind of Trotsky-ite trajectory of the left-wing movement. That seemed really interesting to me. I think it does have a lot to say about the way things are now.
This book seems more personal though — not as much about the politics as it is about relationships…
When you are writing, however tragic the tale might be, the fact that you are writing it gives it a shape. It helps me make sense of the event. With this book, it’s not the politics that I am trying to explain to myself as much as the fragility of friendships, the death of people. The reason that this book’s been there for such a long time is because a very close friend of mine died when I was very young and it is trying to understand that. That’s what the core of the book is — how friendship is fragile, often very brief and even when it’s long, it actually turns out to be quite brief. It’s something that I wanted to write about because I was probably 12 or 13 when my closest friend died.
You left Sri Lanka in the Sixties. A lot of your work is set there. How do you negotiate memory and imagination?
I feel very connected to Sri Lanka even if I am not living there. I travel there regularly but the distance also helps me negotiate my imagination of the place. Because I am not writing reportage, not making a documentary, if a piece of fiction has to work, it has to work in this very strange way of persuading readers that it is real. I remember a Ugandan writer telling me how when she was writing her book in Uganda, it was one thing. When she was there, while describing a scene about someone walking down the road, she would say just that. But when she got back to her home in Manchester and was rewriting it, she ended up writing about how this person was walking along the red dirt road. She realised that she never really saw that the sand was red when she was there. But when she went away and tried to imagine it, it took her to that colour.
It’s been a decade since the war in Sri Lanka ended. How do you see people engage with it?
It’s always been the case that people in power want to control the past because that’s how you control the future. In Sri Lanka, that narrative of what happened, why it happened and how it ended is still up for grabs. There’s been a competition for that right from the day the war ended. There’s nothing to anchor it. In some cultures or histories, one of the things that might anchor these things are the buildings and the monuments which don’t change and you can wrap a narrative around them. In Sri Lanka, as in many other conflict areas, those are gone, and so, there is nothing for these memories to latch on to, for people to examine them. Go to Berlin and one of the striking things there is Nazi architecture. It hits you very strongly because you realise they weren’t a figment of anyone’s imagination. That’s lacking (in Sri Lanka) and, therefore, people can say anything. Of course, now political rhetoric has become such that all that matters is that you just keep saying something, whether it has any bearing to reality is immaterial. If you say it long enough, it becomes true.
Isn’t it a failure on the part of the people, too, in how they engage with it?
That’s true but in a way it isn’t, too, because of social media. There is a huge appetite for finding things out, except there is no way of knowing if what you are finding out is real or not. The problem is that wherever you are in society, you try to find your little niche that makes you function stably, comfortably. And then, often, that will cover the narrative and what you are willing to listen to. But the curiosity, I think, is there.
In the subcontinent, where we are mostly bilingual, how did your relationship with the English language develop?
It would be stretching it to say that I am bilingual. Even as a child when I was living in Sri Lanka, I wasn’t very good at Sinhala. With English, it’s more of a love affair. I am engaged with the language the way I am engaged with a person. Very early on, it was the language I was reading in, those were the books that were around. As a teenager, I didn’t think about why I was writing in English. It’s partly because when I left Sri Lanka, I went to the Philippines. In the late ‘60s, Philippines was very much an English-speaking country. The dialogue about national language was just taking off.
It was only later when I started thinking about publishing and I was in England that I began thinking deeply about language. It was a time when a lot of post-colonial discourse about language and imperialism was taking place and I realised you do have to make an effort to own a language. At one point, and that’s the point when I think I was able to write a little better, I felt that I could do it. It was also the time when the language itself was changing. Lots of Indian writers — Salman Rushdie with his Midnight’s Children (1981), for instance – were suddenly opening it up and saying that anyone could own the language. Not just use it but own it. That was hugely liberating.
You are in the thick of things, with the Brexit crisis and the elections in Sri Lanka (the interview was done before SL went to vote). What are your expectations from both?
The optimistic side of me feels it will be a comedy, the pessimistic side that it will be a tragedy in both cases. In Britain, Brexit’s become quite farcical but the election’s going to bring out a lot of difficult questions — about loyalties and gut feelings. It will be interesting, but won’t probably change anything. In Sri Lanka, I suppose some of the same elements are there as well. These two countries and their politics have been mirroring each other quite a lot. They are a bit like soap operas, both deeply addictive. I can’t sleep till I have seen a little bit of Brexit and a bit about Sri Lankan politics.