What do awards for your first novel mean to you?
Most writers seek some kind of recognition. Of course, recognition comes with certain obligations and burdens, but these are small compared to the greater freedom to write that such recognition provides.
The Story of a Brief Marriage is a novel about the Sri Lankan civil war, though you mention no place by name. When did you first hear about the war? When did you realise you were a Tamil in Sri Lanka — with all the baggage?
I can’t remember. As far as I knew, there was always a war, and as far as I knew, I was always a Tamil.
How has your book been received in Sri Lanka — by Tamils as well as Sinhalas?
I think it has been well received, but I’m not sure. Sri Lanka has only about 50,000 first language English speakers, according to a statistic I’ve heard, mainly restricted to an upper-class urban population in Colombo. This population tends to be liberal; I’m not sure this sampling would be very representative of Sri Lanka as a whole.
Do you see a possibility of reconciliation between the two communities after the end of the war?
It depends on what you mean by reconciliation. Reconciliation for whom, and by means of what? Reconciliation feels too abstract a term a lot of the time, too removed from certain realities. Does a mother who has lost her son or a woman whose sister is missing ask for reconciliation? No. They ask for their son and their sister, who will never return. What then does reconciliation mean for such people? Being reconciled to their fate? Being reconciled to the fate of those they’ve lost? In any case, the Sri Lankan state is taking so long to even establish an office to obtain information about missing people that it is hard to expect any kind of deeper, more significant recognition of the wounds inflicted on the people of the north and east any time in the near future.
In a world that is increasingly becoming violent, empathy seems to be struggling to keep up. As a philosophy student and novelist, what do you think fiction or art offers us?
I’m not sure it offers much. In my view, fiction or art of the kind that I create doesn’t really have much political impact. It is read by only a small number of people with the luxury of time to read and the privilege of being able to read English. I don’t at all mean to be insulting to this group, which I am also a part of. It’s just important not to act like a saviour when you cannot be. There is a lot of noise surrounding literary prizes and such, but this noise hides the fact that at the end of the day, English language fiction is a very limited medium in our part of the world, politically speaking.
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You have decided to give away one-third of the not inconsiderable DSC Prize money to organisations in northern Sri Lanka, in Kashmir and those working for the Rohingya. Why those three causes?
These are just three prominent examples of populations that have been marginalised and brutalised by the various nation-states which control the geographic area often referred to as South Asia. The money could also have been given to organisations working within other populations in Sri Lanka — to the hill-country Tamils who have been exploited by both Sinhalese and northern Tamils, for example, or to Muslim organisations in the south, where Muslim groups and properties have been attacked violently on several occasions in the past few years. Since it was a South Asian prize, though, not a Sri Lankan prize, it seemed worthwhile briefly recognising what has been done to Rohingyas and Kashmiris.
Are you writing another novel?
Yes, I’ve been working on another novel for the past couple of years.