The Moon in the Water by Ameena Hussein is another book I read during my holiday in Sri Lanka. I’ve been waiting to read her book since I first saw her at the Galle Literary Festival 2009 a year ago. What interested me about Hussein’s work is that she brings her ethnicity and religion into a literary tradition (by which I mean Sri Lankan literature in English) that is overwhelmingly Sinhala/Tamil/Burgher and Buddhist/Hindu/Christian, and I, like so many others, was ready to start reading about the experiences of a Muslim Sri Lankan.

In The Moon in the Water we meet Khadeeja who finds herself on a precipice, looking back at a past that has suddenly shifted and towards a future that no longer seems simple and certain. The eldest child in a wealthy Muslim family in Colombo, she has returned home to mourn and attend her father’s funeral, leaving behind her boyfriend in Europe where she has been working for many years. As her family deals with the aftermath of her father’s violent death, a secret is unveiled which causes Khadeeja to break down and leave home. She goes to stay in a remote part of Sri Lanka and meets Arjuna, a young Sinhalese man married to an European lady, whose impact on her life will change its course forever.

Hussein writes beautifully; her style measured and polished. This is an unconventional story, part bildungsroman and part love story, and I loved the way that she slowly unveils Khadeeja’s past together with her growing vulnerability and shaken belief. Khadeeja, who was so sure of herself and her place in society, slowly fragments and transforms into another being as she goes on her journey to find out what she and her family really mean to one another. The book’s unexpected ending left me heart-broken, but Hussein tackles the difficult issues of ethnicity, family, love and loss in a sympathetic and thoughtful way without becoming kitsch.

I now can’t wait to read her two earlier collections of short stories Fifteen and Zillij; something to look forward to when I next go to Sri Lanka. The Moon in the Water was longlisted for the 2007 Man Asian Literary Prize.

An interview with Ameena Hussein can be found here and an article here.

I read this as part of the South Asian Author Challenge.

Mosquito by Roma Tearne

28 January, 2010

This is my first offering for the TBR 2010 Challenge and the South Asian Author Challenge and I’m happy I read it because 1) it was an extremely well written and evocative book and 2) it’s been on my TBR pile for about 3 years. Every time I go back to Sri Lanka I return with a pile of books by Sri Lankan authors and every good intention to read them as soon as I can, but I am so easily distracted…

Mosquito by Roma Tearne does not read like a first novel. Tearne’s prose is clear and simple and she has written a tragic but beautiful tale about returning to your roots and finding a paradise turned into hell. Tearne herself is Sri Lankan of mixed Tamil/Sinhalese parentage and left Sri Lanka at the age of 10 with her family. All the Sri Lankan authors I have attempted to read who write about Sri Lanka touch upon the internal conflict which afflicted the land for over 30 years, and it’s heartbreaking and sometimes difficult to read. But if you want to learn something about the country, you have to know about it’s history which permeates everything and everyone, whether they are in Sri Lanka or abroad.

In Mosquito, we meet Theo Samarajeeva, an acclaimed international writer whose book is being made into a major film who returns to Sri Lanka after 30 years. He comes back nursing a broken heart after the death of his Italian wife Anna to find his country unrecognisable. He rents a beach house and is looked after by his manservant Sugi who becomes a trusted friend and settles down to write, but finds that his attention is caught by his neighbour’s daughter Nulani Mendis, a young girl scarred by the violent death of her father who has stopped speaking and only draws. A friendship blossoms between the two, slowly chipping away at their sadness and loneliness and Theo slowly returns to writing as Nulani discovers her talent as a painter. Their brief friendship is torn apart when the island’s violence closes in on them and their lives as well as those of their friends are splintered in the chaos of war.

This was a sad book, but to me it was a story of love more than a story of war. The alienationation Theo feels on his return after such a long absence, the disjunction between life in Europe compared with Sri Lanka, the bittersweet blanket of time which soothes away sorrow but still allows for the heart to burn with love for someone lost to them. Tearne’s fiction is vivid, and although I shed a few tears at the end, there was some sort of redemption for the characters in her tale. She doesn’t judge the people or their actions but drops you into a world where the majority of people are struggling to understand the breakdown of their society. It also brought home to me that there are always two sides to a war and both are capable of startling acts of kindness as well as terrible atrocities.

I’m looking forward to reading her next book Bone China.

Interviews with Tearne can be found here and here.


Talking about Sri Lankan and diasporic literature, I’ve been a bit of a wuss and have been avoiding writing a review of this book because of the subject matter and the emotions that it entails. But V.V. Ganeshananthan has written a beautiful book and I’m not really doing it justice if I put it off any longer. Love Marriage is a truly accomplished debut novel from an author who I think will go on to greater things. Like A Golden Age by Tahmima Anam which I have raved on about in an earlier post, I was fortunate enough to sit in on a discussion at the Galle Literary Festival 2009 earlier in January between Ganeshananthan and Sanjana Hattotuwa who runs Groundviews, the Sri Lankan citizens journalism website.

Following in the footsteps of Shyam Selvadurai, Romesh Gunasekara and Michael Ondaatje, Ganeshananthan tackles Sri Lanka’s Sinhaha/Tamil ethnic conflict, probing its origins in a sensitive, yet hard hitting manner. You can’t really pussyfoot around such a bloody event that spanned almost thirty years, ending only with an aggressive and bloody offensive by the Sri Lankan government this year. You can’t really pick sides, your ethnicity dictating where you have to stand. But not everyone agrees with the hard lines taken up by the political, religious and ethnic factions and there are many vocal journalists and activists who are not afraid to make a stand and to call for justice. But everyone has lost someone they loved, been uprooted, lost their homes. No one remains unscathed.

Despite these dark and painful foundations, Ganeshananthan manages to weave a very human, and warm, story. Moving back and forth from newly independant Ceylon to Sri Lanka and then to contemporary USA, the past is bathed in sepia tones the colour of orange pekoe tea. But it’s not just the past, but also the current displaced Tamil diaspora in the US and Canada that feature largely in her tale. Many are brought up with stories that had escaped along with their narrators from the fiery inferno of a rioting country where grievances have lain long and simmering since Ceylon was held under the colonial yoke.

What I admire about Ganeshananthan’s writing is that she paints a convincing picture of the seductive pull of the Tamil Tigers when one’s cultural and national identities are brought into question, especially in her character Kumaran. Black July, when the rioting and massacres began in earnest against the Tamil people in retaliation for the murders of Sinhalese soldiers is brought back to life in a frightening and haunting manner. The aftershocks of such violence and the moment when irreversible choices are made reverberate throughout the novel. In contrast to the violent modern history of the country, Ganeshananthan also portrays a gentler, slower era when families were still living together and sharing their lives.

This novel made me ponder the complex nature of history with regard to cultural and ethnic differences. Sri Lanka’s war was one war amongst many that were and are still being fought in the present day. And I’m glad I read Love Marriage because it made me think about the nature of conflict and face what’s been happening in my father’s country. The war is over, but the struggle still continues until Sri Lanka becomes a country in which all the ethnic population can live in harmony, and respect and honour one another. It’s easier said than done, but I really hope that it will happen one day.

Love Marriage was longlisted for the 2009 Orange Prize.

There’s only two and a half months left before I fly off to sunny climes and needless to say I CANNOT wait. London has become extremely chilly all of a sudden and I’m missing my sunshine. My fingers feel frostbitten without gloves and my head is missing my hat. OK, so I’m a hypochondriac and it’s not really that bad, but seriously, I feel I’ve forgotten what Winter is like. Everything seems new and fresh this year. The cold, the sudden darkness, this feeling of mono no aware. I kind of like it. Makes me feel all tingly and alive.

So, I’ve just realised that two and a half months isn’t really that long for the list of books I’m planning to read in preparation for the Galle Literary Festival 2010 at the end of January. I still have my stash of Sri Lankan/diasporic literature safely tucked away on my TBR shelf and I think I really ought to clear some of it before I go. I have the following titles and if I’m organised, maybe I’ll get through half of them:

On Sri Lanka
All is Burning by Jean Arasanayagam
When Memory Dies by A. Sivanandan (an interesting essay here)
The Banana Tree Crisis by Isankya Kodithuwakku
Mosquito by Roma Tearne
Bone China by Roma Tearne
The Far Field by Edie Meidav

And also:

On Asia/India
East of the Sun by Julia Gregson
The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng
Maharanis by Lucy Moore
The Indian Clerk by David Leavitt

If I can read about half the books on this list by the time I’m on that plane, then I’ll be happy. I’ve had most of these books for a year and feel slightly ashamed that I actually bought some of them the last time I was in Sri Lanka a year ago….what can I say? I’m easily distracted.

But I did finish two collections of short stories The Good Little Ceylonese Girl and Colpetty People by Ashok Ferrey which were delightful. And if I have time, I might reread Shyam Selvadurai’s Cinnamon Gardens as he will be one of the participants at the upcoming GLF. And can I also mention my favourites Romesh Gunasekara, Michelle de Kretser and Michael Ondaatje? I might try and dig out Michelle de Kretser’s first novel The Rose Grower to read if I can find it as it’s somewhere in storage at my sis’.

No doubt I will be buying a lot more books in Sri Lanka. The Perera Hussein Publishing House always brings out a nice selection of fiction into the world, and I love going to the bookshop at the Barefoot Gallery to browse their incredible array of books on Sri Lanka. And my father has promised that he will take me to a street of secondhand booksellers near the Fort, an area of Colombo that we had been increasingly avoiding due to the occasional bombs during the conflict but which we used to frequent when I was a child. This year I’m taking my Sony e-reader and one big fantasy book (it’s Steven Erikson vs. George R.R. Martin at the moment) so I’ll have loads of space in my suitcase to bring back any interesting finds!


I’m so excited about this. The 4th annual Galle Literary Festival 2010 is scheduled for January 27-31, 2010 and I will be there! I’m lucky in that I can combine my annual trip home to visit my parents in Sri Lanka with a four day literary extravaganza in one of the most beautiful places on earth.

Last year we saw Germaine Greer, Romesh Gunasekara, Pico Iyer, Moses Isegawa, V.V. Ganeshananthan, Tahmima Anam and Asitha Ameresekara amongst other great writers such as Thomas Keneally and Michael Morpugo. I love Romesh Gunasekara’s writing, in particular his novel The Match, and would have gone just to see him. I was lucky enough to get a place at his writing workshop which was truly inspirational. I was also reading V.V. Ganeshananthan’s Love Marriage , at the time, so that was a bonus too. And who could resist hearing Germaine Greer’s rant on post-feminism?

It was my first literary festival, and I dragged my parents there as 1) I needed a driver to take me from Colombo to Galle (a three hour journey along the south west coast of Sri Lanka), 2) I have only one friend there and she was working and 3) I thought it would be a nice change in our holiday routine (try something new!) and that they’d enjoy it. We stayed at Aditiya, a boutique hotel which cost a small fortune but was totally worth it because the hotel staff actually left you alone, you could have your meals at anytime, anywhere on the grounds including on the beach, and they did the most divine massages. The Sri Lankan breakfasts which you had to order the night before was also incredibly delicious.

I spent as much time as I could at the literary festival while my parents checked out places for us to have lunch and dinner. I did manage to get my dad, who spent a large part of his career as a UN expert on Asia and Africa, to attend a couple of talks by Patrick French, V.S. Naipaul’s biographer, in conversation with the intrepid traveller Pico Iyer and a very entertaining and political talk by Moses Isegawa, the Nigerian writer.

What I didn’t expect was how interesting it was to listen to writers I had never come across or read before, and how that opened up new avenues in my reading life. My best discovery at this year’s Galle Literary Festival was the debut novelist Tahmima Anam who wrote A Golden Age, a novel about the birth of Bangladesh. She awed us with her poise and erudition and after her session I rushed out to join the queue to buy her book. I didn’t get a chance to read it until I got back to London as I was busy reading Steven Erikson’s Gardens of the Moon and Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind on that holiday (I was going through my periodic scifi and fantasy phase), but when I did, I loved it.

Anam’s language and story-telling skill is so strong and vivid, I felt envious that someone could produce such a perfect first novel. The first line of A Golden Age just grabs you by the hair and sucks you in. It was emotional, yet restrained, punchy, bittersweet and utterly beautiful. She doesn’t shy away from the terrible things that happened to her country and people, but she tells her story with such dignity that the novel steers clear of sentimentality and nostalgia. You care about the characters and you want them to survive. Her protagonist Rehana Haque, wife, mother and lover is one of the quietest and strongest fictional women I have ever encountered. A synopsis of her novel can be found here. Buy it, borrow it, swipe it, just go and read it!


Why chasing bawa?

19 July, 2009


I lived all over the world when I was young and every two years we went home to my father’s country, Sri Lanka, to holiday, hotel-hopping and staying in the most sublime places. We did that throughout the war when there were no tourists. The country was going through a tumultuous period of violence and suffering, but what I bring back from those times were the quiet moments, staying calm in the still beauty created by the architect Geoffrey Bawa. You can see his influence everywhere in Sri Lanka. So my memories of Sri Lanka are always that of chasing Bawa.