Friday, February 19, 2010

“Deeply Divided”: Sri Lanka through the eyes of Adele Barker

by Mandy Van Deven - During the year she taught Russian literature at the University of Peradeniya in Kandy, Sri Lanka, Arizona University professor Adele Barker found herself more comfortable in the role of perpetual learner than educator. Barker’s apt and thoughtful descriptions of being a fish out of water provide an excellent place of departure for the detailed exploration of the current social, cultural, and political struggles of her temporary home.

In Not Quite Paradise: An American Sojourn in Sri Lanka she offers a profound historical reflection written with accessible prose and a desire to present an evenhanded look at the country’s precarious past—a past we continue to see play out in the immediate aftermath of a 26-year civil war and last week’s dissolution of the country’s Parliament.

Barker is aware of her own complicated position as a colonial outsider in the bittersweet story she shares, and smartly uses her power to leverage an increasing awareness of the challenges faced by this small South Asian country that has been persistently ravaged by conflict and a recent natural disaster that stunned the world.

Given that your professional background is completely unrelated to Sri Lanka, what inspired you to live there for two years?

The simple answer is that I landed there serendipitously. I had applied for a Fulbright Senior Scholar grant in 2000 and originally thought I would be sent to either Jordan or India. Then I got a call from the Fulbright Office telling me I would have a better chance of getting the award if I reformulated my application to teach in Sri Lanka—and that’s what I did.

On a deeper level, I needed a change. I had spent most of my adult life as a Soviet Studies specialist, and to be frank, when the Soviet Union collapsed the country lost its cache for a lot of us because the very things that had attracted us to studying it disappeared overnight. This was part of the malaise I felt, but I also wanted to explore other genres of writing. Although I knew I wanted a book to come out of the experience of living in Sri Lanka, I had no idea what form it would take, nor did I know I would keep going back to the island after my teaching duties were over.

How did the book begin to take shape?

The events on the island took over my life and the narrative of the book I was writing. After I came back to the U.S. in 2002, I worked on the book for a year and a half, but it just didn’t feel right. Sri Lanka was in the midst of a 26-year civil war, and I was writing about how the war had been eating away at the country from only one side. I had lived too much in Sinhalese society and not enough in the Tamil north, so I needed a more balanced perspective. Of course, what ultimately drove me back to Sri Lanka was the tsunami in December 2004. I returned several months after that happened and spent another eight months there. During that trip, I finally got up to Tamil territory, and needless to say, most of the book had to be totally rewritten.

"Not Quite Paradise" ends up as an interesting mash up of memoir and historical non-fiction. How did these two genres come together?

There are travel writers I really admire, like Rory Stewart, who wrote this amazing book called The Places in Between about walking across Afghanistan. He leaves himself out of the book until the end and then breaks your heart with what he says about himself and his dog! I thought that might have been the easiest way to go, but I just couldn’t do it. Too much of what I was writing was filtered through my experiences. I knew this would be a highly subjective book, so I reached for a way to blend the genres of travel writing and memoir. I held back details of my life because I didn’t want my story to overshadow the story of the country, which had its own persuasive and emotional narrative. It was really hard to strike the right balance, and I still wonder if I got it right.

Your desire for balance comes across in the writing, which tends more toward observation than analysis. Much of the book is simply storytelling, with a reliance on the reader to draw one’s own conclusions. How did you record these memories in the making?

I spent a lot of time recording things in my journal and writing long emails to the folks on my listserv; in fact, I was obsessive about it.

When you land in a place that is a 180 degree turn from where you are from, everything seems either exotic or completely incomprehensible. I recorded a lot about things I didn’t understand. I kept wondering why people would pass their screaming children under the belly of an elephant or why it mattered what day of the week it was when a gecko fell onto my head or why my housekeeper came on a day when she was not supposed to work to kill the thousands of ants that had taken up residence in our kitchen and then disappeared back up the hills again.

The tenor of my journals changed over time as I became more aware of the history of conflict in the country. I came to understand how it was impacting my everyday world—and that, of course, affected what I wrote.

About mid-way through the book, your focus shifts to the 2004 tsunami, where it remains until the end. The tone becomes more activist than observer. What effect did the tsunami have on your writing?

The tsunami turned people’s lives upside down, and it did something to my own as well. The central eastern shore took a direct hit on the morning of December 26, 2004, and I did a lot of walking along the southern and eastern shores when I went back afterward. I met people who talked freely about what had happened and people who couldn’t access their emotions at all. The tsunami is just one part of the historical trauma of the island. Just as catastrophic as “the day the sea came to the land,” which is how Sri Lankans refer to the tsunami, is the 26-year civil war that, at least militarily, came to an end in May with the defeat of the Tamil Tigers—but it’s far from over.

Statistics differ, but it is probably fair to say that roughly 48,000 Sri Lankans were killed in the tsunami. Twice that number have been killed in the war. The casualty figures in the final weeks of the civil war in April and May of 2009 were horrendous. Innocent civilians got caught in the crossfire and used as human shields by both sides. Those who survived were put in Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps. The current president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, who just won re-election, promised to have all of them out of the IDP camps by the end of December, but that still hasn’t happened. There are huge resettlement problems on the island. People don’t have homes or families to go back to. In some cases, they are separated from their families because one person is in one camp and their family members are in another.

I think constantly about how I can help and I go back and forth about whether writing is enough. Increasingly, it feels like it isn’t. Given the actions of the current government in Sri Lanka, one of the few things I feel I can do is write about the situation and bring attention to issues that are under-reported, or not reported at all. It strikes me as odd for instance that the American media does not report the situation in Sri Lanka more than it does given the fact that the country is one of the most dangerous in the world for journalists.

You address the country's unrest as being the result of "ethnic" conflict; however, there are some who claim the conflict is not ethnic, but political.

I’m not sure you can draw a distinction between ethnic and political concerns in the Sri Lankan civil war because the two have become almost indistinguishable. Many people point to Sinhala being made the sole official language in 1956, which enraged many Tamils, as the chief catalyst for the war. In Sri Lanka, ethnic affiliation is closely tied to one’s language, and the Sinhalese and Tamils speak languages that are in no way linguistically related. The language issue never got settled to the satisfaction of many Tamils, and when the Tamil Tigers came into being in the early 1970s, the issue wasn’t just about language anymore; it was about the right to an independent homeland for the Tamils.

One of the horrible problems in this war is that each side felt as if its very existence was threatened by the other. The civil war had all the hallmarks of an ethnic conflict that was improperly handled politically. That situation continues today.

What are your thoughts on Rajapaksa's recent dissolution of Parliament?

I think it’s another nail in the coffin for true democracy in Sri Lanka. Since Rajapaksa came to office in 2005, charges of corruption and nepotism have dogged his administration. He ran on a promise to defeat the Tamil Tigers, and in May of last year, he did just that. Rajapaksa rode the crest of the military victory to an electoral victory. His electoral opponent, General Sarath Fonseka, was the Commander of the Army at the time the war ended, and when I left Sri Lanka several weeks ago, I had a sense that Fonseka was going to win the election. Frankly, I was shocked at the results. Today General Fonseka is being held under arrest, charged with planning a military coup against the government.

Sri Lanka has witnessed an increase of censorship during Rajapaksa’s first presidential term (18 journalists who spoke out against the government have been murdered). The government remains reluctant to address the lack of equal rights and Parliamentary representation for Tamils, which is what led to the war to begin with, or the hindrances to resettlement and government aid for the Tamil North. Rajapaksa also has worldwide humanitarian organizations to deal with, and his government is under investigation for genocide committed in the final weeks of the war. Military victory was just the beginning of what needs to be done on the island. Otherwise, you don’t have peace, only the absence of war.

In a sense, Not Quite Paradise functions as a platform through which the voices of ordinary Sri Lankans can be heard. What do you want people to hear them saying?

I heard many stories in the years I was in Sri Lanka: personal stories, stories about the day the sea came to the land, stories about the war. What made a huge impression on me was how deeply divided the country is over the ethnic conflict. The decades-long lack of communication and severely limited contact between both sides has resulted in widespread myths and misinformation. In addition the violence that each side has inflicted on the other, each has come to see itself as uniquely victimized, and I think most people have gotten to the point where they just want the war over, perhaps at whatever cost.

People in Colombo have lived for 26 years not knowing if a bomb was going to go off in the bus they were riding that morning. When I warned a friend not to take the bus after a flare up of violence in 2006, she looked at me incredulously and said, “This is our life. This is how we live. We don’t know how to live otherwise.” I think learning how to live otherwise and finding a way to heal is going to take a long time, and I am not completely convinced that the current government is going to do what is necessary to help heal the ethnic rifts in this country. It is a sad time.

Mandy Van Deven is a freelance writer and the founder of the Feminist Review blog. Focusing on gender, politics, and popular culture, her work has appeared in various online and print media, including AlterNet, Bitch, In These Times, and make/shift. Mandy worked for over ten years as a grassroots organizer in New York and Atlanta. She is an avid and enthusiastic world traveler who has collected friends in countries all over the globe. Mandy currently lives in Kolkata, India.

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