By Bhamati Sivapalan | Tehelka
A lot of your literature deals with the Sri Lankan Tamil experience. In places caught in ethnic conflicts, we witnesses destruction of cultural identity. In this context, how do you position your work?
My first collection of poetry was titled The Second Sunrise in English. It was written in 1981 after the burning of the Jaffna public library. When I look back, I am reminded of a saying by a German writer and intellectual: “First you burn books, then you end up burning human beings.”
That's very pertinent to what you're asking. I was very close to that library. Every Saturday my father would take us to the library. I would spend 4-5 hours there. I was a young university student in Jaffna at the time of the burning. We couldn't go to the library when it was being burnt but we went the next day. We saw a large number of Sri Lankan soldiers and other agents of the state stationed next to it in a huge stadium. They were laughing and mocking us. That is my very first memory of the library being burnt.
My poem was symbolic. It simply depicts the burning of the library as the second rise, which is unimaginably ironic, right? It’s a second sunrise in the sense that the Tamils were about to resist the cultural genocide. And this was the time when various Tamil militant movements emerged.
In the past 30 years, there has been a systematic attempt by the state of Sri Lanka to ethnically cleanse and culturally subjugate the entire Tamil population. And the culmination of that particular project, ethnic cleansing and pogrom, is the May 2009 genocide of Tamils.
How does your work counter this narrative of cultural genocide?
Well in one sense, in the past 30 years, my eight collections of poetry have been a witness to the ongoing resistance of the Tamils and the genocidal massacres of the Tamils by the Sri Lankan state. So in that sense I became a witness to that history. My witnessing is not just as a historian or an archaeologist or a social scientist. It’s the poet as the witness, which involves a different kind of sensibility. It’s a different kind of imagination that is involved in this particular kind of being a witness, which you can very clearly see in my work.
A lot of poetry that comes out of conflict spaces often tends to be primarily valued as a sociological document. Does its value then, as a craft for the literary devices, run the risk of going unnoticed?
That’s an interesting observation… I would like to mention that the cultural theorist Leo Lowenthal who said that historians, social scientists and sociologists should be prevented or banned from using poetry as raw material for their works. But on the other hand, when public intellectuals like journalists, politicians and academicians are silent to this kind of genocide or ethnic cleansing, the poets step in and articulate a particular kind of resistance. That shouldn't be the primary work of a poet. However, in the absence of all other voices of resistance, in the absence of counter narratives, sometimes it happens that the poets become the voice of the voiceless.
The second point is that, it is not that the poetry I wrote or the ones that my colleagues wrote were simply agitprop poetry. It’s not ‘kavitai koshum’ (sloganeering poetry) as we say in Tamil. But rather this is a different kind of poetry with a different sensibility and speaks to a particular kind of nuance at times of conflict, war, disappearances and genocide. The particular poetic movement that emerged in the north east of Sri Lanka in Tamil greatly impacted the Tamil poetry in Tamil Nadu and in various other parts of the world. When my poetry was translated to Kannada, some of the key Kannada literary critics and poets felt that the poetry from north eastern Sri Lanka had an organic combination of poetry, protest, resistance and aesthetics that was unique. So that is what I think differentiates the kind of poetry that I wrote and my colleagues wrote. That's a very important distinction. We can't simply say that this is a kind of poetry that witnesses an agony and resistance but there is more to it.
Bhamati Sivapalan is a Video Correspondent with Tehelka.com