‘Writing Sri Lanka from the Diaspora’: A Reflection

(This post appeared originally on the blog of the website - Forum for Overseas Sri Lankas - fosl.lk)

Of the contributions that Sri Lankan’s and those of Sri Lankan origin living overseas have made to various sectors and areas in the country, literature and particularly English literature is certainly one of them. From Michel Ondaatje, to Shyam Selvadurai, and Ru Freeman, one can visualize in their heads a growing shelf in bookstores with the label ‘Sri Lankan Fiction’ slapped across.

It is on this vein that the Maritime Museum at the Galle Fort on the first day of programming at the Galle Literary Festival fills up as two writers of debut novels centred on Sri Lanka settle down to chat with Gehan Gunatilleke about their work, inspirations and the content of their books.

While Minoli and Nayomi’s journeys both as writers and people differed – some key similarities remained. They both shared a deep and complex relationship with the country, and very much considered being Sri Lankan as part of their identity. They both explored through characters in their books what it was like to live away from the nation and then return – not as an inside nor an outsider. They both used the backdrop of the conflict in their debut novels and highlighted how it has very much touched and shaped all Sri Lankans in various way, both those living here and overseas.

The relationship the diaspora share with Sri Lanka, and how they connect – such as through arts or politically was also a topic that framed the discussion. Minoli noted “we too are considered outsiders where we live, and so our connection with home matters deeply. Being told that connection, and thus we don’t matter to the country can hurt deeply”. Minoli also noted that often labels and exclusive identities are foisted upon them, and it needs to be remembered that they are not one thing – it is complex and multi-layered. It is worth at this point noting that in the Sri Lankan context when you add the word ‘diaspora’ into any topic, it inevitably creates a political angle and frames the discussion to a certain mould. In this case especially it was apparent, that despite the two participants being in the cultural category, penning fiction, Sinhalese, and not being representatives of any political outfit were still subject to a barrage of politically motivated questioning that was accusatory at times.

Both writers shared through their conversation with Gehan, as well as in their readings and response to questions some valuable insights as to how members of the diaspora who may not necessarily be engaged on a political level with Sri Lanka, engage and interact with the country. For instance both readings that Nayomi did had a distinct air of nostalgia and looking back – and Minoli pointed out that as diaspora your relationship with the country is often mapped by your childhood memories and history. Naomi reflected on her own relationship with the country she left at the age of three, telling the audience as a diaspora writer, writing about Sri Lanka it can be a strange experience as you are close to the country and yet there is a distance you struggle with. She also pointed out how interesting it was that in Sri Lanka she was considered a ‘diaspora’ writer, and in the States she is referred to as an ‘ethnic’ writer – always an outsider.

Both Nayomi’s novel ‘Island of a Thousand Mirrors’ and Minoli’s novel ‘A Little Dust on the Eyes’ are available for purchase locally and are must-reads. Featuring strong female protagonists, beautiful prose, and some startling insights into Sri Lanka; they remind us that this search for identity is not exclusive to those living here nor is the pain of what our history has had. We are after all a mosaic nation – isn’t there space for those who may not live here?


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