A window into the life of a Sri Lankan queer soul
By Paramie Jayakody
“I have flowers all over me
Immortalised but it is
Flowers that teach me to let go…”
Writes Isurinie Mallawaarachchi in the poem ‘Flowers and Sunshine,’ a drop in a collection of deceptively simple, deeply personal, and unequivocally true verses about life. While flowers and poetry go hand in hand, for Isurinie the symbolism is more than skin deep – rather, it is a branding on her soul.
Poetry is an inherently vulnerable act, and with her words, Isurinie lays bare her soul in a series of starkly painful and relatable moments.
Launched late last month, ‘Flowers Teach Me to Let Go’ is Isurinie’s debut poetry collection, published by The Jam Fruit Tree Publications and illustrated by Prabhashana Hasthidhara. Exploring a wide array of themes, the poems centre around the life of a queer person, “a tall, tattooed, overweight Amazon who’s shrunk herself to fit into a tiny island”.
Curious to speak with the mind behind the hard-hitting collection, The Sunday Morning Brunch had a conversation with Isurinie on the process of releasing her debut collection and the journey of self love behind it.
Following are excerpts of the interview:
How did you start writing poetry and how long have you been doing it?
I have been writing ever since I can remember, but I was very scared to put it out. One, because I was writing on very personal topics, and the other was my insecurity about English.
I grew up in a predominantly Sinhala-speaking household and I was the person whose English was good among a family of Sinhala speakers. When I went to college, my English was good but I was of a particular social class where that always came as a surprise. Due to this, I was very insecure about my English and I wasn’t confident enough to publish poetry in English.
I think a lot of people can relate to this. They want to write. But to put it out there, to be under the scrutiny of “Oh this person can write, but they have a lot of grammar mistakes,” just pulls them back.
I started writing as a cathartic exercise, as a way to relieve my pain. When I write I transfer my pain to my computer. What started off like that, in one impulsive moment, was published on my Facebook, which got great comments. And that’s how it started.
What made you think of compiling your own collection?
Gratiaen prize winner and poet Vivimarie Vanderpoorten. She actually messaged me on Messenger, and said: “You have a very special poetic voice. Why don’t you get a collection for yourself?”
That’s when I started taking it seriously and I went back to my notes on the phone – which had all my poems – and started rereading my poems. Reading them after five to six years was a very powerful journey for myself as well. So I compiled this collection, from my oldest poem ‘Self Harm,’ which was written in 2017, to now.
Publishing my poetry on social media beforehand worked as a good testing ground, because I could see what people actually thought of my work.
I noticed that the collection itself, like the title, has a running theme of flowers. What does this personally signify to you?
When it comes to flowers, I like receiving flowers and I have them tattooed all over me and there’s a very outwardly personal dimension to it.
But if you dive deeper into this, I believe flowers are also a fantastic creation of nature, because it is beautiful, and at the same time, it helps pollination and creates the fruit. In essence, the flower assists the process of reproduction. However, how many of us really think of a flower as something with a particular purpose? We just think of it as something that just blooms.
Receiving flowers is always associated with being feminine. Because I am a tall, tattooed, and big-made person, people don’t usually perceive me as someone who would also be happy to receive flowers. You’re always expected to be the bigger person. For me, giving me flowers also means that you treat me like the feminine, vulnerable person that I am, which is heartwarming.
I have all these emotions running through my mind when I talk about flowers. It’s a huge part of who I am.
How has reception been since you launched the book?
It’s been two weeks since I launched the book and the reception has been fantastic. I have people telling me that they can relate to it. We included this book in the APIIT library, because that’s where I work, and I have students stopping me in the lobby and telling me that they can relate and that they love it. Reception has been very, very good.
Now that you have one collection, do you plan on publishing more in the future? What are your future plans?
I’m currently working on a Sinhala translation of a Malaysian English novel. However, that project is currently on hold because of the paper prices and difficulties in logistics. In the meantime, I constantly write and constantly publish on social media.
I have been told by my friends not to publish everything that I write, because that hinders the ability to sell a second collection. I actually have enough for a second collection, because I write on a daily basis.