- Discussing the ordinary and the extraordinary with novelist Ru Freeman
By Jennifer Anandanayagam
Sri Lankan American novelist, poet, and critic Ru Freeman has always had a way with words. Her books A Disobedient Girl, On Sal Mal Lane, and Sleeping Alone: Stories are uncompromising examples of that. When we reached out to her and asked if she’d like to be featured in this column, we knew her words would stay with us; and that they did. Discussing everything from her life in Sri Lanka before she moved to the US, to the concerns any immigrant to the US should be aware of, we dove right in.
“I think that there should be intergenerational thinking that goes into shaping a new system of government,” Freeman observed, at the end of telling us what her hope for Sri Lanka is. “Young people have borne the brunt of bankrupt policies, it is their future that is at stake; older activists have spent decades understanding why we arrived at this point. Bravery must be unified with experience. That’s the unbeatable ticket.”
Freeman writes for the UK Guardian, the New York Times, and the Boston Globe. She teaches creative writing in the US and abroad, and is the Director of the Artists Network at Narrative 4. Here are some excerpts from our chat.
Tell me about your life in Sri Lanka before you left for the US.
My life was simultaneously ordinary and extraordinary. It was ordinary to the extent that it unfolded like it did for a majority of people, and certainly for the majority of those in my same social class. Like most Sri Lankan children, I had parents who front and centred the life of the mind, and encouraged regard for books and education in general. Like theirs, mine worked hard. Like them, I ran amok with my friends and siblings, enjoying being a child.
It was extraordinary in that my family was a blend of the political principles of my father, who remains a Trotskyite, and the aesthetic principles and generosity of my mother, who taught literature, and was unfailingly kind to everybody she met. I was taught to care about issues of social justice, and to speak up no matter the cost, but to also implement the humaneness that defines those causes in daily life, in every interaction. I was taught to wade deep, like my brothers, into the tidal waves of political activism, but never to forget that the small things we do – how we treat a guard at a school, a janitor, a receptionist, a “bothal-paththara kaaraya”, is the blood relative of that activism.
You said in a previous interview that you consider your home to be Sri Lanka, no matter where you’re living now. Care to explain why that is?
I am a big fan of the Mohsin Hamid book Exit West. Through the narratives, Hamid basically argues that we humans are bound to movement, and that no amount of borders or controls will stop it. He also suggests that there is parity of status between those who move to other places seeking safety (as, say, refugees), and those who leave looking for new relationships. The point is that we will seek out that which we need.
That “truth” is connected, in my world, to the other one that informs it; that our “home” is shaped by how we are raised, and the culture that directs our actionable thoughts. I was raised in Sri Lanka. That is my home whether I am physically in it or not, and I carry that home with me wherever I go. Syrian refugees in Lesbos are no less Syrian for being forced to live there. Baldwin was no less American despite living most of his life abroad. I am no different.
What are your feelings/ideas regarding what’s transpiring in SL right now?
In a word, “worrying” – first of all, the economic crisis which is causing all kinds of deprivation, anxiety, fear, and even helplessness. The focus, however, has been on political realities, about who should, or should not be in power, and less about the kind of structures and systems that have a better chance of sorting out economic ills, rescuing Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans from decades-long dependency and multiple debt traps.
It is worrying that the focus is on personalities. It is worrying that on the one hand, there are people who are crying out for democracy, and at the same time almost saying “constitutional provisions be damned, give us what we want”. The “we” of the matter is still lacking in clarity. Perhaps it is best to go for elections so that representational legitimacy can be clearly obtained rather than just saying “the people want this or that” because those who say it have not been conferred authority to make such determinations.
What is your experience of race relations in the US — in your personal, social, and professional life?
I was born in a country (Sri Lanka), where I was a human being first, a female second. Beyond those, a collection of other “identities”, such as my religion (Buddhism), my parents (socialists), my siblings (brothers), my birth order (youngest), my schools (Holy Family Convent and then Ladies’ College), and other such things all the way to the length and quality of my hair came to define me. We have a type of colourism in Sri Lanka, of “fair” versus “dark”, particularly for women, but in general the colour of my skin was inconsequential to the conduct of my life.
I am someone who likes to think in terms of abundance and possibility rather than lack and obstacles. Life is not easy for those we refer to as BIPOC now (Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour), but since I arrived from that other country, already measuring people “by the content of their character” (as Martin Luther King hoped people will do viz-a-viz his four children in his “I have a dream” speech), I have held fast to that. I was raised to be at ease anywhere, to never place people above or below me. I tend to dismiss hierarchies, and treat rules as suggestions. I am, of course, subject to racism, to judgements, and actions that arise from prejudice, but I see those as being indicative of a flaw in the makeup of those people, not some error of mine.
I am conscious that my Black friends are more likely to be judged by and die for the colour of their skin than I am (barring a mass shooting, another misery of living in the US), as were the Indigenous people before them, but I also know that I can say things in classrooms and call out BS from people who are not White with impunity in a way that my White friends cannot. My experience therefore is troubled by America’s obsession with race, but my own race elevates my position in a way that can question and address and, I hope, push those conversations in a more useful direction. Class and capitalism, anyone?
What advice would you give to new immigrants trying to settle down in the US, when it comes to navigating discrimination of any form, and establishing themselves and building a life there?
Don’t come. If you do come, understand that you will spend your life trying to ensure that you have a job that comes with health insurance, but that you will be terrified of losing that insurance, and so you will stick with whatever job you can get rather than pursue one that might be meaningful.
Understand that if you have children, they will attend schools where they will be subjected to the horror of imagining their own deaths at the hands of an active shooter; they will have drills that will bring down sheets of metal that block off corridors to trap the shooter, but also condemn their siblings and friends to a sure death along with that shooter.
Understand that they and you can be murdered at a nail salon, a church, a school, a cinema, a nightclub, a concert, a university, a mall, or a dozen other places where you might ordinarily be thinking about anything else but a madman with a weapon used in warfare. Understand that policemen patrol even innocuous places like train stations wearing an average of 28 pounds of gear including a ballistic vest that will “protect” them from unarmed civilians, while they pour bullets into the bodies of those same unarmed people from the “average” weaponry they carry at all times.
Understand that America is run by corporations that are invested in the idea of annihilating your body (arms manufacturers), your health (food industry and big pharma), your mind (a two party system run by those corporations), and your relatives back home (the CIA), and that’s just the start. And all these things will fill your soul with so much terror that you will begin to think that voting is your one act of defiance. You will watch elections being stolen, rights being destroyed, and you will do nothing because you will not have the time since you’ll be busy trying to stay alive, and you will begin to think that the people who are suffering are the problem, not the people who are perpetrating injustice.
In short, there is no “settling” here. There is only unsettling. You will come here of sound mind and quickly lose it. You will visit home and wonder each time what you are doing in this hell. But you will return to this hell because by now, your children are planted in this soil and you don’t want to uproot them. If you have already come, uproot yourself and your children, and run. Go anywhere. Don’t stay here.
You’ve spoken to me about Western media and its hidden agenda when reporting on third world countries. How do you feel about what’s being reported about Sri Lanka in the West now?
I recently read an article in the New York Times where German Lopez, who was born in Caracas, Venezuela, and grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, interviews Emily Schmall, who grew up in DeKalb, Illinois, about what they call the uprising in Sri Lanka. It was both maddening and hilarious, and illuminating. It was a perfect example of the depths of ignorance that are deliberately maintained in the American system of what I call public mis/un-education, and of the extremely myopic views held by those who go through those systems, even when they rise to the level of writing for the country’s flagship newspaper.
They spoke about the “aragalaya” as a quaint sort of thing, “with a bit of absurdity, and a bit of comedy thrown in — a very Sri Lankan sort of revolution, relatively low-key and polite”. Anyone who has spent time with a real live Sri Lankan knows that we are kind but we are not polite, which comes from the Latin “politus”, which means polished. We are erudite, we are funny, but we are sharp. Polite is a word I would use to define America’s nicely organised protests, which occur with police permission along predetermined routes, and portable toilets along the way with a start and end time; the only exception being the BLM (Black Lives Matter) protests which, therefore, at least moved the needle within some worlds, including the literary one.
I have much more faith in young Americans who have learned – thanks, in part, to those BLM protests – to ask questions and seek answers outside the purview of these newspapers. So the answer is that Sri Lanka is certainly featured in the news much more than it was in the last 13 years, but it is still uninformed coverage, still parachute journalism.
What is your hope for Sri Lanka in the next five years?
A nation of even greater facility at taking care of one another, a nation that strives for energy and food sovereignty. I also hope for greater visibility of Sri Lankan writers on the international scene, even in backward America! I hope for more translations and more engagement with those writers on the part of those like me who live abroad.
(The writer is a journalist and editor with over 15 years of experience in Sri Lanka’s print and digital media landscape. She is also a freelance contributor with the SaltWire Network in Canada. She spends her time between both countries)