Over April we’re holding a focus on Australian women writers with ethnic heritage, and today we’re very excited to publish a guest post from writer Marisa Wikramanayake.
Marisa was born in Colombo, Sri Lanka and has played hopscotch around the world, landing in Ohio in the US for two years before ending up in Perth, Australia in 2004. She has a very convoluted degree in English Literature and Geography with an Archaeology Honours and a Master of Communications in Science Journalism. After terrorising educational institutions for a hobby, she now masquerades as a journalist, editor and writer, working on her novel, poking her nose in at various news organisations and being guest editor and judge for Seizure’s Viva La Novella competition.
She also rounds up non fiction, short fiction and poetry at Australian Women Writers while she sends short stories off into the ether and occupies a chair on the MEAA WA’s journalism committee once every two months after a committee career involving a few years at the Society of Editors (WA) and one year on the State Literary Board of WA. In other words she likes books and in our guest post she discusses what it has meant to have her ethnicity and experiences of travel, reading, curfews, curry and bomb blasts hang around in the background as she puts pen to paper.
(n.) a homesickness for a home to which you cannot return, a home which maybe never was; the nostalgia, the yearning, the grief for the lost places of your past
– from otherwordly.tumblr.com
I feel that I must explain my position to you before I begin: all good essays we are taught have an introduction, a section where we outline the limits and define what we wish to say. And I must do the needful and define myself and explain. And doesn’t that bring up an interesting question: why must I do so?
So here are my descriptors: part of the war generation, Sri Lankan, Sinhalese-Burgher (Dutch Euroasian mix), European heritage, Colombo (capital city) elite, English is my first language, somewhat Anglophilic immediate family culture, a minority in my own country, privileged in a lot of aspects whenever English language skills are held in high regard but otherwise on the fringes, now also holding Australian citizenship and straddling both nations as best I can. And always othered in some way, shape or form. Oh and I am a woman of colour.
I exist in a maelstrom of isms: feminism, orientalism, sexism, classism, racism, egalitarianism, patriotism, nationalism, colonialism, post-colonialism, modernism, capitalism, socialism, liberalism. I understand this, this fact that I have to carve out a niche somewhere in the midst of these differing concepts. I have to constantly find a place to stand still for five minutes. An arched raised eyebrow and a Nana glare works best I find against interlopers, invaders and intruders.
Growing up, I read in English, partly due to my family culture but also due to it being my first language. I had a father who, though he was Sinhalese, studied in a boarding school in English and a mother, who as a woman of Dutch descent, both studied in and had English as her first language with both of them most comfortable and knowledgeable about the “Western” way of thinking and doing things. In hindsight, there really was no hope for me and my sister. There are a number of local English language authors in Sri Lanka but the general hierarchy seemed to be that non Sri Lankan English language authors were of better quality. Those were the books in larger numbers in stores, those were the books set for both the local and London O/L and A/L English Literature exams, those were the books you knew of as a kid. The eurocentrism/orientalism of this notion was somewhat ingrained in societal thinking when I was growing up. Not so for Sinhala and Tamil as far as I could gather in my limited experience of taking those subjects and sitting those exams – we had Madol Duwa on a test once and I had to thank my stars that I had read the English translation beforehand.
But the general message was easily summed up like Animal Farm (one of my exam texts): “Foreign authors good, local authors baaaaad/nonexistent (on the map of what is good literature)”*. Forget female writers, that didn’t even come into it, yet. How can you expect Sri Lankan female authors to be recognised when there is still a need for sites like Australian Women Writers or for projects like the Vida Count?
So I grew up, unable to find people like me, brown in skin, this weird European with a dash of spice mix in my head, female and big mouthed, in the pages I turned. Where are these people? Are they in the languages I don’t read in? But quick chats to my Sinhala language entrenched peers tells me that there aren’t any, at least there weren’t when they were growing up. “Everything is about the war, about colonialism, about the tsunami, when Sri Lankans write in English. I haven’t read many Sinhala books to judge, other than most of them were boring and had a sense of sadness and harshness in them.” one of them told me. “I know about Sinhala history and culture but I had nothing to connect to and so it’s American and British language literature and shows and culture that I then became familiar with.”
I can understand why we write about such things. The war lasted twenty five years encompassing all of my childhood but it’s my parent’s generation that knew a different kind of life and these days every story I hear increases my belief that that generation suffers en masse from PTSD. So I get why it has hit at our psyche so much that we have to attempt to understand it and reframe it within our literature. But my generation of writers, for us the war is often in the background of our stories, colouring the actions of older characters with an undercurrent of insecurity and tension, a subtle influence rather than a key player because we had no choice but to live our lives that way. But I agree with my friend on one thing. War is not all of what we are and neither is tea or tsunami and colonialism still pervades but that’s the case for quite a lot of places – cricket however, when the World Cup is on, we are definitely all about the cricket.
So does my ethnicity inform my writing?
I am compelled to write. And I think of my characters as real so I tend to get out of the way and let them do their thing and then just take it all down. If gender, orientation, ethnicity and so on is important to my characters, I let them reveal that to me. If not, it’s not important, it doesn’t go into the story. The story and my characters are important but they are always a mishmash of twelve hundred different traits any of which could affect them in different ways and to different degrees. That’s the same with real people. And I acknowledge that sometimes it is a trait that they don’t care about but that pings so loud and clear to others that they then treat them differently. That’s also real life.
In my waking life, I will do what I want without stopping to worry about whether I should be doing it because I am female or foreign looking. I don’t consider my gender at all. In other words, I act with the very male attitude that the world is built for me. It works to a certain extent despite the fact that the world isn’t actually built for people like me – a fact I don’t forget but one I refuse to allow to stop me from doing exactly what I want or need to at any given time or from defending my right to exist within a space at any time. I am who I am. People are people. An individual is an individual.
Because I am aware of it, I want to create work that highlights these issues. I want to write so that my peers who have kids, they can hand them a book of mine and say “Hey, there are characters who look like you, come from where you are, with similar experiences even if they don’t exactly think like you do.”
You see, I used to think that because I was othered constantly whether I chose to take notice of it or not that “hireath” (and its Portuguese equivalent of “saudade”) applied to me.
But if my generation, and the next, and the next, are consistently taught that what matters, what rings right and true and best are the shows, the culture, the books, the music about people not like them, then they will feel “hireath” too as they try desperately to fit in rather than be themselves and play by rules set by people who don’t know them. That’s when they change names to more European sounding ones to get jobs or buy health damaging skin lightening creams because fair skin is prettier and gets you further. That’s when they suffer from mental health issues because they know who they are but they don’t fit. Because they can’t connect to the non Sri Lankan people they meet who don’t get to read, to watch, to hear, to learn, to know and therefore are never taught about a culture that is non Eurocentric and demand extremes of exoticised behaviour or compliance in fitting in from them.
I can’t control the stories that come to me – sometimes they will be about Sri Lankans, sometimes they won’t. But what I do try to show is that experiences, at least some, are universal. What I want to tell my Sri Lankan and non Sri Lankan readers is that there are so many different ways of being an individual and that it doesn’t have to be totally and completely gendered or down to your orientation or nationality unless you have happily and very contentedly chosen it because you feel that that is who you are overall. That a book about Sri Lankan culture and identity is also good literature and worthy. As is a book about something else that may have a Sri Lankan character in it. Or a book by a Sri Lankan author whatever the content.
I grew up feeling like I needed a place to belong to, that I really did belong to, where I wasn’t constantly cocking my head to a side because I didn’t know something pertinent or I knew more than someone else did and had to figure out if this was the point at which I said so.
I grew up and currently exist wishing I didn’t have to hear things like “Oh, you write well!” or “Oh! You are so articulate!” from people. Why is it surprising to find that I call myself a writer and that I can write well in my first language? It speaks of an assumption that English isn’t mine – that it is some sort of gift bestowed upon me and that I have done better than expected. Please don’t take my language away from me – I own it, it’s mine, I think and work in it. And so do a lot of other people who look like me and who don’t look like me – products of colonialism perhaps but carving out spaces to exist in with agency within the pages of books because our stories matter too. And perhaps that answers why I had to start this essay with an introduction.
I am compelled to write and the story comes first. But when I write, I hope I give people not just understanding of the many different ways in which one can choose to exist in the world or of the issues that matter, I hope I enable readers to be comfortable in their own skin, their choices, to say “I am who I am, I have a right to exist as I am within this space” and feel at home and belong with the people between the pages who tell them, quite simply: “People like you matter too.”
* I feel compelled to point out that the reference is “Four legs good, two legs bad” and at sixteen I took great enjoyment in bleating the “bad” out a lot. What can I say? I am a five year old sometimes with a lyrical love of language.