Ru Freeman: "The City Was Going Up in Flames."

Ru Freeman: "The City Was Going Up in Flames."

On Sal Mal Lane book coverIn her new novel On Sal Mal Lane, author and activist Ru Freeman draws on her traumatic, firsthand experience of the Sri Lankan Civil War’s outbreak.


Zola: Is Sal Mal Lane based on a real street in Sri Lanka?

Ru Freeman: Sal Mal Lane is a microcosm of Sri Lanka. Most people who aren’t born there and don’t live there—and who have only heard snippets of news on BBC or CNN or read shorthand dispatches from irresponsible journalists—don’t realize that all of Sri Lanka’s ethnic groups live together all over the island except in the areas controlled by the LTTE. There are certainly majority ethnic populations (more Tamils in the North, more Sinhalese in the South, more Muslims in Trincomalee, etc.), but the vast majority of the country lives together, their fortunes tied to the things that affect their neighbors. In order to write this particular version of a lane down Sri Lanka’s former capitol (and still the commercial capitol), I returned to the neighborhood of my childhood, a small lane off of Havelock Road, where my older brothers and I moved when I was about seven years old. Some of the people in this novel recall the characteristics of one or the other of the people whom we met and came to live among, but all of the precise details were imagined into fiction.

Zola: The novel takes place in the years leading up to the Sri Lankan Civil War, including the infamous Black July when mobs attacked the minority ethnic group, sparking the civil conflict that lasted more than 25 years. Where were you during the riots of Black July? Are the accounts of the events in the book based on your first-hand experience? How much research did you have to do?

RF: I didn’t need to do any research on the events of July, 1983; when you live through something that transforms the way you look at the world, it does not matter how much time has passed between those events and the life you’ve come to live, you know it viscerally. I checked exact dates for elections, other historical markers, the duration of a curfew, the identity of certain officials, but the events themselves are part of my own personal history.

On that particular day I was in school, Holy Family Convent, waiting for someone to come and take me home. Usually my mother would send one of her students, or one of my brothers would come—I never knew exactly who might show up to take me home. But I was old enough that I could go home by myself on public transport, except that on that particular day the nuns would not release any students unless someone came for them. The person who came for me was my father and that told me that something was dreadfully wrong. Not only was it him standing at the gate, we were going to get on a public bus together; my father worked for the government and was usually taken to work by official transport. I had heard the nuns say that the city was going up in flames, but I didn’t know what that meant, exactly. I did once we left the sanctuary of the convent. Later that day, the Tamil families who lived down our lane took refuge in the homes of their Sinhalese neighbors, including our home. We had two families in our house: our immediate neighbors to our left and the people who lived across the street from us.

Zola: Your book clearly highlights the discrimination that goes on between ethnic and religious groups in Sri Lanka. As a social justice activist and journalist hoping to shed light on this intolerance, why did you decide to write a novel rather than a non-fiction book or a memoir?

RF: I don’t know that it highlights real discrimination, and that is not my intention. This isn’t a polemic about felt injustices, but an observation of the heart of a country as seen through its children, and, on a larger scale, the way war breaks down the best in each of us, the way we must resist anyway.

I wrote that story as a novel because that is the only way to write truthfully and the only way we can absorb certain truths. If I wrote it as nonfiction, I would be claiming a certain ultimate veracity to my version of things and that would go against what I believe: the history of a country is fiction because it is made up of millions of stories. This book contains some of those.

Historically, given that the colonial situation in Sri Lanka was very similar to South Africa (in our case the Tamil minority was in power over a Sinhalese majority), we could say the baton of discrimination was passed pretty fluidly from the Tamils to the Sinhalese. And if you think about the larger context, during the height of the war between the LTTE (which was all Tamil) and the people of Sri Lanka (of all ethnicities), when the energy behind the LTTE came from propaganda overseas, the foreign minister of Sri Lanka, appointed by its Sinhalese president, was a Tamil man, Lakshman Kadiragamar. Imagine Shimon Peres putting a Palestinian in charge of his state department? Or Fidel Castro appointing a Miami Cuban to his. How much discrimination can a group really claim under such a set of circumstances?

The real issue, however, is that there was perceived discrimination—and that is very real. If there are ways in which I, for instance, as an American citizen, feel discriminated against because of the color of my skin, then absolutely we should address that understanding I have of my reality. It does not matter if there is real discrimination or not, if anybody feels that way then we should address it.

Zola: Were you yourself ever subject to such discrimination?

RF: Yes, routinely, in the United States. I would walk down the streets of Lewiston, Maine, and have white men yell racial slurs at me; my judgement was challenged at a college I worked at because of my last name; I subsequently lost a job at that same college for reasons that were socio-economic and race related; policemen refused to look me in the eye, sometimes speaking not to me but to my white companions, and so forth. There is a deep discomfort I feel even when I appear entirely at ease, among many Americans. And I think these experiences made me empathize more with my Tamil friends. They may not have the same clear physical sense of difference (white v. brown; we are all the same color after all), but I understand that their perception of a reality may be distinctly different from mine because I am in the majority and they are in the minority.

Zola: Have you visited Sri Lanka since the civil war ended just over four years ago? What is your assessment of the current state of the country?

RF: When then secretary of state Hillary Clinton visited with the Chief Minister for Tamil Nadu, Jayalalitha, in August, 2011, I wrote a piece for the Huffington Post titled “A Few Peas Short of a Full Pod.” It addresses what many American policy-makers were missing, what I called “the ground situation.” A few highlights:

At the Colombo International Airport in Sri Lanka, a Tamil woman and I agree to watch each others bags, something that was not possible to ask or expect of a stranger from the “opposite” ethnicity for 30 years. On the beaches of Nilaveli, a place accessed after the de-mining of 1.3 million unexploded devices and landmines, I meet a Tamil man who reminds me that it is only now that the war is over that we can speak to each other without fear. As I traveled I noted the new and repaved roads that rival the best roads in the South, the laying down for the first time in 80 years a railway connecting the North and the South. Everywhere I look, both in predominantly Sinhalese areas once subject to nightly raids and massacres from the LTTE, or in predominantly Tamil areas once subject to forced recruitment of children (by the LTTE), or the curtailment of movement, suspicion, and attack by the army, there are new homes being built for the first time in a quarter century. A childhood friend of mine who had once sworn that he would walk the length of the island if the war ended, does so; the effort, named ‘Trail,” involves more than 30,000 people of all ethnicities, social classes and political persuasions, and raises money from a mostly Sinhalese population to build a pediatric cancer ward in the hospital in Jaffna which serves an overwhelmingly Tamil population.

As of today, all of the 295,873 Internally Displaced Persons in relief villages have been resettled or are living with extended/host families by choice. Of the nearly 12,000 former LTTE cadres, all but 274 have returned to civilian life. Three new courts were set up in the North to expedite any charges brought against the remaining cadres. The recommendations of the Lessons Learned & Reconciliation Committee have been absorbed into 22 key government agencies.

Much remains to be done. but for a country that went through 3 decades of war, a global economic crisis, a foreign invasion, and a devastating tsunami, I do believe Sri Lanka deserves credit for what it has accomplished in just four years. There is a good reason why it is recommended now as the number one destination for foreign travel, and is noted by the Wall Street Journal as being a solid location for investment.

Zola: The Heraths—the family central to the novel—emulate tolerance and acceptance of all ethnicities and religions. Was this how your parents raised you? How much of your family life and relatives is infused in your book?

RF: The Heraths are quintessential Sri Lankans, and they are not without their own prejudices, some of which are revealed by Mrs. Herath in her moments of anger. Sri Lanka’s culture is ecumenical and we don’t simply “tolerate” each other (the most that is expected of us in the United States), we actively participate in each others religious activities. Children go quite happily from temple to kovil to church. We respect the idea of faith rather than the idea of a particular faith. As a child I learned to sing hymns and to this day can and do burst into songs of praise in Latin (tantum ergo, sacramentum, etc.), even as I light a lamp at night and recite my Buddhist meditations.

Yes, I was raised that way, but so is almost everybody else. Catholic fishermen in the South will still stop by the kovil and the temple before they head to sea, Buddhists like my mother still read the bible and carried a rosary, and when she passed away we, her children, were just as happy to have the school choir attend the wake and sing her favorite hymns as we were to have her favorite Buddhist priest perform the rites of death and mourning.

I have carried that sense of things back to the U.S. When I see an ambulance go by I recite the Hail Mary, conscious that the person within is more likely to resonate with that prayer than a Buddhist one I can think of.

This article originally appeared on Zola Books.