To be a writer in a nation scarred by relentless ethnic violence and a Muslim in a post-9/11 world distorted by mindless stereotyping and hate-mongering takes a lot of courage and an almost fanatical belief in the power of words. Ameena Hussein, award-winning author, publisher, editor and sociologist, has been a privileged witness to the mania, madness and mayhem that has afflicted Sri Lanka over decades and has artfully bridged the thin line between the personal and the political in her fiction. “Writers have power. Writers are the witnesses of our time,” Hussain says in this interview.
Author of two critically acclaimed collection of short stories — ‘Fifteen,’ which was shortlisted for the Graetian Award, instituted by the well-known Sri Lankan author Michael Ondaatje and ‘Zillij,’ winner of the National Literary Award — Hussein co-founded Perera-Hussein Publishing House a few years ago to give voice to emerging and established Sri Lankan writers.
In a probing conversation with IndiaWrites (www.indiawrites.org), Hussein speaks from Colombo about what it means to be a Muslim woman writer in conflict-ridden times, how ethnic violence in Sri Lanka has affected her writings, the burgeoning appeal of the Sri Lankan writing in English and her pet daemons — love, loss, longing, loneliness — that inspire her to sculpt her richly lived and felt life into fiction.
Q) You have explored the theme of the “clash of civilisations” (a better expression perhaps would be an encounter between cultures) in your short stories. Do you think the clash of cultures has sharpened post 9/11? How do you aesthetically transmute this theme in your writings?
A) I would first like to state that 9/11 seems catastrophic to the world only because those attacked belonged to a world power.
If you think about it, why 9/11 and why not Hiroshima? Why 9/11 and not the American invasion of Cambodia in the 1970s? All over the world, throughout history, there are clashes between those who have power and those who don’t. Over the centuries there have been particular events that have marked turning points in the way we see situations. So I suppose it can be said that 9/11 is one such marker. Sri Lanka has gone through 450 years of colonialism – a policy that was perpetrated, justified and sanctioned by Western countries over the rest of the world. It was an encounter that changed the way we live and certainly forced us to be aware of a world outside. It was an encounter that both oppressed and freed us in different ways. Such is a time as now.
After 9/11 people are more aware of Islam, the Middle East, the US foreign policy, the north and the south. To answer the second part, I think that non-Western writers have always been influenced by world events. For so many decades it was the West that was the centre and we on the periphery. While I do write mainly about Sri Lanka, being Muslim, being a South Asian woman, it is inevitable that my writing reflects what is happening in the world and here in Sri Lanka.
Q) A related theme in your work is what someone has said “a conflicted Muslimness.” As a Sri Lankan Muslim writer, do you see the Muslims alienated from the mainstream? If so, what are the reasons for their isolation?
A) The short answer to that question is yes. But it is so much more complicated than that.It is not so much the Muslims being alienated from the mainstream as that the world has become intolerant of different worldviews. There is the slow process of being shaped into a uniform body of citizens. Food, music, youth, clothes, architecture, lifestyles, films, literature have all undergone a process that chips away at the particular defining features of a tribe or community to produce an amorphous thing that could have come from anywhere.
For a Muslim anywhere in the world, the Muslim identity binds them closer than anything else in the world. It is a phenomenon that has no equivalent – it goes beyond nation states, skin colour, language etc. I suppose that could be seen as a potentially disturbing factor. And there could be reactions to it. Nothing happens in a vacuum, so an alienated Muslim will retreat more into his identity and similarly the world will continue to view him as being more and more different which in turn will give way to a feeling of being more estranged and so on.
Q) Sri Lanka is mostly in the news for all the wrong reasons. As a writer, what’s your response to the surging ethnic violence in your country?
A) Violence anywhere, especially the ethnic violence in my country, saddens me. It is inevitable that Sri Lanka’s political situation will affect my writing.For many years I worked as a sociologist in an NGO and that has influenced me. Thus I respond both as a writer as well as a sociologist. In recent times I have depended more on writing to evoke a response to the injustices that have been perpetrated on civil society in the name of fighting for freedom or defending the motherland. Perhaps as a Muslim I see the conflict from an even more different perspective than if I belonged to the Sinhala or Tamil community.
Q) What role can writers play in situations of political conflict and inter-ethnic violence?
A) Writers have power. Just as over the centuries people have used the written word to evoke chauvinism, ethnic violence, stereotyping etc, writers can also use the written word to influence minds positively and shape action. Writers are the witnesses of our time.
Q) Do you plan to write an overtly political novel?
The inspiration has to hit me, if it does, yes certainly. However, I would like to think that already, much of my writing is political.
Q) Indian Writing in English has made a big impression in the West. Sri Lankan writers in English have yet to make the same impact, except maybe for a handful of writers. Do you think Sri Lankans writing in English have found their audience? Is there a big enough market for them in Sri Lanka? Or they, too, have to look for recognition in the West?
A) A few years ago I heard a fairly well regarded Sri Lankan writer say in a public speech that unless you are published by an international publishing house you haven’t really made it! I was amused by that remark perhaps because I write primarily for Sri Lankans. So I don’t actually look for validation from outside. If it comes, it’s wonderful but I don’t think I am any less of a writer if nobody knows of me outside Sri Lanka. Sri Lankan writing is beginning to come into it’s own today. Sri Lanka is a small country and the number of people who speak and read English is even smaller, but it is surprisingly a vibrant population that does read and thrive on Sri Lankan writing, so even if the market is not big enough, it is certainly stimulating!
Q) What influences have shaped your work? Who are contemporary writers you admire and what do you like about their writing?
A) Today, I love the writing coming out of South Asia and the subcontinent. In my late twenties it was Rushdie, Marquez, and Umberto Eco who were writers that I admired. When you read their work you are transported to another realm, you come away with so much more. Today however, I like any writer who writes well – Michelle de Kretser, Zadie Smith, Hanif Kureishi, Vikram Seth, Anita Rau Badami, Yann Martel. I like them all and many more besides.
I also admire Carl Muller for changing the way I read Sri Lankan fiction. His ‘Jam Fruit Tree’ was the first book I had read by a Sri Lankan author that was written with spirit and verve that had not existed before in Sri Lankan writing. Amongst the local writers I like the new Sri Lankan fiction of David Blacker, Manuka Wijesinghe, and Jagath Kumarasinghe.
Q) Love, longing, loss loneliness are recurrent themes in your writings, especially in Zillij. How much of your writing is autobiographical?
A) Perhaps I am found in all my stories. I don’t know. It’s not a conscious decision but everyone goes through all those emotions. And if I write on those themes, my own experience may be the best source I can draw on. A writer I met in Iowa once told me that all writers are thieves. On reflection it is true: as a writer I am present in a way that is more than physical. Any conversation overheard or engaged in, fragment, phrase, newspaper account etc is enough to inspire. Enough to steal and then mould and create into a piece of fiction.
Q) You have set up Perera Hussain Publishing House. As a publisher, what do you look for in manuscripts by aspiring writers?
A) I look for the new and the old. I look for the cutting edge of writing and innovative expression. If I like the manuscript I will publish it. If a story is told well, however traditional or modern, I believe it would be worth publishing. So far I have had very few cases of bad judgement.
Q) You have written movingly about the choices facing women in Sri Lanka in Fifteen. In your report “Sometimes there is no Blood,” you have vividly evoked brutality and violence against women in rural areas. Do you think your training as a sociologist has influenced your practice of writing?
A) Certainly. It is almost involuntary. I see perfectly ordinary situations with a narrowed sociological eye. It also gave me the opportunity to travel and gather stories almost on the side, while I was away doing research. Today, I rarely work as a sociologist though I think I will never cease to be one.
Q) What’s your next novel about?
A) It’s a story of self-discovery. About changing realities and what is important in our lives. Facts and relationships we take for granted can suddenly disappear or be challenged. It is a story of great love and great loss. It’s a bitter-sweet story that I hope still allows the celebration of the human spirit.
- Manish Chand is Founder-CEO and Editor-in-Chief of India Writes Network (www.indiawrites.org) and India and World, a pioneering magazine focused on international affairs. He is CEO/Director of TGII Media Private Limited, an India-based media, publishing, research and consultancy company.
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