‘We are only what we remember, nothing more… all we have is the memory of what we have done or not done’: Mister Salgado to Triton in Romesh Gunesekera’s The Reef.
Twenty years of the writing life and seven books to show. Add at least a dozen nominations or awards over the globe. This is Romesh Gunesekera, born in Colombo, raised in Manila and resident in London. His writing is often spoken of by critics as reflecting the imaginative vision of a writer who explores ‘home’ through the migrant frame of memory.
Romesh’s first book, ‘Monkfish Moon’ (1992) was an anthology of short stories about ordinary people caught up in the politics and ethnical strife of Sri Lanka, and made him a finalist at the Commonwealth Writers’ Regional Prize 1993. His ‘Reef’ (1994) was a Booker and Guardian Fiction Prize 1994 Finalist, and the winner of the Premio Mondello Five Continents Asia Prize 1997, and Yorkshire Post First Work Prize 1995. His ‘Sandglass’ (1998), was awarded the inaugural BBC Asia Award for Achievement in Writing and Literature.
His latest, ‘Noon Tide Toll’, is an extraordinary portrait of post-war Sri Lanka in a series of connected short stories. The book is currently on the nominations list to The DSC Prize for South Asian Literature 2015.
Team ELJ (where I am a contributing editor) talked to Gunesekera on his writing, perceptions and his latest book in June 2014.
ELJ: In one of your interviews you said that ‘One reason the stories have tended to go back to that setting [Sri Lanka/Britain/tropical islands] is my desire to understand violence’. How far have you come in following history in your motherland, in your fiction? I refer to The Match, Reef, and now Noon Tide Toll.
Romesh Gunesekera : Fiction is a way of looking at the world. In my fiction I have tried to explore various histories and interpretations of the past to try and understand the present that we live in. There is no single historical narrative to follow. Fiction allows us to look at things from different points of view.
ELJ: In the last few years there seems to have been constant rise in gender-based violence across the globe. How do you view it?
Romesh Gunesekera : The rise in gender-based violence, and any violence, is something to be deplored. But the recognition that it is happening, and exposure of violence that might have been there before, is important. Gender-based violence has been hidden too long. But that it also seems to be on the rise is appalling. People need to know what is going on, and where, so that something can be done about it.
ELJ: You mentioned in an interview that ‘all writing is about loss’. How and to what extent has Literature helped you cope with this loss?
Romesh Gunesekera : Loss is something that we live with as creatures with a sense of time and with memory. It is our condition — until we lose memory. Literature isn’t a coping mechanism; it is the way we engage with our memory and our deepest selves.
ELJ: ’I started writing the stories that have now become the book, Noontide Toll, because I wanted to explore a reality that seemed to me important and urgent. For me, there is urgency in fiction, even though writing is in itself an act against the corrosiveness of time.’ How do you think this ‘urgency in fiction’ reflects in its form? As a writer, do you prefer one form over another? How do you see long and short forms of fiction? There is this Asian preference for the long short form, or the novella (Japanese novellas, and the short story in the sub continent), have you ever thought form restrictive?
Romesh Gunesekera : Long and short fiction are notoriously difficult forms to define other than to say one is short and the other is long. And even that can run into trouble with long short stories and short slim novels. One could say that short stories tend to be read at one go and novels rarely so.
An Asian form? Although the novel in its modern form is said to have started withDon Quixote we now recognize that it has forerunners like the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh (1400-1000 B C), the Indian epics Ramayana and Mahabharata, Homer’sOdyssey and the Tales of Genji from Japan. The short story has a strong life in many traditions, including in Asia. In its modern form I think this is more to do with publishing, readership and the time writers have to write. Writing a novel requires a lot more time than a short story. It is not easy to find that time until an economic miracle allows it.
I don’t think the short story form is restrictive. Fiction is an extraordinarily free form. Shorter fiction is to some extent even freer than the longer form as it can exist on a single page with no requirement to get the reader to turn to the next page.
With Noontide Toll I have tried to merge the two forms. I wanted to be able to offer something to the reader who wants a short story, but by linking them to provide a novel for those who want the longer experience. In a way it is a bit like producing a meal with a lot of small special dishes, rather than standard European single main course. I think eating habits might be a more useful way of looking at literary forms: if it looks like a novel and tastes like a novel, it probably is a novel even though it might have some explosive little stories in it.
ELJ: In an interview you gave to Granta while discussing Noontide Toll, you said, “It is very much Orwell’s world where those who control the present want to control the past because those who control the past can control the future”. As a writer what, to your mind, is the defining characteristic of the times we inhabit? Or is there an Orwellian recrudescence?
Romesh Gunesekera : We do live in an Orwellian world given the way TV and media works, surveillance (civil and military), the Internet, and the addiction we have to control everything we see. We live in more controlling times, but precisely because we try to control more things go out of control more often.
The paradox is that we have never been more controlled, and more controlling, at every level, but we have never been freer in the history of the world. More people are freer from all kinds of political, economic and social deprivation and oppression on the planet than in the past, but that is not true in individual countries or regions. And it is no comfort to know about improvements in the rest of the world, if your own part of it has not got any better. Or in some cases has got worse.
ELJ: Further, in another interview you gave to New Yorker, you said, “For me, there is urgency in fiction, even though writing is in itself an act against the corrosiveness of time”. What is the fundamental function of fiction in a world often ravaged by non-fiction?
Romesh Gunesekera : I like the notion that the world is ‘ravaged by non-fiction’!
We are lucky we still have fiction and a hunger for it. Fiction shows us the world we live in by showing us a world we can only imagine. Written fiction does it better than any other form because it leaves the imagination free.
ELJ: Post-war Sri Lanka presents both certainties yet greater uncertainties. How do you as a writer cope with such a world? What is that narrative you might want to embrace?
Romesh Gunesekera : All I can do is write a few words and find a character and a story in those sentences. And from there make some sense of the time we have. And then suddenly I find the world I want to be in.
ELJ: Is writing an act of expiation? What is that aesthetic of guilt you seek to reconstruct?
Romesh Gunesekera : I don’t think I am writing to atone for a crime, although a story may show how a character might deal with guilt. It might be the story of our times.
ELJ: How do you see the various writers from Asia, especially Srilanka, that are catching the attention of world readers? Do you have a favourite writer among them?
Romesh Gunesekera : I am very glad to see writers from Sri Lanka gaining recognition. Over the last twenty years I have seen a very heartening growth in writing and in reading in Sri Lanka. Writing thrives if there are readers. I think like good tweets, I’d like to favourite more than one.
ELJ: Are you writing anything new now? Would you like to share some details?
Romesh Gunesekera : I am finishing a non-fiction book that I have co-written on the practicalities of writing novels. It is the Writers & Artists Companion to Novel Writing which will published early next year. It has pieces on how I wrote my first novel, and what we wished we’d known before we started, as well as tips and advice from about thirty other writers.
I am also writing another novel, which might be on expiation and guilt and living in wild, wild world. A story of our times.
My ‘between fiction’ titled The Guest is on Amazon.