I know the Mutiny community has lots of literature lovers, so I wanted to let you know about some sharp new writers, and where you can find them–Amitava Kumar and I have edited the fiction section of Guernica this month, and it features South Asian writers. Tomorrow, two of them (Tania James and Hasanthika Sirisena) will be joining us for a reading in Brooklyn as part of Page Turner – The Asian American Literary Festival. (There’s a day of great programming–we’re on at 3. Disclosure: Amitava and I are both on the board of AAWW, the sponsoring org.)
I thought it would be interesting to talk to some of the writers a little bit more about the stories they submitted, and writing in general. Sirisena, who won a prestigious Rona Jaffe Award last year, gave us a story called Murder The Queen. You can read it here. She agreed to chat with the Mutiny–Preeta Samarasan will follow next week.
Sirisena’s work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Glimmer Train, Narrative Magazine, Epoch, StoryQuarterly, Witness, Best New American Voices, and other publications.
Can you tell me a little bit about the genesis of this story?
I came up with the idea after reading a story in a Sri Lankan newspaper about a young Sri Lankan in Malaysia who, along with his friends, made up a story about a kidnapping in order to con money from his mother. The story fascinated because, frankly, I was amazed at the callousness and the sheer stupidity of the people involved. Also, it happened at a time during which there was an extraordinary level of violence in Sri Lanka. Finally, I’ve been rereading Edgar Allan Poe off and on over the past year and was trying, as silly as it sounds, in some sense to channel him in this story.
I Googled, and I think I found the story. Ugh. Awful. You and I have talked about writing in different points of view–how was it to write from the perspective of someone callous and stupid? And were you thinking of any particular Poe story?
Ugh is right. I like writing from the point of view of people who do stupid things. I’m not sure why. It must tap into an anxiety of mine. I think its also the test of a writer–to use the imagination to explore and explicate acts that most people want to distance themselves from. Of course, a writer could take that too far. But I think its for the most part true.
I was thinking of all the things The Tell-Tale Heart and the Pit and Pendulum. Maybe more the latter, since it’s a story about captivity.
How often do you use real-life incidents to trigger your imagination? I know you were recently in Sri Lanka. How was your time there, and how did you go about gathering fictional material?
I use real-life incidents a lot these days. Honestly, I couldn’t make some of these things up! I enjoyed my time in Sri Lanka. I was there for the end of the war. My first evening there, the LTTE conducted an air strike on Colombo. By May, the war had officially ended. I gather material mostly by reading newspapers. I read any newspapers I can get my hands on. I read them from front to back. I read the police blotter. I also try to talk to people, even people on the street, but you have to be careful. It’s obvious I’m not Sri Lankan from my accent. People asked me a lot if I was Indian. It didn’t make people very willing to talk to me when they weren’t sure who I was–or might be.
This last line seems to me to segue pretty perfectly back into the questions of identify and security raised in Murder The Queen… So with that, I hope to see some of you tomorrow, and if not then, in our next installment, with Preeta.
Other work by Sirisena is online here. (This opens a PDF.)
(A and I wrote an editorial note for the issue, which may interest some of you. That’s here.)