A Meditation of Longing and Loss Set in Post-War Sri Lanka
Anuk Arudpragasam on his Booker Prize short-listed novel "A Passage North"
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In A Passage North, the protagonist, Krishan, grapples with the legacies of the tragic Sri Lankan civil war between the Sinhalese and Tamil communities. Krishan travels from Colombo to northern Sri Lanka for the funeral of Rani, his grandmother’s caretaker, after hearing the news from his ex-girlfriend Anjum.
Through that reflective journey, the novel explores longing in the aftermath of a conflict in which upwards of 100,000 people may have died between 1983 to 2009.
Longlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize, A Passage North is Anuk Arudpragasam’s second book. His 2016 debut novel, The Story of a Brief Marriage, was a devastating and poignant portrait of a day in the civil war.
I chatted with Arudpragasam over Zoom about the differences between writing for an English vs Tamil audience, the homogeneity of South Asian American writing, and how who we desire is connected to our aspirational selves.
Vignesh Ramachandran: What are the similarities between A Passage North and your first book, The Story of a Brief Marriage?
Anuk Arudpragasam: The first novel was very difficult to write. It involved daily immersion in a very violent world. I tried to expedite the finishing of that novel towards the end, because I had been writing it for three years, and it was not like a very healthy place or a very fruitful place to be immersed in for too long. So I tried to finish that novel more quickly than I otherwise would have.
When I was thinking about what kind of situation I wanted [this second novel] to unfold in, I wanted something that is very, very far from the war, something that was very far from violence. I didn’t want to think about those things for any longer. I wanted to write a book about desire and fantasy—or different ways of interpreting the world based on occupying different positions—the way the grandmother, for example, has to interpret the world basically on the basis of the little stimuli she receives. Or the way having desire might move you to see the world differently. It was supposed to be something very different. It was supposed to be about the relationship between a young man and his grandmother.
But as I was writing, all these little things kept popping up from the war, in accidental ways, in ways that were uncomfortable. And I would continue to edit them out, but they would continue cropping up, almost like Freudian slips. I soon realized that this novel, too, had to be in some way about the war. I have not finished thinking through that subject in my writing and what it means to me. When I realized that it was that I could not avoid it and that’s what my hands wanted to write about, I decided that I would try to make it more about spectatorship rather than participation.
VR: What are the themes that you would say a reader is going to encounter through the book?
AA: The book digresses in many ways, and it reaches into lives that take in and of themselves, very different from one another.
This idea that all four characters in the book, their lives on Earth are determined by a sense that there is something that they need that they either do not have access to or cannot articulate.
With the exception of Anjum, the other three there’s a way in which they desire, but they cannot act—either because of who they are or because of the structure of the world, they cannot obtain what they need. I think what ties the book is this kind of longing.
VR: When you talk about death in the book, you write:
“It was the fact, above all, that sudden or violent deaths could occur not merely in a war zone or during race riots but during the slow unremarkable course of everyday life that made them so disturbing and so difficult to accept, as though the possibility of death was contained in even the most routine of actions, in even the ordinary, unnoticed moments of life.”
As I read that, I kept thinking about that relevance to the current pandemic we’re in.
AA: I finished the book before the pandemic. But when you grow up in a poor country, a lot of people die in accidents. A lot of those accidents were preventable in one way or another. But a lot of people die in ways that they don’t have to die. In a sense, the pandemic has brought that condition, far and wide.
VR: To that point, you write this about Krishan:
“He’d never really stopped to consider the fact that people could also die slowly, that dying could be a process one had to negotiate over the course of many years.”
AA: We grew up seeing corpses of all kinds almost every day in the newspapers and all of these stories continually coming in of people dying in a tsunami or from shrapnel or a bomb blast. Where I grew up in Colombo, there was a period of a few years in which every month there was a bomb blast somewhere or the other. Every day on my way to school, I had to pass a road in which a suicide bomber had killed somebody and in which there was a memorial painted onto the tar of the road. I’d have to walk over there every day on my way to school. This idea of death being sudden—it was very much in the environment.
VR: What does Krishan’s former girlfriend Anjum—an activist who he had dated earlier in Delhi—represent in the book?
AA: There’s this discussion about why Krishan falls in love with this person that he doesn’t know at all. It’s this thing that often happens, and that it’s often harmful—projecting this personality or this ideal onto a kind of desired person. But then there’s this further discussion about how also sometimes a glance can be prophetic, how one can see in the movement or a gesture, kind of like a prophecy of who this person is or might be. Even if you don’t know a person in one of the more substantial senses, such glimpses might be enough to make somebody fall for another person.
Often desire has to do with identity, or that the image of a person that you glimpse, whether it turns out to be true or to be false, is often connected to some idea of who you might want to be, or what kind of person you might want to be. Desiring is often connected to the aspirational self. What kind of person would I become when I’m with this person? Or what kind of person would I be if I had this or lived in this way? What it is about Anjum that so moves Krishan is that she is a conviction—the fact that she’s so earnestly committed to something that she’s willing to give herself up for.
AA: I don’t know if I have any particular desire for readers to come away with anything politically speaking about Sri Lanka, about our history.
One of the audiences that I’ve come to understand that I have—maybe the main audience—is the diasporic Tamil community because more than half of our population has left the country and is in exile, most of them as asylum seekers. There are [thousands of] Sri Lankan Tamils still living in refugee camps in South India, mainly in Tamil Nadu, who haven’t been given citizenship.
The diasporic Tamil community is mainly spread out across the West. Many of these people are my generation. But they’ve grown up removed from their homeland, unable to go back. They long for it intensely.
I was, in some sense, lucky not to have fled the country in that way and to have grown up the way I did. I see that desire in me resonates with this desire in them also to memorialize our community, our culture so that it doesn’t disappear. And to describe it with care and reflect on it philosophically, and what it might mean, and why it might be, why this way of being might be valuable, why it might be these rituals, these habits, these ways of speaking, these experiences and these histories, like why they might be important to keep close.
As far as the non-Tamil audience? Sri Lanka is a particular country with a particular history and if you get a sense of that history from reading my work, then that’s good, but it isn’t what I’m trying to do here.
VR: You have your doctorate in philosophy from Columbia University, and your books evoke a tone that I feel is a steady beat of contemplation. Considering your own background as a philosopher, do you seem to bring that into the voice of your work?
AA: It’s not actually at all how academic philosophers actually think or write—it’s very different. It’s much drier, it’s totally based on argument, and it is often highly focused on very rigorous logic, and it is very hesitant to make claims about the nature of life.
So actually, I found in the novel a freedom to think philosophically in a way that I didn’t feel that I was able to within academic philosophy.
Generally, a novel is situated in something—it’s immersed in some kind of life form, and so therefore, if you think philosophically within the novel, you can think from the point of view, think philosophically from a situated perspective, rather than something that is disembodied, something that is abstract, something that has no particular starting point or particular identity, which is how a lot of academic philosophy is.
In a way, there’s less freedom because you’re always situating your thought in a very particular world, or person, or state. But it’s freeing in the sense that it allows you then to think through the particularity of life.
VR: You have said in the past that you want to write more works in Tamil. Is that something you still want to do?
AA: I do write more in Tamil now—not for publication, just privately. It is something I’d like to do. It feels important to me. There are ways that I can write in Tamil that I could not write in English. There are forms of intimacy available to me in Tamil that are not available in English.
English is a language that no longer belongs to any specific piece of land, or any specific people. It’s a language that—no matter what people from the U.K. might say—has no primary dialect. In all sorts of places around the world, there are all different kinds of native communities of English speakers, and it’s a language, therefore, that doesn’t have a center. Therefore, a language in which when you write, you can, in principle, be read by any kind of person, because there is no longer a history, a land, a specific community, or a specific set of experiences that defines the English speaker. The English language is no longer a situated language. And therefore when you write in English, you are writing to, in principle, any kind of person, and therefore, when you write in this language, you’re on your guard. You do not know how to relate to the audience. It’s like speaking into a certain kind of voice.
Because of this, there’s a certain kind of intimacy that’s lost for me in English. In Tamil, for example, there are many people who I don’t share a worldview, but just in virtue of the fact that we’re Tamil speakers, whether they grew up in Oslo or in a small village in Tamil Nadu, or if they grew up in Kuala Lumpur or Sri Lanka, just in virtue of the fact that they speak this language, they are tied by a certain history and to a certain region in the world.
Whether I disagree with them on any particular point or not, I have a sense of who they are. I have a way of approaching—I know already what kind of stances I might take towards that community and therefore I think in Tamil, knowing my audience, there’s more of a possibility for a certain kind of vulnerability. I don’t just mean that because I would show myself or reveal myself to a Tamil audience more than I want to an English audience—actually, in certain ways, the opposite is the case, they are certain things I wouldn’t talk about because Tamil society is conservative—but just knowing that society means that I will know what I am doing, I will know whether my speech act is something that bothers, annoys, subverts, angers, or soothes. I have a more intimate sense of this.
VR: Do you feel like South Asian diasporic voices are being better represented in literature these days, or not?
AA: As far as I know, the South Asian American writing being published is all upper caste. In a way, this is reflective of the population of Indians in America, because unlike places like the U.K. or Canada, which have a long history of taking refugees—more varied across caste—and they have also a long history of taking in South Asians that are not necessarily academically or professionally qualified.
The demographic of South Asians that make it to the United States generally all have been high caste and they all generally have a very, very particular kind of relationship to South Asia and a very, very particular minority culture vis-a-vis the other cultures that exist in South Asia. This is also true of South Asian writers who write in English, because access to English, at the level of nativeness and sophistication that’s required to write an English novel that will be published in the United States or the United Kingdom, means you come from a certain kind of privilege. In South Asia, class privilege is always tied to caste privilege. So in that sense, it’s much less representative of the different cultures in South Asia.
VR: What are you working on next?
AA: It’s a novel set in the Tamil diaspora. In a way, I view it as the third part of a trilogy that deals with the war in the least direct way of the first and the second book of the other books in the trilogy. It’s dealing with people in the diaspora whose relationship to the war is inherited, rather than directly acquired.