On the wall in my study is an index card with a quote on it from Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient. “We are communal histories, communal books,” it says. I carry those sentiments into the classroom with me five times a week at the university where I teach, as I try to communicate to my students why stories matter, why books matter, and why, by God, we should all read. Sometimes I am so busy proselytizing the virtues of literature that I forget to look inside and ask myself “Why does my own writing matter?” I write because I love writing and because I think it changes lives–sometimes in ways that we can’t possibly anticipate. I suppose our books are, in this sense, like our children. We send them into the world, and they do things that we never intended them to do, things that are sometimes confounding, often improbable and even heart stopping. They make their way in the world totally independent of us. Maybe that is ultimately what a book launch is all about.
Having said this, I’ve also had moments of real doubt over the past four years about whether writing has the power to change anything. I have spent the past eight years of my life writing about Sri Lanka, a country that has been at war with itself for thirty plus years. I lived there with my son in 2001-2002 and then returned after the 2004 tsunami. In the fall of 2005, a cease-fire hung in the balance, and it became possible finally to get up to the Tamil north. I felt that I really needed the Tamil perspective on this war for the book I was writing. In Jaffna I stayed in a makeshift guest house where I was the lone guest on a street where every house had either been destroyed or abandoned. I spent my days talking to students, to people who were part of demining operations, to people whose children had been forcibly recruited by the Tamil Tigers, and to people who had suffered war loss compounded by tsunami loss. And at night I came back to the guest house and wrote about them. I struggled with what I was doing up there as a writer. The people in Jaffna didn’t need me sitting at my computer; they needed aid and they needed for this war to be over, the very things I could not give them. Was I using these people, I wondered, as nothing more than material for my book?
This past December I returned to Jaffna. The war had been over for a good half year. I carried my book with me and presented copies to my friends who had helped me in 2005-2006. They thanked me, bowed and went back to the business of rebuilding shattered lives in a shattered city. I spoke to a priest who singlehandedly was operating a counseling center for literally hundreds of war survivors. I met seventy-five young women, all students, who, in the final days of the conflict, had gotten caught in the fighting and had lost everything. Many could not even access their emotions to talk about their pain. They didn’t need my book; they needed counselors, doctors, money, de-miners. And they needed their families back again.
One day this past March I was contacted by an organization called IMHO (International Medical Health Organization). They were having their annual convention in Boston. Would I come and speak to them? They sent me a preliminary program. This was clearly a convention of Sri Lankan Tamil doctors, most now practicing in the U.S, some in the U.K., with a few still in Sri Lanka. What could a writer say to these doctors, I asked myself, but I went because I was impressed by the sort of work they were doing. In the Hilton Hotel in Woburn, Massachusetts, I sat for two days and listened to presentations. Doctors who already had successful and busy lives over here had set up orphanages in the war-torn areas of Sri Lanka. One doctor was operating clinics in the northwest where he was training survivors to make prosthetics for other survivors. Some of the doctors were engaged in rebuilding clinics. Most of them had left their country years ago because of the civil war. They had been schooled abroad and stayed abroad and raised their families over here. But their Tamil identity had remained strong. They were doing what they were doing because these were their people.
That Saturday I stood in front of the doctors and spoke about what I had seen and experienced in the north. There were many in the audience who had not been back for years, quite possibly for political reasons. I read a few passages from my book. One was about a young woman whom I had met in Jaffna. This is what she had said to me:
“There would be a vacant house or a piece of property next door and someone would move in, either the government forces or the Tigers. They would be using it as a storage area for arms or whatever. So we knew we couldn’t stay, and we moved on to the next place. Finally we decided to shift ourselves out to Delft Island off the northeast coast here. It’s the place with the wild ponies. So we went there, thinking we would be safe. Then the government forces attacked it. I think I am still feeling the trauma of this. I don’t know if I will ever be able to settle and have a home. War and homelessness have been the norm ever since I was born.”
…The young woman who had moved so many times recounted what it was like trying to get schooling throughout all this. She told me that for her entire education up to the university she did her homework in the faint illumination of a wick soaked in coconut oil and then lit in a small clay pot. One sees row upon row of these small, delicate vessels, lighting the entrances to kovils and temples. They diffuse a soft light appropriate for meditation and prayer, but reading by them is out of the question.
“This is all the oil we could afford,” she explained. “My eyes are ruined. My brother was trying to study for his A levels during all of this. There was only one light in the city at night and that was the street lamp outside the International Red Cross. I guess they had a generator. My brother went there every night with his books and sat on the street underneath that lamp to study for the exams. He passed; he did very well. But this was our norm. I missed my childhood.”
We all dined together on South Asian food that night. I looked at the women in their sarees, the Tamil children whose lives were so thoroughly Americanized and the doctors who were still deeply tied to the country many had left long ago. People came up and spoke to me about my book. It had touched them in ways that I was not quite prepared for. But it was a conversation with one woman in particular that crystallized something for me. “I had forgotten about the little wicks soaked in coconut oil,” she told me. “I have been gone from there so long I had no memory of them anymore. Thank you for bringing back my childhood.”
I left the conference still wishing I had the skills to do something concrete–that I could speak Tamil, that I had been trained in medicine or in social work. But there are also moments that renew in us what we knew all along, the conviction that writing matters. I thought about what Ondaatje had written. He was right; we are all “communal histories, communal books.”
Adele Barker, who was awarded a Ucross Fellowship for her work on her latest book, Not Quite Paradise: An American Sojourn in Sri Lanka, has taught at the universities of Arizona and Washington. She is the author and editor of five books on Russian literature and cultural life. In 2001-2002 she received a Fulbright Senior Scholar grant to teach and write in Sri Lanka. After the tsunami she returned to the island where she traveled to the areas most devastated by the waves and by the thirty year old civil war between the Tamil Tigers and the central Sinhalese government.