Sri Lanka’s Youngest Literary Sensation: a Q&A with Thisuri Wanniarachchi ’16
Thisuri Wanniarachchi ’16 has accomplished more in the literary world before the age of twenty-one than most people do in their whole lives. She grew up in Sri Lanka against a backdrop of political turmoil and war. She turned to words to make sense of the situation. She published her first novel, Colombo Streets, when she was fourteen years old. The novel gravitates around two young girls and explores the ways the civil war has affected them. These two girls come from different backgrounds and social classes, and have consequently experienced the war differently in many ways. But they bond over the universal sense of loss. Colombo Streets became a local bestseller and won the 2010 State Literary Award for the Best English Novel of the Year in Sri Lanka.
In 2014, after Thisuri’s first year at Bennington College, she published her second novel, The Terrorist's Daughter. In some ways, it is a love story. In other ways, it is about the experiences of the privileged youth in a post-conflict society. Academic and politician Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka declared the book Sri Lanka’s best post-war novel. According to The Nation, Thisuri’s second novel “gives a powerful message of love, life, and faith.”
With her stories, Wanniarachchi gives a voice to her generation, children of Sri Lanka who grew up amidst civil war. This December, Thisuri Wanniarachchi will receive her BA from Bennington College. She spent her last semester studying abroad in Japan.
Literary Bennington recently caught up with Thisuri over email exchanged messages with her about her time at Bennington, her books, and what’s next.
Literary Bennington: What inspired you to write your first novel, and at the age of fourteen?
Thisuri Wanniarachchi: I grew up in suburban Colombo during the Sri Lankan civil war. The war was fought in the North, while there were occasional terror attacks in Colombo and other areas in the South. I remember feeling that to those of my generation who lived in the South, the war was a very normalized and often an overlooked element in our lives. We didn’t ask questions; there wasn’t a space for us to talk or learn about the conflict. As a child I never quite understood my country’s civil conflict, but what I did understand was the fear I felt about losing my father to the war. And I remember thinking the fear that I, and other children of Sri Lankan military men and women felt, couldn’t be very different from the fear felt by the children of LTTE cadres [note: LTTE stands for The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam]. I wanted to give a voice to the children of this conflict and how universal the fear we all felt was, and most of all, how we had nothing to do with this conflict, we didn’t earn it; it was handed to us on a silver platter.
Thinking back it’s hard to believe I was so passionate about a problem that not many kids my age would want to talk about. But come to think of it, it was hard not to be; I had so many questions.
On my way to school I’d see military vehicles load and unload corpses of fallen soldiers at a funeral services center, and I’d come back home to the evening news that would tell us the casualty counts. The Sri Lankan military casualties were “fallen heroes,” while the LTTE’s casualties were mere “enemies killed.” The two death counts were always mentioned one after the other as if the latter made the first worth it. And I remember thinking “but weren’t all of them citizens of this country?”
LB: Which came first: your knack for writing or your desire to tell the stories of the children in war-torn countries? Do your own personal experiences come into any of these stories at all?
TW: I discovered my love for writing way before I had the capacity to grasp the severity of the war. My first short story was called “The Wind.” It was about a girl who lost her mother to the tsunami that hit Sri Lanka in 2004. It won a national short story competition when I was 12. I was very fortunate to have received recognition for my work at an early age; it’s what gave me the confidence to write Colombo Streets. Both my novels are full of my personal experiences; each character is a part of me or someone I know.
LB: Poetry seeps into both of your novels. What’s your relationship to that mode of writing? Who are your influences? How do you decide when to convey something in prose or verse?
TW: Poetry, to me is a very advanced form of writing. It doesn’t come into my writing very often, but when it does it paints pictures that no prose can tell.
LB: How do you think the trajectory of your writing has changed over the years, between your first and second novel? Or since coming to college in Vermont? How did studying at Bennington shape your writing?
TW: I came to the US during a very difficult time for my country. The government at the time was very despotic and there was a growing culture of self-censorship. My father being a General in the Sri Lankan Army made our family feel very connected to the state. My parents had emphasized to me that my writing should remain apolitical, that they want me to be able to come back to my country.We always felt that being a military family makes it difficult for us to question the state. Back then, I remember feeling that I couldn’t talk about politics critically when I am a part of the problem. In my years leading up to university I tried many ways to suppress my need to speak up; I had a phase of denial and blind patriotism, when that wasn’t working I decided to give up writing for awhile. I even decided I wanted to study hotel management for my undergraduate degree: as far away from politics as I could go.
My first term at Bennington I took a class by Michael Cohen on using the dual narrative approach as a technique to bridge the two narratives of the Israel - Palestine Conflict. It was my first conflict resolution class and the first time I extensively explored a civil conflict that wasn’t Sri Lanka’s. And it changed everything. I learned how to pull myself out of the bubble of the conflict and see things more clearly. My first Field Work Term I completed my second novel, a story on the growing corruption in post-conflict Sri Lanka at a time when its people were desperate for reconciliation and justice. I haven’t stopped writing since.
LB: The setting, Sri Lanka, is very present in both of your novels. Do you think Sri Lanka made you a writer, or would the stories have come regardless of where you grew up?
TW: Sri Lanka is where I was born. It is where I grew up. It is my home. When I began writing when was very young, it came from a part of me that believed that my country and its people deserved better; even today, that hasn’t changed at all. Many things about me have changed over the years, but my identity as a Sri Lankan has remained unchanged through it all. It’s the one thing that holds everything I do together. I truly believe Sri Lanka made me a writer; it made me who I am.
LB: Both of your novels explore the ways political climate can affect the children growing up under conflict or instability. When you start writing a novel, does it always have a clear goal or message? And who are you writing for? Who was your imagined audience: the children in this country, the adults creating conflict? Or people outside it?
TW: I almost never have a clear goal of who I am writing for but I do have a clear message. Most of my readers are Sri Lankans, but I’ve heard from readers around the world. I have met readers who are eleven and some who are in their late eighties and I often see a consistency in the message they’ve all taken away from the writing.
LB: Several real historical figures and organizations make appearances in your writing: for example, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), or Nancy Reagan. Has your work ever received political pushback?
TW: Yes. Especially since my second novel, my work has received quite a bit of political pushback. My family is somewhat conservative. When I came home with the manuscript of The Terrorist's Daughter, they were shocked. Their reaction was justified; my father is a Military General in the government that I was criticizing. I watched my writing be edited/butchered in so many ways before it received approval from my family to be sent to the publisher. The version of The Terrorist's Daughter that is available today is the same censored version that was published in 2014. At a literary panel a few months ago I was asked if I hope to re-publish the original version now since there has been a regime change. And I said no, because it accurately reflects the kind of Sri Lanka we lived in back then, one where we couldn’t say exactly what we wanted. The fears that my family felt about putting out the original version were legitimate; we all loved our country too much to not be able to live there.
I often feel that there are so many layers and facets to the pushback I receive. First there’s the pushback from family, then there’s the intimidation from the politically influenced--pushback from the blind patriots and the racists, the blatant misogynist commentary and the sexist dog-whistling in reviews. But none of it can overwhelm the powerful positivity I receive from thousands of readers. Pushback, in whatever form it may come, can be draining. And it has always helped that I’ve had someone who had my back no matter how hard things got.
When I was eighteen I fell in love with a man who shared my love for Sri Lanka and it made me understand I wasn’t alone in all this. In the past four years there have been many a time when the hate has been overwhelming. There were days when death threats and rape threats made me wonder if all of this was worth putting up with; but I’ve always had a shoulder to lean on. I know we writers like to be lone wolves, fighting alone with ink and paper, but in their reactions to our work, readers often forget that we are real people, and in the midst of all that inhumane hate, it makes all the difference to have a personal support system—even if it is one person. I think for as long as I’m writing about politically charged topics my work will receive pushback, but I’m confident I will keep going.
LB: What are you working on now? Any new novels in the works?
TW: Senior year is overwhelming, but I just began writing my own column titled “The Lankan Liberal” in the new Sri Lankan newspaper The Weekend Express. “The Lankan Liberal” aims to redefine the image of liberalism in Sri Lanka. In ’70s and the ’80s the Sri Lankan left used a "liberal" and socialist shield to bring forward several racist, Sinhalese-supremacist movements. So the word liberal rings an unpleasant bell in today's Sri Lanka. I want to help change that view with my column.
By Katie Yee '17