Interview with Ru Freeman

  • July 25, 2013

Ru Freeman's On Sal Mal Lane begins the day the Herath family moves onto the lane. Their street, a quiet peaceful place inhabited by Tamils, Muslims and Sinhalese, is edged by lovely scents and flowering trees at one end and a busy road at the other.

Interview with Ru Freeman


About On Sal Mal Lane

All of the children play together, take music lessons and share their treats. It is an insular neighborhood where we might all wish to live — until war comes too near, highlighting religious differences, sharpening fear and changing the lives of all who live on Sal Mal Lane.  

Ru Freeman is also the author of A Disobedient Girl, which was long-listed for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature and translated into seven languages. 


The Q&A


Your choice to give us the beginnings of a civil war through the lives of the people, and in particular the children, on one lovely lane in the city is a powerful one. War on the small scale.  How did you decide to write the story this way?


As someone who lived through this period of time in Sri Lanka, and as someone who has written about the conflict, I wanted to be sure that my personal feelings about these events, what led to them, what came after, the ongoing war of opinions outside the country, were not in play when writing this novel. Giving the story over to the children helped me to return to the place of un-knowing, the one where events are seen as children see them, without prejudice, when possible, and with only a limited sense of the wider world beyond the lane. That vantage, where the larger world is kept at bay by the very condition of childhood, was useful. It doesn’t end until something happens — and it is never the larger political events that change our perspective, it is personal loss — to lacerate the cocoon and make everything feel so much more out of control. I found it useful to stay with the children to capture all of that.

Do you believe that the character of children often lends the wisest notes to the adult characters in fiction? Even nonfiction? Children seem to view the world through the widest lenses.

Well, yes, and here is why. I think children are themselves wide open; they have had no reason — until that first loss, that first unanticipated hurt — to close down aspects of themselves, to become protective of their games, their lives, their dreams. They don’t expect the world to be a hard place, and most adults ensure that the hardness of the world doesn’t impact the children around them. And yet, while they conduct themselves in that state of amazing grace, they also are really present for the immediate, the stuff that is right before their eyes. It’s like when you try to talk about plate tectonics and the child picks up a stone and says, “Look at this beautiful shape,” and they truly see that beautiful shape separate from the geological events that created it.

Were there many streets like Sal Mal Lane in Colombo or other cities in Sri Lanka before 2009? What about now?

As I say in the acknowledgements, Sal Mal Lane could have been any lane in Sri Lanka. The country is arranged in a similarly “everybody together in the thick of things” way. There is very little effort made by people to remove themselves from the lives of others who might not think as they do, who are from different socioeconomic classes and so forth. Homes, these are passed down whether you are rich or poor, whether you live in a bungalow or a hovel, and that connection keeps people from avoiding those they may not agree with. It sometimes intensifies tensions, but it also makes people live with the understanding that neither “they” nor “we” are going away any time soon, that holidays still must be celebrated, food shared, so forth. That physical aspect of Sri Lankan life remained nearly unchanged throughout these years, with the notable exception of a few apartment complexes that were built and occupied entirely by Tamil people.

Sal Mal Lane is a microcosm for neighborhoods all over the world. The former Yugoslavia comes to mind. It makes one wonder if a Sal Mal Lane could really exist outside fiction. So much ugliness seems to reside just below the surface waiting for an outing. Do you believe this is true? Why?

It does exist outside fiction, which is why it is within this kind of fiction. I like to look at the way people really live, what happens to them in moments of tragedy or conflict, how they prevail or succumb. I believe very strongly, however, that both great ugliness and great beauty reside “just below the surface” of any human being. There is the potential in each of us to do great harm and great good at the same time. It is the greatest test of our humanity to recognize that in ourselves, I think, even as we are wont to rush to condemn or celebrate these tendencies in others.

Even in Sri Lanka on Sal Mal Lane, a young gay man was treated kindly and lived peacefully among his neighbors before leaving for Australia. Was this a way to let the reader imagine the rest of his story? 

I would not like to imply that gay people find it any less difficult to live in Sri Lanka than they do in the United States. If there is any comfort, then it is it that same-gender expressions of affection are considered completely normal, so to some extent, perhaps, young people are less confused about their sexual orientation, or at least able to explore it safely while they are getting to know themselves. There is a certain acceptance of what might be perceived as people’s struggles, however, so in that regard also it might make it easier on a gay person. In this case, Tony’s story was followed only to the extent that it was pertinent to the story of Sal Mal Lane.

The twin girls who live in the block describe the loveliness of music as “Like heaven ... Even better. Like hell.” Could this be the description of so many things?  It seems like a great description of being twins.

I do like to think that hell is a place more akin to what we know and love in life than it is made out to be. I am much more interested, as a writer and as a person, in the complexities of our relationships, the ways in which we uplift and destroy each other, sometimes with the best of intentions. That unpredictability is what makes life a beautiful thing. Heaven sounds like a quick sigh of delight, whereas hell seems like a more tortured but much more lasting and deeper engagement with our beings. Something lasting.

Is prejudice a human default? Beauty its antidote?

What is prejudice after all but the intensification of preference, and what is preference but prejudice against? We are all prejudiced. We love/hate spices and languages and entire peoples based on something we deem we prefer. Every one of these things we could unlearn; we could understand more about any culture, immerse ourselves in experiencing fiery chilis, washing in ice cold water, anything at all can be overcome. If we don’t it is because we are either lacking in motivation or not capacitated — through circumstances both real and imagined — to do so. We get comfortable where we are. I don’t think we are designed this way, but we become so by our own design. I hesitate to say beauty is an antidote to anything. It is itself, and it is just as bound in our prejudices/preferences as anything else.

“Love is for the person who loves, not for the one who is loved.” Mr. Niles is speaking about his handkerchiefs and the care of his home by the wife who loves him. To him, she goes overboard. Is there ever a time when loving matches being loved? Even in literature? 

There are great love stories in literature — D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly comes to mind, Pasternak’s Yuri and Lara, Mallory’s Guinevere and Arthur, Nizamei of Ganje’s Layla and Majnun, Dante’s Paolo and Francesca, and of course Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. They exist because such love does exist in our lives and in our imagination. Okay, I’m looking at that list and realizing that this is all forbidden love; the examples of lived-in-the-open love are rare — Odysseus and Penelope, Euridice and Orpheous, Arjumand Banu and Shah Jahan — so maybe such love perfect love is not meant to be paraded before the millions who can never achieve it but borne in secret. It certainly makes for a far more thrilling interiority than may otherwise be the case.

We reconcile ourselves so easily to mistakes; forget and let pass what really should have been insisted upon even as children. It’s the small acts that alleviate the big hurts. If the Herath children had been able to give Sonna the chocolate for his birthday, would it have changed the outcome of the entire story? It feels that way. How difficult was it to create Sonna and Raju? How easy was it to ignore Sonna’s longing? 

To a certain extent we do need to reconcile ourselves to the mistakes we’ve made, the hurts we’ve experienced; there is no other remedy for the human condition, this frailty within which we live, except to understand and accept our imperfections. But yes, there are moments that if we had done things differently, we might alter the course of our personal history. In this case we won’t know what would have happened if the chocolates had been given to Sonna. As to the craft of creating those characters, I can’t say it was easy or difficult; it was work but it was enormously pleasing work.

Should I disagree with Mr. Niles who wondered if all people have war inside them? Is it that some of us know how to quell the monsters within us? 

I think that is a choice each of makes — to either affirm or deny the negative, destructive, oppressive aspects within ourselves. Wars are conducted by some, fought by others and permitted by the rest of us. Each of us is culpable.

I think we should read books like yours so we’ll learn things like “... one good thing was enough to make a life remarkable.” Why do you think readers should read?

I was at the independent book store Elliott Bay Books in Seattle the other night, long after my reading was done and the store was empty and the lights turned off for the night. I looked down at that gorgeous space, rows and rows of bookshelves and all the books quietly waiting. It made me catch my breath — that sense of important things written down, bound together and shared with great love by people who read. There was a quality of great patience, and great beauty there, this feeling that the transmitting of stories — from storyteller to bookseller to reader — was one of the most essential endeavors we could undertake. I cannot tell you why someone should read, only that I cannot imagine a world where we do not.

Mrs. Herath takes a moment to “inhabit her Buddhist upbringing.” Please describe a Buddhist upbringing for our readers.

A child raised within Buddhism understands that compassion underlines everything we do in life, and also that all things we do in life are fleeting, including what we feel — hatred, love, fear, so on. For someone like Mrs. Herath, it would go against her grain to be uncharitable to someone of lesser fortune. She doesn’t always succeed in sticking to her principles, but she makes the effort.

All the newspapers are wrong and yet we still read them, maybe we have more of a love for fiction that we know. Would you agree?

I believe that it is in fiction that we find the truth. When I write stories I am acutely conscious of and attentive to the perspective of people with whom I would disagree on a range of things, from politics to culture. And when I read stories I am disarmed. I come to hear them not as a political statement or as having been written by someone with a political agenda but rather as a story that is being told to me by someone who cares about the listener/reader. These things permit the possibility of truth. Newspapers report, and most of the time they report inaccurately and with great bias; newspapers provide us with a slant and we need to be willing to read a range of those “slants” in order to arrive at anything resembling the “what actually happened.”

I remember once being told by a Lebanese friend that when she was little, she couldn’t necessarily tell who was Christian or Muslim unless she went inside their houses.  Christian homes smelled sweet, like they cooked with sugar. What are the some of the differences between Sinhalese and Tamil people? In the story, you indicate that it would be difficult for an outsider to tell.

I can’t really explain this any more than what is set down in the prologue, and the details there are also subject to change. Most Tamil women drape the sari in the Indian fashion, but many Sinhalese women, particularly younger ones, will also drape the sari that way. The hair oil used by each is different, but many in the younger generation use shampoo and do not apply hair oil.

It is unimaginable that a place can go from having floral litter created by the Sal Mal trees, to a city burnt to ash waiting to disappear in the wind.  How is it that humans are forever ignoring the beauty in front of them? 

We are future-focused and past-obsessed, and those things rob us of our ability to see what is in this moment. If we receive the gift of love, say, we worry about when it might end. We cannot simply accept that the moment of giving/receiving is sufficient, that what we experience is not measured by a length of time during which we got to live that beauty but rather by the intensity and truth of having experienced it at all, fully, completely, deeply. But such failing are also what makes us beloved and cherished by each other, this fallibility, this innocence, the utter impossibility of perfection.


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