I was in self-exile from the country of my birth for almost a decade, but Sri Lanka never left my consciousness while I was moving and settling abroad. My first novel is about my home country, a story about two women caught up in the civil war that raged across Sri Lanka for more than two decades, only finally ending in 2009. In trying to find a publisher, I was told over and over that an American audience would not be interested in the travails of a small island country just south of India. I had started the book just before my own chosen exile, and it took more than that decade to find a small publishing house in Sri Lanka who said yes to my novel. My book had found its home in the home I had rejected. And so I finally returned from living my international life, to launch the novel about a place that has always had my heart.
The word for “alone” in Sinhala (the language of Sri Lanka) holds connotations of being left out in the jungle to die. By choosing to leave, we had set out alone upon a dangerous exile.
I was born in Sri Lanka in 1973. When I was 3 years old, my parents and I immigrated to Nigeria, and then when I was 12 we moved to the US. When I think of my parents’ first migration, I am filled with awe. They had barely traveled before; they didn’t have jobs in Nigeria, yet they were willing to gamble on a different, hopefully better, life. In Sri Lanka, we had been part of a populous family living in a joint home. Northern Nigeria was a wonderful place to grow up, but the three of us had gone from being grasped firmly in the bosom of a large family to being on our own. The word for “alone” in Sinhala (the language of Sri Lanka) holds connotations of being left out in the jungle to die. By choosing to leave, we had set out alone upon a dangerous exile.
During my childhood, my mother, father, and I flew across the planet once a year. We traversed various time zones and finally landed in Sri Lanka. In the arrivals lounge, both my parents’ families—aunts, uncles, cousins, all led by two sets of grandparents—would be anxiously scanning the crowd for our faces. When they saw us, there would be a delighted rush forward and we would be enveloped by the familiar scent of family. I would be pulled into the sari-clad embrace of my two grandmothers, and in a sweep of loud voices, delighted talk, and a shower of kisses, we would be driven to the family house in Colombo.
At our family home in Colombo, everyone would gather around a table that held red rice, chicken curry, coconut sambol, golden fried potatoes, spicy crab curry, deep-fried fish, and crispy pappadums. As the adults shared the gossip of the last year, one or the other of my grandmothers would mix the food with her fingers into small succulent balls, each holding a bit of every curry; these she would pop into my mouth as she chattered away. Once again we had arrived home and been claimed by our people.
In my adolescence, this easy relationship with the country of my birth was complicated by many factors, but none more than sexism.
As a teenager in America, I had a boyfriend. In the culture around me this was appropriate, but in Sri Lanka, a place where marriage at that time was almost exclusively arranged and where dating was almost unheard of, it marked me as rebellious, Americanized, and sexually licentious. Aunties warned their chaste daughters—girls I had grown up with— to stay away from me; they feared contamination and contagion. It was a painful lesson to be shamed, other-ed, and isolated by the very community that offered an alternative to my lonely immigrant experience back in America.
At 29, I was warmly welcomed back into the fold when I married a Sri Lankan man of my own choosing. This marriage into a “good family” finally erased the taint of my suspect girlhood. I had the sense of falling back into belonging, of being embraced by the culture that my early rebellion had separated me from.
Three years later, in a San Francisco apartment, my marriage ended. There was all the devastation of a divorce but also the realization that my relationship with Sri Lanka would be affected once again. When the news reached my birth country I knew I would be the subject of malicious gossip far worse than that which had accompanied my adolescence. As the woman in a failed marriage, the blame would be cast almost exclusively at my door. I had seen how other divorced women were treated, with a mixture of scorn and shaming. Then too, I was the first woman in my family to divorce and as such I knew the heavy censure that would follow, the gossiping that would begin as soon as I left the room, the comments I would have to endure again. It felt like an axe had fallen across the thick root that had connected me to the country of my birth.
I had the sense of falling back into belonging, of being embraced by the culture that my early rebellion had separated me from.
I stayed away from Sri Lanka for almost a decade. In all that time, I dreamed often of the neon green paddy fields, the hallways of my childhood home, the breathtaking views from the northbound trains. I missed it from beneath my skin, with a heavy ache in the heart. And it was writing about my country that finally brought me back.
Since returning in 2012 for the launch of the novel about my home country, I have had the great privilege of returning every year. This is a freedom granted by my ownership of that coveted American passport, and yet there are also losses. I no longer visit the aunties who I know are cruelest in their gossip-mongering. I’m no longer attached to the long lines of my family. I’m aware that this is loss, but I’m also no longer willing to undergo the critical and sexist examination of my life and choices that I know such visits entail.
Instead I spend time with my adolescent nieces. I am in awe of the way they make their way in the world. They make me hopeful that girls all over the world will fight for the right to live their lives as they choose.
Writing has allowed me to forge a new relationship with the country of my birth.
I also teach writing workshops that attempt to engage young people who survived the civil war to tell their stories through fiction and memoir. Write to Reconcile is a program that has produced three anthologies in as many years, all available online for free. Writing has allowed me to forge a new relationship with the country of my birth.
Every January, the southern Sri Lankan city of Galle hosts an international literary festival. It marries two things I love deeply: writing and Sri Lanka. I’ve never felt more at home than walking the cobblestone streets of this city, seeing writers from all over the globe sitting in cafés and preparing for panels or talking to each other. For four days we discuss literature, politics, art. I am left with the feeling that I might have lost a connection to my family of origin in the country, a necessary cutting off that could not survive my Americanization, and yet, here, in this context, I have gained a different kind of belonging. As an immigrant there will always be some longing for the life that existed before in conjuncture with the knowledge that the process of leaving can never be undone. In a way, it is the act of leaving that makes us.
At the festival in January 2017, some old friends and newly met writers absconded for a day to go to the jungle beach. We climbed down a path hung thick with creeper and tendril. The air was heavy and hot; the sea seemed far away. Above us a disturbance in the tree cover gave way to a troupe of monkeys swinging through, calling to each other. We broke through the foliage and saw the sea, blue, gray, flat as slate, cool and calling. We dropped our clothes onto the beach shack loungers and walked into the water, squealing a bit at its slight chill. We saw no sea turtles that day, but we had seen them in nearby waters, their wise, ancient heads rising to regard the curious humans. We bobbed around, swam, each in our own private liquid bliss. The sea that surrounds this island has ever-changing moods; here it was soft and calm, caressing as a lover. As the sun sank in an apricot blaze over the water, we came together in a circle, laughing and joyous to be in beloved company in this most beautiful place. In that water in that moment I had arrived home as much as I ever had when cradled in my grandmothers’ arms in the arrivals lounge.