Roma Tearne: The enemy within

Writer and painter Roma Tearne saw Sri Lanka's civil strife played out within her family. Julie wheelwright talks to her about the arts of memory and survival

Roma Tearne gives me a wry smile over our lunch at a local bistro near her Oxford home. "You know," she says, leaning confidentially over the onion soup, "You didn't ask me anything about the civil war." For a moment I blanch before she laughs. "What a relief! I get so tired of being asked about the obvious." The family of the Sri Lankan-born writer and artist left Colombo in the early 1960s, when the former British colony had already seen a series of violently suppressed uprisings that left many civilians dead.

The conflict, which escalated into a full-blown civil war between Tamil rebels and the Sinhalese-dominated state in 1983, is the background to her first novel, Mosquito, and plays a central role in her new book, Bone China (HarperPress, £16.99). In both, Tearne's characters are shaped by war. Whether she writes about a suicide bomber, an immigrant torn apart by longing for the past or a matriarch whose children flee the country, all are affected by forces beyond their control.

But Tearne has the gift of scratching beneath the surface of the headline events to reveal war's subtle and devastating effects. In Bone China, she explores three generations of the De Silva family, who see the decline of their tea plantation in the political limbo between independence after 1948 and the rise of a Sinhalese government that imposes draconian language laws. Three sons head for Britain, their idealised land of refined literary culture.

What they encounter in 1960s London, however, is indifference and disappointment. As Savitha, wife of Thornton de Silva observes, "We are nobody... we are displaced people." Life for the family in Colombo is little better as Grace and her alcoholic husband, Aloysius, struggle to survive against the increasing violence and hatred towards the Tamil minority. They pour all of their hopes into the next generation, their only grandchild Anna-Meeka.

At the launch for Bone China, Tearne says she tackled the issue of autobiographical elements in her novel head-on: "The story of the De Silva family evolved from traces of real incidents and real events." Her parents' "terrible sense of loss stayed with them until they died". They never returned to Sri Lanka, and the civil war was played out in microcosm between their families. Her Tamil father was a poet who wrote for a local newspaper on which her mother, a Sinhalese, was a journalist. They secretly corresponded for years, knowing that because of their religious and ethnic differences a relationship was forbidden.

Finally, they met and fell in love. "My mother eloped in the middle of the night," says Tearne. "My father met her on the station platform in Colombo, wearing dark glasses and looking devastating."

By crossing this divide, Tearne's parents were made outcasts. "How naive of them to think that their families would accept them," she says, a hand fluttering up into the spring sunshine. Her mother's family disowned their daughter, the father demanding that she should be banned from coming within a mile of his grave. "My uncles, her brothers whom she adored, would have nothing to do with her." The rupture even affected Tearne, who as a child spoke English, the lingua franca, rather than Sinhalese or Tamil. "I got caught right in the middle of it," she says. Meanwhile, her father was struggling to find work because he belonged to the Tamil minority.

"My father was being persecuted, and both families hated each other and hated the fact that they had married." Her parents decided to emigrate to Britain, the country of George Eliot and hope. Or so they thought. She remembers her father weeping when his UK visa was denied. "I was seven or eight. He was this very beautiful man and tears were pouring down his face." But when the family finally left on a rough 21-day ocean crossing, with their Tamil relatives following them over the years, the families remained unforgiving. "My mother's family felt betrayed when she left. Not only had she married a Tamil and was bringing up a child speaking English... but she left, like a rat on a sinking ship," says Tearne.

All these elements are reflected in the fictional relationship between Savitha and Thornton, who settle in south London and attempt to carve out a life. They feel a poignant loss of status. But their 10-year-old daughter, Anna-Meeka, who goes to the local state school, has little trouble fitting into British society. Tearne admits that this reflected her own experience.

"What I wanted more than anything else was straight hair. Naturally, I wanted it to be blonde and I wanted to speak with a cockney accent, which I managed to do," says Tearne, who now speaks a perfect RP. The accent was just another way to fit in among her peers, who were incredibly accepting of her. "I thought Brixton was paradise – I really thought it was wonderful."

Ironically, Tearne saw her parents as "huge snobs" who found the adjustment to living in Britain much more difficult. "I didn't want to be like them," she says. "It was the old, old story of children rebelling, but they took it so terribly personally because to get here had cost them so much."

Tearne did, inevitably, encounter more than just "open-hearted generosity" as the child of immigrant parents. After school, she took up a place at a teacher-training college in Rugby. But when she wrote an essay on Charles Dickens, a lecturer accused her of plagiarism because, he said, "if I could write like that I wouldn't be at this university, I'd be at Oxford".

Tearne was so appalled that she dropped out and soon after married her husband, an English professor. It wasn't until her youngest child was a toddler that she went back to university and, rather than reading English, studied painting at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art in Oxford. Since then, she has steadily sold her work, had exhibitions at the Royal Academy, won a prestigious Leverhulme residency at the Ashmolean Museum, and currently has a fellowship at Oxford Brookes University.

Recently, Tearne has rented a studio, where she plans to begin painting again after four years writing fiction. "I'm longing to physically touch the paint and to stretch a canvas," she says. But, she adds wistfully, "I might not have anything there; I might not be able to work on my next novel and paint at the same time."

There is a strong connection for Tearne between the themes of loss, longing and memory, central to her fiction and art. She is working on a project about found objects, and a photography exhibition on the memory of the displaced in Bradford, drawing on the neighbourhood where she grew up. Back at Tearne's home, she produces an album of photographs which show the family house in decay; the garden, once her father's greatest pride, now blousy and overgrown. It is a vivid and sensual illustration of the loss and longing Tearne captures in her fiction. "The writing and the visual work," she says, "they're constantly working together." Even Bone China grew from a painting, and Tearne's desire to work on her themes in another medium.

A few months after her mother's death in 1993, she painted a woman with her face hidden and only the back of her head visible. One night, coming home, she saw her painting through the window. "I thought, that's my mother, and I cried for the first time since her death." It was her mother's idealised image of home that contrasted sharply with her family's rejection, and the violence of the civil war, that moved her to begin writing. But she set aside this first story, and instead began Mosquito, a novel about a middle-aged Sri Lankan writer who falls in love with a 17-year-old artist. This first novel dealt much more directly with the civil war.

For Tearne, however, there is something more elemental at work than the way that political violence and racial hatred has distorted lives. "What I'm really interested in is the slippage between the gaps of daily interaction – the things we don't see – and the half-hidden suppressed truths, the lies we tell ourselves." As a child, she felt constantly in the dark, having to guess at the real source of the pain that her parents carried. Even now, she says, her parents' families in Sri Lanka stubbornly cling to their sense of betrayal. After Mosquito was published, she rang her Sinhalese relatives to tell them. "There was complete and utter indifference," she says. "The bitterness is still pretty endemic."

Biography

Roma Tearne's parents, a journalist and a poet, emigrated from Sri Lanka with their daughter to south London in 1964. On leaving the local comprehensive, she attended a teacher training college before marrying Barrie Bullen, an English professor at Reading University. She later trained as a painter at Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art.

Her work has been exhibited at the Royal Academy. In 2002, she became a Leverhulme resident artist at Oxford's Ashmolean Museum, and is now a fellow at Oxford Brookes University. Her first novel, Mosquito, was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award and the Kiriyama Prize. Her second, Bone China, is published by HarperPress. A mother of three, she lives with her husband in Oxford.

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