Roma Tearne: 'Sri Lanka's writers must remember and speak out'

Friday 07 May 2010 00:00

On the island of Sri Lanka, an important anniversary will soon be celebrated. 18 May is the day last year on which the war ended in a government "victory" over the Tamil forces of the LTTE. In a token gesture, to coincide with World Press Freedom Day, President Mahinda Rajapaksa has pardoned Tissainayagam, the journalist sentenced unlawfully to 20 years in jail. Although many other journalists languish in prison and 80,000 civilians in camps, the bloody years appear to be a memory – a memory discarded and ignored among the land mines, and the mass graves.

There is another anniversary that occurs this May. Unnoticed by the West, it marks a tragedy from almost 30 years ago: an event of such significance that even today, educated Sri Lankan Tamils cannot speak of it without a tremor. I am not talking about the violence perpetrated by government and terrorists alike. Nor am I talking about those genocidal crimes against tens of thousands of Tamils, the human rights abuses, or even the continued hounding of the press. I am talking of something simpler, older, more symbolic: the burning of the public library in Jaffna over a period of three days and nights in 1981.

I was in my twenties at the time, a young mother, working part-time as an assistant librarian at the University of Leicester. One morning my father, a Tamil man living in London, rang me with the news. He was close to tears as he described the details.

Two Singhalese policemen had been killed at a political rally in Jaffna. Later that evening, police and government-sponsored paramilitaries set fire to the public library, razing it to the ground. Over 97,000 books and scrolls of historical value to the Tamil people were burnt. Once scholars came from all over India to study these manuscripts, some the only copies in the world. Now the works of philosophers, dramatists and writers, all who had made so significant a contribution to Tamil culture, lay in ashes.

Sri Lanka has been at war with itself for as long as I can remember. My earliest memory was in 1958 when, aged four, I watched a Tamil man being set on fire in Colombo. Self-hatred has ebbed and flowed ever since, penetrating every aspect of life in this small, beautiful island and turning it into a fool's paradise.

For the psychological structure of a country cannot flourish when large swathes of the population continue to live in fear and deprivation. It comes as no surprise then, that the handful of Sri Lankan-born writers lucky enough to achieve international recognition no longer live there. Instead, they have chosen Canada, the US, Australia and Britain, taking the opportunity to develop in an environment free from aggressive censorship. Yet those expatriate writers have other issues to deal with. Although their writing often borders on the sublime, through no fault of their own they too are the victims of what is happening in their homeland.

Like rare orchids they are visible, but silent. Theirs are not the voices one hears first proclaiming the injustices of the last 50 years. For when the official line of the Sri Lankan government is zero tolerance of any criticism, how can writers, in their struggle against forgetting, speak out?

Censorship is known for its long and brutal tentacles. With loved ones "back home", or local business interests, writing of what should not be written is a dangerous activity. But if you are compelled to speak of the unspeakable, don't mention the name of the country; call it "heaven" or "paradise", focus on love, speak in fables, and touch only lightly on the years of terrible injustice and hatred.

The situation as it exists today is reminiscent of an incident recalled by that wonderful writer, WG Sebald. In his essay On The Natural History of Destruction, an uncanny and disquieting account of war crimes and guilt, he speaks of a train journey between devastated cities in1946. "The train," he says, "was crammed full, like all trains in Germany, but no one looked out of the windows, and he [Dagerman] was identified as a foreigner himself because he looked out."

Sebald describes an eye-witness account of an event after the carpet-bombing of a German city where a woman cleans the window of a house that "stood alone and undamaged in the middle of the desert of ruins". When events exceed what is tolerable, the mind, in its desperation to create a sense of normality, is forced to ignore the glaringly obvious.

Thhe burning of the Jaffna library is another example of an injustice ignored. The Oxford English Dictionary has a term for it. "Biblioclasm" is defined as "the deliberate destruction of books, a cultural offence of the first magnitude". The greatest library of the ancient world, at Alexandria, put together over a period of 900 years, was destroyed in 48BC. In 213BC the Chinese Emperor Shih Huang-ti ordered a similar book-burning session. This evil was repeated in Mao's Cultural Revolution in the 20th century. In 1914, the Germans destroyed the University of Louvain library. Then in 1943, the ancient archives of Angevin in Naples were burnt by the Nazis. Sri Lanka can proudly add its name to this list of destruction.

Libraries by their very presence not only assert but question the authority of power. Ever since writing began, manuscripts and books have stood for more than their content; they are repositories of history, memory and identity. In 1644, Milton in Areopagitica said: "as good almost kill a man as kill a good book", and that to destroy a book, was to kill "reason itself". This sentiment is echoed by the French historian Lucien Polastron in Books on Fire: The destruction of libraries throughout History (2007). He claims that the book "is the double of the man and burning it is the equivalent of killing him. Take away the book and you take away an integral part of what it means to be human."

In Sri Lanka, in 1982, one year after the initial destruction, the local community, despairing but not vanquished, organised a Library Week and collected thousands of books from its citizens. Banding together they cleared parts of the burnt-out building but in 1985, after another spate of violence, soldiers detonated bombs that shredded the new collection. Once more the people of Jaffna had their hearts broken.

The librarians, the archivists, the shocked community itself, were speechless. The government continued to refuse to investigate the crime. In 1998, President Chandrika Kumaratunga under international pressure began rebuilding work. Because of the continued violence of the LTTE this was slow, and Jaffna civilians again sidelined. Seven more years would pass as a generation of lost children grew to adulthood before the building would finally open in a heavily guarded security zone. Hardly any civilians venture there.

So how can Sri Lankan writers deal with what has gone on in their country for half a century? How can we be released from the ties of silence by which we are bound? One way is by opening up channels of creative writing in areas desperate for healing. Two weeks ago I was sent by the British Council to Stockholm to work with immigrants and refugees, some Sri Lankans. Stockholm has no experience or history of running such events and this was a pilot scheme. As I am a visual artist as well as a novelist, I took a stack of found images with me to act as a stimulus.

What I witnessed was remarkable. There, memories from 46 years ago were aired for the first time in an astonishing and humbling manner. At one point, as I listened to a young Sri Lankan man, living a life of exile, recount his story, I wondered: why this could this not happen in Sri Lanka?

Not in glamorous Galle, where the literary festival takes place each year, but in other places where all love has withered and hope fled. In Jaffna itself, perhaps? For it is in such desecrated locations, where illiterate Tamil children are forced to live under army supervision, that illumination through fiction is needed most. What better way for the writers from our country to band together in a refusal to forget? We who promote literature so freely and enjoy its successes should remember, therein lie our future Baldwins, our Faulkners and, who knows, our Tolstoys.

So far the government of Sri Lanka has lacked the courage to deal with issues of truth and reconciliation. This does not mean that the international community of writers should help them with their whitewashing project. Sri Lankan writers should speak out. Only then can memory be set to work, since, as Sebald so repeatedly and movingly said, "it alone justifies survival in the shadow of a mountain of guilt".

Roma Tearne's fourth novel, 'The Swimmer', is published by HarperCollins

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