His latest book Noontide Toll is just out. Romesh Gunasekera talks about the influence of the Sri Lankan civil war on this book.
Born in 1954, Romesh Gunesekera grew up in Sri Lanka and the Philippines before moving to England in 1972. His first novel, Reef, was shortlisted for both the Guardian Fiction Prize and the Booker Prize. In India recently to launch his latest collection of short stories Noontide Toll, Gunasekera took time out for an interview. Excerpts:
How long did it take to write Noontide Toll? There is a reference to Velupillai Prabhakaran’s killing, so it seems to have been finished recently.
I started thinking about this book in 2009 but didn’t start writing it until 2010; after I had travelled around Sri Lanka and visited some of the places in the north that had been difficult to get to during the war. Most of it was written in 2012 but I finished the final draft towards the end of last year. So the gestation was about four years and the actual writing and rewriting two.
Why do you have a driver as a narrator?
Vasantha, the van driver, was a natural choice when I realised the story would involve journeys around the island. The character’s appropriateness grew as the metaphor of the road grew. A passenger on a road journey is in the hands of a driver; a reader embarking on a book is in the hands of a narrator. Vasantha is both.
A journey as the spine of a narrative is as old as the epics. Why did you choose this mode?
This book is the story of a journey from the past to the future that Vasantha makes. It is also the journey we all make as human beings. A story of being on the road seemed a natural way to tell the story of these times. Vasantha is trying to understand how we should live in a fast-changing world with a difficult past. Whether we live in Sri Lanka, or Malaysia, or India, the U.K. or the U.S., we face similar issues of understanding, remembering the past that has made us and seeing the future we want.
But, in this book, there is also a more specific reason. Vasantha is travelling to parts of his country that he has been unable to visit before because of the war. So the journey was the way he would balance the north and south of his world.
Can you talk about war, memory, and language in relation to the book?
The book is about how we deal with memory. Vasantha is in a country that has seen a long and bloody war. He wants to move on from that but doesn’t know how much of the past can be left behind and how much of it is a part of him. Language is the means by which we negotiate our relationship with time. For Vasantha, language is a means of communication, of touching someone, and of remembering. All over the world, including in India, people are trying to grapple with the memory of conflicts, and trying to find a way in which language can help us understand history without being trapped in it.
For a book that deals with war, Noontide Toll is surprisingly very calm and structured in its sentences. Is this how you composed it in the first draft or was it “refined” later?
I believe if a sentence is to retain its strength over time it needs to be carefully made. In fiction, the structure of sentences matter. In this book I have tried to make sure the narrative flows as naturally as possible, but that doesn’t just happen. It has to be made to happen.
Is there a South Asian Literary identity?
I have just been to a literary festival in Kolkata where there was an hour-long discussion on this subject. Obviously there are ways in which you could identify some commonalities between South Asian writers but the problems begin from the moment you try to identify and define the terms. For e.g. who are South Asian writers? Those born in South Asia? Those who live in South Asia? Those who write about South Asia? Or all three? I think the idea of a specific geographic literary identity might be too restrictive and constraining to be helpful. I would like to think that South Asian literature (in whatever way it is defined) is as varied and surprising as any other kind of interesting literature.
You have been teaching creative writing for many years in Great Britain. Recently you have begun to collaborate on workshops in India as well. What would be your critical assessment of the writing pool/talent in India/South Asia?
I’ve only run one workshop in India; that was in Kolkata last year. I couldn’t generalise from one course but, as far as I can tell, there are plenty of aspiring writers. The prospects for writing in India, and indeed in the region, are good. But then, surely, we all know that.