Living up to its promise of touching upon Sri Lankan post conflict concerns at an event that celebrated literature, the fifth edition of the Galle Literary Festival 2011 discussed at length the problem of ethnicities and identities getting entangled in politics.

There was a strong opinion that ethnicity is part of a person’s identity and hence, the need for a single national identity should not insist that one’s ethnic identity is forgotten or cast aside.

In the programme, ‘Aftershock: The lingering legacy of civil war,’ presented by the BBC World Service, Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, said that the need for an over-arching national identity was a feature of most post-colonial countries and was because colonial powers had often pitched members of one identity against members of another identity.

The approach that tries to gloss over the excesses and rights abuses that took place during the three-decade Sri Lankan civil war, saying “both sides did terrible things, let us move forward, will not work,” said Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the author of ‘The Thing Around Your Neck,’ a collection of short-stories that graphically sketches the lasting effects of Nigeria’s civil war of the 1960s.

“Grief feeds on trauma,” she said and added that for people who lived through the massacres and agonies, those memories do not fade away, it will always remain in the present.

Explaining this in the Sri Lankan context, Human Rights activist Sunila Abeysekera, said that Muslims still observe the day they were driven out of Jaffna; the days on which hundreds of their brothers were massacred in two mosques while Tamils remembered the kidnappings from the Batticaloa hospital. The Sinhalese remembered the killing of 600 policemen in the eastern province. “This is a clear indication of how far we need to go to overcome the collective grief of the communities,” she said.

Chimamanda felt that the novelist had a greater freedom to tread on places that non-fiction writers could not, said that fiction, based on facts could help fill spaces in a society’s history. Insisting that there was no point in asserting there were ‘no winners or losers in a conflict,’ she said there were people who considered themselves losers at the end of a conflict. “We need to hear their story…Each person matters,” she said.

‘Resolve this politically’

An Australian in the audience, who narrated the wrongs heaped on the natives of the country, said, that, even today, a hundred years after the events, the aboriginals remembered the injustice meted out to them. “They have not forgotten,” he said and added that he had a bit of advice for Sri Lanka: “Resolve this politically and militarily. If you don’t, you will be talking about this even a hundred years from now.”

Moderated by BBC’s diplomatic correspondent Bridget Kendall, the session will be broadcast on BBC World Service, ‘The Forum,’ on February 6 and 13.

The literary festival has also brought together 50 Tamil and Sinhala students in a bid to impress upon young minds that people everywhere had similar concerns, said Geoffrey Dobbs, Festival founder. The festival, which opened on January 26, is on till January 30.

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