I wasn’t going to say anything. The news from the place where I was born is old news. What I feel about the civil war in Sri Lanka is an old story, too. And anyway, here, in Britain we have enough problems of our own to bother about some pretty island in the Indian Ocean. But then, I read a sentimental little piece about the Galle Literary Festival written by a Sri Lankan writer and it became impossible to stay silent. The writer is Tamil, not born in Sri Lanka but living in the US and her inability to think either clearly or analytically is disturbing. Her article, written with ‘swimming eyes’, in gushing prose, and her reasons for attending the Galle literary festival, are as thin as rice paper.
Sri Lanka is a country with an appalling human rights record. For those who do not know this already, it is a country that has been at war with itself for decades. As far back as the late 1950s Tamils were being persecuted, set fire to and denied jobs. I know, for as a four year old I watched a Tamil man being burnt to death. The civil war that followed was made even more difficult to understand because of the formation of the Tamil terrorists. The world lost patience and the human shield of ordinary Tamil civilians was forgotten in the mayhem that followed. Stuff happened; the public library in Jaffna was burnt down, not once but twice by Sri Lankan soldiers but the then government couldn’t care less. Precious manuscripts were lost and the morale of Jaffna Tamils sunk further. Eventually a dynastic and powerful new government did away with the Tamil Tiger forever and the war was declared finally over. A hundred thousand ordinary Tamils were either dead or in appalling conditions in refugee camps, the north was littered with land mines and there was only rhetoric left to deal with the problems. As the new government cannot tolerate any criticism, those who speak out or write in the newspapers are either shot or continue to disappear, taken away in white unmarked vans. This is going on now, not in some grim past.
Into this situation, with a rising tourist industry (the New York Times described Sri Lanka as the number one holiday destination) comes a new generation of Sri Lankans. People born or living abroad, who understandably want closure to a shameful chapter of Sri Lankan history. But in their haste they confuse the need to forget with the need, first, to remember. The latter has always to preclude the former. South Africa and Ireland are good examples. So that by failing to recognise or understand this basic human requirement, necessary for moving healthily forward, they cause more harm than good.
One of the objectives of the government of Sri Lanka is to staunch criticism in order to give an appearance of normality within the country. The Galle Literary Festival is a perfect opportunity for doing this. It has risen in prominence and become a safe option for writers from abroad who dream of wide tropical beaches against a palm-fringed backdrop of boutique hotels. But these scenes are located far from the terrible mess in the north and north-east of the island. Here, unseen by western eyes, are illiterate Tamil children still living in psychological and physical deprivation. Here you will find the women who have learnt to lament their loss in silence and here, too, are the men who cannot bear the colours of yellow, green and brown; all colours of the land but also that of army uniforms. These people cannot access Sri Lanka’s glamorous literary festival. Nor would the organisers wish to move their event to them.
Earlier this year Noam Chomsky and Arundhati Roy, amongst others, called for a boycott of this festival and as a result, some writers found their conscience pricking. But others, including the writer of the blog I have just read, went. What is interesting is the reasons given for the trip. Talk of woolly matters, of art, of literature, of creativity, is high on the agenda and predictably comes the claim, that to deny a literary event is to deny freedom of speech.
But I would like to ask these writers, who are the people who will actually benefit from this particular festival? Well, for a start the government of Sri Lanka will be pleased at an excellent whitewashing programme. We know that for sure! As for the organisers, a prestigious international event can only improve their visibility and profile. Next we have the audience, made up of the middle class, English reading public, (with possibly the token orphanage, or Tamil child thrown in, especially those who suffered in the tsunami as this gets Western sympathy) and the foreigners on holiday, of which there are many. But let’s not forget the writers; fêted, well fed and watered and given, as one of them recently told me, ‘frankly a smashing little holiday in the middle of economic winter gloom.’
I am often asked why I do not go to this festival even though I have been invited. Why I chose to attend the Jaipur literary festival but not Galle. Let me make this clear. I long to go. I long to see my home once more. But the terrible injustice that was done to Sri Lanka’s ordinary people on both sides of the ethnic divide needs to be highlighted. Because the dead have no voice, because their memory is still not honoured or talked about. Because those who speak out are still being silenced. Because I am not so misguided as to imagine any real or serious discourse in the manicured atmosphere of Galle is possible under the current government. Of what will these writers actually speak? Thus far no writer going to Sri Lanka has said anything that addresses the real problem.
And even if I have got it completely wrong, even if all those visitors who come to Galle to sit in hallowed silence under ceiling fans, to hear the UK-returned writers speak, are right and the conversations taking place are about life and literature, what good will this do? What has the internationally ‘acclaimed’ Sri Lankan writer got to offer the poor and the displaced, the bereft and the victims of Sri Lanka’s war? Will their discourse give the lost generation of children a different life? Will the government suddenly become transparent and admit to the killing sprees they went on in order to gain power? Will the broken woman who came this year to Galle, in search of her journalist husband, (disappeared on January 28th) have him returned to her? Let us not be so naïve as to believe so. Nothing will change other than perhaps the level of our suntan.
But, still I believe, far, far in the distant future, long after this foolish generation of celebrity seeking writers is forgotten, there will come a rising cluster of different novelists. One has seen this often in the past, coming out of some terrible hurt. Russia is a good example. Writing perhaps in Tamil, or in Singhalese they will bring us a true discourse penetrating all parts of the island. For as W. G. Sebald movingly wrote, individual and collective amnesia needs to fall away in an ‘archaeological excavations of the slag-heaps of our collective existence’ before we can move on. When that moment arrives, when the national consciousness within the country is at last awakened and is truly allowed to speak out, then Sri Lanka will heal itself. Until that time comes it will be better to stop pretending the Galle literary festival is anything more than a damn good holiday.