The author talks about her award-winning collection of short stories, which takes us on a contemporary Sri Lankan’s global journey
An excerpt from “Third Country National,” a story from Hasanthika Sirisena’s award-winning collection The Other One
Anura’s regular job on the base was to clean: the TCNs in his unit rotated between cleaning the DFAC, the living quarters, and the latrines. The base officially belonged to the Air Force but it was also a way station: a transition point where military units stopped on their way to Iraq and Afghanistan. The base received Marines, Army, Navy and Air Force as well as RAF; none stayed longer than a few days. Outside contractors ran most airbase operations including the DFAC and the septic system. The average Kuwaiti was too wealthy to work on a military base so the outside contractors hired mostly third country nationals, like Anura, to do the cleaning, cooking, and maintenance.
Ibrahim feared the soldiers. Anura couldn’t tell them apart to fear them. Ibrahim said the soldiers hated the TCNs, called them names—hajis, and other things. Anura suspected most of the soldiers looked right through the TCNs and never saw them at all. It was some solace Ibrahim needed, to believe he mattered enough. Truth was they didn’t.
Experience had taught Anura real, unadulterated hate rarely served as an adequate explanation for people’s behavior. Yes, hate existed but not to the degree he’d once thought. He had worked for other soldiers once, for soldiers in the Sri Lanka army near Jaffna and then later near Ampara. Those Sri Lanka soldiers had fought because the government promised their families clay floors, because the government had promised land and money. He didn’t know why the Americans and the British had fought but these child soldiers (they were after all only seventeen, eighteen, nineteen—Anura had a son nearly their age) with their broad, ruddy faces were most of them too naïve and self-absorbed, too deeply cocooned and cosseted by their iPod worlds, to hate. It seemed to him all the horror he’d seen, and he’d seen great evil, happened because a soldier’s behavior was predictable the way a little child’s behavior was predictable. All these soldiers spoke and felt and acted the way Anura’s children had once spoken and felt and done, because that was what the other children were speaking, feeling, and acting, because following the others was the only way any of their actions made sense. Anura felt sorry for the soldiers on the base, as he had the Sri Lankan soldiers, but unlike Ibrahim, he never feared them.
* * *
Hasanthika Sirisena’s award-winning story collection The Other One takes the reader on a contemporary Sri Lankan’s global journey. The book begins on an American airbase in Kuwait, visits the civil-war-weary homes of Sri Lanka, and closes in the immigrant communities of North Carolina and New York City. These ten stories repeatedly take the backroads, shining lights into forgotten corners of human experience, and question whether typical immigrant or war narratives truly exist. Sirisena’s leading men and women are unforgettable, from the accountant-cum-recreational cricket player looking for love to the daughter of a police chief inspector who suspects her father is morally and professionally compromised. The Other One is also a feminist work that pushes against patriarchal mores in both Sri Lankan and American life.
Born in Kandy, Sri Lanka and raised in North Carolina, Sirisena’s dual background is present throughout the collection, and each story’s reflects an investigative journalist’s curiosity and exactitude that makes her prose unique. I lunched with Sirisena recently at the pub/literary event venue 61 Local in Cobble Hill, and we discussed The Other One, her love for the aesthetic of Flannery O’Connor, her reading list of books by and about Sri Lankans, and writing as a conversation with one’s parents.
Leland Cheuk: The Other One starts off in the deep end, so to speak, with “Third Country National,” which was a distinguished story in Best American Short Stories 2011. It’s about a Sri Lankan man, tending to exotic fish in an aquarium on a U.S. airbase in Kuwait where he’s essentially a janitor. You nailed the details of how the TCNs live—in a tent littered with “tubes of Sesa hair gel” and McDonald’s wrappers. How did you come to the story of TCNs, and these underclass workers who take these jobs far from home because life in Colombo is so bad that “it no longer mattered much to him if he lived or died”?
Hasanthika Sirisena: My friend, the journalist and fiction writer Steven Featherstone, spent a few days at Ali Al Salem airbase in Kuwait before being embedded in Afghanistan. While he was there, he was allowed to photograph areas of the base, and when he returned he gave a presentation of these photographs at McNally Jackson Books in Manhattan. One of his photographs featured this giant fish tank in the mess hall. Another photograph was of three third country nationals, and I recognized them immediately as being Sri Lankan. I put the two photographs together in my mind and started to wonder about the person who tends this giant fish tank in the middle of a desert.
Beyond that, I wanted to imagine what life might be like for these workers—both what is hard and the happiness. I did a lot of research. It’s true. I did research on the lives of TCNs. I read accounts of living on an American military base. I’m lucky also because Sri Lanka has a very healthy publishing industry, and there are many memoirs of the civil war available. But, the biggest coup wasn’t finding information about life on a military base. It was finding something—an animal—that could break a fish tank! Finding such a creature took weeks, and honestly a lot of digging. Fish tanks, as you can imagine, are designed to never break.
That’s almost a spoiler alert. Attention readers: the fish tank could break.
—laughs— Almost. But I refuse to reveal the identity of the creature.
I really admired your tilting of some of the stories into the realm of surreality and psychological horror in a way that evokes the work of Flannery O’Connor. In “War Wounds,” which originally appeared in Kenyon Review, a woman is pushed to her emotional and financial limits by the burden of having to care for her brother, who was brain-injured in the war. The brother is this ever-present ghost of the woman’s conscience. In “Unicorn,” there’s “the mute and the cat,” the two women bankers who claim to be a proud soldier’s “ghosts” as they torment him in a George-Saunderesque war museum/theme park. In “Pine,” there is the eccentric Buddhist monk that comes to holiday dinner. Are these nods toward the otherworldly part of you as a writer having fun, and do you consider those brushstrokes a vital part of your aesthetic?
Leland, I’m over the moon that you mention Flannery O’Connor, the short story writer that has been most influential on me. I remember being twelve, thirteen, growing up in North Carolina and reading her stories again and again and again. I felt as if she were the first writer that I had been exposed to up to that point that told the truth about life in the South. That had a profound impact on me.
I hadn’t connected Flannery O’Connor with your immigrant background, but now that I hear you describe it, it seems like it should have been obvious to me. We grew up in America so of course, we would look up to writers in the American canon.
What struck me most is that O’Connor could have written about the situation in the South using a naturalistic lens, but chooses instead to warp the lens slightly. That warping creates a grotesquery that’s off-putting but also recognizable. It also comes closer to a truth about the world it represents. That said, I found that I had to be very careful as a writer. As a reader I’m drawn to the grotesquery but as a writer I realized I had to handle that with a very, very light touch.
In some sense, I think that this is the most important way that my upbringing in the South has influenced my works. I favor a surrealism that’s grounded in what’s irrational and twisted about our actuality. The poet and fiction writer James Dickey calls it ‘country surrealism.’ For example, the ‘unicorn’ [an armored personnel carrier] in the short story “Unicorn” is a real thing. The military theme park is real and actually more terrible for its realness. I could not in a hundred years have imagined any of these.
Two of the stories (“The Inter-Continental” and “Ismail”) are about young adults coming-of-age under difficult circumstances. In “The Inter-Continental,” a nineteen year-old girl tries to figure out whether she’s “a good girl” in Colombo, a city where “anyone who is honest is killed.” In “Ismail,” class jealousy between Sri Lankan-American immigrant young men drives a foolish act of vengeance. In both stories, the concerns of the main characters are distant, but not entirely detached, from the civil war because of their youth. Why did you choose to write about younger Sri Lankans?
I tried to include a wide age range in the collection. But, yes, I’m drawn to stories about young people because of the combination of a deep cynicism and hopefulness about the future. The biggest concern during the Sri Lankan Civil War was prosperity. Can a person build a life, a stable career, a family, in a country that seems to be constantly falling apart? I did want to capture that.
But I think, in all honesty, my reasons for focusing on young people included the amazing series of connections I saw being made between experiences and realities. Teenagers in Sri Lanka, for example, listen to rap music because, among other things, the political concerns of rap and hip hop culture really spoke to them. I was also very impressed by the way that teenagers incorporated slang from multiple cultures into their every day speech. in my mind these stories aren’t about the experience of the war as much as about the experience of being a teenager, period.
How do you think the concerns of young Sri Lankans are changing as the civil war fades from their memories?
I don’t think it’s a matter of memory fading. The war is and isn’t over for people there. Yes, there exists a relief that there’s no more fighting and bombings, but the country is still wrestling with serious issues—from reducing the military presence in the North and North East to how to rebuild a just and inclusive society. I sense more hope, though, that there exist real solutions.
I admit to not knowing very much about the Sri Lankan Civil War, but even though I didn’t, I never felt lost within the book with regards to the history of the conflict. I felt like I learned just enough to get by about the Tamils and the Sinhalese and the “sick little alphabet” of all the different factions such as the LTTE (or the Tamil Tigers), JVP, and the SLFP. You chose not to write out what the acronyms of these groups stood for or even describe why they existed. Why did you choose to minimize the explication?
There are so many good books about the Sri Lankan Civil War, and it’s amazing and heartening to see writing—fiction and nonfiction—in and about Sri Lanka flourishing. V. V. Ganeshananthan, Shyam Selvadurai, Romesh Gunesekera, Michael Ondaatje to name only a few. All have written beautifully about the conflict so I see no reason to try to explain it. I also feel that the minute a fiction writer tries to insert an explanation, she kills the story. For me, writing fiction is about trying to empathize with a situation and understand the human mind and human behavior in relation to a particular story, not try to provide a treatise on a broad and impossibly complicated set of political circumstances.
But for anyone interested in an extraordinary work of investigative journalism about the war and its aftermath, I recommend Rohini Mohan’s The Seasons of Trouble. I wouldn’t even pretend to have the chops to pull off something like that.
The stories are almost evenly split between ones set in America and ones set in Sri Lanka. Was that an intentional choice because of your background? And going forward, do you envision yourself writing more about the American experience, the Sri Lankan experience, both, or neither?
My first published short story, one I still love, is about D. H. Lawrence in Sri Lanka. After that I focused solely on immigrants in the States. Leland, you’ll appreciate this, I started writing about Sri Lanka to please my father and mother.
—laughs— My parents are Chinese, so they’re never pleased.
—laughs— My father asked me why I didn’t write about Sri Lankans in Sri Lanka. So my stories are as much about a conversation with my father and my mother, who passed away a few years ago. They’re a promise to them that I haven’t forgotten where I come from and that I’m not so distant from it.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a lot of things—a novel, an essay, and two short stories. But, mostly I want to read. Have you heard of Square Wave by Mark de Silva? I don’t know the writer but the premise sounds fascinating. The main character is a writer researching 17th century Sri Lanka, and the novel is set in a factionalized America where confidence in democracy has eroded.
That does sound cool! So it’s basically about this presidential election.
—laughs— It’s definitely a book both of us would like!
The interview was edited and condensed for clarity.