Sunday, March 15, 2015

Writing to Reconcile

Two years ago, a man wanted to do something. He wanted to begin an initiative, one that wasn't monumental or in other ways huge but that would leave a distinguishable "signature" behind. He needed writers. Not of the award-winning calibre, but of the up-and-coming, young-and-honest type. So he went and found them.

They all had one thing in common. They had stories to tell. These stories were about a war that had scarred the country for over 30 years. A war that had consumed and left little behind. While some writers had seen it firsthand, others hadn't. Didn't matter. Everyone had a story to tell.

Shyam Selvadurai came up with a name for his initiative: "Write to Reconcile". It had as much to do with writing as it had with reconciliation, as much to do with fiction as it had with reality. The two went together. Period. And so, the first anthology with over 20 stories and writers was launched in September 2013. The idea caught on. At once.

Barely one year later, Shyam decided to do it again. Much had changed by then. There still were issues left unresolved and grievances left unaddressed. There was "development", yes, but this wasn't enough. The country needed another "Write to Reconcile". It was a need of the hour. Of sorts.

And so, more than 20 writers got together last year. Over eight days in Kandy and Batticaloa, they conducted a workshop for those who could and did write. It wasn't just about words and narrative. It was about trauma. Memory. Loss. It was also about cultural roots and the diversity that surrounds this country. Shyam was the Project Director. He listened to and read what the writers had to say. He collected them. A second anthology followed.

There were those who had lived through the war and those who had "seen" it through other eyes. And they weren't just Tamil or Sinhalese. Yogarajah Atchuthan and Kulanthai Jepakumar had suffered, yes, but so had Ranmini Gunawardena, who had lost her brother (an Air Force Pilot), and Sapna Supunsara, whose father had been involved in the last phase of the war. Race didn't matter. They had all suffered. That lent authenticity to what they said. And wrote.

Not all the writers had "lived through", understandably. Some had recounted and recorded. None of them fictionalised anything, and even those who saw through other eyes depicted what they did with honesty. There was fidelity to life. Authenticity too. Commendably.

Recounting isn't everything however and it doesn't always count for narrative. There were stories that spoke from heart, not based on actual encounters but fictionalised to gain and give effect. Like Lilani Anuruddhika's "Everyone's a Tiger Until Proven Otherwise", which charts a friendship between a Sinhalese man and a Tamil boy and then suddenly ends on an unresolved note.

The relationship between these two is depicted playfully, almost in keeping with the young man / ruffian boy trope one finds in countless stories and films. But no, Lilani doesn't let her story end that way. The boy warns the man and the man doesn't heed his warning. In the end, while we get to know what he thinks of his little friend, we are left with only a hint of that idealism that marked their friendship, now subsumed by chaos and, it seems, suspicion.

Unlike last time, this year's event was opened up to the Sri Lankan diaspora. Shyam tells me that they tried to get participants who could tell stories from the armed forces' point of view. They tried to get stories from those who had lived and endured the war in the East, given how preoccupied the first anthology had been with the North/South divide. They are also trying to get the LTTE's version of events within the next few years.

"Write to Reconcile" was sponsored by the Royal Norwegian Embassy and the American Center. There were people who came and spoke. Dr Jehan Perera, Executive Director of the National Peace Council (which figured in the launch of the first anthology as well) gave his address. He noted that even five years after the war, misgivings still exist and these must be addressed through what he called a "multi-track approach". Grete Løchen from the Norwegian Embassy and Nicole Chulick from the American Center highlighted the need for young writers to open up and transcend differences perceived and imagined.

The final word belongs to Shyam, though. I ask him whether they have any major plans for the future. He tells me that he has set a target with all what he's done so far, that he wants to see a grand finale someday. "The idea is to build a composite picture of the war. I want to include all points of view in it. My hope is to then do a final master anthology that includes stories from other anthologies, giving this final composite view."

Wars begin for reasons no matter how irrational those who lead them can get. They end for other reasons too, again despite how unreasonably bloody they can be. But wars don't end on the battlefield. Not all the time. They end when grievances are addressed and wrongdoing is acknowledged. They end with accountability and reconciliation. That is why differences must be bridged. Always.

Words aren't the be-all and end-all of reconciliation. But they have power. They begin where bullets end. They aren't monumental but then again they needn't be. "Write to Reconcile" certainly isn't. I don't think Shyam wants that, anyway. He wants something small and sharpened, something that is nuanced enough to acknowledge that while books can speak louder than bombs, they can't be an end but must be a means to that end. I am sure he'd agree if I say that this is what his project aims at. We should be grateful, I think. And we are.

Written for: Ceylon Today LATITUDE, March 15 2015