Samanth Subramanian’s Sydney Writers’ Festival talk on ‘This Divided Island’
They ambushed soldiers and assassinated politicians, but they also killed monks and pilgrims, shot Sinhalese women and children across the country, and blew up aeroplanes and trains.
Drawn by the power that only facts possess, while also retaining fiction’s capacity to satisfy deeply, Samanth Subramanian has carved a niche for himself as a narrative non-fiction writer, a genre that is increasingly gaining traction.
Sensitive yet witty, he has risen to become one of its most respected practitioners. At the Sydney Writers Festival, Subramanian shared deep insights about his experiences in trouble-torn Sri Lanka, where he spent ten months in 2010-11 resulting in the much acclaimed This Divided Island.
For three decades, a bitter war ripped apart the pristine soul of the tiny island, often called the teardrop of the Indian Ocean. Its ramifications have been felt far and wide. Tens of thousands were killed, and many more, Tamils and Sinhalese alike, were displaced, struggling to rebuild their tattered lives at home and abroad.
Why do religion and politics conspire, when does power lead to malevolence, what makes individuals reconcile themselves to brutality, and can paradise be regained after such a bitter struggle or memories obliterated?
Balanced, observant but non-judgemental, Subramanian examined some of these questions.
“I wanted to understand what happens to the soul of a country and its people, through decades of turmoil. When the war ended in 2009, I could do that in person,” he revealed.
Representing all aspects of the conflict, the young novelist went on to speak of how he probed far and wide in search of anecdotes to build his tale. Dogged determination in painstakingly gathering testimonies is clearly Subramanian’s forte.
“The research part was really immersive,” he explained. “As you examine one part of the puzzle, it leads you to another.”
Subramanian eventually made several trips before he had enough material to script a complete narrative.
“The stories I learned were so compelling that they virtually told themselves. Really, I was a medium rather than a narrator; the stories flowed right through me and onto the page. There was a degree of judgement I had to exercise about how much I should remove myself from the narrative, and I think I spent most of my writing time wrestling with this problem. Removing myself entirely would have rendered the arc of the book too dull and impersonal; injecting myself too far into it would have made it self-centered. Achieving a balance was key,” he elaborated.
His discerning eye for the sights, sounds and smells of a place are backed up by powerful observations of how culture and global politics intersect.
“No place seeped into my soul in quite the way Jaffna did. The Eelam movement began there in the 1970s. The town had seen no real fighting since 1995, but when I first visited it still looked freshly wrecked. During the war, no town was beset with as much grief as Jaffna; it is difficult to find a family that has not been displaced or lost a member to the fighting,” he mused.
Remembering the devastating stories of the people who had died there, he still flinches.
“In moments like these, it seemed unconscionable to have returned as a tourist to a country that had not yet made amends for its wartime atrocities. Then, a few miles later, I would watch kingfishers and Brahminy kites swooping and rising over shimmering marshes and forget, for a while, about the war. My own moral dilemma, I thought, must be of a piece of Sri Lanka’s: How much of the past should we hold on to, and what should we let go?”