“The Jarringness of Witnessing”: A Conversation with Anuk Arudpragasam




“THE PRESENT, WE ASSUME, is eternally before us, one of the few things in life from which we cannot be parted,” begins Anuk Arudpragasam’s A Passage North. This reflective, sweeping tone carries throughout the novel, which flows into a diverse set of themes, such as the memory of the Sri Lankan Civil War, classical South Asian literature, and the ways in which diasporic populations grieve violence in their homelands. The story focuses on Krishan, a young man living in Colombo, who rides a train to northeastern Sri Lanka to attend the funeral of his grandmother’s helper, Rani.

Arudpragasam’s meditations on the Sri Lankan Civil War in A Passage North call back to his debut novel, The Story of a Brief Marriage (2016), which follows the tragedy of a young couple in a refugee camp that faces constant bombardment. The Story of a Brief Marriage was lauded by critics, winning the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature and being shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize. A Passage North has recently been shortlisted for the Booker Prize. These plaudits are a testament to the way Arudpragasam bestows meticulous attention on the bodily and psychological impact of violence.

I talked with the author via Zoom on a summer evening. He was in Paris, while I was in Seoul. Arudpragasam spoke fluidly on themes arising from his latest novel, including historical memory, Anglophone writing, novelistic digressions, and the power of the gaze.

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KION YOU: So, I read your two novels back to back, which was somewhat of a jarring experience in that the first novel involves a visceral, direct encounter with the Sri Lankan Civil War, while the second approaches the memory of the war at a remove. I’m thinking of how, in the first chapter of A Passage North, the narrator mentions his fanatical consumption of news about the war from abroad, which made me wonder about the progression of your thinking from the first to the second book, and if you see these projects in a cohesive way.

ANUK ARUDPRAGASAM: At the outset, my second novel wasn’t meant to be related to my first novel, it wasn’t meant to be about the war at all, but as I continued writing — I think I spent five years writing the novel — it became more and more apparent to me that it was not possible to make a clear break between writing about the war and not writing about the war. The war was still my subject, so much so that it even occurred to me to call the narrator of my second novel Dinesh [the narrator of The Story of a Brief Marriage]. The project of the first novel was for an urban, bourgeois, bilingual writer who never lived in the war zone to imagine what it would be like to inhabit such a situation. This second novel is a step back, almost like a commentary on writing the first novel.

There’s a quote I remember from A Passage North that may hint at the different roles of the two narrators and the work they do regarding memorialization: “It was strange how sometimes scenes one has never witnessed could appear before the mind’s eye more profoundly than memories from actual life.”

I don’t think I was thinking specifically about different ways to memorialize the events of 2008 and 2009, but I suppose the first novel is more about the experience of violence, while the second novel is about the spectatorship of violence, what it means to watch such violence unfold at a distance, where there is no agency or possibility of intervention, where the only response available is a cognitive response.

In a way, the second novel is much more focused on the Tamil diaspora. In one sense, I am not diasporic because I am from Sri Lanka, but in another sense, the people who were subject to the violence during the last two years of the war, the people in the northeast, that violence was so constitutive not just of their identity but of Tamil identity in general, and the diaspora can be defined not as those who left the island but as those who were not part of these events and watched from afar. For a lot of people who were not present in this time and place, it’s difficult to not associate this land with violence, so that now, when we go to these places, we are stunned by the ordinariness and everydayness of life, which has to continue. So, this novel is about that particular jarringness of witnessing, the disjunction between the mind and the body.

Something that I noticed while reading the novel was the acute attention paid to attention itself, the giving and taking of attention between characters. Some of the moments I remember most vividly are Krishan on the train, with his lover Anjum, and how Krishan keeps gazing up from his book, hoping that she will return the attention he is giving her, or how Krishan’s grandmother waits diligently for Krishan to return from work so she can tell him everything about her day. I was curious about these different relationships, especially how this attention seems to always flow one way, unreciprocated.

I assume that by attention you’re referring to visual attention, desiring recognition with one’s eyes. When the primary mode of interaction between two people is the gaze, it suggests that there is a distance between them. For example, when you plan to meet a friend somewhere in a public space, and the first person has already arrived, and the second person is walking to them from a distance, and the two catch sight of each other, there’s an awkward moment in which the two people are too far away for speech to be possible, and yet it’s possible to see the expression on the other person’s face, so there’s a need for you to smile or look away to avoid the awkwardness of the gaze, because all of the senses operate at different ranges — sound and smell and touch all operate at a much shorter range — and because the relationships in this book are with the eyes and not through the other senses, there is a certain sense of distance.

There is also a question of interpretation, because of this distance: what are they doing, how do they really feel? I think you’re right that sight is the primary mode of recognition here, and that also connects to the diasporic nature of this book: if we’re thinking of diasporic people and their relationship to the homeland in terms of the virtual — meaning visual — this is also a very important component of the diasporic relationship to the genocide.

Picking up on that, I was curious about the dialogue in the novel, because there were very few examples of direct speech. I wanted to ask about dialogue with regard to your relationship with English, specifically how you go about mediating Tamil sounds in English. Was this a conscious decision, to limit the dialogue because you were writing in English? Is there a lack that is produced by such a decision?

First, almost all of the interactions in the book are in Tamil, except between Krishan and Anjum. Yes, there are very obvious technical difficulties with this, which also come up when you’re trying to translate. Many Tamil novels, for example, are very dialogue heavy, and translating poses a lot of problems, especially when dialogue, in a specific dialect, marks a person’s region, caste, and age. The use of dialogue in a novel featuring non-English speakers, I think, has to be extremely stilted. It’s impossible to think that you could do the same kind of work in dialogue for Tamil speakers in English as you could do with English speakers in English.

It’s one of those moments in which the historical and political subtext ruptures into the form, creating a kind of issue in the form, revealing the historical contradictions in what I am doing, the fact that I am somewhere writing about the colonized in the language of the colonizer, and I myself am part colonized and part colonizer.

Continuing with this theme of English, I was reading through other interviews you have done, and whenever you’re asked about literary influences, you never cite Anglophone authors, but rather Europeans like Robert Musil, Thomas Bernhard, and Péter Nádas. Personally, as someone who grew up in America, I found this kind of unfathomable, this pull away from the Anglophone, so I was curious about your relationship, as a writer in English, to Anglophone writing.

I’ve also wondered about it. Of course, there’s great and wonderful writing in every language, but my general sense of Anglophone writing, specifically from the center, the UK and the US, and their centers, London and Los Angeles and New York, is that there’s always a certain kind of parochialism to those who occupy these cultural centers. You read these texts, and precisely because they believe that they are at the center of the world, there are all sorts of peripheral and seemingly trivial aspects of their culture that they are misled into believing are of world-historical significance. Because of this, I believe that a lot of Anglophone writing is doomed to a sort of parochialism, and if one writes outside the cultural centers — which I’m not claiming to do, but if one does — one is forced to make oneself intelligible with regard to what is important versus what is just passing. So, I’m drawn to writers from Eastern Europe — they’re generally modernist writers rather than “European” writers — and a lot of them tend to be Central and Eastern European. I’m not sure if this sounds arrogant or dismissive.

That makes me curious about your relationship to Tamil, whether personal or literary, and how you envision that changing through the rest of your life.

Well, I’m bilingual in that these two languages have equal weight for me, and there’s no linguistic center in my life. But I never had a formal education in Tamil, maybe just in grade one. I only began reading literature in Tamil maybe five or six years ago.

Each language allows for certain things. For example, the English language is a language that does not have a community. It is spoken and read by people from a thousand different cultures and mother tongues and places, with a thousand different political and religious views. And when you write in English, because anybody can read what they like, it’s a language without intimacy, as opposed to speech, through which you can tell where a person is from. If I was writing in Tamil, I might agree or disagree a hundred different ways with other Tamils, but if they are speaking in Tamil, I associate them with certain lands and histories and cultures and ways of thinking and being, and in that sense they’re much more known to me.

The last topic area I want to address is the architecture of the novel, specifically its digressions. In the first half, there are three moves into traditional stories: the story of Siva and Poosal from the Periya Puranam, the love song of the unnamed yaksha from The Cloud Messenger, and the story of the young Siddhartha from The Life of the Buddha. I was wondering if there was a cumulative effect or significance to these inclusions.

One thing I would say, just to begin with, is that I have heard these works referred to as “folk tales” or “mythological stories,” but they’re actually works of literature, specifically high or canonical literature. With regard to how these stories fit together in the novel, part of the project for me was to see if I could write a text that engaged in a sustained and continuous way with consciousness and the subjectivity of a character. I wanted a character in a situation where there was minimal disturbance from the outside world, and I wanted to allow thoughts and feelings that could usually only unfold in solitude. For that reason, digression is really important: if the events of the outside world do not provide the primary movement of the text, if we’re relying on the grammar of a character’s mind to move us through a text, there has to be something else. Something needs to take up space in a book, to provide the words. So, the thoughts of a character, the feelings and emotions, instead of eddying around events in the outside world, they eddy around materials — literary and archival and filmic materials, which form the banks of the river of his mind.

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Kion You is a writer based in Seoul, South Korea. His writing has appeared in The Rumpus, the Los Angeles ReviewRewire, and The College Hill Independent.

 

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