Nothing Can Be Done

V. V. Ganeshananthan interviews Anuk Arudpragasam, ‘LA Review of Books,’ October 6, 2016

IN HIS DEBUT NOVEL, The Story of a Brief Marriage, Anuk Arudpragasam achieves something remarkable: he shows us a consciousness reshaped by the possibility of imminent death. How do we inhabit the body when we think we may be leaving it behind? The book is set in the final stages of the Sri Lankan civil war, which trapped an unknown number of displaced Tamil civilians between the Tamil Tigers and Sri Lankan government forces. The novel details neither setting nor the conflict’s complex politics, forcing us to focus on the mind and body of Dinesh, a young Tamil man dodging militant conscription and falling government shells. When an older man asks Dinesh to marry his daughter, Ganga, Dinesh must consider his mortality, hers, and how he thinks about the world. Arudpragasam’s book is rich with metaphor and unflinching in its look at life in a war zone. It also nimbly avoids the trap of exoticizing or beautifying war.

Arudpragasam, who is completing his dissertation in philosophy at Columbia University, grew up in Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo. He has also spent time in the Vanni, a part of Sri Lanka’s Northern Province deeply affected by the conflict. He went to Stanford and intends to return to South Asia after completing his doctorate in philosophy. In July, we had a long conversation about Sri Lanka, the novel, and what brought him to the subject of the human condition in war.

The conversation has been edited and condensed.


V. V. GANESHANANTHAN: I would love to hear how you began this novel.

ANUK ARUDPRAGASAM: In late 2009, early 2010, a lot of photographs and media footage came up on the internet from survivors of the war — people in the northeast during the final battle and also soldiers. I was aware of this stuff vaguely and then the documentary came out, No Fire Zone. I think it was actually a response to that documentary and a subsequent mining of like media on the internet.

The book arose very much in response to contact with this material and this dangerous history. [I was thinking about] people who are in my community and who speak my language but for historical reasons and social reasons, their lives have become very different from mine. I think [the novel] arose as an attempt to understand or try to get a little bit closer to conditions and experiences that were far from my own.

That video and the other images and footage that started coming out after the war — it’s kind of endless actually. When did you stop looking at it, or did you ever?

I don’t like to use the word research. That suggests you have some goal from the outset and then what’s called research is a means to get it and it’s fairly disconnected from the end. Whereas for me, there was not such a structure.

Most war photography you come into contact with, on the internet or in museums, it’s somewhat polished, it’s aestheticized, and it feels very outside the realm of ordinary life. It’s also something you generally see in newspapers. But a lot of the photographs of what happened during the war, because they were taken by civilians on digital cameras and cell phones, they had this grainy quality and were taken from arbitrary angles. It reminds you a bit of photos you might see on social media. And because of that there was a kind of directness in those photos that was very disturbing, especially given the kind of subject matter they depicted. I must have seen that documentary at least 10 or 15 times. After a while, I started to visit the Vanni and became friends with the only psychiatrist who worked there. I chatted with him and watched him do his work and so I have spent some time in the Vanni for past four years.

I couldn’t really say when I stopped [looking] but I realized that at a certain point, I needed to finish my novel as soon as possible because it was probably not so good for me to continue working every day on this kind of material.

The book is interested in the relationship between the body and consciousness, between the ways that people think and make decisions, the ways that they inhabit solitude and strive for connection with other people. It’s not a plot-y book. It felt a little like The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao in that there are spoilers in the title. There is going to be a marriage. It’s going to be brief. On some level that title announces that the book is not so much concerned with what happens as is it is how it happens and what the characters think about it.

I knew what was going to happen: they are going to die and if they don’t die their lives are going to be different from this moment on. That is the condition of most of the people [involved in the final stages of the war], they have died or they continue living but have been ruined in various ways or in ways that a lot of them can’t return from. When I was writing it there was no question of redemption or coming back, there was no question of time after this time. If there is a plot, if there is suspense, if there is possibility, [then] there is the possibility of anything other than this. To pretend there was some way out of this would be dishonest. It was static and it was pervasive and it was inescapable.

When one becomes aware of such things happening — especially if you share a community with the people who are suffering — there is a tendency to want to do something immediately. In the same way if you are with a friend and they fall and scratch their leg and start to bleed, our immediate response is to try to do something. It’s to try to sit the person down or get a Band-Aid. It’s a natural inclination to action when one is in the presence of the pain of another person. So if that’s the natural reaction in the case of an individual, when you are watching something happen to a community, the instinctive practical response is political. How many people died? What is the UN doing about this? How did we let this happen? Why can’t we take the people to court? It’s not like I’m against such a response at all but, at least for myself, [it speaks to] a kind of desire to avoid actually inhabiting the condition of the person. These kinds of facts, and even historical facts, situate us in a place and time so rage can express itself by saying this needs to be done or that needs to be done, and I think that being given that information allows for such a response.

By withholding information, one is forced to be put simply in the presence of such a condition. Simply to observe or be aware of the condition without being able to do anything about it. You are not able to do anything about it and all you can do is observe and try to understand.

I think that was important to me because by the time I had seen the footage that gave rise to the novel, all these people were already dead. Their lives have been destroyed, and in a sense that was part of my consciousness when I was writing it: well, actually nothing can be done. The sense of simply having to sit and watch as if you were having your hands bound was important in writing.

You’ve said that one of the reasons to write in close third person, through Dinesh, is that he is different from you. And yet the metaphors you reach for here, to explain things to me, are very much of a piece with how Dinesh thinks. There are a lot of beautiful metaphors in the book. Within the larger situation of the war zone and Dinesh’s life there, you create so many of these mini-situations — “as if one had,” for example, and then the narrative dips into a clarifying metaphor. I was wondering how you thought about those metaphors, given what you’ve said about the importance of inhabiting the immediacy of the condition, because of course those metaphors can also serve as an exit. Relatedly, we know very little about Dinesh’s past, and sometimes these metaphors seem to provide a more abstract alternative to backstory — a different way to access his consciousness.

There is some distancing that happens with a metaphor or with an allegory. The logical form of an analogy or a metaphor is: There are things you don’t know, here are things you do know, let’s get to know that through this. In a way though, it is appropriate because at various points I do try to mark the fact that this is a contemplative project by an author very far away in circumstance and privilege from what he is trying to understand or know. I guess it comes too with the constant usage of “perhaps.”

I am trying to understand [this situation] and acknowledging that I am coming at this from very far away. It was something that I wanted to be explicit.

I am much more interested in inner lives than in situations in the external world. I think of the external world as a kind of contextual framing device. Just as a diver needs to have a ship anchored so they know where to return, that’s how I’ve thought of the external world in my writing. [It’s there] to give context but a very minimal amount of context, because what’s above the surface is really not what I am interested in.

Why did you come to the United States?

I was born to a very privileged high-caste family. One of the aspirational marks of the elite is speaking English, so we were sent to school for only one year in Tamil. The rest of my education was in English and I went to what’s called an international school in Sri Lanka and most of the students who are rich tend to go study abroad. It was also taken for granted that parents would be able to afford to send their children to abroad.

I am curious about what that experience has been like for you. How, if at all, has it influenced your work?

I am very political but I am unable to be politically engaged by happenings in the United States. I feel that the world that I am particularly engaged with is in South Asia. For example, I find myself getting very interested in and very worked up about political issues in India. India is a very exciting place to be. It’s now a colonizing nation state … but the population has been a colonized population for the last four or five hundred years. It’s a place now that is beginning to have resources to understand itself and to ask questions about what it will be in the future.

It’s very exciting as a South Asian writer to be a part of some moment in history when this part of the world is free to understand itself or create itself for the first time. I think the United States is fairly unexciting in these ways. I feel the United States has been the most influential country for the past hundred years and there’s little sense of new possibility here in terms of the future. I would be a fool to live in the United States when I don’t have to. I am just much more happy when I am in South Asia.

You identify your upbringing very precisely. “I am from a wealthy family; I am from an urban family; I am from a high-caste family; I have been very privileged.” In some ways you have resisted pressure by not delving deeply into setting. But there is also a certain flattening to the biographical detail, and outsiders tend not to understand the social differences within countries. You were not raised in the Vanni; you speak the same language as these people but as you say, your life has forked away from theirs. Within Sri Lanka, you are coming from a very particular position, as you are part of the urban elite in Colombo — a position that may not be understood by those outside Sri Lanka.

For example, there is lot of flooding in the hill country of Sri Lanka, so my friends from New York ask, “Is your family okay?”

I have to tell them, if there’s anybody in my country that going to be fine it’s my family — don’t worry about it. At the same time I hate the school that I went to, I hate the society I grew up in, and I really have a lot of hatred for Colombo. In a way, I am very alienated from the medium in which I was born and raised. Not that I am a product of anything else. I am a product of that but I hate it.

How often are you confronted, outside Sri Lanka, by this perception that all Sri Lankans who are Tamil are the same?

I always make a point when I speak to Americans to explain things. Sometimes I have to say, if I am a Sri Lankan and I am doing a PhD in the United States at an Ivy League institution, it’s because I am really, really privileged. I always make a point to be really clear that I am from a very specific part of Sri Lanka.

I do feel that I have a Tamil politics. But Tamil society is so vast. This is just talking about three million people in Sri Lanka, but then there are the 80 million people in Tamil Nadu, all with so many different ways of understanding their history and their present and their future.

Your novel feels almost as if it emerged whole, in one continuous spurt of thought. At the same time, it engages in very formal questions of thought and consciousness. It also has a certain slow pace — and yet it’s a fast read.

I wanted to just really force myself to dwell on the situation.

I think it would feel less slow if it was about a subject matter that was less disturbing. It is the kind of subject matter that urges you to action, or urges you to find out, or to want to have a response, and it feels especially slow because you aren’t allowed to do that, because you are forced to care.


Lead photo courtesy of trokilinochchi.


V. V. Ganeshananthan is a fiction writer and journalist. She is the author of a novel, Love Marriage (Random House), which is set partly in Sri Lanka.

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