Publishing a book about a highly charged ethnic conflict in which tens of thousands have died is no path to a peaceful life. You only need to look at the racial abuse and filthy language in the comments sections of online sites frequented by Sri Lankans to see how intense the emotions still are.
Like anyone who writes on Sri Lanka I’ve had my share of abuse from both sides. I’ve been told I am covered in the blood of the babies who perished in the killing fields, that I’ve been making money out of the dead, and am a terrorist or “white Tiger” not to mention, a hysterical liar.
But what the public doesn’t see are the private messages from readers around the world. Every few days I receive a message of thanks from a Sri Lankan – mostly Tamils but a few Sinhalese too. Some just wish me a long life, say I will always be in their hearts or bless me. When I meet them at book events there are men and women who envelope me in a bear hug. A few confide that they’ve bought the book but are too scared to read it because they themselves are so traumatised as refugees from earlier phases of the war.
I sometimes pass on the messages to the characters in the book, who are the ones who deserve the credit, not me. They have taken huge risks to speak out, feeling it’s their duty to bear witness to the carnage. Many readers write commending the doctor in Still Counting the Dead for his extraordinary bravery. In Canada a Tamil group gave him a “living hero award” which was the first public recognition of how much he’d contributed, literally saving thousands of lives with no thought for his own. Because the doctor has to remain anonymous for his own safety, the award plaque was hand delivered to me in London so I could post it on to him. Unfortunately it was made of glass, but luckily survived the journey intact.
Last week a grey haired Tamil gentleman came up to tell me how he’d read the book in two days flat, gripped but appalled. “I am a seventy years old man but I cried at several points while reading” he announced proudly. Another man from Melbourne sent me a message on Facebook saying:
“I cried when I read that it wasn’t a palmyrah fruit but a head of an infant child. I was in the train. People were surprised and one kind lady offered me a tissue. It wasn’t embarrassing. The same thing happened too when I read about the dead mom breastfeeding her baby. I wonder how you managed to pull it off without breaking down”.
It’s not just Sri Lankans. Tamils from neighbouring India write to say how ashamed that they didn’t take more notice of what was going on in Sri Lanka. One graduate student in southern India told me he arranged discussions on the book at his university and then organised students to do outreach work. This involved taking the Tamil version of the book into the Sri Lankan refugee camps to show them someone had written about the war. He said, “Once a refugee saw the original work with the map, his face lit up. He began to explain it to his wife the details of the nation; the fertile northern part etc”.
A Tamil in London, himself once a refugee, donated a hundred copies of the Tamil version of the book to libraries throughout the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. He’s now roped in his cousin and friend and they’re sending ninety copies to diplomats at the UN. Others in Canada and the UK tell me they’ve posted the book to government ministers and MPs, urging them to read it.
Three days after Still Counting the Dead was published I encountered a Tamil man after an event in London who went up to the bookseller and in broken English demanded fifty signed copies. Misunderstanding ensued; she thought he wanted them on a sale or return basis and was being rather cheeky. Someone had to intervene in Tamil to straighten things out. Soon the man had whisked out his credit card and carried off the bookseller’s entire stock in his backpack. It turned out he was going door to door selling my book to Tamil households and community centres – not for profit – but as a public service.
Although the English version of the book has been openly on sale in the Sri Lankan capital Colombo, I’m told Tamils in the north are scared to be seen carrying it into Jaffna because their belongings are searched by the army. Nevertheless it has been read there and discussion groups held on it. At the launch in the UK people were buying up five or ten copies to send to their aunt or cousin in Jaffna. Sri Lankans – including some Sinhalese – have come to thank me in person, saying how important it is that someone has told the story of the final phase of the war.
More used to literary fiction, my British publishers have been astonished by the level of engagement. They were open mouthed that tickets for the launch event in London sold out well in advance and two hundred and fifty people packed the hall. Now they are less surprised when I demand a hundred copies of the book at the author’s discount for someone who’s buying in bulk.
Writing and talking about war crimes every day is corrosive and soul destroying and yes it takes it out of you slowly. Of course it’s nothing to experiencing a war first hand. But there are some perks – the warmth of ordinary people. Now in Australia for the Adelaide Book Festival I got chatting to some Sri Lankans after an event and in no time they’d decided to hold an impromptu dinner party for me. The Australian publicist couldn’t believe it. I tried to explain how normal this was but she said it simply never happens to their authors.