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Mourning Sri Lanka

The writer as witness

by Neloufer de Mel, Himal,

The second meaning of ‘witness’ traces its roots to the word superstes, which designates a person who has lived through an event and therefore can bear witness to it. For Agamben, such a person becomes a superstite or supervisor “in every sense”. Here, the role is not one of ‘neutrality’, but of a robust moral questioning to which Sivamohan’s prose also speaks; it also takes risks in doing so, by asking uneasy questions about political identity, nationhood, postcoloniality, race and class.

Like Myth & Mother is a collection of 25 poems, prose, graphics, dialogue and theatre lyrics by Sumathy Sivamohan, set in the context of Sri Lanka’s tragic and protracted armed conflict. Subtitled ‘a political autobiography in poetry and prose’, it offers a provocative insight into the author’s own journey through the dissonance of contemporary Sri Lanka, and a nation entangled in violence, betrayal and mythmaking histories.

Sivamohan, a professor at the University of Peredeniya, noted recently of her book, “It is the prose that brings out the devil in me.” My curiosity aroused by this

Like Myth & Mother
by Sumathy Sivamohan
Sirahununi, 2008

instruction, I began to read Like Myth and Mother primarily through its prose. It is multifaceted: protean in how it changes shape and mood, at times becoming prose poems, as in the accompaniment to the centrepiece poem of the book entitled “Love in the Time of the City”. The prose places the poems in the volume within contexts of time, place and events. It carries political commentary, self-reflexive asides on Sivamohan’s own experiences of exile, loss, colour, caste and gender, and satirical barbs that spare neither the politician nor the intellectual, the peace activist nor the assassin. The prose in Like Myth & Mother is also where Sivamohan contemplates the work of writing itself, through a series of questions and musings on glossing, citation and censorship; on writing as purgation; and writing as a force that both bridges and breaks bonds of friendship.

The devil in the prose should come as no surprise for those familiar with Sivamohan’s past work, such as Thin Veils, which won the Gratiaen Award for the best Sri Lankan creative writing in English in 2001. Writing in both English and Tamil (though everything in this new volume is in English) she has, over the years, been robustly engaged with, and burdened by, the violence of the war around her. She is sibling to both Rajani Thiranagama, the human-rights activist assassinated by the LTTE in 1989, and Nirmala Nithyanandan, who once belonged to the LTTE but turned her back on its violence and now pays the price of exile. Sivamohan was close friends with the Tamil-language poets Selvi and Sivaramani, who both met untimely deaths during the course of the island’s ethnic conflict, and with others who have been detained, tortured, ‘disappeared’ – many of whom are specifically named in Like Myth & Mother. Sivamohan writes, “from then on … I began to write poems, insistently and urgently, again for no reason whatsoever. all or most of these poems were about death – death not carefully prepared for by a process of painful ageing – but as sudden, violent, blood-gushing acts; death that is always, always about the nation. I wish I did not write about death.”

This longing for another, less cruel narrative of the nation marks Sivamohan’s grief and mourning over her country, punctured by violent deaths that have become a certainty in Sri Lankan lives, what she calls “a regular event”, a “myth making certainty” from which there is no escape. A covenant emerges here between this “inescapable” violence and the writer who chooses to mourn, bear witness, and seek meaning to the violence through writing. But this is not without personal risk. It involves risk to write of names, dates, places, modes of execution at a time of heightened militarisation, censorship and polarisation. It also involves another kind of risk that comes from agreeing to the work of mourning itself. For mourning inherently requires acknowledgement of one’s own vulnerability to one’s surroundings.

All 25 poems in Like Myth & Mother, as well as its prose, respond to this call and speak to the anger, loss and loneliness of the narrative subject caught in a time of war, betrayal and anomie. However, the work of mourning in Like Myth & Mother is best captured not only in its elegies and odes to death. It is keenly present in the relationality of the prose to the poems. For the poems and the prose do not stand simply as a hierarchy of the poetic over the prosaic, the creative text over supplementary annotation. The prose in this volume is evidentiary: witness to violence, the historical record, conflict, peace talks, suicide bombings, ethnic cleansing and disappearances that are documented with names, dates, places and statistics.

It is witness in both senses that Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben noted during his discussion of the etymology of the word ‘witness’ in Remnants from Auschwitz (Zone Books, 2002). The first meaning derives from the Latin word testis, from which ‘testimony’ appears, signifying a person who, in a trial between two parties, occupies a third position. Sivamohan’s prose, in its evidentiary commentary on all perpetrators of political violence in Sri Lanka, occupies such a median ground. The second meaning of ‘witness’ traces its roots to the word superstes, which designates a person who has lived through an event and therefore can bear witness to it. For Agamben, such a person becomes a superstite or supervisor “in every sense”. Here, the role is not one of ‘neutrality’, but of a robust moral questioning to which Sivamohan’s prose also speaks; it also takes risks in doing so, by asking uneasy questions about political identity, nationhood, postcoloniality, race and class.

Political grief
The poems, meanwhile, chart the effects of all of this, primarily on the individual but also on family and community. If the devil is in her prose due to its work as public testimony, Sivamohan’s poems give entry to a private, individual space. However, the poems are no less public or devoid of evidentiary promise because of this. Rather, they complement the prose because they too search for meaning to the violence, and articulate loss and vulnerability. As the American philosopher Judith Butler noted in her book Precarious Life: The powers of mourning and violence, such vulnerability follows from our being socially constituted bodies, attached to others, at risk of losing those attachments, exposed to others, at risk of violence by virtue of that exposure. It is precisely because of this dependency on others that Butler recommends that we look at grief and mourning not as privatising, solitary and, therefore, de-politicising experiences (a view that is commonly held), but rather as sources from which a complex political community can emerge.

It is indeed possible to read Sivamohan’s poems in Like Myth & Mother as private experiences in which only the memory of loved ones, or the presence of the lover, can vitiate despair. To interpret the poems this way is to draw on their bleakness and note a regularity, a sameness in their denial of a larger politics of hope. However, we can also read them alert to the relational framework they offer, of the vulnerable and haunted individual to her surroundings. The relationality marked earlier, between the prose as testimony and the poetry as effect, parallels that of the poetic narrator and those parties addressed in the poems: the ‘you’, ‘we’, the armed groups, the nation, the homeland. It is a relationality that says something “fundamental about the social conditions of our very formation”, and haunts us with a demand for ethicality based on the dependency and inseparability of the individual from the ‘Other’, whose trace remains within her.

This point is well illustrated by the poem “love in the time of the city”, with its reference to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s celebration of love in choleric times. The poem is an ode to Colombo. Sivamohan writes about its pensive Avurudhu (New Year) holiday mood, its globalised living, its enemies within and its menace. She personifies it as both lover and demon. What this testifies to is the poet’s entanglement with the city. Why else would she ask “O, Colombo, what ode can I sing to you?” This is not a poet who distances herself from the city but is transfixed enough to admit to its powerful traces within her. A political autobiography emerges, and Sivamohan’s recognition of the inescapable web in which she is caught is also the source of her grief, dependency, creativity and ethicality to which she gestures in her very first poem entitled “beginnings”:

when life begins
so does language,
poetry, and ah, politics,
the final resting place
of love, in war and in peace.

Here, the political signals the great potential, if not culmination, of love, language and life. If, because of its anger and despair, Like Myth & Mother announces that we are yet to summon up a vision of a just peace in Sri Lanka, that we are still within a season of anomy in which the poet’s

…words lie
ill formed, mis
like a body
on the edge of life;
bowing in silent
to the murderous
truth of the assassin’s
fire, unceasing
in our ceasefire days

then the urgent longing in Like Myth & Mother is understandable: it calls for new meanings of nation and homeland. But as we wait for, and struggle to find this new language, Sivamohan’s poems also provide an assured craft, playfulness, whimsicality and citational play, evoking Shakespeare, Brecht, Yeats, Eugene O’Neill, T S Eliot.

Like Myth & Mother provides the reader with a compendium of Sivamohan’s work. As a self-announced ‘political autobiography in poetry and prose’, the volume necessarily captures where the writer can be currently found in her relationality to others, the nation and the homeland. And, if we cannot fully know and anticipate her future destinations, or the shifts and changes in her relations in advance, because the work of mourning is not predetermined but open-ended, we must look forward to many more of her works. These will again tell us where she – and we, the nation and homeland, always entangled – can be found.


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