by Groundviews, Colombo, June 4, 2023
In Himali McInnes’ story, Kilinochchi, which is short listed to win the Commonwealth Short Story Prize for 2023, the protagonist is Nisha, a Tamil tea plucker with a turbulent past who moves to New Zealand with her white husband. Her only son AJ, whose father is Sinhalese, goes back to fight in the civil war. Nisha returns to Sri Lanka to find him.
“Nothing is ever simple, nothing is ever straightforward – except a mother’s unwavering desire to find her child. Crossing continents, moving through cultural collisions, and chaotic inner and outer journeys of human trauma and resilience, ‘Kilinochi’ moves between New Zealand and Sri Lanka, Tamil and Sinhala, the living who repel, and the dead who guide. An unforgettable story that explores family loyalty, gender, class and social inequity, war, life in diaspora, and our fundamental need to belong. We discover that what can never be stolen, destroyed or lost, is love,” according to Dr. Selina Tusitala Marsh, a judge for the competition.
In 2021, Kanya d’Almeida became the first Sri Lankan to win the prize. The 2023 winner will be announced on June 27.
Himali McInnes works as a family doctor in an Auckland practice and in the prison system. She is a gardener, a chicken farmer and a beekeeper. Himali writes short stories, essays and poetry and has been published in various journals and anthologies. Her non-fiction book The Unexpected Patient was published in 2021.
Himali answers questions from Groundviews about her ties with Sri Lanka, her writing and fitting in.
What your childhood like in Sri Lanka and how you end up in New Zealand?
I was born in Sri Lanka and the photos from my one year birthday party show my mum and aunties with miniskirts and kohl-rimmed eyes, my dad and uncles in suits, a band playing. My family left to live in Malaysia shortly after because my father, who is an accountant, got a job as a lecturer. I attended English medium schools. We went back to Sri Lanka when I was eight and built a house in Dehiwela to live in. My grandmother, who was a teacher, taught me Sinhalese and how to make paper flowers. I went to Holy Family Convent for a year and a half, where the English teacher didn’t like me because I already knew all the things she was trying to teach. The civil war was heating up at that time, so we never got to live in our Dehiwela house. We left again and went to Papua New Guinea. We came to New Zealand when I was 15. Right through my childhood, we visited Sri Lanka often and I always wanted to live there when I grew up. When I was around 11 or 13, I saw the burning body of a man on the street outside my grandparents’ house, a tyre around his neck. It affected me hugely and after that I didn’t want to be Sri Lankan for a long time.
Was the transition difficult?
At first I found New Zealand to be empty of people since I was used to streets thronged with people in Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea but now I’m used to it. The last two years of high school in New Zealand were hard, but medical school was great! Lots of fun classmates. I’ve lived most of my life in New Zealand now, but I still don’t fully feel like a New Zealander because people still ask me where I am from.
Being a doctor with a busy life, how did you become a writer?
I’ve always loved words and reading. I also always wanted to write a book. Being a doctor was really busy and very tiring. I’d get home after a full day of talking with patients and my mind was incapable of being creative. Depleted, zapped. In 2019 I started to work part time, which gave me more time to write. Having mornings off and working in the afternoon was particularly useful, as I am a morning person. That’s when my mind is most active, and can pop with new and interesting ideas. However, I also sometimes write at night, after work, and it’s interesting the places my mind goes when I am tired, and writing through half-closed eyes. I love how low tech writing is – all you need is a pen and a notebook or your fingers and a laptop and you can create an entire world. I also love that being a writer makes you live in the moment. It makes you notice little details, like the colour of the estuary on a sunny day or the way a sheep’s wool parts down the middle in drenching rain. Living in the moment is good for our souls – just ask any dog you know!
How can you view this story in relation to our colonial legacy especially in regard to estate sector workers?
The story of the tea estate workers is simply a human story of hardship, inequity and suffering. I don’t see their story as primarily a colonial legacy because then it is too easy to blame the British when actually Sri Lanka has been an independent country since 1948. Sri Lanka has suffered through decades of civil war and now there’s economic hardship. I hope people like the tea workers, who don’t really have a loud voice in the public arena, don’t get forgotten. We all need a chance to flourish, to be the best person we were created to be and often we need help from the people around us to do so.
What sort of work did you do during the last stages of the war?
I worked with the World Health Organization as a public health doctor for two years. We visited internally displaced people in camps in the north and east and helped monitor and assess sanitation, vaccination rates, safety of women and children and water supplies. I saw a stark contrast between the awful realities of war and what the news in Colombo portrayed.
How did it influence your story?
Quite a lot. A lot of the details from the latter parts of the story are taken directly from my time working in the north and east. I heard lots of stories of families with missing loved ones. I feel like there has been a lot of loss in Sri Lanka and that it must be hard for those who have lost loved ones to truly move on. Grief can be a life-long thing that ebbs and flows and at times can be overwhelming.
Do you have any hope for true peace and reconciliation in Sri Lanka and what are the steps that must be taken to achieve this?
Many years ago, a Catholic priest in Auckland tried to organise reconciliation conversations between Sri Lankans of Tamil and Sinhala descent. It was a good idea but unfortunately feelings on both sides were too raw and the meetings descended into shouting matches and were abandoned. Peace and reconciliation does need public discourse with a trained and savvy mediator. People from all sides need to be able to tell their stories and then come to a common understanding of the way forward. There probably also needs to be a public acknowledgment from the government about the way Tamil civilians were treated, especially in the last stages of the war when thousands were killed as collateral damage.
Both AJ and Nisha don’t feel at home in either country. Do you think that in between feeling goes away after the first generation or does it usually stay for longer?
I think it depends on the person and on the country. When I worked in the UK as a paediatric doctor for two years, I felt way more at home than I did in New Zealand simply because Asians are an accepted part of the social fabric there. Nobody asked me where I was from! I feel at home in my own house in Auckland and in my circles of friends, but in the wider community I think I am still regarded as being somewhat foreign. The things that are in the public eye – media, advertisements, newsreaders, politicians – once these things or people start to reflect diversity well, then people who look like me become more normative and start to be seen as real Kiwis. It is possible to be a fifth-generation New Zealander of Chinese ethnicity, as some of my friends are, and still be asked where they are from.
When there’s a cricket match between New Zealand and Sri Lanka who do you cheer for?
I don’t watch cricket these days. My dad always supports Sri Lanka when they play against New Zealand, but he supports New Zealand when they play against other countries. I think my loyalties might be equally divided!