Literary journey of destruction and hope
What day is more apt to talk about the tsunami tragedy and its aftermath, than December 26 itself? Boxing Day for me this year began with a reflective chat with two gifted individuals, talking about their creation - a collection of short stories on the tsunami.
Speaking to them exactly three years after the terrible tragedy that had a devastating impact on our island, I was taken on a literary journey by Simon Harris and Neluka Silva, on how their work of art took shape. The Rolled Back Beach essentially strikes a balance between fact and fiction based on the human aspect of the effects of the tsunami.
A collection of stories from the tsunami, in the book, the two writers intertwine their interpretation of the repercussions of the disaster, as well as the human capacity to hope, in time of grief.“This collection was not planned by any means. Maybe around two years ago, I began writing a number of short stories based on the tsunami, and little did I realise that Neluka too had been doing the same,” explained Simon.
“So there was no collaboration at all, or any sort of input as such into each other’s work. By the end of it, we had 13 short stories between the two of us. But since thirteen is a bit of an unlucky number, Simon was convinced to write one more, so the collection has fourteen in total!” said Neluka.
“Once we had the manuscript ready, we met with Shan Rajaguru, who had a look at it and was instantly taken up by it, agreeing to publish it,” said Neluka, explaining how they got the process rolling. The husband and wife duo, well established professionals in their own right, decided to merge their work, with the outcome being a sensitive, yet critical observation of the effects of the tsunami.
While Simon has worked with a number of international humanitarian organisations, heading Oxfam and Christian Aid and currently attached to the Red Cross, he was educated at the Universities of Bradford and Oxford. He is currently pursuing part-time doctoral studies at the Irish School of Ecumenics, Trinity College, Dublin.
A well-known figure among literary academics, Neluka needs no introduction, being the head of the English Department of the University of Colombo. Having a Ph.D in Post Colonial Literature, she also holds an M.A. in Linguistics, while being actively involved with drama workshops for children.
The sequence of short stories is alternated between Simon and Neluka, giving the reader an even-more interesting experience, never for a moment becoming monotonous. “Our styles are so different that it will be interesting to be taken on this alternating journey. Switching between styles in this manner is effective, as it gives twin perspectives to one single experience, while also consisting of opposite gender perspectives. Neluka’s style of writing is more a story-telling one, and more naturalistic, and concise,” said Simon. “His is more poetic, and he pays more attention to ensure that the words fit each other. It also has more humour,” says Neluka.
In terms of plot, The Rolled Back Beach deals with individual experiences of the tsunami – with most of them being fiction, with the exception of one, which revolves around Olantha Ambrose, the much-loved violin teacher who was a victim of the tsunami. “This particular short story titled It’s a Small World, After All, is rooted on faction, and talks about this wonderful teacher. I narrate how our daughter Nimaya started violin lessons with Olantha at the age of six, and how she inspired her, and finally how she played at her funeral.
It’s a Small World After All was her theme song, with the kids performing it at the end of every concert so I thought it would be apt to use it as a title,” said Neluka.Interestingly, four of the short stories in the collection are set in England. “This shows that the impact of a disaster of this magnitude affects people, beyond territorial boundaries. Also, besides losing family members and personal property to the tsunami, there are huge psychological aspects that affect people as well,” said Simon. The collection deals with various tsunami-related scenarios and incidents, such as the huge humanitarian effort that followed, with Simon’s short story Comic Relief giving a critical outlook on the disaster relief phenomenon.
According to them both, it was quite tough writing about the tsunami, while some time away from the topic is needed, to reflect on it. “Being involved with literature, I was very conscious about how I should fictionalise a topic such as this. The collection is a mix of both the destruction it caused, as well as the possibility of hope and something good, brought out in the aftermath of the tsunami,” said Neluka. Though the book was published last week, the official launch is scheduled for early January, so that all who supported them in their endeavour, could be a part of it.
“Gill Westaway, the Director of the British Council was extremely supportive, giving us her candid feedback, and it was with her endorsement that the book came out. Ernest MacIntyre and Prof. Ashley Halpe, were two other key figures who gave us their valuable advice and constructive criticism, which helped us immensely,” she added.