Fair and fearless stories | The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

When a friend told Nifraz Rifaz about Shyam Selvadurai’s ‘Write to reconcile’ project, he wasn’t certain he would be able to spare the time – there were the demands of his job in banking and the three degrees he was pursuing simultaneously; also recently engaged, Nifraz now had his wedding to plan. But standing before [...]

Sunday Times 2

Fair and fearless stories

Shyam Selvadurai's 'Write to reconcile' project gives authors 'an equal space' to share their experiences of the war
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When a friend told Nifraz Rifaz about Shyam Selvadurai’s ‘Write to reconcile’ project, he wasn’t certain he would be able to spare the time – there were the demands of his job in banking and the three degrees he was pursuing simultaneously; also recently engaged, Nifraz now had his wedding to plan. But standing before the audience this week at the launch of the ‘Write to reconcile’ anthology, Nifraz was clearly glad he had made the effort.

Some of the authors who participated in the WTR workshop, Pix by M.A Pushpa Kumara

One of the 24 writers featured, he read from his story ‘Homework.’ Speaking with the Sunday Times, the banker who is originally from Galle said that “everything changed” when he was accepted into the programme. It made it possible for him to travel to Jaffna for the first time and convinced him that literature could promote reconcilliation in a truly profound way. “Writing gives an equal space to everyone to share their experiences,” says Nifraz. “In this context I believe the Write to reconcile anthology has given me the perfect space to share my story about the war in a fair and fearless manner with a larger audience.”

The stories in the anthology were produced over the course of two residential creative writing programmes and two online forums. Assisted by Commonwealth Prize winner Nayomi Munaweera, Shyam took the group through every step of the way from creative writing techniques to editing stories. As a group they toured Colombo and Jaffna and spent hours viewing art created around similar themes from other troubled countries. Their own work – spanning the genres of fiction, memoir or poetry – was created around issues of conflict, peace, reconcilliation, trauma and memory, as they related to Sri Lanka in the war and post-war period.

For Pathum Punchihewa, part of the appeal of ‘Write to reconcile’ was the chance to work with one of his favourite authors of all time. “I had a dream to become a published author but I had no idea what I should do or from where I should start,” he says. Never having studied creative writing before, Pathum felt that Shyam’s teaching “reshaped” his creative abilities and helped him and the others reach their full potential. “I personally believe that the talent alone is not enough if you want to become a distinguished writer and WTR workshop bestowed that necessary burnishing.”

Having selected one of two stories they had penned, each writer received feedback from both their mentors as well as the group itself. Lavanya Paramanathan who grew up in a traditional Tamil family in Jaffna seems resigned to receiving mixed reviews of her story. In ‘The Dawn for a Little Girl,’ the young writer set out to explore how war and violence in the world of adults could damage young children and leave families fragmented. She drew on her own experiences of living in the war zone to flesh out her stories. “The harsh experiences and the living conditions of Tamils have not been brought to the limelight in original creative writing in English except through few translations of stories and poems from Tamil,” she says, adding, “I would like to venture into writing more about the problems faced by the people in Jaffna and my participation at ‘Write to reconcile’ was certainly a solid foundation for it.”

Another writer from Jaffna, Canista Arthie Denicius also drew on her experiences of the war and her encounters with survivors to write ‘Undisclosed.’”It’s only by sharing the dark sides of our hearts that we can get rid of our bitter experiences,” she says. “When people don’t get opportunity to express their harsh and haunting memories, the suppressed memories would definitely burst out as grapes of wrath.”

Though their themes were pre-determined, the writers found new and interesting ways to explore them. A student of history, Vasika Udurawane set his story between the late 10th and early 11th centuries and built it around the invasion of Sri Lanka by the Cholas of South India. In it two experienced commanders with very different world views face off. As he pitted their armies and their philosophies against each other, Vasika became convinced the encounter was part of a larger story arc and as a result is now working on a novella. He says the ‘Write to reconcile’ experience has transformed him as a writer: “I think I might have grown a bit more sensitive and emotional during the programme, and now I can put feelings into words instead of just writing about the violent battles I used to enjoy writing about.”

For Shyam, the ‘Write to reconcile’ project has set itself apart from other projects he has undertaken. When asked whether teaching creative writing enhances his own work, Shyam’s response is typically a succinct ‘no’. Now that has changed. “Working on this project and interacting with the participants – hearing their stories at the lunch and dinner tables, listening to their discussions – have broadened my own sense of what it means to be Sri Lankan,” he said at the launch. The sentiment is clearly shared by the group as a whole. “Working with Shyam, Nayomi and other participants was an awe-inspiring experience if you ask me,” says Pathum. “In short, WTR workshop bestowed me the essential advance knowledge in creative writing, a worthy experience, a chance to become a part of a cause, and some beautiful friendships I dearly hold for the rest of my life.”

The ‘Write to reconcile’programme was sponsored by the Royal Norwegian Embassy and The American Centre, while the National Peace Council gave the project a home for its duration. The anthology features stories by Shilohni Sumanthiran, Nikini Jayatunga, Shan Dissanayake, Nushelle de Silva, Amirthanjali Sivapalan, Shailendree Wickrama Adittiya, Shruthi Waduge, Rathika Kalirajah, Nifraz Rifaz, Ayodhya Amarajeewa, Vasika Udurawane, Lavanya Paramanathan, Shalini Abeyasekara, Saambavi Sivaji, Vindya Buthpitiya, Sarmatha Santhirasegaram, Arivarasy Muthulingam, Sonali Wanigabaduge, Pawan Kalugala, Canista Arthie Denicius, Pathum Punchihewa, Vithuja Rajamohan and Elizabeth.

Two thousand copies of the anthology will be mailed out to selected schools and libraries throughout the country. In addition, an e-book will be available for downloading for free at www.writetoreconcile.com. Write to reconcile will take place again in 2014 and will extend its reach to include diasporic voices. Anyone interested in applying to the project can email writetoreconcile@gmail.com and request to be put on the applicant list.

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