To be a writer is to not create a text that has been written. Rather, it is to be involved in creating a text that demands to be written and doing everything in your power to make that possible. To 34-year-old Senthuran Varatharajah, a Sri Lankan born author, who made waves with his debut novel [...]


Using text to say something that has to be said


To be a writer is to not create a text that has been written. Rather, it is to be involved in creating a text that demands to be written and doing everything in your power to make that possible. To 34-year-old Senthuran Varatharajah, a Sri Lankan born author, who made waves with his debut novel ‘Vor der Zunahme der Zeichen’(“Before the signs increase), writing means losing all the routine that structures a day. It means neglecting the urges and needs of your body and your family, because the text requires all the attention and you’re willing to give it just that, he says.

“Writing is a very lonely thing to do”: Senthuran Varatharajah at the recently concluded FGLF. Pic by Sameera Weerasekera

Senthuran was at the Fairway Galle Literary Festival 2019 and talked to us in this exclusive interview getting comfortable in a rattan chair at the Jetwing Lighthouse. There’d be days, sometimes weeks or months where he’d not write a single word. But then again there would also be days where he’d write for 20 hours straight and forget the usual things like brushing his teeth, he says.

Strangely though, Senthuran never wanted to be a writer, instead pursuing his studies in philosophy and theology. Inspiration struck whilst he was preparing a thesis for his PhD. Senthuran “quite unconventionally” as he puts it, first signed a contract with his German publisher S.Fischer. He then had to learn how to write, whilst writing.

This is when anxiety kicked in. There’d always be the pressure of finishing the book and also the pressure of meeting his own expectations, because Senthuran had always been very strict with himself. His solution was a simple one and that was to travel and escape his office. “I wrote this book in Berlin, Istanbul, London, New York, Toronto and Tokyo,” he says. All of a sudden those places started appearing in the novel. But it wasn’t an intentional process.

“When you’re always on the run from what you have to do, that allowed me to be more conscious of my surroundings. And I believe writing and travelling became a proper aesthetic experience.”His book is entirely a dialogue on Facebook, between two people who’ve never met before. On the surface it’s a dialogue of what it means to have fled your home country and be the child of refugees. But actually it’s a meditation on language and death, because writing to Senthuran has always been more than storytelling. It’s about exploring the possibilities and impossibilities that we’re capable of articulating in a certain language.

His book relies on the concepts of the philosophy of language. This in essence is the background story of the novel. How a civil war, flight and growing up in asylum camps as children of refugees, affect the way we speak, hear and write. “What are we capable of saying? Can we talk of the experiences we have made and the experiences of our parents with the German language, how should we bend the grammar, break the grammar in order to say something that has never been said before?”

The main reason to write his novel in German was that as a son of refugees, he is not only claiming the language but also the space. “It is also claiming the time we’ve spent in this country (Germany) and the suffering my parents went through.” Both Senthuran and his family didn’t move to Germany by choice, but were forced to flee their home in Jaffna during the war when Senthuran was just four months old. “As a kid you wouldn’t be aware of why you were forced to leave your home country, because obviously your parents wouldn’t talk about it. So you’d know the bad things of war, but you wouldn’t question it because of where you are in the moment,” he tells us.

The real conversation happens only as you get older. “We were dark skinned in a white city,” and because of this, you’d have to face many things a kid shouldn’t have to face, he recalls. Senthuran has never trusted the psychoanalytic idea of writing. “If you have experienced horror, no one cares if you have translated that into language. Horror is always unspeakable and you’re always alone with that horror you’ve experienced,” he explains.

Senthuran is not talking about the war in his novel, because he himself had never experienced the war. “We were in a very privileged position to have fled the war.” Rather, he is talking about the diaspora experience and how the war had shaped them, even though they were thousands of miles away from it.
Facebook was the only (atleast back in the day when he started writing the novel) platform that enabled a refugee family to stay in contact. “I’m using this diaspora experience to enable an encounter that wouldn’t have happened in a physical space.” That is one more reason as to why he chose that forum, he explains.

His book went on to win several awards such as 3Sat-Preis, the Kranichsteiner Literaturförderpreis, the Rauriser Literaturpreis, the Alfred-Döblin-Stipendium from the Berlin Academy of Arts, the Arbeits- und Recherchestipendium from the Senate of Berlin, to name a few.

“I didn’t expect anyone to read my book because writing is a very lonely thing to do,” he tells us. He explains it’s akin to a bottle, where you’d write something in it and throw it in the ocean and wait for someone to open it and read it. This is why he was surprised at the way his book was received.Even today he feels like a bystander in it all, because everything seemed like an accident the way it happened.

Asked for his views on post-war reconciliation, he says, firstly, there needs to be an honest conversation where people respect what has happened and the thousands of lives that were lost. “There are still people suffering from that horrible war and there needs to be remembrance, reparation and acceptance of what has happened.”

“I am here as a writer and I’d much rather talk about poetry than politics. But I know that sometimes you have to teach people compassion and that’s a sad thing to do.” The translation of his first novel will be released this year and Senthuran is currently working on his second novel which he says, would take a complete turn from his first book. He is taking things slow with this novel and would only complete it at that moment when inspiration strikes, he adds.


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