ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday June 01, 2008
Vol. 42 - No 53

Where nothing is easy to pin down

By Smriti Daniel

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

‘like myth and mother’ is not an easy read, but then it was never intended to be. Shortlisted for the Gratiaen Prize, Sumathy Sivamohan’s ‘political autobiography in poetry and prose’, is a staggering work. It is a book that both challenges and incites, and that in the end demands your complete participation as a reader. As Suvendrini Perera of the Curtin University of Technology notes in her preface, “this volume is like no other in Lankan English poetry or prose. It is devastatingly playful, strenuously intelligent, deconstructive, passionate, utterly assured.”

That it is all these things, even as it explores and entangles itself with the fraught and often painful subjects of war, alienation, torture, death, despair, is in itself no small achievement. And though these are far from distant events, even though these are things that have happened to friends, and family, and to Sumathy herself, she never seems to falter. In poems like ‘to kugamoorthy’ and ‘to the memory of the three-wheeler driver purportedly shot dead by the LTTE for being familiar with the police’ she takes unerring aim, leaving the reader grieving, yet somehow accountable, both victim and agent.

Sumathy Sivamohan

Divided into sections, variously titled ‘beginnings’, ‘home/lands’, ‘love in the time of the city’, ‘wanted (tamil) woman’ and ‘departures’, the volume serves as a “partial autobiography,” bringing together pieces written over nearly two decades. Her poems are poems of love, and longing, littered with the tragic debris of a long war. By turns playful or grim, tender, or despairing, they are always unrelenting in their determination to bear witness. For Sumathy herself the poems in ‘like myth and mother’ are individual poems, but that she has always seen them collectively, “as a set, as belonging to one thing.”

Speaking at the launch, Prof. Neloufer de Mel from the Dept. of English, University of Colombo, observed, “Sumathy’s poems can be read as very individualized, private experiences in which only the memory of loved ones, or the presence of the lover can vitiate despair. To read the poems this way is to draw on their bleakness and note a regularity, a sameness in their denial of a politics of hope.” However, she went on to add, “But we can also read the poems alert to the relational frame they posit of the vulnerable and haunted individual to her surroundings, the city, the nation, the homeland.”

It is while choosing the latter, that Sumathy’s prose comes to the fore. The poet herself says the prose that appears alongside the poetry is “about the terrain, about that land and about what’s happening around the poem.” It does, however, retain its own independence, moving beyond its expected role as a provider of pure context for the poems. Together poetry and prose combine to offer a multiplicity of meanings, an experience that is distinctly non-linear.

Nothing is easy to pin down or pigeonhole in this volume, least of all the poet herself. Through the intensely personal experience that is ‘like myth and mother’ Sumathy is intensely present, yet ever elusive, and the ‘I’ in these poems is constantly evolving. ‘like myth and mother’ traverses time and space, even going back far enough to offer glimpses of the author as a child, recalling the moment when language came to her, in a faltering speech, in signs, birth pangs of a multitude in motion, in myth making magic, holding out meaning in her hand.

Sumathy’s memories of this childhood are a collage of memories made up of many hours spent reading, hidden away from friends at the back of her house; of walking barefoot to the Christian private school near Jaffna which she attended, and in which her father taught; of singing Tamil hymns, her mother accompanying the choir on her violin, and of her three sisters, two of whom, both ardent critics of the LTTE, she would lose to the conflict.

Later, as a young student studying English, History and Philosophy at Peradeniya University, Sumathy remembers the political situation getting increasingly tense. Recalling the ’83 riots, she says, “it wasn’t easy for me….when things like that happen you just react to them, you wonder, ‘What am I going to do? Where am I going to go?’ She was then married, and she chose to join her husband for a brief spell in Sweden. Her son Vallu would be born a year later, in 1984.

When she returned from Sweden in 1988, unable to see a future for herself there, she taught briefly at Jaffna University before she took up a teaching post at Peradeniya University, where she has spent the past 18 years and is currently a Senior Lecturer in English. ‘like myth and mother’ reflects not only her personal experience of the war in this country, but to a great extent her long immersion in literature. Her poetry is rife with references to the likes of Shakespeare, T.S. Eliot, William Blake, Bertolt Brecht and W.B. Yeats.

Despite a self professed passion for English theory, Sumathy declares herself “disillusioned with academic writing,” and has in the last decade increasingly devoted herself to other mediums. Not only has she been writing a lot of poetry and creative prose, (she received the 2001 Gratiaen Award (Co-winner) for ‘Thin Veils: In the Shadow of the Gun and The Wicked Witch’) she has also continued her exploration of film (Oranges and PIRALAYAM among others) and theatre (notably in Mounathin Nillalil, and Nagamandala(m)). With the former she has been film maker, script writer and director, and in the latter actress, playwright and director.

Reflecting on the interweaving of her three interests, she says, “I am not a film maker of any stature,” but as in her poetry, her attempt is always to ensure that “the images and the sequences exude multiple meanings, that they resonate.” As in her poetry, her films too reveal her great love for the land and its people, juxtaposed with a profound sense of alienation from them. Always intensely political, Sumathy’s work is firmly rooted within a consciousness of race, class and gender, but it is her gift as a poet that her work transcends her personal experience and speaks instead in the voice of an entire people, and that, as Suvendrini Perera puts it, she “has produced a book to celebrate in a grim time.”

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