Writing for the ‘Lathas’ of her childhood

Ru Freeman, a Sri Lankan now living in the US shares her views on her debut novel, A Disobedient Girl
By Smriti Daniel

Ruvani Freeman first wrote to the President when she was seven or eight years old. The latter’s address to the nation had interfered with her favourite comedy show on T.V and she was vocal about her displeasure. Growing up in a family of writers that included poets Gamini and Malinda Seneviratne, Ru (as she prefers to be known) filled entire journals as a young girl.

As an adult, Ru has made a career out of writing for the papers – except she now grapples with very different subjects, penning pieces on international politics, humanitarian assistance and workers’ rights. When she temporarily abandoned fact for fiction, the result was her debut novel - A Disobedient Girl. Published in July this year by Simon and Schuster, the novel has been well received by critics and has been translated into Dutch, Italian, Chinese, Portuguese and Hebrew.

She first arrived in the U.S in the 1990s with a “Parker ink pen and a box of Staedler pencils,” to study at Bates College in Maine but returned to Sri Lanka for a Masters in Labour Relations at the University of Colombo.

Her creative writing was recognized with several awards, including a Presidential Award for creative writing. Her creative work has appeared or is forthcoming in Guernica, Story Quarterly, Crab Orchard Review, WriteCorner Press, Kaduwa and elsewhere and has been nominated for the Best New American Voices anthologies in 2006 and 2008.

Today, she calls both Sri Lanka and America “home” and says that she “writes about the people and countries underneath her skin.” When she isn’t writing, Ru, apparently an aficionado of ballroom dancing, likes to shake a leg to “old hippie Broadway musicals” like Hair and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. We got in touch with her over are excerpts from the Sunday Times interview with her.

So, congratulations. How does it feel to be a newly published author? You've established yourself as a journalist - but have you also always been interested in writing fiction?

I’ve always written fiction (and some very bad poetry). It was hard to take writing stories seriously when there was a world needing to be saved, elections to be won etc., but I had always written fiction though not in a sustained and diligent a manner as I have been doing in the last six years.

One of your primary characters, Latha, is a servant to another little girl, Thara. There must be many complexities inherent in their friendship?

It is interesting that you say that because to most people who are unfamiliar with the whole business of employing or, as some do, retaining, servants, the exchange would seem to be simply one of service and payment. And yet, as you know, the relationship between a mistress and a servant is very complex. In many ways women from both groups possess the same strengths and the same motivations though they are given a different set of playing cards, and so the relationship is much more emotional and visceral than what would be implied by the surface arrangement.

Thara, like many women I have known, sees Latha not simply as a servant but as a friend and confidante and a sounding board for all her problems. In Latha’s case, she too sees Thara as a friend, someone who shared the experiences that bind children together for instance, in friendship, at an early age. So as they grow up, though their difficulties mount and become increasingly more complicated, there is a thread that binds them together not as mistress and servant but as equals.

You've said that Latha was inspired in part by another Latha you knew when you were young. Could you tell us about her?

Latha did come from the Latha of my childhood. She used to come to play with me when I visited my grandparents’ house in Kurunegala for the holidays. She was my age, had my dark skin, my short hair, my ambitions, but she lived with an enormous extended family in a hut, we lived in my grandmother’s lovely house. She drew water for me to bathe, she brought me my tea. I admired her greatly. I longed to live in her hut, close, with all those people – a kind of warmth that I couldn’t get enough of in my own house, or that’s how I saw it.

And the real Latha did shut a snake into a box – a moment that has always stayed with me. My aunts were screaming, and there was Latha who was just a girl like me, with a snake inside the shoebox.

As a child I used to spend hours wondering about Latha and what she wanted in life – she was an alter ego for me, a way to imagine what I wanted with my life which was so circumscribed by the expectations of my family, with my status, with my obligations. To be Latha was to be free. So this was very much one of those stories that hang on to a writer until it gets told.

I started to think about what life might have been like for her, to see the world from her point of view rather than mine, to imagine what she might really be like if I were privy to her interiority. The Latha of my childhood used to be amazed by the stories I told her about my life in the city.

I remember her being unable to grasp the concept of an ocean, for instance, because the largest bodies of water she had ever seen were the wells in my grandmother’s house. I recently got word that the real Latha had written to my grandmother, asking about my family. She is working in Singapore and, I gather, is not a servant.

In the telling of the tale you've explored the fault lines of class divisions and gender discrimination - did you find yourself slipping into social commentary? As an activist, you've been passionate about supporting humanitarian assistance and workers’ rights. It seems inevitable that that experience would have overflowed into your writing...

I think it is for readers to decide if I have slipped into social commentary instead of sticking with telling a good story! I hope I have not. I made a conscious effort to let the story remain one about these particular characters and their conflicts with and responses to each other. The particular set of conditions which circumscribed their lives had to do with class, but they could just as easily have had to do with political upheaval or robbery or a foreign invasion or anything else.

If a story feels true to me, I think it is when I can feel that the characters could be put in any situation and I have a good sense of what they might do there. Which is very different from a set of characters about whose doings you know external details but nothing of their inner motivations. We’ve all heard those kinds of stories. Someone will say “so and so’s husband ran away with the neighbour’s wife and then she poured boiling oil on his head and he died.” And that is that. It is all about the boiling oil. We don’t know anything, really, about anything, so we might as well have not been told about these three people in the first place!

Servants clearly made a lasting imprint in my psyche. Looking back, almost every essay I ever wrote as a child contained some reference to servants. I grew up being both blessed, as an only-girl in a family of many boys, and cursed, in a family with a lot of drama which made me very quiet inside.

I think therefore I identified with them as being individuals who were, like me, constantly beleaguered by the needs and expectations of others. With this story I wanted to release those thoughts for the Lathas and Bisos of my childhood even if I couldn’t do it for myself.

Even now, in my American life, I seek out connections with custodial staff wherever I go – airports, dorm rooms, campus functions, and so forth. I feel compelled to ask about their lives, to wonder what it is that goes through their minds as they do what they must for reasons that aren’t usually shared. One of my dearest and most lasting friendships here has been with the woman who cleaned my dorm room at my college in Maine to whom I dedicated my honours thesis.

Many of my short stories continue to be about people who are usually silent – people in the service industries, janitors, cooks, waiters, doormen – people who observe (and therefore, in my opinion, know things), rather than speak. So yes, it is part of the activism and part of the writing, but that has to do with what interests me rather than my trying to have some kind of agenda with my fiction!

Would you be willing to extrapolate some of themes you see running through the book?

Class, gender, the way women cleave together even when they seem to be growing apart, the extent to which female friendships are distorted by their association with men, the fact that women will find a way to actualize their femaleness no matter how destitute or deprived they might be. And, of course, the whole notion of motherhood – what makes a good mother, what motivates a woman to be one, is mother a title a woman gets just by virtue of having given birth to children or is it earned through the much more perilous and tumultuous business of sustained mothering?

You've described A Disobedient Girl both as a love letter to Sri Lanka and a gift to America. Is it your hope that your readers will discover an Island very different from the one portrayed on prime time news?

What I want people to discover is that there are human beings who live in the country they hear on the news, and that those people have aspirations and suffer setbacks which may or may not be culturally specific in terms of the details, but whose underlying compulsions are the same as those experienced by people here.

I envision a time when there will be so much literature from South Asia and, particularly, Sri Lanka, being published and promoted in this part of the world that when people read them, the primary awareness will be of similarity not difference.

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