With each new edition of Write to Reconcile, Shyam Selvadurai becomes more ambitious for his writers, more determined to support stories that hold up a mirror to Sri Lanka as it is now. The free creative writing programme which he runs has already produced two anthologies and it kicks off its new year with an [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Write to Reconcile opens up to broader participation

This year’s programme hopes to include narratives from “border villages”, the diaspora and the LTTE, says founder Shyam Selvadurai

Insightful sessions: Participants with Shyam Selvadurai

With each new edition of Write to Reconcile, Shyam Selvadurai becomes more ambitious for his writers, more determined to support stories that hold up a mirror to Sri Lanka as it is now. The free creative writing programme which he runs has already produced two anthologies and it kicks off its new year with an emphasis on post-war themes and greater diaspora involvement. Beginning March 29, interested writers are encouraged to apply for the programme. Only 25 slots are available.

For his part, Selvadurai is getting ready to welcome the new recruits. He tells the Sunday Times that the Write to Reconcile team just returned from a trip to Anuradhapura where the team scoped out locations for their residential workshop. “It was such an eye opener to talk to the border villagers and people in the Vanni,” says the author. Selvadurai acknowledges that stories from both those communities were in short supply in previous anthologies, along with the experiences of the diaspora and the LTTE. He hopes to fill those gaps this year.

“The aim of the three anthologies together is to give a composite and complex view of the war and the post-war situation,” he says. To enable participation from the diaspora, the programme rules have been amended so that attendance at the residential workshop is not compulsory for those based abroad. Selvadurai is excited to see what effect these structural changes and thematic emphasis will have on the work itself.

Emerging writers from Sri Lanka and the Sri Lankan diaspora, between the ages of 18 to 29, as well as Sri Lankan teachers and professors, who are interested in writing fiction, memoir or poetry on the issues of conflict, peace, reconciliation, memory and trauma are eligible. Those selected will be invited to participate in a week-long residential workshop (optional for members of the diaspora) and two 3-week online forums. The work produced by the participants will be published in the Write to Reconcile Anthology 3 and distributed free island-wide, as well as made available internationally through an online version. The entire programme is free of charge, with all expenses of the participants being met bythe organization.

Writers who participated in previous years says the programme was deeply rewarding. Nalini Sivathasan (27) a London-based, video journalist at the Financial Times, says before Write to Reconcile, she wrote primarily fiction for her own pleasure. She recommends the programme for its help in honing her writing skills, improving her confidence, and for the chance to engage extensively with the diverse and inspiring group of other young writers. “It was amazing listening to their stories and learning about their culture, religion, life in Sri Lanka, especially as I do not have much exposure to Sinhala/Muslim/ Burgher culture or the (Sinhala) language in London,” she told the Sunday Times in an email.

Luxika Nagendiran (25), a bi-lingual student of English literature at the University of Jaffna, says she learned how to express herself better in English, her second language. “I was able to improve my writing skill and think creatively on a given topic over the course of participating in the project,” she says noting that the editorial process taught her how to avoid clichés and digressions while constructing her narrative. Pakeerathy Patkunanathan (34), also based in Jaffna, is a teacher. Write to Reconcile is “a platform for the people who have thirst of writing,” she says frankly. She was inspired by the team, and says that meeting with local activists, politicians, volunteers and social workers as part of the programme broadened her world view and inspired better writing.

Nimalan Thavandiran (28) currently a PhD student in stem cell and bio-engineering at the University of Toronto, says “the combination of receiving insightful lessons from Shyam’s in-depth workshops and seeing Sri Lanka and those affected by the war first-hand makes this programme unique. This experience has been one of the most influential I have ever had.

Thavandiran appreciated the “safe space” the programme provided for an open discussion. The editorial process which included peer reviews and one-on-one sessions with Selvadurai were invaluable to the young author. “The work only begins after the first draft is complete. I learned the most from the back and forth churning process that took place, and it was amazing to see the story evolve from a rough idea, to a finished story that I was not just satisfied with, but excited to publish.”

Selvadurai knows what he is looking for in potential participants: “a talent for story-telling, character portrayal and the intelligence behind the writing that illuminates the work.” Language skills are not everything: “In fact, in the past, I have rejected applicants from Colombo schools because though their English is flawless, the work is insipid. Whereas someone coming from a rural school might have a real verve to their work, even though their English might not be great. I always take them.”

Shyam is certain that his choice of co-teacher, Commonwealth Prize winning writer Nayomi Munaweera, will only contribute to an open and supportive learning environment. In a brief interview with the Sunday Times, Munaweera spoke of the key role writing could play in reconciliation. “There’s a new vein of research that shows that writing literally helps heal trauma. For example, in one study, people who wrote about traumatic car accidents were shown to heal more quickly emotionally and physically than the control groups which did not. There is something in the act of writing which I believe is healing.”

While she emphasises the importance of knowing the truth and genuine engagement with Sri Lanka’s troubled past, she says the country also seems ready to move forward. “I think we are getting ready to say we are so much more than the sum of our war wounds. I look forward to seeing what Sri Lanka looks like in the future.”

Write to Reconcile is funded by the American Center. This is the third year the American Center has been a sponsor of the programme.“The U.S. Embassy strongly supports important initiatives like Write to Reconcile to open the dialogue on reconciliation and bridge the experiences of different communities in Sri Lanka,” said Nicole Chulick, Public Affairs Counselor at the U.S. Embassy. For the third year as well, the project enjoys a fruitful relationship with the National Peace Council, under whose auspices the Project is undertaken. Speaking of the ongoing partnership, the Council’s Executive Director, Dr. Jehan Perera, said “The two anthologies our partnership has produced are very well received by those who wish to gain a deeper insight into Sri Lanka’s transitional process.”

The call for applications goes out on March 29th. Anyone interested in participating can join the Project’s Facebook page or send an email to writetoreconcile@gmail.com and ask to be put on the mailing list to receive an application. Applications can also be downloaded at www.writetoreconcile.com. The previous anthologies are also available on the site.

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