In Amanthi Harris’ novel Beautiful Place, the beauty, kindness and joy of a place and its people coexist with violence, cruelty and sorrow. Published in September 2019, the novel is centred around the inhabitants, guests and bystanders at Villa Hibiscus, a house by the sea along Sri Lanka’s south coast. Born in Sri Lanka, Amanthi [...]


A villa, a fictional place and a socio-political commentary on Sri Lanka


In Amanthi Harris’ novel Beautiful Place, the beauty, kindness and joy of a place and its people coexist with violence, cruelty and sorrow. Published in September 2019, the novel is centred around the inhabitants, guests and bystanders at Villa Hibiscus, a house by the sea along Sri Lanka’s south coast.

Born in Sri Lanka, Amanthi grew up in Colombo. She currently lives in the UK and has written and published short stories and a novella. Amanthi also has a Fine Art practice using drawing, painting and 3D and has exhibited in the UK and Spain.

Amanthi Harris: Fond memories of growing up in Wellawatte. Pic by Maxi Kohan

In this email interview with the Sunday Times,  the author discussed her memories while growing up in Sri Lanka, her creative practice, career and more.

  •  Could you share some of your experiences with Sri Lanka? What are childhood memories of Sri Lanka which have stuck over the years?

I grew up in Wellawatte, mostly in my grandparents’ house which was next-door, so close, that the two houses were joined by their kitchens! I have many wonderful memories of that time, mostly a sense of warmth and acceptance and being in nature despite living in the city. During school holidays every morning I would go over the Galle Road with my grandparents to Kinross Beach and my grandfather would jog and my grandmother and I would walk in the sea or draw in the sand with sticks. We all three liked to draw (my grandfather designed houses and my grandmother designed embroidery for a dressmaking business she ran) and we were always politely fighting over any spare paper lying around the house.

  •  Your website mentions that you’ve been a trainee solicitor, an editor of law books and bookseller, “writing and making art along the way”. Has your career path affected your creative practice? And if yes, how?

My career as a lawyer was short-lived, mainly as it was only when I was sitting in an office working on cases all day, that I realised I had trapped myself in a place where I could not think and dream and write– something I had vaguely imagined I would be free to do once I had left University. Finally, after much agonising,I leftthe law firm and worked as a bookseller in a lovely literary second-hand bookshop where my job was to sort the boxes of books that came in and to arrange them on the shelves- which was how I read my way from A to Z, discovering the wonders of Colette, Marguerite Duras, Hemingway, Kawabata, D. H. Lawrence, Katherine Mansfield, Jean Rhys, Virginia Woolf and many others. It was the education I had craved! I wasn’t very business-minded – sometimes I was paid in books – but what marvels I still have to return to!

The whole saga taught me not to be afraid, to believe in things turning out fine when you do what you love, and I’ve had no trouble leaving awful jobs since then, e.g. editing law books. It has also made me very committed to my creative practice and to own it fully. I am still amazed at how easy it is to work really hard at something one truly loves!

  •  How has getting published and being accessible to a wider audience over the years impacted you as a writer?

Beautiful Place has only been out in the world for a few months so it still feels too early to know, although good reviews in the press and having people say that they enjoyed it has been very satisfying – and surprising too, as I’m only now getting used to the book existing outside my head!

Prior to the novel being published, I had short stories in anthologies and broadcast on BBC Radio 4, and when these were received positively it was very reassuring and gave me the confidence to keep working on new pieces.

Winning the Gatehouse Press New Fictions Prize in 2016 with my novella Lantern Evening  made a big impact, as the longer form had enabled me to try a new story structure, and to write about something I really wanted to explore but wasn’t sure if anyone else would be interested in (the ambivalence of new motherhood) so it felt risky and to some extent pointless entering the story into the competition. Winning it was shocking and incredible. It gave me the confidence to follow my instincts with the novel I was working on, which went on to be Beautiful Place.

The story is set in Sri Lanka and references locations in the country, but a lot of the action takes place in a villa close to a fictional beach, Nilwatte.

  •  Could you take us through the process of placemaking in Beautiful Place? Was there a reason you wanted this beach and place to be fictional?

Nilwatte Beach is a made-up beach on the South Coast, and being completely fictional, gave me the freedom to create the exact place that my story needed. The villa was central and I started there, but as the characters’ stories progressed the world of the novel grew outside the gates.

  •  There is a book referenced within the book and there’s a sense that the guidebook excerpts act as a narrative device to provide Sri Lankan history and socio-political context to readers. Were you perhaps conscious of your audience when writing the book?

I have always loved the idea of small specialist pamphlets about a place or topic – something very specific and contained.  As Jarryd’s character developed, the guidebook seemed very much like something he would decide to write one day, so I started it as a separate project and then felt certain extracts might work in the novel. I could imagine the guidebook Jarryd would create so clearly: the type of paper, the font, the cover!

  •  The insider-outsider status of characters like Gerhardt and Jarryd and the locals’ ambivalence to these characters and resulting tensions are interesting. Could we discuss this a bit and how it came to be in the novel?

Both Gerhardt and Jarryd are idealists, full of eagerness for a life of beauty and freedom and passion and they are inspired to strive for it through their love of Sri Lanka. Their great privilege as insider-outsiders – and ones with wealth – is this power to desire and to have, and to be able to create the paradise they yearn for. But change is inevitable, and I was keen to explore how a paradise ends and also how it might be consciously dismantled and abandoned, and how one emerges from it to begin another life.

What’s next on the pipeline?

I am putting together a collection of stories and mulling over ideas for the next novel.


Share This Post


Advertising Rates

Please contact the advertising office on 011 - 2479521 for the advertising rates.