Making history on Sri Lanka's literary landscape | Sunday Observer

Making history on Sri Lanka's literary landscape

25 July, 2021
Kanya D’Almeida
Kanya D’Almeida

On June 30, 2021, Sri Lanka produced its first ever overall Commonwealth Short Story Prize winner, who is incidentally only the second Asian to win this much coveted international literary prize. Kanya D’Almeida thus made history on Sri Lanka's literary landscape with her work of short fiction ‘I Cleaned The –’ which unfolds the voice of Ishwari, a woman from the tea estate worker community, who after serving 20 years at a magnificently affluent household in Colombo, as the human waste cleaning nanny to her employers’ invalid child, is cast aside and made destitute, once her ‘utility value’ comes to an end.

Kanya, who takes a keen interest in women’s issues, hosts a podcast named ‘The Darkest Light’ which focuses on critically analysing the theme of motherhood in Sri Lanka. She holds Master of Fine Arts in Fiction from the Columbia University’s School of the Arts in Massachusetts, USA. Her fiction has appeared in the publications ‘Jaggery’ and ‘The Bangalore Review’.

In this questionary feature, Kanya gives a glimpse of how her prize-winning short story was brought into being, as well as some insights that relate to the characters in her story, and what can be expected from her in days ahead as she continues her journey as a creative writer.

Q : How well acquainted are you personally with the Carmelite Sisters Convent in Borella? How central an element was this particular institution to your conception of how the story of Ishwari should be told?

A: Not well acquainted at all. However, I am very interested in women’s institutions in general, women’s hospitals, homes for elderly women, even women’s prisons, because I am always exploring the ways in which women are hidden away, silenced, or disposed of, especially in their old age.

Q: How long did it take you to write this short story? And how did you plan and structure it? Can you please elaborate on how the creative process developed?

A: It took me almost a year. Since I had just given birth to my son when I started the story, I didn’t have the luxury of a ‘creative process’, I had to sneak moments to write a sentence or two, often at night, while rocking him to sleep (I would write or type on my phone with one hand, holding my baby in the other arm). I also went through a very meticulous editing process. The Commonwealth Short Story Competition has a 5,000-word limit, so I spent many hours cutting out scenes I really loved, or sentences and descriptions that I thought sounded good but were actually superfluous to the story.

Q: Your story creates critical perspectives to rethink the label of ‘motherhood’. What are your personal views on motherhood, viewing it from a point of ‘labour and task’ function?

A: We do not do enough to support mothers in Sri Lanka, particularly when it comes to mental health. Pregnancy, childbirth and early motherhood were some of the most emotionally draining months of my life. I was totally unprepared for the hormonal changes that swept through my body, and for the deep sense of despair I felt during the postpartum period.

I think we need a radical new approach to maternal health in Sri Lanka that places mothers’ emotional and mental health on par with their physical wellbeing. Right now, this notion of ‘motherhood’ is entirely determined by external forces: social norms and expectations. Instead, we need to start asking mothers what they need, and actually listening when they ask for help.

Q: Your short story draws the reader’s attention to women’s issues, but do you as its author see it as a work of feminist literature?

A: I don’t want to put a label on it but I will say this: I would be extremely honoured if someone else read this as a work of feminist literature, even more so if they read it as a piece of Marxist-Feminist literature.

Q: Among the critical tropes found in your story that weave its canvas of social criticism, is perspective on certain aspects of the ‘Christian belief system’. For example, the irreverent way Rita says she tried to cut a deal with God, and how ‘religious decorum’ at chooti baba’s funeral negates Ishwari to a virtual ‘non entity’. How do you view the presence of religion in the lives of the affluent and the downtrodden? Do you believe institutionalised religion actually benefits anybody in any way?

A: I am a follower of Father Michael Rodrigo, the brilliant Sri Lankan liberation theologian who dedicated his life to uplifting an impoverished Buddhist community in the Uva Province.

He was one of the earliest defenders of the environment, a Catholic priest who befriended Buddhist bikkhus and spoke out against the exploitation of the Sinhala Buddhist peasantry, a poet and a religious scholar who turned his back on a prestigious international teaching appointment in favour of founding a centre for interfaith dialog in a rural community.

In exchange for his service to the nation and to his faith, he was shot dead while saying mass in his humble thatch-roof chapel on the Kataragama Road. To this day, the Vatican has done nothing to bring his killers to justice. This is all I have to say on the topic of institutionalised religion.

Q: Looking at Ishwari’s social stratification as of the oppressed ‘labouring classes’ and how empathy is concentrated centrally on her throughout the story, there seems to be a subtle Liberal-Marxist approach in the politics of your story. However, there are also subtle elements that bring perspective to the plight of women of several ‘classes’ through characters such as ‘sister Wilfred’ and also ‘Hyacinth’. In that sense, do you see the character of ‘Lila’, Ishwari’s former mistress, also as a possible ‘victim’ in the larger context of her predicaments?

A: Lila missy represents my worst fears about myself, that I would not have the strength to stand up to the challenges of motherhood. I took a very ruthless approach to this character in the story. I barely gave her a chance to speak, or examined her feelings in any significant way. I don’t think I would call her a victim, but I do believe that women of all classes face their own particular struggles under patriarchy, including those who are wealthy and privileged.

Q: How did you decide on and develop the narrative style and craft for this story? Are there any particular fiction writers whose works you can cite as perhaps having influenced your style when you set out to write this story?

A: From the time I was quite young I’ve been a huge fan of the British author and playwright, Alan Bennett. I had a tape of his monologues which I knew by heart by the time I was 15 years old. These monologues dealt with the lives of seemingly ordinary characters, including older women. As the stories unfolded you realised that these very proper British aunties were delightfully complex characters, with strange sexual fetishes, hidden tragedies, unresolved traumas and grand plans for their future. Bennett has a way of capturing a very specific voice of each character, perhaps because he is also a voice actor. So, when I started writing this story, I thought a lot about those monologues, and I often stopped and read sentences aloud to myself, to try and stay as true as possible to the narrator’s voice.

Q: What are your future plans as a writer? What fiction writing are you currently working on, and when can readers expect to get their hands on your first book?

A: I’m working on a collection of short stories, and a novel. I also have dreams of writing a play about birth in Sri Lanka, forcing my mother and aunts to write their memoirs, and collecting the stories of women in Sri Lanka’s prisons. Since you can’t get your hands on my books yet, please support other Sri Lankan women writers and pick up a copy of ‘Stay, Daughter’ by Yasmin Azad, a beautiful memoir of Muslim girlhood set in the Galle Fort.