“Identity is never a one dimensional thing,” says author Romesh Gunasekera, neatly sidestepping my question about whether he sees himself as a British or a Sri Lankan writer. His novels and short stories are set in both places and he clearly relishes the ability to move between worlds without being pigeonholed himself.What I'd have added if the word-limit was unlimited and my editor had put up with self-indulgent meanderings:
His first novel Reef, a lyrical story about memory and imagination, put Gunasekera firmly on the international literary map. The novel was nominated for the 1994 Booker prize, and whilst he says it was wonderful to be shortlisted, he claims that it was “kind of ideal not to have won it because the one or two first time writers who did win it with the first book tended not to have written after that.”
At under 200 pages, Reef is an unusually short novel in an age where fiction writers seem obliged to turn out complex and lengthy tomes. Says Gunasekera with characteristic humility “I didn’t think I had the right to demand someone read a long novel by a writer they didn’t know.”
It is impossible of course to write about Sri Lanka without reference to the atrocities which have been part of its recent troubled history. I ask him whether he felt he had a duty as a writer to make sense of the violence.
“I’m not writing to an agenda, but writing stories that interest me,” he says. “But I also have to write to understand the world I live in and the fact that the world is getting more violent.”
In his earlier works that violence tends to occur outside of the frame of the story, but with its effect and reverberations being felt by the characters in the foreground. It’s his third novel Heaven’s Edge, set in a dystopian fictional country, which deals with the subject more directly. It “explores the whole idea of violence, how it comes into our lives and how man has to come to terms with it.”
Gunasekera says he always has ideas for the next novel are germinating even as he writes current one. “I already know the books I intend to write if I live long enough”, he says. But he finds it hard to talk about the process that he goes through when writing fiction because it’s been different for each book.
“One thing I’ve learned is I don’t know how to do it. I do know roughly how long it’ll take me which is longer than I think. I have a rough idea of how much of my life will go into it. Otherwise when you start any book you are always a novice.
“If you write the kind of books I tend to write which don’t conform to a genre, you start with nothing and you have to invent the way to do it each time. People always talk about giving birth to novels, and I think that there is a similarity. Afterwards you tend to forget what’s involved, how difficult, frustrating and painful it is.”
It’s vitally important for him that the book feels alive for his readers and totally engages them. The key to making this happen is a great deal of revision.
“Unless you are making a Jackson Pollock which is fine in terms of self-expression, creating different worlds does involve rewriting. I’d happily continue rewriting for many more years except that some time it must come to an end.”
Gunasekera’s first book Monkfish Moon established his credentials as a writer of short fiction at a time when it was relatively rare for writers to bring out a collection as a first book, and although he says that he would love to bring out another, it not be commercially viable.
Indeed, the short story has been declared so seriously endangered in Britain that a campaign to save it from extinction has been instigated. But Gunasekera sees the tide beginning to turn with the awarding of an annual short story prize, and with the growth of e-zines and the increasing popularity of the short-short story. He firmly believes the short story is still the best form for the beginning writer to tackle.
I tell him that I read that he’d once warned that fiction can be dangerous because it “opens up things that probably shouldn’t be opened up” and ask him what he meant by that. It’s a theme he warms to.
“Literature should be subversive. When you read a book, you become the story. You can imagine it exactly how you like and no-one can tell you you’re right or wrong. External authority has no place - and this is why in a repressive regime fiction is banned and fiction writers are persecuted.”
And probably the most powerful argument for our need to read good books!
Romesh (in my blog we're on first name terms!) writes about a character who lives between countries and between cultures, and who adopts a home for himself and puts down roots.
I can identify with the sense of dislocation that Sunny experiences, since I'm someone who has moved from one part of the globe to another (UK to here, and a couple of years in Africa in between.) You don't quite belong, either in the place you came from originally - although it represents your roots, and you don't quite belong in your adopted country. You constantly struggle to define who you are.
I know many Malaysians who feel like this. Their roots are in India, China, Indonesia, Pakistan. Their work or student days have taken them overseas, often to Western countries. Some of them emigrate to other countries for a spell or for good, looking for better lives for themselves.
These children of a wider world some unkindly call "bananas" (yellow outside, white inside) when they come home. But skin colour has nothing to do with the colour of the inner self. (If they are bananas, I'm a cheese-sandwich.)
We also absorb cultures through the books we read, the films we watch, the places we travel in our heads. And we decide to deliberately adopt cultures ... and one way of doing this is our choice of sports teams (which neatly brings us back to one of the main themes of the book!)
As Romesh said to me in the earlier interview: "I don't understand what people mean by culture." The more you think about it, the more slippery the concept gets, and the more meaningless terms like "nationality" and "patriotism" become.
I like this slipperiness. I like moving between cultures. But sometimes it can feel lonely too. (What say you?) Romesh captures this feeling so well in the book.
Romesh refuses to call himself a British or a Sri Lankan writer. The first time I interviewed him I was a bit miffed that he was being so unpindownable. After reading The Match, I fully understand.
What else? One thing that struck me reading the book is that Sunny is just so bloody ... ordinary! Heck, my life is more interesting than Sunny's (and that's not saying a lot)! There are times when I want to shake him up and shout in his ear to get a grip on his life, especially when his marriage begins to go down the tubes and he starts to slide into alchoholism. But how well I understand the sense of not being able to communicate what you want to say to someone you love because words are inadedequate. Sunny is so real! A cross-cultural everyman.
Romesh doesn't budge an inch from his viewpoint throught the novel, which gives the novel an intimacy ... and a great honesty. And the writing is of course, beautiful, with the kind of polish that can only come from painstaking revision.
Could wax on and on. But most of you have gone to sleep by now, so I'll stop here.
Would I recommend The Match? Definitely for those who love literary fiction, are fascinated by excellent craftsmanship. Definitely not for those requiring a thrill-a-minute, pacy read!