Friday, May 18 marked three years since the official end of Sri Lanka's civil war. I didn't realize this til today–I was in rural Northern California at a writer's residency with no phone or internet service. Once I came home to South Berkeley and recovered from my solo 7-hour drive home from the redwoods, I turned on Facebook and Al Jazeera. I was confronted with both the reality of the anniversary, and the question of what my options are–as a Sri Lankan writer and poet born in the United States, and in the face of the legacy of war, genocide, and forced exile that every Sri Lankan has to figure out what to do with.
African American/Caribbean queer poet-warrior June Jordan entitled her last collection of essays, "Some of Us Did Not Die." Her words are an acknowledgment and a challenge to all of us fierce brown queer poets, who are alive when many of our people are not. Some of us did not die, June wrote, and followed it by asking, so what are we going to do about it? What are we going to do with that precious and not-guaranteed life?
My story is one Sri Lankan writer's story–the story of a 37-year-old, queer, culturally mixed (Burgher/Tamil dad, Irish/Ukrainian American mom) Sri Lankan writer who believes in writing as a tool for healing, decolonization, and social justice.
One of the first and most impassioned places I came to writing through was about being Sri Lankan. To write about a war that had affected everyone Sri Lankan I knew, but that 99% of Western media didn't care about. I wanted to document. I wanted to think about how I could strategically use my place as someone privileged by being born in the West–English-speaking and culturally mixed–to speak when many other Lankans who don't have those privileges are not always safe enough to speak, and not always heard when they do. As a woman whose father and family has, in part, chosen to survive by being silent about our past and present, I wanted to choose to speak. To tell stories of my grandmothers and great-aunties, of my father and me, so that they wouldn't be forgotten.
To be a Sri Lankan writer in 2012 sometimes means living in an exhale. Three years after our 26-year civil war ended, sometimes even the most conscious and politically motivated of the Sri Lankan writers I know talk about wanting to write and think about something else. We know all the political truths–that writing is a tool to document, a tool of memory against forgetting. Many of our best known writers on island and in the diaspora–Jean Amithrygayam, Shyam Selvadurai, Romesh Gunsekera, V.V. Ganeshananthan, D'Lo, Yalini Dream, Mary Anne Mohanraj, Pireeni Sunderlingam, and Krisantha Sri Bhaggiyadatta, to name just a few–have used poetics and literature to document the realities of living within a civil war resulting in massive amounts of violence, death, forced diaspora, and repression. But sometimes, we stutterstop on how and why to tell these stories.
So what poetic strategies do we choose, in the face of all of these realities? Can we reach out to other Asian Pacific Islander poets who have used poetry to document not just our survivals, our losses, but also what comes after? Can we dream the Sri Lanka we would like to see?
Because despite all our losses, not all of us are dead. The responsibility to speak and use poetics to both document and transform–and to imagine what could be–doesn't go away. That imagination may be one of the strongest tools we have left.
Pushcart Prize nominee and 2012 Lambda Award finalist Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha is a queer mixed Sri Lankan (Burgher/Tamil)-Ukrainian/Irish writer, poet, educator and cultural worker. She is the author of Love Cake and Consensual Genocide and the co-editor of The Revolution Starts at Home: Confronting Intimate Violence in Activist Communities. She co-founded Toronto's Asian Arts Freedom School and Mangos With Chili, North America's touring queer and trans people of color cabaret. She has taught writing, disability arts and transformative justice workshops all over North America. Since 2009, she has been a lead artist with Sins Invalid, a performance incubator on disabiltiy and sexuality. She is currently working on Writing the World, a radical queer brown writers' manual and Dirty River, a memoir.