My birth story is a war story. And for years, I thought birth and war were related. I first heard my birth story in the middle of a dinner party when I was sixteen. I had come upstairs from the basement where all the kids were watching The Disney Channel, upstairs to the world of drunk men and their sober wives who shared stories of Sri Lanka during the civil war. I’d come to get pound cake and ice cream and slip back downstairs before anyone noticed me and asked where I was applying for college. The mention of my name gave me pause. I listened.
I was born in the midst of a rainstorm. My parents almost died on the way to the hospital, stopped by a rioting mob. The city of Trincomalee was under curfew because I was born amongst a string of birthdays of prominent rebel leaders. I was two weeks late. The hospital had no beds available because people couldn’t leave without breaking curfew. The nurses refused to give my mother any painkillers. She passed out as soon as she had me, so the doctors gave me to my grandmother. My mother didn’t see my face until she woke up in the morning.
* * *
On a recent trip to Cherokee, North Carolina, I found that a walking trail by the Oconaluftee River featured standing placards narrating Cherokee creation myths of various natural phenomena—the land, the evergreens, the mountains. On that same trip, I started reading Edwidge Danticat’s Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work, in which she explores the creation myth of artists—the stories that “haunt and obsess” us. This story, my birth story, has haunted me all my life, and not just because it is my own story, but because of the backdrop of war in which my story is necessarily set. What does it mean to think of oneself as a child of war? How much has this haunting shaped me?
My partner loves to ask what people’s first memories are. I tell him this is dangerous, but he doesn’t understand. Dangerous, because there are people like me, whose first memories aren’t soothing pulses of the womb or whispering into mommy’s mouth. In my first memory, I’m sitting in an underground dugout bomb shelter during an air raid, watching worms wriggle in the feeble glow of a kerosene lamp, my nightdress wrapped around my knees for warmth. Even after telling this story, I will argue I had a happy childhood, but then it’s also true that we didn’t have electricity and my parents got married during an air raid and there were bullet holes in the walls of my grandparents’ house. I had a cute and happy dog, but he died of a heart attack when a mortar shell fell nearby. Even now, I own nothing in camouflage or tiger print because wearing either one in Sri Lanka could’ve gotten me shot.
Danticat quotes Camus to say that “creating dangerously” means “creating as a revolt against silence, creating when both the creation and the reception, the writing and the reading, are dangerous undertakings, disobedience to a directive.” Like Danticat, I too am an immigrant from a country where you can die for your words. To create at all means to live dangerously. My mother begs me not to write about Sri Lanka, warns me that if I do, I can never go back. Sri Lanka is notorious for disappearing writers and journalists who speak out against the government. But unlike the public execution that Danticat identifies as her creation myth, disappearing in Sri Lanka is a private affair. A white van pulls up when you’re buying spiced peanuts from a roadside vendor, and poof! No one sees you again. Even now, I worry about family when I write or publish. When you’re on the losing side of an ethnic war, to speak is to put everyone you know and love in danger.
* * *
How do I write about white cotton uniforms and temple on Fridays and monkeys with curly tails and the suicide cliff where lovers jumped together to their deaths? How do I keep those stories from being sensationalized and exoticized by the publishing world?
If you’re a South Asian writer who wants to get published in the Western market, the directives are clear: Write about a large family. Write about an arranged marriage. Give it a Bollywood ending. Mention Ganesh at least once. Remember that intergenerational conflict always sells. Remember to explain all the non-English words in a glossary in the back. Include spicy ethnic food, even if your story is a space western. If possible, include recipes. If you write a novel, make sure it has no mention of queerness. Keep your women strong, but not too strong. They must all return to being brown in the end. Make sure their heritage will save them. If you sell that novel, and your publisher sends you the book cover, don’t lament that it has a picture of a brown woman in a saree looking coyly into the camera. Take comfort in the fact that, at least this once, her saree isn’t red. Since you can’t have a large, raucous dance number, describe how everything is colorful. Use words like turmeric, mehendi, indigo, sandalwood, neem. Make sure to put all these words in italics. Give your character a streak of rebellion against their culture. But not too much. Remember, their culture must call them back.
And what, then, if I don’t follow these directives? What if, like Danticat, I write about not only the dirtiness of war but also of its normalcy, how it sinks into your very skin? What if I want to make you look at the evening news instead of staring at your chicken Parmesan and passing the butter? What if I want to make you uncomfortable with your very existence? Will you still want my art, still call me an important voice?
What Danticat is talking about is creating in a hostile space. That’s what the artist creation myth is really about: what it means to claim space in a market that does not want you. We need to not only create the art, we need also to create the space for that art. Perhaps that’s why I’m trying again and again to tell my birth story. I am an accident of existence—the end product of a series of fortunate events, lucky breaks, narrow escapes. Being a survivor of wartime childhood has shaped me, like it has shaped other refugees, and has given birth to my writing. I’m so fascinated by my probability of non-being that I’m driven to create myself again and again through my art. Or maybe it’s that I must create space for myself through my art because there is no mirror yet—no one who has already told these stories.
* * *
When I was in college, playing at being a writer, my uncle was murdered on the front porch of his mother’s house in Sri Lanka. Shot, execution style, and left to bleed out on the concrete. I had been working on my senior thesis, a 10,000-word personal essay about my experiences with the Sri Lankan war, tracing its timeline from my mother’s own college years, through the ceasefire in the aftermath of the tsunami, to the present. But after my uncle’s death, I could no longer stomach the words I’d written. I started to have panic attacks. My entire body rejected any attempt to write.
I told no one. I felt myself unravel—slowly but with terrifying inevitability—until I had no choice but to put aside all of my writing about Sri Lanka. For the next five years, I wrote nothing about the war. It’s only now that I feel a pull to return to the subject again, to be able to write dangerously.
Danticat points to the politicized public execution of two young men in Haiti as her creation myth. Young men died in Sri Lanka, too—the one with whom I share a birthday was a young rebel who went on hunger strike, demanding that the government take steps to meet the needs of its long-oppressed Tamil population. The government waited him out. He died. But it’s complicated, you see, and that’s why there’s dissonance in my head, that’s why art has to step in to sweep up the contradictions. It’s not as simple as a tyrannical government and a band of ragtag freedom fighters. It’s terror driven into the populace, it’s both armies being trained and armed by the CIA, it’s suicide bombers and civilian massacres, riots and curfews, sham elections, executions, white van disappearances, gerrymandering, child soldiers, orphans. For many refugees—including Sri Lankan Tamils—limited access to Western languages and a certain disregard for creative writing education mean that these stories rarely get told.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not positioning myself as a martyr, writing for those who lack a voice. Conversely, my stories are often a manifesto of the individual, a hymn to that most American of ideals—the self, and the selfish desire, positioned against nationalism and groupthink of all kinds. I cannot save anyone, but I do believe—as I must, to get up every day and sit with my notebook—that stories can save us. I wonder about myself as a seven-year-old immigrant in a new land, combing through the stacks of the local library for a story I recognized. What if I had had access to stories like mine? Would these stories have saved me from schoolyard bullies? From isolation? From my own memories?
Danticat paints the choice to write as radical, as the not-safe choice. I could have become a doctor like my mother wanted. I could have stayed in IT. My family members ask me, again and again, why I write at all. They want some sort of consolation, some answer they can recognize—money, fame, prestige. But I didn’t start scribbling stories into my ESL notebook because I dreamed myself on Oprah one day. I wrote because it was the only way I could learn the contours of a new language, a new American identity, a new life. When I write now, I can’t escape what Danticat says, that in some distant future, “someone may risk his or her life to read us.” My accidental survival makes me beholden to the refugee and immigrant readers of the future. Writing becomes a form of time travel, a way for me to tell them what I most want to hear: “Dear reader, you are not alone. I’m writing to you because I survived. I’m writing to you because I didn’t.”
SJ SINDU is a Tamil Sri Lankan American writer interested in intersections of marginalized identities and violence. She has received scholarships from the Lambda Literary Retreat, the New York State Writers Institute, and the Nebraska Summer Writers Conference. Her creative writing has appeared in Brevity, Water~Stone Review, Harpur Palate, The MacGuffin, Black Girl Dangerous, and elsewhere. Sindu is a Ph.D. student at Florida State University. Her debut novel is forthcoming from Soho Press. www.sjsindu.com.