Saturday, August 20, 2016

Looking back two months out of Sri Lanka

Before I left for Sri Lanka I had no idea what I would encounter. My greatest wish was to establish ties so I could bring students over for what I hoped would be a great "abroad" program--a feather in BU's cap. I went from office to office or you could say " from pillar to post" in the months before I left. But no bites. No interest. In retrospect it's the best thing that could have happened but at the time I thought I was up against typical large-university bureaucracy and pigeon holing. No matter. I visited one person who told me, "the best thing you can do is publicize your Fulbright work by writing about it." The series of posts I wrote while in Sri Lanka was born from that advice.

My posts started as a kind of, well, publicity for the work. They were upbeat and sunny. They belied the darkness I saw almost the minute we landed. I saw and felt it and I swam through it like you might swim through a muddy, smelly murk, but I didn't hint at it in my writing. For sure I didn't fully understand it.

Before the halfway mark of our stay I came to grasp the (would I be exaggerating to say it?) immensity of human evil that is the backdrop for contemporary Sri Lanka. It's not just the civil war. It's about the years that led up to it. It's also about a kind of collective PTSD. A collective fear. A collective of lies and forgetting and almost purposeful slavishness of thinking. It's like people go about their business sightless, thoughtless, without any hand in making decisions themselves. I saw this at its most frustrating incarnation in university settings, exactly where I'd hope for a spark of critical thought.

My writing changed in response to what I encountered. New sensations of horror found their way to the page. I came to see my experience as a quest for rare bits of truth buried deep in a smelly pile of refuse. It seemed to me that only fiction could hold the narrative that was unfolding. An ironic twist given that I had come to work on what perceived as a wholly apolitical, scientifically oriented project. I went through so many twists and turns of perception that it felt almost adolescent. New realities seemed to pop up weekly as I struggled to gain an understanding of what I was observing and how I was responding. By the end I was writing poetry. Satisfaction guaranteed as I let my emotions move the pen. A little self indulgent but another way to record the realities I perceived.

Fast forward to our return to Cambridge, now exactly two months in. The adjustment was hard. A kind of decompression-recompression as I shed one culture and took on the mantle of another. I saw that my immersion in Sri Lanka was different and in some ways deeper than Janet's had been. Ironically, I thought little of Sri Lanka and I didn't go back to my writing. The way out of that murk was too long and too difficult to look back. I had to get ready for teaching in the fall. I've really needed these two months.

Our friend Lili, who I worked with in Batticaloa when she brought her RISD students to do urban planning, drove up to see us the other day. She carried with her a book by an Indian journalist, which tells a pack of lies about contemporary Sri Lanka. The author is on someone's payroll to paint a sympathetic picture of the anti-Tamil political and social atmosphere in Sri Lanka. It's disheartening to read lies about what you've seen with your own eyes.

Janet told me, "it's your obligation to write about your experience. No one else can, and there's nothing people can read that will reflect the truths you found." She mirrored the thoughts of my dean who has also enthusiastically supported not just my Fulbright but nurtured the hope that I'd write about it. Share my experiences.

The intensity of my thoughts, and the intensity of my writing. I thought it was enough while I was there. There were lots of reader views--about 200,000. I thought I'd told my story. It all seemed too heavy to pick up again and take to a new place. To return to it seemed like a mountain I couldn't climb. But let's see where I go with it.

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