The expatriate poet

By Namini Wijedasa

Even an ordinary conversation with Indran Amirthanayagam sounds like poetry. One can’t help but listen enraptured as, speaking in prose, he rejects the idea of assigning ethnic labels to literature.

“I think it would be an error to define writing as Tamil or Sinhalese or Moor or whatever the category is,” he says. “One shouldn’t look at the writing, and what it says, through such lenses. It just does not advance an understanding of the writing.”

If your house is burnt down, he says, you still have to deal with that reality – and transform it to literature – whether you are Tamil, Sinhala or Muslim. “Many houses have been burnt down in Sri Lanka and they belong to different groups,” he reflected. idea is to make poetry out of it that would advance the cause of peace and understanding between people.”

“I personally read literature without ethnic lenses, you see,” he said. “I resist that way of reading literature. It may be helpful to a political analyst or sociologist but a writer deals with a relationship between God and man, man and nature… and so on. Those are the things we write about.”

Amirthanayagam – a Sri Lankan born poet and diplomat serving for the United States Foreign Service as a public affairs officer in Vancouver – is currently in Sri Lanka. He will speak on his recent poems at a literary evening in the auditorium of the International Centre for Ethnic Studies at 5.30 pm tomorrow.

Indran writes poetry in English and Spanish. His first book of poems, The Elephants of Reckoning, won the 1994 Paterson Poetry Prize in the United States. In 2001, he published a collection of selected poems titled Ceylon RIP. Edited by Reggie Siriwardene, it contains 50 poems drawn from different periods of writing. His latest work, soon to be released, was written after the tsunami of 2004 and is called The Splintered Face.

Although he left Sri Lanka as a child of eight (and has lived abroad throughout his life), the subject of Indran’s poetry is often Sri Lanka or Sri Lankan scenes. In his first book, The Elephants of Reckoning, we see him settling accounts with the elephants of Sri Lanka who ask him why he had left the homeland. Indran sees himself as “the rogue elephant abroad, wondering longingly about the birthplace”.

“I don’t think one ever leaves home, even if one travels thousands of miles away,” he pondered. “I also think that, until you leave home and go a very long way, you don’t quite realise this fact. You travel, you enter new languages and different landscapes… yet you keep finding that you haven’t left Rosmead Place, the Borella Market, the NCC grounds, the Colombo Oval, St Joseph’s or Jaffna or Trincomalee.”

“I discovered that, through poems, I could find some explanation for the mystery of why I had left,” Indran said. “As a child, I didn’t realise how strong the pull of this island is to me. I was able to distil some of those powerful feelings into poetry. We live at a time when most people have moved from their original homes. So, in a sense, one’s own experience also becomes the experiences of many others.”

One of the strongest influences in Indran’s life has been his father. Guy Amirthanayagam was a poet, government agent and member of the Ceylon Civil Service. “My father had a tremendous impact on me, not only as a father but as a poet and diplomat,” he recalled. “As a teenager, when I first started writing poetry, he encouraged me to continue instead of shutting the door on my interest.”

“As a little boy, I travelled widely with him,” he continued. “He was the salt commissioner so we went to the salt flats at Hambantota and Elephant Pass. We went to Galle, Kegalle, Colombo and many other places.”

Those early trips, says Indran, formed the metaphors and images of the later poet. “I didn’t know at the time that I would write poetry drawing on those experiences,” he explained.

Asked whether ethnic violence or perceptions of anti-Tamil prejudice in Sri Lanka had left him bitter – and whether such bitterness was reflect in his writing – Indran said: “I’ve experienced prejudices throughout my life in different places. In Sri Lanka, England, in all sorts of corners.”

“I remember getting on a tube train in London and being surrounded by 20 skinheads and a Hell’s Angel,” he related. “I remember being jostled around and terrorised by these people. I had only one stop to go but I got off without continuing my jorney. Although I escaped without being beaten up, that experience helped shape me.”

“There is prejudice but you digest it and go on,” he smiled. “Poetry, even in the most dire of moments, has a purpose. In that sense, I’m an optimist. I feel poetry has a value ion the world.”

Indran won’t speak easily about himself. Rather, he draws you into conversations about his work. But he did reveal that he had been born in 1960. He has two children, 11-year-old Anandan and eight-month-old Lola Indrani. Indran attended secondary school in England and finished secondary education in the US. His first degree was at Haverford College in America. “I chose that school because you could play cricket there,” he said.

He then studied journalism at Columbia, became a journalist and got a Masters degree in the subject. He started his career “writing for different newspapers in different places”.

“As a diplomat, my primary work is diplomacy but I believe passionately in journalism” he maintained. “I was happy to join the Foreign Service of the United States. The US is the only country I know that accepts a first generation immigrant as a member of the Foreign Service.”

It was after he became a diplomat that he started writing in French and Spanish. “My first Spanish poems were full of errors and odd expressions,” he confessed. “But I had friends who helped me out and I just kept writing in Spanish. It led to an important rediscovery of me in the primacy of a language. It was as if I had been born again in Spanish. In a funny way, I went back to Sri Lanka but in Spanish.”

Hearing Indran speak so romantically of Sri Lanka, one could not help but ask him whether he hadn’t lost himself in an ideal nation that didn’t exist.

“I think it’s inevitable that, when you’re abroad, you romanticise your experiences a bit,” he admitted. “However, one does go back to the island and try to look at it with one’s eyes and ears wide open… and not fall into the trap of romanticising it too much.”

“Everybody,” he says, “lives through a childhood, happy, sad or grand. My goal as a poet is to capture it all. There’s bitterness and bliss. It would be a disservice to reality to write a poem which touches only one aspect.” []

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