The Nuts And Bolts Of Reconciliation
Born in 1965 to a Sinhalese mother and a Tamil father, Shyam Selvadurai left Sri Lanka for Canada in 1983 at age 19. Since then, his name has been noted for being one of the most distinguished authors of Sri Lankan origin. Tackling issues such as ethnicity and sexual identity, his most famous work Funny Boy is still a favourite among Colombo’s literary, and received the Books In Canada First Novel Award.
Shyam studied creative writing while reading for his Bachelor of Fine Arts at York University in 1989, and would go on to pursue a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at University of British Columbia in 2010. Throughout his writing career, Shyam has engaged in teaching the craft of writing at workshops, taken on the role of juror at competitions, mentored entire novels for Diaspora Dialogues Toronto, and has been a Writer In Residence at University of Guelph, McMaster University, and Green College, University of British Columbia.
In 2011 and 2012, Shyam was the Festival Curator for the Galle Literary Festival, during which time the initial seeds of thought for Write To Reconcile were planted in his mind. Shyam is currently the Project Director of Write To Reconcile, inaugurated in December 2012 in conjunction with the National Peace Council. The project brought together 24 Sri Lankan writers interested in writing fiction, memoir or poetry, engaging with issues of conflict, peace, reconciliation, memory and trauma, relating to Sri Lanka’s civil war and post-war period.
Over the course of two workshops, held in Colombo and Kandy, and two online forums, under the guidance of Shyam, these students honed their craft in order to produce a body of work that showcased a diversity of views on the civil war and its aftermath, in different styles and genres that culminated in the publishing of the Write To Reconcile Anthology that was launched in September 2013. 2,000 copies were mailed to libraries and schools island-wide and a downloadable version is made available on the website: writetoreconcile.com. Funded by the Royal Norwegian Embassy and the American Centre, the project was so successful that it is currently calling for submissions for its second run.
“It has been very good working with the National Peace Council,” Shyam says, “I went to them as they seemed like a good fit.” Voicing his opinion on the silence on issues of reconciliation, Shyam says “There is a pan-Asian problem; it is a systemic problem in our education systems: there is no emphasis on individuality which ultimately fosters a person’s creativity. Unlike in the West, students are not given the tool of critical thinking at an early age. Ours is rote system.”
Write To Reconcile aims to show its participants that the door is open and that it is doable. “I have brought down creative writing from its mystique down to the nuts and bolts,” he says.
The participants came with a base of talent and a base of understanding; my work was to hone that. In the group discussions around their work, a lot of personal experiences were shared on speaking about these issues in a political way,” he says and adds, “I feel that physical workshops are important as a trust-building exercise, as you need your students to feel as though they are in a safe and comfortable environment.
The workshops, each four days long, were held in February and March 2013 in Colombo and Jaffna. “I taught them a lot about the craft of creative writing. We did a lot on character development, plot, dialogue and how a scene works. All the exercises done in class had writing prompts that were based on war, be it pictures or a poem by Buddadasa Galapathi. Galapathi’s poem is about the JVP era where bodies float down a river, and in the first person a voice asks who these bodies belong to and what life they may have led. I ask the students to recall a historical and personal moment in first person prose. Afterwards we critique that attempt in a positive manner.”
The purpose of the exercise is to try out an aspect of the craft. For instance, what are the advantages of using first person perspective? “The prompt is designed for the students to do a first person in class exercise, and for me to check on how they do in the exercise and see how well they understand the lesson,” he adds.
The problem I have with the way creative writing is taught is the attitude of ‘oh, just let your feelings out.’ That’s easy to do. Any writer can do that, but how do you structure it? Shyam asks.
Part of the workshop process is to explain how to critique work.
Often critique is seen as a negative thing, as it is given in a negative form,” Shyam explains. “That is not the way to critique; you have to understand what the writer is trying to do. Whether you agree or not – or whether you like it or not – is immaterial. The purpose of critique is to help the writer get to what they are trying to say in the best possible way. All critique should be posed as questions, so what you should always assume is that you do not understand as the critic.
There were two online forums during which each writer would submit their work on the theme over a course of four weeks. The 24 participants were divided into four groups of six. Each week, participants would submit their work and over the course of the week they would be required to write editorial letters critiquing the work of others. “Now, they are learning editorial skills. The participants can discuss each other’s editorial letters and perspectives. The writer can see how their work is being perceived and know what is not clear about their work. The writer would then respond to the criticism and ask their own questions, and I will be present on the forum to oversee and prompt responsesl. Finally, I will send each participant an editorial letter with an edited manuscript as well as comments from other participants that I feel are constructive.” The participants were also taken on cultural tours around Colombo and Jaffna. In Colombo, they were taken to Goeffrey Bawa’s house and the Sapumal Foundation, to see how the old has been made new.
“In Jaffna, we visited Kandarode and Madahal, as they are now claimed as Buddhist sites. I wanted them to look at how history is being rewritten,” he adds, “We had a visual artist T. Shaanathan show his work ‘Incomplete Thombu’ on the destroyed houses in the North and the narrative histories that went along with them. We also looked at films such as Lemon Tree about the Israeli-Palestine border, and short documentaries on the reconciliation process in Sierra-Leone.”
Shyam is looking forward to the second run of Write To Reconcile and encourages youth to apply. “It is the participants that invariably set the agenda. Once I have determined who they are, I can make changes to lesson plans accordingly,” he says. There is a concerted push to have participants from around the country. Write To Reconcile is holding workshops in Kandy and Batticoloa. They have also opened up participation to the Diaspora. “I feel very strongly that the Diaspora is a part of Sri Lankan modern history,” Shyam says. “They have been actors in the last thirty years of war, and, so, should be part of the reconciliation process.”
“Every community has their own story in which they are the victims,” Shyam claims, ”but Sri Lanka is a very distinct culture and should find its own way to address the need for reconciliation”. He adds that Sri Lankans should be encouraged to tell their stories and that a ‘forgiveness mechanism’ should be put in place, though, he says, “the dead cannot offer forgiveness”.