This month, Blogger in Residence Nalini Haynes spoke with Rajith Savanadasa about his debut novel Ruins, as well as the importance of cultural representation and engagement.
Rajith Savanadasa’s debut novel Ruins is set in Sri Lanka in 2009. He tells me a little bit about it:
There’s a chapter from the perspective of every family member, including the servant. It plays with the idea of what family might mean to you, how far bonds of family may be stretched. The structure is based on an ancient artefact called a “moonstone”, which supposedly shows the path to Nirvana.
Since leaving Sri Lanka about 15 years ago, I had a lot to say about the country. I’ve gained quite a bit of perspective living outside that culture, and a novel seemed the best way to express it.
Only the servant’s experiences are rooted in reality. My parents have a servant; she’s been with them for over 30 years. She brought up my sister and I; she was like a second mum to us. Ever since I left Sri Lanka I felt a little bit of guilt in terms of how I treated her. While we say she’s not treated as a servant, we really did treat her differently. While we didn’t see that as a problem living there, I can see that now. That was one of the reasons I used her as a major character in the book.
People assume the characters are based on real people, but they’re not. Some of the experiences are personal, like Anoushka listening to music secretly, that’s probably me. Other things are observations. I’ve tried to use Sri Lankan archetypes, rather than specific characteristics, because people don’t take responsibility for the wider political things happening in the world. Sri Lankans tend to think that politics is very separate from them. I’ve tried to show that politics does have an effect on the individual.
Until 2001 you were immersed in a culture that represented you, then you moved to Australia. What was it like?
It was unusual. Sri Lankan culture is very close to Indian culture, so movies are quite melodramatic, lots of dancing concerts. They weren’t exactly what I enjoyed watching. But there was lots of American culture too, so we watched Hollywood movies, American sitcoms. You feel like you’re not very visible. I wished I was American. That’s what happens to kids when they grow up not seeing themselves represented on the screen. Books are a little bit different. Quite a lot of sub-continental writers have a presence in the global scene. Someone like Arundhati Roy, who I read when I was fairly young, was a huge influence in me setting down this path.
When you wished you were American, were you envious?
Yeah. Every hero seems to be American. They seem to be the centre of the world and doing all these cool things; I almost felt like I was part of that, why wasn’t I recognised? There’d almost been some kind of mistake. I probably didn’t think these things very consciously, but it was always there.
Did you feel invisible?
Yes, to a degree. Once I came to Australia I felt more invisible. A good example is explaining my name to you. Sri Lankan or Indian names aren’t particularly well known. Just going to get coffee and repeating my name a number of times can be daunting. It’s much easier to give a Western name, to say Jim or Bob or something like that, and I am aware of people who do it.
What is the opposite of being invisible?
Representation feels comfortable. In my workplace I have quite a large team. My boss is a woman, lots of cultures are represented: Indians, Malaysians… We have a very diverse skillset as well: copywriters, user experience designers. There’s a guy who surfs and plays music, a lady who teaches yoga. It’s a really great environment and everyone feels comfortable. We’re happy to contribute and help each other out. It’s nice.
How can individuals affect change for immigrants and refugees?
On a very personal level, there are changes we can make. Appreciating other cultures. We have a very monocultural approach to the way we consume things. Hollywood movies are the best, or certain books are the best and we only consume those things. We need to start looking at other cultures. Iranian cinema is pretty amazing. Books are also a really great way to learn about other cultures and figure out that we’re actually not much different from each other.
There are things that people do, like rallies, and they’re effective to a degree, but they put certain people offside.
It’s better to take the subtler approach and engage with different cultures and different people and make the changes on a personal level. There will be a flow on effect. It feels like a long game to play, but it’s the best way to do it.
“When I was 4 years old, I discovered a large hardcover book of poetry in a corner store and my father bought it for me. Later he wanted me to read ‘Triantiwontigongolope’ by CJ Dennis. I said the poem was silly; I couldn’t possibly read a word THAT BIG so the trees and grass being purple was a great excuse. My father challenged me to think about possibilities in this strange world. I knew my disability separated me from others so I asked ‘Could I be normal in a world like that?’ He said ‘Yes’. Thus my love of genre and my passion for social justice were sown with the hope of changing the world.”
— Nalini Haynes.
You can find Nalini at: her website, Dark Matter Zine,Twitter as Dark Matter Zine and as herself, Facebook as Dark Matter Zine and as herself, Instagram, Pinterest and Tumblr.