Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Complexities and Confrontation: An Interview with The Other One author Hasanthika Sirisena

I've already examined and praised Hasanthika Sirisena's short story collection The Other One over at Small Press Book Review, but now I'm thrilled to bring you an interview with the author as well. Read on as Sirisena and I discuss craft, book recommendations and why fiction should never shy away from violence and the truth at the heart of a story. Enjoy!

Steph Post: Since I usually like to jump right off into the deep end, I'll start with a point I mentioned in my review of The Other One for Small Press Book Review. The stories in your collection are not necessarily uplifting, to say the least. Violence, sorrow, and characters torn down by both, are the pervading elements of your stories. Yet, I felt that there was such a power in your work and that it Should be read, even if it didn't make the reader feel good. In some ways, I feel like there's a need for more literature out there that makes readers uncomfortable in the way that your stories do. What do you think? Do we need stories that bring us down or make us squirm? Should literature be confrontational and unsettling?

Hasanthika Sirisena: Yes, oh, yes. I personally love being made to squirm and to walk away unsettled. Being disturbed is a fundamental pleasure. So, yes, absolutely literature should be more confrontational.

That said, I wouldn’t want to tell anyone what a short story should do. Lightness and joy are important as well. I do think it would be hard to write about the Sri Lanka civil war and not address its brutal and sad history. So, maybe it has to do more with subject matter. I hope there are more stories about war and its effects. Do we ever need to stop being reminded?

Finally, for me, the issue is also about being a woman and a writer. As a woman, I feel I’ve been acculturated to make people feel comfortable and to consider violence, as a subject, taboo. So there’s a part of me that cringes when I read that the stories unsettled—oh no, I’m not supposed to make you feel bad! But then I realize that it’s important to push myself, to take on subjects that aren’t comfortable. But, again, I would never want to imply that should be a motivation for any other writer.

SP: Many of your stories use animals to convey emotions and to reach readers who might otherwise be desensitized or unable to relate to unfamiliar situations. For example, in "Third Country National," a fish, a shrimp and a dog carry the weight of the story. Readers may not know a thing about Sri Lanka or its war, but they will certainly respond to violence against animals, because loving an animal is an almost universal experience. Did you consciously include animals in your stories for this reason?

HS: One of my favorite writers, someone who has had a lot of influence on me, is J. M. Coetzee. I agree with him that how we treat animals demonstrates our true capacity to comprehend another being’s suffering. I’ve also spent much of my life around animals, in cultures that focus on animals, so I have some fairly powerful feelings as to how animals should be treated. Many times when we witness the mistreatment of animals we’re also witnessing the fundamental breakdown of society. That breakdown might not be the individual’s fault. It might be the larger culture keeping him or her from fulfilling that duty. That’s important to chronicle as well.

SP: The Sri Lankan civil war, and its aftermath and repercussions, is essential to all of the stories in your collection. Do you think readers need to understand the war to really understand your stories?

HS: No, not at all. In truth, I wouldn’t claim to completely understand the Sri Lankan civil war myself. I’m certainly not a scholar of the conflict (and there are a number of excellent academic studies of the war). My aim isn’t even really to explore the war. I do want an emotional response from the reader, and I really want to examine how hard it is and why eventually we might fail to comprehend another person’s pain. I hope that’s what the reader takes away from my stories.

SP: One of things I really loved about The Other One is that all of the stories are complicated. They weave and waver and the characters cannot be boxed into types. In short, they are rich and complex. How long does it take you to construct a short story of this depth? Is it a straight-forward process or do you ever have the need for distance from the story in order to flesh it out so fully?

HS: My stories take anywhere from six months to a couple of years to complete. For “The Other One” for example, I did a lot of reading because I’m not a natural athlete, and I’ve never played cricket anywhere other than my backyard (and I was beyond terrible). I tried to understand what it might feel like to be an athlete, and I also wanted to understand what it might feel like to be good enough to play on an amateur level, but not be great. This was hard since 99% of sports narratives focus on an elite few. So the story ended up taking some research and a lot of reading.

After I finish a story, I force myself to put it away for three months. This is the hardest part of the process. I usually want to declare it done and start sending it out. But that waiting period is absolutely necessary for me.

SP: Finally, to share the love, what book releases are you most looking forward to this year? Who or what should I have my eye on in the coming months?

HS: Where do I begin? Kazim Ali has a book of short stories, Uncle Sharif, coming out in the fall with Sibling Rivalry Press. The wonderful Vanessa Hua has a collection Deceit and Other Possibilities coming out this fall with Willow Books. Kelly Luce has a novel coming out this fall, Pull Me Under, and I’ve pre-ordered that. I loved her short story collection. Those are only a few that come to me right now.

Many thanks to Hasanthika Sirisena. Be sure to pick up your copy of The Other One, available now!

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