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When rumors of civil war between the ruling Sinhalese and the Tamils in the northern sector of Sri Lanka reach those who live in the south, somehow it seems not to be happening in their own country. At least not until Janaki’s sister, Lakshmi—now a refugee whose husband, a Tamil, has disappeared—comes back to live with her family. And when Sam, an American Peace Corps worker who boards with Janaki’s family, falls in love with one of his students, a young girl from the north, he, too, becomes acutely aware of the dangers that exist for any- one who gets drawn into the conflict, however marginally.
Skillfully weaving together the stories of these and other intersecting lives, The Beach at Galle Road explores themes of memory and identity amid the consequences of the Sri Lankan civil war. From different points of view, across generations and geographies, it pits the destructive power of war against the resilient power of family, individual will, and the act of storytelling itself.
|Publisher:||Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill|
|Sold by:||Barnes & Noble|
|File size:||549 KB|
About the Author
What People are Saying About This
“In The Beach at Galle Road, Joanna Luloff portrays, with exquisite passion and restraint, the troubled history of Sri Lanka. Writing from the point of view of young and old, Sri Lankans and Americans, civilians and soldiers, Luloff takes us deep into a country and a culture. Together these wonderful stories form an intricate web in which we, her readers, are happily caught. The Beach at Galle Road is a wise and profoundly moving debut.”
—Margot Livesey, author of The Flight of Gemma Hardy
A Conversation with Joanna Luloff, author of The Beach at Galle Road: Stories from Sri Lanka
You worked as a Peace Corps volunteer in Sri Lanka from 1996-1998. In what ways were you affected by the civil war? How did this experience influence your writing of The Beach at Galle Road?
During my years as a volunteer, I lived in the southern region of Sri Lanka, where the war's presence was felt mostly through news broadcasts and newspaper stories. I remember my host family always assuring me: You're safe here; the war is someplace else. But the war was everywhere in the country, even if its daily conflicts seemed muted in the South. For example, I worked at an all-boys' school in the small village of Baddegama. Some mornings before school, I would hear a stream of boys stomping outside our house in neat, marching rhythms. A couple of hours later, the same boys would be sitting in my English class. Most of them, if asked about their plans for the future, would answer, "There are no jobs here, so we'll join the army." At that point, joining the army meant joining the fight against the Tamil resistance in the North and East. It was impossible to ignore the war.
During the war, girls often attempted suicide by drinking lye. Their reasons for attempting to take their own lives were complicated and varied, but there seemed to be an overarching thread - that the war had swallowed up many family members, potential suitors, brothers, fathers, friends. Girls were being made increasingly vulnerable, either due to their orphaned status, or due to the shame of being unmarried and a burden to their families. I met a young woman in a hospital who had drunk lye, after being forced to marry an uncle after her family had been killed. Her story became the starting point for the character Nilanthi, who tethers most of the collection's stories set in the North.
Did your experience mirror that of particular characters in the book? Which character(s) do you connect with the most?
There are little bits of autobiographical details or personal experiences sprinkled throughout the book, but I wouldn't say my experience mirrors any character's story entirely. I worked as an English teacher at a regional school, and often struggled with the unspoken rules and cultural codes of village life, so in many ways, Lucy's clumsiness in "Let Them Ask" is borrowed from my own. Similarly, some of Sam's struggles in "I Love You, Come Home Soon" are emblematic of my own, though offered in a more heightened way. And of course there is Melissa in "The Sunny Beach Hotel" who wavers between feeling like a local and feeling entitled to judge the locals around her. In all of these stories, I tried to suggest the tensions between feeling like both an insider and an outsider in your new home. I'm not sure I would say I feel "connected" to these characters because they announce the traits in myself that I was probably the most embarrassed or ashamed of during my volunteer service. Who wants to feel connected to the ugliest parts of their own character? Sometimes, I wanted to cringe while I was writing Melissa, Lucy, and Sam's stories!
Why did you choose to tell this narrative through writing interlinked short stories, as opposed to a novel?
The form allowed me to explore multiple vantage points, different voices, and varied points of view in a really flexible way. In a novel, even a novel that has an omniscient, third-person narrative, it becomes more difficult to juggle multiple perspectives. I'm writing a novel right now that juggles three point-of-view characters, and that's challenging enough! I couldn't imagine trying to incorporate twelve different perspectives into a single novel. The linked story form gave me the room to try on different points of view while simultaneously constructing a larger narrative arc that resembled what we might expect from a novel's structure. In this way, each story could contain its own arc, but when put into conversation with the other stories, those arcs hopefully became more complicated and more complex.
Many characters attempt to escape the horrors of war by retreating into their imagination. Did you meet people in Sri Lanka who adopted this coping mechanism, or did you adopt it yourself?There were two women I encountered in Sri Lanka who created an escape of sorts through a retreat from reality. The first woman I already mentioned - the woman who had retreated into a self-imposed silence by drinking lye. The other woman arrived in Baddegama one day, wandering a bit absent-mindedly through the village center. She was dressed oddly, in high heels, a long-sleeved blazer and a pencil skirt, and she was talking to herself. She became the catalyst for Lakshmi's character in "Galle Road," a story centered on a woman's retreat into her past as a way of coping with the sense of loss that dominated her present. More generally, though, I noticed a permeating nostalgia that was layered into so many conversations around me. Many older people remembered the British rule with a fondness that really surprised me. A friend who ran a guest house at the beach reminisced about a time before the war when the resorts were teeming with tourists. My host father was always talking about a time when jobs were plentiful, the cost of bus fare was only five rupees to Galle, and so on. So what I saw, even more than a retreat into the imagination, was a retreat into memory, into a nostalgic version of the past that no longer was.
Will you go back to Sri Lanka?
I have gone back to Sri Lanka, and I hope to return again soon. I have stayed in good touch with my Sri Lankan host family, a few of my students, and a coworker from the school where I worked. I miss my host family terribly, and I'm always eager to visit with them. I was last in Sri Lanka in 2006, a couple of years after the tsunami's horrifying violence on the island. This was also the time when the government army was renewing its aggressive push into Tamil-held territories in the North and East. While it was really fulfilling to be back, to visit with my family, it was devastating to see the amount of physical destruction of the landscape. So many people had lost their homes and were living in makeshift shantytowns along the coastline. And of course, the eastern and northern towns were off-limits to us. In general, foreigners were being dissuaded from lengthening their tourist visas, and there were real limitations on travel for both safety and, well, censorship reasons. So it was a bittersweet trip for me in many ways.
What message are you hoping to convey with this book?
I'm not sure I would say that I'm hoping to convey any messages, exactly. What was important to me was to craft stories that responsibly and respectfully reflected on a war, and the linked, individual experiences of that war, that are/were often relegated to paragraph summaries in our national newspapers. I wanted to shrink the distance in some way of what we tend to think of "our" experiences and "their" experiences. I wanted to explore, critically and thoughtfully, Western volunteer and aid work in developing world countries. And I wanted to suggest multiple ways of looking at a war, at a group that's been labeled a "terrorist organization," at the psychological, economic, and physical destruction that comes in the wake of prolonged violence. Through all of these lenses, I hoped to provoke a more complex or complicated understanding of the context for this very long, drawn-out, and devastating civil war.
Now that you have your first short story collection under your belt, what are you going to tackle next?
I am in the process of revising a novel right now. The book takes on three competing narratives and explores the ways in which memory is narrated, archived, and validated. After having recently lost pieces of her memory from contracting Japanese Encephalitis, the main character, Claire, gathers old photographs from her past in order to recreate memories that she no longer possesses. At the same time, she takes photographs of her present to keep track of her day-today life. Her estranged husband, Charlie, gets his own chapters to offer counter-narratives to Claire's. And lastly, Claire and Charlie's mutual best friend, Rachel, offers her version of past events. The novel is filled with (hopefully) unexpected betrayals, past hurts, and competing loyalties so the reader's sympathy is (hopefully, again) aligned with different characters at different times. The novel is interspersed with photographs - portraits, travel snapshots, and a variety of other images that Claire uses to connect with the place, people, and objects of her past. As in The Beach at Galle Road, I continue to be interested in investigating the fragmentation of memory and the exile of the self in the wake of a discontinuous past. But this time, the action is taking place mainly in Vermont and Boston, rather than in the context of a civil war.
Who have you discovered lately?
I just finished Shehan Karunatilaka'sThe Legend of Pradeep Mathew, a novel that manages to explore and wittily critique political (and national sports) corruption, racism, gender divides, and the legacy of a long civil war in Sri Lanka, all via an unlikely detective hero slowly pickling himself to death. (It's funnier than it sounds!)* Other favorite recent discoveries have included Teju Cole's novel Open City, an ambitious and rather fearless book that uses the topography of memory to accompany more literal travel, and Daphne Du Maurier's unnerving and beautifully strange collected stories, Don't Look Now.
*The Legend of Pradeep Mathew was a Summer 2012 Discover Great New Writers selection.