Written in response to:
I want to thank Sydney Review of Books for commissioning a review of Foreign Soil. It is by far the most comprehensive and articulate review of the book I have come across – and the book had been very widely reviewed.
I also wanted to respond some of Fiona Wright’s comments about my research for the story ‘The Stilt Fishermen of Kathaluwa’. Some of the reviews of Foreign Soil have identified weaknesses in the writing – constructive literary criticism which one can only take on board and carefully consider going forward as a writer. This review, however, has alleged that this particular story, which follows a young asylum seeker’s journey from Sri Lanka to Australia, falls short on research. This is highly problematic for me as a writer of historical fiction. The reviewer’s comments are factually incorrect, or stretching at best. What makes this particularly concerning is that they are cited as evidence against writing characters from an unfamiliar background.
There was an extremely high level of consultation for this story, both with Sri Lankan friends and with refugees currently and formerly incarcerated in detention who have made a similar, or the exact same journey, as well as through more traditional research means.
My concerns relate to this passage:
But there are inaccuracies or implausibilities in the story, moments when it is clear that this act of representation comes from the outside. Early in the story, Asanka is befriended by an older refugee on the boat, a man named Chamindra. Chamindra is a Singhalese name that belongs to the majority ethnic group that governs Sri Lanka, even though the character is Tamil. Similarly, a reference to the Dehiwala Zoo in Colombo means that Asanka lived in an area where enforced conscription by the Tigers, while not impossible, was incredibly rare. He also remembers fishing on the beach with his grandparents in Gampaha, a town that lies inland. Most importantly, the stilt fishermen that form the recurrent and poetic metaphor at the centre of the story are described as something almost mythical and no longer in existence, even though they are still a common sight:
“Asanka had thought they were extinct, the stilt fishermen of Kathaluwa. He learned about them back in school. There were photographs of them in his geography book, perched atop their fishing stilts, the salt-sprayed sinew of their shiny brown muscles set against a flat blue background.”
It feels churlish, of course, to focus on these factual errors in a work of fiction: they are small, and unlikely to stand out to anyone less interested or invested in Sri Lanka – another place largely absent from our national imaginary.
Wright suggests that the main character’s conscription by the Tigers from Dehiwala is ‘highly unlikely’. That this is untrue is almost beside the point: stating that something in a book of historical fiction is ‘unlikely’ to evidence poor research seems quite odd. Wright also cites the fact that Chimanda is not a Tamil name as further evidence the research is lacking. But it is the protagonist, the Tamil boy Asanka, who assumes, and is told, that Chaminda is Tamil. There is a deliberate set-up in this story, which raises questions about the background of the character of Chaminda: he does not have a Tamil name; he is by far the oldest traveller on the boat; he seemingly inexplicably takes the boy Asanka under his wing; he insists he has no family; the lawyer in the story has been visiting him for years, yet we are given no background through her; he takes his own life in detention when he is about to be released.
Wright states the fact that Gampaha is inland and that the character goes fishing in Gampaha with his grandfather as evidence that I mistakenly thought Gampaha was on the coast, not inland. Gampaha is bordered by two major rivers. Even if the reviewer did no research, the exact line in the story itself reads ‘… he used to holiday at his grandparents’ place in Gampaha. His poppo would take him night fishing on a secret stretch of the Kelani River …’ It is also implied that because the fifteen year old boy in the story, Asanka, thinks the Stilt Fishermen are extinct, the author also thought they did not exist any more. Again, this seems like a clutching-at-straws to find evidence of poor research.
Maxine Beneba Clarke