BOOK OF THE MONTH is Ruins, the debut novel from author Rajith Savanadasa. We spoke with Rajith about Ruins, life in Sri Lanka, and his latest work-in-progress.
What led to your career as an author and when did you first begin writing with a view of becoming a published author?
My dad was an avid reader and I picked up the habit from him very early. Still, growing up in Sri Lanka, writing was never a career option – it was always medicine, engineering or law that were considered viable, so it never occurred to me that I could become a writer until I arrived in Australia. It was in my final year of an engineering degree that I thought I’d try my hand at a creative writing elective. That went very well, and I think the seed was planted there.
Ruins is set during the final days of the Sri Lankan civil war and is told from five differing viewpoints—mother, father, daughter, son, and servant—offering the reader an uninterrupted understanding of the challenges, needs, and desires that each character faces in everyday life. The inclusion of the servant as having an active voice in the narrative in this way allows the reader an insight into the intricacies of social classing thus setting the scene for exploration of an oft-unspoken topic. Can you explain what led you to the decision to portray the story this way and (besides the obvious) why you felt it important to do so?
Growing up in Sri Lanka I had a very strong sense of what’s good and right, but the longer I spent away, the more I realised morality and truth were not clear-cut and that those who find themselves on the wrong side of standard Sri Lankan beliefs suffered. The best way to do this was by writing from perspectives of different class, gender, race etc. – and show how each of those characters were affected. As my views changed, I also began to think more about Yasa, my parents’ housekeeper, who I’ve known since birth and to whom the book is dedicated. I decided the central character would be someone like her to highlight the value of the invisible underclass, but also to subvert the Sinhala Buddhist idea that the person who reaches enlightenment is a man (often royalty).
Each viewpoint is presently in strikingly different ways. In what ways was it challenging to embody the thoughts and ambitions of each character whilst also giving each a distinct and individual voice? What type of research did you undertake to allow this?
I tried to approach writing characters unlike me by focusing on aspects that we have in common – for example, I remember wanting a Game Boy (handheld video game popular in the 90s) really badly as a kid, and so I used those memories to find a way into writing Anoushka’s desire for an iPod.
When it came to figuring out Mano I had to work a bit harder. I interned at a Sri Lankan newspaper for a couple of months to get a sense of what the atmosphere was like. This was during 2011, which was after the war had ended, yet there was a feeling that the government at the time couldn’t be criticised.
In terms of representing the voices accurately, I listened to people I knew were like my characters, experimented quite a bit – there was a lot of trial and error involved in making sure it looked right on the page.
Identity, and the acquisition and challenge of maintaining the identity of ones choosing, is a central theme for all five characters. Why did identity play such a pivotal role and what ties (if any) does this have to the location and timing (i.e.: end of the civil war) of the novel?
As I mentioned previously, I wanted to show how people’s natural tendencies can find them in conflict with the values system in Sri Lanka. This causes friction between those who see themselves as gatekeepers, usually the older generation, and those who are still building their identities. In times of war those with conservative views look to reinforce and reiterate their values and beliefs with the thought of protecting what they have – but conversely end up doing more damage. I wanted to illustrate that point.
What was your biggest challenge in writing Ruins?
The biggest challenge was probably finding what sort of writer I wanted to be. I wrote a couple of other drafts in wildly varying styles and tones. When I finally settled down and decided to be honest and direct and concentrate on representing the characters as well as I could, things fell into place.
What kind of research was involved in the planning of the novel? Was there anything surprising that you learned during the research process?
In one of my previous drafts I over-researched and it became a way of procrastination. I had been researching my topics – Sri Lankan civil war and politics – for around five years and no more was necessary. The draft that became Ruins actually required very little research or planning, I just followed the characters and tried to let them lead me onward. Having the moonstone structure also helped in anticipating the plot. I guess what I learned was to not overthink things – and that I needed to trust my instincts.
What’s next for you?
I’ve begun working on a story about a man who’s seeking asylum who needs to convince the authorities, and himself, that he’s afraid to go back to his home country (probably Sri Lanka). I’m still in the very early stages of the draft but I can tell you it’s already quite different to Ruins.
About the Author:
Rajith Savanadasa was born in Sri Lanka and now lives in Melbourne. He turned to creative writing in the final year of an engineering degree, which he followed up with the Professional Writing and Editing course at RMIT University. He was shortlisted for the Asia-Europe Foundation short story prize in 2013, the Fish Publishing short story prize in 2013, received a Wheeler Centre Hotdesk Fellowship in 2014 and was part of the QWC/Hachette Manuscript Development Program in 2014. Ruins is his debut novel. Rajith is also the founder and primary contributor to Open City Stories, a website documenting the lives of a group of asylum seekers in Melbourne.
In the pent-up heat of Colombo, piece by piece, a family comes apart.
A country picking up the pieces, a family among the ruins…
In the restless streets, crowded waiting rooms and glittering nightclubs of Colombo, five family members find their bonds stretched to breaking point in the aftermath of the Sri Lankan civil war.
Latha wants a home.
Anoushka wants an iPod.
Mano hopes to win his wife back.
Lakshmi dreams of rescuing a lost boy.
And Niranjan needs big money so he can leave them all behind.
As the five leave Colombo to travel to an ancient city, the generations collide and long-held prejudices surface. With one foot in the old way of life and one firmly in the new, this family can never be what it once was.
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