One evening in Toronto… begins Shyam Selvadurai his introduction to the second anthology of Write to Reconcile, and shares a tale he heard from Ajahn Brahm (see box story: The tale of seven monks by Ajahn Brahm). The tale had offered him inspiration on a platter while he was in the middle of editing the anthology. Selvadurai grasped the key elements of Ajahn’s tale: ‘other side’. That concept of hearing the ‘other side’ viewpoint kept him spellbound.
He saw the anthology writings in a new light. While a Sinhalese participant could picture the life of a violated Tamil girl, a Muslim participant could syringe pulse into an LTTE soldier. ‘Their work tells us that empathy is possible,’ adds Shyam in his introduction and invites the reader to have the benefit of that empathetic feeling. That is how reconciliation through writing is possible.
Litchat listens to Shyam Selvadurai speak out on how this empathetic ‘other side’ viewpoint is finally moving on to the third edition of the Write to Reconcile anthology.
Q: Writing is very much a solo activity built upon individual capacity. Do you believe that creative writing could be taught as a subject?
A: Yes. One can teach the craft of writing, just as one can teach the craft of singing or dancing. What one cannot teach is talent. Either you have talent or not. Though, in my teaching experience, sometimes talent lies hidden under other things like insecurity, a too academic training and needs to be teased out.
Q: Apart from the anthology, you seem to be silent after The Hungry Ghosts. What has kept you busy?
A: I did do the Sri Lankan anthology Many Roads Through Paradise. I am working on something though I never talk about a work in progress as it kills the work.
Q: The government is now focusing more on reconciliation. Your opinion?
A: It is a good thing. A really good thing and some really positive steps are being taken such as singing the national anthem in both languages. We have many miles to go but the first steps at least have been made.
Q: How do you think creative writing can make an impact on reconciliation?
A: Yes, definitely. Creative work allows the reader to enter into points of view different from their own and this expands them and makes them realize that the ‘other’ is human just like they are. I think a lot of people in Sri Lanka would really like to know how the ‘other’ thinks and feels but has no access to other communities. The Write to Reconcile anthologies allow this access.
Q: You are now moving on to the third edition of Write to Reconcile. Can you share an experience or two of working with budding writers?
A: It has always been great to work with them, to see how they grow and change. One of my favourite experiences was working with a writer from the East who was very very shy and teared up every time she had to read something she had written in the workshops. But by the end of the workshop she had become much more confident and the next year when I met her she was transformed in terms of her confidence. Even her professor told me he couldn’t believe the difference in how she was after she came back from the workshop.
WRITE TO RECONCILE
Write to Reconcile, a free creative writing programme with an emphasis on reconciliation, begins its third year today with some exciting new changes: an emphasis on post war themes and also greater diaspora involvement. In addition, the award-wining writer, Nayomi Munaweera, will join the Project Director, the internationally renowned Sri Lankan author, Shyam Selvadurai, to form the creative team behind the Project.
Write to Reconcile was inaugurated in 2012 by Shyam Selvadurai. This innovative writing project, conducted in English, brings together emerging writers from Sri Lanka and the Sri Lankan diaspora, between the ages of 18 to 29, as well as Sri Lankan teachers and professors, who are interested in writing fiction, memoir or poetry on the issues of conflict, peace, reconciliation, memory and trauma, as they relate to Sri Lanka, with an emphasis on the period after the war.
The entire programme is free of charge, all expenses of the participants are met by the organization. Only 25 participants in total will be selected.
Over the course of a week- long residential workshop (optional for members of the diaspora) and two three-week online forums, participants will learn the craft of writing and produce work that addresses the themes of the project. The work produced by the participants will be published in the Write to Reconcile Anthology 3 and distributed free island-wide, as well internationally, through an online version. The previous 2 anthologies can be read at www.writetoreconcile.com
The project is funded by the American Centre. This is the third year the American Centre has been a sponsor of the programme.“The U.S. Embassy strongly supports important initiatives like Write to Reconcile to open the dialogue on reconciliation and bridge the experiences of different communities in Sri Lanka,” said Nicole Chulick, Public Affairs Counselor at the U.S. Embassy. For the third year as well, the Project enjoys a fruitful relationship with the National Peace Council, under whose auspices the Project is undertaken. To try and source diasporic stories, Selvadurai has instituted a structural innovation to Write to Reconcile 2016: There will be between 5-10 places for participants from the diaspora, who will only participate online and don’t need to attend the residential workshop. “It is important to get their point of view too. They were key players in the war and should also be part of post-war reconciliation.”
In keeping with the recent positive developments in Sri Lanka towards building harmony and equal justice for and between all communities, the theme of the new installment of Write to Reconcile will be “Looking Back, Moving Forwards.”
The call for applications go out on March 29. Anyone interested in participating can join the Project’s Facebook page or send an email to [email protected] and ask to be put on the mailing list to receive an application.
Applications can also be downloaded at www.writetoreconcile.com.
The tale of seven monks by Ajahn Brahm
The tale went something like this: Seven monks lived a holy life in a cave on top of a mountain, largely unknown to the people in the surrounding villages.
The seven monks consisted of a head monk, his best friend, his brother, his enemy, a very old monk, a very sick monk and a useless monk – who never did any of his chores and never remembered the chants, but who the other monks kept on to teach them patience and compassion.
One day, a band of robbers discovered the cave and saw immediately that it would be a perfect place to hide out, as well as store their loot. In order to get the cave, however, they would have to murder the monks. They didn’t want them going down into the valley and informing the villagers about the robbers’ whereabouts. So they stormed the cave, grabbed the monks by their robes and prepared to kill them.
The head monk, like most head monks, was a good talker. He spoke to the head robber at length and, after much negotiation, he persuaded the leader to spare the monks’ lives. The leader, however, had a caveat. He would kill one monk as a warning to the other six not to divulge the robbers’ location. The head monk had to choose which one must die. After he had got this far in the story, Ajahn Brahm asked the audience who they thought should die. I, like a lot of the other own life; a few volunteered the life of the useless monk, a few the enemy. Yet, all our answers, it turned out, were wrong. The correct answer was none. The head monk could not choose from the seven of them, valuing his life as those of his brother, his best friend, his enemy, the sick monk, the ill monk and the useless monk. The lesson of the story was that we must love another person not more or less than ourselves, but as ourselves.
- Extracted from Shyam Selvadurai’s introduction to Write to Reconcile II