Novelist/journalist/activist Ru Freeman is a tender-hearted fireball. Her opinion pieces — from 2013 AWP highlights to feminism and gun control — appear regularly at The Huffington Post and her essays can be found in a variety of other journals. Her first novel, A Disobedient Girl, was published to wide acclaim in 2009.
But I met her by way of an early read of her second novel, On Sal Mal Lane, which debuted May 14. The novel begins in Sri Lanka — Freeman’s birthplace — in 1979 and chronicles the years leading up to the country’s two-decade civil war.
I came to the novel knowing, vaguely, where Sri Lanka was on a map. I also knew something about a civil war. But beyond that, my experience of the country, its culture and people, was limited.
That didn’t matter.
A mere page and a half in, I was swept onto the verandas of Sal Mal Lane’s homes, caught up in the games of French cricket children played and hearing the tinkling of a piano drift through an open window. I was, also, all-too aware of the mounting political tension surrounding this small dirt lane and its inhabitants.
I finished the novel — and not without a few pauses to collect myself — with a deeper respect for the human spirit, despite what politics, violence, and loss can do to it.
Here’s my conversation with Freeman on writing On Sal Mal Lane and also what it means to be a writer and activist.
The Millions: Publisher’s Weekly calls you a “social justice activist and freelance journalist.” What does it mean to you to be an activist, journalist and novelist? How do those worlds intersect (or remain distinct)?
Ru Freeman: Everything I write is immersed in everything I live, so in that sense there is no separation. However they remain distinct to the extent that the political journalism that I do is intended to further a cause or agenda that I espouse, whereas the fiction is an effort to create a safe bridge between what I think and what other people might think — a bridge both they and I can cross without fear.
As far as the activism — to live is, for me, to be engaged with the world around me. While I go away to write, tuning out everything, the inspiration for all that I do comes from that world and I am deeply, insanely, completely open to that world. I let it into my head and my heart in every way I can; it stands to reason then that I cannot help but want to assist that world along in whatever way I can, to nudge people this way or that, whether it is through writing or marching or simply having a conversation.
TM: On Sal Mal Lane was initially conceived as a magazine assignment. Though that didn’t ultimately work out, how did you begin to think about the novel as a result?
RF: The novel is much better and it accomplishes what that article never could have done: it brings people, characters into the light and it asks people to live with them for a while, to feel as they might have felt, to walk down that street with them, to be shattered and repaired the way they were. The magazine assignment would have been just another piece people read and forgot, too linear and simplified to ever convey the complexity of a time and place, or to allow a reader to look around them, wherever they are, and see that it is possible to end a war, that there is hope, that reconciliation and peace are possible and within grasp.
TM: You were born in Colombo and experienced the early years of the civil war. Was writing about your childhood memories/experiences of it always something you wanted to do?
RF: Everything a person lives is part of what shows up in writing. Whether it is written about directly, as I have done in this book, or obliquely, as I did in the previous novel, A Disobedient Girl, (Atria/Simon & Schuster, 2009), there is a part of a writer’s history, their evolution, in everything they write. That isn’t to say it is autobiographical, but that it would be foolish to claim that the autobiographical facts are not a part of what we write. I didn’t set out to write this book or the previous novel or the new one I’m working on now; the stories are just the ones that rise to the surface and seem to resonate with where I am as I begin to write.
TM: What was the easiest part of the On Sal Mal Lane to write? The hardest?
RF: Devi was the easiest to write; she is the quintessential youngest child, adored, indulged, often to her own detriment, but mostly to her good in terms of the way those kids grow up very assured of their place in the world, as able to break rules as they are to trust that everybody loves them. All the others took more work, Sonna more than them all. He is my favorite, and it was hard not to give in to the temptation to wave the magic writerly wand and bless his life. It was hard not to allow him to be no more and no less than what he was.
TM: Tell us how you chose the point of view. Were there any other options you were considering early on, or ones you tried?
RF: I had the prologue, and then I went on to write the story, so there was some essential element of that voice in the book from the start. But, it was in re-working that prologue that it became stronger, the voice that I wanted for the whole book. I wanted to have some distance for myself, as the writer, from the events that I was describing, since I had lived through that time in Sri Lanka, but I also wanted the intimacy of being right there with all those characters. This voice, of the street, worked really well for that.
TM: How did you balance writing the story with the need for some historical/cultural context for readers who may be unaware of Sri Lanka and its history?
RF: I really do not like novels that give us the political-events fillers, that pause in order to point to this or that historical moment in its entirety. I always want what I write to reflect the consciousness of the characters. I feel that if I can tell the story of how a certain time affected fully-realized people, then the reader will go do their own research about the background. There is some detail in here, but it is organic to what is going on, to the interplay of relationships — between Mr. Herath and his children, between Mr. Niles and Nihil, between the children themselves — rather than as A Small Treatise On The History of Sri Lanka’s Ethnic Conflict.
TM: Wallace Stegner has said a writer is a (wo)man in search of an audience. Did you have a particular reader or audience in mind as you wrote On Sal Mal Lane?
RF: I have a responsibility as a Sri Lankan writer, to tell the stories of my country with a clear understanding that mine may be — for many people in the United States certainly — the only voice they hear with regard to those stories. I keep that in sight when I write. I have no wish to whitewash the mess of things, to portray my country as the jewel that it is to me, but rather to say here is a story from this place, here are the people who lived there, here is one tale about what happened to some of them. I also have Sri Lanka herself in mind, what is good for my country, what is good for her people. My words, written or spoken, are always in service to the greater good of the people of my country. To what they have lost, to what they may yet have again.
TM: Were there certain works you read while working on On Sal Mal Lane that helped you with character development, the overall story or, simply, moved you?
RF: There was a moment when I was thinking about this book that another writer suggested I read Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I don’t know so much that I used any technique or related things from that book, but rather that there was an immersion in a moment in Biafran history that captured my imagination. I felt an “it can be done” sense when I finished reading it. The other books that I read were My Brother, by Jamaica Kincaid, and those on technique: Robert Boswell’s The Half-Known World, (Graywolf, 2008), and Charlie Baxter’s The Art of Subtext (Graywolf, 2007). If there was something I was grappling with, I’d turn to these texts and read through some relevant section, take notes, and, each night, think about if/how it might apply. The next morning, I’d go back to work.
TM: You’ve talked about how “the exercise of writing both fiction and opinion is reflective of a passionate attempt to contribute to our common human enterprise whether that is quiet, personal, public, political or all of these.” Why is this important to you?
RF: I write and my writing comes from being a human being, from inhabiting my very human, socially inter-connected, inter-dependent world. What else should I be engaged with? To eschew human experience — by turning into a recluse, by hiding from the world, keeping physical, emotional distance — but then to ask that world to read what I have written, hear what I have to say…this isn’t an equal exchange to me. If I lived that way then I fully expect you to consider my take on things to be entirely irrelevant.
I don’t like hierarchies, I don’t like the notion of the exalted thinker/writer who gazes from a distance. I don’t like people writing about worms without spending some time taking in the worm’s view of life.
How do you know what things look like to ordinary people if you don’t immerse yourself in that ordinariness? If you can’t acknowledge your own ordinariness? And if you aren’t putting yourself in service of furthering the well-being of such people, our people — whether it is through health care or a meaningful education or a living wage or access to the arts, or telling the stories of our experience? That is why it is important to me.