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An enchanting storyteller

Last updated: 17 April, 2010
ANJANA BALAKRISHNAN 18:33 IST

Ru Freeman — author and activist — introduces her website; a non-fiction and short story writer who dived ever so gracefully into fiction with A Disobedient Girl — causing much ripple.

celebrating life Author Ru FreemanHailing from Sri Lanka but currently based in the USA, this enchanting storyteller takes us through the defiant lives of two women in Sri Lanka, Latha and Biso, united by the faith that they will be delivered better in life. Published by Penguin Books, this novel has been translated into Dutch, Italian, Chinese, Portuguese and Hebrew. Excerpts from an interview with the author:

What would you say was your motivation for having chosen this plot of two women seeking a better life for your debut novel?

It is a bit of a cliché, but I have to say that I didn’t choose the plot, it chose me. I had written about the so-called underclass, domestic help in particular, all my life, even as a child, so it seemed natural that when I decided to write a story set in Sri Lanka, one of its representatives would occupy a central role. I have also always walked in the light cast by strong women, my mother in particular, and so both Biso, in her role as a mother, and Latha, in her role as a surrogate mother and friend, were similarly built.

Your book oozes with feminine reflection. What is your brand of feminism?

I am not sure there is a particular brand that I espouse, although my “vintage” would place me within the more recent developments within feminist thought, particularly that which recognises the failure of earlier movements to consider the place and predicament of women who were not white. My personal feeling is that the only iteration of feminism that is useful to us as human beings is that which recognises the right of women to choose the way in which they might conduct their lives. I have dear friends who find stay at home mothers to be unworthy of attention, and others who find career-minded women to be worthy of scorn. I find something vital in both ways of living as well as every combination in between those two extremes.

You identify yourself as an author and an activist. How symbiotic are these roles?

I live the life of an immigrant in the United States. An immigrant writer cannot distinguish these roles from each other. However, I am a political journalist, so that is where I express my activism in terms of words. Otherwise, I do the work of any other grassroots activist, advocating, campaigning, and so forth. When I write fiction, however, I try to avoid preaching. Literature is a way to identify our similarities at their very heart and so it is important to recognise that political events, while they impinge upon our lives, are not, in and of themselves, the story of our intertwined lives.

What are the issues that you campaign for and are close to your heart?

Well, if you look at the things that I’ve got involved in, they are fairly ordinary, in the sense that I am not some kind of standard bearer for anything very unique! I care about education and access to it for all children, I care about the effect of consumer-culture on girls, in terms of how they are forced to define themselves in very narrow and self-defeating ways.

You have said in one of your interviews, ‘writing is impossible without reading’. What are the books claiming your attention now?

I am reading Gillian Slovo’s memoir, Every Secret Thing, and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and Yu Hua’s To Live.

You seem to be a person of diverse interests. Having talked about writing and activism on a serious note, could you throw light on your other interests?

I also study and teach latin/ballroom and Middle Eastern dance. I’ve danced all my life, from when I was very little and studied Kandyan Dancing and later Modern and Jazz. Dance is a vital part of my life. I will dance anywhere to any music with the notable exception of ballet (I failed, routinely, at ballet, it was far too repressed for my personality!) and perhaps the Polka (too much activity). All this has been said before by people who have done it better than I have, but it is true that dance is a true celebration of life with all its ups and downs. The Argentinian Tango for grief, the Middle Eastern dances with zils and swords and scarves to depict the strength and beauty of women, and all the other dances in between from hip hop to salsa to the waltz to affirm the relationships we have with each other as men and women. It would be terrible if we could not dance.

‘I remain grateful to Latha, who was once a friend’, says your book. Are you still in touch with your friend Latha?

No, I am not. She had written to my grandmother before she passed away in 2007, and I know she is not working as a maid. But that is all I know.

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