It is my absolute and sincere pleasure to share this interview with author Ru Freeman. I loved her debut novel, A Disobedient Girl and was thrilled she was gracious enough to answer some questions.
According to your website, you call both the United States and Sri Lanka home. How much time to do you spend in each place?
I spend most of my time in the United States. I wish I could go home to Sri Lanka more often, but cost and circumstances make it difficult to do so right now. Mercifully, my parents come and stay with me for extended periods of time and now that I have skype it doesn't seem quite so far away!
Sadly, I personally have little knowledge of Sri Lanka's history and politics. Do you find that the average American is like me? What would you most like Americans to know about Sri Lanka?
I think most Americans want to know more about cultures beyond their shores. Unfortunately, because of the way the system of education is set up in the U.S., many Americans grow up ill at ease with accessing that knowledge, whereas in cultures where kids learn about other nations, civilizations, etc., from a very early age, there is a greater comfort level with foreign travel, literature and so forth. In Sri Lanka, for instance, we learned not only how to place other countries on blank maps of the world, but also something of the internal history, politics, imports/exports, trade routes and so forth - not only of America but of every other major country. When I travel around the U.S., I find most adult Americans interested in other cultures so long as that knowledge is presented in a way that is not confrontational or threatening; in a way that is respectful. Which is why, I believe, world literature is so important and why I am so heartened by the many publishing houses, both large and small, that choose to publish novels set in other places. It's a great bridge.
Why do you write?
Because I must. It is my antidote to everything both small and large. Putting words down to describe a condition, a situation, a person, a war, some peril, helps me to contain it somehow.
Your website says you are an activist. What issues are you most passionate about?
Human rights, social justice, civic participation, all of these on the global as well as the local level.
In your acknowledgements you thank Latha, who was once a friend. Any chance you can give us more background?
Latha was the daughter of a servant who worked for my grandmother and who came there to be a companion to me when I visited. She was part of my childhood and, like the fictional Thara and Latha, did many of the same things together with me: picking flowers, talking about boys, studying for the same exams. The real Latha also did find the snake in a box, albeit at a much younger age.
While I didn't always like Latha's choices, I admired her spirit. Do you think she's a character that many women can relate to?
Yes, because most women adapt and respond to the predicaments in which they find themselves by design or chance, many of which are circumscribed by the way the men in their worlds hold power. And most women, no matter their stripe, try their best to hold on to the friendship of other women through thick and thin, often forgiving what, in most other situations, would be difficult to forgive.
Without spoiling anything, you touch briefly on child prostitution in Sri Lanka. The first time I ever heard of the sex slave trade it was in relation to Sri Lanka. How severe a problem is it? Is there anything we can do to help?
That's interesting, since the sex slave trade is not something with which Sri Lanka is overrun, though it has had trouble with pedophilia, particularly with regard to young boys, on the part of, usually but not always, foreign nationals who frequent the beaches and tourist areas in the South. Laws against such crimes are strict in Sri Lanka and the authorities have tried to pursue the perpetrators with great determination. Childhood in general is sacrosanct in Sri Lankan culture, so there is a a universal loathing for people who violate that. Sri Lanka was, if I'm not mistaken, the first Asian country to incorporate the rights of children into its constitution.
What are some of the most popular Sri Lankan dishes?
Rice, dhal, sambol, dried fish.
Can you share a recipe for a popular Sri Lankan dish?
Sri Lankans do not usually ask each other for recipes. It is considered a greater pleasure to cook a favorite dish for someone who loves it than to hand them the recipe so they can make it themselves! So, rather than give you a recipe, I am going to direct you to Charmaine Solomons' THE COMPLETE ASIAN COOKBOOOK, which has a good selection of recipes from the country.
You do a lot of different kinds of writing....literary non-fiction, journalism, short-fiction and now a novel. Which is your favorite?
I like them for different reasons. The journalism is always a great pick-me-up because it is instant and there is no submission-waiting-rejection/acceptance process to deal with. I enjoy the non-fiction because I think that is where the most interesting revelations lie, for readers as well as for me. I like short-fiction because it makes me work harder - I am not very good at it! And the novel allows me to relax. It's like taking a long journey with trusted friends: I can let any adventure happen, absorb any disasters, because I have time and loyalty on my side!
Will you be writing another novel? Can you tell us about it?
I am working on a second novel. It's due soon. If I could tell you about it would have to be complete - I don't know a story until it is written down.
If someone wanted to learn about Sri Lanka and the situation of women there, what would be a good book for someone totally new to the issues?
Read the newspapers from Sri Lanka. Read its literature, particularly that written by women, particularly in translation. And, if at all possible, go visit!
A huge thank you to Ru Freeman for taking the time to answer these questions. I hope that everyone will consider reading A Disobedient Girl.