Brotherless Night & Friends: V.V. Ganeshananthan with Curtis Sittenfeld and Whitney Terrell on Editing A Work in Progress
In Conversation with Whitney Terrell and V.V. Ganeshananthan on Fiction/Non/Fiction
Novelist Curtis Sittenfeld joins V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell as a special guest co-host to discuss Ganeshananthan’s newly released novel, Brotherless Night. Sittenfeld and Terrell ask Ganeshananthan about growing up in the Washington, D.C. metro area and how she came to write a book about a Tamil family living in Jaffna, Sri Lanka during the 1980s, the earliest years of the Sri Lankan civil war. Ganeshananthan reads an excerpt and talks about working on the novel for almost 20 years with help from many readers; how Terrell’s notes helped her with characterization; and how a comment from Sittenfeld altered the first line of the book and part of the plot.
From the episode:
Curtis Sittenfeld: I know that your family is from Sri Lanka; you are from Maryland. So I’m curious—one, do you perhaps want to say what year you were born? And what was your awareness of the conflict growing up, or just your general awareness of Sri Lanka?
V.V. Ganeshananthan: Sure, and thank you so much for all of your generous support of the book, which has been so extraordinary and which has changed the book in ways that I think we’re going to talk about later. I was born in 1980, so just a shade before this book’s action kicks off. The narrator is older than me, and she’s 16 in 1981, when the book starts. I grew up on stories of Sri Lanka and on news coverage—sometimes on the kind of propaganda that circulated in the Tamil diaspora, which was largely coming out of Tamil militant groups or out of cultural organizations that were sympathetic to Tamil nationalism. Of which there are many, many different strands.
And so I grew up with a strong sense of the Sri Lankan state as an unjust entity. I think one of my earliest memories is of news coverage of the 1983 riots, which did prompt some members of my family to emigrate. I was aware of that as a canonical incident of not just Sri Lankan history, but also of my family itself.
In Maryland, there is a sizable Tamil community, and I was connected to them largely through cultural and religious events. And—at least in my experience—if an organization was called a Sri Lanka Association, it was often very Sinhalese-dominated. Tamil organizations often had the word “Tamil” in them. So organizations where people were interacting across ethnic boundaries, at least in the diaspora, were somewhat rare.
That said, I also have a lot of mixed heritage in my own family, including cousins who come from other ethnic communities in Sri Lanka or who are of mixed heritage and who speak multiple languages. So I think that my family had kind of porous borders, but I was involved in some aspects of the community where the lines were really severe.
Whitney Terrell: I just want to give listeners a sense of the dramatis personae here. I’ve given myself this question so that you can correct me on all my pronunciations, which I’m sure I’m going to jack up—I’ve been reading the book, but I haven’t been listening to you read it aloud. So the narrator is Sashikala. Is that the right way to say it?
VVG: Yeah, SAH-shi-KUH-lah.
WT: Also known as Sashi. Huh, it sounds a lot like somebody else’s nickname. I don’t know who that would be.
CS: [Laughing] Isn’t it against the law for fiction writers to do this to each other? Like, “This is nonfiction, right? Oh, clearly the protagonist is a stand-in for you. Have you always written totally autobiographically or just with this book?” Carry on.
WT: [Laughing] I was going to say that her nickname is kunju, also—someone calls her that in the course of the book—and that is the name of your dog, Sugi. I don’t know what that’s all about, but fine. I just know that you like your dog.
All right. So she grows up in Jaffna, which is a Tamil-dominated city in Sri Lanka’s Northern Province. She’s studying science and hopes to be a doctor. She has four brothers—that’s the title of the novel—Seelan, Dayalan, Niranjan, and Aran.
VVG: SEE-luhn, DHYE-uh-luhn, Neer-AHN-juhn, and AIR-uhn.
WT: Okay. Seelan, Dalayan, Niranjan and Aran, and a frenemy—or at least that’s how I sort of think of this character—named K, who also wants to be a doctor and grows up in her neighborhood. Does that seem like a fair summary?
VVG: Yeah, that’s a great summary. I will just note that the word “kunju” in Tamil basically means sweetie or darling. As regular listeners to the show know, my schnoodle is very dear to my heart, and that is her name. I have also regularly in my life been called kunju by various older relatives.
WT: I see. So you name your dog for yourself. Okay, well, moving on.
VVG: Anyway, that is a fair summary. She grows up with four brothers, and she is the second to last in the birth order. Only Aran is younger than her. And she has her mother, Amma, who lives in the house with her, and her father, who works in a civil service kind of job—he’s posted what would be called outstation. He travels to different locations and he’s home sporadically in a way that is sometimes helpful and sometimes disruptive. So he’s kind of absent, present.
CS: Sugi, I want to ask you a little bit about how you created a sense of place in the book. So much of the story takes place in Jaffna and my two-part question is, one, what makes that a specific area within Sri Lanka? What gives it its identity? And how much research did you do, or have you been there?
VVG: Sure, thanks for that question. So my family has history in Jaffna—I’ve had a lot of family in Jaffna. Over the years I have been there. Obviously, I wasn’t there during the time that the events of this book take place. It is kind of an unofficial Tamil capital of Sri Lanka in many ways. It has, for example, a very large Hindu temple, and certain cultural locations that are significant in Sri Lankan Tamil life.
It’s also famously a place that has a long history of casteism, which is something that the book touches on a little bit. It’s famously interested in education, famously socially conservative. And yet it also gave rise to really interesting political dissidents—people who I was really interested in—so that seeming incongruity was something that I was drawn to. It’s a place that… Because of my family’s connection to it, I do feel strongly about it.
I think that a lot of Sri Lankan fiction has been set in the capital of Sri Lanka—which is Colombo—and I also have family connections in Colombo. But it was important to me to set a novel specifically in Jaffna. Which has been done—it’s not like it’s unprecedented—but it’s not as common. And I wanted to center and also sort of self-critique, think about ideas of Tamilness that have come out of Jaffna.
Which I think gave rise to both Tamil militancy, and people who felt themselves able to critique the state and Tamil militancy. It’s a really beautiful place. It’s a place that, during the war, was impacted by a lot of violence, a lot of shelling, displacements. And so as a place that is—in many Tamil people’s heads—very strongly home, it is also the site of repeated displacements.
CS: What would you say makes it beautiful? Like, what’s the notable beauty of it?
VVG: It has some beautiful beaches. I remember, after the war was over, there was some media coverage that was kind of like, “Oh, and now these beaches, which are unspoiled, are accessible to everyone.” And I was like, “This is horrible.” Just this exoticizing coverage of it. I think that sometimes people think of Jaffna as other within Sri Lanka. And I, of course, do not think of it as other… so, kind of making that particular beauty normal. It has a lot of beautiful plant life that’s very particular to that region. The palmyra tree is a symbol of Jaffna. And also, just a lot of really beautiful buildings. One of the most beautiful temples I’ve ever seen, which is the Nallur Kandaswamy temple, is where some of the scenes are set.
WT: Thank you, that’s a really good answer. Those are things I didn’t know about you, and I’ve known you for a long time.
• Emergency ’58 • Elizabeth McCracken • Rebecca Shapiro • Caitlin McKenna, editor • On Authenticity, Research, and Writing From the Diaspora by V.V Ganeshananthan • ‘Terrorist’ — to Whom? V.V. Ganeshananthan’s novel ‘Brotherless Night’ reveals the moral nuances of violence, ever belied by black-and-white terminology. | by Omar El Akkad, The New York Times • A young woman’s family is torn apart during the lengthy Sri Lankan civil war in this propulsive masterpiece by a Minnesota writer. |by May-lee Chai, The Minneapolis Star-Tribune