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date: 17 January 2021

Sri Lankan American Literature and Culturelocked

  • Dinidu KarunanayakeDinidu KarunanayakeEnglish Program, Centre College

Summary

Despite the prominent work produced by Sri Lankan American writers Michael Ondaatje and Rienzi Crusz since the 1970s, Sri Lankan American literature and culture has maintained a doubly marginalized position in Asian America due to the historical disregard of South Asian America and the dominance of Indian America. Literary and cultural work by writers and artists of the first and second generations reveal how Sri Lankan America is, to use Rajiv Shankar’s phrase, “a part, yet apart” of the South Asian American milieu as well as postcolonial Sri Lankan studies. First-generation writers initially reflect on the common diasporic theme of nostalgia for the land of origin, but their larger body of work is not directly related to “Sri Lankan” topics. For instance, Ondaatje, who gained prominence as a “Canadian postmodernist,” kept Sri Lanka largely peripheral in his early poetry until his 1982 memoir Running in the Family. However, after the outbreak of the Sri Lankan civil war between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), presaged by the state-sanctioned pogrom of Tamils known as the Black July riots of 1983 that occasioned a second wave of immigration to North America, the volatile political background at home and the national “betrayal” by the Sinhalese Buddhist government became a major thematic motif for Sri Lankan American writing. Indran Amirthanayagam’s 1993 poetry collection The Elephants of Reckoning reveals a new responsibility embraced by the diasporic writer—to recognize that “the dead have tongues” and to pose the question: “What are they saying?” Shyam Selvadurai’s Funny Boy (1994) reiterates Amirthanayagam’s position, becoming a blueprint for a new generation of Sri Lankan American writers and popular cultural artists invested in social justice vis-à-vis not only race, ethnicity, and citizenship but also politics of gender and sexuality. Second-generation Sri Lankan American writing such as V. V. Ganeshananthan’s novel Love Marriage (2008) experiments with new archival forms by mediating traumatic “inherited memories” of the civil war, pointing to the future directions of the Sri Lankan American literary and cultural terrain.

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