This week marks 40 years since the brutal anti-Tamil pogrom in Sri Lanka that led to thousands killed and hundreds disappeared within a few days. This bloody month in 1983 came to be called Black July and marked the beginning of a civil war that would continue for well over two and a half decades, leaving a devastating death toll and 800,000 Sri Lankan Tamils displaced. Sri Lankan literature is an ocean and comprises an old, vast, and deeply varied body of writing. The long and horrifically violent civil war remains an open wound and thus, unsurprisingly, is the subject of immense literary and artistic exploration to this day.
Here are seven novels out of several dozens that can serve as a way to understand this tragic and traumatic history.
Funny Boy, Shyam Selvadurai (1994)
A queer, coming-of-age novel set in Colombo entwining charming protagonist Arjie’s sexual awakening with the onset of the Tamil-Sinhala conflict. After a mob burns down Arjie’s family home and business, he bids a bittersweet farewell to his first lover Shehan and is whisked off to Canada.
Heaven’s Edge, Romesh Gunesekara (2000)
Londoner Marc puts on his detective hat to investigate his father’s disappearance on a gorgeous island reminiscent of Sri Lanka. He soon becomes embroiled in a romance which pits him against the repressive government in this part-speculative, part-thriller and part-allegorical novel.
Anil’s Ghost, Michael Ondaatje (2000)
Surly and stoic forensic pathologist Anil returns to Sri Lanka after a 15-year absence to conduct a human rights investigation as the civil war rages all around her. With a skeleton named Sailor as her evidence, Anil works to prove the existence of state-sponsored terrorism. This literary masterpiece contains a fascinating supporting cast that includes the brothers Gamini and Sarath, the blind epigraphist Palipana and alcoholic sculptor Ananda.
Traitor, Shobhasakthi, translated from the Tamil by Anushiya Ramaswamy (2002)
Former child soldier turned writer turned actor Shobhasakthi pens a deeply personal novel about young boy Nesakumaran who ends up becoming enlisted into the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). A terrifying section of the novel provides Nesakumaran’s testimony of the Welikade prison massacre where 53 Tamil prisoners were hacked to death by prison guards in July 1983.
Island of a Thousand Mirrors, Nayomi Munaweera (2012)
A novel of two interwoven narratives, Sinhala and Tamil, explores the civil war from both perspectives. The family of privileged Sinhala protagonist Yasodhara relocates to California but Tamil protagonist Saraswathi finds herself in the thick of war as she is sexually assaulted and conscripted as a soldier. With its focus on gender and women’s experience of war, Munaweera tells a nuanced story of trauma and its everlasting impact.
On Sal Mal Lane, Ru Freeman (2013)
Set during the five years that led up to the events of 1983, the novel introduces readers to an ethnically diverse group of families on Sal Mal Lane seen primarily through the eyes of the Herath children. But the harmony between the families and the complex friendships are put to test as the war draws close.
The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, Shehan Karunatilaka (2022)
Winner of the prestigious Booker Prize in 2022, this novel is set in the 1980s and told in second person narration by dead photographer Maali Almeida who is determined to investigate the mystery of his murder. Maali is granted seven days to leap between the real world and the land of the dead, and wants to lead his friends to a set of photographs that would expose perpetrators of violence in the ongoing war. Irreverent, bawdy, esoteric and relentlessly comedic, Karunatilaka’s intervention heralds a new kind of engagement with the war and the ways in which it haunts the country and its people today.
Bhakti Shringarpure is a writer, editor and co-founder of the Radical Books Collective.