The ethnic riots of 1983 were not the first in Sri Lanka. Nor were they the last. But Black July was indisputably a seismic event in this country’s history. Its echoes are everywhere, but some of my most meaningful encounters with it have been through the island’s literature. From the warmth and innocence of Funny Boy to the passionate and inescapably political poetry of Jean Arasanayagam, the riots are embedded in Sri Lanka’s literary consciousness.

In fiction like July by Karen Roberts, On Sal Mal Lane by Ru Freeman, Reef by Romesh Gunasekera, Love, Marriage by VV Ganeshanantha, and Road from Elephant Pass by Nihal de Silva, 1983, even if only referred to in a few lines, is a profound influence. Its arrival on the page transmutes individuals and communities physically, emotionally and spiritually. The borders that mark the before and after are sharp, and when you cross over, it is into another country. So much of this writing does what you would expect of the best fiction. It produces stories that are intimate, deeply felt, unabashedly subjective, that go beyond dry statistics and sanitised official reports.

For context, the riots began on July 23 with reports of an ambush of 13 Sri Lankan army soldiers by the separatist militant group Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). By the next day, controversy around the soldiers’ funerals had already spurred the gathering of angry, predominantly Sinhalese mobs in Colombo. It marked the start of a week of deadly rioting across the county, with Tamil homes, businesses and factories targeted. Hundreds of Tamil civilians were killed (the actual number remains disputed) and some 150,000 people were displaced. Many reports include mention of mobs armed with voter registration lists that allowed them to zero in on their targets.

In the wake of the riots, Tamils fled to the North and East of the country, while those who could leave left the country altogether. The 26 years of war between the LTTE and the state that followed would become one of the most brutal, and longest-running civil conflicts in Asia.

Going away

“It just boggles reality,” says author Shyam Selvadurai. Selvadurai’s first and greatly beloved book Funny Boy was a semi-autobiographical novel that introduced us to a young boy named Arjie. Arjie is gay and in a world where gender, class and ethnic categories are rigidly adhered to, he is an anomaly, a “funny boy.” In the final section of the book, titled “Riot Journal”, Arjie reports on the unravelling of his world. In a particularly difficult moment, he hears that he has lost his grandparents – their car was set alight, with them still in it – and we see the event through a child’s confused eyes as he struggles to make sense of his father’s wild grief and his mother’s fear.

The family is forced to flee their home, which is later torched, the flames illuminating the night sky as they take refuge with a Sinhalese neighbour. Selvadurai, who drew on both his personal recollections and reports published after the event to write the scene, says of 1983: “It was a watershed. After that the war began. After that we lost our innocence. I was never the same person after that and neither was the country ever the same.”

He says that in essence 1983 helped define the diaspora. People who had migrated in the years before watched in horror as events unfolded back home. “For the diaspora, it’s their reason for existing. It's like a rite of passage for them, a sort of second birth,” says Selvadurai. “Sure people came in waves after 1983, but it's the moment that created the first push out to a place like Toronto. In the north is also galvanised the Tiger movement when people saw the refugees arriving there.”

A fresh view

“In the diaspora, the memories of ‘83 are alive in a different way,” says the poet Ramya Chamalie Jirasinghe. Jirasinghe, who also teaches creative writing through a Fulbright programme in Colombo, says she believes younger writers in the diaspora have engaged with ‘83 in an attempt to understand what drove their families into exile. She suspects new local writers will feel less compelled to wrestle with it, but from a purely technical perspective, there is a need even here to seek new approaches and to find fresh ways of representing a much written about event.

Nayomi Munaweera is one among a handful of contemporary Sri Lankan writers to achieve such a fresh approach. She published Island of a Thousand Mirrors in 2014 to critical acclaim. Her debut, it was long-listed for the Man Asia Prize and won the Commonwealth Regional Prize for Asia. Munaweera’s book is dense, lyrical and madly ambitious in its determination to have characters speak not from this side or that but to explore the many faces of the conflict.

A central scene in the book places her characters on the streets of Colombo as murderous mobs go on a rampage. While Munaweera did not experience the riots first hand, they still hold a central place in her imagination and memory. “My paternal aunt, much like the character of Mala in Island of a Thousand Mirrors was pregnant and went into labour during the riots,” she says.

The family’s mad dash to hospital ended well, and Munaweera’s cousin is now expecting his own child. “However the description of that terrible drive, its psychic weight on my family, the threat of what could have happened to them and their witnessing of what happened to Tamil people on the streets was one of the first moments I understood absolute terror,” says the writer.

Later on, Munaweera would hear other accounts of the riots from people she loved. A boyfriend described hiding from the mobs with his siblings under a bed and then fleeing to the airport, “leaving their homes and everything they treasured to chaos.” As a Sinhala woman Munaweera says she was aware that she had been allowed into that story, and was a witness to the terror they had felt.

She would draw on these narratives in her writing and sees such truth-telling as a driving force of her work. “It's always the work of the artist to stand up against the official narrative and say – that's not what happened, let's look at the painful truth.” She does this through “the telling of fictions,” an act which at its most effective she says “demands that people's experiences are honoured.”

The unofficial version

For authors like Selvadurai, fiction has been a powerful tool with which to help people engage with those experiences and to challenge the obfuscation of official narratives. “I think it makes the horror of it personal,” he says. “It forces us to think of these people as people and not just numbers. It also contradicts the official narrative by narrating how the government and armed forces stood by and let it happen and even participated. For me 1983 so far, along with the JVP insurrection, are the only events in the war in which I feel there is some real truth being spoken and acknowledged.”

From her home in Kandy, Jean Arasanayagam shares a memory from 33 years ago, when she stepped out of house to go and face down the mob. She knew her husband, who was Tamil, and their two children were in danger. Despite their Dutch Burgher ancestry, she and her brother were threatened at their front gate, but they managed to hold the crowd at bay. Later that day, they fled to a refugee camp.

The experience shattered her life as she knew it. “I understood that my sense of safety was forever imperilled, forever destroyed. You are never yourself again,” says Arasanayagam. “Since then I find myself constantly peering into the interstices of the past, trying to unpick all the threads.”

In her writing, Arasanayagam returns again and again to that time in works such as Apocalypse 83, The Journey and The Captain Has Come. She remembers the camp they took shelter in was a universe unto itself. People were overcome by fear, strain and a sense of absolute alienation. Arasanayagam herself felt fenced in, incarcerated mentally and physically within that space. When they were able to leave, she still carried within her something of that terrible uncertainty. “You can pick up the fragments and leave the camp, but those fragments will remain embedded within you like shrapnel,” she says.

In the months and years to come, Arasanayagam would have many conversations about that time, others adding their own recollections to hers. “Everything I have described to you has found its way into my work, I have had to excise it out of my system,” she says, adding with a rueful laugh, “through out my life, this has been grist to my mill. It is alchemy – the conversion of base metal through literature into something precious.”

Today, Arasanayagam says that while other concerns have superseded the events of 1983 in her mind, the experience remains one of the most defining of her life. It has helped form the writer she is today, someone intent on questioning, unpacking history and identity, and confronting even the most painful emotions so as to reveal deeper truths. Through this work she has found her purpose. “I am so happy that I am still here to report,” Arasanayagam tells me. “I am not young any more but I am still reporting.”