Hasanthika Sirisena first heard about the aquarium from a friend who was enlisted in the US Army. He told her about this 55 gallon, salt-water tank in the middle of a military base in the Kuwaiti dessert. The two of them laughed about the preposterousness of it, and then wondered about the poor soul responsible for keeping all those fish alive. That kernel of a thought grew into Third Country National.
It is the story that opens Sirisena’s Juniper prize-winning collection The Other One. With her debut, Sirisena establishes herself as a genuinely inventive voice, one of those rare authors capable of balancing a deep empathy with dark humour, reflective of the absurdity and unpredictability inherent in our lives. Her characters seem to gingerly trace out the boundaries of normalcy, but when they smudge the lines, they realise there is no one and nothing they can take for granted, not even their sense of self.
In Sirisena’s writing, what follows is upheaval and uncertainty, and sometimes the story even has a happy ending. She writes about civil war, star-crossed lovers and delinquent young immigrants, but it is the inclusion of mantis shrimp and turkey-milk-bottle bombs that delight.
“I wish it was all instinct and magic”
Sirisena is of Sri Lankan heritage, but readily admits she feels very American. She is an associate fiction editor for West Branch literary magazine and a visiting professor at Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania, where she is currently teaching her students about the history of short stories. In some ways, her day job ensures Sirisena’s deep interest in the actual craft of writing – “I wish it was all instinct and magic, but I tend to be very invested in technique. The process takes years.” She has spent just over a decade producing and polishing the stories that appear in this collection.
During this time, she has quietly set about making a name for herself. Her stories have appeared in publications such as Glimmer Train, Epoch and Narrative and have been anthologised in The Best New American Voices. She was twice named a distinguished story by Best American Short Stories (2011, 2012) and in 2008 won a Rona Jaffe Writers Award. Though she is currently working on a novel, Sirisena says her love for the short story runs deep.
“I think the short story is so essentially about characters and relationships. A short story offers this understanding of these really monumental moments in a person’s life, an understanding of the boundaries we have,” says Sirisena, adding “It doesn’t need to be expanded and yet it allows the reader to live in that moment.” Her writing is intense and focussed, delivering insight in a sharp burst. “The short story has to get the beats right,” she says.
Sirisena finds much to love in both America and Sri Lanka. “I won’t pretend I understand everything about Sri Lanka, but for me there is a real love for the country.” With friends and family there, she talks about how her feelings for the island are tinged with sadness. “Part of why I write about Sri Lanka is that I long for it. It’s to me a love affair, but there is also some sense of loss.”
Explaining America to her parents
The week we talk, the author Lionel Shriver has made headlines with her speech on cultural appropriation. This leads into a conversation about how diaspora writers have been criticised in the Sri Lankan press for writing about the country’s civil war from the perspective of people who have lived through it.
Referring to the Sri Lankan immigrant who becomes a harassed aquarium keeper in Third Country National, Sirisena says “This would be a person who doesn’t get to write his own story, and I am co-opting his story for fiction, I do acknowledge that.” While this act of imagination is absolutely intrinsic to her work, Sirisena emphasises that she can only justify it by doing so with great care and awareness of her own privilege: “I think not knowing the history, not being willing to learn it, is a terrible thing.”
A lot of her thinking on this is shaped by her own arrival as a young immigrant in the US. They moved when her father, who was a doctor, found work at a state mental hospital in North Carolina. They had never been to America and had very different expectations.
Though she was still very young, Sirisena would become a kind of mediator for her parents when they found their way to a very poor part of the south: “I had to translate this place we were in for them,” she says. In particular, the family understood very little about the social and racial tensions in that region. Sirisena could sense these conflicts like an undertow, but says “I could see something was wrong, but no one would tell me what it was. My teachers didn’t tell me, my textbooks didn’t tell me. I could get facts, but I couldn’t get the history really. No one explained, perhaps because they didn’t have the language for it.”
It was why when she read the American author Flannery O’ Connor, it felt to her like a revelation. “It felt like somebody finally spoke the truth to me.” O’Connor was far from perfect, but her willingness to grapple with the world she was a part of and her willingness to get angry about it resonated with Sirisena. “Here was somebody understanding a legacy,” she says.
In the act of explaining the America they were in to her parents, Sirisena suspects she learned something about being both inside and outside a world, and it is something she continues to do in her writing: “Something that happens a lot in my stories is that people are always needing to translate for somebody else,” she says.
Sirisena puts many of her characters in The Other One through the experience of social or emotional isolation – often the process is violent or disturbing, sometimes it is simply painful. Her characters frequently embrace a kind of pragmatism and dark humour in response. “I think deep despair can sometimes be a privilege,” she says. “There are people who cannot indulge it, they have to raise kids and go to work, to simply figure out how to exist. They need something to laugh about, and I have met Sri Lankans like that. There is this deep, deep sorrow, but also this dark humour, because you still need to find something to laugh about.”
Rummaging around her own subconscious, Sirisena finds multiple influences. Her stories are filled with people who feel outside their lives, their communities and even themselves. She tells me that her father can still be startled at neighbours who own guns in America or feel a pang of surprise when people in Sri Lanka wonder at how well he speaks Sinhala – he only left the island when he was 38, after all. But his daughter is much more at ease with her own frankly complicated identity.
She says emphatically that she could never claim to be southerner, or even a New Yorker. The same is true of Britain where she lived for a while, and Sri Lanka, though beloved, is not home. As a hypothetical throwaway, she asks herself “What does that make me?” When I repeat the question in earnest, Sirisena says simply and quite cheerfully, “I don’t know. I think I feel most comfortable travelling. All you need is a passport, you don’t need to prove who you are. You get to be the outsider, and that can be good.”