Hasanthika Sirisena’s short stories are tied to Sri Lanka. They explore the culture, the repercussions of its lengthy civil war, and the people — whether living there and abroad. The characters vary, from high school cricket players to military engineers to underpaid third country national cooks on a military base in Kuwait. However, they have something in common: They’ve gone somewhere most wouldn’t and noticed what most couldn’t.
There’s the cook who notices when fish become sick and then disappear from the military aquarium in Kuwait. Then there’s the military engineer who starts to feel haunted by the war. Leaving the normal, predictable life, they realize, isn’t necessarily a marker of strength — it’s “a pretense, an indulgence.” The Sri Lankan expat, who suspects her cousin’s husband of wrongdoing once the cousin disappears, concludes:
It was equally as weak to be the one to go, as it was to be the one who remained. It was as weak to be someone cut off, as it was to be cut away.
Hasanthika’s work has appeared in The Kenyon Review, Glimmer Train, and StoryQuarterly, among others, and has been anthologized in Best New American Voices. Her honors include a Rona Jaffe Writers’ Award, stories distinguished by Best American Short Stories in 2011 and 2012, fellowships from Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony, and the Juniper Prize for Fiction for her debut story collection, The Other One, published in 2016 by the University of Massachusetts Press. She teaches at Susquehanna University as a visiting assistant professor. She was kind enough to answer questions via email earlier this month while visiting Sri Lanka.
What’s the worst thing you’ve ever written?
Hasanthika Sirisena: The first story I ever wrote was pretty bad. It involved a miscarriage and a dream of a dead fetus in a pickling jar — seriously. My teacher was very kind about it all though, and I’m grateful. After that, honestly, everything I write starts out in some embarrassing stage of not being particularly good. And then I rewrite and rewrite. I think recognizing that most of what I write is terrible is necessary in order to maintain a certain humility and awe about the process.
Did that teacher give you any advice on that story, or another, that was helpful?
HS: The teacher was actually very kind and gave me excellent advice. This was over fifteen years ago — it was my first ever workshop — so I don’t remember the exact advice. I think he might have liked the strangeness of the dream sequence but urged me not to make the dream itself the resolution of the story. This was, for this particular story, solid advice.
Dreams are definitely taboo, but some can pull them off. Which risky choices — excessive drugs and alcohol, twist endings, or other tropes teachers tell intro to creative writing students to avoid — do you think never work? Which get a bad rap?
HS: As a teacher, I’m very reluctant to make blanket statements about what students and writers should or shouldn’t do. For example, I have to admit that I personally tend to want to say, “Don’t write about unicorns!” But then one of my favorite stories is Kelly Link’s “Valley of the Girls,” and it has unicorns in it (and pyramids, and celebrity doubles, and suicide/murder). I teach that story as a reminder to myself that one of the real pleasures of writing and reading is delight in using all that’s available to our imaginations — including unicorns.
The issue with excessive drugs and alcohol is that they are too often tied to stereotypes — a trailer park, New York high society — and these stereotypes are rarely deeply interrogated. American culture tends to be moralistic about drug and alcohol use.
When it’s depicted in my student’s stories, I think it’s often because there is something taboo, not because it’s deeply felt or part of the characters’ experience. The presence of drugs is meant to signify how lost and troubled the particular character and culture is. It’s meant to act as a trigger for our sympathy — and judgement. So, I would urge a student not to focus on the drugs but to focus instead on the characters and the larger culture that they are a part of and the truths about those characters and culture. The trigger for our sympathy should come from the story itself. But by all means write about drugs, alcohol, anything you want!
As for twist endings, I experience a deep, visceral pleasure while reading a good twist ending. I still have wonderful memories of reading Saki and O. Henry as a child and feeling enthralled.
That’s funny because in your story called “Unicorn” has sort of a twist ending. How did that story come about?
HS: That’s great that you remembered that story! I wasn’t thinking about it when I wrote my response, but now that you mention it, I did write it with my “No Unicorns” prohibition in mind. (Clearly there’s something subliminal here that I’ll leave for my therapist to unpack.) I won’t spoil the “twist” but that particular unicorn is real, and I saw it with my own eyes while touring the north of Sri Lanka two years after the war. It was on display, just as it is in the story. When I saw it, I knew I had to find a way to write about it.
In fact, the inspiration for that story is that trip and many of the characters are based on real people. After meeting the military engineer, I became obsessed with military engineering and started to do two years of research to understand that mindset.
Speaking of terrible writing, the original version had about two pages on the history of military engineering because of my obsession. A friend, rightly, counseled me to take it out because that section was for me — in order to justify two years worth of reading — and not for the reader.
I once heard Stuart Dybek say he couldn’t write about Chicago until he left. Do you find the same is true about Sri Lanka? Or, does your writing thrive when (like right now) you are there?
HS: For me, it’s not about a spatial relationship as much as it is an emotional relationship. My relationship with Sri Lanka is one of ‘feet in two worlds.’ I have a deeply emotional connection and loyalty to the country, but I also recognize that I am culturally American. I don’t know if it’s easier or harder to write about Sri Lanka because of my position. All I know is that mine isn’t a particularly singular experience.
The best way I can think to put it is that I have a deep connection, a desire to understand, and a love for my family and for the country. So I don’t feel not close — whether I’m living in Sri Lanka or in the States. But I also recognize that as someone who is culturally American, there are things I just don’t understand, and my writing is about trying to push me even closer to comprehending something that’s deeply important to me.
Did you start a new project after your book came out? Or, what have you been working on lately?
HS: Yes, I move on quickly once a project is done. I’ve trained myself not to dwell on success or rejection — and there’s a lot of rejection.
I’ve found the best way for me to thrive as a writer is to work on multiple projects so I have a few balls in the air. I am working on a novel, but I’m allowing that to be a slow process. I’m also working on a series of essays that I hope will become a collection. And I’m always trying to finish short stories. I still see myself, primarily, as a short story writer.