In our interview with fiction writer and activist Ru Freeman, we learn more about the society she created for her novel’s Sal Mal Lane, how Sri Lankan culture is ruled by the “we”, and how her sense of the collective and the individual shifts when she’s in America. We’re also welcomed into Freeman’s personal Harlem. Ru Freeman will be reading with fiction writer Karen Russell and filmmaker Pam Sporn on Tuesday, November 19th at Shrine.
In your gorgeous and captivating new novel On Sal Mal Lane, we experience a universe of good and evil on a single street in Sri Lanka. Tell us a bit about the world you created, and how you chose this geographic containment for your storytelling.
The book opens with a scene that anybody can relate to: a new family moves into the neighborhood. It is easy for a reader to put themselves immediately on that street because we all know the way our curiosity and expectation mingles and cloaks a new arrival. For a time, until we learn about them, any new family is a tangible “location” for our dreams: they could be our friends, they could be our enemies, they could be our lovers. And we crucify or praise them for defying our expectations. It was a perfect way to tell the story of life during the years leading up to real war, the war that comes to live within hearts, the war that is therefore much more violent and harder to heal.
Who did you enjoy writing more: the children or the adults? Do you have an affinity for particular characters, or particular kinds of characters?
I enjoy writing, so I couldn’t choose which one I preferred writing more in this case. I suppose there is more time devoted to the children, but they were the focus of this novel. If I had to pick the character I liked the most, it would be Sonna. His was, for me, the true embodiment of how most of our lives unfold – desirous, but thwarted, well-intentioned, but not capacitated to attain our purest goals. He was hardest to love, and so I loved him best.
When did you know you had to write On Sal Mal Lane?
When I couldn’t tell the story of the war that held my country hostage for thirty years in the space of an article for a very prestigious American newspaper. I have always written with an international audience in mind – whether for an article or for fiction. I feel like I write about one thing, but it is related to some other larger reference to a common humanity. In this case, I wanted to write about the lives of people caught in the cross-hairs of policies, weapons, politics, but although the story is set in Sri Lanka, I wanted it to be a story that carried a larger, albeit subtle, “call to heed” for my readers. I wanted them to imagine themselves on these streets, in these homes, and thereby to imagine themselves onto any street and any home in any country that has been at war, or has had war visited upon it: Iraq, Palestine, Angola, Pakistan, Afghanistan, America.
Tell us about “we” in Sri Lanka, and in your fiction.
Sri Lankan culture is ruled by the “we.” We share everything – chairs, money, clothes – with each other. For example, if a person visits, we don’t ask them if they would like tea, we say, “Shall we drink some tea then?” If you ask for help, even if the person finds it extremely inconvenient to tend to you, the immediate response is always “Yes,” and then they may have to make other arrangements to reschedule themselves, and ask other people for help they hadn’t previously needed, in order to help you. In the novel, however, the “we” that is referred to is the “we” of a whole lane and, by extension, to the country. The story is narrated by the road, and the allusion to the “them” of the Herath family, and the “we” is a bridge between this road and the nation. What was lost on that lane, was also what was lost to the country as a whole.
When do you feel the most “we”? Most “I”?
I do tend to err toward the plural. If you read any of my articles, they are usually wrapped around the notion of community, and an advocacy for the abandonment of the personal pronoun unless it is in service to the whole. Much of what ails America, I believe, comes from this constant genuflection to individual rights. And rights, as I’ve written elsewhere, rarely seem to come with responsibilities. I do experience the “I” most often here in America, and mostly when I realize that I do a very good job of playing the assimilated immigrant. The better I am at it, the more alone I feel. Up on a stage, under a single light, reading – then I am most assuredly very much an “I.”
Tell us about your Harlem.
My Harlem is between 149th and 150th on St. Nicholas Street. It is the 24-hour deli whose lights I watch as I talk on the phone to friends far away in the wee hours of the morning. It is the jazz bar with poor service and terrible drinks that is now shut. It is the home where I attended a Christmas party thrown by people I’d only met on Facebook, where Jayne Anne Phillips was also banging on the door at the same time as I was. It is Yankee Stadium where I saw Madonna take off her shirt and display OBAMA written in black ink all over her back. It is an Uber ride downtown with a bookish beloved to attend a celebration with other bookish beloveds. It is Stefano who strokes my face as I brush my teeth, and offers me fresh washed sheets and pillows and tells me I am home. It is a mattress on a floor in a tiny room where I sometimes climb the window to hang ballgowns and winter coats, and where I put my cotton-balls and tissues in a tiny paper gift bag hung on the door. But more than anything else, my Harlem is my best friend Charles Rice-Gonzalez, a heart like no other, a twin-soul who plays by my same rules, who is unafraid to lean and be leaned on, who takes me in one night to dance at a Disco club and to Artichoke Pizza, and gives me the keys to his apartment. Which is at 2-4 St. Nicholas Street, between 149th and 150th, a straight shot on the A train. Yeah.
What piece of urgent advice would you give an emerging novelist?
Quick! Read! Buy all your books at Indie bookstores. Most of them ship, if you don’t have the time to browse. Whenever possible, attend readings and lectures and panels by writers you admire and those you’ve never heard of. Be nice to everybody: the larger your world, the more at home you will be in it.