Michal Ondaatje paid tribute to Neelan Tiruchelvam when he accepted the PEP award in April 2011 in New York.
“The book rested on her lap, like a doorway.”
D.H. Lawrence wrote that in The Rainbow, in 1915.
Today we’re luckier, living in a time of great translations and translators. We can be influenced by every part of the world, artistically, politically. There are so many open doors it is almost perverse to be insular. “The pure products of America go crazy,” wrote that good doctor, William Carlos Williams.
I want to speak of the strange magic of such influences.
In Sri Lanka the great dancer, Chitresena, created and performed remarkable works throughout his life. He was essential in reviving and celebrating the vernacular in dance. I asked him once, late in his life, what made him a dancer, and he said it was when he read the autobiography of Isadora Duncan. A book written by an American dancer made him a revolutionary choreographer in Sri Lanka. He never saw her dance.
Growing up in Sri Lanka (then living in England, then North America) similar haphazard influences have shaped me. I am a mongrel of place, of race, of cultures, and many genres. I am sure my writing has been influenced and altered by, among other things, Diego Rivera’s frescoes, Louis Armstrong’s Hot 5 and Hot 7 recordings, the anti-linear structure of temple art in Sri Lanka, as well as the radical beauty of Kurt Schwitters’ collages, and the raw materials in a Rauschenberg. I suspect I am more influenced by other genres than by writing itself…
But I had grown up in an oral tradition rather than a literary one. Tall stories, gossip, arguments and lies at the dinner table. I would not be interested in ‘the writing life’ for a long time. On the back of one Penguin paperback I read that the English author, Nigel Balchin, wrote his first novel during his honeymoon! It sounded a dire warning of what had to be given up.
Today, as I said, we are surrounded by so many art forms and translated texts…so that, as John Berger writes, ‘Never again will a single story be as though it were the only one.’ A person grows up in Colombo or Wichita or Port Said and their true mentor could be Calvino or Miles Davis, or it could a political gesture or act taking place in a far away place.
When I was asked to say something at this event, my first thought was that I wanted to speak about Neelan Tiruchelvam. Neelan was a Tamil lawyer and member of parliament in Sri Lanka. He headed the International Centre for Ethnic Studies in Colombo. He was a lover of literature. He brought writers and thinkers in from all parts of the world to speak there. He knew Tagore by heart, and translated him. As a parliamentarian he believed in self-determination for Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority through negotiation and constitutional reform. And he always opposed and fought human-rights abuses committed by the nation’s military as well as by the Tamil Tigers. He was a moderate. And moderates are often the first to be killed in such a war. He was assassinated, blown up, by the Tigers in July 1999 outside the Center for Ethnic Studies in Colombo.
All these years later, I still think of Neelan. His name blinks there, on my computer, every day. Few people here know about him.
How do we, as authors, feel we have a right to stand beside someone like him? Or the journalist Lasantha Wickrematunge, who wrote news articles criticizing the government and was probably killed by those he criticized.
I don’t know. It feels there is this great gulf between them and us.
But just as we see people like Neelan Tiruchelvam and Lasantha Wickrematunge as our heroes, I do know that Neelan’s heroes were writers. He had brought so many of them to the Ethnic Centre, including Arundhati Roy. He loved Akhmatova and would quote her poetry often in his speeches in parliament. Akhmatova, another influence, from another part of the world. “Never again will a single story be told as though it were the only one.”
So a radical idea in an English book inspires a dancer in Sri Lanka. A Russian poet’s words are quoted by a young Tamil lawyer in Colombo…. The power of words, no matter how unpolitical a sentence might seem, changes us. How important a sentence is, a pen.
I was truly surprised to be given this award. I know this is an award for Writing. But I would like to accept it on behalf of Neelan Tiruchelvan, who loved the truth he found in literature. If writers influenced him, he must always influence us.