Thinking Through Things: Romesh Gunesekera

Posted on 30/10/2014
By Commonwealth Foundation

Short Stories, Romesh GunesekeraA butterfly knife with its blade exposed, a toy car parked near a cricket bat and an unopened pack of Roses Cigarettes are just some of the items resting on this 1980s IBM Portable PC. So what’s the story?
Last week we asked for your stories, short pieces that connected two or more of these objects. Many of you posted your efforts on Facebook and some in the comment feed under this post.
Our favourite story and details of the mystery prize are at the end of this post.

Romesh Gunesekera, Judge 2015CSSP
Today we reveal that these objects belong to Sri Lankan born writer Romesh Gunesekera, Chair of the 2015 Commonwealth Short Story Prize.
These are the objects that have inspired and shaped Romesh’s writing accross his career. Here is the real story behind them.
If you’ve got Flash you’ll be able to see the story on Timeline too.

Mystery Objects: The Full Story


(1) In the 1980s the IBM Portable PC Arrivedsteve romesh 10 story items (73)

“For years I used a typewriter to write. Cutting and pasting pieces of paper with sticky tape and glue, using carbon paper for copies. Then, in the 1980s, the IBM Portable PC arrived – big as a suitcase – and my father-in-law handed his amazing machine down to me. My life changed. Rewriting was no longer the labour it had been. A book at last became a real possibility for an inveterate rewriter like me.”

steve romesh 10 story items (14) b

(2) Roses Cigarettes

“I never smoked this brand, but some of my Sri Lankan characters in the early stories did. The best advice I was given when starting to write was to stop smoking. It was a procrastination habit I could do without, and at five minutes a cigarette saved me hours every day.”

steve romesh 10 story items (52)

(3) An Indian Tea Cup

“This is a cup from a set passed down the family. Some were cracked and I especially liked the cracks. I wrote a poem about the cup, and then later a story about cracks and their healing patterns. You’ll find the story in my first book Monkfish Moon and the poem somewhere on a wall.”
You can read more about Monkfish Moon here.

steve romesh 10 story items (38) a(4) A Stringhopper Mould

“Translators working on my books in the 90’s did not know what to make of the word, but stringhoppers have been very big in my life. My father was an expert at making them, and so is Triton in my novel Reef. If you are still flummoxed by the word, try to find my story, ‘Stringhoppers’, published in several magazines and anthologies. It gives a definition.”
Here’s a digitised manuscript page of the ‘Stringhoppers’.

steve romesh 10 story items (20) a(5) A Triton Shell

“The narrator of my first novel, Reef, is Triton. He makes the book his own. The triton shell is a conch that the Greek god Triton uses to speak through. His is the human voice born from the sea and just the one to nurture a first novel.”
Find out more about Reef.

steve romesh 10 story items (44)(6) Timer Perched on a Wristwatch

“The watch was my father’s and a very special timepiece. He gave it to me saying it lost time and was not so useful for him. But losing time is what writing is about and it suits me. I’ve linked this with an hourglass which was the image that appeared on computer screens when you were saving large files. I saw the spinning icon a lot writing my second novel, The Sandglass, which is very much about the nature of time. The two kinds of time we see measured in these two objects: one that keeps repeating itself and the other that needs to be turned upside down, again and again.”

steve romesh 10 story items (19) a(7) A Butterfly Knife

“Knives have blighted too many young lives and we know of their dangers only too well these days. But they are not a new phenomenon even among the young. This is a butterfly knife which was a type that was around when I was a youngster. The best thing to do with it is to blunt it with paper: I put this one in my 2002 novel, Heaven’s Edge, although different versions of it have appeared in other stories and poems too.”

steve romesh 10 story items (56)(8) The Leica Camera

“This camera was given to me by my mother’s closest friend about fifteen years ago. She is 90 now and has been taking pictures for as long as I can remember. She and I did a trip to Jaffna after the end of the war in Sri Lanka to see where my mother had spent part of her childhood. A trip that got me started on my latest book: Noontide Toll (2014). But this camera also appears in an early short story called ‘Goat’ and is hugely important in my novel The Match (2006).
You can hear a sample of ‘Goat‘ and listen to the rest of it on Romesh’s website.

steve romesh 10 story items (29)(9) A Cricket Bat

The Match draws a great deal from the Sri Lankan cricket team’s tour of England in 2002. The book came out in 2006 when the Sri Lankan team was back in England for another series. This miniature bat is a souvenir from that tour, which my character Sunny would love to have, along with the vintage Leica.”

steve romesh 10 story items (17) a(10) A Yellow Car

Noontide Toll, my most recent book, is narrated by a driver. So, I had to have a car among these objects. His Toyota van would have been too big for this selection, and in any case I think Vasantha would rather have a sports car if he could. I wanted to put this particular yellow car in because I often use it as a story generator in the writing workshops I run. It tends to be the most popular springboard for a story, so perhaps it might work for you too.”

Romesh Gunesekera on Woburn Walk(11) Woburn Walk – The Odd One Out: Not Quite An Object

“This little walkway in Bloomsbury led to my first real story. And it still has a potency that surprises me. The first sign I see today when we walk there to take this photograph is a pavement board: ‘Clearly Destiny’. I am not one for that kind of thing, but odd connections in time stop me. They are the thread of all our stories. When I stepped into this alley over thirty years ago, there was no fortune teller. That spot was taken by a more conventional travel agent. I had a conversation with a man who had just come out of the agency office. A few weeks later, I started a short story taking off from that brief encounter. It took me months to write, during which time the whole world seemed to change. At the time I had no idea of the end of the story, let alone the course my writing would take. No idea that a story from that walkway might show me a way of writing about the world I lived in. Or that the world I lived in would turn out the way it has. No idea of the ferocity and violence that would mark Sri Lanka from that black July with such devastating consequences felt to this day. Or that violence might explode again fifty yards away, in London’s own grim July in 2005. All I knew then was that somewhere around the corner was the square where Leonard Woolf had written his Ceylon novel, Village in the Jungle, seventy years earlier, and that places sometimes reach into our lives and take on unexpected significances. As do stories.”

Our Favourite Story

There were so many great stories but we particularly enjoyed reading this untitled effort, posted on Facebook by Sneha Susan Shibu from Uganda. Sneha, a copy of Romesh’s Noontide Toll is on its way to you.

Sneha Susan Shibu
Sneha Susan Shibu

I sat on the steps of my beachside cabin, where I decided to spend a few days for a very selfish purpose, smoking a cigarette and drinking black tea out of the old china which Granny Paco had left for me as an inheritance. The poor thrifty soul had just a few trinkets as her worldly possessions which she had gladly, and with quite an air of importance, divided among her relatives before her time was up. The cup came as a surprise as I was not expecting anything from Granny Paco. Surprises sprung by the worldly poor are the ones that feel like spikes in the heart. I did not know what others got as I never bothered to find out. After that, I made it a point to carry the cup along wherever I went. It is, after all, the little things in life that matter most. Or so, somebody said. I had to agree.

A barefooted woman and a child strolled past, leaving crumbling indentations on the soft grey sand; possibly a mother and daughter. Their white skirts and black hair blew lazily in the soft wind. Without wasting a moment, I grabbed my camera. I had to use my opportunity for the assignment, I told myself. 
The child picked up a washed up conch and put it against her cheek while the woman picked sea shells and dropped them into a small basket. Their backs were conveniently turned towards me. Mother and daughter silhouetted against the sunset, their raven hair catching the bronze of the dying sun, picking the refuse of the sea on an unimpressive beach … I clicked in what must have been pure greed. It would be a while before I could develop the film and marvel and gloat over my accomplishments. I watched the duo again and etched the scene into my mind’s eye. My secret trophy; not to be shared with anyone.
The little girl shifted the conch to the other cheek and closed her eyes. She did not let go of what the sea had offered her. Her smile only proved one thing – she had heard the music of the oceans and its many secrets. After about half an hour, they turned back. I couldn’t help but be fascinated by the light in the child’s eyes. She clutched the orange conch and held it close to her heart. As they were about to pass by, I waved and smiled.
“What did the sea tell you?” I asked the child.
She looked at the mother and tugged the hem of her blouse. Perhaps my joviality did not seem sincere, for the bewilderment on her beautiful face eclipsed the light in her eyes. Her eyes told me of the distrust for a friendly stranger. 
The woman looked at me, shook her head and smiled. “No, sir, the sea said nothing. Even if it did, she … wouldn’t hear. Born that way …”
The shells rattled in her basket as they walked past. My tea suddenly tasted extremely bitter. I threw down the cigarette and stamped it out. Footprints ran back and forth in front of the cabin – for the shell collector and the conch bearer, waiting for the tide to rise, to efface them and take them away to the depths.

Want to find out more about Romesh? Listen to an interview with him as part of our podcast series 10×10.

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