'Skirting the Edge', Michael Mendis

Posted on 09/04/2014
By Commonwealth Foundation

Michael Mendis, Commonwealth Writers, Writer In Residence
I wanted to, when I first began, move. That’s what I worked at, those first stories I wrote: getting them to shake the person as they read the last word. They always ended with a wistful moment of walking away, with a dull tip of the narrator’s hat. And I also wanted to change the world. To shock people into realising the error in their ways, the holes in their empathy, the flaws in their life-logic.
Because, growing up as a reader, that is what stories did for me. For instance, the novel To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, which I first read in 2003, at the age of thirteen, had an enormous impact on the way I was to see the world as an adult. It presents a compelling case for the irrationality of racism, one that, even then, I could grasp. Lee achieved this by filtering the conceit of racial supremacy through the innocence of an eight-year-old’s point of view. Nothing frames irrationality more starkly than does the perspective of a child – so much so that, even today, the image has stayed with me. Of course, living in a country that has its own history tangled up in threads of racism and insecurity has certainly helped shape and clarify my understanding of this most curious of human failures … but I am certain my most fundamental aversions to racism originate from the only novel Harper Lee ever wrote.
A number of stories come to mind that had this capacity: Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, Anne Enright’s The Gathering, and, yes, even the Harry Potter series. V.V. Ganeshananthan’s Love Marriage is also an example, even if I’ve always found it strange that I could be so affected by a novel that I disagreed with quite stubbornly while reading it. If nothing else, it testified to how we can be brought to appreciate polar opposites of the same argument by the books we read. In this way, literature and art provide the best tools to blur moral absolutes; to intermarry disparate conventions; to force inimical social truths to cohabit.

The good story, or the true story?

And this, as I began slowly my foray into writing, is what I wanted to emulate: the war story, Hindu goddess and all; the love story with the girl dying in the end; the grandmother looking wistfully at a weed-choked sandbox, its play things packed away. I tried my hand at these things, in a sort of experiment. But trying these things eventually became, somehow, dishonest. I was writing the good story, the emotive story. But not the true story.
Remember Nehru’s words, uttered in a completely different context: “Words are magic things often enough, but even the magic of words sometimes cannot convey the magic of the human spirit and of a Nation’s passion.” He was talking about constitutional words– but I do think that stories that we write for just their sake, for a ‘cause’, as it were, are also likely to fail the ‘magic of the human spirit’. George R.R. Martin, in his famous fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire, constantly reiterates, ‘Words are wind.’ Sometimes, so are stories.
But what, then, is a true story? One that tells the truth? One that fictionalises the truth? Is everything except the attempt to write memoir doomed to dishonesty? I suppose, of course, the answers are different to different writers. Some would probably have more expansive true worlds than others, and others, narrower places of truth. I think, now, part of the becoming of a writer is this journey of finding the things about the world that are really ‘ours’ to write about.
I said, in one of my previous posts, that the things we write are not necessarily about us, even though they still comprise us, consist in us, and include us – in this way, true stories our those that come out of our own inner stirrings, the things that trouble us so deeply that the only way we can emerge from them is by distilling their power over us through fiction. Tennessee Williams explained this the best when he said, “truth, life, or reality is an organic thing which the poetic imagination can represent or suggest, in essence, only through transformation, through changing into other forms than those which were merely present in appearance.”

The tsunami that happened in a normative world

Hikkaduwa3_MendisIn 2011, when I was writing for the features section in a local daily newspaper, I was sent down south, to Peraliya, near Hikkaduwa, where I was to produce a piece for the seventh anniversary of the Boxing Day tsunami disaster of 2004. There was an image of the devastation, of a train that had been twisted off its railway tracks by the force of the waves, that had become iconic during the reportage of the event. It was this incident that I was asked to cover: people who had witnessed it, people who had survived it.
During my research, I realised that public moments of grief can be alienating. The language that was used, the idioms employed to invoke certain feelings, evoke certain reactions, were restricted by the ‘norms’ that we had inherited from our society. It was discomfiting, this realisation that even grief was a weapon of discrimination. For instance, many tried to frame the devastation of the tsunami by referring to all the devastated relationships the waves left in their wake: children who were ripped away from their parents, young adults who predeceased their elders, husbands who lost their wives, wives who lost their husbands etc. This construction was pervasive: other (alternative) configurations of relationships were erased, invalidated, by their omission.
This struck me quite powerfully. Even though I’ve always understood relationships through a queer lens better than through the normative standard, even I had not thought of the possibility of the tsunami’s destruction reaching that far. For some reason, the tsunami had happened in a normative world to a normative people; I could only understand, appreciate or imagine the hurt that the water brought only to the extent that I was part of that normative.

Moved and unnerved: the truths we tell through fiction

Santhush came out of this confusion. On surface, the story is easily fictional; I never experienced the tsunami first-hand. I’ve never even experienced bereavement. Even though the central scene, of the inside of the train just as the waves hit, is based loosely on the true account of a man who had mysteriously survived while losing his wife and mother-in-law who accompanied him in the train, the story is still significantly fictional.
But, in one way, the story is autobiography: the feelings that the protagonist goes through are transpositions of the things I felt upon realising that I had been hoodwinked against my own lived realities by an insistently norm-conscious environment. Of course, as much as they are transpositions, they are also amplifications – and I suppose that’s where the imagination comes in.
But this is how I wrote a true story of fiction. I let myself be moved. I let myself be unnerved.
I had it the wrong way, at the beginning: I mustn’t write with the intention to move someone else; I must write because I am moved. And if I don’t counter by writing it all down, I would fall off the edge.