Inspired by Society and Culture, and Sri Lanka Itself – an interview with Karen Roberts

By Indu Bandara

Author of “Flower Boy”, “July” and now “The Lament of the Dhobi Woman”, Karen Roberts gives us insight into her third book, as well as the stories that she feels must be told, especially about Sri Lankan society and its inner workings. A participant at the 2011 Galle Literary Festival, she tells us about her favourite writers and what Literature and the Arts mean to her country and its future


Tell us about your latest book/work
The title “The Lament of the Dhobi Woman” is a metaphor for dirty laundry. The book is about the relationship between a wealthy Colombo family and a young, village girl who comes to work for them as an ayah. She forges a strong, almost maternal bond with the young girl she cares for, but ultimately falls victim to the sophistication and guile of the upper class Fonsekas. It is ultimately a story about growing up.

What inspires you to write? What/who have been your influences?
I am inspired by social and cultural issues, but also by Sri Lanka in general. My first book was begun almost as a hobby. Its success motivated me to write more and that too becomes inspiring – the fact that my readers look forward to what I put out next. My family has always been encouraging of my writing and that helps too – knowing one has that kind of unstinting support. My influences have been Garcia Marquez, Harper Lee, and Dickens – they are some of the great storytellers and that, ultimately, is what we do. Tell stories.

Why do you write? Is there a particular message that you aim to convey?
I write because it is as intrinsic to me as reading. I began my first book and found I loved writing. I have ideas in my mind and stories that demand telling. I don’t have a particular message except the one that takes hold of me at the time – I find I write mainly about social issues, class divides, relationships and their challenges. This isn’t deliberate – it seems to be what comes most easily.

You are taking part in the Galle Literary Festival 2011. Why do you think this festival is important and how does it contribute to Sri Lankan society and the Arts?
I think the GLF is a huge step forward in promoting literature and the arts in Sri Lanka, and also in putting Sri Lanka firmly on the world’s literary map. The organizers have done an incredible job in attracting real international talent to Galle, and also helping encourage and launch some serious local talent. The festival, combined with the efforts of local publishers like Perera-Hussein Publishing has done wonders for local writers and Asian literature.   

What particular stories about Sri Lanka and its society do you think need to be written, which have not been done yet?
There are so many – we have a rich, colourful history, we have a checkered political past, we have wonderful ethnicity, all contained within a small country. There is much fodder for fertile minds! I also think we have many interesting individuals who have shaped our past and present in many ways – their stories need to be told too.

Who are your favourite authors (Sri Lankan in particular), and why?
I love Shyam Selvadurai for his courage – writing about being gay in a relatively conservative society isn’t easy but he did it with grace and humour. I love Yasmine Gooneratne – her work has an elegance and eloquence I admire and shamelessly emulate. I also love Carl Muller for his railway saga. He writes with historical and cultural accuracy, spins wonderful yarns of a group of people who were such a vital part of the Sri Lankan story, and does it with a marvelous combination of humour and pathos.

Do you think the fields of Arts and Humanities have proper exposure in Sri Lanka? What needs to changed or improved, in your opinion?
I think we are on the right road. Sri Lanka has always encouraged the arts. We put on some of the best productions and have produced some incredible talent. We need more of this in schools – events like the Shakespeare Drama Competition help expose our kids to literature early on and we need to keep fostering this on an on-going basis.

What can up and coming Sri Lankan writers do to get their work recognized on a national/international level?
Compete on an international level – think local and act global. Make sure your work is fresh, that your writing is good, get opinions, accept constructive criticism – in other words, make sure you have the goods. Then don’t be afraid to approach international literary agents and publishers. They are constantly looking for talent from smaller, more exotic countries and we have a definite advantage. Some of the recent winners of the Pulitzer and the Man Booker have been Asian writers.

What advice would you give to young people pursuing a career similar to yours?
Keep writing, be relevant, be concise, be topical, and don’t let rejection demotivate you. Some of the world’s greatest writers were rejected over and over again before being published. Keep at it.

Anything else you would like to add.
One can write a great book, find a great agent and publisher, but eventually for a writer to be successful, he or she needs a following, an audience. I’d like to thank my readers for staying with my work; for the great feedback and reviews. Please keep it coming – we need to know what we’re doing right. Or not.

This interview first appeared in The Colombo Spirit

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