By Mary Pickett
Mary Pickett: You live in Philadelphia. Do you like it?
Ru Freeman: I love Philly. After I graduated from Bates College, I was in Philadelphia for a few years. I like the fact that Philly is a working-class town. I spent a lot of time in New York, which always feels unmanageable, but Philadelphia has a lot of what New York offers and it’s manageable and friendly and real in a way that I relate to. I used to live downtown and I liked it a lot. I live in the suburbs now, and I don’t like that so much. [Laughs]
MP: You currently teach at Columbia University. What courses do you teach there, and how does your teaching inform your writing?
RF: You know, I really enjoy teaching and I think it’s because I didn’t go through any writing program, so every time I teach I really have to put a lot of thought into what it is I’m going to talk about and think about the students, and come up with something brand new.
I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to teach whatever I want. For instance, in the fall, I’m teaching a class that I call “12 Takes on Love.” It’ll include 12 different books, such as Toni Morrison’s Love, Edwidge Danticat’s Brother, I’m Dying, Jamaica Kincaid’s My Brother, and James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room. Twelve different texts all dealing in some way with love, whether it’s between parents or lovers or friendships. I have to go back and read those books and think about what pedagogy I might want to exercise in each of these texts and that’s the learning experience for me.
I think all of that feeds my writing because that’s how I came into writing – by reading, not through completing any kind of writing program. I’ve never actually taken a writing class. I guess this experience does a double-duty; it allows me to teach a class and teach myself.
MP: I wasn’t aware that you didn’t take any formal writing classes. Growing up in Sri Lanka, did you just know that you wanted to be a writer?
RF: Well, I came from a family of people who write; it was something that everybody in the family did. From that point of view, it has always been a part of my life. It was always going to be in my life, no matter what I ended up doing.
MP: At what age did you move from Sri Lanka to the United States?
RF: I came to go to college. I came to the U.S. because Sri Lanka was in the middle of political problems and all the universities were shut down, so that was the reason for me to apply and try to go to the U.S. My goal when I came here was to finish undergraduate as soon as I could and go back home, but that didn’t happen, obviously. I ended up staying longer than I’d intended to.
MP: You received a degree in labor relations.
RF: Yes, looking at female migrant labor in the Middle East and in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. There’s a lot of migrant labor there, particularly women who go out to work as domestic aids.
MP: I wanted ask about your involvement as editor for the powerful anthology Extraordinary Rendition, which was released last year. How did this publication come to be? How did you get more than 60 writers to contribute their voices to this cause?
RF: Well, it wasn’t easy. [Laughs] A lot of life is diplomacy – you have to know whom to ask and what to ask and how to ask. You have to figure out the perfect pitch. You can’t ask each writer in the same way; some will do it, some are going to need persuasion, and some are going to need others to write before they even write. But all of them want at some level to do something. They just don’t know exactly how to approach it because, in general, American writers don’t get involved in politics or political speech much, in comparison to our fellow writers in Europe or anywhere else in the world.
This was a learning experience for me: You figure out how to do it and then you do it. It was an interesting experience and I’m really glad that I did it. There were writers that supported me in helping me to find others – it all connected in a very good way. It’s one of the things I’m most proud of because it wasn’t just me writing a book; it was me having really to work with all these kinds of writers and the different moving parts to get it published: the cover that came from a painting by the South African artist, Marlene Dumas, who gifted it to us for our use, to the blurbs, to the publishing, to all the events that came after.
However, there was one notable absence from the book – it’s so illustrative of the way that these kind of books work. It was a beautiful essay about the way Palestinians are covered in the news by Laila Lalami, which had appeared in the Daily Beast, and they paid her some small amount. They would not let us carry it without paying them an exorbitant amount of money that we could not possibly afford. And they wouldn’t release it for us to carry, even with an acknowledgment. It seemed really deliberately restrictive because the essay is online; anybody can read it for free, but they wouldn’t let us put it in this book. So you start to think of the politics behind these kind of decisions. Her essay was really good and she was really disappointed. She wrote to them and said, you didn’t even pay me that money for my essay, but you’re preventing them from using an essay that is now online, free for anybody to read.
MP: It sounds like developing this anthology was complicated! Now, I’d like to ask about your two novels, A Disobedient Girl and On Sal Mal Lane. They both contain main characters whose storylines interweave and find surprising but strong connections. I was wondering what techniques did you use to craft these characters? Did you already have these connections in mind when you began writing?
RF: With my first novel, A Disobedient Girl, I knew that two stories had to come together. I didn’t quite know how, but I knew that they had to at some point. So I guess I was developing each of their stories and at the back of my mind, I knew [they had to come together]. That’s all I kept in mind. If I think too hard about what it is I’m doing, it’s very hard for me to write. So you could keep something inside, sort of off to the side of my head, and think, ‘Okay, it’s going to have to come together later’ and then I compose the story and see how it comes together.
With On Sal Mal Lane, all of those characters were connected right from the get-go. I knew this family was moving in [to a new neighborhood] and that all the different characters on this road were going to get involved somehow, for better or worse, at different degrees. At the end, it’s the matter of following that central idea to its conclusion.
In terms of technique, with these two stories in particular, because I’m familiar with the place, it wasn’t as difficult to keep it in mind as I wrote. With the new book that I’ve just finished, that was harder, so I have more notes and maps and a chart that tells me what’s happening in each section.
MP: So would you say that because both of your published novels take place in your home country, it was an easier writing process?
RF: The little details that you have to think about arose more organically because I knew [the location] very well. What I really had to keep track of was the story itself, not so much all the other little things that you need to deepen a story, like the places in any one country. You have to really root a story in that place and that’s harder if you don’t know the place.
MP: You mentioned that you’re finishing up a new book. Can you talk a little more about that?
RF: It’s not set in Sri Lanka. [Laughs] It takes place in other foreign countries and the U.S., but it’s got some of the similar themes of social dislocation and war, topics that I like to write about.
MP: Most of your writing takes a strong political or social stand, and you identify yourself as an activist. You have this power in your voice that comes out in all your writing; a sense of dominating the conversation your writing enters into. Did you have to practice to get the strong voice you have now, or was it inherent?
RF: It’s an interesting thing. I think there’s two parts to it; one is that when you grow up in a country that is very political, you become very comfortable disagreeing with people about politics. You’re around politics all the time. In the U.S., you tend to avoid it; it’s almost bad manners to bring up politics with people you’ve just met. You just don’t do it. If you sense that they’re going to be in disagreement, you just dance around it and you go talk about something else. And that’s very unfamiliar to me.
There’s a Malaysian writer called Preeta Samarasan. She and I had this huge disagreement on Facebook and then all our American friends were just horrified, like ‘Oh my gosh, you must not be talking to her anymore.’ And I’m like, ‘Oh, I think I’m going to take my whole family and stay with her in France.’ [Laughs] The argument on politics is very separate from the friendship that we also have. Yes, sometimes it can get very ugly, but you don’t avoid the conversation just because you’re friends.
There was a huge conference at Virginia Tech on post-war writing. Both my brothers are journalists in Sri Lanka and I was invited to do one of the keynotes. When I finished, there was a Q&A and my brother got up and he asked these really challenging questions and there was a part of me that thought, ‘You are my brother, you shouldn’t be making me have to fight to look good here.’ [Laughs]
MP: He was putting you on the spot! [Laughs]
RF: Yes, but at the same time, it’s just normal. That’s what you do; you ask the question. I grew up in that way. That comfort, I guess, to have an opinion and be OK in saying it.
But the other part of it is that these are the issues I care the most about. I don’t write about things – it sounds stupid to say it – I don’t write about things I don’t care about. For instance, the destruction to the environment in the U.S. and around the world is a big issue and yes, I care about it. I hope we do better [at protecting the environment] in the U.S., but it doesn’t inflame my passion. I don’t get passionately worked up about the environment. I see it in its place with other things, but public education, racial injustice, war. … There are other issues that really get me going, so that’s what I write about.
MP: Do you find that you use a similar tone of voice across all formats of writing?
RF: When I write political essays, I’m very direct, very forceful about what I think about. But when I write fiction, and more personal essays and poetry, the voice is gentler, much more compassionate. There’s much more space for a point of view that I don’t agree with. So although I’m dealing with these bigger issues that generally people avoid talking about [in the U.S.], I think in the prose it’s probably more accessible, even to Americans who might be offended by people directly presenting things. That’s what I think happens when I write fiction, because I think of it as conversation that could possibly lead to a larger conversation. That doesn’t happen when you just have a strongly-held opinion and don’t allow for anybody else to have one, too.
MP: Because you write in so many different forms – poetry, essays, prose – I’m wondering, do you prefer to write in one style over another?
RF: I like the novel more than the short story. I guess that would be one preference that I have, although I write both. I’ve actually been writing more poetry lately than working on the edits of the new novel, so I guess the hierarchy at this moment would be: poetry, novel, short story. [Laughs] The political pieces have to be written very quickly, because something’s happened and you want to talk about it and it has to be talked about now. There’s a charge that comes from writing that kind of stuff. The latest thing that I did was write an essay for Panorama about my time in West Texas with cowboys who are pretty much the polar opposite of me. [Laughs] But it was a really amazing experience, so I wrote a bit about spending a day with them.
I’m always looking for the thing that connects people; in fiction, that’s my goal. I’m very interested in making the fiction stand in a way that allows people to see that yes, it happened in Sri Lanka, but it’s not only about Sri Lanka: it’s about the way we go to war, it’s about how increments lead to huge social changes that are really destructive, it’s about how politics affects ordinary people. And these are bigger things than just what happened in Sri Lanka; what happened there is just a way of talking about those larger issues. So if you look at the cowboy essay, that, in a nutshell, also demonstrates how I look at things.
MP: I love that. By doing that, you’re making your writing more universal. Someone could pick up your novel and find connections with the individual stories of your characters, while also learning about the hardships of war. Final question: If you had to label yourself as a ‘fiction writer,’ ‘poet,’ or ‘political writer,’ which would you choose and why?
RF: I am a writer; that’s what I do. Everybody has something they might consider the thing they do well, or like to do, or want to do. For me that’s writing. It’s always been there; it’s something I did as a young child. It is how I feel I could be useful to society. There’s a strong necessity for us to be contributing members of society in whatever we do. By ‘contributing members of society,’ I mean as agents of social change, as people who mend things, and transform the environment in which we find ourselves.
So for me right now, as a member of the literary world, Extraordinary Rendition is my way of transforming that corner of the universe that I have some say over and writing’s how I do it. I could certainly walk on the streets and knock on doors, and I’ve done that, but other people can walk on streets and knock on doors and I can do the writing part. We all contribute the little things that we can and for me that’s writing, so that’s why I consider myself a writer. Wherever I find myself, that’s a big part of what I do to contribute to that place.
Ru Freeman serves as a contributing editorial board member of the Asian American Literary Review, and a fellow of the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, Yaddo, Hedgebrook, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She won the 2014 Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize for Fiction by an American Woman.
Mary Pickett is a second-year MFA candidate in fiction at California State University, Fresno.