In even the best families, loved ones—however inadvertently—manage to destroy each other’s hope. They fail to show up at the key instant, or they show up serving grief and shame when tenderness is starved for.
This review was originally published at Heavy Feather Review on 8.20.16
Some wounds never heal. In her debut collection The Other One, all of Hasanthika Sirisena’s characters find themselves in situations where they have lost something that cannot be replaced, whether it is a sense of safety, a family member, or their own mind. Set in Sri Lanka and America, Sirisena uses the decades that the country spent in civil war as a prism (though we are fractured, we remain) rather than a blackout (war takes hold of everything).
The balance is a delicate one—how to speak about war, have a collection centered on war, that does not become repetitive? A mercy that Sirisena offers readers is that her stories do not take a moral stance. A mercy that Sirisena offers her characters is that, save for one scene in the first story, the war happens mostly off-screen.
True, there are some middle-class characters, but the majority of Sirisena’s figures are more like Anura in the first story “Third Country National,” a maintenance worker at an airbase. Anura, a drifter who can speak little English, is among a group of thirteen, with colleagues from Sri Lanka, Nepal, Nigeria, India, and Bangladesh. The base itself is in Kuwait, but “the average Kuwaiti was too wealthy to work [there].” To say it plain, Sirisena aims her focus on the characters that in movies function as “the extras.”
Perhaps to maintain a panoramic view, Sirisena pens most of her stories in the third person. However, her first story where she allows us to enter the mind of young teen Sonali emerges like a buck from the wood, enchanting and singular. Sonali is Sinhalese, the eponymous Chief Inspector’s daughter. Her boyfriend Siva is a Tamil. Both of them are medical students at the University of Colombo.
Of course, there is tension and not a small amount of angst—“Since that night, Siva’s behavior toward me has changed, and I know what he thinks: I am Sinhalese and I cannot completely be trusted”—but Sonali’s desire to understand the chaos around her offers insight to readers who may not know the particulars of Sri Lanka’s history. To Sonali, the war is still abstract, malleable, even though “twenty years of civil war makes us jump at our own shadows” and “everyone has stories like Siva’s.” Readers can crawl along with her as she tries to see her father as a person beyond her daddy: “I have never spent any time, until now, wondering what my father is capable of.”
“Treble Seven, Double Naught,” the last story in the collection, is the shortest but seems to come with this warning: “Never forget where you came from.” Chamika leaves for the states to escape the war and finish school and never comes back. Instead, she lives alone in America—sometimes dating women, sometimes not. She has not spoken to her aunt’s niece Amanthi for twelve years. When she gets a mysterious message from her estranged aunt claiming Amanthi needs to borrow a large amount of money, Chamika does everything she can to find her.
After too many rounds of international phone tag, Chamika goes to Vermont herself, showing up at Amanthi’s doorstep. Her husband is there, makes an excuse, attempts to turn Chamika away. Chamika insists that her family is worried. Christos is cool in his response: “That’s surprising, because her family hasn’t cared enough to call for a long time now.” Then, “When was the last time we saw you?”
When Christos calls Amanthi, he does not give Chamika the number. Instead, he hands her the phone. Amanthi asks if it is a trick. “It’s me, Chamika-akki,” Chamika says. Into the silence, she says, “I’m sorry, nangi, I waited too long to call.” Does Amanthi forgive her? Does a family ever understand when one of their own goes across the world and never returns? Is it true, as Chamika insists, to remain Sri Lankan apart from Sri Lanka?
“It was far easier to be Sri Lankan in America that it had ever been in Sri Lanka,” Sirisena writes. “There you were bound by far too many social obligations; you were always doing things for people.” In America, she could shape her Sri Lankan identity as she chose: “She maintained her freedom while also praising the culture and tradition and telling stories about how wonderful her childhood was.” Because, as Chamika says, “nobody knew about Sri Lanka to contradict her or cared enough to grill her.”
With The Other One, Sirisena explores the stories of Sri Lankans who leave and those who stay. As she does with the Sri Lanka’s history, Sirisena does not choose sides. Rather, she offers us characters at crossroads, causing us to question what it means to deem somewhere home.