When your columnist put out a call for contributions towards a new anthology of fiction, the majority of submissions took an interesting turn. The call was for hint fiction – stories that in twenty-five words or less, demonstrated the quality that they were at the beginning, middle or end of a larger narrative, giving just a hint of what that larger canvass was or could be. The idea wasn’t original, and is anchored to Hint Fiction by Robert Swartwood, who in turn was inspired by Ernest Hemingway’s possibly apocryphal six-word story, “For Sale: baby shoes, never worn”.
The Sri Lankan anthology had a twist. Prospective writers were asked to anchor their stories to something unmistakably Sri Lankan – a phrase, place, event, issue, marker, adage, trait, historical chapter, reference, image, dish, sweetmeat or map, for example. The idea was to evoke something of our country – something loved, reviled, longed for or missed. Around fifty submissions have come in to date, leading to a story around the stories.
It turns out that twenty-five words at the most is, for many who sent in their writing, deeply cathartic. The fifty odd stories already sent in come from writers who are award-winning novelists to working mothers, from those who have published widely to those writing for the first time. At present, the writing is split almost evenly between men and women, though there’s a large difference in the age of the contributors, going by those whose names are somewhat better-known or indexed online. Most are Sinhalese, though there have been a number of submissions by Tamils, Burghers, Muslims and non-Sri Lankans. A leitmotif across the majority of stories is the violence of the past 27 years. The stories are compelling, sometimes visceral snapshots that can certainly be read by those with little or no knowledge of Sri Lanka’s bloody past as good fiction. In fact, however, the stories sometimes directly access memory and personal experience. Displacement, loss and anxiety feature as much as resilience and hope. How a child sees, how a woman feels, and what men do feature as much as resonant word strokes on the joy of childbirth during a pogrom or a christening during a riot. An ominous Army and Police are invoked with alarming regularity. Fiction, it appears, imitates life.
Your columnist did not quite expect this. Though an economy of words is very difficult to manage even for seasoned writers, the quality of submissions to date is very high. Hint Fiction was intended to capture the best of our imagination, and perhaps though not explicitly noted, writing that captured the potential of a country post-war, looking forward. The fiction was expected to look inward for inspiration, and project to the future. What it’s succeeded the most in doing thus far is to inspire even those who have never written before to experiment with ways of telling a story they’ve carried inside for years. Here is a larger lesson, one that is not in the least fictional.
We remain deeply hurt, fractured nations.
Sri Lanka’s own marvellously irreverent novelist Carl Muller coined the term “faction” to describe his oeuvre – writing that is a combination of fact and fiction. Many others are now following his lead. In the absence of public, perhaps even safe private fora to unpack trauma, a call for literary submissions was a trigger for writing stories for years locked in, guarded, even feared. This is in English, by those who write in it very well. It doesn’t take much to imagine how much trauma exists amongst those who are primarily monolingual in Tamil or Sinhala and how little we really know about it, particularly in the North and East but also amongst families in the South. This is real grief. The pain of loss comingled with the loss of hope, an anguish around and yearning for remembering that grows inversely to efforts aimed to deny, decry and delete.
It is, as yet, not a given that the anthology of Sri Lankan Hint Fiction will make it to print. The prospective publishers want around a hundred and sixty stories. Perhaps they will come, in the fullness of time.
Not unlike justice, and a real peace.
Published in The Nation print edition, 29th July 2012.