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A Literary Festival in the Shadow of Genocide

Can a polite little arts event help re-unify Sri Lankan culture?

By Melissa Petro


(Photo: Melissa Petro)

“Galle is a very beautiful place. Jaffna is also a very beautiful place. There is no difference. Everywhere, everybody is the same.” My tuk-tuk driver is trying to convince me there is just one Sri Lanka. We are driving down Matara Road, the highway that skirts the ocean, where bare-chested fishermen untangle nets next to fiberglass boats resting on the coral sand. The southwestern tip of the country, known for its beaches, sunsets, and rocky bluffs studded with swaying palms, is a very different landscape from what you’ll find in the northern and eastern regions of Sri Lanka, the part of the country most affected by its 25-year civil war.

My driver is partially correct: Both cities are, in their ways, beautiful. But the difference between the two is stark, articulated in its repeated denial. Galle is a reflection of how a country’s elite might enjoy, alongside their conquerors, the spoils of colonialism; Jaffna, with its heritage of Tamil oppositional militants including the famous Tamil Tigers, is a reflection of a society marginalized by “divide and rule.” I had set off that morning, perhaps naively, believing that language might bring the two together.

Galle is home to the Galle Literary Festival, one of the country’s central cultural events. Founded in 2005 by a British-Australian hotelier named Geoffrey Dobbs, the festival has grown from a relatively private gathering of Dobbs’ intellectual friends into a marker of national pride. The sprawling event includes readings, film screenings, panels, and literary lectures as well as gourmet lunches and dinners with participating authors held at various spots nearby.

“Growing up, Jaffna was a foreign land we only heard about and never imagined we could see.”

This year’s festival marks six years since the country’s 25-year civil war came to a brutal end with the defeat of the Tamil insurgency in 2009, and less than six months after a September 2015 report by the United Nations called for the Sri Lankan government to account for crimes against humanity: unlawful killings, enforced disappearances, and sexual violence perpetuated by the military against civilians — all of which, citizens say, persist to this day. In 2011, a number of respected writers, including Noam Chomsky, Arundhati Roy, Ken Loach, Antony Loewenstein, and Tariq Ali boycotted the festival in protest of what they described as its relative silence regarding the country’s gross human rights abuses, including the Sri Lankan government’s alleged involvement in attacks on journalists and writers. The festival was canceled for the next three years.

But, after nearly three decades of civil war, Sri Lankans want peace — and the festival is back, though it feels less political than you might expect, largely because the artists and organizers prize progress over accountability — and they’re more interested in unifying Sri Lanka than in re-living old tensions, or settling scores.

At the festival, organizers have set up an outdoor lounge area they call the “lit café,” where attendees laze on colorful blankets and pillows under beach umbrellas; colored lanterns hang from shade trees. Some flip through books recently purchased at the crowded pop-up bookstore housed in a dim room just off the main hall. Other attendees sit at café tables, typing on laptops, presumably taking advantage of the free Wi-Fi. A live band strikes up as an excited crowd spills out from the morning’s plenary, which has just taken place in the adjacent Hall De Galle. From here, some make their way to the next event, which is being held at the Maritime Museum, an old Dutch warehouse located just across the cobblestone street. A few join those lingering at the lit café, where a line of booths sell event programs and refreshments, including a Westernized version of a traditional egg hopper. A three-day festival pass to readings and panels (excluding extras such as workshops, excursions, poetry readings, and gourmet lunches and dinners) costs 10,000 LKR — about $68, slightly more than what the average Sri Lankan makes in a month.


(Photo: Melissa Petro)

Whereas the occasional tourist wanders in off the street, it seems that most participants have come to Sri Lanka solely to attend the festival. Journalists in Panama hats and shorts or capris mingle with artists, authors, and aspiring writers. Two older white women glide by in colorful, flowing skirts, their oversized jewelry clinking. The audience is all ages but skews young, perhaps a reflection of the festival’s stated outreach efforts to students.

“People want to talk about politics, only they don’t know what arena.” I sit under an umbrella with two young women — one Sinhalese, one Tamil. They talk openly about the intimidation they once felt, and how that suppression is lifting. “Finally we have freedom. Just one year ago, nobody wanted to talk about politics. We were scared.” Now, under the current administration, there are fewer restrictions, less surveillance, and increased access to regions of the country previously off limits — at least for some, including Westerners. “Freedom is out there, but right now we don’t know what to do with the freedoms we’re being given.”

Sri Lanka is changing, the women promise — as is its literary festival. This year’s organizers added two mini-festivals to the schedule of events: a three-day preview event, which took place the week before in Kandy, and another two-day event that will kick off the following week in Jaffna. The latter event is of particular interest, since Jaffna, the predominantly Tamil region to the north, is the area most affected by the war.

This inclusion is billed as an exciting development, a marker of progress. A few days before the events in Jaffna begin, Sri Lankan-American writer and festival panelist Nayomi Munaweera tweets: “Growing up, Jaffna was a foreign land we only heard about and never imagined we could see.” The festival there is being held in the Jaffna Public Library, which was burned in 1981 by the Sinhalese police, destroying more than 97,000 books.


A version of this story first appeared in the July/August 2016 issue of Pacific Standard.

While some see the inclusion of Jaffna as evidence that the world is finally recognizing the city’s long-overlooked culture, others see the inclusion as mere lip service to national unity. A local Tamil journalist named Uthaya Shalin tweeted that local writers and artists had not been made aware of the festival in Jaffna, and lamented that the organizers and presenters were not representative of the local Tamil population. I spoke with a Tamil-American writer, Gowri Koneswaran, who felt that more Tamil voices should have been included; Koneswaran also doubted that presenters would feel comfortable speaking about contemporary political concerns, and worried they would be discouraged from doing so by event organizers. (That’s what critics say happened in 2011.)

It seemed clear, Koneswaran said, that “tourism, not accountability, is priority.”

Whereas much of the international community is calling for continued investigations into crimes against humanity, there are Sri Lankans who, for various reasons, dismiss these demands for justice. Some, like my tuk-tuk driver that morning, are former military. Many Sri Lankans simply don’t know exactly what happened. How could they? Widespread suppression of the media means they haven’t seen the satellite footage nor read the war reports. Others know but are afraid. In Jaffna, most don’t speak Sinhala, let alone English. Even in their native Tamil, they struggle to find the words. In the market, I met a man who spoke enough English to assure to me the Tigers were “all dead or captured.” He asked me where I was from and if I was with the Central Intelligence Agency. Sri Lankans, it seems, are tired. Like all of us, they want normalcy, peace. Many, particularly those least affected by the war, advocate for development over accountability. They welcome any sign of the re-assimilation of Tamil culture into wider Sri Lankan culture — in reality, but perhaps even more so in the eyes of foreigners.