I first met Rajith in 2011 a workshop led by Noy Holland at the Juniper Summer Writing Institute. He had flown halfway around the world, from Australia to Boston, to pursue his dream of writing. Nestled among the green, sprawling campus of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, we spent a week wrestling with our work, attending readings and even hunting down Emily Dickinson’s grave. Even though I read only short passages of Rajith’s writing, I found myself captivated by it. His synthesis of character and place was arresting and his command of language impressive. Each carefully chosen phrase evoked visceral images and was imbued with layered meaning. Already, I knew I wanted to read more. Following the Juniper experience, Rajith quit his telecommunications job in Melbourne to focus on his novel full-time. In 2016, after five long years of waiting on my end and furiously dedicated writing on Rajith’s, the world was finally introduced to Ruins.
Set in Colombo, Sri Lanka in the midst of a generation-long civil war, Ruins is a novel told from the perspectives of five characters—Latha, the impoverished maid serving a middle-class Sinhalese family; Mano, the patriarch of the family and a newspaper editor; Lakshmi, his Tamil wife desperate for purpose in the midst of war; Anoushka, their rebellious teen daughter; and Niranjan, who’s trying to find his place in the world. Their stories are structured to mirror an ancient Sri Lankan artifact called the moonstone.
In late February, the Australian Literature Society announced that it had longlisted Ruins for its prestigious Gold Medal Prize, and, in May, the Sydney Morning Herald named Rajith one of Australia’s Best Young Novelists. Following that February announcement, Rajith and I sat down via Skype to discuss the book, its success, and the elusive second novel.
The Rumpus: Tell me about the inspiration for your novel. How did you develop this particular story?
Rajith Savanadasa: The story of Ruins was in part inspired by the people I met volunteering in Darebin. I grew up in in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and the civil war [which raged from 1983–2009] happened mostly in the North and the East of the country. I’d never met people who’d been affected by the war, but I wanted to hear from them. I began to record the stories of asylum seekers and that became my oral history project, Open City Stories. Through this project, I realized that what affected me most was when people told their stories straight up and directly. I wanted to do them justice, and from that experience came Latha’s story and then the rest of the novel.
Rumpus: We first met at the Juniper Writers Institute in 2011 in Massachusetts, and then you went back to Australia, wrote furiously for a couple years and emerged with Ruins, which has been really well-received. What was your experience in writing this novel?
Savanadasa: Right, so, I came to the US in 2011 for that conference, went home, and quit my job. I just needed to do that. I spent a year writing a draft of a novel. That draft ended up being quite a bit different from the final project. It was told from the perspective of one character, and Ruins ended up being told from the perspective of five. The feedback on that first draft was that it wasn’t working. I wrote a second draft, and that wasn’t working either. After the second failed draft, I wondered if I had a novel in me. I wanted to do something useful, so I went to work with refugees through Open City Stories. At the time, I had an idea of what a novel should be, but what I realized was that I was most affected when people told their stories plainly, without forcing a point. In some way, that realization and hearing those stories helped me back into my writing.
Rumpus: Immigration played such a central role in the development of Ruins, and it has also been an important factor in your own life. Can you tell me more about your experience and about those of the refugees you met?
Savanadasa: Before 2013, the Australian government processed asylum seekers on shore. It was called Community Detention. Australia would put refugees into community housing and they would be naturally absorbed into society that way. But then, the political situation changed, and the focus shifted to asylum seekers coming by boat. Asylum seekers began to be processed in offshore centers as a deterrent. There were political leadership coups here, and there was pressure to secure the borders under the guise of jobs being taken away from Australians and preventing terrorism. Since 2013, there have been no asylum seekers allowed in on boats. People coming by plane or as migrant workers are processed onshore. But those are people who already have some resources—people without knowledge or education or money are the ones turned away. I came to Australia in 2001 to study, and it was difficult, but I spoke the language and my parents and extended family in Australia supported me.
I couldn’t imagine how difficult it would be to have to deal with all of that with the added pressure of possibly being returned to a country where you may be harmed. The people I worked with, who arrived by boat prior to 2013, are just getting their visas and working papers now after four years of waiting.
Rumpus: You grew up in Sri Lanka, in Colombo, and Ruins primarily takes place in Colombo. Do people assume this story is autobiographical in nature?
Savanadasa: I can understand why people say that. The story centers on a family made up of parents and a sister and brother, and my family includes my mom and dad and me and my sister, but in my life, my sister is older, and my mom’s not Tamil, and it’s set in 2009, by which time I’d left Sri Lanka. All of that’s different. The story isn’t autobiographical. But still, my mom saw herself in Lakshmi, the mother of the book, though there were obvious differences between the two and the character wasn’t based on her at all. Actually, Latha is the only character based on someone real. Yasa was my parents’ help and spent most of my life with our family, so their stories are similar in that way. I imagined what her life might be like and wrote the first chapter of the book as a short story. Someone told me it wasn’t a short story, and the other characters, the rest of the novel, grew from that.
Rumpus: You have Latha, who’s based on Yasa, your family’s maid, and you’ve written a short story, which someone tells you isn’t a short story. What did you do next? How did you turn Latha’s story into the novel it is today?
Savanadasa: Well, I wrote Latha’s story first, and then, because Anouskha is involved in that chapter, I pulled her out and wrote her story next. Then, because she talks about her father, I pulled out his story next, and so on. Then I had my structure. Once I hit chapter four, I began working with the idea of the moonstone and incorporating that into the novel. I still wonder if that’s the best way to have done it, because I’m not sure if that’s where the characters would have gone if I hadn’t pushed them there. Latha has a full story arc and finds some resolution, and reaches a state of enlightenment, which is the ultimate goal in Buddhism, a path described by the moonstone, but the others keep traveling in their own cycles.
Rumpus: Juggling five different narrators is quite a lot of work! How did you manage each of their perspectives?
Savanadasa: I had to do quite a bit of work on Anouskha’s voice, because it didn’t come naturally to me, and Lakshmi, too, because I hadn’t written that kind of character before. She was tricky, and I wasn’t always sure it was working. The men, Niranjan and Mano, were easier to write.
I entered Hachette Australia’s QWC Manuscript Development Program in conjunction with the Queensland Writers Centre and was one of ten manuscripts selected. They took us to Queensland, and we had workshops and were given feedback, and that’s where I met Kate Stevens, my editor. She’s great and had really interesting feedback, including reworking the order of the narration of the second half to follow the same order as the first half. It seemed right; it seemed like a good idea, even though it required quite a bit of reworking of the second half, because I had to rewrite certain scenes through the eyes of different people.
Rumpus: Ruins is a novel with a lot of layers—multiple perspectives, various ethnic and socio-economic groups, a civil war. Did you ever try to write about any of this while you were living in Sri Lanka, or do you feel like you had to leave for this novel to emerge?
Savanadasa: Originally, I came to Australia in 2001 to study telecommunications and engineering because there were limited options in Sri Lanka. My parents encouraged me to go, but life has kept me here, and it never felt like it was the right time to go back. That’s what’s hard for migrants. The longer you stay, the harder it is to go back.
It took leaving Sri Lanka for me to realize I didn’t agree with all the things that were accepted there. There was a personal, moral, and cultural shift that made it hard for me to go home again. I felt I had to write about it because I was finally far enough away that I had a new perspective and critical distance. When I was living in Sri Lanka, I was too close to my subject matter.
Growing up in Colombo, I had never met people who’d been affected by the war. It was interesting to see the war play out when I was so far away from it [in Melbourne] and able to see news and opinions from more than just one news service or one point of view. I met refugees in Australia to hear stories from people who’d left Sri Lanka. All of these different sources, made me realize that truth is slippery. Talking to one person only gives you one perspective. That realization led to Ruins being narrated from multiple perspectives.
Rumpus: Can you characterize how people have reacted to Ruins, especially at home?
Savanadasa: There could be controversial elements in the book, like the role of Buddhism, the idea that nirvana may not be some mystical state but just being present and in the moment, or my questioning of the caste and class systems, the way the war panned out—and there has been criticism. Someone wrote, “This is probably one of those books that tries to win prizes by spitting upward,” which I thought was quite funny. But most people have been positive about it. People in Sri Lanka often see themselves in the book. They see themselves in the characters or identify with particular characteristics. At the same time, they question other characters’ motivations or don’t quite understand why certain characters do the things they do—which is telling.
In Australia certain people have struggled with the characters’ names and some of the cultural references, but I refused to include a glossary in the book. Perhaps it was a bit of defensiveness, that typical post-colonial writer’s response to having to write in the language of the empire. I usually respond by saying readers could surely make a bit of an effort to learn my language if I could write almost entirely in theirs.
Rumpus: Can you talk to me more about the characters in the book and their development?
Savanadasa: Well, Latha is the only character in the book based on someone real, and that was Yasa, my parents’ maid. We were close, because she was there as I was growing up and spent so many years with my family. Just before I got the book deal, she was ill, and I flew back home to visit her. On the day I returned to Australia, I found out the manuscript was to be published. It was a bittersweet moment. Melanie, my wife, suggests I should read the book to her one day, but Yasa’s a bit embarrassed by the attention. She doesn’t quite know what to make of it. All she’s said so far is, Why did you have to write about me?
Yasa spent most of her life with my family, just as Latha spent much of her life with the family in the book. In that way, their stories are similar. I imagined what her life might be like and wrote a story from that. I wanted to write about a maid who’s a second mother to the teenage children of a well-to-do family in Colombo. In Ruins, Latha feels she’s a second mother to Anoushka, but Anoushka feels like she’s a bit of a nuisance, and she’s ashamed of having to hang out with this lowly woman. And I can relate to that, being ashamed of Yasa when friends are around and treating her like a lesser person, even though our relationship was strong, and we cared about each other.
The great irony of it is that, someone like Latha/Yasa embodies everything that’s considered good in a Sri Lankan, but is denied any power or equality just because of her background, because of the circumstances under which she was born. She’s considered less than a person because of her caste and economic status. They don’t see her as an equal. If we admitted that she was equal, we’d have to reconsider how we treat her, pay her, etc. And in some ways, all of this is a battle for resources.
Niranjan is based on some of my friends who studied abroad and came back home rather than on my own experience. Niranjan went away to study and thinks he’s a bit of a hot-shot, but he still needs to learn more about himself. There was one specific moment when a friend of mine criticized villagers like Latha for wanting luxury items, but they themselves want those same items. That stayed with me. Niranjan’s a composite character of a bunch of privileged people I’ve come across. He’s a big deal and well-off, but only in Colombo. I can relate to having had more exposure to the world and then coming home feeling like I should be treated like I was special, but at the same time, I now realize that despite my experiences, I’m just the same as everyone else.
Rumpus: What are you working on now, and can I read it soon? Like right now?
Savanadasa: I’m working on a second novel. It’s an immigration story and involves someone possibly seeking protection in Melbourne. It’s about how migrants continually need to justify why they should be in a country like Australia. It’s also about how difficult it can be to communicate in a second language. Not everything translates neatly, and in this instance, a mistranslation can be the difference between life and death. I’m a few chapters into it and have contracted to publish it with Hachette. I’ve established the voice of the narrator, and that’s really important.
Rumpus: How has writing this second novel changed from writing your first? What has the experience of bringing Ruins into the world taught you about writing and your own process?
Savanadasa: Well, I work as a copywriter for a telecommunications firm now, so I have a day job. And I have a daughter who’s a year and a half, so I try to write when she’s napping, or mostly when she’s gone to sleep for the night. One of the things I’ve learned is to give up the idea of making a point. I need to not fit the story into any preconceived notions. It’s better to let the character do the talking and let him go where he or she’s going to go. That’s better than having too much of a plan. It’s all about sitting down and doing the work, but sometimes, the character doesn’t come or goes missing. I get a sense, quite quickly, when something isn’t working, so I’ll revisit it later. The more I work, the more I build up steam for the work. If I can write every day, then it’s more likely my mind arrives at the right place and then I can work with the characters and stay in their world a bit more each day. I work best that way.
Author photographs © Craig Peihopa.