Sri Lankan author Anuk Arudpragasam, 29, recently bagged the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature for his debut novel The Story of a Brief Marriage. He speaks to Medha Dutta about his book and what lies ahead.
Did you always want to write? And was this the theme you wanted to write on?
I’ve wanted to write since I was about 20 years old, and I began to write seriously when I was 21. And no, I would rather have not written about this topic, but when it happened and I learned about it, I just naturally began writing in response to it.
The civil war in Sri Lanka lasted almost 26 years. To what degree did you draw on actual experience?
There is very little actual experience involved. I’m from a privileged and well-off family and I grew up in Colombo, far away from the war zone. I did spend a lot of time in the war zone after the war, walking around mainly, looking and listening, but that was all. The novel shouldn’t be understood as a representation of what happened at the end of the Sri Lankan civil war. It should be understood as an interpretation of what happened, an interpretation made by someone far away who watched and did nothing as the fabric of their community was torn apart.
You handle the passage of time beautifully in the book—slowing it down at will. How did you manage that?
It’s difficult to say, exactly. Time is the aspect of human life. Trying to capture its different qualities is one of the things I think most about as a fiction writer.
How long did it take you to finish the book?
It took about three years. I had a lot of other obligations while writing it—I was in the middle of a PhD programme in the US. But then again, writing is not exactly the most difficult form of labour.
Many first-time writers—especially those who draw on personal experience—experience a feeling of being freed once the book is over. Was it the same for you?
Yes, definitely—the freedom of not having to think about death on a daily basis any more. It makes me think of what life must be like for those who not only have to think about death on this scale, but also have to live with it on a daily basis.
What have been your biggest influences?
Andrei Platonov, a so-called alternative realist writer from the Soviet period, for the way he depicts suffering. Robert Musil, Marcel Proust, Peter Nadas, for the way they capture different aspects of the inner life. I listened to a lot of Tamil music while writing also, especially the Thiruvaasakam.
What are you working on next?
Another novel—a kind of study of various forms of yearning.
Any words of wisdom for budding writers?
I think you should be clear that the best writers are usually never recognised. They will not receive prizes, they will go out of publication, and most likely they will never be published at all. Recognition is important, but in this mediocre world recognition is generally only given to the mediocre.