This is a guest post from Tassja
This is an excerpt from a series of short essays, mostly based on my last visit to my home-country, Sri Lanka, after 5 years away. The title is from a poem by Suheir Hammad.
"But the native intellectual who wishes to create an authentic work of art must realize that the truths of a nation are in the first place its realities."
Fanon’s words haunt me. Am I the native people of Sri Lanka? Young, female, foreign-educated, far more fluent in English than Sinhalese, loving and yet almost afraid of understanding the reality of my country?
Is it my country to claim?
The aboriginal Vaddas, the oldest known inhabitants of Sri Lanka, are almost extinct. No one can tell me what happened to them, only that by the time the Dutch and British came they were already greatly diminished in number. Historians speculate that when King Vijaya founded the Sinhalese empire, Veddas were the casualty. Does everything of our known world have its origins in blood and death?
In the long aftermath of colonization, I struggle with unbelonging. You never really stop having, loving, longing for, being drawn to your country – you never stop carrying it inside you. The evil of colonization is that you must carry that with you also - a sense of violation. What the colonized know is violence of the body and soul, soil and blood – and the weight of recognizing how that violation resides in you, shapes you, pins you to a mat from which you must wrest the truth of who you are, unfettered by lies and murder.
A civil war raged in Sri Lanka for decades. A war, I was told, fought in my name. For me and mine. Against them – those bloody Tamils, that Demala jarawa, those filthy whores and toilet-workers, poisoning our pure, beautiful nation.
Us, the Sinhala people, the 'true' spirit of Sri Lanka.
But I wonder – does anyone know, really, who we are?
What were we before we came from over the sea? What were we before the British, the Dutch, the Portuguese? Before they cut the hills and fields into shapes reading not yours, reading empire, colony, plantation, reading profit. Before they said to us plant tea, speak English, teach Shakespeare in your schools, we are what you must be to be human, to be worth anything.
Would we have foreseen this war? Or that night of horror when we pulled each other out of homes and battered and raped and burnt our own screaming flesh?
And I think of her.
I had almost forgotten. Her face came to me like the fragment of a dream. She had a body once. We don’t know where it is. We have no inkling of its plains and trajectories, its sun-darkened surfaces or soft, shady contours. We don’t know how it moved, if it liked to curl up when sleeping – all the things we know about the bodies we love.
But for a few months her face was everywhere: on bus-stations, on TV, on the walls around my school.
Her body was gone, eaten in the grenade explosion along with Presidential Candidate Dissananyake and 20 or so of his close friends. Long before the American military machine raised the specter of ‘suicide bomber’ to police more brown bodies, she sacrificed hers for a desperate dream of something, anything but what her reality was.
They found her head in one piece. Two weeks after the assassination, government issued posters appeared everywhere. It was a picture of her severed head, the only frontal image of her face they had. She had no passport or record; no one could even guess at a name.
If This Woman Looks Familiar, Please Call This Number
Her hair was a charred tangle, the neck stump black with burnt blood. Medusa after Perseus was done. Who did know her? Whose daughter was she? Whose sister or niece, whose lover?
I know her eyes were closed in that poster. They were scummy grey, the lids half clamped down. But sometimes when I try to remember her face, those eyes are wide open. Round and white with black pupils that point outward like gun barrels.
If I am to write the realities of my country, then I must concede that these realities are mine particularly. That there are some from which I must draw my fingertips back after the briefest of touches, before the skin singes too deep.
What was in her mind, walking towards him with a garland upheld and death strapped beneath her? Did the device grow warm from the mound of her belly? Did she hesitate, even once? When he bent to the garland, those last moments before death, did she smell the oil in his hair and think of someone else, some stolen night away from the training camps, hot scents of jungle and the sweat of tangled thighs?
I try to give her dreams and desires, to replace the ones we never cared to learn, the ones eaten up in the flames with her brown, brown skin.
Maybe someone remembers her young, unburned, laughing in August rain.
If the truths of a nation are in the first place its realities then the truths we each profess to know are bounded by our flesh, our skin, our living hair, our voices heard and unheard. For each body that is swept away, voided as unworthy, those of us remaining must embody them through our words, our actions, our vision of a different world.
I belong. I unbelong. I am soul. I am body.
I will not use the self-containment of flesh to draw borders. I will turn instead to the hunger of feeling skin, and drink the world’s voices through my palms