South Asian Heritage Month: Sri Lankan Reading List  

Outline of South Asia filled with fabric patterns, in two concentric circles of text which read: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka. South Asian Heritage Month 18 Jul to 17 Aug

Within our year-long programme around South Asian Heritage Month and its theme of Stories to Tell, we will be focusing on the theme of Making Sri Lankan Stories Visible. As part of this, we are adding new books relating to Sri Lanka to our shelves, both fiction and non-fiction.  You can reserve any of the books below via the Manchester Libraries catalogue. 

Heaven’s Edge by Romesh Gunesekera 

In this novel, a Londoner named Marc sets out in search of a dream to an island resembling Romesh Gunesekera’s native Sri Lanka, a place where Marc’s grandfather was born and where his father’s plane was shot down in flames. It is an island once said to be near the edge of heaven, but now ravaged and despoiled by war. There by a glittering lake he sees the subversive Uva, an eco-warrior releasing emerald doves. Finding her launches him into a world of passion and difficult choices, but their affair is cut short when she disappears. Desperate to find her, Marc embarks on a final terrifying journey that will test all his beliefs as he confronts violence in a quest for love. 

Monkfish Moon by Romesh Gunesekera 

Both a poet and a writer of fiction, Gunesekera’s first collection is a powerful body of work using a narrative lens that reflects the imaginative vision of a writer exploring ‘home’ through the migrant frame of memory. Similar to Reef, published in 1994 and short-listed for the Booker Prize, the stories in Monkfish Moon focus their attention on the remembrances of individual lives both in Sri Lanka and Britain, impacted by both the historical and political landscape. 

This short-story collection creates a portrait of contemporary Sri Lanka: a married couple, living in London, find their marriage strained by fighting in their far-off homeland; a man mourns his brother’s death; a woman regrets the lover she left behind. Between exile and loss, Gunesekera’s characters explore the concepts of home.  

The Sri Lanka Reader: History, Culture, Politics – Edited by John Clifford Holt 

The Sri Lanka Reader is an introduction to the history of the island nation located just off the southern tip of India. The island’s recorded history of more than two and a half millennia encompasses waves of immigration from the South Asian subcontinent, the formation of Sinhala Buddhist and Tamil Hindu civilizations, the arrival of Arab Muslim traders and European colonization by the Portuguese, then the Dutch, and finally the British. Selected texts depict perceptions of the country’s multiple linguistic and religious communities, as well as its political travails after independence in 1948, especially the ethnic violence that recurred from the 1950s until 2009, when the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam were defeated by the Sri Lankan government’s armed forces. This wide-ranging anthology covers the aboriginal Veddhas, the earliest known inhabitants of the island; the Kings of Kandy, Sri Lanka’s last indigenous dynasty; twenty-first century women who leave the island to work as housemaids in the Middle East; the forty thousand Sri Lankans killed by the tsunami in December 2004; and, through cutting-edge journalism and heart-wrenching poetry, the protracted violence that has scarred the country’s contemporary political history. Along with fifty-four images of paintings, sculptures, and architecture, The Sri Lanka Reader includes more than ninety classic and contemporary texts written by Sri Lankans and the diaspora.  

Funny Boy by Shyam Selvadurai 

In the world of his large family – affluent Tamils living in Colombo – Arjie is an oddity, a ‘funny boy’ who prefers dressing as a girl to playing cricket with his brother. 
As Arjie comes to terms with his own homosexuality and with the racism of the society in which he lives, Sri Lanka is plunged into civil war as fighting between the army and the Tamil Tigers gradually begins to encroach on the family’s comfortable life. Sporadic acts of violence flare into full scale riots and lead, ultimately, to tragedy. Selvadurai’s first novel mingles the personal and political. 

Cinnamon Gardens by Shyam Selvadurai

Shyam Selvadurai’s second novel is set in complex 1920s Ceylon. Within the Cinnamon Gardens is a residential area of wealthy Ceylonese where Annalukshmi, an independent and high-spirited young teacher is intent on not having anyone arrange her marriage. Elsewhere, her married uncle Balendran Navaratnam, who is secretly homosexual, has his life disrupted by the arrival of a lover from long ago. This subtle and deeply humane novel explores social and cultural differences through time and place.  

When Memory Dies by A. Sivanandan 

Through the viewpoints of three generations of a Sri Lankan family (taking the reader from 1920 through the 1980s), Sivanandan explores a culture destroyed first by colonization, then through the ethnic divisions that are released when the country achieves independence. 
The family, which lives at a level of poverty that makes survival a constant struggle, must also balance love for one another with a deep love of their homeland. Without bending to romanticism or proselytization, the author evokes a compelling and very human story of a lost country. It is a vision as beautifully told as it is unrelenting in its devotion to truth. In the process, the work also supplies a rich historic background to the often underreported news accounts of the massacres and upheavals in Sri Lanka.

Bone China by Roma Tearne 

This epic novel of love, loss and a family uprooted is set in the contrasting landscapes of war-torn Sri Lanka and immigrant London. 

Grace de Silva, wife of Aloysius, has five children and a crumbling marriage. Her eldest son, Jacob, wants to go to England. Thornton, the most beautiful of all the children and his mother’s favourite, dreams of becoming a poet. Alicia wants to be a concert pianist. Only Frieda has no ambition, other than to remain close to her family. But civil unrest is stirring in Sri Lanka and Christopher, the youngest and the rebel of the family, is soon caught up in the tragedy that follows. 

As the decade unfolds against a backdrop of increasing ethnic violence, Grace watches helplessly as the life she knows begins to crumble. Slowly, this once happy family is torn apart as four of her children each make the decision to leave their home. 

In London, the de Silvas are all, in their different ways, desperately homesick. Caught in a cultural clash between East and West, life is not as they expected. Only Thornton’s daughter, Meeka, moves confidently into a world that is full of possibilities. But nothing is as easy as it seems and she must overcome heartbreak, a terrible mistake and single parenthood before she is finally able to see the extraordinary effects of history on her family’s migration. 

Brixton Beach by Roma Tearne 

Amid the horrors of the 2005 London bombings, this is the profoundly moving story of a country on the brink of civil war and a child’s struggle to come to terms with loss. 

As a series of bombs brings London to a halt, Simon Swann, a medic at a teaching hospital, is searching amongst the chaos and rubble. Police sirens and ambulances are screaming as a distraught Swann searches for someone.  

Thirty years ago, on the island of Sri Lanka, a girl named Alice Fonseka is learning to ride a bicycle on the beach. Its community is on the brink of civil war and Alice’s life is about to change forever. She will have to leave for England, abandoning her beloved grandfather, and accompanied by her mother Sita, a woman broken by a series of terrible events. 

In London, Alice grows into womanhood. Trapped in a loveless marriage, she has a son. Slowly she fulfils her grandfather’s prophecy and becomes an artist. Eventually she finds true love. But London in the twenty-first century is a mass of migration and suspicion. The war on terror has begun and everyone, even Simon Swann, middle class, rational, medic that he is, will be caught up in this war in the most unexpected and terrible way.

Mosquito by Roma Tearne 

A lyrical and moving story of love, loss and civil war, set in Sri Lanka, London and Venice. 

When author Theo Samarajeeva returns to his native Sri Lanka after his wife’s death, he hopes to escape his loss amid the landscape of his increasingly war-torn country. As he settles into this land, he finds himself slipping into friendship with an artistic young girl, Nulani, whose family is caught up in the turmoil. Under the threat of civil war, the affair offers a glimmer of hope to a country on the brink of destruction but violence tears them apart. Betrayed, imprisoned and tortured, Theo is gradually stripped of everything he once held dear – his writing, his humanity and, eventually, his love.  

Believing her lover is dead, Nulani flees Sri Lanka to a cold and lonely life of exile. As years pass and the country descends into violence and hatred, the tragedy of Theo and Nulani’s failed love spreads and they must struggle to recover some of what they have lost in the possibility of redemption. 

The Road To Urbino  by Roma Tearne 

A story of obsession, love and art set in Tuscany, Sri Lanka and London. 

Ras, a Sri Lankan who fled his country as a child following the violent death of his mother and his father’s disappearance, has committed a crime. Dogged by his past and unable to come to terms with the killing of his mother, he struggles to make a new life for himself in the UK. 

Alex has loved Dee since he was 19 but failed to realise that it was a love he wouldn’t find again. After Dee’s marriage, he too struggles to build a meaningful life for himself. 

But when Ras’ and Alex’s lives connect, each man takes a new path culminating for Ras in the theft of a painting, while Alex comes ever closer to Dee through tragedy in her life. 

The Road to Urbino is the story of two very different men and their love for the women in their lives, set against the backdrop of the heartbreaking horrors of the long-running conflict in Sri Lanka. 

The Swimmer by Roma Tearne 

A gripping, captivating novel about love, loss and what home really means. 

Forty-three year old Ria is used to being alone. As a child, her life changed forever with the death of her beloved father and since then, she has struggled to find love. That is, until she discovers the swimmer. 

Ben is a young illegal immigrant from Sri Lanka who has arrived in Norfolk via Moscow. Awaiting a decision from the Home Office on his asylum application, he is discovered by Ria as he takes a daily swim in the river close to her house. He is twenty years her junior and theirs is an unconventional but deeply moving romance, defying both boundaries and cultures – and the xenophobic residents of Orford. That is, until tragedy occurs. 

TRACE: The Museum of Memory by Roma Tearne and Jane Glennie 

Drawing on Tearne’s background, and experience of loss – she left Sri Lanka for the UK with her family, at the start of the civil unrest during the 1960s – the book imagines an archive and museum collection cultivated from a trunk of photographs and artefacts.

With no known provenance and in poor condition, the collection stands in as a substitute for the lost possessions of every dislocated individual – whether a displaced person or refugee, or simply someone who has been forced by circumstance to leave the familiar behind, losing special objects in the process. People often cannot help looking for artefacts which belong to their past, and are unable to rest if they can’t find them. TRACE provides that rest – it is the story of a collection, and the house which becomes a museum to hold those possessions. 

“On entering you will notice that the collection within these rooms appears to belong to one person alone. However, I hope that on closer inspection it will become clear that the exhibits belong to everyone who has ever lived.” 

The Encyclopedia of Sri Lankan Diaspora – Peter Reeves 

Well over a million people of Sri Lankan origin live outside South Asia. The Encyclopedia of Sri Lanka Diaspora is the first comprehensive study of the lives, culture, beliefs and attitudes of immigrants and refugees from this island. The volume is a joint publication between the Institute of South Asian Studies, NUS, and Editions Didier Millet. It focuses on the relationship between culture and economy in the Sri Lanka diaspora in the context of globalisation, increased transnational culture flows and new communication technologies. In addition to the geographic mapping of the Sri Lanka diaspora in the various continents, thematic chapters include topics on ‘long distance nationalism’, citizenship, Sinhala, Tamil and Burgher disapora identities, religion and the spread of Buddhism, as well as the Sri Lankan cultural impact on other nations.  

Out of Sri Lanka: Tamil, Sinhala and English poetry from Sri Lanka and its diasporas Edited by Vidyan Ravinthiran, Seni Seneviratne & Shash Trevett  

Sri Lanka has thrilled the foreign imagination as a land of infinite possibility. Portuguese, Dutch and British colonisers envisioned an island of gems and pearls, a stopping-point on the Silk Road; tourists today are sold a vision of golden beaches and swaying palm trees, delicious food and smiling locals. This favours the south of the island over the north, rebuilt piecemeal after the end of the civil war in 2009, and erases a history of war crimes, illicit assassination of activists and journalists, subjugation of minorities, and a legacy of governmental corruption that has now led the country into economic and social crisis. 

This first ever anthology of Sri Lankan and diasporic poetry – many exiles refuse to identify as “Sri Lankan” – features over a hundred poets writing in English, or translated from Tamil and Sinhala. It brings to light a long-neglected national literature, and reshapes our understanding of migrational poetics and the poetics of atrocity. Poets long out of print appear beside exciting new talents; works written in the country converse with poetry from the UK, the US, Canada and Australia.  

There are poems here about love, art, nature – and others exploring critical events: the Marxist JVP insurrections of the 1970s and 80s, the 2004 tsunami and its aftermath, recent bombings linked with the demonisation of Muslim communities. The civil war between the government and the separatist Tamil Tigers is a haunting and continual presence. A poetry of witness challenges those who would erase, rather than enquire into, the country’s troubled past. This anthology affirms the imperative to remember, whether this relates to folk practices suppressed by colonisers, or more recent events erased from the record by Sinhalese nationalists. 

Islanded: Britain, Sri Lanka, and the bounds of an Indian Ocean colony by Sujit Sivasundaram 

How did the British come to conquer South Asia in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries? Answers to this question usually start in northern India, neglecting the dramatic events that marked Britain’s contemporaneous subjugation of the island of Sri Lanka. In “Islanded”, Sujit Sivasundaram reconsiders the arrival of British rule in South Asia as a dynamic and unfinished process of territorialization and state building, revealing that the British colonial project was framed by the island’s traditions and maritime placement and built in part on the model they provided.

Using palm-leaf manuscripts from Sri Lanka to read the official colonial archive, Sivasundaram tells the story of two sets of islanders in combat and collaboration. He explores how the British organized the process of “islanding,” aiming to create a separable unit of colonial governance and trade in keeping with conceptions of ethnology, culture, and geography. But rather than serving as a radical rupture, he reveals, islanding recycled traditions the British learned from Kandy, a kingdom in the Sri Lankan highlands whose customs – from strategies of war to views of nature – fascinated the British. Picking up a range of unusual themes, from migration, orientalism, and ethnography to botany, medicine, and education, “Islanded” is an engaging retelling of the advent of British rule. 

This divided island: stories from the Sri Lankan war by Samanth Subramanian 

In the summer of 2009, the leader of the Tamil Tiger guerrillas was killed, bringing to a bloody end the stubborn and complicated civil war in Sri Lanka. For nearly thirty years, the war’s fingers had reached everywhere: into the bustle of Colombo, the Buddhist monasteries scattered across the island, the soft hills of central Sri Lanka, the curves of the eastern coast near Batticaloa and Trincomalee, and the stark, hot north. With its genius for brutality, the war left few places, and fewer people, untouched. 

What happens to the texture of life in a country that endures such bitter conflict? What happens to the country’s soul? Samanth Subramanian gives us an extraordinary account of the Sri Lankan war and the lives it changed. Taking us to the ghosts of summers past, and to other battles from other times, he draws out the story of Sri Lanka today – an exhausted, disturbed society, still hot from the embers of the war. Through travels and conversations, he examines how people reconcile themselves to violence, how religion and state conspire, how the powerful become cruel, and how victory can be put to the task of reshaping memory and burying histories. 

This Divided Island is a harrowing and humane investigation of a country still inflamed.