Event Review: Pireeni Sundaralingam at Living Writers Series
The Living Writers Series opened its fall program September 18, 2013 at 7 p. m. in the Love Library, room 430 at San Diego State University. Pireeni Sundaralingam shared her work and read from Indivisible, the first national anthology of South Asian American Poets, winner of the Northern California Book Award in 2011. Sundaralingam expressed her interest in giving voice to those scarred by violence. For her, each poem was personal, sharing the history of her encounter with war and the process of redefining her identity displaced from her homeland of Sri Lanka.
She told the story of a chance encounter with a fellow Sri Lanka citizen. At the time, she did not know what to say, how to relate, or rejoice with one who had also been displaced. The stranger seemed out of reach even though he was deeply connected to the horror that dwelled within her. Every imagined hello somehow signified loss, acknowledged the absence of those left behind, and reminded Sundaralingam of a homeland decimated and defiled by war. Ultimately, after several moments of indecision, she chose not to say hello. All she could do was quietly look into the stranger’s eyes.
The Sri Lanka civil war began in 1983, eclipsing her childhood, leading her to accept the normality of war. “Every day was a horror to survive,” she said. She remarked that everyone in her class is now dead and buried in a cemetery she recalled passing while riding in a car with her two cousins as a child. She recalled ducking low, fearing that the ghosts in the cemetery would see her. “Death and life live hand in hand,” she said. The poem, Cemetery, recounts the experience with the following lines: Yell for cover and dive/…We passed years this way (Sundaralingam).
Growing up in England, following her family’s departure from her homeland, Sundaralingam explained to the audience how her family felt conflicted; their identity was centered in their spiritual beliefs, which were often jeopardized by their displacement and the strangeness of the culture they suddenly found themselves forced to entertain for the sake of rootedness, a sense that they belonged. She told the story of her family, attempting to return the ashes of a loved one to the ocean, hoping that each ash would reach the Ganges. In rain coats over saris, fearing the call of midnight, she and her family performed their sacred deed. In Sri Lanka, the ceremony would have been respected and held sacred. In England, it was illegal to spread the ashes of the dead in the sea. “Death is complicated,” she said with such dignified restraint as if to indicate that it too was a horror, one that violated her sense of being as much as passing by the cemetery filled with her former classmates. “There is no innocence in war, nothing salvageable within which a child can hide. There is only the willingness to move forward, to accept, grieve, and remember,” she said.
I appreciated her stories and how she connected the reader to the poems by linking each to herself. It gave the audience access into the mind of a poet. I was able to understand her commitment to truth. It was clear that each poem was written with premeditated purpose. My favorite line from Indivisible left me with a sense of sadness, a sense that war does not happen alone; violence needs both an audience and participants, “because evening is the drawing together of death’s dark forces” (Sundaralingam).