Joy in the Creation: A Conversation with Hasanthika Sirisena
By Leland CheukMarch 24, 2022
Sirisena uses this incident as an example of a pivotal what-if moment, a happenstantial fork in the road that mirrors the way Sirisena and her family ended up in Goldsboro. After leaving Sri Lanka to complete a prestigious fellowship in England, her father applied for jobs in New Zealand and London, rejecting the possibility of returning to Sri Lanka, before settling on North Carolina without visiting beforehand.
Dark Tourist is a fascinating read, both erudite and deeply personal, a portrait of an artist whose origins are far from linear, whose travels have been far and wide. The essays are set in Columbo, Sri Lanka, Chicago, New York, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania, and they span a variety of topics, including Sirisena’s sexuality, her family history, and her influences and choices as an artist.
Sirisena and I caught up over email to discuss Dark Tourist in greater depth. We conversed about the experience of being an immigrant and growing up between cultures as a person of color. We also talked about how to inspire young people confronting a future that looks anything but bright.
LELAND CHEUK: In the first two essays of the collection, “Broken Arrow” and “Lady,” you write about your parents, the health problems they endured, your father’s secret marriage, and how your mother’s poor health colored the way she saw the world. While I was reading these opening essays, the title of the book struck me as an appropriate description of how children, particularly those of Asian and South Asian American immigrants, are basically tourists in darkness when it comes to trying to understand our parents’ lives. So many of them are completely confounding to us because of communication gaps, cultural differences, and so on. Regarding your parents, what do you wish you knew more about?
HASANTHIKA SIRISENA: Ooh, I love that reading of the title. Yes! About 15 years ago, I started recording interviews with my parents. I was surprised at how candid they were when I started taping because they were rarely forthcoming when it came to their lives. Now, I wonder if there wasn’t some element of solipsism on my part, too. I’m not sure I was asking the right questions. But, yes, I agree with you that there was so much that remained hidden — and needlessly so.
A lot of what I feel is still missing has to do with not having a shared first language. I “lost” my first language very young. A few years ago, before my father had a stroke, he was telling a story and suddenly switched to Sinhala — I imagine because the story was bawdy and he didn’t feel comfortable telling it in English. But what struck me was that he was completely comfortable relating it in his first language. It also surprised me how loose and funny he was.
So, I missed seeing that particular side of my parents. I’ve always thought of them as very formal people, but I wonder now how much of that is due to the fact that their English, though fluent, was acquired in an educational setting and they were never really comfortable expressing emotion that way.
In “Soft Target,” you write about your sexuality as well as a very frightening incident in your youth involving alcohol and a party. You write: “I’ve never really located my sex life around an identity, I’ve typically thought of myself simply as very fluid.” But you say you’ve started identifying as queer in part because there are many LGBTQ youth in need of mentoring in the rural area where you live and work. Do you wish you had similarly available mentors when you were younger?
Yes … and no. This is something I’m sure you relate to as well, Leland. Growing up, I had no one that looked like me, and this was twofold. I didn’t have lesbian role models, and I didn’t have Asian role models. Only stereotypes, mostly, of both. In the essay, I talk about Adrienne Rich’s concept of compulsory heterosexuality and that’s all I knew, and I’d add to that compulsory whiteness as well.
For the better part of my 20s and 30s, I identified as bisexual without really understanding what that meant. I think my vision was very much governed by popular media representations, which were very limited and, again, stereotypes. And bisexuality is often dismissed within the queer community. I never acquired the right language to describe my feelings.
But the mentors were always out there, and I don’t think I looked hard enough. Jane Ward in The Tragedy of Heterosexuality (2020) writes about “radical queers” — activists, writers, and theorists who, throughout the last century, pushed back against heterosexual culture. That’s much of what I’m trying to address in the list essay “The Answer Key.” I also want to push back, now, against this failure narrative I posited in “Soft Target.” I’m thinking of Jack Halberstam’s concept of queer failure and the way it questions conventional narratives of aesthetic success and our division between high and low art. I think that notion of queer failure can easily be extended to the way we privilege teleological narratives of success as normative and fractured and see ruptured narratives as a sign of deficiency, or even deviancy. I have had a fractured and ruptured reckoning with my queerness, and that’s a beautiful thing.
And, yes, that had partly to do with wanting to be an honest and knowledgeable role model for my students and partly a recognition that not living a fully realized, or at least a better realized, queer identity was costing me emotionally and psychologically.
In “Confessions of a Dark Tourist,” you tour a museum dedicated to the Sri Lankan Civil War, and like most war museums, it’s full of propaganda and bias and horrors. Then you find yourself going about your business as a tourist afterward — eating great meals, seeing once-in-a-lifetime sights. You write:
The war wasn’t only a collection of horrors, a catalogue of crimes. The war with its continual churning destruction, its impeding of progress, had frozen us all in time, and that’s what I had added to by joining this war tour, a sense that none of us would ever move on from this time and place.
Are you implying that, by going to such places, we’re complicit in keeping the war alive in some way, failing to imagine a better world without such horror?
For me, what was frozen in that moment was the grief and trauma — not the war. But I don’t want to act as if I can provide an answer to that, and I certainly can’t chastise anyone for not imagining a better world after surviving a war. That would be cruel.
Adorno famously claimed that to write poetry after Auschwitz was barbaric. Lesser known, but also important, is Žižek’s explanation of the quote. Žižek, and this is probably too reductive but I’m just going to run with it, basically claims that we have to find the right forms and the right language to explore the horrors of war and mass trauma. That museum was too direct — it was artless, and deeply cruel. Barbaric would be the right word. Because of that, I believe it perpetuated, as a monument, the trauma it intended to memorialize. And my presence there as “witness” to the museum did make me complicit in the moment.
But I don’t think that has to be true of every attempt to remember war and trauma. I’m currently reading Muriel Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead (1938), an elegy to the miners, most of them African American, who died of silicosis during the 1931 Hawks Nest Tunnel disaster. I had never heard of this event before I stumbled on Rukeyser’s poem, and the poem itself is extraordinary. She interviewed the survivors and the families of the dead, and it’s a careful reconstruction of history. I would never claim she was complicit in the tragedy by writing about it. So, I do think it’s a question of form but also of diligence as to the ways we’re using other people’s trauma.
Even Rukeyser in The Book of the Dead, however, acknowledges the failure of a single memorial. As she writes: “Words on a monument / Capitoline thunder. It cannot be enough.”
In “Amblyopia,” you write about your traumatic eye injury and your shifting feelings about the disability over time. The quote from your ex-partner really struck me: “You know one day, you’re going to be really sick, and you’re going to look back at this time in your life, at this moment, and regret not realizing that your lazy eye was nothing. It isn’t the cause of anything wrong in your life.” You gave him the last word in the passage. Was he right? Or are there times you still feel the rage that you felt in your youth about your eye?
Actually, it’s not a lazy eye — which is a bit of the joke, and the point of the essay. It’s actually a traumatic eye injury. And I think this goes back to a point I seem to keep returning to. It’s about having the right language. I accepted the language given to me — that it was a lazy eye. But it’s a profound and painful injury. This isn’t an attempt to dismiss amblyopia, which can also be serious and painful. It’s just to say that my injury belongs in another category.
And the language here is important because I think, if I had had that language, I would have had the power to articulate, and make clear, my pain. So, no, I’m not angry about the injury anymore. It is what it is, and my ex-partner was right. But I am more assertive now that my eye is often painful, that my sight is impaired, and that this isn’t simply an aesthetic issue but a trauma I have to live with.
In “Six Drawing Lessons,” you write briefly about your upbringing in the South. You write: “In America, I existed in some strange neverland of not actually, or even remotely wanting to be, thought of as white and certainly not a victim of the continual and relentless racial oppression suffered by African Americans or a part of the vibrant and rich culture that has risen as a response.” I thought this was a good way to describe being a person of color in America. I find myself seeing people of color who seem like they’re comfortable with their identity and I envy them and then I think: How do I know they feel like they belong? How do I know they don’t feel like they’re in a strange neverland, too? Do you think we ever feel fully out of that strange neverland?
Absolutely, but while I think the quote above is accurate, the trajectory of your question points to another possibility for the two of us. Sorry, I know I’m throwing out a lot of names here, but I’m an essayist! Homi Bhabha talks about this in The Location of Culture (1994). Doesn’t he say that inhabiting liminal and hybrid spaces, engaging in mimicry and ambivalence, is the source of power for the colonized and oppressed? I think any of us who feel that we’re not properly represented in the main and dominant culture — which I think certainly describes the both of us — end up working in a liminal, hybrid space. But I’m glad to be there, honestly. This I think is our inheritance, and I think we should inhabit it and write from it proudly.
In “Six Drawing Lessons,” you write beautifully about coming back to drawing after 25 years. I’ve had some similar feelings about writing for decades, that somehow it’s not enough — it’s not as challenging; it’s not as new. Committing to a certain avenue of creativity can be like monogamy. It’s a choice but perhaps not a natural state. Did you find yourself gravitating to art because you felt you’d mastered writing in some way?
Thank you, Leland! And, yes, let’s queer the creative process and celebrate variety and aesthetic polyamory!
No, I started drawing again because one day, as I was prepping to teach Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, I stumbled on a video of her process, and it felt instantaneously recognizable and fun (though also painstaking). I thought in that moment that I wanted to try it, really just because it looked like a blast.
Seriously, the trick to making art over many decades — and we’re still babies in that sense — is how you keep the process enjoyable. I just went to see the Jasper Johns retrospective [at the Whitney Museum of American Art], and I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Johns opened his studio to the curators, and the result is an exhibition that captures an artist’s process over seven decades. What I took away was how extraordinarily intelligent and gifted he is and how restless he is as an artist. He painted. He was a printmaker, a sculptor. He worked for years in Japan, learning Japanese printmaking processes and absorbing Japanese aesthetics. He painted haunting elegies during the AIDS movement. I’m not sure he was having fun — I don’t know enough about his process — but there’s definitely a deep commitment to, obsession with, creation and making.
A writer I really admire for her fearlessness and daring when it comes to form is Audre Lorde. She’s a poet and an essayist. She actually invents a new form of biomythography. And there’s this driving passion and mission. Going back to the queer art of failure, I think mainstream culture defines success as doing one thing well, but inventiveness and progress for me has often come from my deepest failures.
In “Punctum, Studium, and The Beatles’ ‘A Day in the Life,’” you write with great wisdom and foreboding: “[T]hat which will destroy you, you will not see coming.” Very scary, very true — and certainly true for your father’s stroke, which, you write in “Broken Arrow,” was caused in part by his refusal to take blood thinners, even though he was a physician by trade. And you write that art is a means of surviving this frightening existential truth. What do you tell your students about their futures, which seem so foreboding right now?
Oh, honestly, most of the time my students and I are trying to figure out how to survive today. A few years ago, I was watching a movie with my four-year-old nephew that he had watched many times and had begged me to watch again. There was a particular scene that frightened him — that always frightened him, actually — and suddenly he grips my hand tightly, hides behind me, and whispers, “I love you, Auntie Hasie.” I was deeply moved in that moment, but also wondered why he kept watching this movie that clearly frightened him. And it came to me that he a) needed to experience the fright, and also the release from it, and b) it was important for him to know there was someone nearby that loved him and would protect him. I do think one of the roles of art — not the only one, of course — is to provide us with a chance to work through our fears, trauma, and grief, in the manageable space of the page.
That said, for all the self-help books and newspaper op-eds, I don’t think we still have good answers when it comes to building resiliency and fortitude, so I try not to be prescriptive, and I want to try to avoid that here. I tell my students only to make art now, the art they love, and to try to find, and maintain, joy in creation.
Leland Cheuk is an award-winning author of three books of fiction, most recently No Good Very Bad Asian (2019). Cheuk’s work has appeared in NPR, The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, and Salon, among other outlets. He lives in Brooklyn.
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