Sri Lanka: When loved ones are stolen can poetry repair the wound?

Amnesty International recently launched “Silenced Shadows”, a poetry competition on disappearances in Sri Lanka. Poet R Cheran, one of our competition judges, explains how literature can be a force for change.

More than 80,000 people disappeared in Sri Lanka. Many people there, including me, have relatives or friends who have disappeared in the past 30 years during the war. It is still an open wound. When a friend or relative is killed, painful as that is, at least you know their fate and you can have some closure. But if someone you love disappears, it is more cruel. You will be like a small bird trapped in a dark cage, searching for a corner where none exists. This pain is unbearable.

The major issue in Sri Lanka is the state’s brutality over the past 30 years. It is not just an ethnic chauvinist state, but one that is very willing to kill thousands of people or “disappear” them without hesitation. The state is the source of human rights violations. And when it comes to literature and fine arts, like many states in the world, it is illiterate.

The only way ahead is to work directly with ordinary people and the networks they create. It is a slow but solid way. As Amnesty’s founder Peter Benenson often said: “It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness”. Poetry may be a small candle, but it is still a candle – one with an uncompromising fire. Participating in Amnesty’s poetry competition is my tiny contribution to a larger process of closure, accountability and justice.

Forced out of Sri Lanka

In the 1980s, I worked for Saturday Review, an English language weekly in Jaffna, northern Sri Lanka, which was bombed by the government for reporting atrocities carried out by Sri Lanka’s security forces. It was not liked by the various Tamil militant groups either. In 1987, Saturday Review ceased publishing, and I went into exile in the Netherlands.

I returned in 1989, and in 1990 became editor of Sarinihar (Perfect Equality) a Tamil language weekly newspaper. In 1991, one of Sarinihar’s writers disappeared in the capital, Colombo.
Sarinihar was very critical of the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam). There were some serious threats on my life and with Amnesty International’s help, I left Sri Lanka in 1992.

In London, I volunteered at the Amnesty office for some time and eventually received a scholarship to do my PhD at York University in Toronto, Canada. That’s how I ended up in Canada! Except for a few, the other journalists that had worked for Sarinihar are living in exile now.

“Sunset” (A poem)

The sun has set
across the spreading fields the sun has set
in the shadow of the woods the sun has set
beyond the anger of the rain which is yet to fall
upon the hundreds of bodies sprawled upon the sand upon a severed leg
alone upon the sea-shore
the sun has set.

Upon the broken wings
of a quivering small bird
which does not know
where to heap its loss and sorrow and searches for a corner

in a small cage
where it can lurk;
within my tears the sun has set.

At dawn they arrive
with faltering words:
The body has not been found.

Why I write

Words and imagination are my weapons. I have no other. There are several poems in my collections on disappearances evoking the friends I have lost. These poems were written in their memory.
I have no naive hope or belief that my poetry can turn the world upside down. However, as someone who cherishes and fights for freedom of expression, writing can be a source of strength, a way of protest, and a medium with which to change the perceptions of others. It is a slow but significant process. As Canadian poet bpNichol once said: “A / LAKE / A / LANE / A / LINE / A / LONE”.
Even if I am alone in my persuasion, a single line of my poetry may evoke a thousand waves and memories.

Words and imagination are my weapons. I have no other.
R Cheran

R Cheran is the author of In a Time of Burning (Arc Publications, UK, 2014) – winner of an English PEN award, The Second Sunrise (Navayana Publications, New Delhi, 2010) and You Cannot Turn Away  (TSAR Publications, Toronto, 2011). He has written 15 books of poetry in Tamil, and is currently a professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Windsor, Canada.