Monday, July 10, 2017

Int'l Essayists: V.V. Ganeshananthan on Sunila Galappatti

As Told To, As Heard By

Sunila Galappatti and I met back in 2009, when I was part of the Galle Literary Festival in Sri Lanka, which Sunila was then running. We had a brief but memorable conversation, and have remained correspondents and become friends. We’ve met a few times in person since, most recently in Edinburgh, where we did an event together at a conference as part of the launch of her first book. Later that year, I took the book to Sri Lanka with me, where I traveled with someone who repeatedly borrowed it. I myself devoured it in a few days, and could not help but agree with my companion, who declared it “fantastic.” (In fact, he used a more emphatic phrase than that, but this is a family-friendly column, at least today.)

Sunila’s book has a comparatively unusual form. Indeed, it is not solely Sunila’s book. It is the story of Commodore Ajith Boyagoda, an officer with the Sri Lankan Navy who spent eight years as a prisoner of the militant Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, which fought Sri Lankan security forces for decades in pursuit of a separate state for Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority. The Tigers were a proscribed terrorist organization in many countries, including Sri Lanka. Sunila spent years talking to Boyagoda about those years, and then wrote a first-person account of his story based on their conversations. The result: A Long Watch: War, Captivity and Return in Sri Lanka, by Commodore Ajith Boyagoda as told to Sunila Galappatti. The book is captivating, and surprising, not least because of Boyagoda’s voice, which is measured, introspective, and clear. “I could see when I came home that people did not want to hear the story I told. I had been a prisoner of one of the most ruthless terrorist organisations in the world yet I couldn’t tell a ruthless story. People talk about the LTTE all the time; I lived with them for eight years and no one—not even my own naval command—ever wanted to hear my account of what they were like,” Boyagoda says in the book’s prologue. Here, then, the book’s dual surprise—the Tigers did not behave as one might have expected, at least with Boyagoda. And neither is he the storyteller one might anticipate under these circumstances.

After reading the book, I was interested in thinking about the liminal space and history of that ‘as told to.’ I could think of so few other books I admire that fit into that category—Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley was a prime contender. I also loved Andre Agassi’s autobiography, Open, produced in collaboration with J.R. Moehringer. Mostly, however, the American version is a form of storytelling I have associated, fairly or unfairly, primarily with celebrity and biography lite. I thought about whether I should reexamine these conceptions, and what ‘as told to’ in A Long Watch meant. Is ‘as told to’ a form of editing? Is it writing? I asked Sunila what she thought, and if in preparing to work on the book, she turned to any particular books as models.

Sunila wrote:

Believe it or not I have never myself read a book ‘as told to’. I’ll admit we chose it because it the closest convention available. I always think the more accurate description would be: ‘as heard by’.

Let me try and explain. Yes, I strove to be faithful to the way the Commodore told the story and especially to his tone in telling it. Yes, he checked that what I had written felt true to him. And yet the nuances I heard – the passages in the story that struck me - may have been different to those that caught another listener. And we know language is not incidental, not transparent – his story/my words is how I simplify it when people look for the lines of responsibility in it. 

It was writing not editing, to answer your question, but the two are close cousins – especially when it comes to the ethical responsibilities implicit in any non-fiction.

She traced her path to developing this approach: 

I could draw a line through a number of dots here – let me choose that way of telling the story. I started my career as a dramaturg in the theatre in London. In my early 20s I was fortunate to work on a production based on Shakespeare’s Pericles: a collaboration between my company, the Royal Shakespeare Company and Cardboard Citizens, that makes theatre with and for people who are or have been homeless. During one conversation, Adrian Jackson, the Artistic Director of Cardboard Citizens, showed me the transcript of an interview with a man who had been walking for, I think it was, 16 years. Reading through pages and pages of his unruly narrative you slowly realised that he had once lived in a house where the door bell had rung and someone at the door informed him his daughter had been killed in an accident. That was when he started walking. I’m not sure I’m remembering all the details of the story right but I remember the feeling of reading the transcript, the collapse of time within it and the strong sense that I could only know this man’s story by listening to him on his own terms. 

Since then, you could argue that I have been working on that principle. Soon afterwards, I worked at Live Theatre Newcastle, in the early 2000s when there was increasing interest in verbatim theatre. There I developed and directed documentary theatre pieces with individuals from the community around the theatre. I found I loved the challenge of finding form for lived experience – but form that made it clear this was a part of the story, the story still belonged to the person who lived it and they were showing you what they chose of it. Form that was ethically considered and collaboratively agreed.

I suppose the book I wrote with Commodore Boyagoda represented the first time I was working with written form in this way.

The book was published more or less a year ago, and we did an event together in Scotland at which we spoke about it. Since then, many more people have read the book and talked to you about it. Has any reaction greatly surprised you? Can you speak, broadly, about your interactions with readers of the book?

I wonder if it will surprise you to hear that although I have spoken about the book on three continents now I don’t consider that I know that much about the reactions of readers. When I do speak about the book I love being asked questions to which I don’t have ready answers; questions that make me think afresh. But what I love even more is feeling that reading is a private experience for each reader and I won’t know the conversations they have with the book as they are reading it. And the knowledge that those conversations may change over time. I felt a kind of relief when the work moved from manuscript to book form – as though it was no longer mine but anyone else’s. On my own shelves, it sits between the essays of George Orwell and a fascinating book by Bella Bathurst about the building of the Scottish lighthouses – because that’s where there was space to put it.

How did you think about Boyagoda’s emotional arc and doing justice to it as you did your research? Was straight chronology always your plan?

Funny you ask this question. I asked it of myself many times before I started writing. Should I start with the Commodore’s capture? But then I would lose the poignant story of the 19-year-old who joined a navy because he liked its uniform and never saw war coming. Should I work backwards from the Commodore’s homecoming? But did I have a good enough reason not to go chronologically. Ultimately I decided the narrative ought to seem like the man and the chronology suited the Commodore. His reaction on reading the first draft? “Do we have to start at the beginning?” In the end, I don’t think it was so much the Commodore’s emotional arc that led but the arc of change that he described in the country around him.

Can you talk, perhaps even in somewhat technical terms, about the process of going from notes and recordings to these chapters and polished narratives? 

The technical term I would use is repetition. The first time the Commodore told his story I didn’t really ask him questions. I wanted to hear the story he told. I recorded it. I listened again to it. Then I went back and asked the Commodore questions about certain passages of the story. I recorded those conversations. I listened again to them. In this way for more than three years we went over the story again and again. All the while I was trying to get to know the Commodore’s voice well enough that I could write with his tone and character even while using my own turn of phrase. The chapters and structure of the book came more naturally - I think pace and rhythm are the forms of logic I trust instinctively. I edited the book by reading it aloud over and over again.

Which section of the book was hardest to render? Why?

This is such an interesting question and one with alternative answers. Listening to the Commodore’s accounts of early captivity was hard because it was such an airless part of the story - there were no signs that things would change. Then to render that airlessness in writing was a challenge – I wanted the reader to feel the vacuum in those cells but without slowing the narrative down to a halt. 

The other challenge was the last section of the book – the Commodore’s homecoming. In many ways to me this was the most revealing part of the story – it was his return to the world that made it clear how far he had been removed from it. Yet here was a new difficulty because a more conventional privacy surrounded this homecoming – back among family and friends – and I had chosen not to intrude further into the Commodore’s life than he invited me. We were back on a conventional footing about what I would and would not ask. But I suppose this section was still easier to write than his transition into captivity. In a sense, I also knew the Commodore better later in his story.

How did you think about titling the book?

Truly? I made a long list of appalling, semi-nautical titles over several months. I wanted a novelistic title because it’s a book you read as a story. The manuscript was first named after things the Commodore had said: The Next Hour (‘if you survive this hour, the next hour is available to you’) and then The Surface of the Sea (‘on the surface of the sea you become very small’). Finally, I sat in a North London pub with my publisher and we tried again. When we came up with A Long Watch I was hopeful the Commodore would like it too, for its naval overtones. I went home and called him to ask. He did like it and that became the title.

So much of Sunila’s story of writing the book sounds appealingly collaborative. I like “as told to,” but I love “as heard by,” and the way it underlines Boyagoda’s agency and centrality as the teller of the story. Recent debates about appropriation have presented binary choices: when asking the question of who has the right to tell the story, we see only two options: the person to whom the events happened, and a writer seeking to portray those experiences. Sunila’s book presents a third path, one I hope will become more common, and which offers a method of showcasing such stories in ways that are rigorous, inventive, truthful and clear.

Further reading:

By Sunila Galappatti: Did He Go Stockholm?


Michael Ondaatje interviews Sunila Galappatti about her work on A Long Watch 

V.V. Ganeshananthan teaches fiction and nonfiction writing in the MFA program at the University of Minnesota. Her debut novel, Love Marriage (Random House), was longlisted for the Orange Prize and named one of Washington Post Book World's Best of 2008. The recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Study at Harvard, she is at work on a second novel, excerpts of which have appeared in GrantaPloughshares, and Best American Nonrequired Reading 2014.

Craig Reinbold was the managing editor of Essay Daily from 2013-2016 and co-edited How We Speak to One Another: An Essay Daily Reader. He curates this Int'l Essayists column. Send suggestions, thoughts, comments to @craigreinbold @essayingdaily

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