Visiting writer Hasanthika Sirisena discusses short story collection ‘The Other One’
Nicole Caratas | Wednesday, March 28, 2018
As part of the Visiting Writers Series, Hasanthika Sirisena read from her collection of short stories titled “The Other One” at Saint Mary’s on Tuesday.
Taking place both in Sri Lanka and in the United States, the collection features stories about characters who deal with different aspects of the Sri Lankan civil war.
“Most of the characters, even if they’ve had direct involvement [with the civil war], I don’t depict that involvement,” she said. “I depict it in a more tangential way.”
From a young age, Sirisena wanted to write stories because she loved to read, and although she focused on the visual arts until her late 20s, she said her love of storytelling started when she was a young girl.
“I wanted to be a writer from when I was really very young,” she said. “I started reading books really early on. I enjoyed reading books, I would spend a lot of time reading and simultaneously, I wanted to create books.”
Sirisena, who writes in both fiction and creative nonfiction genres, said she tries to choose the genre that would best serve a story.
“I tend to choose the genre depending on the subject matter,” she said. “Creative nonfiction right now has more formal flexibility. You can do more … there’s things that I can do with nonfiction that interest me that I can’t do with fiction.”
Sirisena said she started writing short stories because literary magazines wanted to publish complete stories rather than chapters of a novel, but that the short story form also was the best way for her to tell the stories she wanted to tell.
“I began to realize that the subject matter — the civil war — that I was writing about was better served if it came from multiple voices, that one voice really didn’t do justice to the scope of the war and how it affected people and it was a war that affected so many groups of people. … It just felt more honest,” she said.
The title of her collection, “The Other One,” is also the title of one of the stories within the collection. Sirisena noted the ways in which this title reflects the conflicts between the Tamil and Sinhalese groups in Sri Lanka.
“[The title] is a metaphor for the entire book because there’s always this othering going on in the book,” Sirisena said. “The Tamils are the others, or if you’re Tamil, the Sinhalese are the others. If you’re a man, then a woman would be the other. … I think the title is a metaphor for the ways in which we view people, often ostracizing people or placing them in a category exceptional to ourselves.”
Sirisena said literature is important as a reminder that there is more than one viewpoint in the world and that the world is “a place of multiplicity.”
“Literature is a reminder that people are very different,” she said. “There’s no such thing as normal. I think that’s the importance of diverse literature, that we have access to an understanding that there’s depth to people beyond what you see on the surface when you meet them. And I think we really need to become a society that doesn’t begin to code people too quickly. We do a great disservice to them and we do a disservice to ourselves.”
Writing is a long-term process, Sirisena said, but students who want to be writers should work hard at it.
“You have to find a way to persevere and to really stick with it and keep some sense of momentum and urgency and love for the work, even when you might not be as successful as you hoped,” she said. “I think that is going to be important to find this real passion and drive for the work.”
Sirisena said students should write diverse stories because editors and publishers are looking to hear different perspectives, but also because readers are looking to hear other people’s stories as well.
“Not only is it important to own your own identity,” she said. “I think the truth is people want to hear it. … Tell your own stories because that’s what people want.”