Ru Freeman explores Sri Lanka in fiction

By Jeffrey Sartain - Guest Column
Oct. 24, 2017 at 3:12 p.m.

Jeffrey Sartain

Jeffrey Sartain   Contributed Photo by K. Jordan for The Victoria Advocate

This week, the University of Houston-Victoria/American Book Review Reading Series welcomes Sri Lankan writer and activist Ru Freeman, author of the novels "A Disobedient Girl" and "On Sal Mal Lane."

In her first novel, "A Disobedient Girl," Freeman tells the stories of two women: Latha, an orphaned servant girl, and Biso, an ostracized mother of three. Their stories highlight the ongoing struggles for women in Sri Lanka against the backdrop of class and gender inequities. Adopted by the Vithanages family, Latha is being trained to be a servant for their daughter, Thara, who is the same age as Latha. Biso is fleeing an untenable home life with her three children seeking a better life in a different part of the country. By the end of the novel, the two women's stories have become intertwined in unexpected ways.

Freeman's second novel, "On Sal Mal Lane," originally was conceptualized as a magazine piece. It looks at the lives of everyday Sri Lankans in a neighborhood containing a diverse mix of ethnic and religious backgrounds. Beginning in the years before Sri Lanka's extended two-decade civil war, "On Sal Mal Lane" explores the devastating effects of war on individuals and how hope and community persevere, even in the face of extended strife. By exploring this subject matter in a novel rather than through nonfiction, Freeman allows readers to live with these characters beyond the reportage of journalism. Through fiction, their struggles are brought close to readers, asking consideration and empathy for those who are all too easy to ignore.

Her efforts are not restricted to her role as a novelist though, as Freeman frequently has worked as an activist throughout her career. In addition to writing fiction, Freeman is an accomplished journalist and essayist. Her sights often are set on the same kinds of matters that she explores in her fiction. She plumbs the inequities of cultural and political division in a deeply human way. Her work, whether fiction or nonfiction, asks readers to pay attention to people who are too often marginalized in the coverage of global and cultural events.

It is work like Freeman's that reminds us how human we all are beyond the distinctions of class, creed or background. Her work speaks to a common humanity - a common struggle. At the same time, she manages to tell stories that are absolutely specific to a particular time and place. Sri Lanka is not a place that is actively centered in the popular imagination. But Freeman's skill is such that within the covers of her novels, the island of her birth comes alive for readers with powerful imagery and engaging writing.

It is her ability to balance these two poles of reading experience, the specific and the universal, that makes her work so powerful and meaningful.

In a first for this reading series, Freeman generously agreed to extend her stay and give a second reading at UHV Katy. The first reading will be at noon Thursday in the UHV University West Alcorn Auditorium, 3007 N. Ben Wilson St. On Friday, Freeman will read at 7 p.m. in the UHV Katy Multi-Purpose Room, 2002 W. Grand Parkway N., in Katy. Both readings will be free and open to the public.

Jeffrey Sartain is an assistant professor of literature at UHV and the managing editor of American Book Review.


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