My grandmother always reminds me: you have lost your mother-tongue. When I return to Sri Lanka for brief visits, she tells me how I used to understand her. Like my nephews and nieces do now when I was a child, I would listen to spoken Tamil and reply in English. There is nothing I can say to her accusation except to agree. Yes, I have lost my mother tongue, the words, the sounds, the rhythms of speaking to which I was born. I willfully lost this language, after we moved to Australia where my voice, my skin, my body continually marked me as foreign, different, other. As we all know, primary school children can be cruel: losing my mother-tongue was a way to survive.
I have often wondered if, had I continued to learn and speak Tamil with my mother, I would find myself now, almost thirty-five years after our migration and ten years after the end of the Sri Lankan civil war, with more articulate means of commemorating the past. So much has been lost as a result of that war. Tens of thousands of Tamil lives were lost – a genocide occurred and still remains unacknowledged – the destruction of Tamil sacred sites and their reconstruction into Buddhist temples, the seizure of formerly Tamil-owned land in the north by the government, the erosion of villages and communities through displacement and the disappearance of family members whose whereabouts remain, even ten years after the war’s end, unknown. While the government has created official memorials to commemorate their victory over the LTTE – a decimation that included the shelling of Tamil civilians caught in so called no-fire zones – no other casualties may be mourned. Former LTTE burial sites have been erased in the north and military monuments mark the site of major battles. In effect what continues to be lost is the experience of Tamils affected by the war.
That is why I wonder whether, if I had recourse to the sounds and figures of Tamil, to the expressions and phrases and cadences of speaking and reading Tamil, I might also find another route to grieve and remember and commemorate that would allow me to move around the contested terrain of the war’s aftermath. In this contested terrain, so I am realizing, the history I have just described is disbelieved by some. In order to even remember what has been lost, I have to make a case for it. And to make the case I have to retell this story – a story that is part of me, although I did not experience its effects firsthand, although my family did, because I left Sri Lanka when I was almost six. So, my grief came from watching at a distance, it was formed from a place of safety for people I did not personally know. But retelling what I grieve for requires finding a language within a language, it means framing within recognizable forms, describing using recognizable signs, summarizing using familiar terms. Because, commemorating these acts of genocide when they take place in non-western countries also requires producing their reality for the west.
But language has also been politicized in Sri Lanka; In 1956, under the Official Language Act No. 33 Sinhala was declared the only official language, replacing English which had been imposed under British colonial rule. It was only in 1988 that Tamil was legislated as an official administrative language of the country (not just the north-east region as was legislated by the 1958 Tamil (Special Provisions) Language Act). Language in Sri Lanka is so inextricably linked to identity, has been so carefully legislated to divide communities and generations and is now identified as a key component of the post-conflicted reconciliation process. Because of this importance, where and how we recount these narratives becomes all the more urgent. As V V Ganeshanthanan writes, to mourn these deaths requires a series of retelling: I must retell not only the version of the story I consider the truest and the worst, but also the versions in which no one died, or in which those who died are unworthy of mourning. My words must reenact and contain not only the deaths and my grief, but also their negation.
One must parse and explain what is lost. Yes, lives. Also, land. And homes. And then there is the matter of those who have not been returned, who remain in camps awaiting resettlement, somewhere between lost and found. Always we remember those who have been taken away and remain unknown – neither lost nor found, neither alive nor dead. Lost too is trust, or at least a belief that politicians might work towards some kind of reconciliation and return of Tamil civil rights. When the war ended, then President Rajapaksa announced this ‘liberation’ from terrorism was the beginning of a new phase of unification. And yet, only recently has the government acknowledged there may have been some civilian deaths as a result of their scorched earth policy of attack. The UN – who vacated their workers from the conflict zone before the war ended – has found both the government and the LTTE to be guilty of human rights abuses, but transitional justice has never been fully implemented. Discrimination, surveillance and censorship continue. And while the government does not acknowledge its role in the Tamil genocide, it is equally important to acknowledge the role of the LTTE in this loss. For while loss can be a catalyst for collective mourning, in the case of Sri Lanka its politicization continues to sustain competing visions of nationalism that underpinned the war in the first place.
The politicization of grief in the aftermath of the war’s end is all the more painful and violent because it means that remembrance requires first working through the instrumentalization of loss, before even beginning to reach a place from which to build our memorials. In parsing, I find it hard to hold onto and center grief because each time grief overwhelms me. When I am overwhelmed, I have a tendency towards turning away and finding distance. And for me, experiencing this war and its aftermath has always been mediated through distance: grief is for those I do not know, for a community I left long ago, for a country in which I am almost a stranger. In these moments I cannot help but wonder: if I spoke my mother tongue still, would I be able to find some way of bridging this distance? Would I find a space to say those names who have been lost or speak the towns and villages erased, or find some poetry or song that framed this loss for me, in another private way?
Speaking about his own relationship to Tamil, writer Anuk Arudpragasam has explained in interviews, that speaking English in Sri Lanka is a public marker of a certain status achieved and, maintained. It is a colonial language, a language I have had to move with in order to appear recognizable. I had probably started losing my tongue before I even began to speak. English is a language in which loss can become internationally validated in our western political landscape, making it both highly publicized and easily politicized. This would be the case, no doubt, whenever one is dealing with any language that is hegemonic. But when you no longer have any other language with which to probe an inner, unseen world of mourning, your memorialization must always and only take place in public, its validity dependent, so it seems, on being recognized.
It is this relationship between public and private validation that acts of commemoration must mediate: a memorial creates the space for communal remembrance, threading what is expressed privately into a shared narrative. Without a physical place to perform these acts of public remembrance, official forms of language – and phrasing – also become significant markers. For example, in Sri Lanka civilian deaths are only begrudgingly underacknowledged by the Sri Lankan government as collateral damage, but they have no public space of remembrance, in the country itself. Tamil women continue however to sustain the public work of remembrance as they search for loved ones. Refusing government directives, these women create shrines and distribute posters that compel us to not forget. Tamil artist Thamotharampillai Shanaathanan has compiled an archive of living memories in his artist book The Incomplete Thombu. Re-using a Dutch word for land registry, his public registry is a collection of memories of home, drawn and recounted by the communities forced to flee from the Jaffna peninsula. The book is divided into drawings, topographical renderings of participant’s homes as they remembered them for many are destroyed and a typed narrative. Using the language of ‘accounting’ or accountability that underpins the competing discourses around the war – the need to prove or collect evidence that certain things happened and certain things did not – he transforms this bureaucratic violence into a receptacle that commemorates what has been lost.
Shanaathanan’s act of storytelling, which is also an act of reclamation of the lost from the erasure of the official record, is itself a powerful form of memorialization in the shelter it provides for those displaced. Along with other projects such as Sareesinthewind and Stories of Resilience, these forms of storytelling also rewrite the narrative of Tamil survivors. The women, men and children who tell their stories voice their struggle and their perseverance: they are not merely victims. And so I think of these projects often as I contemplate what it is to commemorate the ten-year anniversary of the end of the Sri Lankan war, without either a public space in which to come together with others, or the familial language by which to vocalize something like a shared memory. They are stories of women and men who have, as V V Ganeshanthanan also urges, refused to be defined by catastrophe, who have built, using what they have, their stories, a memorial to what has been lost. Their voices generously create space for careful forms of witness. Their stories urge us to continue the call for the restoration of Tamil civil rights and, particularly in this current climate of social and political unrest, to work against the cultures of violence and religious extremism that are tacitly ignored (or otherwise) by government administrations who continue to fall back on restrictive measures of securitization. It is from this space that I will be remembering the ten-year anniversary on May 19th, while I also begin the long and arduous journey to reclaim my mothertongue.
Anna Arabindan Kesson was born in Sri Lanka but grew up in Australia and New Zealand. She was a nurse for several years before completing a PhD in African American Studies and Art History in 2014. She now lives in Philadelphia and is Assistant Professor of Black Diaspora Art at Princeton University where she writes and teaches about art, race and empire. Twitter @AnnaArabindan