Ru Freeman, author of On Sal Mal Lane, answered our five questions.
IFOA: You describe yourself as an author and an activist. Were you both whilst writing On Sal Mal Lane?
Ru Freeman: I define my activism as a deep engagement with the world, so in that sense, yes, I wrote as I live, with my heart completely given over to the characters, really absorbing their experiences, and my mind simply translating what was “felt” into what was written. But at another level, no. A lot of what I do when I’m engaged in advocating for a cause—better public education, a positive environment for girls and women, justice for Palestine, space for the process of reconciliation in Sri Lanka—is to take out everything except what will further the cause. That isn’t always the complete story, though, and it disregards many other, often conflicting, voices. I don’t do that when writing fiction. When I write fiction, I let myself be permeable to all those other voices, taking all of them in, and maintaining compassion for each of their positions. It is why, I believe, fiction is the more truthful, transformative work that I do.
IFOA: Was there a book or author that made you want to be a writer?
Freeman: I never thought of a writer as a title, or as being someone who only wrote. I cannot remember a time when I did not write. My parents both wrote—poetry, scripts for documentaries, features etc.—and my brothers and I grew up reading and writing. Writing was something that we did as part of living. We ate, we drank, we had refugees of one sort or another living in our home, we were involved in politics, we read, we wrote. It wasn’t a job, or something to aspire to—it was what was done. So I guess I can’t say I wanted to be a writer so much as that perhaps I wanted to write books, but it was an extension of what I was already doing, and something to do alongside other things, not something to be separated from life.
IFOA: How did you choose the people who live on Sal Mal Lane?
Freeman: I knew the lane would mirror the composition of most lanes down Sri Lanka, where there is so much diversity—socioeconomic, religious, ethnic. I also knew there was a piano teacher and her father, I knew there was a family with four children. Beyond that, people just came into the story as it went along. I had a family move into a neighbourhood, and that led to other people living in that neighbourhood and interactions with those people, and so I followed the children and found the people they did. Whatever weight and place those other characters had, it reflected the weight and place given to them by the four Herath children.
IFOA: You write in many forms—essays, novels, short fiction, poetry—do you prefer one over the other, and if so, why?
Freeman: As a writer, I love the novel best. I love the way it permits exploration, the unfurling of language, character. I like complex sentences, and the novel allows for that. But as a reader, it is poetry that has my heart. I buy and read a lot of poetry, and what appeals to me most as a reader is the precise opposite of what appeals to me most as a writer: the way poetry condenses human experience, the way each word works so hard and yet sits so easily among the few others to convey that. It is just beautiful.
IFOA: Finish this sentence: “Home is where…”
Freeman: …people speak the language of my heart.