Interview with Hasanthika Sirisena
by Caroline Beimford
"My mother, born upper-class, in Colombo, some forty years after Mrs. de Mel, was very much a product of this culture of lady-making. She could run a kitchen, sew, dress well, speak well. She acquiesced to an arranged marriage. She knew how to tend to the well-being of another person. Even Wilcox’s description of Mrs. de Mel—“Her complexion is soft brown, something like the shade of unburnt coffee, and her long straight hair, clear cut features, and dazzling teeth...made her a target for admiring glances”—could just as easily describe my mother."
What initially struck me about “Lady” was the tension between its structure and its emotional center. The essay is loosely braided, but felt at times like it was feinting away from its heart, nesting the difficulty of writing about your mother’s illness in a broader examination of her syndrome’s name and history. I found the logic of the structure intuitive and moving, but am curious how it came into being. Would you mind speaking a little about how you developed the essay?
A friend of mine read this essay and admitted that he was put off at first by the matter-of-factness of the prose, but I don’t think that I could have handled writing about my mother’s death without finding some emotional distance. To say I was grief-stricken when she died feels an understatement, and later I became deeply angry when I realized the history of the naming of the disease. But I felt that my grief and my anger didn’t serve what was truly my mother’s story. My mother was remarkable in her ability to subsume her grief and anger to care for her family and those around her. It was only right to do the same for her.
You fold in references to medical journals, Oscar Wilde biographies and turn-of-the-century magazines with dexterity, but also recreate entire historical scenes in the present tense. What prompted you to play with tense and chronology in these ways?
The truth is I’m that person. You know, The one who you can’t watch a movie with because she carries on a running commentary about how the actor playing the FBI agent from Mississippi is actually from Glasgow, and that he worked for two years with a speech coach just so he could do the role, and that he is married to so and so, and he was arrested for drunk driving in 2003, and by the way that murderous bear is all CGI... (I’m also famous for reading the entire plot of the movie on Wikipedia and ruining the ending).
I’m enamored with the amazing flexibility of the essay. It supports this worst, know-it-all impulse in me and makes it somehow acceptable. The essay loves that I might need to know things and that I’ve gone out into the world searching for information. The essay also supports the fiction writer in me. It supports scene and yearns for the exploration of the moment, drama and narrative. The essay allows for prose to be animated, to be spit-shined, to be deconstructed and split apart. And for that reason, like anything that makes me look slightly better than I really am, I feel extreme gratitude to the essay.
Writing about your mother must have been challenging. Was the mandate she gave you at the end of her life freeing? Daunting? Something else entirely? Did her request to “start with the end” help you envision an arc for the essay?
I found what she said to be truly freeing. My mother was very sweet and supportive but also reserved. She never criticized my desire to write, and she was very helpful. One of my first published stories was based on an episode from her life that she related to me. In her last few years, I started to formally interview her (and my father). But I hadn’t realized how much these conversations about her life had meant to her. It’s wonderful to write about her because I feel how deep her love was every time I do.
Prior to reading “Lady,” I was most familiar with your short fiction. Could you speak a little about moving between fiction and nonfiction in your writing life?
I came to writing nonfiction in a fairly indirect way. I stumbled on a copy of Guy Davenport’s Every Force Evolves a Form. I was amazed by Davenport’s intellectual and formal dexterity. The collection, for lack of a better way of putting this, blew my mind. I’m certainly not trying to compare myself to Davenport, but I saw the challenge in what he was doing and felt compelled to try this myself.
I’ve found that there are subjects that can’t be fictionalized (and vice versa). On occasion, an editor or reader will ask about an essay, “Did you ever think about making this fiction?” Well, yes. On more than a few occasions, there’s a bad short story that I struggled with for five years before it came to me to switch. In that sense (and many apologies to Guy Davenport) every subject evolves its own form, and I’ve learned to honor that.
I’ve heard you say you're less interested in writing fictional characters who think and sound just like you. Do you mind speaking about the challenges (and pleasures) you faced in taking on such personal content in essay form?
I teach nonfiction and my intro students often confess that their main trepidation about writing nonfiction is writing personal accounts. “Nothing interesting has happened to me.” I avoided writing nonfiction for a long time for exactly that reason. What I love about the essay, though, is that it makes anyone, and everyone, interesting—even if you don’t have a particularly dramatic or tragic story—because of its emphasis on how we think and sort through the personal and the public.
One of the major projects for fiction in the 20th Century was the mimesis of another’s interiority. I agree with those who claim that the essay is experiencing a resurgence in part because in the early part of the 21st Century—with Twitter and Facebook and Instagram—we’re becoming more and more worried about our own interiority, our own ability to actually think in a directed way for an extended period of time. Perhaps, we’re also worried about losing the pleasure of rumination? Certainly, for me, what I love about the essay is that it gives me the opportunity to accomplish both.
What are you working on now?
More essays. I have about half a collection now and feel focused on somehow completing one.
What have you been reading lately? Any recommendations?
I read and have been rereading Lia Purpura’s Rough Likeness, and I’m currently part way through The Night My Mother Met Bruce Lee: Observations on Not Fitting In by Paisley Rekdal. I recommend both to anyone even faintly interested in what nonfiction, at its best, is capable of.
I’m always curious: what are your writing habits like? Do you cultivate other hobbies? I know you teach and I’ve heard you talk about archery. How are you keeping sane and/or motivated in these times?
I feel neither sane nor motivated. Sanity doesn’t feel particularly useful right now anyway.
I am trying to become a good archer. I try to practice once or twice a week and that helps a lot. I’ve been living in Central PA, and I’ve put aside my fears and my own possible prejudices to go out and talk to people. It’s not always easy, but I force myself. My comfort zone seems the worst place to stay if I want to be a good nonfiction writer.
Is there anything you wish I’d asked that you’d like to tell, rant or shout about?
You know, I haven’t said a thing about Oscar Wilde, who is a character in my essay. He had such a beautiful, brilliant life, and he’s a reminder to me, in this terrible age, to live big and fully and well. I do wish he was around to tweet against Trump. Oscar Wilde’s twitter feed. That’s what we need right now to save us.
HASANTHIKA SIRISENA'S work has appeared in the The Kenyon Review, Witness, Bellevue Literary Review, Glimmer Train, Epoch, StoryQuarterly, Narrative and other magazines. Her debut short story collection, The Other One, won the Juniper Prize for Fiction and was published in March 2016.
CAROLINE BEIMFORD is web editor of The Arkansas International. Her stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Zoetrope: All Story, The Massachusetts Review and Ninth Letter.