Hasanthika Sirisena is the author of the story collection, The Other One, which won the 2015 Juniper Prize for Fiction. She is associate fiction editor for West Branch literary magazine and a visiting professor at Susquehanna University. Her essays and stories have appeared in The Globe and Mail, WSQ, The Kenyon Review, Glimmer Train, Epoch, StoryQuarterly, Narrative, and other magazines. Her work has been anthologized in The Best New American Voices and twice named a distinguished story by Best American Short Stories (2011, 2012). Sirisena has received fellowships from the MacDowell Colony and Yaddo, and, in 2008, received a Rona Jaffe Writers Award.
To read an exercise on figuring out what really drives a character to act, based on Sirisena’s story “Ismail,” click here.
In this interview, Sirisena discusses writing characters different who are different than yourself, compressing backstory, finding the end of a story, and what comes next for the Sri Lankan political environment that informs her work.
One of my favorite passages in the story is this one:
If you go long enough without something, sex, money, even love, you can get to the point you don’t need it. But if you suddenly have access to what’s missing, get it back in your life, then you’ll do whatever it takes to keep that thing. The thought of loss knocks you flat on the floor, your chest caved in, gasping for air.
For me anyway, it’s the emotional heart of the story and the key to everything that happens in it. Was it in the draft from the beginning? In other words, was this desire what drew you into the story? Or was it something you discovered as you wrote?
It came to me as I wrote. Some readers tell me that they think Ismail is a jerk. And there are aspects of his character that are insensitive. But I also see him as someone who has undergone a terrible trauma and, understandably, has chosen as his coping mechanism a front of humor and bravado. In some sense, I see him as brave. He has to keep going for his father and his brother. But he also allows himself some awareness.
I’m not particularly interested in characters who look like or talk like me. I try to invent people I want to know and understand better. To do that, I try to find a point of empathy—something that we both might share. Though Ismail and I have had different life experiences, I know what it feels like to live without, and I realized as I wrote him that he did to. And I also try to pretend in my life that I’m very tough to hide a profound vulnerability and fear, as he does. Ismail c’est moi!
The story covers a lot of time, and a lot of that time is compressed into short passages, like the one about how Abdul begins to blow off the narrator. When you’re in the midst of a story, how do you know which information to dramatize and which information to summarize?
For this story I constructed a traditional narrative arc. Ismail has a fairly simple desire: to get back at his friend. But that desire is wrapped in his own fear of losing his brother and of not really fitting into American society. I chose to dramatize those scenes that were key to that relationship and the conflict between the two brothers. Ismail constantly tries to test his brother and make him prove his loyalty. Other parts of the story: the past in Sri Lanka, the burgeoning relationship between the little brother and his girlfriend weren’t part of that central drama so I compressed and summarized that.
The end of the story is great. I can’t imagine it ending any other way, but I know from experience that even inevitable endings are anything but when a story is being written. Did you always know where the story was going?
The end of this story was hard! It took me three years to write this story—to get it right—and that was mostly because of the ending. I’ve learned in my career you have to get the ending absolutely pitch perfect. The emotional impact is usually as subtle as the correct beat. The right beat and the reader goes ‘wow.’ The wrong beat and you have one angry reader because she’s been with you the entire way only to be let down. It’s daunting. (As an aside, I’m surprised at how many stories we end up saying no to at West Branch simply because the ending isn’t quite right.)
Ismail is so invested in his toughness that any type of epiphany ending—where he realizes something significant about himself—would feel contrived and unearned. To me that sort of ending also ran the risk of being extraordinarily condescending to the character. But I did want to find a way to show that he really is a very good man. It finally came to me one morning, as I was waking up, that I needed to end on an image—Ismail with his hands in the air surrendering. And then the rest, of him watching his brother get away and being thrilled, just came to me. Of course, he’d surrender to save his brother. It fits his essential bravado and it also fit the depth of his love.
The event that informs so many of the stories in The Other One is the Sri Lankan civil war, which ended recently. Now that the country is more stable and has gone through a contentious election mostly without violence, does that change your sense for the kind of stories you want to tell? Does the war continue to be part of your narrative imagination?
As someone who writes about Sri Lankans and who most likely always will, the war is impossible to ignore. I do though recognize that the war touches Sri Lankans in degrees and honor the impulse within the community that the war is not all there is to being a Sri Lankan.
That said, I also think that while the military conflict has ended and the LTTE have been defeated the social and cultural conflicts that led to the war on the first place haven’t been corrected. There have been advances: the return of some of the land taken from Tamil families in the North, for example. But, the Sri Lankan military continues to maintain a strong presence in the North. Recently, the police shot and killed two Tamil students at a checkpoint in Jaffna. Last week, I was on a panel about contemporary Sri Lankan writing. During the Q&A, a Tamil writer’s stories of disenfranchisement were dismissed wholesale by an audience member as fantasy and nostalgia. There was no attempt at understanding. There needs to exist thoughtful, careful, and diverse writing that insists on establishing and respecting all the narratives. I think there is a moral and ethical imperative to work toward that end not just through my own work but by supporting the writing of Sri Lankan nationals and writers of the diaspora.