Tag Archives: On Sal Mal Lane

An Interview with Ru Freeman

4 May
Ru Freeman's novel On Sal Mal Lane was called, by Cheryl Strayed,

Ru Freeman’s novel On Sal Mal Lane was called, by Cheryl Strayed, “Piercingly intelligent and shatter-your-heart profound.”

Ru Freeman was born in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and is the author of the novels Disobedient Girl and On Sal Mal Lane. She is also the editor of the forthcoming anthology, Extraordinary Rendition, a collection of the voices of American poets and writers speaking about America’s dis/engagement with Palestine. She has worked in the field of American and international humanitarian assistance and workers’ rights, and her political writing has appeared in English and in translation. Her creative work has appeared or is forthcoming in VQR, Guernica, World Literature Today and elsewhere. She is a contributing editorial board member of the Asian American Literary Review and a fellow of the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, Yaddo, Hedgebrook, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. Freeman won the 2014 Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize for Fiction by an American Woman. She calls both Sri Lanka and America home.

To read an exercise on using an omniscient narrator and an excerpt from Freeman’s novel, On Sal Mal Laneclick here.

In this interview, Freeman discusses the challenges of explaining historical context in a novel and creating an omniscient narrator and the politics of Sri Lanka and On Sal Mal Lane.

Michael Noll

On Sal Mal Lane begins with a prologue that functions very much like the infamous prologue to Star Wars. It sets up the politics, geography, and history of the place—and also indicates that, in the story’s beginning at least, the major conflict is some miles away from the main characters. What was your approach to this prologue? Do you think it would have been written the same if you could assume that your readers knew a lot about Sri Lanka and its civil war?

Ru Freeman

I like the way you use that to discuss the book. The prologue in this form was added after I had written the first draft. The original prologue, several pages longer, focused mainly on the characters, and all of it eventually got whittled down to that last paragraph. When I finished writing the book, I felt that there was a sense of longer-term history that couldn’t be contained within the main text of the book without burdening it with those kinds of explanatory treatises on history that can kill momentum. It was necessary that people understood that there was this regional and international context, this history of colonization and brutality, but also that, in the end, none of those things were relevant to the daily lives of ordinary people like those who lived on Sal Mal Lane. As a way of tracing immediate history to a pivotal moment, I included the murder of Alfred Duraiappah and the call to war by Prabhakaran. Whether people knew this history or not, setting it down with those few brushstrokes helped to establish the voice of the narrator who is, to continue with your image, a Yoda like character who knew all that came before and all that was to come to pass and could maintain both warmth and distance from every composite part of the story—the human and the inanimate.

Michael Noll

The prologue also has this remarkable pair of sentences:

“And who, you might ask, am I? I am nothing more than the air that passes through these homes, lingering in the verandas where husbands and wives revisited their days and examined their prospects in comparison to those of their neighbors.”

In essence, you have created an omniscient narrator and then embodied it in something of the novel’s world. Was this a conscious decision—in response, perhaps, to readers or yourself wondering who was speaking? Or did these sentences arise spontaneously in an early draft?

Ru Freeman

Ru Freeman's novel On Sal Mal Lane

Ru Freeman’s novel On Sal Mal Lane “soars [with] its sensory beauty, language and humor,” according to a New York Times review.

It was an asking of myself as I tried to wrap my head around this voice that had come into being while writing the earlier version of the prologue, and the novel itself. It occurred to me that the narrator here was someone (or in this case perhaps something, the road), who was intimately familiar with the this place, with compassion for everyone, but a particularly keen fondness for two of the characters, Mr. Niles, and Nihil. In the scheme of things there is no one main character here, but the ties that bind these two are elevated above all the other bonds that form—and are broken— between the people of Sal Mal Lane. Why this voice lingered over those two characters got me thinking about the entity to whom the voice belonged. So, it was spontaneous, in one sense, but also deliberate.

Michael Noll

Each chapter gets a title. Obviously this is something that some books do and some don’t. What made you choose to title them?

Ru Freeman

In my first novel, I alternated the story between Biso (an older woman leaving an abusive husband, taking her three children with her on a journey that lasts just about 36 hours, all related in the first person), and Latha (a little girl who comes to live in a house as a companion to a girl her own age who lives there, and whose story covers about three decades and is told in the third person). When I began this book, I imagined that I’d write it by alternating the voices of the children, staying close to each in turn, sort of like what Barbara Kingsolver did with Poisonwood Bible. I must have written about a third of the book when I began to feel oppressed by this framework. I abandoned it as a strict guideline and began to simply write the story, though, as you can perhaps tell, I do concentrate on one or the other of the children as I go along, at least in certain parts. I decided to break the book up by year into sections, and then title the chapters. I enjoyed coming up with those titles. It’s not something people do too often, as you point out, but it is a lot of fun and if I’m having fun then the writing tends to be better than when I’m straining.

Michael Noll

At the risk of veering into politics, I was reading this novel when Sri Lanka held its presidential election in January, and so I couldn’t help holding the two events (the events of the novel and the election) side by side. In the novel, animosity is rising between Tamils and Sinhalese. Now, the war is over, and the minority groups (including the Tamils) who suffered during it have managed to vote out the president who claimed credit for ending the war. Do you imagine Sal Mal Lane today? Do the current events cause you to think about the years of the novel in a different light or way?

Ru Freeman

Freeman's website contains what is, perhaps, the most comprehensive list in existence of Sri Lankan writers.

Freeman’s website contains what is, perhaps, the most comprehensive list in existence of Sri Lankan writers.

There is never a veering into, I think. We are always situated quite firmly and centrally in the middle of politics. As far as the election goes, while it is true that many ordinary citizens came together to vote out the former president, there were machinations that went beyond Sri Lanka, including the United States, to bring the current one into power. When I hear the rhetoric from the new leadership, I don’t feel optimistic; the alignment of the new president is with the United National Party, which in its time of power reigned over the massacre of more than 60,000 youth. The language used is old, it panders to American interests, and it is, frankly, disorderly. That combination can be deadly in a country like Sri Lanka, with a highly educated, enfranchised, and engaged civil populace.

Be that as it may, the Sal Mal Lanes of my country never disappeared. They went on through another quarter century of war, they mended fences, came apart, celebrated and mourned. There was a weight felt by everybody as they did these things, that was only lifted in May 2009, when the war officially ended, when the walls and barricades and checkpoints were dismantled, and the soldiers went to work on reconstruction and other support work. Devi, therefore, was a symbol to me of a fragile beauty that underlined all life in Sri Lanka, as well as a stand-on for the country itself. How people dealt with her presence and absence was and is similar to how they dealt with what happened during those decades of war.

May 2015

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Use an Omniscient Narrator

14 Apr

Ru Freeman's novel On Sal Mal Lane "soars [with] its sensory beauty, language and humor," according to a New York Times review.

Ru Freeman’s novel On Sal Mal Lane “soars [with] its sensory beauty, language and humor,” according to a New York Times review.

One of the most tempting points of view for a novel is the omniscient, godlike POV. It’s also, perhaps, the most difficult to pull off. The literary critic James Wood has called it almost impossible. Yet, it’s also the case that certain stories require a narrator who exists on a different plane than the characters, who can focus on a few of them for a while but can also speak authoritatively about very large groups of them (entire countries, even).

Not many novels actually attempt an omniscient point of view. One that does is Ru Freeman’s On Sal Mal Lane. It was published by Graywolf, and you can read an excerpt at that its website.

How the Novel Works

The novel is set in Sri Lanka, just before its recent civil war. Such a premise poses a particular challenge: the novel must focus on a few people who are affected by the war and also explain the origins, politics, and geography of the war. This can be difficult for any war but is especially difficult for a war that most Americans know little about. That ignorance is important because the novel is not a translation. Freeman was born in Sri Lanka but lives primarily in the U.S. and writes in English; the novel was published by an American independent press. So, how does Freeman convey the basic outline of the war? With an opening worthy of Star Wars.

As everyone knows, Star Wars begins with a two-paragraph intro that scrolls up the screen, prefaced, famously, with the line, “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” Just as the text that followed laid out the basics of the war (who is fighting, what’s at stake, and one of the characters), the opening paragraphs of On Sal Mal Lane lay out the basics of Sri Lanka’s civil war. The problem, though, is that a novel is not like a film, or, at least a literary novel is not like a B movie (which Star Wars absolutely was). If the voice that opens the novel vanished suddenly like the text that opens Star Wars, the reader might close it and walk away. It would be like a film changing from color to black and white, which can be done, but only under very special circumstances. Rather than risking that readers might not make the jump, the novel creates a narrator that can handle both the large scale of the war and the small scale of a few characters affected by it.

Of course, many readers will encounter that narrative voice and quite naturally ask, “Who is telling this story?” So, the novel provides an answer:

And who, you might ask, am I? I am nothing more than the air that passed through these homes, lingering in the verandas where husbands and wives revisited their days and examined their prospects in comparison to those of their neighbors. I am the road itself…

This self-identification goes on for a bit and ends this way:

To tell a story about divergent lives, the storyteller must be everything and nothing. I am that.

You can’t state the problem and solution more neatly than that. Now, how does such a voice operate, on a practical level?

Mostly, it follows different groups of characters, with each getting their own sections in the novel. In these sections, characters will be spoken about as groups (an entire family, for instance) and as individuals. But the voice will occasionally speak about things in general, as it does here:

God was not responsible for what came to pass. People said it was karma, punishment in this life for past sins, fate. People said that no beauty was permitted in the world without some accompanying darkness to balance it out, and, surely, these children were beautiful. But what people said was unimportant; what befell them befell us all.

So, it operates by speaking in a kind of godlike voice but also, quickly, zooming down to a more human perspective—a perspective that we’re more comfortable with, being, as we are, humans and not gods.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s try writing from an omniscient point of view,  using On Sal Mal Lane by Ru Freeman as a model:

  1. Create a reason for such a point of view. The reason should be practical: what about your novel cannot be conveyed by a narrator with a limited point of view? Freeman’s reason is the complexity of explaining the context and development of a civil war. Your reason may be similarly political. Does the novel’s conflict involve parties larger than a single person or handful of individuals? Does it involve groups and national or international politics or movement (like migration)? Does writing the book require the occasional use of a kind of professorial or journalistic mode? If so, you might need an omniscient narrator.
  2. Identify the registers the narrative voice must hit. What is the range the voice must cover? Every novel (at least every one that I can think of) follows individual characters. But what is the opposite end of the spectrum? To use the language of film, how far out must the camera move? Will the voice talk about a community as a whole? About a region or country? About the entire world? The universe? The range doesn’t really matter; the important thing is to know in advance how much ground you must cover.
  3. Identify the voice. This may be the trickiest part. Freeman writes that the voice is the wind and the road (in other words, the world itself and also the people as a whole). Some reviewers have found this identification awkward. You can probably imagine how such a move would be met in workshop: “How can the wind talk?” But the move is probably also necessary. Without the identification, the same reviewers might ask, “Who is telling this story?” There’s no perfect solution. The short passage about the narrator’s identity is a bit like the scene from the original Rocky, when Apollo Creed is choosing his challenger, eventually picking Rocky Balboa. It’s the most contrived part of the film, a scene where the mechanics are laid out in the open, and yet it’s necessary because, without it, Rocky will keep collecting debts and will never meet Apollo. In short, without that scene, one of the most iconic American films of all time doesn’t exist. In the same way, without the passage about the narrator’s identity, Freeman’s great novel might not have come together. So, think about the identity of your narrator. Is it God? Is it some manifestation of the world? If so, what manifestation would make sense for your novel’s particular world?
  4. Write from the broadest register. What is the grandest, largest scale the voice can manage? Think about the Book of Genesis: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth…” Or think about Star Wars: “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” How can you craft a voice that is vast enough to make such statements?
  5. Transition to a more narrow register. Unlike Star Wars, a novel must make this transition as smooth as possible. This is where Freeman’s novel really shines. In two sentences, she moves from “God was not responsible for what came to pass” to “surely, these children were beautiful.” The first part is vast and the second is beginning to focus on specific characters: these children. Freeman links the two with a single world: surely. It’s not a causal connection but a logical one. Here’s the full sentence: “People said that no beauty was permitted in the world without some accompanying darkness to balance it out, and, surely, these children were beautiful.” Basically, the sentence says, “Beauty exists in the world, and these children are beautiful.” It’s moving from a general statement to an illustration of the statement. This is a great way to transition. Make a general statement and then illustrate it: “and here they are.”

Good luck. Take risks. Have fun with the exercise.

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