South Asia Seminar: "The Refugee Narrative in Contemporary Sri Lankan Tamil Writing"

Vasugi Kailasam, Assistant Professor, Department of South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of California Berkeley

This talk traces the mobile genre of the “refugee narrative” in contemporary Sri Lankan Tamil writing. By looking at the Sri Lankan Tamil novel Mmm written by the author Shoba Shakthi, translated into English as Traitor, this talk examines if the Tamil refugee narrative can embody ideas of displacement and belonging in terms of both thematic and formal elements which might, in turn contribute to the creation of a uniquely Sri Lankan subjecthood that can frame discourses of statehood and reconciliation.The 2002 Tamil novel Mmm (translated as Traitor in English) by Shobasakthi traverses spaces that are not often covered in contemporary Sri Lankan fiction. Set against the background of Tamil separatist movements of the late 1970s to the mid-1980s, the novel blends tales of caste and class oppression, while alternating between first- and third-person narrations. Traitor centres on a Sri Lankan Tamil militant, Nesakumaran, who flees to France as a refugee, and is eventually murdered, after being charged with the rape of his own child, Nirami. The novel showcases the breakdown of Nesakumaran’s self, as well as his familial and communal relationships, and reflects these dissolutions in the fragmentation of the narrative. This talk argues that the novel depicts Sri Lankan Tamil nationalism as a more complicated concept than is conventionally assumed, a heterogeneous discourse marked by distinctions of class, caste, and gender. By wrestling with conflicts that are internal to the Tamil community, Traitor illustrates how Sri Lankan Tamil literature envisions the national space of Sri Lanka as merely a site on which to mourn the lack of an ethnic, Tamil solidarity.

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Thursday, January 21, 2021 - 11:00am
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