Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Ru Freeman

Author and activist Ru Freeman was born into a family of writers and many boys in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Educated at Murdoch University in Perth, Western Australia, and Bates College in Maine, she completed her Masters in Labor Relations at the University of Colombo. She has worked in the field of American and international humanitarian assistance and workers’ rights. Her political writing has appeared in English and in translation. Her creative work has appeared or is forthcoming in Guernica, Story Quarterly, Crab Orchard Review, WriteCorner Press, Kaduwa and elsewhere and has been nominated for the Best New American Voices anthologies in 2006 and 2008. Her debut novel, A Disobedient Girl, is just out from Simon & Schuster.

A few days ago I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I usually read several books at the same time as most writers do, but rarely are they as different from each other as the three I am reading now.

The first one is Preeta Samarasan's Evening Is the Whole Day, a novel set in Malaysia which has received a great deal of critical acclaim particularly in the sphere of international awards for fiction. I bought the book because Preeta is a friend, and friends don't let friends' work languish on shelves. I looked forward to reading it because of what I knew about her, but I love this book for what she has done with her material as a writer. One of the things that is most difficult for a writer composing in English to accomplish, is the business of communicating the cultural inflections and specificities of a foreign language without letting that task - which, in the end, is usually secondary to the fiction - overwhelm the story. I have never read a book by a writer from South/SouthEast Asia in which this has been done with the degree of success that Preeta achieves in her novel. Not only am I immersed deeply and variously in the interior and exterior realities of her characters, I am equally seamlessly engaged in looking at the world through their very specific linguistic expression of their lives. There are moments in the book where Preeta's lyricism interferes with this otherwise beautifully rendered novel, where I find myself dwelling on the beauty of a line of prose and remembering its author, but it is forgivable in a writer whose command of language is itself something to admire.

The second book that I am reading is actually a re-read, Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried. Enough has been said about the originality of this particular book that I don't feel there is anything new that I can add. What I can say is that O'Brien's way of introducing and re-introducing both the same story (as in that of Norman Bowker), and the business of creating fictions out of truth and truth out of the fiction of our lives, is, to me, a staggeringly brilliant and instructive exercise. A few times along the way there are the unavoidable political polemics but then again, is it possible to avoid them when speaking of war? I had recently met a Vietnam vet who talked to me about the aftermath of that particular atrocity and his own inability to reconcile himself with the welcome that waited for its American victims. This book provided me with a context for that veteran's story as well as a way of considering the many wars I have been writing about in my life as a political journalist.

The last book I have been immersed in is Edwidge Danticat's Brother, I'm Dying. I found the first half of this book difficult to get through not because it was dense but because it seemed to contain such a superficial description of the lives of the people in Danticat's life, her uncle and her father in particular. I was reading it also to gain some insight into the predicament of a very dear friend whose Haiti to the United States odyssey was not unlike Danticat's. I kept wondering if this story would be quite so worthy of attention if Danticat wasn't well, Danticat. So it was quite surprising to me that I was so moved by the way the book ended, with the death of her uncle in detention. It is rare that the end of a novel justifies the existence of the preceding two hundred pages, but this book did. No doubt, my own interest and involvement in issues of human rights and social justice and the outrage I feel at the complex but, surely, reconcilable issues surrounding immigration to this country provided that leap of faith, but I still think this is a good read for anybody who wants to understand what it feels like to be unwanted in a country that an immigrant has no heart-desire to want to belong to.
Read an excerpt from A Disobedient Girl, and learn more about the book and author at Ru Freeman's website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue