Several times over, I have been tempted to spell the death of this blog. It happened often enough. I felt, I owed it to the wonderful readers who had become friends over the years. But something made me stop.
Deep down, I knew someday, somewhere, there would be that story which would not fit the confines of the space a newspaper allows, a story that can only be told sans editing, a story which would bring me back to the blog.
So, here I am. Almost a year since I last blogged.
This time, it is to talk about a remarkable, beautiful and spirited woman. Her name is Ameena Hussein. She is well known in literary circles. Her debut novel The Moon In The Water was longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Award and she has published two collections of short stories - Fifteen and Zillij.
I first met Ameena Hussein, a trained sociologist turned book editor, publisher and novelist at the inaugural Galle Literary Festival in 2007.
Speaking at the opening ceremony, she came across as the rare writer who believed in keeping her text short and sweet. Little did she know (and little did we) that the sentences were short for a reason (you will find out, if you read on).
Over the weeks, months and now years, we spoke, exchanged emails and met several times - in Sri Lanka and now in Singapore.
I learnt many things about her and her wonderful husband Sam, starting with:
1) Always invite them home for a meal because they won't let you pick up the tab - not even in your land.
2) She will almost always make you laugh. "If I am a manglik, you should be dying," she told Sam on one occasion.
3) That if any cancer campaign, ever needs a poster girl, they should look no further than Ameena.
4) That nothing can and will ever get her down
5) "I only have long stories left now and I better write them," she told me at our last meeting.
Between her writing, her treatments, she and Sam work on the story they started when they left their jobs in Geneva and headed back home.
"I always knew I would return to Sri Lanka. I was very clear about that," she once told me.
So here it is, Ameena's story in Ameena's words, unedited, just the way it should be:
How did you start writing? Did you always know you wanted to be a writer?
I never thought I would be a writer. When I was young, I think my parents would have liked me to be a lawyer or a doctor. You know the normal Asian aspirations. However, I married young and went off to Los Angeles with my husband and entered university there. While I was studying Sociology, I would gather so much material during my research projects that were so rich and interesting that could not be entered into my boring academic papers. Writing fiction seemed to be a natural consequence and became an outlet for all the stories I would hear.
What were your childhood years like?
Perhaps slightly weird. We belonged to a conservative Sri Lankan Muslim family with parents who thought slightly differently from the rest. So while my cousins were in shalwar kameez, we wore dresses. While my cousins learnt sewing and cooking, we went for music and speech and drama. In retrospect, I think my childhood was wonderful. We had plenty of cousins and aunts and uncles who lived all around us. We met daily and played and chatted and had very close family ties. We tried to balance our school friends with our cousins, but there were so many restrictions regarding school mates, unrealistic curfews etc, it was difficult to have close ties with non-family children. We didn't have television or computers in those days. We spent our days reading, imagining, playing and dreaming. How different from children of today.
How did you and Sam meet? And what made both of you decide you wanted to head back to Sri Lanka?
Sam was working in Geneva and he had come on a holiday to Sri Lanka and we first met at a dinner party. After my divorce, we kept in touch and eventually got married. I had always known I wanted to live in Sri Lanka. And Sam was not averse to the idea. But the deal was that after marriage I would go and live in Geneva for three years and then we would return to Sri Lanka. I kept my part of the deal, and he kept his. I feel very strongly about the land of my birth. There must be something in my blood that ties me to this country that doesnt allow me to stay away for too long.
How did the family respond to the news that you were giving up your cushy jobs in Geneva and returning to Sri Lanka?
Today, thinking back, I can't remember going through any opposition from the family in our return. My immediate family however, was concerned as to what we were going to do in Sri Lanka, because we were already telling people that we were going to come back and start a publishing house in Colombo and have a farm where we would grow trees in the rural areas of Sri Lanka. They thought that was a rather strange venture. Publishing houses were practically non-existent in Sri Lanka. And then there was the matter of growing trees. I do not come from a farming tradition, so it quite perplexed them. Today, I think they are amused, proud, and a little non-plussed that we haven't fallen flat on our faces.
What made you start a publishing house? Did you feel not enough was being done to promote Sri Lankan writing?
When I came back from Los Angeles mid way through my PhD at the University of Southern California, I was working at the International Centre for Ethnic Studies. This was headed by Radhika Coomaraswamy, now the undersecretary general for the UN on Children and Armed Conflict and Dr Neelan Tiruchelvam, who was assassinated by the LTTE. During my time here, I found that it was more than a research centre. It was a cultural centre, it was a literary centre, it was quite a wonderful place to be working in at that time. They offered to publish my first collection of stories Fifteen. I then realised that we didn't have any publishing houses in Sri Lanka to publish works in English. There were Sinhala publishing houses, I am not sure about Tamil publishing houses, but if there were any English writing publishing houses, I was certainly not aware of them. So at that time, the seed was germinating in my mind. I began thinking of a Sri Lankan publishing house that dealt with works written in English by Sri Lankan authors.
Most of us in Sri Lanka grow up reading Western authors and not enough authors from the region or other 'South' countries. When I was in America, I discovered books written by Indian authors, Egyptian authors, Kenyan, Japanese, Chinese, Russian - it was like another world for me. When I visited Sri Lanka I discovered that here too there was a burgeoning of writing in English. At that time, I don't know what the state was doing to promote Sri Lankan writing in English. Now I know they have the State Literary Prize which is held every year, but other than that, I can't see other events to promote Sri Lankan literature in English. I am not sure if even the local universities teach the younger authors. There seems to be an attitude that change is very difficult and no-one seems motivated enough to embark on a process of change.
In richer countries the state will support writers and artistes in many ways. Here, it is the survival at a most basic level. I wish somewhere, somehow a fairy godmother will appear to promote Sri Lankan writing in English.
What was the first year like? How many authors did you start off with? How many authors do you publish now?
2003, our first year was fun. We were launching the publishing house with my second collection of short stories Zillij. The whole year was spent on that one book. Today, that is unimaginable. On the back flap of my book we put in a little mission statement and after that manuscripts started coming in. So the next year, we published another book, and so it went on and today we have published a total of 19 books.
How do you manage to do your own writing and balance them with the full time demands of being a publisher?
This is a tough job, I find that I barely have any time for my own writing. During the day it is impossible, at night the last thing I want to do is open my computer. In addition, I am involved in so many other things that ask me to write up reports, or fund raising letters or edit articles that there seems to be very little room left for my creativity. However, I have started on my second novel though it is very slow going. I repeat, very slow going.
You have also been one of the pioneers of the Galle Literary Festival. Do you feel the festival has achieved what it set out to achieve?
The GLF as it is called, is one of those amazing successes that you find in the world. It started off when Geoffrey Dobbs, an Englishman, who has lived in Sri Lanka for many years has this marvellous idea to start one. He approached a few people, of whom I was one, and when we first started we were doing everything, designing the programme, engaging with bureaucracy, arranging transport etc etc. It was really hands on and totally exhausting and wonderfully rewarding. Now, we are so much more organised, we have a efficient and dedicated team to attend to all those things, and I see the festival going from strength to strength and actually am quite proud and pleased about where it is today. Not only have we showcased Sri Lankan writing in English, the festival does outreach programs throughout the year involving rural schools and encouraging the reading habit among children.
When did you learn that you have cancer? Each time I have met you, you have been incredibly strong. I'll never forget your party in Colombo, just as I was grappling with a suitably sad look for the evening. Do you find battling cancer has made you even more steely in your resolve to continue writing and finding more Sri Lankan voices?
I discovered I had cancer quite by accident. I had been having breathing problems for seven months, in fact during the first Galle Literary Festival, I wrote my welcome speech with short sentences so that I wouldn't be gasping for breath. Little did I know. Then in June 2007, I nearly collapsed and then I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma. Having had cancer actually made me very humble. Because I was shown such love and caring by a multitude of people. When you have a life threatening disease, it makes you appreciate and value each day. I am not exaggerating, not a day goes by when I don't think I am so grateful and happy to be alive. I hope cancer made me strong, but not just in my writing or work but as a decent human being.
How much of your life made it to your novel - The Moon In The Water?
The theme of the story is fiction. But the details of belonging to a Sri Lankan Muslim extended family came from my life, my cousins lives, my aunts, uncles, grandparents they are all in the book I suppose.
To reach Ameena & Sam, contact The Perera Hussein Publishing House