For Joanna Luloff, the author of ‘The Beach at Galle Road,’ travelling had to be about more than just tourism. As a student, she had worked at a local prison, tutoring the inmates in English and after she graduated joining the Peace Corp seemed like the best way to merge her interest in teaching, volunteer work and travel.
Joanna would get exactly what she wanted when the Peace Corp brought her to Sri Lanka but it was her host family that really made her feel at home. Dhamika and Ranjan Thrimavithana taught her a smattering of Sinhala, how to cook a curry and how to pleat a sari. They became her best teachers. Of the couple’s teenage daughters – Amali and Malsha, who are now in medical school, Joanna says, “they became very good friends; kept me laughing when I was feeling homesick. They truly are my second family.”
Living in Baddegamma and teaching English at the Christ Church Boys’ College, Joanna found herself producing a torrent of words – she wrote letters and journal entries but she also began to build a sort of literary compendium of characters and places that would eventually make their way into her book. “It took me almost two years after my return to start transforming those sketches and impressions into stories,” Joanna wrote in an email interview, “but this first book is certainly inspired by the people I met in Sri Lanka, the landscape there, and my Peace Corps friends’ experiences.”
On the most basic level, the stories in ‘The Beach at Galle Road’ (published in October 2012) are all tied together by time and location: Sri Lanka in the mid-1980s to the late 1990s. Determined to locate her characters and their individual story arcs in the wider context of the island’s history, culture and politics, Joanna was keenly aware of the forces at play in modern Sri Lanka: “I did include the wider social context – the war, the complicated colonial history, the regional biases and differences, the competing representations of the LTTE as well as the Sri Lankan government, the presence of foreigners, and how what was going on in Jaffna could feel worlds apart from what was happening in Unawatuna even though not so many miles separated the two places.”
She had her characters flit in and out of pieces and wrote so that their lives served as links between the narratives. Joanna explains: “there are also thematic ties that bridge the stories; many of the narratives grapple with themes of exile and outsiderness, the gap between past and present selves, escape as well as homecomings. I think the stories are also linked through inquiries into family, friendships, and love especially in the wake of external conflict.”
Joanna’s characters are an interesting bunch: “Some are Sinhalese and live in the south of the country; others are Tamil and live in the east; and still others are foreigners – volunteers, aid workers, and tourists.” As an outsider herself, she speaks of the “willful blindness at the proximity of the war” that could have a foreigner blithely take otherwise unthinkable risks and a mutual ignorance of each other’s cultures that could have an American volunteer floundering as she plans activities for a co-ed after school club or have a Sinhala character struggle to deal with tourists in Unawatuna.
Joanna who now lives and works in New York where she teaches literature and creative writing at SUNY Potsdam, says that writing her book made her feel quite homesick for Sri Lanka but that it was challenging. “It was important to me to write from many different vantage points, and the struggle to be as true as I could to so many perspectives outside of my own experience was gruelling at times,” she confesses.
After Sri Lanka, Joanna did a little more travelling spending time in India, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Ecuador, Mexico, Russia, Croatia, and England. She says though that the strong commitment to family and community that she saw here have left a lasting impression as did the diversity of the country, both in terms of its geography and its communities. “From a distance, Sri Lanka can seem like a very small place, but up close, it becomes vast and nuanced and incredibly diverse. It also has an incredibly vibrant and complicated history,” says Joanna, who wanted to capture some of those same qualities in her book.
Published in the Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on 9 December, 2012. Words by Smriti Daniel. Pix courtesy Joanna.