I have been having wonderful email discussions with Dr. Suwanda Sugunasiri about his novel Untouchable Woman’s Odyssey. The story is simultaneously simple and complex, and the characters are well interwoven into each other’s lives so as to be interdependent. Moreover, the novel is genre-blurring and could be classified as post-colonial fiction, Buddhist fiction, mythic fiction, hybrid fiction, the list goes on. And yet the novel is a true chronotope, to use a Bakhtinian term, and works as a world unto itself.
During the course of our conversations, it was playfully suggested that I develop a list of things I liked about Untouchable Woman’s Odyssey. So instead of the usual author interview (because these can be terse), or review (because I don’t want to give away too much of the novel), I’m following his suggestion! I will interweave bits of our conversation and snippets of story from the novel as I go.
Counting back from five, then:
The novel is set in post-colonial Sri Lanka and the author helps set the scenes in the novel with descriptions of streets and sounds, local flora and fauna, the ocean, and with descriptions of food, especially tea, fish and food made with coconuts and a great variety of spices. It all sounds so delicious, but more importantly I am reminded of how food practices are cultural markers and a part of our identity construction.* So I enjoyed the initial character and narrator we meet–Swadesh–who had immigrated to Canada but returned to visit his homeland and his friend Milton. As an expatriate character, Swadesh seemed very happy about the meals he was eating during his visit back home, meals made with fresh local ingredients. Later in the novel, THE untouchable woman of the title, Tangamma, now known as the Buddhist nun Venerable Karuna, is described while eating the single daily meal of a renunciant. She is further described drinking tea out of a coconut bowl later that day. The descriptions of the Ven. Karuna eating and drinking are markedly different from other descriptions of practices surrounding food and drink in the novel; these descriptions are more meditative in tone, and show yet another aspect of food practice that is a cultural marker and part of identity construction, that of a Buddhist nun. This is but one example of the way in which Dr. Sugunasiri’s writing is simple yet complex.
4. Transnational literary influences
Right from the contents page of Untouchable Woman’s Odyssey, it was clear to me that the novelist had many literary influences from the West, from traditional Buddhist literature, and from his homeland. I asked him to comment on his literary influences and whether these were mostly Buddhist.
SS: “Undeniably. As you’ve already noted, some parts of the novel falls back on the Jataka story – present story, past story and linking the two. But as you correctly note, it is not entirely along the Jataka lines. The narrator is not the ‘omniscient one’ but Swadesh, the on the ground Canadian expat who visits his home country after a quarter century.
Another influence that can be seen in the novel is the Beast Fable. This has been taken to be a genre of Hindu/Sanskrit literature, the Pancatantra and Hitopadesa being examples. But my latest research finding is that it is, in fact, the Buddha that is the initiator of the Beast fable genre (see the Appendix in my work Dhamma Aboard Evolution). So there then is another form of Buddhist literature that has guided my hand.
But there may be the inspiration of Sinhala literature itself. I couldn’t help but be impressed by what has been said to be the world’s first blank verse (about 500 of them, 6th to 8th c.), written on the ‘mirror wall’ (a slab of rock with a sheen) of Sigiriya (castle of King Kasyapa). Here’s one of my favourites:
Budal [name] I am.
Everyone writing poetry,
(see the UNESCO publication Sigiri Graffiti, by Prof. Senarat Paranavitana, and Sigiriya by Canadian Professor Siri Gunasinghe.) And there are, of course, other classical works of Sinhala literature, between the 11th and 15th centuries – both secular but some of religious orientation.”
While there are many cultural and literary influences that can be discerned in the novel, it is writtenl in such as way as to be readable by anyone, from anywhere. When I asked him who he wrote for, who was his audience, Dr. Sugunasiri wrote this:
SS: “Frankly, I wrote the novel for myself. . . The story just came to me. Just as in poetry, when whole lines, or whole verses, even nuances appear on my mind’s screen. Not in all its refined form, for sure, but bits and pieces. Mind you, I enjoy writing. Perhaps I’m not market-savvy, or income-conscious, which is why I thought of the audience only after finishing writing.
It is perhaps when in this frame of mind that it occurred to me that, as it appears on the cover, it was going to be “My 75th year gift to humanity”. So in a literal sense, my audience is all of humanity.
However, it is possible that this wider audience was in my mind in writing the novel. Despite the fact that critics have located my novel, correctly of course, in Sri Lanka, there’s not a name that sounds Sinhala, or Tamil for that matter. I use them in translated form or have adapted them to bring out the flavour of the character. This was to specifically keep the novel from being attached to one or the other ethnically, which would immediately shut out a wide spectrum of readership. So for that reason I made the novel ‘generic’, or rather ‘non-ethnocentric’. The story is one that can take place in any society, at any historical time. In other words, it is generalized, even though, of course, it has to happen in some human society or the other. So the story being located in Sri Lanka should not take away from the generality.
But ‘humanity’ is a vast concept. So there has to be, for pragmatic reasons, a narrowing. So, while it is generally for the English-speaking literary world, including, of course, Sri Lanka, since I have been living in Canada for nearly five decades now, the Canadian reader can be said to be the primary audience. After all, the narrator of the story, Swadesh, is a true blue Canadian!
Of late, I’ve come to think of the younger generation readers as a possible and fruitful target audience. Thanks to colonialism, and other factors, the present generation of students of Sri Lanka seem to know pathetically little of the country, just as in the case of Tangamma. And there’s now a large number of Sri Lanka students going to private English schools in the country, and of course, there are the ones in the diaspora. So I thought they might well benefit from the novel.
Ambassadors may be another interested group of readers. Given that the novel covers a period of over 2500 years, could there be a more enjoyable way of learning about the country without going to history books written by academics?”
As indicated, Dr. Sugunasiri’s novel is not only transnational but is also trans-temporal, bridging 2500 years of history through re-imagined and retold myths and traditional stories. This is, perhaps, why he hopes that in the long term, the novel will be readable “for all people at all times, turning it into a universal classic.”
Have you ever picked up a book about Buddhism in the “Eastern Religions” section of a bookstore, opened it, read a portion and thought “which sutta (sutra) is this from, because I know it is from a Buddhist sacred text but the author doesn’t provide the reference?!” Such lack of references really rankles me. So imagine my delight when, in a fiction novel, I find well referenced quotations! Each section of the novel begins with a quotation from the Dhammapada, and he even provides the verse number. For example, “Book the First: Growing” bears the quotation:
“Ah, so pleasantly we live/ Without affliction among the afflicted./ Among humans with affliction/ Do we dwell without affliction. – Dhammapada, 198.”
There are many more types of quotations or nods to literary works throughout the novel, and each one is referenced in some way, either directly, through dialogue or narration. And every quotation or reference to a real piece of writing is woven into the storyline so well that the reader experiences the intricate embedding of real events and texts into the fictional story in a seamless way.
2. Language Exploration
In keeping with his goal of writing a novel that has universal themes and appeal, Dr. Sugunasiri explores language in a universal way as well. Not only are names made familiar to English-language readers, but names of individual characters are changed with the character’s transformation. So, for example, Tangamma is the original name of the untouchable woman at the heart of the odyssey, and she is referred to lovingly as Tangi by her husband. Then, when she becomes a Buddhist nun, she takes the name Venerable Karuna. Likewise, Tangamma’s husband and the central character of the story, Milton, changes his name to Milinda with his developing nationalism.
Further exploration into language is plain in the story, since the main theme of the novel is “personal transformation in the context of a changing post-colonial society.” Many of the characters use English, the colonial language, as their means of communication because they have not learned the traditional de-Leonese or de-Andhrese. But the best example of language exploration in the novel is through the character Milton, who made his living as a writer in English and as a literary critic of European works. As Milton transformed into Milinda, he found himself wondering why he never learned Sanskrit or Pali. At one point in the novel, Milton says:
“I can’t live with my conscience any more, Tangi. In my blindness to monkey English, I forgot what my father stood for. Equality of the languages. I pushed back from my memory that he earned unequal pay for equal work only because he did not speak the colonial language. I thought that was the price to pay for progress” (page 219).
Untouchable Woman’s Odyssey is a fine example of how the languages we use to communicate with the world around us are powerful pieces of our identity construction and serve as points of orientation in the many cultural contexts through which we all navigate.
1. Men writing the feminine
I am always impressed when men write in the voice of women, and Dr. Sugunasiri has done just that. He has created a very likeable female character, Tangamma, who goes through many transformations in her life, from an untouchable to a wife and mother, to a student, to a Buddhist nun (Venerable Karuna). In part of our discussion he spoke about the development of this character as a form of Buddhist practice.
SS: “Writing Untouchable Woman’s Odyssey could be said to be, in hindsight, a form of Buddhist practice on my part. It’s a novel, again as noted by critics, that offers Buddhism as a paradigm for peace in society (see Review by Prof Emeritus of English, C. K. Seshadri of Baroda University). Critics have also noted how the heroine Tangamma is a model of peace, and calm (meaning level-headed), though bubbling in life. As sharply observed by a Sinhala woman critic, Tangamma is not the classical unhappy wife seeking freedom from it all. She dons the robes not because she is unhappy with life or with her husband, but because she can see the qualitatively deeper happiness and calm of the higher religious life. In that sense, she’s the model Buddhist woman. And she’s also the wife that has earned the respect of a husband in a Buddhist society. She is as well the caricature case study that speaks to the Buddha’s words, “Not by birth is one an untouchable”. She’s the untouchable pragmatist (using ‘untouchable’ here to mean ‘unstoppable’), untouchable smarty pants, untouchable culture buff, untouchable language learner, untouchable husband-transformer, untouchable self-emancipator. So in many ways, she speaks again to the next line “ … by action alone does one come to be of nobility” (Brahmin).
So I suppose such a character coming to be created by my hands could be called Buddhist practice. For it upholds womanhood, as in the Buddha’s model: ‘mother and father’, and not the other way around. Untouchable Woman’s Odyssey also speaks to the respectable way women are treated – by husbands, family and society, in Buddhist-Sri Lanka . It was no accident, for example, that the world’s first woman Prime Minister was Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike from Sri Lanka.”
So there you have it – my top five things I enjoyed about Dr. Suwanda Sugunasiri’s novel Untouchable Woman’s Odyssey, a truly “extraordinary first novel” in the words of Professor of English Chelva Kanaganayaka of the University of Toronto [review is here]. If you have a chance to read the story yourself, I would love for you to add to the list! And if you want to read more about the novel, you can read other reviews of Untouchable Woman’s Odyssey posted on my last blog post.
* My friend and colleague Rachel Brown, Ph.D. Candidate at Wilfrid Laurier University, is currently working on a dissertation focused on Maghrebine Muslim transnational food practices. Because of recent discussions with Rachel, I am becoming more aware of the interconnections between food practices and religious experience.