Humanities Day: Sri Lankans find solace in lit

At this weekend’s Humanities Day festival, wartime literature as an emotional outlet for victims and as a tool for understanding for the world at large.

By Anna Jones

Professor Sascha Ebeling spoke on the necessity of wartime literature, both as an emotional outlet for victims and as a tool for understanding for the world at large.

His presentation, “War, Trauma, and Humanism in Literature from Sri Lanka”, was devoted to the largely ignored Sri Lankan civil war that went on for nearly three decades.

The country’s two major ethnic groups, the Sinhalese and the Tamils, were locked in a bloody conflict from 1983 until May 2009, when the government declared the war was over.

Sri Lanka is now trying to recover from a near genocide that left thousands dead and a generation of Sri Lankans who have never known life without war, Ebeling said.

To define a particular war, Ebeling argued, we must look to the stories of people who have lived and witnessed the consequences. Stories of traumatic experiences are the most honest representation of war, more illuminating than studying photographs or statistics, he said.

He cited three kinds of literature that tackle the Sri Lankan civil war. The first is the witness testimonial, which shares a personal experience so that it becomes part of a shared memory.

The second is what Ebeling called a “cosmopolitan humanistic approach,” which considers the Sri Lankan civil war in the context of wars throughout history.

The final category he described was stories of exile. He discussed the 2001 novel Gorilla by Shobasakthi, a Tamil writer and former child soldier who sought asylum in France. Gorilla expresses the crisis of identity faced by many Tamil exiles, whose population is now estimated at almost 1 million.

Ebeling ended the lecture by stressing the necessity of literature as a foundation for democracy itself, as the only consistent means to “keep the dialogue about values alive.”

He noted literature’s ability to close gaps in cultural understanding. “We must learn each other’s languages and read each other’s books,” Ebeling said.