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Sri-Lankan American Writes Disobedient Girl Reflecting Life Down To Its Smallest Details

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In a beautiful country where fate, religion and sorrow are like living beings, five year old Latha is brought into the Vithanage home as a servant girl and companion to Thara, the daughter of the house and a girl her own age. Though their girlhood is spent together in intimate friendship, Latha grows up yearning constantly for the things that are denied to her: the fragrance of roses, glass bangles, sandals and the love of a boy. When, at fifteen, she finally rebels against being sentenced to a life of servitude, she breaks Thara’s heart and sets in motion a chain of deceit, despair, anger and irreconcilable hurt. I read Disobedient Girl by Ru Freeman this summer, hot off book store shelves, as my final pick for the summer. Like the other novels I’d chosen for my summer read-a-thon, it didn’t disappoint. It was sad, so sad and yet the honesty of feelings and thoughts that streamed across its pages made me wonder about the author.  How did she know so much that was so true about the inner workings of the mind and heart? Her wisdom does belie her age. A SriLankan writer whose political journalism and fiction has been published internationally, Ru Freeman is an author whose rise will be worth watching. She lives in PA.

“Be a proper servant indeed. Her math was better than Thara’s, her social studies and science were better than Thara’s too, and she didn’t even get extra tuition like Thara did. Even her handwriting, curving with perfect ispili and pāpili, was better than Thara’s. In fact, the only things Thara had that were better than Latha’s were her clothes and her fancy boyfriend.”

1) How did you decide to write Latha's story?  Was the greater idea to offer social commentary within a story so as to affect change?

Ru Freeman:
In many ways I had always been writing Latha's story. As a girl growing up around so many boys - brothers, cousins, and a mother who taught at a boys' school - I yearned for the kind of female friendship that is both forgiving and boundless. I went to all-girls' schools, but because my family was so non-traditional (they played chess, they were theater-people whose friends were mostly gay, they were writers, political activists, communists etc.!), I was emotionally cautious in school. Latha is the name of a little girl who came to my grandparents' house to play with me when I visited. Her mother was a servant, but she was not. She was that kind of friend for me, someone through whom I could imagine various other, unfettered, lives, someone who was my age, size, kind of looked like me, and who brought me face to face with the social/class disparities that existed between servants and the people for whom they worked. I found myself writing about servants - not only that Latha but others - whenever I had occasion to write about anything at all. My first award-winning short story was one that I wrote about the relationship between two teenagers, both waiting to go back to the universities (which are free and to which admittance is gained through merit), but who work in different worlds because of their upbringing - she is a receptionist, he is a peon. I don't consciously set out to affect change, so much as I am predisposed to writing about things that strike me and the things that do are most often social injustice and personal relationships. This book is a blend of both.

2) The setting is in tumultuous times in Sri Lanka. Why did you pick that particular time period as the setting for the story?

Ru Freeman: I didn't pick it. I began to write about these two characters, Latha and Biso, and it so happened that they lived in those times. Of course, when you write about South Asia at any time, it is pretty tumultuous! Sri Lanka in particular is a highly literate, very politically involved society so there is no way to avoid it. The only question is how does it impact the people in a story. In this case, these two women were involved in those events in different ways. Both women’s lives held far greater traumas within the four walls of the houses they lived in than all the bombs and assassinations outside.

3) How much of the story is seeped in stories from the lives of real people?

Ru Freeman: Everything is steeped in the lives of real people because we are all real human beings, and I, like any other writer, accesses what I know for the neurophysiology and the muskoloskeletal physiology, so to say, of a story; the creative part is imagining the pathology. These people do not exist as they do in the story, but parts of them exist, I am certain, in parts of other people whom I have known or heard about or visited me in dreams.

4) The characters and their motivations live in your head long after you've shut the book and tonight, I actually miss them, now that I'm done reading the book. Where did you get all those insights into the human psyche from?

Ru Freeman: I have no idea!  I think that if there is any insight, or any truth that a reader gets from reading it, or if they feel that something resonates with a particular urgency for them, then it is a reflection of my habitual and rather compulsive interest in human beings and what makes them the way they are. I am constantly curious. It is like a physician who cannot help but see a human being in terms of his or her disparate parts, the muscles bracing that way, the bones bending this way; I cannot meet a person without being a little absent - part of me is always observing, always wondering: why this word? why those clothes? why that smile? what is really going on here? where will they go when they leave? what do they do when they get there? So when I begin to write, those observations and bits of information come back to me and find their places in the story I am writing. I don't think it is conscious.

5) Is there a sequel coming? This is the just the kind of story where one waits to know what happens to the characters next?

Ru Freeman: I love that so many people want to know about the sequel - I don't have one planned.

6) Are people drawing comparisons between the grim reality in Slumdog and the one in your book?

Ru Freeman:
No. Thank god. I know all this has been talked about in various fora, most movingly and possibly accurately in the South Asian list serves on which I participate, but Slumdog was not an exposition of the real lives of people, but a feel-good Bolly-Hollywood movie with fisticuffs, good/bad guys and a fairytale ending complete with cell phones. Do Indian street kids leap into pools of shit? No. Do girls who are abused and raped as children grow into serenely glamorous beauties? Again, no. Did I enjoy the movie? Of course! I loved the music, and the suspension of reality, but when I came out of the movie theater, I was very much aware that it was a suspension of reality. It's a terrific movie of its genre. It wasn't a movie like Syriana or a documentary like Born Into Brothels where the focus is on the humanity beneath the terrible realities.

I think there is a trend in literature for authors to gain notoriety (and, therefore, increased book sales!), by writing about the horrors of life in "other" cultures. Or, perhaps it is not that the authors do this but that the marketing arm of their publishers promote them as such. I am grateful not to be marketed by that kind of publishing ethic - or lack thereof. Atria (Simon & Schuster) has been absolutely above reproach in the way they have placed this book. I want people to read this book as a story about two women and the separate journeys they make toward freedom, journeys which take place within the specific cultural context of two families in Sri Lanka. Those families are not the only kind of family to be found in Sri Lanka. Those women are not the only kinds of women to be found in Sri Lanka. Their stories are not the only kind of story that can be told about Sri Lanka. In time, I think, with more literature coming out of South Asia and, indeed, elsewhere, and more Americans reaching out of their own comfort zones, we will all be able to read books from other places and enjoy them for the way in which they give us a glimpse of those places, and recognizing our common human impulses not our vast cultural differences.

7) As a writer, what would you say is the single most important thing to keep you on track.

Ru Freeman: A burning desire to write. If you don't have that, don't do it. Writing every day, writing at specific times, a room of your own, none of this is worth a whit if you don't have a genuine, deeply felt, need to write.

8) What is the agent hunting process like and what advice do you have for those looking for agents or publishers these days?

Ru Freeman: First, put a check mark next to "have burning desire to write." Not "burning desire to be a writer" but to write!!" Next, buy books whenever possible, even if it means going without bought-coffee and lunch. If you don't buy books, nobody will be around to buy yours. Read the books you buy or borrow. Reading is such a pleasurable and necessary thing, it is impossible to imagine writing without reading. It would be like saying you love to cook, but you hate walking through a farmer's market! Finally, write. Actually, do all these things at the same time. 

In terms of looking for agents/publishers, send your work out. There is nothing like clicking send or adding postage stamps to make you really take it seriously. If you don't know where to send your work, pick up an industry publication like Poets & Writers or Publisher's Weekly which will give you some ideas. Google the writers you like and see who has carried their work. Subscribe to some of those journals. There's also a great listserve, CRWROPPS-B which sends out calls for submissions daily. Go to readings and author Q&A sessions whenever possible. Publishing is not easy, but, like anything else, it rewards hard work and persistence.

9) How many rejections did you receive before you hit pay dirt with this novel? How many years in the making is this book?

Ru Freeman: I wrote a different book first and I think I got about 50 rejections. By the time the last twenty were coming in I was already working on this one so I had clearly overcome despair! I was very fortunate with this book because I had an editor and an agent express interest in it and give me some feedback before I had finished the first few chapters, and my agent, Julie Barer, took it on after hearing me read from it at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference. It wasn't done then, but she loved what she heard and then, subsequently, read. I finished the book over the next six months and then we went back and forth with it a couple of times before submission. But I think most books - and this is no exception - come out of a lifetime of reading and writing.