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Breaking Silence, Telling Truths, and Writing Ghosts into Being


To reflect on the process of breaking silence and storying ghosts, let me begin with one of my mother's stories, one I'd heard so often it seemed deceptively simple to write "Amparai

February, 1986" My mother told me the story like she lived it, about a gorgeous fair-skinned girl who was touched with "moon sickness," which is hushed-tones Tamil for "lunacy" The girl's mother had miscarried a boy, the more valuable type of child, and depression moved in and made her vacant The girl's father, an alcoholic, "had a reputation," which in all languages must mean "he's a disreputable whore" All this made her unmarriageable, so doubly useless, but she was beautiful, everyone said so, and my mother didn't say so but I wonder if this is Tamil for sexual abuse

When the girl was eight, she walked into the rough kitchen where a pot of water was coming to a rolling boil, and plunged her arm in up to the shoulder She screamed in a thin voice unlike her own until her mother came and hauled her away The arm bubbled and pearled into octopus suckers, or Indra's thousand eyes, the remnants of the sage Gautama's curse: a womanizer himself, Indra seduces the sage's wife, Ahalya, the most beautiful woman in the world, and when the sage discovers them together he curses Indra's body to blossom a thousand vulvae, transmuted into eyes only after a period of penitently worshiping the sun-god Surya This myth teaches us two things: lust and surveillance are one and the same, and human devotees are stronger than those who rule them The girl learns nothing from her injury

It's a stupid cure for her mother's depression, her father's affairs, and people still say she is pretty, still fair in the face, all it takes is one long sleeve for them to say "oh, she's beautiful, but did you hear?," when she'd hoped ugliness would be her savior For months, the arm withered and peeled like a dying palm tree, a cartography of discolored skin and scars All its nerves dead, the arm feels nothing My mother said, I think, that when they were older she used to lock herself in the shed and howl for straight minutes, then emerge as though nothing happened I can't call this crazy, and really, neither can my mother

What's crazy to the community is that a boy wants to marry the girl anyway He isn't repulsed by her creeping vine of an arm Her parents don't notice, so it's a non-traditional courtship: no chaperoned talks, no discussions of dowry I'm inventing these, these details, I think, but without supervision they are free to caress each other in the shade of the banana trees, to climax, and water the stony earth The girl loves the boy with a love that welcomes her into the world

The boy asks her parents for permission to marry her, and love marriages might be uncommon but he's from a decent family, and she has no other options, so they consent On the day of the wedding, which my mother claims was well before she left Batticaloa to join Appa in the US, the boy hung around the house while the seamstress made adjustments to the girl's wedding saree He was eager for a glimpse

The seamstress scolded him through the pins in her mouth and told him to make himself useful and go to the store for red thread They didn't need it They were taking pleasure in shooing him away, heightening his anticipation until he squirmed This is Sri Lanka, so of course he never came back When the girl and her wedding party went looking for him in town and in the farmland, hiking their sarees up to their thighs as they waded through the wet fields, calling his name, they found him and ten others in the paddies, expressionless and soaking, hands tied behind their backs, the backs of their heads blown open, red and full-lipped

Empty cases of ammunition sat beside them, half-submerged Witnesses said soldiers had rounded up all the men in the streets, and there he'd been, loitering in front of a sewing shop, wondering what weight of thread to buy The girl says: "My heart is broken" That same day, still in her red and gold wedding saree, she empties a kerosene canister over her head and strikes a match But when I ask my mother to verify the details of this story, she has no idea what I'm talking about

She had no crazy friends, knew no one with a disfigured arm, says maybe I'm confusing stories and details She says she knew a girl in Batticaloa in the 1970s who contracted rabies from a bat and became a hissing, spitting animal before she died She says Appa knew a girl who is fair and had mismatched eyes, one rust brown and the other bright blue, but that isn't disfigurement at all But on February 19th, 1986, well after my mother had immigrated to the US

, eighty Tamil farmers were slaughtered in Ampara district, which is in the eastern province but is hardly Batticaloa Witnesses say army soldiers came out of the nearby jungles and rounded up everyone on the streets but released the women They made the men kneel at the roadside while they tied their wrists behind their backs, and then they marched the men at gunpoint back to the paddy fields, lined them up, and methodically shot each in the back of the head They left their empty ammunition cases in the paddies for the villagers to find The bodies were burned atop a pyre of dry rice harvest

It's similar, but it's not the same thing Like everything else, my mother's stories never made the news because no one deemed them newsworthy, or were too afraid to write them down Or, as with me, history is a beast my mother doesn't know how to slay All she has are these stories faded from time and willful forgetting, the moral being that every stone in the east is dedicated to tyrant gods we appease by donating children to the earth So, like most of the intergenerational stories I'm told and told to keep secret, this one took several drafts

I thought it would be easy to write because it was a family story that wasn't about family, a taboo story but not a forbidden one because the shame in it isn't ours I make no confessions of my own, and my mother is present only for narrative framing, immaculate and without stigma In the end, it reads like historical fiction in a mythic voice, where all the transgression and potential for ostracism belong to the nameless girl But confessions inhere in choosing to tell this particular story The social stigma around mental illness, the self-injury that might have been resistance to gender notions around marriageability, sexual desire, social value

The everydayness of murder, saturated with uncertainty, just unreliable enough to warrant fact-checking I thought it would be easy to write I wasn't expecting to hear it in my mother's voice as I drafted the words, or to feel a surge of survivor's guilt over a war I didn't live through As a queer disabled Eelam Tamil American writer who grew up in the shadow of ethnic conflict and the Tamil genocide in Sri Lanka, I have always existed on the margins, where society keeps you afraid to speak and demands gratitude for allowing you to exist, barely sustained on a fantasy of care they have no incentive or structural imperative to provide I stayed silent for years about my depression, self-injury, intergenerational trauma, sex and sexuality; I never mentioned or quoted my parents; I stuck to fiction because fiction betrays no one's confidence, harms no one's memory

Every time Amma reiterated a version of the opening line of Maxine Hong Kingston's "No Name Woman," "You must not tell anyonewhat I'm about to tell you," quote-unquote, I dutifully complied My tipping point arrived in college, when everyone seemed to know themselves and share themselves and I couldn't fictionalize forever

I found a balance between fact and fantasy in creative nonfiction and the fragmentary, fragmentary forms of prose poetry and the lyric essay I fought bitterly with my parents about writing as a career path, and writing about Sri Lanka and about intensely private experiences that could shame the family, or me, from the experience of vicarious trauma to the experience of coming out I think a lot about Audre Lorde who famously wrote, quote, "Your silence will not protect you"; also she wrote in "The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action," "I have"—quote, "I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood," end quote Bruised though it might be, recording our secret stories allows us a place in the larger telling by making sense of inherited memories with memories and interpretations of our own So, here are a handful of stories that are mine, through family–though family and friends feature prominently, taken from a creative nonfiction manuscript dedicated to enlivening forbidden ghosts

1 In August 2006, eight Tamil Tigers are arrested in Connecticut for conspiring to purchase black market surface-to-air missiles to support the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka, whom the US labeled terrorist in 1997 but whose demands for a separatist state in Sri Lanka are grounded in a history of anti-Tamil pogroms Three others are arrested on Long Island The trial takes place in Brooklyn

I don't have a gut-level resistance to this arms-trafficking conspiracy; rather, my first impulse is shock at the war suddenly feeling so close From Manhattan, on the Metro-North, Connecticut is just an hour or two away I visited you in Stamford, an hour away from Simsbury, where one of the conspirators lived I remember that one in particular because of his surname, Socrates, the Athenian philosopher who was my Appa's guiding star This Tamil Socrates received his Master's degree from Columbia, the same place I'm pursuing mine

It's Amma's triumphant proof, finally, of what she and Appa used to say: that a mysterious They is always waiting in the wings; They see what you write; They know; They have no scruples; They are everywhere They will find you, and no amount of self-injury can prepare you for when They do I'm raised to believe that the world is a series of warnings from Them, and only silence, however complicit, will protect me The pothead freshman in an old writing class who threatens, "I'll get you," because i rejected his emailed solicitations and reported him to my department head The burly construction worker in Chelsea, of all places, who calls me a dyke bitch

The Sri Lankan Army soldier close to Polunnaruwa ruins who puts his gun in my face because I was the wrong ethnicity The Asian student in my digital media class who waited until we were alone to crowd me into the corner and say, "If there were no authorities to stop me, i'd commit rape" When i start teaching in a Harlem after-school program in walking distance of my house, the drug dealer on the corner, whose eyes are hostile, who's always armed, catcalls me based on whatever I'm wearing "Hey orange Hey black jeans

Hey red shorts and legs for mi-i-iles" I can't hide from anyone Shortly after I moved to Hamilton Heights, a girl on our streets, on our street, is tied to her bed, raped, doused in bleach, set on fire She survives I know it can't be them, but I was, am, will be, always, afraid of being next

2 In 2006, I am not on speaking terms with my parents, trying to avoid yet another argument about my sexuality, my depression, my insistence on writing about our family and the ethnic conflict, but when I read about the remote-controlled IED explosion in Chenkalady, in Batticaloa, which killed one or three soldiers, four or six civilians, I think of Amma, because the consistent detail in this news item is the woman with her child, exploded so finely their bodies have become one, and so many times Amma dragged me by the hand to keep up with her, or screamed when I hid in the round clothing racks at Sears and she thought she'd lost me, and the one time she forgot me at the McCall sewing patterns counter where I calmly sat and diligently studied the fashion sketches on each packet while I waited for her, she rushed back in a self-flagellating panic, and in retrospect I think it must have been more than maternal worry, it was white van fear: the signature of growing up with an unreported war where knowing and being known means being taken by the unmarked white vans, the certain knowledge in her flesh that if I am out of sight, I am already dead 3 In the spring of 2002, I come out to you before anyone else, saying, "I love you," and I don't know what I expected, that you would confess the same, say you wanted me? You say, "I know, I love you too, but you know I like the boys" Years later, after our falling out, you jokingly pantomime pawing at and drooling over a tall blonde French woman in our sorority, and I laugh louder than anyone because I want to show you that you can't hurt me anymore, because I'm trying too hard to want anyone but you

That same spring I come out to my parents on the phone My freshman roommate sat outside my door I don't remember anything my parents said, but their tone was repudiation Before Alzheimer's ate my Appa to a husk he must have felt cheated of the good daughter I would have been had I been born in Batticaloa, raised in sarees and long braided hair, trained in science, given with a dowry to a man Before I left for college, my mother found a short story I wrote in high school about gay lovers coming to terms with their sexuality and called it trash

I don't know why I expected acceptance I don't know why I assumed you'd want me I recant my confession the following semester, telling you, "I've never had a close friend before I was confused" "It's an intense kind of love," you agree

"It's easy to get confused" Time has healed all these wounds and made right all these lies, but it is easier to lie and be believed During the manhunt for the Hamilton Heights rapist, the drug dealer, who is starting to look paternal, stops me on my usual 9pm walk home and says, "You afraid? Don't be I got you" The distinction between "I got you" and "I'll get you" is ultra fine, especially if it's true that you always get what you deserve

Every night the dealer shadows me to the corner, I feel coerced into feeling safe, when what I'm really into feeling is anticipation, for the hand on my ass, for the gun at the back of my head 4 I take it back I never know what to believe 5

White van fear means if I tell the stories I'm forbidden to share, one day I'll come home to an empty apartment strewn with signs that those I love have been abducted, or that day, I'll never make it back When I visit Sri Lanka, my family in Batticaloa laughed while recounting disaster, how the shelling sent them scurrying for shelter, how a cousin avoided a landmine In the yard all of my male cousins play at making war I can't even play Call of Duty without freezing up I don't have the right

Amma must have grown tired of trying to shield me from dangers I insisted on seeking out, telling me "What kind of narakal you are to write this trash," when what she meant was "These are stories you can never tell, for your own good" I'm sitting at the kitchen table in the house where she grew up My uncle talks to me, gesturing with his hands He says, "If you do not pay the army, they will kill you If you do not pay the Tigers, they will kill you

If you are discovered paying both, they will both kill you If you do not keep receipts, they will say you never paid, and demand more" He opens his palms, places them gently on the vinyl table cloth cover I'm a writer, not to be trusted, and still he tells me where he keeps his receipts So, the thing is, again to quote Lorde, "The machine"—quote, "The machine will try to grind you into dust anyway, whether or not we speak

We can sit in our corners mute forever while our sisters and ourselves are wasted, while our children are distorted and destroyed, while our earth is poisoned; we can sit in our safe corners mute as bottles, and we will still be no less afraid," end quote So here are the confessions made explicit, but not the questions you have to ask to get there: Whose story is worthy of visibility? Have i done justice to someone's memory or experience? Have I represented them accurately and without bias? Can I honestly, safely, live or relive what I'm about to set down? Can I live with the costs of revealing the taboo? My nonfiction process is an inward-looking deconstruction, a process of recovery, preservation, and sense-making Not only does it insist that i confront past experiences that are emotionally fraught or potentially re-traumatizing, but it also demands that i make the experience accessible to strangers According to a close writer friend, quote, "We pick ourselves (and oftentimes our loved ones) apart, put ourselves (and them) on the line, and hope it is a noble effort, one that outweighs the damage we do to ourselves and those we love," end quote You can't write without a background awareness that you're breaking the code of silence, exposing yourself, your family, your friends to an unfamiliar readership

And the stakes can be high, they can be very high, high as ostracism, disownment, impacted employability, retributive violence Given this risk, breaking silence around such stories can mean, internally and in writing, constantly negotiating a balance between making conflict visible and asserting that it is worthy of visibility So my first task is to change that evaluation for myself and say, "Telling this will change your listeners; telling this story will fundamentally change you" After all, it can be hard for some to experience or understand other people's pain if that person doesn't have the same background, the same major or minor crises, a similar-looking life Storytelling provides access to those experiences for those who may have not otherwise borne witness

The taboo nature of these subjects means writing about them with greater care, clearly laying out the experiences that are yours, the feelings that are yours, and the experiences and feelings that come from other stories that have intersected with your life, or the stories that exist as part of a larger collective memory Lyric essay fragments help me construct a fair picture of relatives and atrocity without losing a sense of its incomprehensibility I notice that, especially when I'm writing forbidden stories, I have to work twice as hard to avoid flattening people into caricatures or archetypes, people who do no wrong or people who do only wrong, as neither is believable or compelling When I'm writing about the Tamil genocide, I have to resist wholly, monolithically vilifying the oppressors With regards to confronting the resistance to tell the story, I think the first step is reminding myself that writing these familial and cultural hauntings is an ethical act of compassion—not sensationalism or morbid curiosity but a way of raising awareness, memorializing, healing, or, in the context of intergenerational trauma, an homage to those who were not spared

Memory is as much fiction as nonfiction, is the thing, unreliable and partial, and so the ghost story— the story that is buried deep to prevent accidental speaking, gathering dust in the attic—reacquires vitality in the details Sorting out conflicting reports, feelings, and recollections is a painstaking process, a constant dissection It can be hard to notice the details in stories or experiences we take for granted, but it's imperative to closely scrutinize these experiences to make sure you accurately represent them The details are not superfluous, not accidents, not artistic flourishes They are at the heart of it all

I have great faith that by breaking the silence and writing the details I am not supposed to say, I'll make sense of events for myself and for others—I'll intuit the larger narrative Writing stories like these asks me—asks us— to immerse myself, ourselves, in my parents' traumatic pasts, in our own pasts, in our friends' pasts All this transpires in a landscape where stories like these were fairly normal And also, to put enough objective distance between myself and the story I'm telling without becoming dispassionate is another thing to take note of to make the story as profoundly haunting to others as it is to me For stories like these, I first had to embrace and then acclimate to the fact that breaking silence, breaking silence in writing, means public searchable disclosures about mental illness, sexuality, familial conflicts, disability, and collective trauma

Audre Lorde makes a compelling case for this when she says, quote, "For we have been socialized to respect fear more than our own needs for language and definition, and while we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us," end quote Breaking the silence, then, is an act of survival, a moment of self-definition, self-determination The craft gets easier, the writing no less painful Thank you

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