Culture, 15/09/2021

Ukraine through the Eyes of Sri Lankan Writer

The books of Sri Lankan author Pramudith D. Rupasinghe have been released internationally and sold worldwide. They have been translated into several languages. One of his novels, “Bayan,” is a historical fiction set in the northeast of Ukraine.

The author talked to Kharkiv Observer correspondent and told about his ties with Ukraine and Kharkiv in particular.

Kharkiv Observer: Tell our readers a little about yourself.

Pramudith D. Rupasinghe: I’m an author of three works of fiction and narrative non-fiction.

Besides writing, I have been working as a humanitarian diplomat for the last 18 years in different parts of the world, working in both natural disaster and conflict contexts, including the Global Ebola Response in West Africa, Rohinga Crisis in Myanmar and Bangladesh, Indian Ocean Tsunami, Haiti Earthquake Response and many more.

Kh.O.: When did you start your writing career? What was the impetus for it?

P.R.: Having worked for humanitarian missions in the areas of conflicts and disasters, I saw much human suffering. There are lots of people whose voices have not been heard. Other people rely on their stereotypes or their perception and judge others. But they don’t deserve judgment from a stranger. So, the first thing why I started writing is to express myself and the second one is to give a voice to people who don’t have a voice. I used my books as tools of advocacy and empowerment.

Kh.O.: What was the first novel that you wrote?

P.R.: The first novel, “Behind the Eclipse,” is about the Ebola crisis in West Africa. I think that story is very much relatable as the lessons learned from the Ebola crisis are very much relevant to the pandemic we encounter today: hand-washing, distancing – all things we do now we used to do during the Ebola epidemic in 2013.

Kh.O.: Did you have any difficulties with publishing your first work?

P.R.: If you are a new person to the publishing world, the first question that the publisher asks you: “Have you been published before?” And you can’t answer “Yes” as you have not been published before. The publishers rejected my book many times, but I didn’t give up. I was pushing and pushing and wrote hundreds and hundreds of query letters to book agents every day. At last, I got a contract from Penguin Random House, the international publishing chain. The main thing is you should believe in yourself and keep trying, and you’ll meet a person who believes in you and gives you a try.

Kh.O.: How many novels have you written so far?

P.R.: I have written three novels. I started my writing career in 2016, very recently – almost six years ago. I have been writing a lot of unpublished stuff before early 2016. In 2016, I published my debut semi-fiction, “Footprints in Obscurity.” It is a story about a young man living his childhood dreams traces a wondrous and varied route through twenty-nine countries across Africa. “Footprints in Obscurity” is a story of endurance that is a testimony of how childhood dreams shape one’s adulthood. In November, I published “Behind the Eclipse.” Upon publishing “Behind the Eclipse,” I started getting more and more international attention. The next piece of writing came out in 2018, “Bayan,” a story set in the northeastern tip of Ukraine, then the Soviet Union. My latest work, “The Girl Who Snatched the Moon,” is a story set in Bangladesh about the world’s largest open brothel – Kandopora in Tegali district in Bangladesh.

Kh.O.: How many awards did you get?

P.R.: My book “Footprints in Obscurity” has been listed among the ten most extraordinary books by male Sri Lankan authors by The Curious Readers Magazine India, and “Behind the Eclipse” among the best ten books by Sri Lankan novelists by Pulse Magazine Sri Lanka. At the end of August 2020, “Bayan” won Italy’s prestigious Golden Book of Award of World Literature.

Kh.O.: How do you choose the plot for your novels?

P.R.: Usually, all my stories are inspired by human stories that are real, but I do not write them as they are. Therefore, I add more fictional elements to camouflage the true identities of people and give more literary value to the work. However, when it comes to what hooks me to pick a story could be different from context to context, from one story to the other.

But the bottom line should be, what I pick should lead to a book that will positively inspire my readership.

And when I pick a story element, I may write the first few chapters with a certain structure-like a plotter. But when the characters come to their full life, I allow them to go on their journey by themselves. Then I follow them. It is entirely an unconventional way of writing, but for me, it works perfectly well.

Kh.O.: Why have you written a book about Ukraine? Why did you choose that very story?

P.R.: I grew up reading classical Russian literature of the 19th century and Soviet literature. I had already developed an attachment to Russian and Soviet literature as well as their lifestyle. I do not tell whether it’s good or bad, but the literature that emerged in that part of the world was very rich in terms of literary value. I fell in love with it.

Then, when I came to Ukraine for the first time (to see my wife’s parents), I traveled across the regions; I was marveled by the pristine nature, infinite landscapes, rich cultures, warm people and mouthwatering gastronomy. I came to Ukraine a few times and stayed months each time I arrived; the more I visited, the more I started loving the place and its culture. And as a country, it has vibrant traditions, a unique identity, and a lot to offer to the external world. Then I also noticed the exceptional generation in the country experiencing the world around them with mixed feelings. It is the generation of Ivan Nikolayevich. Those older adults who lived half of their lives in the old Soviet system now cope with modern democracy. The patterns used in each system and the way they cope with the realities intrigued me. I thought it was a story that is worth telling the world, how people suffer during the process of adaptation, and the lessons we can learn from the lives of our previous generations.

“Bayan” is a philosophical and historical work of literary fiction that depicts the real struggle of the older generation in Ukraine.

Kh.O.: How many times have you been to Ukraine?

P.R.: I have visited Ukraine three times and stayed sometime during each visit. I was visiting different places. I have traveled mainly in the northeast, east and central parts of Ukraine. However, I liked the Ukrainian countryside very much. The pristine nature, wheat fields fused with the blue sky and extended to infinity is precisely what the country’s flag depicts. Among the places I visited and stayed, I preferred Kharkiv because of its intellectual character that one may not find in modern big cities. Though Kharkiv has its old Soviet traits intact to some extent, it stands at the heart of Ukraine’s intangible heritages; it’s a city where cultures merge. Poltava is another place I adore. Its cultural and literary heritage impressed me a lot. The untouched nature of Klymentove, Sumy region, is breathtaking, and I spent a lot of time sitting next to the rivers writing. Though it has the bustling nature of any big city, Kyiv is the epicenter of a culture that has thrived for thousands of years. No one who comes to Ukraine can deny that Kyiv gives the first impression about the country. Unfortunately, I could not visit the west, but I really want to visit Lviv during my next visit. I find each area is worth exploring as there are unique subcultures in each region; they have made the country diverse and rich.

Kh.O.: What do you think about Ukrainians?

P.R.: Just like the famous cliche “you can’t judge a book by its cover,” Ukrainians are different from what one may tend to come to a judgment from a distance. They are very warm people once they are acquainted with you. Over a drink, until the shashlyk [Kh.O.: Shashlyk is a dish of skewered and grilled cubes of meat] is well roasted, you can spend hours talking to them. And the conversations are always rich and full of humor.

Unless Ukrainians were warm people, I wouldn’t have been married to one (laughter).

Kh.O.: What are your creative plans?

P.R.: I have one project that is about to be released – hopefully at the end of this year. It is a story set in Bangladesh about a girl who tries to conquer her only dream usurper took from her once she was sold to one of the largest brothels in the region by human traffickers, following the tragic death of her father.

And the second project is set in Myanmar, about a Rohinga Refugee displaced as a result of the 2017 Genocide carried out by the Myanmar military; that project may be out towards the end of the first quarter of 2022.

Kh.O.: What would you like to wish our readers?

We grew up hearing “reading makes us perfect,” but in the context of COVID-19, reading has offered us virtual journeys across the world. Keep reading!

I have noticed that Kharkiv Observer offers good and interesting content to its readers. Thank you for your invaluable contribution towards keeping the world informed about Ukraine and Kharkiv in particular. And thanks for having me featured on your site and giving me the opportunity to expose my work to your readers.

Text: Natalia Ivanova

Photo: Pramudith D. Rupasinghe