Destination: Sri Lanka
Book: Not Quite Paradise: An American Sojourn in Sri Lanka, (2010) by Adele Barker
(Book provided for review by Beacon Press)
When American professor Adele Barker spent a year in Sri Lanka, she had already lived for a long period in Moscow, where she studied Russian literature, and traveled outside the U.S. many other times. She teaches Russian Literature at the University of Arizona and won a Fulbright advanced scholar fellowship to teach and write in Sri Lanka during 2001-2002.
Barker planned an account of her time in Sri Lanka that would look at the culture, the history, and the civil unrest in that country with its ethnic divide between the Ceylonese and Tamil populations. With her son, she settled in and began to learn the language and the customs as she taught literature to university students.
After a year, she was sad to leave, but glad to rejoin her son, who came back to America before her. Two years later, she awakened one morning to see news of the tsunami that hit Sri Lanka and knew that she must go back and make this disaster part of her story. The resulting memoir is written both journalisticly and experientally. She interviewed dozens of people, read journals of former European settlers, and tried to understand the complexities of a country that few Americans can locate on a map.
In [amazon_link id="0807001252" target="_blank" ]Not Quite Paradise: An American Sojourn in Sri Lanka[/amazon_link], she poetically describes the landscape, birds, weather conditions, and shares her own emotions as she tries to wrap her mind around truly foreign concepts. Her rhythm relaxes into the tropical lassitude of people’s lives.
I was fortunate to moderate a panel at the Tucson Festival of Books with Adele Barker and Margaret Randall (see tomorrow’s post) talking about “Memoirs about Travel and Place.” During their conversation, Barker said that she feels an obligation to help get aid to the people so damaged by first a war and then a devastating storm.
In Not Quite Paradise, she ponders “the subtle shifts in my own geography.” That is surely a thought that many travelers have as they learn how their travel has changed them. However, Barker is constantly aware of the danger of the outsider who fools oneself into thinking she is an insider or of the traveler admiring what she doesn’t understand.
“I took long bike rides down roads lined in the blue and rose pastel of Hindu temples, as the figures of Rama, Sita, Ganesh, and Shiva oversaw the progression of cyclists from their station on the outer walls of the temples. Outside Nallur Temple, just blocks from where I was staying, the local peanut and popcorn lady sold her wares in the evening. If the wind was blowing right, I could sometimes smell the proximity of the sea,” she writes.
And she continues, “But enough of this. I catch myself beginning to wax romantic about it. Except for the central downtown market area, where beans, onions, and over twenty different kinds of bananas shared a loud, raucous space with buses and sari shops, the city for the most part moved quietly. ..Just down the street from the guesthouse were dwellings essentially reduced to shells, relieved of everything that made them livable. Outside walls had been obliterated, exposing all the rooms, where goats had now taken up residence. Spaces were filled in by vines that threaded their way in and out of grenade wounds and bullet scars.”
Barker’s constant vigilance in seeking the truth about people’s attitudes and in forcing herself to face truths not only about Sri Lanka, but about herself, serve as a reminder to any traveler who skims over the surface of a foreign culture and confuses, “I was there” with “I understand.”
Read about the other panelist from the Tucson Festival of Books, Margaret Randall’s book on Easter Island.
What do you know about Sri Lanka? What have been your sources of information? Have you been there? Would you like to go?
The photo is taken from Flickr under Creative Commons License. Please click on the photo to learn more about the photographer.