“All fiction is nonfiction,” declares Ru Freeman. A social justice activist and freelance journalist, her creative writing explores many of the same themes as her political commentary: war, peace and reconciliation, education, and women’s issues. Born in the capital city of Colombo, in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) in 1967, the daughter of a civil servant and a teacher, Freeman recalls a tumultuous childhood and young adulthood in a family of intellectuals, set against a backdrop of political conflict and discord.
Her life clearly informs her fiction. Freeman’s second novel, On Sal Mal Lane (Graywolf), weaves together the experiences of a large cast of characters from 10 families of various religious, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds who make their homes on a quiet street in Colombo. Ordinary citizens, the fabric of their lives is ripped apart by the real-life civil war that erupted in 1983 following years of tension between two ethnic groups, the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority. By the time the war ended in 2009, 25 years after the events in On Sal Mal Lane take place, an estimated 100,000 Sri Lankans had perished.
“In Sri Lanka,” Freeman, 45, explains, “you have to live with everybody else. You don’t get to isolate yourself. So, when there are riots, or war, or suicide bombs, it doesn’t just kill one group; it kills a lot of people. They are from everywhere, from all religious backgrounds, from all ethnicities.” It’s a history of violence that Freeman, who now lives with her husband and three daughters in a bucolic village on Philadelphia’s tony Main Line, knows all too well.
“War defined my entire childhood,” she says, her voice firm as she dredges up obviously painful memories, the worst of them taking place in the mid-1980s, the years immediately following the events described in On Sal Mal Lane. There were informants everywhere, Freeman says, and her father, “who was very politically involved,” received several death threats. The family “moved quietly” as they wondered about the army vehicle parked outside of their house. Her mother was “terrified” for her two brothers, because “young men were disappearing all the time; they’d find their bodies.” After one brother was jailed, her parents urged their other two children to apply for scholarships abroad. Freeman attended Murdoch University in Perth, Australia, for a year before transferring to Bates College in Maine in 1989. She met her husband, Mark, her first week there, and graduated in 1993 with a B.A. in political science.
After two years back in Sri Lanka—where she received an M.A. in labor studies in 1998 from the University of Colombo—and in various cities up and down the East Coast of the U.S., as her husband pursued a career in higher education, they moved to the Philadelphia area, when he became the director of institutional research at Bryn Mawr, an elite women’s college, in 2007.
Freeman has been writing since 2002, but, she says, her writing career actually began when she was a child.
“My parents wrote, and so my brothers and I did, too. I don’t feel as if I came to writing so much as I always wrote,” she says. Freeman’s first published writing was a letter to the editor of a Sri Lankan newspaper when she was seven, complaining that a speech by the president of Sri Lanka had pre-empted Sesame Street.
Her debut novel, A Disobedient Girl (Atria, 2009), an indictment of Sri Lanka’s caste system, follows two women of different class backgrounds who are both determined to control their destinies. The story began as a creative writing assignment at the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, which Freeman attended every year from 2005 to 2009. “I wrote this very dark, sad paragraph about a woman leaving her abusive husband. The next chapter had a little girl in it. I felt I had these two stories going, and I had to figure out how they connected,” Freeman explains.
On Sal Mal Lane was originally conceived as an assignment for an American magazine. It was to be Freeman’s take on the events leading up to the widespread riots that broke out on July 23, 1983, when government forces clashed with the Tamil Tigers in several cities. Estimates of the death count during “Black July” ranged between 400 and 3,000 victims. Tens of thousands of houses were looted and destroyed, including several homes in Freeman’s family’s neighborhood.
“We couldn’t agree on the story they wanted and the story I was telling,” Freeman explains, declining to identify the magazine that had assigned her the piece, which was never published. “The editors wanted a black and white picture—good guys and bad guys. I couldn’t write a story like that. The story is not so simple. There was more space for nuance in a novel, and that’s how it ended up being written.” It was also important to her, she says, to tell the story from the perspective of children. During times of crisis, she thinks, children oftentimes “understand just enough to make some sort of sense. It’s close to the truth, but it’s never the truth, and you don’t quite know. It affects how you do things.”
While On Sal Mal Lane is fiction, much of it—the characters, the setting, the plot—was inspired by memories of those years that later, as adults, one of her brothers and she shared with one another. “A lot of the book is very personal to me,” she says, including a graphic account of the Herath family, whose members are loosely based upon her own family, making their way home through mobs on the streets during the riots. In real life, her father accompanied her home from convent school at the height of the rioting.
“He was terrified. I remember the way he held my hand and how hard he held it,” she recalls. “To be a child and to know a parent is that scared... it’s very transformative.”
Still, Freeman laughs as she recalls the neighbors across the street, including a piano teacher, whose bedridden father had to be carried in his bed to her family’s house, when several neighbors sought refuge there, just as the neighbors seeks refuge with the Herath family in On Sal Mal Lane. “More than my family even, the Niles family is based on an actual family,” Freeman notes. “Not all of the things that happened in the book happened in that way, but when I was thinking about this road, I thought about the piano teacher and her bedridden father. It seemed like such a gold mine.”
Reflecting upon events that took place 30 years ago, which, to date, she’s only written about in any detail in On Sal Mal Lane, Freeman says her motivation in writing this novel is simple: she wants Americans to realize that Sri Lanka is “more than a headline, more than a sensationalist news story.” Sri Lanka, she insists, is a land with a “rich and complex history and intermingling of cultural stories, just as is true here.”