The author of ‘Brixton Beach’ (HarperCollins, London, 2009), Roma Tearne, nee Chrysostom, was born in Sri Lanka in 1954. Her mother was Singhalese; her father, Tamil. The mother (1920-1995) was a journalist who regularly contributed a newspaper column, ‘Heartsease’. She replied a letter from an unknown man, and a correspondence developed. Mutually attracted, they arranged a meeting; met and fell in love; eloped and married. Ethnically outraged and socially embarrassed, both families rejected the couple. (Biographical information is gleaned from interviews published in two London newspapers: the Guardian of the 14th June; 4th and 10th July, and the Independent of the 17th July 2009.) The family left the Island in 1964, and Tearne has not visited Sri Lanka since. She studied Drawing and Fine Art, and has been a painter for over twenty-five years. Brixton Beach is her third novel, succeeding ‘Mosquito’ (2007) and ‘Bone China’ (2008). While Sri Lanka is central to all three works, Brixton Beach has autobiographical elements, both major and minor. (It is dedicated to "the memory of N M C whose story, discarded for forty years, is told at last.") The intention here is to focus on the re-presentation of Sri Lanka, with special reference to violence and the "exotic".
The novel opens in London with a terrorist attack on the transport system (7th July 2005). Simon Swann, a medical doctor, frantically searches for the woman he loves: Sri Lankan-born Alice. The work shifts temporally and spatially to Sri Lanka, and traces Alice’s life up to that fictional present. She is the only child of (Tamil) Stanley and (Singhalese) Sita who "writes a small column for the woman’s page of the Colombo Daily News" (29). They live in an annexe in Havelock Town; Sita’s parents, "Bee" and Kamala Foneseka, own a house in Mount Lavinia, close to the beach: hence ‘Brixton Beach’, the name Alice later gives her house in London, even though Brixton is miles from the sea.
Amor Vincit Omnia, it is said, but love does not always conquer everything. The private sphere cannot be immune from the public (that is, the political), and the increasing ethnic divide places a great strain on the marriage. Sita has to deal with "her" husband being abused and assaulted by "her" people. Stanley’s futile and uncontrolled verbal abuse of the Sinhalese as being crude and violent stems from the deep hurt of rejection, but it is grossly insensitive towards the predicament of his blameless (indeed, loyal) wife. Racism often breeds counter-racism, and the impulse, not merely to deny inferiority and claim common (human) equality, but to assert that one is much better than the other: see Achebe’s essay, ‘The Novelist as Teacher’. Stanley remains a distant character, difficult to admire, impossible to like. One feels that even in happier (political and ethnic) circumstances, the marriage would have failed. Long before they separate, husband and wife wish they had not married each other. Sita develops labour pains and rushes to the maternity hospital but the Sinhalese doctor pays her no attention. "Why should we help breed more Tamils? As if this country hasn’t enough already!" (44). Sita survives, but cannot bear children anymore. In other senses too, she never recovers from this traumatic experience. (Though shockingly callous, the treatment meted out to Sita is based on the actual experience of Roma Tearne’s mother. Tearne herself, during the 1958 anti-Tamil riots, then aged only four, witnessed a man doused with petrol and set alight.) Stanley and Sita flee Sri Lanka, and Alice grows up in London. She shows signs of a gift for art, is encouraged, meets with success, and makes her own way, Stanley having abandoned the family and Sita retreating into irrationality. The end of the novel, returning us to Dr Swann desperately searching for Alice, functions as frame and closure.
The word "exotic" (derived from exo, outside) while denoting foreign or alien, carries connotations of "peculiar", "strange". For these reasons, the exotic attracts curiosity, if not serious attention. It is important to bear in mind that the "exotic" does not have to do with any inherent quality, feature or characteristic (be it in a person, a people, artefacts or customs) but with the one who sees, and those for whom what was seen is reported. (Refer, for example, to Graham Huggan’s The Post-Colonial Exotic: Marketing the Margins, Routledge, 2001). To understand the exotic in Tearne, we must return to biography. The author left the Island forty-five years ago and, not having visited since, draws on memory. But memory is unreliable and, secondly, over the intervening decades, the Island has undergone fundamental change. "Long before I took my A-levels in English, I was aware that survival depended on the need to integrate into the life of my host country. So out went the Asian accent [...] and all desire to wear a sari." In the same interview (Independent, 17 July 2009), Tearne says that the word "exotic" was to her merely another word for "the other", and she definitely didn’t want to be the other any longer. She and her parents having experienced rejection, there is an understandable longing in her to be accepted, to belong. (This need not be the experience of all children of inter-ethnic marriage, be it within or outside Sri Lanka. A few years ago, I was briefly the guest of a family, here in Germany. The father spoke to the children only in Tamil, and the mother only in Sinhala. In school, and outside the home, the children spoke fluent German. Those children were not half-and-half, but double – and more.)
Having become British, Tearne writes for a British readership which finds the Island’s tropical beauty "exotic" in one sense, and its violence "exotic" in another. In a reversal, what was once native has now become exotic and is re-presented as "the other"to native (British) readers. Sprinkled Sinhala words increase the feel of foreignness: kade, putha, pirith, and so on. (A militantly Tamil, Hindu, woman in London exclaims Anay which, of course, is Sinhala but British readers will be none the wiser. "He thinks he’s a white sootha" is tautological since sootha, usually spelt in Sri Lanka as Sudha, means "white".) The astrologer decreeing that the bride must be dressed at precisely three minutes to nine (178) adds the "exotic" of superstition and ritual. A token criticism is made of Britain’s imperial past: "it’s the fault of the British. It’s their mess", says Sita, but "without conviction" (34). England is the country that gave the world Shakespeare (178), and is seen as a land of justice and truth (167). Britain’s historical responsibility is not adumbrated, much less probed, however briefly, nor are the laudatory statements cautiously, ironically, qualified.
Roma Tearne, with the sensitivity of an artist, particularly with the eye of a painter, renders in language that is original, striking and lyrical, what the senses, alert and responsive, apprehend.
Bougainvillea choked the stone walls all along the way. Magenta and white; too bright to look at without squinting. A golden-fronted leaf-bird flashed past, heading for a canopy of hibiscus bushes, leaving a searing after-burn of colour, and all around the seagull’s cries made invisible circles in the air [...] Nine years had scuttled away like a crab. (32).
But there is a tendency to over-rely on external description. It becomes a substitute for convincing character portrayal, for an analysis and understanding, however sketchy, of the problems besetting the Island.
Further, the description itself, at times, is like something one would associate with a Hollywood movie.
In the darkness outside, jasmine flowers open [...] Large spiders move haltingly among the leaves of the creepers [...] This is the tropics; insects and reptilian life flourish [...] The spiders and snakes move relentlessly through the long grass, deaf to the fact that [Sita, in the maternity ward] is pleading for her life (47).
(And this teeming life of nature is outside a Colombo hospital!) Tearne is not always able to resist tropical stereotypes: Dazzling sea colours of a certain unbelievable blueness (70); the air shimmered translucently and the sky was a relentless gemstone blue (93); all around the tropics teemed with life and colour (99). It is an "exotic" mixture of beauty and brutality, and the recipe is successful with British readers: a tropical island, fecund and differently beautiful, violent and superstitious.
When Gandhi was asked what he thought about Western civilization, he replied, "I think it would be a good idea", meaning that the West should get civilized. So it is with Buddhism in Sri Lanka: "We are a Buddhist country, but we don’t behave like Buddhists anymore" (254). Violence, Tearne observes, is not recent but has marked the Island almost since independence. It is a tribal conflict (254) and, as in the Balkans, Rwanda and elsewhere, the murderous mob includes neighbours and people "who knew us, people we thought were our friends, Singhalese, like me" (Sita, 33). Life is "cheap in this Third World paradise" (49).
But hate and cruelty, violence and destruction, are presented in Brixton Beach without any attempt at explanation, without any delineation of history and cause. They are simply there, as "natural" as the juxtaposed scenic beauty of the Island. It would appear Tearne has not read the many and valuable contributions made by historians, sociologists, and political scientists on Sri Lanka, not to mention that made by Sri Lanka’s creative-writers, both resident and non-resident. (One notes that a major feature, poverty, written about by Carl Muller, Elmo Jayawardene and others, does not enter Tearne’s novels. Neither does one of the defining moments in Sri Lanka’s history, the 1983 pogrom.) Violence is "exotic" in that it is haphazard, apparently causeless and irrational. Individuals, Tamil and Singhalese, are brutalised, abducted, murdered, and it all just happens, like the beautiful dawn and sunset. They are a part of the mystery of this beautiful, tropical, island. (Given Sri Lankan realities, Tearne’s recommendation – Guardian, 10 July - that there should be a war-crimes tribunal, and a ‘truth and reconciliation committee’, is absurdly improbable and, therefore, innocent.) Much-loved and admired "Bee", himself an artist, is described as an espouser of causes, but what are these causes? His house, rather like the "safe houses" which hid African Americans escaping from the slave-owning South, is used on a regular basis by Tamils trying to flee to the North. But, except during times of anti-Tamil riot, Tamils do they need hiding places. Who, then, are these fugitives? Is "Bee" harbouring those suspected of terrorism? If so, what is his political or moral reasoning? There is nothing of the historical sweep of, for example, Sivanandan’s novel, When Memory Dies; the perception and subtlety, the creation of characters who come alive, whom we feel we know, can understand to a degree (whether approving or not), and be concerned about, as in Gunesekera’s Reef or the cultural knowledge and insights of some Sri Lankan authors.
The romantic-exotic is harmless, but to leave violence in a country as "exotic" is inadequate. It is not that one expects comprehensive analysis in a novel, but if violence and brutality are simply re-presented as innate, it does not help readers towards an understanding. Brixton Beach closes off serious attention to a serious (and tragic) human situation. Instead, the text – implicitly addressed to British and Western readers - seems to suggest: "Beauty and brutality are intertwined in Sri Lanka. It is in the very nature of the Island. This curious and cruel contradiction makes the Island, and what happens there, all the more exotic."