For this month’s fiction spotlight, we welcome contributor Joanna Luloff, whose first book, The Beach at Galle Road: Stories from Sri Lanka, was recently released by Algonquin Press. The book has been selected as “One of Our Favorite Books of 2012” by the Barnes & Noble’s Discover Great New Writers Program. A story from the collection was awarded The Missouri Review’s 2006 Jeffery E. Smith’s Editors’ Prize, and the book’s opening story, “Counting Hours,” first appeared in Memorious 9.
The interconnected stories of this collection are set during the Sri Lankan civil war between the Sinhalese and the Tamil Tigers. Many of the stories are inspired by the people Luloff encountered as a Peace Corps volunteer in Sri Lanka from 1996-1998.
After the Peace Corps, Luloff went on to receive her MFA from Emerson College and her PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Missouri. She is now an Assistant Professor at SUNY Potsdam, and she graciously agreed to answer a few of our questions about the book.
The first story in the collection, “Counting Hours,” was published in Memorious. Can you tell us a little about the history and making of that story?
“Counting Hours” (in a very different version from than the one you’ll find in Memorious) was the first story I wrote after returning from the Peace Corps in Sri Lanka. I started writing it while I was on an aimless and meandering road trip across the country, feeling very much not at home anywhere. I began writing it after looking back on some notes in my journal I had written after my host grandmother’s death. Aichchee (the Sinhala word for grandmother) had always been very kind to me. When I first joined her family, she had been a bit mystified, but then had taken me under her wing. She used to sit me down on the family couch, pat my hand, and let me try out my new vocabulary lessons on her. Aichchee suffered from diabetes and her morning schedule of injection and bland breakfast coincided with my preparations for the school day.
She died five months after I arrived, and I took the loss very hard. It was the first exposure I had to Sinahalese mourning rituals, and the house was suddenly overrun by relatives, monks, neighbors, all of who expected lots to eat. My host mother and sisters were consumed by the preparations for all of the guests. All the while, Aichchee’s body was laid out on display in the house’s front room, surrounded by incense and flowers to cover the odor that was magnifying by the hour in the 100-degree heat.
Many months after her death, my host mother, Dhamika confessed to me that she had grown to hate her mother-in-law. By this time, Dhamika had become my best friend, someone I knew as a gentle and forgiving person, so I was pretty shocked to learn about her sense of relief, and even pleasure, at the old woman’s death. After sifting through all of these notes as well as my own feeling of disorientation upon returning home, I decided to write this story through the point of view of Aichchee, leaving some space for Dhamika to inhabit the edges of the story. I also wanted to explore the feeling of being estranged from your own sense of self, to explore how your own body can become a stranger to you, betray you, and how your sense of home can start to shrink and disappear when you no longer know your place in it.
How did your collection find a home with Algonquin?
My collection found a home at Algonquin through the hard work and perseverance of my agent and friend, Christopher Vyce. Christopher and I worked at The Harvard Book Store years ago when I first returned to the States after my volunteer work. I kept working there throughout my MFA at Emerson, but Christopher moved on and became an editor at Beacon Press in Boston. I showed him some of my stories during my MFA, and he had been a generous and encouraging reader at the time. Years later, Christopher contacted me, letting me know he had left Beacon and had decided to become a literary agent. He asked me if I was still writing, and if I was, would I be interested in sending along my manuscript. A short time later, Christopher became my agent and I became one of his first clients with The Brattle Agency. A lucky thing to have both a friend and a smart, honest reader offer to be my agent! After a year or so of trying to place my collection at several houses, Christopher met Chuck Adams, an editor at Algonquin, who agreed to take a look at my manuscript. Thanks to Chuck’s enthusiastic support of the book, Algonquin gave it a home. A very luck chain of events!
You spent time in the Peace Corps. How much of the book draws from your experience there?
My own experience informs very little of the book itself. There are touchstones from my experiences – I taught English in a rural school in Baddegama; I lived with ambitious and bright host sisters; I spent time in Unawatuna and at a meditation retreat up in the hills of Kandy. But I’d say most of the stories in the book reflect and reimagine other peoples’ stories, people who were open and generous enough to share their lives with me, who wanted someone to listen to their narratives. I suppose the book draws from my experience of listening and watching and ruminating about other people’s lives during my time in the Peace Corps. It turns out I was a spy, just like one of my co-workers, Mr. Illepumera always suspected! (He was convinced I was working for the C.I.A.)
While I was living in Sri Lanka, the civil war had been going on for more than 25 years. In the south, it was easy to pretend that it didn’t really exist. But whenever the radio blared out the news or whenever I got my hands on a local paper, it was impossible to ignore the unrest that was happening in other parts of the island. And, of course, all of us volunteers knew the reasons why we weren’t allowed to travel to the north, to the eastern coast, and why we were told to keep our journeys to the capital to a minimum. Occasionally, when I did travel to other parts of the country, I encountered people who had been more directly affected by the war. In particular, when my mom was visiting and unfortunately ended up in the hospital, the nurses gave me a tour of the patients they were assigned to. There, the nurses introduced me to a young woman whose story informed the narratives surrounding Nilanthi’s character.
We’ve heard rumor that you have a novel in the works that’s under contract with Algonquin. What can you tell us about this?
It’s true! The novel, tentatively titled Remind Me Again What Happened, is told through three competing narratives. The story revolves around Claire who has lost a big chunk of her memory after contracting Japanese Encephalitis on assignment. She returns home to Charlie, her estranged husband, and Rachel, their mutual best friend. Claire, Charlie, and Rachel all take turns narrating the book, and each has a very different version of their shared past. Old betrayals, doubt, and distrust weigh on the relationships between the characters, despite their obvious love for one another. Not always trusting Charlie and Rachel’s accounts of the past, Claire eventually chooses to find her own way back into her past and into her own sense of self through collecting photographs and using them to inform her history. Hopefully, the reader’s loyalty/sympathy toward each of the characters gets jostled and readjusted along the way.
For original poetry, fiction, interviews, and art song, please visit our magazine at www.memorious.org.