I Exist. Therefore I Am won the State Literary Award 2019 in the short story category.
I Exist. Therefore I Am won the State Literary Award 2019 in the short story category.
What better way to celebrate the 200th birthday of Walt Whitman than have an anthology of poems from poets that came after him. Over 200 poets are featured in Poets to Come. My poem “On a Saturday Morning” is on page 346. This is one anthology that is definitely something you must have.
My interview is up on Mandy’s blog. check it out here, or read below.
What inspired your latest book?
My latest book is a collection of short stories inspired by the time I spent in India. It’s about women and the issues faced by women living in contemporary India.
How did you come up with the title?
The title of the book, I Exist. Therefore I Am is also the title of one of the short stories in the collection. Each of my other previous books also uses one of the stories/poems as the title. I’ve done this as I wanted to have a title that exemplified what was in the whole collection.
Is there a message in your book that you want readers to grasp?
The message is that women need to be treated as equals and with dignity and the respect that is their due.
How much of the book is realistic?
Although fictionalized the stories are about real people and real lives. I’ve used examples of incidents that I came across to create my stories. The characters aren’t real but the issues these women face and the treatment they receive at the hands of society and of other women are very real.
Are your characters based on someone you know, or events in your own life?
They are based on people I read or heard about from others or from newspapers. I’ve come across women who have either gone through similar experiences that my characters undergo or have known women who have.
Where can readers find you on social media and do you have a blog?
My Book links are,
Do you have plans or ideas for your next book? Is it a sequel or a stand alone?
Yes. I’m planning on publishing a poetry collection this year. It is about the effects of conflict on people and how they live through it. As a people, we in Sri Lanka have gone through 30 years of bloody conflict that left no real winners. People from all sides lost. The poems look at what happened and speak in many voices. They discuss a variety of issues and viewpoints. I wrote it because I wanted to create a collection of voices for those in the future to understand, as well as anyone else to realize the futility of war. It’s like a documentation of what happened in verse form.
Of the characters you have created or envisioned, which is your favorite & why?
I don’t have particular favorites because I think all the characters are special and they serve a purpose in helping me tell my story.
Do you favor one type of genre or do you dabble in more than one?
I write both poetry and short stories. My poetry is free verse and the short stories are mostly literary fiction. I’ve also written a few stories that are fantasy or magic realism as well as a couple of children’s stories. Apart from the children’s stories the others are published in literary journals and anthologies but I don’t have enough to have a complete collection. I think it would be nice to have a complete collection of fantasy stories and also of children’s stories, but for this I need to write.
Do you plan your stories, or are you a seat of the pants style writer?
I’m mostly a seat of the pants writer, but I do plan a little. When I get an idea to write something I make a rough draft in my head. I let the sequence of the story or poem play in my mind like a movie and when I feel it is possible to sustain the story I start writing it down. But I don’t plan how the story evolves. That happens while writing.
What is your best marketing tip?
Marketing is the hardest aspect of writing and publishing. Moreover poetry and short stories are not easy to sell as there is a limited market compared to some of the popular genres. I prefer to get exposure for the book through reviews, interviews and word of mouth.
Do you find social media a great tool or a hindrance?
I think it’s a huge benefit because it connects us to writers and readers around the world not merely to promote our writing but also to discuss writing get help and advice and find like- minded people. I decided to self-publish because I found many writers doing this and I felt encouraged. I also learnt everything about self-publishing through other writers who were on the same journey as I am and it’s amazing how many people I’ve come to know through social media.
What do you enjoy most about writing?
I don’t know if there’s any particular aspect about writing that I like more than others. I just like to write. It’s like being able to direct my thoughts onto a blank canvas and create something beautiful out of the jumble of ideas and words that are there. Writing poetry or fiction is hugely liberating as I can express what I want or write about something that may not be possible to do as a fact. It’s like painting, but with words.
What age did you start writing stories/poems?
I wrote my first poems and short stories when I was in university as an undergraduate student. These were experimental works and I never planned on publishing them. There was a short period after my post grad study in India where I was doing nothing and I wrote some stories and poem that were better than the ones I wrote earlier. But it was really much later that I started to write seriously and this is where the bulk of my work is from.
Has your genre changed or stayed the same?
It has stayed the same for the most part, but I’ve dabbled in other genre, like fantasy. I’ve also written a couple of short stories for children but these aren’t published.
What genre are you currently reading?
Right now I’m reading contemporary romance. Sometimes reading outside the genre I write can be more relaxing.
Do you read for pleasure or research or both?
Both. Right now I’m reading for pleasure.
Who is your best supporter/mentor/encourager?
My lecturer from undergrad study Dr. Lakshmi de Silva was someone who encouraged me to write even when I didn’t know I wanted to write. Through the years she has been a huge supporter of my writing and I tend to discuss my work with her. She is also the only person who first sees my writing before I send it to anyone else.
Where is your favorite writing space?
In front of my computer. It’s a mess with papers and books all over the table but that’s where I write.
Do you belong to a writing group? If so which one?
I belong to several writing groups on Facebook where we help each other with advice about writing and publishing.
If you could meet one favorite author, who would it be and why?
Alice Munro and Carolyn Forche. I like the way they write and it would be nice to just talk to them about writing.
If you could live anywhere in the world – where would it be?
Right here where I am as this is the place I’m most comfortable. But if I could travel to anywhere in the world then the list would be endless. I think travel opens up your mind and give you opportunities to learn and experience diversity in all forms and this is good not just for writing but in general too. I’d like to visit several places, like Russia, China and some parts of the US like Colorado or Alaska and spend some time there, maybe a few weeks just taking in everything. But I wouldn’t want to move anywhere.
Do you see writing as a career?
Yes. It already is.
Shirani Rajapakse is an internationally published, award winning poet and short story writer. She won the Cha “Betrayal” Poetry Contest 2013 and was a finalist in the Anna Davidson Rosenberg Poetry Awards 2013. Her collection of short stories Breaking News (Vijitha Yapa 2011) was shortlisted for the Gratiaen Award. Her critically acclaimed poetry collection Chant of a Million Women (2017) won the 2018 Kindle Book Awards. It was chosen as an “Official Selection” in the 2018 New Apple Summer eBook Awards for Excellence in Independent Publishing and received an Honorable Mention in the 2018 Readers’ Favorite Awards. Her second collection of short stories, I Exist. Therefore I Am (2018) is about women in modern India. Rajapakse’s work appears in many literary journals and anthologies worldwide. Rajapakse read for a BA in English Literature from the University of Kelaniya, Sri Lanka and has a MA in International Relations from JNU, India.
Two of my poems are included in this anthology that celebrates the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Anne Frank. Congrats to all the other writers featured here and thanks to the editors for putting together this amazing collection.
Rajapakse has traveled to India often, and these stories “…were written at two stages of my life and represents the eight years I spent in India, working and travelling to cities and also some of the remote places where I encountered many instances of negativity towards women and girls. Some of the incidents I came across or heard about are too painful to recount or fictionalize. The tales I have included here are a mere fraction of the lives touched during my stay.”
In “Drink Your Milk and Go to Sleep,” a married woman continues to carry girls while her husband and mother-in-law want a boy child. Her family takes her to a midwife who “…was famed for helping women with problems. She must be good because women from all over the land visited her to find solutions to their sorrows. She didn’t talk much. There was no time for any words as it was obvious why we were all there. She had lots of customers like me waiting to be served every day. She gave me something to drink when I got home.”
As a widow, Gayathri Devi was “…waiting to die” in the story “On Death Row.” In the beginning of the story, Gayathri Devi “…had been sitting here in the same place for a while, not caring about what happened around her. She’d seen the colors change in the sky a thousand and one times and more and was no longer interested. Was no longer overjoyed. She no longer anticipated the fading beauty of the end of the day as she did the first time she arrived.” The widows “…were a burden on the young, an unnecessary life that needed to be cared for, fed, clothed and helped along the way. There was no time, no money or room left in houses for the likes of these women that passed their expiration date and were still sitting on the shelf, when whatever little money the families had were needed for the hungry mouths to feed, the demands of school and the dowries to be collected throughout their lives. Women like Gayathri Devi were put aside and left to themselves and what better way to get rid of the unwanted than to send them to God.”
The collection’s title comes from the story “I Exist. There I Am.” Those words are the opening line and the refrain carried throughout the story. “I rest deep inside you, wrapped up tight like an old woman swathed in quilts in the desert during winter when it’s too cold to do anything but sit by the fire and wish it was summer once again.” “You see me through the folds of fat projected onto the screen and can only discern a small shape with a centre that beats like a drum. The sound and rhythm unlike the drums they played at your union, but a drum just the same. Thudak, thudak, thudak, it beats softly. You place your hand on your stomach but you can’t feel me, nor can you hear the drum beats of my heart pounding inside me. Only the machine can tell you that.”
And in “Secrets” “Rules kept the family together, rules made things work the way it was supposed to.”
Each story is heart breaking in its own way. I can’t even begin to imagine the stories that were too painful to recount or fictionalize. Rajapakse’s prose is as strong as her poetry. The characters’ pain is real and their circumstances resonate. I hope for a brighter future.
January 1, 2019
You can’t mold me into
something you want—those
rough hands trying to create
dreams that can only shatter.
You are no sculptor and cannot shape
perfection from mud nor
chisel beauty out of a slab of granite.
I am flesh and blood
just like you.
Not made of clay or rubber that
bends at your will.
Don’t even try to change me
for you will not like the person
I might become in your hands.
Leave me as I am and let me
mold myself as I have done all this while.
I am an individual, a human.
Not a doll made of plastic
or wood that you take out to play
when it pleases you.
Shirani Rajapakse is an internationally published, award winning poet and short story writer. She won the Cha “Betrayal” Poetry Contest 2013 and was a finalist in the Anna Davidson Rosenberg Poetry Awards 2013. Her collection of short stories Breaking News (Vijitha Yapa 2011) was shortlisted for the Gratiaen Award. Her critically acclaimed poetry collection Chant of a Million Women (self published 2017) won the 2018 Kindle Book Awards. It received an Honorable Mention in the 2018 Readers’ Favorite Awards and was chosen as an “Official Selection” in the 2018 New Apple Summer eBook Awards for Excellence in Independent Publishing. Her recently published short story collection I Exist. Therefore I Am is also about women and is set in India. Rajapakse’s work appears in many literary journals and anthologies around the world. Rajapakse read for a BA in English Literature from the University of Kelaniya, Sri Lanka and has a MA in International Relations from JNU, India.
Thanks for the Chatworthy Read Badge. That was a lovely surprise.
This collection of short stories by highly acclaimed Sri Lanka author Shirani Rajapakse has touched me and left me with one dire, unanswered question: Why?
‘I exist. Therefore I am’ is written in a very quiet, yet poetic style. For the difficult topic it addresses, it uses no drama and no judgment. The stories tell individual episodes of lives of women in India from all ranges of society, thereby drawing a devastating picture of an entire culture. Even before I read the book I knew that women are not highly regarded and suffer a lot in India. Arranged marriages, infanticide and lack of rights or education were familiar topics. But the depth of hatred running deep in the mindset of an entire people shocked me and left me speechless.
‘Why?’ I asked myself after every story. Why would a mother poison her newborn child, just because it was a girl? Why would a girl spend all of her family’s money just to get a socially acceptable husband? Why, oh why would a woman douse her daughter-in-law in kerosene and burning oil and watch her burn to death? And why are these things not only accepted by the majority, but passed on through generations?
For me, the most striking piece of the collection is the one that gave the book its title. The reader gets to share the thoughts of an unborn girl from first awareness to the point of abortion. As a Christian and a mother of two (I would be highly esteemed in India, having borne two sons!) it is inconceivable how women can be put under so much pressure (by other women!) that they begin to hate that which they are called to love and protect, nourish and raise.
It makes me sad and calls me to pray for a nation hopelessly lost and without love. This is a far cry from Bollywood!
I read the book knowing it was not an easy topic. I’m glad I read it because I cannot close my eyes to the fate of millions, even if they live far away. The author has done a marvelous job in portraying each of the women without making it garish sensationalism. Her calm recounting of facts and feelings make the stories digestible, despite their often cruel contents; and her poetic language give the thoughts and feelings depth and beauty.
In the introduction she states that she has lived in India for eight years, taking the risk of leaving the tourist trails to discover the true heart beating in that big and wildly differing country. I commend her for that and for her aim of raising awareness on behalf of women who are so deeply suppressed they often have no way of standing up for themselves.
I highly recommend this book. It has filled me with gratitude for my own loving family, the respect I am treated with and the freedom I may enjoy every day. I am also deeply grateful for my faith in Jesus Christ, which has given my life purpose and meaning and has established an identity and value as a person that nobody will be able to take from me. I exist. Therefore I am – able to love with the freedom to do so.
My prayers go out to women in India now more than ever.
For the beautiful language used, the touching storytelling that kept me turning the pages and the depth of topic I gladly award ‘I exist. Therefore I am’ a Chatworthy Read badge.