Featured

Bibliophiles Cafe – November 27, 2018

An interview about why I write about women with Andrea Singh on Bibliophiles Cafe.

Interview With Poet and Author Shirani Rajapakse

 

Shirani Rajapakse.JPGShirani 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) is a Finalist in 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.

Rajapakse’s work appears in publications around the world including, Flash:The International Short-Short Story Magazine, Litro, Silver Birch, International Times, City Journal, Writers for Calais Refugees, The Write-In, Asian Signature, Moving Worlds, Citiesplus, Deep Water Literary Journal, Mascara Literary Review, Kitaab, Lakeview Journal, Cyclamens & Swords, New Ceylon Writing, Channels, Linnet’s Wings, Spark, Berfrois, Counterpunch, Earthen Lamp Journal, Asian Cha, Dove Tales, Buddhist Poetry Review, About Place Journal, Skylight 47, The Smoking Poet, New Verse News, The Occupy Poetry Project and in anthologies, Fireflies & Fairy Dust: A Fantasy Anthology (Eu-2 2018),  Flash Fiction International (Norton 2015), Ballads (Dagda 2014), Short & Sweet (Perera Hussein 2014), Poems for Freedom (River Books 2013), Voices Israel Poetry Anthology 2012, Song of Sahel (Plum Tree 2012), Occupy Wall Street Poetry Anthology, World Healing World Peace (Inner City Press 2012 & 2014) and Every Child Is Entitled to Innocence (Plum Tree 2012).

A: Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to have a chat. You’ve won the Kindle Award for your poetry collection “Chant of a Million Women”, which was well deserved. Congratulations for the win! You’ve also published your book of short stories “I Exist. Therefore I Am”. Most of your writings are about the lives of women and the atrocities they are subjected to. What inspires you to venture into feminism and write such striking stories about the lives and struggles of women?

 

S: Hi Andrea, thanks for the felicitations for Chant of a Million Women and for having me over for a chat.

When I started writing the only objective was to write and highlight what I saw and experienced around me. The fact that a lot of that was about women is probably because I could empathize or at least try to see it their way. I didn’t make a conscious effort to highlight atrocities committed against women or girls. It just so happens there are a large number of such atrocities and writing about them became important. A major portion of writing for both Chant of a Million Women and I Exist. Therefore I Am was done several years ago.

Chant of a Million Women was an unplanned collection. It just happened. A couple of years back when I started separating the poems I had in an effort to create collections to publish, I realized there were many poems about women. I decided to use what I had and also write a few more. This resulted in poems that are not only time sensitive but also look at the role of women down the ages, from Draupadi, Sita, Suparnaka, Helen of Troy and even Marie Antoinette. Sadly not a lot has changed despite the centuries separating these women and modern women. We have evolved and supposedly made strides to the future, our building are bigger, our houses have more luxurious items, most women work and earn, we have women shattering barriers and getting rid of the glass ceilings in almost every sphere, our quality of life has improved, but have we really progressed? Are women’s lives better or is there more to be done? When we look around us we see that this progress is only in pockets; the vast majority of women still don’t have the basic rights to be who they are. Some are still owned by the men in their families and can’t make decisions about their lives. Most rarely get an education and can’t earn a living. Those who can earn are subject to harassment, low pay and have to work long hours. This is not restricted to women in the developing world. We see women in developed countries being subjected to harassment and they don’t even have the right to make decisions about their own bodies.

If the poems in Chant of a Million Women evolved naturally the stories in I Exist. Therefore I Am were put together with a definite view of creating a collection about women. It was inspired by what I read and heard about while living and travelling in India. Some of the things that happened to women were so shocking that there were times I wondered if what I was hearing about was really true. Every day some incident about abuse or the exploitation of women was reported in the news. I found it horrifying that society would look the other way as members of that same society would be subjected to such terrible things. What was even more shocking was that I was from a neighboring country and I had never experienced or know women subjected to this level of torment in Sri Lanka. I found that cultural and religious values were very different and caste and age old beliefs played a major role in shaping the way society treated women not just in the villages but in urban areas where people were considered to be more modern and progressive. Several women I spoke to seemed to accept this as inevitable. Although they didn’t like it there was nothing much they could do as these views about women were deeply ingrained in the psyche of society. I wanted to talk about these women who lived amongst us. I wanted to highlight their lives and show how different they are from others. I felt it was important to emphasize how wrong it is to treat them like this. I was looking at their lives from the outside and this was an advantage as I didn’t have to subscribe to their view of the world or be subject to the unseen rules that governed their lives. And it was quite traumatic knowing what they had to go through.

 

A: Do you think the #MeToo movement in India will improve the situation in rural India?

S: I hope it does because this is where it is needed the most. Rural women are under more strain than their counterparts in urban areas. They are subjected to social shamming and patriarchy and have little or no recourse to law. Women in rural areas are also far more vulnerable to sexual abuse. They are also less likely to get attention for their complaints, that is, if they even dare to do complain.  Moreover, caste plays a significant role in the way women are treated as most backward and scheduled caste and tribes are helpless against men from the more dominant caste. We have heard so many sad incidents about how rural women, travelling in groups to collect firewood and water are subjected to harassment by not just men from upper castes but men from their own castes as well. Women working in unskilled labor in the construction industry and women migrant workers are also susceptible to abuse and exploitation. The sad situation is that they are the ones who need to voice their injustices but these are the very women who can’t do so as most are illiterate, don’t have the economic means to own a phone or have the ability to stand up for themselves in a community that expects them to act in a certain way. So how do they benefit and how do they demand justice?

The #MeToo movement in India is, for the moment, about urban society. Like the offshoot American #MeToo movement, the Indian #MeToo movement started in the entertainment industry and has since included media personnel and a whole lot of others. It has resulted in many well known personalities being accused of sexual harassment. But will this die out soon or will it find a way of addressing the issues faced by rural women as well? There are just as many incidents of rape and abuse of women in rural areas that go unreported mainly because the women are too scared to report them or they are threatened. After the infamous incident in Delhi where a young student was raped on a bus in 2012 there was a lot of outrage at the inability of society to safeguard the rights of women. Sadly there were many, including prominent lawmakers and even religious figures that placed the blame on women and the way they dressed or behaved. It’s sad to see such prominent and educated people using flimsy excuses as clothes or quoting from religious texts to claim women shouldn’t be educated or even going out to work. What responses do these religious figures and lawmakers have to give for women in rural communities who are forced to do hard labor to help supplement the income of their families? How do they see the atrocities committed against women play out in this scenario where they say women should stay at home yet force women out to earn because there is no other alternative?

While the #MeToo movement has helped to give women a voice and also resulted in educating them about workplace rights there is much more that needs to be done and making sure women in the rural and remote areas also benefit is the next step. It would also be a case study for replicating in other countries where rural women have no recourse to basic needs and information to help them.

A: Tell us about your experience of growing up in Sri Lanka.

S: I had an interesting childhood doing things most other kids also did back in the day. We didn’t have most of the stuff kids have today like phones, computers and video games. Yet despite this we had a lot of fun. There were more connections with each other than the kids of today. We read a lot and in fact I remember spending hours in libraries, searching for books and being disappointed when I couldn’t find the book I wanted. Now everything is there at the touch of a bu%on and if you want to read a book all you have to do is download it onto your kindle. But growing up was also tough. We lived under the threat of terrorism and everyday we’d hear about bombs exploding somewhere in the country. In a way we grew up differently, always cautious and always wondering if we’d be the next victim of a bomb blast. Living in the suburbs of the capital, Colombo it was more dangerous because the terrorists always targeted Colombo and although there was high security it was still unsafe and we had to be vigilant and careful. We lived like this not knowing if we would see our loved ones or friends the next day. It was hard but somehow we got through it. I think it changed our perspective about life and made us realize how transient everything is because all that we value can be lost in a ma%er of seconds.
It’s now safer than it was now that there is no longer the threat of terrorism. However there is a lot of violence against woman and gender stereotyping, although it isn’t as strong as in India. Women are subject to harassment be it at home, on the roads or at the workplace; rape happens in many places and women are still considered objects. Mindset and attitudes need to change. There is also a lot of harassment at institutes of higher education where ragging of fresher’s, both men and women, has resulted in deaths and even suicide by some who have not been able to cope with the kind of mental and physical torment by their own fellow students.

A: What do you think is the role of feminist writers in the present scenario?

S: Chant of a Million Women is about taking back the narrative and giving women their voice. The poems speak of different issues faced by women, the voices range from children to adults and women from across the world, from ancient times to the present. The poem Fault Lines is about juxtaposing the past and the present and trying to see what has changed. It is in two voices; a modern women and Sita, and the poem looks at the idea that was Sita and how she was portrayed. Was she really that person we read about in the Ramayana or someone completely different? Was she even asked if she preferred to leave her palace and all the luxuries to follow her husband into exile? Was that really her narrative that is mentioned in the epic, or someone else’s idea of her?

“They changed

the story. Said he

            abducted her.

                        Said

                                    she was

                                                out

                                                            of

                                                                        line.”  

Similarly in A Princess Wronged, I look at Suparnaka and how she was treated and portrayed. She was royalty but because she was on the wrong side, according to the scribes of the Ramayana, she was portrayed in a very humiliating and negative light. The poem is in her voice and questions the way Lakshman had her depicted in history.

“You had authority. You had the scribes

falling at your feet waiting to

lap up words

gushing out your lips.

 

You made sure they recorded your view.

Not mine.

Never mine.

They weren’t there. They didn’t see.

Never knew me.

Only heard your words much later.”

Lines of Control looks at patriarchy down the ages and how men have controlled women from Draupadi, Sita to Helen of Troy, Mary Magdalene and Joan of Arc telling us who they were as seen through the eyes of patriarchy and all that it suppresses rather than seeing them for who they are. We are either goddesses or whores and if men can’t place us in those two little boxes then they portray us as mad or weak; insipid characters that are only good for laughs.

Goddess in Chains shows that we are still controlled even if we are the goddesses while On a Street in London depicts women donning the mantle of whore to please her clients. These are some of the ‘stories’ and I’ve only just touched the surface.

For centuries men have written our stories. They have assumed our feelings, desires and needs and have suppressed our strength and ambitions. They have portrayed us as weak, inferior beings that couldn’t do anything for themselves. As women writers or as feminist writers, call it whatever you want, we need to take back control of our narratives and tell it as it is rather than tell it laced with male perceptions.

As writers we need to look for the stories that are not always in the news because these are the stories that silently scream out to be told. As feminist writers we should go deeper and look for the stories that are hushed and pushed away because this is where injustice happens and we must try to find the stories that are not told, bring them out and show the world that here is injustice, do something. We have the power to make things better. As Journalists we can highlight injustice women face and create conversations around them, thereby creating more awareness about the problems. We can also help to call for laws to be brought to protect the lives of women as it was done after the Delhi rape incident. We can interview women from disadvantaged communities and try to call for changes in their lives.

As poets and fiction writers we rely on creating the stories based on other lives. We have more leeway to talk about injustice as we don’t have to quote anyone or stick to facts like our counterparts in journalism. We craft the stories based on what we see around us and this is also a powerful medium. While the media highlights factual stories that will be forgotten the moment the next sensational story comes along as fiction writers or poets our work stays in the public eye for longer. It doesn’t go out of style or is time bound like a news item. We can generate more awareness and continue to lobby for change for women by sharing our work over and over. In that sense we have more power and responsibility to share stories and talk about issues that women face.

A: In your latest book, I Exist. Therefore I Am, you focus on women in rural India. What was your approach towards research and developing story lines when writing this book?

S: Whether I write poetry or fiction I have to see the story unfold in my mind. There are many issues I want to write about and many incidents I’ve seen that I want to turn into stories, but things don’t work like that for me. I have to let the stories come to me rather than go looking for them. I’ve found through experience that it never works when I go looking for a story. For some reason the story turns out to be dull and boring. So now I don’t bother with trying to force myself to create something. I can’t tell myself, here’s a good idea, let me turn that into a story. It doesn’t work even though I may have a volume of literature to back that particular issue I want to highlight or sufficient research to support it. The story has to work itself out in my head.  It’s like creating a little movie that runs with the incidents that I want to portray. I see the place my characters move in, feel the pebbles on the ground as I walk in their shoes or the clumps of grass sticking out, touch the clothes my characters wear and feel the designs on them. I see the color of their skin, their hair, taste and smell the food they eat and breathe the very air they do. I have to let this happen while I make subtle changes and add dialogue. Only when I’m quite satisfied that it works do I start to write it down.

I spent eight years in India. The first two years I was there for post graduate study and was based in Delhi. Several years later I moved to India for work and was based in Chandigarh. I was a travel junkie and would take off whenever I had time or there was a long holiday. I’ve been to almost every place in India. I wasn’t really interested in writing about India when I was there. I used to listen to stories people recounted, but didn’t bother to write about them. In fact my first stories that are based in India are about mundane incidents I came across and was curious about. It was only when I began living in Chandigarh that I became aware of the issues faced by women to a greater extent.

One of the things I found really traumatic was that every day the newspapers carried a story about the abuse of women; either due to dowry or some other incident and it was appalling to read about such incidents. There was one in particular that I read about the honor killing of a young girl who had displeased her family and married someone of her choice. When I expressed shock about this to an older woman I knew, I was even more startled by her response as she agreed with the family that this was right and the girl had insulted the family. I didn’t use this incident to create a story although I used many other examples to create my stories.

I carried the scenes for the stories in I Exist. Therefore I Am with me for a long time. I hadn’t planned on writing anything at the time, but whenever I heard something or read about something my mind would immediately start seeing the ‘story’ and I would think about this a lot. I started wondering what would have happened if the particular women facing the issue were from a different place, the circumstances were altered or they had changed their decisions. When I wrote Shweta’s Journey I concentrated a lot about the movement of Shweta’s arm as she washed clothes. This was a significant moment in Shweta’s life. She was an upper caste woman from an economically and socially higher place than a washer woman, yet here she was, this highly educated feminist who was reduced to a washer woman all because of a misguided belief in a man. I created a 3D image of a woman in my mind and made her into a washer woman, taking various characteristics of several washer women I had seen. I followed the arms of the character image I created, stopped to note how her muscles tensed as she lifted the weigh and noted how the water would drain off the clothes and fall back into the basin as the clothes were raised. Sometimes it takes a long time to get little incidents right to be believable.

Just as I see the stories play out in my mind I also see the places. When I wrote On Death Row, I had the image of the banks of Varanasi at the back of my mind. I remember walking here many times and as I began developing the story I walked back and forth along the bank of the river in my mind. It made it more real and easier for me to place my characters as the daily life along the river bank was present in vivid detail. But most of the time I try not to place the stories in a particular setting, unless place is crucial, like On Death Row, as I feel the stories are universal and giving them a particular location – village or town – takes away its universality.

A: At last, what is your advice to young writers trying to make it big in the world of literature?

S: Be a reader first. Read whatever interests you. Read for pleasure and also to learn how language is used. See how language can be shaped to suit the story you want to tell. Then start writing your stories. Remember that every writer is different. We all may write about similar issues but our voices are unique. Our experiences and where we come from make our writing diverse and exceptional. How I see a story is unlike how you or someone else sees it and we should take advantage of this. My advice to any writer wherever you are, is to be honest with your writing. Write about what you feel strongly about. If the story is taking place in another country, it’s ok if you haven’t been there or don’t have any experience. There is always research and all you have to do is get online and find out what you need to know to write our story.

Let me give an example. My story “This is Home” that was published in Litro in 2016 is about a Palestinian women who lives through an attack on her town. I have never been there, don’t know anyone from there, but when I read on the news about the bombings and about how people were losing lives and property and saw some images of bombed out building I felt I had to write about this from the perspective of a woman because we were seeing more men than women on the news and hearing about what happened from the men’s perspective. I wanted to see the story from a woman’s point of view. I wanted to know her life and what she was going through. I put myself in the shoes of someone, a woman who lived there, and tried to imagine what it must be like and how she must feel. I think empathy is important. Connecting with your characters is important. Creating the environment and the dialogue is crucial to getting the story right. The story we create is far longer and more diverse than the story we put down on paper; that’s merely a fraction of the whole piece. We have to build the lives of our characters and create their homes before attempting to make a story out of nothing. Some people say that we shouldn’t write about what we don’t know. But I disagree with that because if we only wrote about our own experiences we will not write much. Don’t be afraid to push boundaries, to experiment and experience with language, characters and place. It might not work in the beginning, but given time once you start feeling confident you will succeed.

Most importantly don’t write if your only objective is to sell millions of books, win awards or gain fame. Writing is a very solitary pursuit. Good writing will be rewarded and will be remembered long after you are gone. Strive to leave something significant for generations that follow, not lines on social media that will fade with the next big line. Use your strength as a writer, as a person. Learn about your subjects, feel what they feel and live their lives before you pour it all on paper. Writing is art, words are like dabs of paint on a canvas. Use them wisely.

Advertisements
Featured

Bibliophiles Cafe – November 17, 2018

This review of I Exist. Therefore I Am was posted on Bibliophiles Cafe by EverydayGoddess today. You can read it below.

Book Review: I Exist. Therefore I Am.

 

I Exist. Therefore I Am by Shirani Rajapakse is a collection of disturbingly moving short stories of the atrocities women in rural India confront and the hope they have for a brighter future. The author’s evocative and unforgiving style of writing is what pumps life into the characters as they walk through life fighting various battles.

Gayathri Devi was waiting to die. She had been here for a long time, but it
appeared as though death was in no hurry to come and take her away. Dressed in dirty white with her head shorn, she was one of the many widows
shunned from her family and forced to live a non-existent life.

From the very first page, the pleadings and laments of the oppressed can be heard; the shocking and immoral crimes committed made my hair stand on end. Each story was heart-wrenching, the egregious and grisly ways these women were treated for just being was horrifying. Shirani unrelentingly portrays the plights of women and the atrocities they face due to baseless religious, cultural, and tribal taboos imposed on them. These are a gigantic obstacle, and removing these iniquitous taboos is essential.

Each story highlights the atrocious and odious ways women in rural India are forced to live. In her story Death Row, Shirani portrays the slow and terrible way older widows await death when they are no longer wanted by their families. In her story Drink your Milk and go to Sleep, Shirani highlights unflinchingly the taboo against female child, the awful environment created for women if they birth a daughter.

“There are maggots inside you,” maaji said staring daggers at me.
She let her eyes rest on each one of the family sitting in the room and raised
her voice for effect.
“It’s stuffed with maggots! Her womb is full of maggots!”

Following her award winning poetry collection Chants of a Million Women, these edifying stories highlight the alarming conditions of women in rural India. The beautiful imagery, heart-wrenching truths and the endless hope that women have for a better future makes this an eye-opening read. This book is for the ones who are not afraid to ask questions and ready to dissect baseless beliefs to uncover the layers of trauma and anger that women carry everyday.

You can buy the book here.

“Strong free verse on many topics. An experience.” – Book Review

Read the recent review of Chant of a Million Women posted on Goodreads, Amazon and on the blog of Jim Bennett. Or read it below.

Strong free verse on many topics. An experience.

five stars

This is a fine collection of some seventy-three poems. From the opening, At the Side of the Old Mandir, you will realize that Rajapakse is treating you like an adult. While there is sex in several of these poems, they are not graphic.

There are many points of view explored by Rajapakse, including what it’s like to wear a full body covering such as the Niquab (recently made illegal in the Canadian province of Quebec.) I’ve personally always considered all religions to include a strong dose of social control, and this poem, To Dance with the Wind, reinforces my prejudices.

For an example of a woman most definitely in control, turn to Colonized, from which I’ll include this teasing snippet: “You were marked. /Stamped with delicious dragon-fruit /pink. /Scandalous. //Mine. /Branded like a buffalo in the field.”

For a terrifying experience, turn to The Shower. For another, turn to The Lonely Woman. This is not for the faint of heart.

In The Decision, this: “They tasted alright to me, /sweet with a hint of sour /that is what I’ve come to expect of grapes, /and of this thing we call a relationship.”

For an introspection into another damaged relationship, turn to Inside the Old Room, which begins thus: “What would the walls say if only /they could speak? /Would they tell you of the fantasies I dream /when I am not with you?…”  and that’s just the opening.

I should mention that Rajapakse uses titles subtly, often setting the physical scene but not revealing the plot of the poem. For a rare example where she uses repetition, turn to On Campus: Just Before the Exam, which is quite frightening.

For one last favourite here, this is from The Man from Over There: “The verse about you /described you as you were. As you are. /Nothing seems to have changed. /You should have changed. /Grown wiser, better, /but you have not.”

Back to the star count and my usual boilerplate. My personal guidelines, when doing an ‘official’ KBR review, are as follows: five stars means, roughly equal to best in genre. Rarely given. Four stars means, extremely good. Three stars means, definitely recommendable. I am a tough reviewer. I try to be consistent. Rajapakse has great range in this book, writing with power and control. You will find your own favourites here, as well as those mentioned above. Five stars feels  right on. Highly recommended.

Kindle Book Review Team member.

 

Inside a Beautiful Mind – An Interview

Many thanks to the wonderfully talented Kade Cook for the interview on her blog Inside a Beautiful Mind posted today, September 22, 2017. Check it out at the link or read it below.

Inside A Beautiful Mind – Shirani Rajapakse

2016-23-6--15-56-15

Good Morning Everyone and happy Friday

Welcome to Inside A Beautiful Mind.

For those of you who have been here before, go grab your coffee, tea or beverage of choice and come sit with me as we get comfy and have a chat with the wonderfully talented Shirani Rajapakse.

Good Morning Shirani, thank you for hanging out with me this morning and being a part of Inside A Beautiful Mind.

So now let’s get to it and tell our readers a little bit about yourself. 

 

Hi and thank you for having me over for a chat.

I’m a poet and short story writer from Sri Lanka. I live in the suburbs of the capital, Colombo. I have worked in journalism, research and management. About 15 years ago I became a full time creative writer. It wasn’t something I had planned. It just happened. I was in between jobs and had planned to take a year off to do several things I wanted andSANYO DIGITAL CAMERA just relax before getting back to the rat race. I also thought this would be the ideal time to edit several stories as well as put down ideas I had scribbled in note books. But it didn’t seem to end as the ideas tumbled out one after the other and I kept writing short stories and poems, adding to what I already had. I realized how much I enjoyed writing and decided this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, not as a hobby, but full time.

I’ve published two books – a short story collection and a poetry book. I have also published a lot of individual pieces in literary journals and anthologies around the world.

I’m a vegetarian and a chocoholic. I love dogs and have an eight year old dog named Bambi who has become rather dependent on me since her mother died last year.

I enjoy reading anything that is well written. The genres I read these days are literary fiction, women’s fiction, contemporary romance, light mystery, fantasy and of course quite a bit of poetry.

Can you tell us about your books?

My first publication was a collection of short stories. It was called Breaking News and it was shortlisted for the Gratiaen Award in 2010 and published by a small traditional publisher the following year.

This year I self published my poetry book Chant of a Million Women. I worked on it the whole of last putting together the poems that would make up the collection, deciding on what to use and the order of the poems and also getting it edited. I spent the better half of this year learning about self publishing – how to format books, do covers (although I didn’t do the cover for this one), and also market and promote the book. I published it last month, and although it’s taken longer than I thought it would to get published it was fully worth it.

What inspired you to write your first book?

I have been writing since the late 1990s. My first book is an unpublished novel and was inspired by a rather disturbing incident that took place involving a young woman. After writing this I began writing short stories and poems. I think it was like a chill out period from writing the novel. I found that I liked writing short stories and poems; the brevity of words was refreshing and I felt intrigued with the shorter forms of writing. Since there were many stories and poems piling up I felt it was time to start publishing them as collections. I decided to go with a short story collection first because I was more serious about fiction than poetry. Breaking News was publishing in 2011. I didn’t think I would write many poems or that it would become a form of writing I preferred over stories until much later. It was only after Breaking News was published and I started looking through my unpublished work that I found enough poems to make up loosely themed collections.

Chant of a Million Women is the first collection to be self published. Each of the poems were written at different times, and although I had a collection ready by the end of last year, I found myself adding three more poems a few months before I signed off on my final draft. The poems are about women in different circumstances and situations. TheyChant of a Million Women - Shirani Rajapakse are influenced by what has been happening to women down the ages and across the world, the treatment of women and children and the responses of society. They cover a gamut of topics and emotions and I hope these poems open up a dialogue to discuss issues about the treatment of women.

Is anything in your book based on real life experiences or purely all imagination?

Everything I write about is influenced by what I see around me. The stories or poems are not all based on real life experiences but most are. Breaking News is based on incidents that took place in Sri Lanka and consists of stories written about living under the threat of war that a lot of us experienced. Getting attacked by Tamil terrorists, losing family and friends, not knowing if we would return home when we left for work or school, was normal life for us for many years. Yet despite the terror and fear we lived under there was also room to poke fun at our situation and enjoy whatever bursts of sunshine we could have. It also made us realize how transient life was and that gave us a sense of awareness about how precious it was.

Chant of a Million Women has a lot of ‘stories’ told in verse about incidents that I’ve read or heard about. It is more global in outlook than Breaking News, but there are many poems that have Sri Lanka, South Asian and even the Middle East as a backdrop. Everything is not factual but most of it is based on fact. Imagination takes over to create something that is uniquely mine.

What was your favorite parts to write and why?

In Breaking News, it was the way the stories developed. My first lines were important to me and these were the lines that started the stories for me. If I couldn’t find the right words to start the story I couldn’t write it and that became a challenge. In Chant of a Million Women all the lines mattered, not just the first lines and this meant I had to work harder at developing every poem. I had to give a lot of thought and make a bigger effort to create the poems, more than the stories. Every line had to work; every line had to be a thought or idea, or even part of an idea. There was no room for fillers or excess words. I already had many poems but I needed to add more to make up a collection. There were sometimes ‘stories’ that I wanted to write about again, with a different angle and it was interesting to see how I could do this without making it seem similar to the one already included. The challenge was to create poems that were different yet addressed the issues I wanted.

How did you come up with the titles?

Both books take the titles from a story/ poem included in the collections. I selected Breaking News as the title of the book because I thought it would be a good title since it was the first book I was publishing and it was like a news item calling emphasis to the book. Also the subject matter being such – attacks on civil society, the disruption of life and destruction of property by terrorist attack – anything happening during that time was ‘news’ and would be splashed across the newspapers. With the poetry book the obvious choice was Chant of a Million Women since the book is all about women. It details the experiences and situations women the world over face and it is also something almost all women can identify with.

What has been the toughest criticism given to you as an author? What has been the best compliment?

I haven’t got much harsh criticism for my writing, but I’ve been told the stories in Breaking News are difficult to read because of the subject matter. I do realize it is not easy to talk about some things, but I don’t believe in shying away from issues just because it is hard to come to terms with. I think that if we can live through horror and come out of it, then it’s also important to talk about it and as a writer I know I will continue to do that, even though it may not be appreciated by many people.

Since publishing Breaking News I’ve been submitting work, mostly poetry to literary journals and anthologies and except for three instances when the editors suggested very minor changes to the work submitted, like changing a word or two or delete a couple of lines, I’ve never had to re-write or alter anything I submitted. I consider this a huge compliment as it means I have been able to create something that is near perfect. Another compliment would be the acceptance of my work by editors of literary journals the world over, as it means they like and value my work enough to include it in their publications that are read by many different people.

Do you have any unique or quirky writing habits?

I don’t know if this qualifies as quirky or unique, but I tend to do my first draft in my mind. I have to see everything in my mind, like a movie. I can’t write it if it doesn’t unfold in a particular sequence and even if the desire to write it is strong, the story won’t sound good and it won’t be a success. I’ve tried that and have realized it just doesn’t work. So now I let it play inside my head before I take it down and put it in words. Although I love writing I’m a lazy writer. It takes me ages to write what’s in my mind. I’ve lost many ideas because I was lazy to put them down.

Do you work with an outline, or just write?

I mostly just write, although there are some times when I outline my stories in my mind. When I get inspired by either reading or seeing something I immediately see a story happening in my mind. Sometimes the story I have is not at all related to what I’ve seen or read but is merely influenced or inspired by just reading or seeing whatever it was I saw or read. I let the story flow through my mind like a short movie for a few seconds until I am comfortable with it, then I quickly write it down. It doesn’t have to be the full story or poem, but I have to write whatever comes to mind. Later I add and change things around, but that first line or idea has to be there. It’s the same with poems, although I have to write down the complete poem when I am inspired. The editing later takes care of any discrepancies etc.

 

Can you tell us about your experiences in getting your first book published?

I’ll talk about my second book Chant of a Million Women because it is the first book that is self published and this means a lot to me. The collection was put together in 2015 from poems I had written at various times. I started working on it seriously in 2016 when I began selecting the poems that I wanted from what was there, adding new poems, creating an order and getting it all edited and ready for publishing. Then I left it to learn about how to self publish. I spent the first six months of this year talking to people online and in writers groups, asking questions which later I realized were so silly but at that time felt like they were the most important, learning to format a book, design covers, making decisions about where to publish and how to market the book etc. This was probably the most intense six months of work I’d done for a long time and it felt harder than writing. I was very fortunate to meet some very nice and helpful people and I’ve made friends with quite a lot of people along the way. Writing was the easy part, publishing was hard and I think marketing and promoting the book is going to be the hardest.

When did you first start writing and when did you finish your first book?

I had been collecting poems for a long time and in 2015 I started separating them into themed collections. The strongest to come out was the theme on women. But I didn’t have enough and I started adding more. Then in 2016 I had a rough draft of about 85 poems. That got edited down to 80 and then to 70 by the end of 2016. I decided to publish this and left it to start learning about self publishing. A couple of months before I started to format the book I included three more poems that I had written with the objective of submit to a journal.

How did you choose the genre you write in?

I think the genre chose me. I’m more interested in literary fiction probably because that has been the genre I’ve read the most. As for writing, I never thought I’d write short stories or poems since I didn’t much like short stories and I had no idea how to write poetry. I always thought I’d be a novelist. The short stories and poems were written during breaks in writing the two full length novels that are yet unpublished. When it came to publishing I submitted the short stories and one of the novels. The publisher selected the short stories. After publishing I continued to write short stories as I felt some of the stories I had worked better as short stories than as a novel. I also began submitting poetry to journals and this resulted in turning towards writing more poems. I realized that the more I read and wrote poetry the more interested I was in writing verse and also that I was getting better at it.

Where do you get your ideas?

The ideas are all around me. They are to be found in the garden listening to the squirrels chirping in the trees, watching the sun walk across the sky every day and the conversations I have with people around the world and the news happening everywhere.

Is there any particular author or book that influenced you in any way either growing

I grew up reading Enid Blytons and the classics like Jane Austen, the Brontes and others. I devoured books. Anything that was interesting was read and re-read. Books were like a lifeline of sorts and I preferred reading to homework. I can’t say a particular book or author influenced me, because there were many authors that I followed and many books that influenced me at the various stages of my life. I also found that a particular author or book I liked at one time in my life didn’t bring me as much joy in another time. I used to think it strange but realize that we outgrow our interests and what we find pleasure in at one time can be boring and uninteresting at another time based purely on our experiences and where we have been in life.

Growing up I read mostly white writers and it was only when I was in my twenties in University, reading for my degree in Literature that I found myself having to read non white writers or writers using Africa and Asia as their background for stories. At first I didn’t want to read them as I had got so accustomed to reading and being familiar with the type of writing of white writers. Then when I started reading I was amazed to find how much I liked the stories I read and could finally identify with the characters and the worlds they inhabited. It was like reading my own experiences and narrative.

Do you have any advice to give to aspiring writers?

Write whatever you want to write because you alone know the stories you want to tell. When you sit down to write let the words flow the way they want. Later, when you have finished your story or chapter go through it and make any changes. Then put it away and go do something else. Write another story, read a book, travel somewhere, do anything to forget the story you wrote. Come back and look at it objectively. Edit it as if it was someone else’s story and not yours. Be as merciless as you can, cutting down unnecessary words, adding new words to make the story stand out. Polish the lines, re construct sentences left hanging. Tighten them like you would tune a stringed instrument to get just the right notes. Put it aside again for another month or two. Let your eyes go over it again and send it to someone to read, maybe a beta reader. Edit based on the feedback you get. Keep editing until you are happy with it and know that there is nothing you can do for it anymore. But of course, writing and editing is never finished and you will always have something you want to add or change even minutes before you hit publish.

What is your favorite quote or saying?

Write with your heart. Edit with your head. Not my words but they work for me.

 Tea or coffee?

Love them both. Sometimes I’m a coffee drinker and at other times I’m a hopeless tea drinker.

Sweet or salty?

As long as it is chocolate then it’s sweet.

Would you like to share with us a passage that will give us a glimpse into the world you built?

Here are two very different poems from Chant of a Million Women.

Loneliness

 

Because I crossed over

no man’s land one day, a few steps

of nothingness between two countries

that drew borders to fence us in.

A sliver of territory

just enough for a road to run through,

a few kiosks that might make it

livable, but not

sufficient for homes

to make you feel loved, or

to put down roots.

 

No one feels

at home in no man’s land.

 

No one stops there. Not for long.

Only lonely birds swooping down infrequently

to rest awhile, taking wing as they sense

all is not quite right. Or

the occasional curious cow that wonders

if the grass is really greener

yet doesn’t venture further.

A feeling of unease she can’t quite understand;

fear of death by slaughter, slow and painful,

cold breeze carrying messages of anguish

and terror waiting on

the other side.

 

Because sometimes words

are not required to make one understand or

experience joy and grief

at the same time.

 

Because of this you left, unable

to comprehend, refused to accompany me.

Stood for an hour at the threshold until

the gates closed behind me.

You gazed as I went over

to the other country.

Past the entrance,

the men in uniform, the plumed hats,

the paperwork, the stamp of finality,

to get lost in the rest of what makes it theirs.

 

Not yours anymore.

 

Because it happened so long ago you

don’t remember the words spoken

as you watched people

stride away. Like me.

 

But I remembered your face that day

and the words you

wanted to speak,

but couldn’t,

so you let your eyes converse instead.

Because it sounded so good,

like a violin crying in an abandoned house,

like a dog howling in the lonely ruins,

like a peacock singing in a desert dream,

and I remembered.Chant of a Million Women - Shirani Rajapakse

 

Somewhere in the Middle East After One War Ended

 

Child in the classroom unable

to speak. Staring at the space in front

silent to the teachers urging.

 

Mouth refusing to shape

words that don’t come out, they died,

crumbled to dust and got lost

in the sands swirling not so very long ago.

 

What thoughts hold her back afraid

to open lips that might howl out secrets

best left hidden amidst the ruins

piled up like garbage?

 

Numb to the people, deaf

to the voices moving around, she hears

strange noises in her mind

deafening the songs

trying to rise up from a corner where

she stored them for safe keeping,

to make her smile.

 

Gunshots in the street,

 

the heavy fire of machine guns in

the dark of the night, a river

roaring through

nonstop taking with it the trees

uprooted, buildings collapsed.

 

Flares lighting up the

sky as she hid under

the bed seeing neon signs flash across

the sky through a hole in the roof

that brought in the sun during the day,

hot and burning, like the sting of the bullet

in her mother’s chest.

 

The guns are silenced for the moment,

only the distant low hum of

sporadic fire in some other town

not so far away.

 

People walk the streets unafraid, go about

their work like

nothing ever happened.

The past erased.

 

Yet the guns inside

her head continue to fire volley after volley

as she struggles to live each day.

 

Would you mind sharing with us the best way to stay in touch with you and where to learn more about your books?

Website: https://shiranirajapakse.wordpress.com

Facebook page: www.facebook.com/shiranirajapakseauthor

Goodreads author page: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/13850404.Shirani_Rajapakse

Amazon: www.amazon.com/author/ShiraniRajapakse

Universal ebook link: https://www.books2read.com/shiranirajapakse

Twitter: https://twitter.com/shiraniraj

LinkdIN: https://www.linkedin.com/in/shiranirajapakse/

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/shiranirajapakse/

Pinterest: https://www.pinterest.com/shiraniraj/

 

Alright folks, it is that time again but I would like to say a heart felt thank you to Shirani for sharing with us and spending some time in her world today. Also, I would like to say a big thank you to the lovely readers out there for joining in and taking a moment to support your Authors.
If you or any of you know of someone who would like to be a part of Inside A Beautiful Mind, please send me a message or email me, kadecook.author@gmail.com.
Enjoy your Friday folks, you are awesome and please remember to be kind to your Authors, leave a review. See you in a couple of weeks, Peace.