An Interview with Author Pramudith D. Rupasinghe | The Literature TodayJanuary 9, 2021
“A Writer Without Borders”
(I would love if you could quote that)
Que: Hello Pramudith. A Merry Christmas! It is indeed glad to have a conversation with you about your books and many other things. I have had this wonderful opportunity to read one of your books, ‘ Bayan’. Can you share us with the genesis of this book?
Pramudith D. Rupasinghe: The idea of writing Bayan came to my mind after meeting Ivan in Ohthyrka, in Sumy Oblast, Ukraine, it was in early 2015 and we have chatted a few times, I was charmed by the landscape of the country, wondered by the architecture and rich culture, retouched by the warmth and wisdom of its people, marvelled by the proud history of the country, and saddened by the socio-political dynamics of the country leading to a calamity. Then see the people of Ivans age-sons and daughters of parents who were WWII victims, who had lived their good old day’s un soviet union, and faced the fall of the USSR overnight in 1991, and lost everything they earned over years. Today they are battling with modern democratic, capitalistic society to which they are complete aliens. The story depicts the strive of those ageing people through its main character, Ivan Nikolaevich. Bayan old soviet instrument- with hard buttons and heavy body, symbolises the fallen-USSR, and its Ethan of life. Its played by Ivan whenever he is sad, happy and indifferent, in an era where there are easy to play lighter accordions are in available. It is his companion who knows his rhythm and would never judge his feeble melodies. Bayan depicts besides its several sub-themes and sociopolitical dynamics of Ukrain in its backdrop, ageing in changing times. That is relevant not only to those who are in Eastern block but also to people of the other parts of the earth.
Que: How did writing happen to you? When did you first discover that you can write and you want to write?
Pramudith D. Rupasinghe: I do not remember, I dreamt to become an author, but I used to write poems that were never published, and a short story ( when I was 16). Poems of course I continued writing whenever I had the time and in the mood. But honestly, I had no intention or dream of publishing them. I think I dreamt a very little about my future profession, instead, I dreamt a lot about travelling, meeting different people, and exploring the unexplored; probably that was just an unconscious drive to explore what I read in the books. I used to read a lot. (Whatever piece of paper I come across I read). There were subjects I used to love, such as French as a langue, Sociology, Psychology, Geography, Literature and Political Science (the subject of my father), I chose them as I loved them, for me the profession was secondary compared with my what I love to do in life. I think, if I understand myself well, my dreams of youth were always of “claiming my space to do what I love to do”, and elements of being an author probably could be there.
And then, as I started working as a humanitarian, I was often based in difficult living conditions, that allowed me to sit on the rupture and see how deep it is, I have seen the worse of human situations, witnessed the extreme of human suffering, that has a traumatic impact on anyone- the exposure to such events, therefore, writing became a way to cope with those extreme situations. It is therapeutic. At one point I began to think, if its therapeutic to me, why not to the others. That is how the idea of getting published came.
Que: The backdrop in Bayan happens in the country of Ukraine. What made you choose that country?
Pramudith D. Rupasinghe: Ukraine is a country I have visited a few times, that is where I met Ivan who is the protagonist of the book and I have been in the places described in the book. Ivan had a lot to offer the world; his way of living, deep thinking and his relationship nature and especially with the musical instrument “Bayan”. I was marvelled by how an inanimate object had become his true companion in the winter of life. I wanted to explore that relate ship- between Ivan and hi Bayan. I have witnessed similar relationships among the ageing people- with their old books that they read —I do not know how many times, but over and over again every day, old pieces of clothes etc. That being the very first reason for penning this story, everything else followed; the country, its transformation, its people, culture and landscape. While setting the context it is natural a writer can give an added value to his reader through building a strong connection between the historical timeline of the geographical location and population with the story and its characters.
Que: There is a perfect blend of a person’s perception who has lived in the pre and post era of the World War. What type of research did you do to understand the differences?
Pramudith D. Rupasinghe: I am an explorer of cultures, the diversity of people and the world we live. Cultures are intangible heritages of people and every culture irrespective of its spread or size needs to be given equal recognition, respect and value. There is no such a thing that one culture is greater than the other, though, throughout the history we have learnt the reality of evolution that stronger cultures conquer the weaker ones, or weaker ones absorb the stronger ones, and they all are dynamic.
Usually, when I write a book, I chose to live in location (s) where the story is set. I did it with my previous books as well: Behind the Eclipse- I lived in the West Africa- (Sierra Leon, Guinea and Liberia) throughout the time of Ebola, Footprints in Obscurity- I crossed the borders of 29 counties in African content. I did the same with Bayan. Just because of the way I write, based on the geographical location where the story takes places, Daily mirror once called me “Writer without borders” I think once you are based in the geographical location of the story, it is very easy to navigate through the lifestyle, culture, historical timeline, as well as to clarify things first-handed. That is the success of the book Bayan.
You can imagine, I am Sri Lankan, from the other side of the world. It was difficult to pick sensitive elements of an absolutely unknown culture, country, and people and fused into a work of fiction to the most realistic way, especially a book that has even been translated into Eastern European Languages.
I think in all my work, I have demonstrated a profound understanding of the culture of the place where the story is set and tried to look at the things through the eyes of characters, their faith, their culture and mindset without letting myself involved in them as a person. Bayan is not an exception.
Que: What is that one difference you find in yourself as an author from your first book to date?
Pramudith D. Rupasinghe: Bayan forced me to live a life of a seventy-three years old man for over eighteen months of the writing period. That was challenging, but it transformed me as an individual, as well as a writer. If I take my previous two books, Behind the Eclipse and Footprints in Obscurity, they are both set in Africa with a relatively faster flow, whereas Bayan took me to bone-chilling winters in an ex-soviet country, and froze me to slow down and to reflect. And I have an ongoing work set in Bangladesh with a story that is completely different from previous ones in terms of writing style, tempo, and how it interacts with the reader. I believe from the first work to date, the journey I have helped me to see a more profound purpose in my writing, self-exploration and identify the kind of writer in me. And I do write slowly compared with my first years.
Que:Talking about writing, do you write at the cost of your extent, or do you follow any story-board mapping process?
Pramudith D. Rupasinghe: I let characters take on a life of their own and I live their life and till the want to stop with a massage but I keep the big picture on my mind all the time. Therefore I would say I am more a pantser than a plotter. I lave never done a sketch for a book, instead, I go head chapter but chapter keeping the overall picture on my head, and often ended up having unexpected turns and twists in the story. The end is always a surprise for me. The one of Bayan was not something I did not think of at all.
Que: Creating the character of Ivan must have been a Herculean task. What kind of difficulties did you face while developing Ivan’s character?
Pramudith D. Rupasinghe: The biggest challenge was to think as Ivan thought about things, every little thing of life, every moment and to imagine his reactions to the situations I make him faces throughout the story. It was a constant and laborious task. Trying to live his life in my imagination was very challenging. Trying to think like a 73 years old man from a completely different identity, while I was just 37 years old. I failed many times. I did a lot of rereading that helped me. It was a difficult fight to dealing with the bias of different sorts- age, culture, and so on. Living in the location where the story took place helped me a lot. At the end of the day it is for sure herculean, self-revealing and fulfilling. I am extremely delighted that I could live a life of 73 years old when I was 37, it was a journey to the future.
Que: Did you ever experience – ‘ The Writer’s Block ‘? If yes, how did you overcome it?
Pramudith D. Rupasinghe: Yes, with my new work I actually encountered midway marathon, When I was at chapter 23, I could not think anymore. I had a break, got a printout of the work I had done that far, and read like a reader. That helped me to get back to the story.
Que: Did you anytime re-write a character in any of your books? Why did you do that?
Pramudith D. Rupasinghe: I usually do not involve many main characters, then the story becomes character-heavy and sometimes distract the readers, and does not often allow a smooth flow. I usually take a few main characters, then associate them as close friends (in imagination) and force them to face some exceptional and difficult life situations as allow them to behave as they typically are. They then build the story, just like what happens in a busy railway station, everyone acts spontaneously. I have not faced a situation where I had to re-write a character.
Que: Looking at your profile, it seems that travelling is a significant part of your life. If you asked to pick up one thing from every place you travelled that allured and disappointed you, what all they would be?
Pramudith D. Rupasinghe: I have been travelling for the last twenty years with no exception today even under the prevailing situation of COVID. I love cultures. From the far east to the west, Africa to Asia, and to Europe, I have been exploring the people, their cultures, way of life, landscape, gastronomy and architecture etc.
Que: Apart from being a humanitarian and an author, how do you describe Pramudith as a person?
Pramudith D. Rupasinghe: I am a person who would love to spend more of the times reading ( I read almost everything). I love Yoga, long-distance running, and spend some time in the gym regularly. I love to spend time at home whenever possible. Love cooking too.
Que: Change is inevitable, and changes look interesting. Is there anything you want to change in yourself?
Pramudith D. Rupasinghe: Yes, now I am thinking of being based in one place, and transiting from humanitarian plus a writer to a full time writer. In the next few years, I will decide on where on the earth I will be based, and then I will dedicate 100% of my time for writing.
Que: Without family support, achieving anything big is not an easy task. How supportive has been your family?
Pramudith D. Rupasinghe: First of all my wife Yuliia who has been the strength throughout. She always encourages me and creates an enabling environment at home for writing. Like many writers, I am a person who would stay most of my day in isolation before my desktop. She is the one who did the translation of Behind the Eclipse into Russian. And my mother who is by profession a teacher, working on a piece of writing at the moment. Both of them know how it feels to be a writer and space and an environment a writer requires at home. That is a blessing. And my father who passed away in 2004 should be remembered, his library and stories he narrated when I was a kid made me fall in love with books. My sister, though she lives thousands of miles away, she is always there for me. Without my amazing family, I wouldn’t have been here today given you an interview.
Que: If approached to make a feature film out of your books, which book will you choose?
Pramudith D. Rupasinghe: I will choose Behind the Eclipse, which is set in a village in Liberia bordering to Guinea, and Sierra Leon where the 2013-2016 West African Ebola crisis’s epicentre was. That is a story of human resilience and is very much relevant to what the whole world encounters today with the Pandemic. Behind the Eclipse has a great potential to become a film and also great relevance to all time. In the backdrop of the Ebola survivor’s story, the devastating civil conflicts that the three countries concerned underwent, the impact of colonisation, along with an emphasis on old African life styles and their traditions are highlighted.
Que: What is your favourite book, and why do you like it?Pramudith D. Rupasinghe: I actually do have a hundreds of favourite books however, among them “hundred years of solitude” of Gabriel García Márquez, and “Things falls apart “ of Chinua Achebe could be highlighted.
Que: If you are given a magical power to change ‘ one thing ‘ in the world, what would it be?
Pramudith D. Rupasinghe: Reverse the climate timeline, bringing it back to what it was before 1760.
Que: What is the criticism to you? How do you celebrate the positive criticism and deal with negative criticism?
Pramudith D. Rupasinghe: I believe the readers do have the absolute right to their opinion. While positive criticism allows us to smile behind the curtains, the negative ones are the step stones to success. As authors, we need to be open enough to change. At the same time, people do have diverse opinions, and liking and disliking a piece of art is very subjective. Therefore we have to realise that we cant write targeting the taste for everyone. Surely, some may like, and the other will dislike. That way, every writer will have a readership that surrounds him.
Que: How did this pandemic year 2020 treat you? What kind of hopes and dreams did you plane for the new year 2021?
Pramudith D. Rupasinghe: I think it has been a difficult time for everyone as none of us expected such a complete halt of the life we lived. However, I take it very positively. First of all, after a long time, I had the rare chance of sitting in one place and work on my current piece of writing which I could not finish for the last three years. It’s done finally. Then, 2020 shed the light on the noble importance of the work I do. Its a year for writers.
In 2021 I have two main projects to compete. Publishing process of the current work set in Bangladesh- I plan to launch it in Dhaka. And there is a new piece of writing on a Rohingya Refugee in Myanmar, I plan to complete the writing towards the third quarter of 2021. Besides that French, Hindi, and Hungarian translations of Bayan will unveil in 2021. I think with all book fairs and publications, It will be a fully charged year.
Que: Do you have a writing book?
Pramudith D. Rupasinghe: There is an ongoing work set in one of the largest brothels in Bangladesh, it depicts the unspoken realities of the life of sex-workers though a story of a girl who was sold to the brothel trafficked from a remote village in Chittagong. The book is supposed to be out in the early half of the year 2021. I intend to launch it in Bangladesh.
Que:: Books have the power to change the people and their mindsets. How will your books make a difference in anyone’s life?
Pramudith D. Rupasinghe: As authors we do not invent stories, we are mirrors of the stories of people on this earth. Having said that, I believe every story has a global significance, its a story of someone, or millions of people across the world. Thus stories, books or literature at large, does influence people across the world at different levels. Unfortunately, we do not have a parameter to measure it. My books are no exception.
Que: What is the best compliment as an author did you receive?
Pramudith D. Rupasinghe: One day, I was visiting one of the remote, completely disconnected areas of Myanmar- Northern Rakhine state. I usually visit from Buthidaung (where I was based) to Maungdaw more than once a week- there is around 25-30 kilometres across lush green forests, high hills and rivers full of pure waters. As we stopped for a security check, from the other side, a young man asked me whether I was the author of Behind the Eclipse. That moment is unforgettable. He is a Rohingya boy who later became a poet, and now living in Bangladesh as refugee.
Que: Whose books do u like from the authors of your fraternity?
Pramudith D. Rupasinghe: I like the books of Prajwal Parajury, Khalid Housseni, Rosanna Lay, Michael Ondaatje, and many more.
Que:: If you ever wanted to be a character from any book, who would it be?
Pramudith D. Rupasinghe: I think I will be Roger (the tiger) of Life of Pi of Yann Martel. Roger never allowed human to cross its territory and never convinced by the human kindness. And at last, once there was the chance, walked back to the wild whether he belong to, without looking back.