Su Dharmapala on the power of kharma and writing from the heart

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Su Dharmapala is an author, social media commentator and blogger. Her debut novel, The Wedding Season, was published in 2012 by Simon & Schuster and she’s just released her follow-up, Saree. Set in Sri Lanka, India and Australia, Saree is the story of a young saree maker, whose creations transform the lives of all those who come into contact with it.

Su was born in Singapore and was raised in Sri Lanka. She immigrated to Australia in 1989 and, after completing two university degrees, began working in technology. But when her son was born, her love for writing was re-ignited and she began writing her first novel. She’s also built a successful career as a blogger, with her work often appearing on sites such as kidspot.com.au.

Tell us about your latest book.
Saree is actually six short stories that forms one complete story. It follows the creation of a saree from when it is designed, to when it is woven and finally, when it is worn.

We feel and experience the stories that form the very threads of this garment – Nila who was not born beautiful but whose soul is pure and kind, Mahinda who desires a very different life for himself than the one he seems to be destined to live, Pilar who must chose between the love of a living child and one yet to be born, Sarojini the devadasi who learns all about love, Madhav who is a holy fraud and Marion. Marion has the greatest task of them all; to heal the rifts within and without.

Where did the inspiration for this book come from?
This is a book I possibly started plotting in my head when I was about nine years old. I know it may seem a little far-fetched but bear with me.

My father, Piyadasa Dharmapala, was a border studying at St John’s College in Panadura during the 1958 race riots in Sri Lanka. As the violence spread from the north of the island to the south, each ethnic group retaliated with escalating violence.

After Sinhala mobs started attacking Tamils in Colombo, Tamil thugs retaliated by cutting off the breasts of a breastfeeding Sinhala mother and murdering her and her newborn child in Panadura. Not wanting to be outdone in brutality, Sinhala thugs doused the local Hindu priest in Panadura in petrol and set him on fire and killed him. My father saw this. He was in the throng desperate to get back to the school after he’d come up from his hometown Galle on the train that day. He knew the thug who did it.

In 1983, we were living in Sri Lanka and we’d just sat down for dinner one evening when one of maternal uncles rushed in. He told us about this tragedy that had occurred in Panadura. This wealthy businessman who owned a floor wax business had died in a horrible industrial accident. The vat of wax had exploded on the factory floor and he’d born the brunt of it. The awful thing about the incident was that it had taken the man about six days to die. The wax had created a barrier that cooked his flesh beneath the burn – so he didn’t die so much from the burns but rather from being cooked. And he had been in excruciating pain until the very end.

Now, what surprised me other than the gore of the situation, was that my father sat there ashen. I can still remember him stopping mid mouthful. His piece of crusty bread dipped in creamy coconut milk curry in mid air enroute to his mouth. The curry dripping from the bread back onto plate as he told my uncle that man who’d died in the factory fire and the one who’d killed the Hindu priest were one of the same.

The laws of karma are inviolate and resolute. That which you do unto others will be visited upon you.

So within Saree I explored the effects of how we are all connected and how our actions affect each other and society as a whole. I explored how love can be both a redemptive and destructive force within life; and how the lack of love debilitates even the most resilient of souls. The inspiration for the structure and form of the book came from William Dalrymple’s Nine Lives. I love how well he can capture and concisely set out a story rich with texture, colour and passion.

Both of your novels have a strong focus on Sri Lankan and Indian history. Are your books in any way autobiographical?
I spent the best years of my childhood in Sri Lanka. I lived in Moratuwa, which is the town next to Panadura where most of the first story in Saree takes place. I used to walk down to the Moratuwa market by the Panadura river with our little servant boy, Nimal, to buy oddities and curiosities – milk toffees during the school term and fresh king coconut after the monsoons were over.

I was never allowed to go to the market by myself unless Nimal accompanied me; though looking back, I have no idea how he could have protected me from anything – he was a full head and shoulders shorter than me though he was twice my age! Nimal had been chronically malnourished as a child and had to be hospitalised several times for severe intestinal worm infestations.

Nimal taught me how to use a slingshot to get the best mangoes and we would spend hours catching fish in the stream that fed the estuary of the river and beyond. In turn, I would read him stories from my schoolbooks; and since I was quite young and the readers were pretty boring, I made stories up for him – of daring adventures of pirates, princes and princesses and of course, young children who had the best time down by the river without any grown ups interfering.

The other arch that forms a significant part of the story line is the intersection between dance and the Goddess Saraswati. I studied Kandyan dancing while living in Sri Lanka and was exposed to the devotional aspects of dance during that time. That the experience of the divine did not need to be in the context of a temple but could occur through music and dance.

So yes, there are glimpses of my life but in no way is it autobiographical.

When did you decide you wanted to write a novel and what was the inspiration for you to do that?
Saree is my second novel and the story was bursting out of me even while I was writing The Wedding Season, my first novel. I used to procrastinate writing The Wedding Season by working on Saree.

I don’t know that I wanted to write a novel as much as I wanted to tell a story. I am not so much of a writer to be honest, but rather a storyteller. Writing does not come easily to me, by and large because I am dyslexic. Large chunks of text scare me and complex sentence structures make me break out in a cold sweat, not to mention spelling. Is spelling really a test of something or a tool of torture? Is there a difference between a ‘b’ and a ‘d’? ‘Cause I cannot see it!

But I love telling stories. There is part of me that is still that little girl who is up a mango tree with Nimal of an afternoon, eating mangoes and telling the most fantastical tales to a rapt audience.

Saree_Su Dharmapala
How was writing your second novel different to the first? Did you find it easier or harder?
Saree was a significantly harder book to write than The Wedding Season. Firstly because of the technical complexities in writing six short stories and seeding plot lines that work across all of them. Notwithstanding, Saree had a significant research load. Whilst it is a piece of fiction, I have tried to make it as historically accurate as I can. Yes, I have moved things around and some parts are pure invention (yes, I am allowed to, it is after all fiction) – but I did research it extensively.

And the most complicated part was that I had to write across multiple languages. I am a native speaker of Sinhala and I can guess at Tamil but I have had to go back check translations extensively.

What’s your daily writing routine like? Do you have a set number of words or hours you like to do?
As I have mentioned, I am dyslexic. I also have ants in my pants. I really struggle sit down for long periods of time and concentrate.

At school, I used to get into no end of trouble because of my distractibility and my constant need to move and fidget. I think there are multiple school reports in my mum’s possession with commentary that I might have some chance of success in life if I could manage to sit still for more than five minutes at a time. Even my best friend will periodically kick my chair when I fidget incessantly at the movies.

Anyway, what I do have at 40 is the wisdom that I didn’t have at 14. And self-awareness. So my writing routine always starts with exercise. I spend about 45 minutes on the cross trainer before I write. I find this helps me focus. I also avoid sugar like the plague when I write. One teaspoon in a cup of tea is enough to have me wasting hours on twitter, facebook or cooking up some strange project that has nothing to do with writing. I do not stand up from my day of writing unless I have finished one chapter. Saying that, on a good day, I might finish two or three chapters.

Now don’t get me wrong, I am not a health nut or anything. Any positive gains I make before I write are definitely gambled away promptly after in the form of rich creamy curries, buriyani rice or coconut filled sweet rotis.

What’s your advice to budding novelists?
Saree is only my second novel though I have about four queued in my head, so I hesitate to provide advice as such. But what I can, however, suggest is that people write from the heart. To be true to the story that is coming from you. I know this may sound a little odd, but I feel each story has a life and soul of it’s own outside the writer, and it’s our job to bring it forth in its own time and space. I try and not get in the way of the story; letting it write itself and find it’s own journey.

Last but not least – have fun. If writing is being difficult, go for walk or take a break and remember why you wanted to write the story to begin with.

You can buy Saree by Su Dharmapala at all good bookstores or online from Booktopia here.

If you’d like to explore writing your own novel check out our Creative Writing courses or the six-month Write Your Novel program. Courses are held in Sydney, Melbourne, Perth and online.

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