As Sri Lanka continues to skyrocket to the top of every traveler’s bucket list, it is worth noting that there is a more inexpensive and time-efficient way to catch a glimpse into one of the world’s most beautiful islands: the time-honored ritual of reading.
With a literacy rate among the highest in the world (92%), it is no surprise that Sri Lankans are producing incredible literary works at such a fast pace. For years, Sri Lanka has been under the global spotlight for human rights abuses, tragic natural disasters, and a devastating war – now, as the country looks to move forward, authors (both old favorites and a growing list of up-and-comers) are helping the process along by creating literary works to educate, inform, and inspire Sri Lankans and visitors alike.
Below you’ll find a list of SSIL’s top five favorite Sri Lankan books. Some you may recognize, while others may be new to you. Read on to see how this list compares to your own!
Running in the Family by Michael Ondaatje
With a literary career spanning six decades and counting, Michael Ondaatje is one of the most prolific authors of Sri Lankan heritage. Born in Sri Lanka but raised in Canada, he has published several award-winning prose novels and books of poetry. Running in the Family is Ondaatje’s (somewhat) autobiographical account of his return to the island and interactions with his eccentric, complex, and lovable family. The book is comprised of multiple short chapters, some prose and others poems. Despite the memoir’s non-linear structure, Ondaatje’s writing flows in his distinctly dreamy style as he fills in the gaps – parts of his stories that were forgotten or never experienced – with fictionalized descriptions.
Ondaatje’s father remained and later died in Sri Lanka while his son and wife were in Canada, and it becomes clear that much of Ondaatje’s interest in his family revolves around his father. Their connection stands out amidst the stunning imagery and personal ruminations that comprise most of the story. While Running in the Family is a book about Sri Lanka, it is also about family, relationships, and how those two elements transcend boundaries set by time, geography, and more.
Part memoir, part autobiography, part fiction, and part travel literature, Running in the Family refuses to conform or limit itself to one category – not unlike Ondaatje and the quirky cast of characters he assembles. Many readers cite Running in the Family as their first exposure to Sri Lanka, literary or otherwise, and is also a popular pick among high school teachers for their students. At just under 200 pages, it is the perfect introductory novel to Sri Lankan literature, both for those who are familiar with the country and those who are not.
On Sal Mal Lane by Ru Freeman
On Sal Mal Lane tells the story of its titular (and fictional) Sri Lankan street – a quiet, dead-end road – that plays host to a slow-rolling wave of change: a new family moves in, neighborhood children grow up, and the imminent threat of civil war looms. Set between 1979 and 1983, the novel chronicles the lives of Sinhalese, Tamil, and Burgher families: a diverse group whose relations serve as a microcosm for what rippled through the country on a larger scale, all culminating in the explosion of a 26-year civil war. Ru Freeman’s writing is lucid and poetic – the narrator is almost a character itself, whose opinions sometimes slide into the prose.
That said, the children on Sal Mal Lane are the true stars of the story, each one with a unique personality that drives the plot forward. The familiar and charming quirks of island life are offset by intense heartbreak and pockets of emotional and physical violence, a true-to-form glimpse into the world of pre-war Sri Lanka. Freeman also includes several interactive features in the novel, including a character list divided by family, a simple map of Sri Lanka, and a labeled sketch of Sal Mal Lane. There is also a glossary at the back of the book, which may prove helpful as the nearly 400 pages contain ample references to foods, slang terms, and expressions in Sinhala and Tamil.
Wave: A Memoir by Sonali Deraniyagala
Like Running in the Family, Sonali Deraniyagala’s Wave is a memoir, but about a much more current and singular topic: the 2004 Asian Tsunami. The December 26, 2004 tsunami, prompted by an earthquake in the Indian Ocean, was the deadliest in recorded history, and is still regarded as one of the most devastating natural disasters in recent years. Deraniyagala lost her husband and two young children to the storm while the family vacationed at a Sri Lankan beach resort; all three were swept away with thousands of others, while she clung to a tree branch that would save her life.
The memoir ties together her life before and after the disaster – the latter of which sees the author expectedly struggling to cope. Some background knowledge on the 2004 disaster may be beneficial before reading the novel in order to fully understand the context of Deraniyagala’s ordeal. Sri Lanka is still recovering and rebuilding from the tsunami, a reality for which Deraniyagala’s memoir is almost a metaphor: she, too, must re-construct her life from the shambles of her past one.
While the writing is beautiful and the grief is palpable, the most striking aspect of this story is that it is true. Readers will feel a heavy sadness upon finishing this book, but also a deep appreciation for the author’s candid honesty that will keep many rooting for her even through her darkest times. Deraniyagala holds nothing back in her recounting of the disaster and its aftermath on her personal life. This is not an easy read, but an important one: a reminder of the tragedy that struck the country, the many lives affected, and the power of love & loss.
Advance warning: this novel contains heavy drinking, self-medication, and suicidal thoughts and attempts.
Cinnamon Gardens by Shyam Selvadurai
This book is set in 1920s Ceylon, about 20 years before Sri Lankan independence and about 60 years before the subsequent civil war. Instead of focusing on the two events that have unfortunately defined Sri Lanka’s image for the past few decades – the war and the tsunami – like many modern Sri Lankan novels, Selvadurai’s characters wrestle with the divergence in their own interests and those of the rule-laden societal spheres in which they exist. Annalukshmi is a vibrant young woman who places her professional interests above romantic pursuits (a Sri Lankan Lizzy Bennett, if you will), much to the chagrin of her upper-class family, while her uncle Balendran is forced to confront his own sexuality upon the return of a former flame.
The topic of LGBTQ+ rights is still quite taboo in Sri Lanka today, and to read a novel that discusses it so openly as Cinnamon Gardens was a welcome reprieve from the topic’s typical treatment in the country. The novel feels more relevant today than ever before, as conversations around gender, sexuality, class, and the intersections of those three aspects of one’s identity are becoming more widespread. Feminism, self-discovery, and growth are themes in Cinnamon Gardens, whose main characters are ahead of their time but still allow the reader an intriguing glimpse into the past.
The Road from Elephant Pass by Nihal de Silva
The Road from Elephant Pass could be considered by some to be a modern Sri Lankan classic. It won the 2003 Gratiaen Prize for English creative writing, and has also been used as a text in the Sri Lankan Advanced Level Literature examinations. The story follows a Sinhalese army officer on assignment to pick up a Tamil woman informant near Jaffna – the northernmost part of Sri Lanka with a majority Tamil population – a routine assignment, until the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) attacks the area.
Captain Wasantha Ratnayake and Kamala Velaithan must trust and depend on one another in order to survive, and thus begins a romance of the most controversial degree: one between a Sinhalese man and a Tamil woman, both fighting for their causes in the thick of a war that destroyed and defined the island they call home. However, the reader should not be fooled; the plot is not that simple, and the characters are dynamic and multifaceted. Without giving too much away, nothing in de Silva’s novel is as it seems, even the ending.
While the focus of the plot is clear, de Silva makes sure to include plenty of rich descriptions of Sri Lanka’s natural landscape, as the Wilpattu Forest serves as the novel’s primary setting. Despite the death and destruction brought by the war, the island is teeming with life – human and otherwise – which de Silva acutely portrays in his writing. Some independent research on Sri Lanka’s civil war prior to reading this novel may be of help – both for context and in providing a more well-informed opinion on the book’s central conflict.
These are just five of the many wonderful novels written by Sri Lankan authors or using Sri Lanka as the setting. Here are a few more:
Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje
A Little Dust on the Eyes by Minoli Salgado
The Tea Planter’s Wife by Dinah Jeffries
Homesick by Roshi Fernando
Ruins by Rasith Savanadasa
Mosquito by Roma Tearne
Did this list include any of your favorites? Any books it missed? Comment them below!
Author bio: This guide is written by contributing writer Isa Spoerry; a junior studying Social & Cultural Analysis at New York University. Born to a Sri Lankan mother and raised by her parents in the States, she is always looking for new ways to engage with her Sri Lankan heritage and culture.