Thursday, February 4, 2016

A Singaporean in Sri Lanka

Michael - Thursday

One of the many enjoyable things about mystery conventions is meeting interesting authors you don't know. I had the pleasure of meeting Ovidia Yu last year at Bouchercon where we shared a panel. Ovidia is from Singapore and writes delightful mysteries featuring a caterer -  known to all as Aunty Lee - who somehow becomes involved in unusual murders and solves them using raw intelligence and by being an inveterate busybody. I guess they would be categorized as 'cozies,' but, be warned, there's a sting in these tales. And they have a wonderful sense of place of Singapore. The first book in the series is Aunty Lee's Delights, the second Aunty Lee's Deadly Specials, and the third, to be published this April, Aunty Lee's Chilled Revenge. Ovidia also writes plays and other fiction and nonfiction and is one of Singapore's best known writers.

In her guest blog today, Ovidia visits Sri Lanka for a variety of reasons as we will learn.

I spent most of January in Sri Lanka thanks to the Fairway Galle Literary Festival.
This was my first visit despite Sri Lanka’s proximity to Singapore and I was totally unprepared. (With good reason for once - my father had just died after four and a half weeks in hospital and five years of cancer.) The funeral was three days before I left for the festival and a complete getaway from super-efficient sterilized efficiency and colonoscopy bags seemed a good idea—which meant getting out of Singapore.
I had heard about Sri Lanka, of course. Younger sons in Agatha Christie are always getting sent to Ceylon to be tea planters and the civil war and the 2004 tsunami had been in the news…
For a rule-bound Singaporean, traffic in Colombo is a major shock. Even more surprising to me was the casual way my driver shouted to the driver in the next car, “It’s always the Muslims!” when we were held up by a van disgorging veiled passengers. I looked round to see if anyone was snapping his number to report him but no one seemed concerned—or upset. I switched off my inner (‘no racial/religious/language slurs allowed’) monitor and told myself I would be home in three weeks.
Then I got to the Galle Face Hotel.
It was like stepping back into a fantasy Edwardian age except one with air-conditioning and hot water where people still play croquet on a lawn overlooking the sea.

With commemorative plaques informing guests that Arthur C Clarke, Mark Twain and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had all walked these corridors.

I would happily have stayed there indefinitely. Especially as they have great WiFi.

The first stage of the literary festival was in Kandy, a train ride up into the hills of tea country and blessedly cooler than Colombo.

We stayed in the Queens Hotel on the edge of Kandy Lake, also known as Kiri Muhuda or the Sea of Milk.

Apparently Kandy Lake was created out of padi fields by slave labour by their last Sinhalese king.
Because Britain’s Southeast Asia Command had been in Kandy, Ceylon had far better resources and infrastructure than Singapore. On hearing where I came from, several Sri Lankans reminded me with wry pride that when Singapore was moving towards independence, Lee Kuan Yew visited and took their much larger island as a role model for ours.
The festival events were also held in the hotel. This is Govind Dhar and me discussing whether local objects (porcupine quills and local poisons for example) trigger stories.

Kandy was so peaceful and picturesque. Everyone laughed during our session when one woman commented, “But how can you even think about murders in such a peaceful place as this?” Of course some of us see murder everywhere. But I could see her point. 
Then we were given a break in Tangalle. I swear this is one of the most beautiful places on earth—even if you don’t come from an industrial building bound city like Singapore.

Of course I only noticed this in between trying to prepare the rest of my talks and children’s writing workshops and realizing I couldn’t remember what my last book was about… and still trying to convince myself I would get the edits on my next book done while dealing with condolence emails and requests to attend memorial functions…
I had not had time to be tired during the last months of hospital vigil. My father had been well cared for by medical and nursing staff and sedated from the worst of the pain, but he needed someone (ideally a writer daughter without an office job) constantly present to switch television channels, help friends smuggle in his whiskey and Coca Cola and keep out anyone who tried to lay hands and pray too aggressively for his healing. Cancer had taken over most of his colon and pancreas and he was ready to go join my mother so there were no regrets there. “Give him whatever he wants” his doctors said. But watching someone die slowly is a draining process.
I discovered in the Tangalle Anantara Resort the perfect place to recharge.

Tree climbers also harvest coconuts and tap the sap of coconut flower buds for arrack—but more about arrack later.

I also learned about the wood apple, which is incredibly sour and usually eaten mixed with honey and coconut milk. Gayan, staff member at Anantara Tangalle which hosted us, showed me how to crack the fruit’s hard shell on the ground and scoop out its innards.
Elephants love wood apples and eat them whole, tossing the fruit into their mouths with their trunks—and apparently the shells emerge whole from the other end. So if you find a wood apple on the ground it may not be immediately obvious whether it came off a tree or out of an elephant!

I didn’t get any writing done in Tangalle. But I managed to prep for the main festival in Galle.
We stayed in the Jetwing Lighthouse in Galle, another luxurious beachfront hotel, but with all the events going on in the Old Dutch Fort and Children’s Festival I didn’t get to see much of the hotel other than my room. I could so get used to living like this! (Though preferably without daily workshops…)

The ubiquitous tuk tuks were everywhere. When I realized I was no longer alarmed by their lack of seat-belts and wild swerving in and out of lanes to avoid cars, pedestrians, bicycles, cows and dogs I knew I had finally managed to shut down my Singaporean need for control—for a while at least.
But there was still a strange disconnect. For example, in the midday sun and heat of Sri Lanka, these children were playing ‘Edelweiss’.

The next stage of the festival brought us up north to Jaffna. We went up on the railway line which, like the A9 highway to Jaffna, have been only recently rebuilt after the war.
There was more beauty on the journey up as the palms and tea plantations of Kandy and palms and beaches of Galle gave way to the palms and padi fields as we approached Jaffna.

And the people changed too. The people in Jaffna felt more cautious and soldiers and police were very much in evidence. A restaurant manager, himself recently come up from Colombo, commented on the difficulty of hiring staff. After years living under a 6pm curfew, a whole generation has come of age afraid of being out after dark. The hotel industry is very new here. The Jetwing Jaffna which kindly hosted us was very comfortable though not (yet) officially open.
And from the hotel we could see bomb damage, abandoned houses and boys playing cricket with what looked like a tennis ball.

But there are hopeful signs too. The Jaffna Public Library, destroyed twice, has risen a third time; fronted by the statue of Saraswati, goddess of knowledge. And the nearby clock tower, also damaged, has also been restored.

And though the hotel and neighboring supermarket did not serve or sell alcohol (a staple of travelling writers) we were directed to a shop just beyond that provided such necessities as beer, vodka and arrak. Coconut arrak (a rum like liquor made from the sap of coconut flowers tapped at dawn) sounds like something mythical but goes down very well with ginger beer. We saw locals buy bottles that they tucked into their pants and pulled their shirts over. But maybe because we were foreigners we got a bag for our booze.
And then there were the Missing Sit-Ins, perhaps the greatest difference between Jaffna and Colombo, Kandy, Tangalle and Galle—everywhere in the ’South’ that Jaffna had been cut off from for so long.
I was told some thirty thousand Tamils still live in camps with thousands still missing.

One woman said (via translator) “My son and daughter. First the LTTE took them. Then after the army came they came home. They surrendered to the army and the army took them. They never came back. My son is nine years old. My daughter is eleven.”
Jon Snow, in Sri Lanka to film for Channel 4, was staying in our hotel. He asked Sri Lankan Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, where the missing people might be; people who had been seen in detention up to a year after surrendering to government forces. The PM denied the existence of camps. And the people? “Probably dead” was his answer.
It is hard to deal with death and separation. But it must be much harder not even knowing whether to mourn or to search.
I asked some young students in Jaffna whether they wanted to write about their memories of the war, tell their parents’ stories perhaps. No, they said, they wanted to write romances and musicals and adventure stories, everything had been too serious for too long.
This was the answer for the woman down South. In a peaceful environment it can be fun and entertaining to discuss murder mysteries. But where real murders and disappearances are fresh in memory, reading about murder is not fun. And one writes of it as much out of responsibility to the dead as to the living.

Ovidia Yu


  1. I'm quite interested to read some Ovidia's books. I have never been to Sri lanka though I think it's a beautiful place. I'd really wanna have a trip there.

  2. Sri Lanka is really a Stunningly beautiful place. Photos just don't do it justice. And then there's the food...!

  3. Thanks, Ovidia, lovely column. Thanks for taking us along.

    1. Thanks for having me visit here, Everett! I was surprised how many memories writing about the trip brought up.

  4. Ovidio, it's great to see you here. What a story of contrasts you tell. Beauty and terror, loss and luxury.
    I send you deepest condolences on the loss of your father, and am happy you had this distraction soon after he was released from his suffering. We will be in touch about Sunshine Noir!!!

    1. Thank you Annamaria. I haven't finished my Sunshine Noir story yet... still a hot hazy soup of scenes & characters!

  5. I never get to go anywhere so I thank you for the trip. I had a great aunt named Ovidia in Norway. It is a rare and precious name.

    1. Glad you liked it Jono. My late grandmother's best friend (& my late Mum's godmother, who she was named for) was a missionary lady named Ovidia Hansen who came out to the colonies. She might have known your great aunt!

  6. Hi Ovidia! We met at Bouchercon, too, and I absolutely LOVE your novels! I'm sorry about your father--(I lost my own father unexpectedly several years ago). I also hope you're able to finish your book on time.

    Thank you for taking us on this fantastic trip to Sri Lanka. Your photos are great, and I loved seeing the country through your eyes.

    1. Hi Susan, thank you for your kind words and thanks for having me visit! Hope to see you at this year's Bouchercon?

  7. Ovidia, I'm so very happy you made it over here! I've long hoped you'd bring your unique talent and insight to MIE. Barbara and I send you our condolences on your father's passing, though I'm certain he joined your mother with a smile at how very proud you make them in every way.