Hasanthika Sirisena is the author of the short story collection, The Other One, which won the 2015 Juniper Prize for Fiction. She is also an Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing at Susquehanna University and an associate fiction editor for West Branch literary magazine. Her essays and stories have appeared in Michigan Quarterly Review, WSQ, The Kenyon Review, Glimmer Train, Narrative, and recognized by Best American Short Stories. Sirisena has received fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. She was born in Sri Lanka but grew up in North Carolina.
I met Prof. Sirisena at the Susquehanna Summer Writers Workshop in the summer of 2020 where I had the wonderful chance to study creative nonfiction with her. Through our writing conferences and workshop discussions, I really gained the confidence to push myself to experiment with the personal essay, writing my first ever braided essay. I was particularly touched by her generous, thoughtful feedback and her passion to see me grow as a writer, and I found a lot of strength in discussing our struggles with writing together.
In this interview, Prof. Sirisena discusses how her background in art has impacted her writing, writing fiction to understand cultural identity, and the importance of being part of a writing community.
Before becoming a writer, you were actually trained as a visual artist and even have a BFA in studio art from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. It wasn’t until later you began pursuing writing more seriously. What prompted you to turn your attention more fully to writing, and have you always known that you were a writer?
I actually didn’t always know that I was a writer. When I was around five or six, my family immigrated here and one of the things that happened was that I became really nervous and embarrassed to speak and to write. So I would draw a lot and I realized that if I drew and people liked those drawings, they’d leave me alone.
You know, I did well in school so it wasn’t like I was super suffering, but I never did well in English class and I just sort of accepted it. But I loved reading, and what I would do is, I would write stories and illustrate them. So I was making comics from a really young age. And then I went to college and I studied visual art, and when you study visual art there are opportunities to write. And people told me, “Oh, you’re a really good writer,” — art school of art places. But it wasn’t until I was in my late twenties that I finally got the courage and self-confidence to write. So maybe I always wanted to be a writer but I didn’t think I could do it.
I regret that it took me so long to get the confidence to do it, so that’s why I love teaching high schoolers because I really want to tell you that you should go out and just write. Don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t do it. I think that’s really important to hear, because that’s what it really was: hearing people—who didn’t even have any investment in me becoming a writer— saying to me, “Oh, you’re a good writer.” And so that’s when I was like, I can do it. But I’m glad I can do both [art and writing]; I’m not like, “I wish I’d done this,” because I think it’s good to do a lot of different things. It keeps you happy.
Do you feel that your background in art has impacted your approach to writing? I know that you have also created several graphic short stories, including the one you presented at the SWW faculty reading. In addition, what compels you to tell a story through graphic art rather than through prose?
I’m pretty glad that I didn’t start out as a cartoonist, in the sense that I needed to master, to specialize in something. I think I really needed to immerse myself in writing words. And so I wrote a short story collection that was just prose without any graphics. And what I found is that one of the biggest things in fiction, poetry, and nonfiction, is dealing with the question of time and how time passes on the page. I found that if I did comics, I could make some interesting time transitions. I also liked the idea of being able to compose shots—it’s like filming a movie. It was just a different way for me to think about telling a story. I don’t know if there’s a right or a wrong way, but I think that the subject matter decides for me what it wants to be.
I had the chance to read your short stories “Surrender” and “Ismail,” which I really enjoyed by the way. How did you come up with the ideas for those stories?
A lot of my short stories come from real-life things that people tell me. I used to teach at the City College of New York, and I would sit in the student quad area and prepare for my classes. I’d see students walking through, and they’d talk to each other in ways they’d never talk to me. They used all these different types of slang and code, and so I’d start to listen and write down what they were saying. It took me a long time, a year actually, to get the language since I didn’t speak Spanish or Tamil either. I had to try to figure out the Spanish that they were saying and then I talked to a friend of mine who is Tamil and he told me what the Tamil they were saying was.
What I really liked was this idea of hybrid languages. Even in countries of origin, people don’t speak one language; they speak languages that take on American hip-hop or British slang. And so, I really liked creating this whole new language for these characters.
“Surrender” is kind of a true story—not the affair—but my father bought a house in Sri Lanka with a swimming pool, and the person before that was an American who was trying to sell the house because some kids kept breaking in and using the pool. He and his wife were getting pretty tired of it and wanted to return to America. I just asked myself the question, why would these kids who lived next to a beach want to break into this pool? That’s how I write every story: I ask myself the question, why would these characters want to do this?, and I try to build the story around it. I write my fiction around this idea of answering the question.
A common theme I noticed in “Surrender” and “Ismail,” as well as in your other writings, is a sense of isolation and a struggle to fit in. Did you intend to write about those themes or did it just come about naturally?
I don’t think you should think about theme when you’re writing because if you think about it, you’re trying to tell the reader what you think and readers don’t like that. And it’s the same with nonfiction. The idea of nonfiction of making an argument is not true. I probably didn’t realize how isolated my characters were until I’d written a few stories. And I would probably say that it’s true for my nonfiction, because a lot of it is about trying to navigate the way in which cultures isolates selves, whether it’s telling somebody’s parents who don’t speak English to stop speaking their language or it’s like in “Ismail” where the culture of masculinity makes it really hard to truly fit in anywhere. That sort of has been my project. But that being said, I hope my work moves toward something that shows that you don’t have to be isolated for your whole life, that you can begin to move forward and find ways to not be isolated.
I also noticed that your short stories nod heavily toward your own cultural identity and upbringing. For example, in “Surrender,” Sunil immigrates to North Carolina with his parents at a very young age and grows up disconnected from his home country Sri Lanka, much in the same way you were born in Kandy, Sri Lanka but were raised in North Carolina. Do you think writing fiction has also helped you to understand yourself better? And going off of that, in some sense is writing short stories like writing small memoirs?
I do think [writing fiction] has helped me to understand myself. My story is a lot like Sunil’s, in that my relationship with Sri Lanka is that of an outsider. I think writing those stories about Sri Lanka was a way for me to come to understand this culture which I was both part of and that which I felt estranged from. I saw an interview with the writer Jhumpa Lahiri, who is an American writer but of Indian descent, and she had said that writing her short story collection was a way for her to learn about India. And so I think it was the same thing with me to learn about Sri Lanka.
As for memoir, I have to admit that I did not read a lot of memoirs for a long time. I think I thought that—and this is really embarrassing to admit because it makes me sound like a terrible human being—they were really easy to write. You just write about something bad that happened to you; it’s not like writing a fiction story. So it wasn’t until a little later that I started reading memoirs and then I realized that memoirs were fantastic. They actually play a lot more with time than fiction because of the need to deal with a lot in a little space. I’ve felt very hungry for memoirs during this COVID period, like you want to know that people survive and that they’re okay. So I don’t think my fiction is a lot like memoir, because I think memoirs are about the truth about oneself, and the truth about how we survive, and I don’t want to give my fiction that much credit.
I read an excerpt from another one of your short stories, “Third Country National,” which is part of your short story collection. From what I can tell, you strive to portray the characters’ lives as accurately as possible. Especially as someone who didn’t grow up in Sri Lanka, did you have to do extensive research, and if so, what was that process like?
Yeah, I do lots and lots of research. That’s the consistent thing throughout all my work. For “Third Country National,” I did about a year of research. I joke with my friends now that I write non-fiction so everyone can see all the research I do, because I put all these stories out there and no one can see the research! Like if you’re writing fiction, you can’t ever show the research because if you show the research, you’re breaking the world. If you’re reading “Third Country National” and someone goes, this is well-researched, that’s not good because that means that the world isn’t quite convincing.
In compiling all these stories in your short story collection, how long did it take?
“Set in Sri Lanka and America, the ten short stories in this debut collection feature characters struggling to contend with the brutality of a decades-long civil war while also seeking security, love, and hope.”
The whole collection took 11 years. But my essay collection [which I had after the short story collection], took 4 or 5 years; maybe it’s because I’m a faster researcher now. Also, for the short story collection, because so much of it is set in Sri Lanka, I spent many of those years either living in Sri Lanka or coming here [to the U.S.]. The good news is, the more you do this the faster it is. But I think for a first book, 10 years is not bad. I have a friend who just published a poetry collection and that poetry collection took him 21 years. And that’s not his first collection. He’s written five other books. Some things might take you 20 years, but that’s not the first and last thing that you’ve ever written. You’ll have done other things.
When you said that it took you 11 years to complete your collection, that’s crazy to me because that’s more than half of my life! It sort of made me think of the teen writing world, which can be super competitive, and where there’s this pressure to constantly get published and enter competitions. I have to admit I’ve been wrapped up in that mentality myself, and I think it’s really easy to lose track of why you write. What do you think—how important should publishing be in your writing life?
I won’t lie and say it’s not important. I didn’t start publishing work [in literary magazines] until my thirties, because I hadn’t been writing yet. I was very lucky in that I started publishing and placing stories almost right away. Like after I did that, I just had a cascade of things. And you’ll see that too. Once you’re able to publish one story or one essay, someone will write to you and go, “Oh, I saw your essay in this. Can you send us something?” And then you’ll send them something and then somebody else will see it. So I think you should certainly send out your work.
But I think, though, don’t be disappointed when you get rejections, because I’ve gotten a lot of rejections in my life too. This is also where maybe being a visual artist was really helpful. What happened was, I stopped drawing in my mid-twenties and I went to start working for museums, where I also began to write. While working for these museums I was writing grants and I was raising money for art exhibitions. And these visual artists would come through, and I realized that the only difference between them and me was that they hadn’t given up. They weren’t better than me, they didn’t even think they were better than me. They were really great, and the one thing that was different from them and me was that they hadn’t given up.
And so, the one thing I’ve realized is, don’t give up. Be happy when something good happens and when something bad happens, you can be sad. I mean, I still get rejected and it still hurts. So it’s okay to feel bad about rejections. Some people will say, don’t worry about publishing, and some people will say publish, publish, publish, and be really competitive. I think—find the middle way. Try to publish but also know that this isn’t the only thing. Being a writer is a long process and you have ups and downs.
On your journey as a writer, how did you find your voice and how have you seen it evolve over time?
I don’t think an artist or writer should worry too much about voice. It’s an entire career, and if you’re doing this, you’ll be doing this for a long time. You should just write and not worry about voice. For me, I probably had several different voices. I probably was far unhappier in my late twenties and early thirties than I am now. “Surrender” and “Ismail” are both funny stories that I wrote later, and my stories have actually been becoming happier and funnier.
It was a teacher who told me, “You’re quite funny as a writer,” and I liked that. I’ve always wanted to be a funny writer who works with comedy. Some of my essays are quite sad, but humor is also a way to deal with pain. What I want to say is that you should practice and practice, write and write, and people will point things out to you and you realize you want to pursue that.
Are there any writers that you look up to or have found a lot of inspiration from?
Yeah, I don’t even know where to start for that. I actually really admire George Orwell a lot. I admire him a lot because he cared a lot about people. He isn’t perfect at all and he has some real blind spots, but he really tried to change; he really tried to understand his own prejudices. And I think people often don’t realize how culture affects their mindset. So I admire when people try to change and he did try to change.
I also really like Virginia Woolf a lot and I think for contemporary writers….. [drifts off]
Another great thing about writing is that you’re going to see that it’s not just about being a writer and publishing your work. You start to make friends, and I’m really lucky that I have a lot of really good writing friends. Celine Ng and I are actually good friends. We went to a writers workshop together. I really admire what she’s done. I don’t want to name drop all of my friends, but really, the fun part of being a writer is that you start to make these really great friendships. And then you can’t give up, because if you give up, then you sort of give up these friendships. I mean, it’s not like you won’t be friends anymore, but you kind of just want to stay in the community. So find your writer friends.
I really agree with that. I’d always liked writing, but I always thought of it as a more solitary activity. It wasn’t until this year that I discovered, wow, there are so many teen writers out there that I didn’t know about at all.
Yeah, that’s great! I don’t know where we get this idea from that—well, I think writing is solitary in that I do spend a lot of time writing alone. But the idea of writers as solitary is not true. In fact, one of my biggest struggles is trying to find more alone time so that I can write because of all these friends and all these communities that comes about from writing which is a great thing. To find time to write alone is actually not easy. So I think that it’s actually the reverse—the myth of the solitary writer is not true.
One last question, before we wrap it up, what are you currently working on?
I’m finishing this essay collection which will be published next year. Once I finish that up I’ll be working on a graphic novel. I’ve written the script out but now I have to draw it, which is very time consuming [since] each of the panels takes about 6 to 8 hours to draw. I hope that as I become better at it, it will go faster.
You can find more of Prof. Sirisena’s work at: https://www.hasanthikasirisena.com/.