At the end of this month writers and scholars of Tamil literature from around the world will congregate in Singapore for the World Tamil Writers Conference, being held in conjunction with the annual Singapore Writers Festival. With the theme ‘New Perspectives, New Paths’, the conference is unprecedented in its scope and scale, a formal recognition of just how important the modern form of this literature has become.
Sri Lankan-born R Cheran – a writer, poet, playwright and professor of sociology at the University of Windsor, Ontario – will use the event as a launchpad for his new bilingual collection of poetry, You Cannot Turn Away, and an opportunity to express his views on the globalisation of the genre.
Sharp, eloquent and outspoken, Cheran is the son of an accomplished Sri Lankan Tamil poet, and started writing poetry himself from a tender age. Twenty years ago he went into exile to Canada, where he continued writing and teaching. His latest book of 40 poems, written over three decades, hark back to his days in Sri Lanka and talk about the immense suffering and destruction he witnessed first hand, and also address his present experience of living in the Tamil diaspora.
Since the mid-1980s, mass migration to countries across the Western world from Tamil centres of origin – mainly the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, and parts of Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Singapore – led to the formation of a strong diasporic community, from which powerful voices have emerged, giving rise to a new form of writing that is now garnering attention far and wide.
Multiple literary forms are growing within the diaspora – short stories, novels, poetry and plays – creating a literature characterised by migrancy, exile and transnational belonging rather than by features of its native lands. Criticism has also grown with these creative works, a sure sign that there is enough substance and significance in diasporic Tamil literature to warrant scholarly comment and analysis. Production is high, with new works being written and published constantly, and disseminated across the world with the help of the internet. Such widespread growth is one of the key reasons that make this conference so timely.
‘Since 1985, Tamil diaspora literature has become a very strong force in shaping and influencing Tamil literature at a transnational and global level,’ Cheran says. ‘These days, it’s not uncommon to find a Tamil writer in London, New York, Toronto, Berlin or Paris, and this influence can be seen in the published works. You’re looking at a complete change in the use of language, imagery and idiom, and completely different ways of seeing and writing.’
Being transnational has thrown into question the very identity of the Tamil. If the community is dispersed by geography, where does its identity lie now, and what ties it together? These are the issues that Cheran seeks to address. ‘Tamil identity is being re-articulated and reconceptualised,’ he says. ‘In the early years of Tamil diasporic literature, there was a clear nostalgia – looking back at Sri Lanka or India, longing to return one day. Over time that changed, as we realised we were becoming part of our host’s society, our host’s literature. Now there is a strong tendency to identify with the multiplicity of being Tamil, and to realise that [our] identity is no longer monolithic. The perception of being a multiple race has come to stay.’
Cheran describes himself as a ‘rooted cosmopolitan’, someone equally comfortable living in any major city of the world who at the same time is ‘anchored in my language and poetry, which is very close to where I was born and where I grew up’. Indeed, for Sri Lankan-born writers like Cheran, the past – in particular the turmoil and violence of the longrunning war between the Sri Lankan military and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam – shapes their identity, and keeps them rooted in ‘Tamil-ness’ underneath the detached, floating nature of their transnational status.
In the diasporic space, open to new cultures and free from the expectations of migrants’ native lands and societies, Tamil literature is also pushing the envelope. Taboos are being broken and modern expressions are being found – especially among female authors. ‘Very powerful feminist writers, writing short stories, poetry and novels, are challenging old notions of culture and identity, and are writing about issues like sexuality and lesbianism,’ Cheran says. ‘One reason for this is the more liberal, independent and democratic societies these women are in, where they are more active in the public sphere, and [where] old cultural stigmas have loosened.’
With so much change, the words Cheran uses to describe himself seem an apt summary of the genre’s development: ‘I belong to more than one nation, one history and one narration.’
R Cheran is at these two events druing the Singapore Writers Festival: 'Because Poetry Matters!' (26 Oct, 10am-11am) and 'You Cannot Turn Away' (26 Oct, 3.30pm-4.30pm). See here for details.