Looking for a Sri Lankan benefit reading series he was spearheading, Kumaran Nadesan remembered a phrase from Tamil-language news reports about the 25-year-long civil war that ravaged the island nation: Samadhana pechchu vaarthaigal, or peace talks. He wanted a word found in both Sinhalese and Tamil, the languages spoken by the two ethnic communities in conflict in Sri Lanka, and Samadhana seemed an innocuous choice.
However, the reaction from some of his Sri Lankan Tamil friends, "moderate people, who grew up in Colombo and come from privileged backgrounds," was unexpected.
"It sounded very Sinhalese to them; they thought I was bending over backwards for the Sinhalese," says Nadesan. "I explained to them that Samadhana is actually a Sanskrit word."
It's this type of mistrust that Nadesan hopes to address through the inaugural Samadhana Benefit Reading Series that kicks off in Toronto on Thursday with readings from Sri Lankan-Canadian novelists Shyam Selvadurai ( Funny Boy) and Koom Kankesan ( The Panic Button), and Sri Lankan-American writer Mary Anne Mohanraj ( Bodies in Motion).
The series is raising funds for children's literacy programs in disadvantaged communities in Sri Lanka and Canada. It's hosted by Sri Lankans Without Borders, a not-for-profit network based in Toronto that encourages young Sri Lankan Canadians to lead initiatives promoting dialogue, reconciliation and peace.
"The first step in bringing about any semblance of sanity is talking to each other," says Nadesan, 30, a volunteer with SLWB. Born in Sri Lanka, he lived in India and Oman before moving to Toronto in 1997. Although he had many Sinhalese friends, he could never talk to them about tensions in Sri Lanka out of fear "the conversation would end up in name-calling, and you don't want your friendship to deteriorate."
He came up with the idea of a reading series partly because of his own attempts as a former literature student to find Sri Lankan stories, which led him to authors such as Sri Lankan-born Canadian novelist Michael Ondaatje. "As well," he says, "we want to use this opportunity for the community to share their own stories, stories which might be dying in their diaries."
It's fitting that literature is playing a part in helping build bridges, says Chelva Kanaganayakam, a professor of English at the University of Toronto. Language, after all, was one of the core issues of contention. When Sri Lanka passed the Sinhala Only language act in 1956, it was widely seen as an affront to the Tamil-speaking minorities in terms of access to jobs or university admissions that now required fluency in Sinhala. The act was amended in 1987 to establish both Sinhalese and Tamil as official languages.
"There was no easy way for Tamils and Sinhalese to communicate, or know about each other," he says. "Either the media were biased in some form or there was a sense of censorship preventing easy flow of information.
"Meanwhile, the actual narratives of conflict and trauma were embodied in literature [of both sides]that talks about suffering and displacement rather than ethnicity. … It's actually a very crucial aspect of reconciliation, to able to introduce the literature of Tamils to Sinhalese and vice-versa."
Throughout the year, the series will bring together authors of diverse Sri Lankan background to share the stage and their stories. An event later in 2012, for instance, focuses on queer performance artists.
"It just goes to show that one does not have to always talk politics when talking about Sri Lanka," says Kanaganayakam.
For his part, Nadesan hopes the series will also highlight the large body of Sri Lankan literature for an outside audience.
"Toronto is a city of storytellers, and we wanted to add more Sri Lankan stories to the mix," he says.
The Samadhana Benefit Reading Series runs from March 22 to Nov. 29, with all readings at the ING Direct Downtown Café, 221 Yonge St., Toronto (slwb.ca/samadhana2012).
Special to The Globe and Mail