Growing up in Colombo, Sri Lanka, there was a certain trajectory that Rajith Savanadasa’s career was meant to follow: "becoming a doctor, lawyer or engineer."
However, moving to Melbourne to study engineering at RMIT in 2001 helped Savanadasa, now 34, discover his untapped creativity. In his final year of study he took a couple of philosophy and creative writing electives and excelled at them. The following years, filled with short stories and writing workshops, led Savanadasa to this point: releasing his debut novel Ruins (Hachette).
Ruins is set in Colombo at the end of Sri Lanka's civil war in 2009 and follows a family going through a significant change. Savanadasa believes the physical distance of being in Australia during this time gave him a new perspective of this time in Sri Lanka’s history, and used the political change as a backdrop for the story.
“If I’d been in Sri Lanka, I would have been on the very pro-Sinhalese-Buddhist side that said, ‘we won, we’ve got to celebrate that victory,’” he explains. “But the physical distance, and seeing another side to the story being played out in Western media, I felt like it was a very hollow victory and the celebrations were actually quite wrong.”
There was this thing happening without any real impact on us, we didn’t really feel its gravity.
He says that even Sri Lankans in Colombo – where his family still live – felt a distance from the war happening far from the country's capital. “Living in Colombo, we were quite shielded from the war,” he says. “There was this thing happening without any real impact on us, we didn’t really feel its gravity.”
Each chapter of the book is written from the perspective of one of the five main characters. At first, jumping between voices was a challenge. “Especially [writing] the female characters. I was worried about what women might think,” Savanadasa explains. “But I kept working on it, and I work-shopped with a lot of friends. That’s how I’ve approached each of these characters. I’ve found something I could relate to and focus on that rather than the differences.”
Identifying common ground, rather than differences, is a skill Savanadasa fine-tuned with his previous project Open City Stories. For the writing project, which is currently on hiatus, he interviewed asylum seekers living in Melbourne and shared their real-life stories. The idea came about after volunteering at the Darabin Ethnic Communities Council where he met a number of asylum seekers, including Tamil refugees. “This is prior to 2013 when offshore detention had started, so people were being processed in the community,” he explains. “I hadn’t met any Sri Lankan Tamils before then, so I was pretty interested in meeting them to get a firsthand account of what was happening.”
He was surprised not only by the stories he heard from these Tamil refugees, but also his reaction to it. “I thought, ‘because I’m Sinhalese will they be worried?’" Savanadasa explains. Despite initial reservations, they managed to break down walls. “Some of the stories I heard were horrendous. They were obviously very resilient but also quite brave to talk about that stuff.”
Writing was something Savanadasa would never have considered had he stayed in Colombo. “I’m not sure it would have even occurred to me,” he says. “It’s not something that’s valued or encouraged. In Sri Lanka, you’d be stuck in a [well-paid] job and that’s what you think is valuable.”
He says that being immersed in the artistic hub of Melbourne encouraged him to pursue writing more seriously. “I came over here and I met a diverse group of friends,” he says. “There will be people who are really into music, or a certain kind of art, so there’s definitely more incentive to do something like that.”
There’s always been a little bit of conflict about how I’ve changed being in Australia
Following his graduation Savanadasa completed RMIT’s Professional Writing and Editing Course, was shortlisted for the Asia-Europe Foundation short story prize in 2013, the Fish Publishing short story prize in 2013 and in 2014 received a Wheeler Centre Hotdesk Fellowship.
And what do Savanadasa’s parents think of his writing career? “My family has been fairly cautious,” he explains. “There’s always been a little bit of conflict about how I’ve changed being in Australia. They were a little bit worried about how they might be portrayed. Mum worried that the mother character in the book would be her, but it's not."
While he hasn’t quite been able to quit his day-job as a content writer for Telstra, Savanadasa’s second novel is already in the works. The idea is still evolving, he says, but will tell the story of an asylum seeker.
His hope is to provide an alternative perspective to what’s available in mainstream media, and believing that books can bridge that divide, calls for diversity in stories and storytellers.
“There are a lot of cultures and identities that we don’t talk about, and so many voices that are hidden from the mainstream conversation,” he says. “It’s a good way of taking writing forward – introducing a bit of diversity is one way to make things fresh again.”