It is no exaggeration to call Anuk Arudpragasam’s first novel absolutely devastating. The Story of a Brief Marriage depicts Dinesh, a sixteen-year-old Tamil man—and yes, at sixteen Dinesh is in many ways a man, forced into a premature adulthood—in a refugee camp toward the end of the Sri Lankan civil war. Though Arudpragasam’s second book is more removed from the bodily experience of violence as portrayed in his first, the war still hangs heavy over the scope of the new novel. A Passage North, an excerpt from which appeared in the Fall 2019 issue of this magazine, follows Krishan, a Tamil man who grew up outside of the war zone, as he makes his way north from Colombo to attend the funeral of his grandmother’s caretaker. It is an incredibly introspective work. Through the particularities of Krishan’s experience and inner life, Arudpragasam seamlessly unfurls ruminations on intimacy, trauma, and the passage of time.
The contemplative nature of A Passage North makes sense—Arudpragasam wrote the novel while studying for a Ph.D. in philosophy at Columbia University. While the war and its legacy are central to his work—they are “an obsession,” he says, and he looks forward to the day that he can write about something else—so, too, are the realms of literature and ideas. This came through in our lengthy conversation, which lasted nearly two hours. Arudpragasam jumps from novels to the politics of caste to philosophy to Sanskrit poetry to Tamil-language writing and back again with ease, drawing on stories, texts, and cultural history to illustrate his thinking.
There are currently about three million Sri Lankan Tamils, Arudpragasam told me, nearly half of whom live outside of the country. Arudpragasam is part of this diaspora. When we spoke over Zoom in early May, he was in Paris, where he is working on his third novel during a yearlong fellowship with the Columbia Institute for Ideas and Imagination. At the time of our conversation, the anniversary of the end of the war—a day that Arudpragasam, along with the rest of the Tamil community, commemorates each year—was fast approaching. Although he claims to be an impatient reader and writer both, Arudpragasam strikes me as patient, generous, and, above all, thoughtful, choosing his words carefully and often taking time to cultivate an idea. What resulted was the following much-abridged conversation, in which we discuss his work, influences, and process.
What was your entry into writing fiction?
I didn’t come from a book-reading household, so my entry into books was arbitrary. It happened to be through philosophy books that I found at a bookshop close to my house. The first book I read was Plato’s Republic. Then it was Descartes’s Meditations and a book of lecture notes of Wittgenstein’s called The Blue Book. I tried to read Aristotle’s Ethics, but I stopped that after a while. I read a lot of philosophy when I was fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, before I went to university. That was my entry into literature—I only really started reading fiction when I was in college. There was one book in particular, The Man without Qualities, by Robert Musil—he actually had a Ph.D. in philosophy. He has these long, digressive, essayistic sections in his book, which I haven’t read since I was twenty, so I don’t know how I’d feel about it now. At the time I was very moved by the way he places philosophical questioning and response in a kind of living, bodily situation. Philosophical problems arise in lived context, in response to real situations, and in philosophy, academically, you don’t really ask or answer questions in that way. But I read that book, and it showed me that there was a place in fiction and novels for a lot of what interested me about philosophy. Actually placing these things in their lived context charges philosophy in a way that simply discussing them abstractly does not. So I read that book, and I decided that I would like to write fiction, that I wanted to be the kind of person who could write a book like that. Read More