I just reviewed Ru Freeman’s A Disobedient Girl, a story of two women, set in the author’s native Sri Lanka. Now, I have the pleasure to interview her, and on her birthday! I decided I had to ask her about birthday celebrations and traditions.
WordLily: Happy birthday!
I’m always interested in how different people/families/cultures celebrate birthdays. In my family birthdays were always a big deal, but in my husband’s nuclear family, they sometimes pass with hardly any recognition.
In the book, on page 69, Latha muses: “The only other times they had parties were for Thara’s birthday, and even then only boring dinners with chicken curry and seeni sambol and fruit salad and ice cream afterward for relatives they never saw the rest of the year. There were never any young people and certainly no music and dancing like Leela said there had been at her house.” Is this how your birthday was celebrated? What are birthday celebrations like in Sri Lanka?
Ru Freeman: Food: spicy cutlets and patties (like empanadas), Chinese rolls (spicy filled crepes), egg-boats (devilled eggs), and sandwiches with no crusts, filled with cucumber, carrots and beets so they stack prettily, and birthday cake. Birthday cakes are made at bakeries, not at home since most Sri Lankans don’t own ovens or bake. When I was growing up, childrens’ birthdays until about the age of 5 were celebrated by inviting all the extended family and the closest friends of the parents. This is still the case now, I think. It is a tradition that is deeply rooted in the place of a child within a family, rather than a bunch of friends. Thereafter, the only birthdays that are celebrated are at 13, 16, 18 and 21. Children are usually given a Parker pen or a watch when they turn 18. In the cities, birthdays are celebrated by older kids with parties for their friends — usually low lights, lots of dancing where the guys ask the girls to dance — and the family might have another celebration with extended family. The reaching of these milestones is a celebration of their parents as well as the kids. Usually extended family shows up every birthday whether invited or not!
WordLily: How do you like to celebrate your birthday? How did you celebrate it growing up? Tell us about your favorite birthday.
Ru Freeman: My favorite kid birthday was when I was 5 years old. We lived in a very small flat, cramped between high walls. My mother loved gardening and she had no garden, but she had dozens and dozens of potted plants arranged artfully in a small concrete courtyard. I got lots of presents that year for some unknown reason. I got a packet of six felt-tip pens, a 16″ x 9″ or so pin-ball machine with a yank that you could pull on to send the marbles flying, and Enid Blyton books. I had also come second in a kiddie race at the school sports meet, at which I had won a blue tin watering can. The warmth of that evening is that I recall my father was sitting amidst these pots with his very close friend, Brigadier Eustace Fonseka — he had a handlebar mustache, had been educated in England and spoke with a blustery English air and played Eliza Doolittle’s father in Pygmalion (My Fair Lady), and burst into ribald song every now and again and I loved him dearly — because it was hot (it usually is in Sri Lanka), and they had pulled two chairs out into this tiny space, and were watching me. Both of them were probably a little high and Uncle Eustace was very pleased that it was my fifth birthday and that I had won that watering can which I was using to water my mother’s potted plants with a great deal of pride.
WordLily: Are there any Sri Lankan birthday traditions you’ve held onto, regardless of your location?
Ru Freeman: We give alms on birthdays, sometimes, and also after funerals and in memory of people. That is the tradition that I have tried to hold on to. When I was back home in Sri Lanka, my daughter celebrated her first and second birthdays by visiting an orphanage and serving food to kids her age and having breakfast with them. I continued to do that when we returned to the States.
WordLily: A few general questions now. Why do you write?
Ru Freeman: Because that is something I have always done and it is a sort of family habit. I remember being picked up at South Station in Boston by one of my brother’s friends, and I was sitting on my suitcase, writing while I waited — I didn’t own a computer of my own until a few years ago, so this was pen and paper — and he said, “Yet another Seneviratne, writing, writing, writing.” I feel intensely uncomfortable if I am not near pen and paper or reading material.
WordLily: How/when did you start writing?
Ru Freeman: I started writing when I was about 7, by keeping a diary. I began this diary because my father had the first of several “heart attacks” — I call them that because I didn’t know what to call them. He’d get chest pains and have to get to hospital. That time Uncle Eustace (the same one!) summoned an Army ambulance to transport him to ICU. So I started writing about my day with entries like “Appatchi is in ICU. The ambulance came and took him.”
WordLily: How did you transition from writing journalistically to writing fiction, a novel?
Ru Freeman: If there has been a transition then it is ongoing. I go back and forth. I did have to set aside the issues that I write most often about — Palestine, American politics — in order to write this novel and some of my short stories, but somewhere in there it is the same mind that is doing the sifting and sorting, is it not? The forms are different, but they are both ways of finding patterns, looking for answers to the same big questions.
WordLily: As a debut author, what was the road to publication like for you?
Ru Freeman: It was surprisingly smooth, I think. I had to work hard, and there is no letting up in terms of writing, learning, reading, reaching out to other writers and being tuned in, all the time, to what is going on in the world, but I also think I was lucky. I went to Bread Loaf where I learned to affirm the art not publication, and in some ways I think if you can do that, your writing begins to flow a little easier and the universe begins to look a little more kindly at your efforts.
WordLily: Thank you so much for your time! Anything else you want to say?
Ru Freeman: Thank you for letting me talk about some of these things. As a reader I am always fascinated by the person behind the words, so it is nice that I get the opportunity to reveal some of the stuff that is personal in this safe way.