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Distancing Nation/Narratives

B. Mangalam

By Ameena Hussein
Perera Hussein Publishing House, Colombo, 2005, pp. 201, Rs. 230.00

VOLUME XXXI NUMBER 10 October 2007

Ameena Hussein’s collection of short stories Zillij is an interest ing read that takes up disturbing issues without unduly disturb ing the reader’s mind over the said issues. It lives up to its name, for Zillij is a traditional art of creating a mosaic design using hand-cut tiles. Such a mosaic involves considerable intricacy, labour and artistry but you would merely applaud its brilliance and walk away over a pavement whose potholes would agitate you and disturb you or even energize you into action. And the Zillij pattern would turn into a fond memory splashed with vigour, brilliance and majesty.   Hussein focuses more on her craft than on the causes she chooses to write about—identity, ethnic subjectivity, impact of terror on ordinary subjects, hardships of life as an immigrant, the Sinhala dream of making it big in the U.S., national history, folklore, fantasy, love, death—the canvas is immense but remains kaleidoscopic in its effect—colourful, varied, limited and fast-changing (or is it fading?).   Hussein’s easy command over the prose-idiom, her firm control over her ‘craft’, her restrained lyricism and a fine balance of humor that alters between wry, sardonic and the tender make this collection a promising treat. A more careful grouping of stories would have helped a better concentration of interest rather than the diffusive, panoramic and at times mutually contrary strands in the present effort. For instance, the angst of the white American girl trying hard to find cultural acceptance in Sri Lanka mocks at the trauma of a Jayanta (in another story) who migrates to America illegally to escape the stifling dead-alleys of Sri Lanka only to struggle with poverty and a soul wrenching job in the land of his dreams.   The ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka where quotidian life is torn asunder by bombs, assassinations and loss of innocent lives finds its imprint in many of the stories. Fantasy, legends and imagination hold sway in some others. Hussein excels as a writer in both the categories. But she needs to choose her area of focus so that she can leave the breathtaking beauty of a zillij behind and labour over carving a single rock to perfection.   Wickremesekera’s novel Distant Warriors depicts the inherent friction, suspicion and combativeness between Sinhala and Sri Lankan Tamil communities settled in Australia. A fund-raiser organized in Melbourne in support of Tamils in the riot ...

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