Anar (Issath Rehana Azeem) (Sri Lanka) writes poetry in Tamil, and several of her poems have been translated into English and appeared in journals including Tamil Women’s Poetry: A Current of Contemporary Voices (2009, Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi).
She has won several awards, most notably the Government of Sri Lanka's National Literature Award , the Tamil Literary Garden’s (Canada) Poetry Award and the Vijay TV Excellence in the Field of Literature (Sigaram Thotta Pengal) Award.
Anar writes regularly on her blog, anarsrilanka.blogspot.com. She lives with her husband and son in the Eastern Province of Sri Lanka at Sainthamaruthu.
She was the one of the international authors who participated in the Toronto Festival of Literature and the Arts (Fsala-15). The following is her speech she delivered at the session on South Asia (Is their unity in South Asian writing?)
Each of us has stories to tell, they may be the same or they may be different. They may be about your footsteps towards your proud achievements. In the same manner, I, who come from a Muslim village in Eastern Sri Lanka, from a very orthodox Muslim family, also have a story – a story about loneliness and struggle. I survived that kind of suffering to write simple poems. You know how valuable any small thing will be when it is born out of struggle. I had to stop my schooling at a very early age and from then my life became a limbo in the dark. At that time, the only thing that gave me confidence was my mother tongue, Tamil.
If language can be described as wings, then poetry is freedom. So, I provided that freedom for myself and language became my wings. The gap between the space that a society provides for a woman and the space in which the woman wants to exist is dangerous. For a Muslim woman the fear instilled by these dangers speaks on different levels and brings various challenges. Her religion begins from her hair and ends in her toes.
For a Muslim woman to write poetry after getting married is a huge challenge. Her poetry is always seen through the lens called religion and gets problematized. As a woman, especially as a Muslim woman the challenges she faces are enormous and very painful. Our writing lies at the centre of these challenges.
Life and death existed in a close proximity then. At times they seemed to be the same for me. Death roamed like the roaring noise of a helicopter. At the same time, inside the locked doors poetry floated like a spell within me. I was dreaming about filling my sheath with poetry. I think poetry is a language about language. It articulates our boundless dreams and imaginations.
I articulate the sensibility between that which is understood and that which is not, between wounds, the experience of music between the eyes and the heart. That is, my poetry is about that fire known as language, which a woman carries under water.
As far as the Tamil language is concerned, even though it is the same language spoken in different Tamil speaking regions, ideologies and challenges of communities are not the same. The issues handled by authors, whether in the political or in the cultural realm are in peril of being often misunderstood. When questions are raised on the issues of an individual or a community or any other problematic situation, it becomes a controversy between fundamental groups and small communal groups. Many writers avoid expressing anything directly and instead use a censored way of writing or some may even completely avoid writing about particular issues. Authors who use English language as their medium are less prone to such controversies, compared to writers in the vernacular. Besides, the freedom in expressing in English provides them with better acceptance and attention. Consequently, writers in English wield more power through their writing than their vernacular counterparts.
Due to the rapid growth in telecommunication, the internet and such, I think readership in English and in Tamil has declined. Yet, I can say that ebooks have not taken the space of regular books completely. In the sphere of Tamil writing, along with other reasons, the love for English language has also been a reason for the declining readership. On the contrary, literary works in Tamil have enjoyed good readership as they were not affected as much as commercial writing or commercial magazines. Literary works that call for undivided attention are being published more than ever before. So it is hard to point one particular direction when there are continuous changes taking place in the field. However, what kind of ripples those works create and what dilutes the connection between readers and poetry are questions beyond my scope here. Also those questions need to be answered from socio psychological perspective.
There are many common threads in literary themes among South Asian writers. The unity between feminist writers is even stronger. Dalit writing, literature on caste divisions, on war, on relationships between men and women, education, family, communal, political, challenges in personal life and economic inequality can be considered as some of the reasons for this. Yet, we also have to consider the differences in literature produced in various regions within a country.
One can observe that among the people speaking in Tamil language, ideologies, political views, writing and virtues exist differently. For instance, in Sri Lanka, Tamil writing in Eastern province differs from the North and the mountain regions. Indian writing in Tamil and Tamil diasporic writing are also very diverse in their engagement. This can also be applied to other South Asian countries. Just like how life is not monolithic, so too are literature, emotions, ideologies and realities. Therefore, it is not possible to come to a single conclusion and there are multiple possibilities.