Sunday, October 16, 2011

Painting a picture

Roma Tearne, Friday 14th October, 6pm, International Anthony Burgess Foundation

Words by Ben East.

The notion of the writer as the painter of a scene is a familiar idea in creative writing courses across the world. Roma Tearne, the Sri Lanka-born author of four books, knows this more than most. She actually trained as a painter, studying at the Ruskin School Of Drawing And Fine Art, enjoying a stint as Artist In Residence at the Ashmolean in Oxford, and, notably, exhibiting a short film installation at this year’s Venice Biennale.

“Actually, I’m not a writer in my mind,” she reveals at her talk in the suitably artistic surrounds of the International Anthony Burgess Foundation. “I do feel like an artist. I’m petrified of writing sentimental stories.”

All of which might come as a surprise to her ever-growing army of fans. More than anything, Tearne’s books are effortlessly readable rather than knowingly stylised. Her first book, Mosquito, dealt with a haunting love affair against the backdrop of the violent Sri Lankan civil war. It deservedly made the 2007 Costa Book Awards shortlist - which of course are regarded as the more mainstream literary awards. Her latest, The Swimmer, explores love and loss through the voices of a lover, a mother and a daughter - familiar and popular tropes in fiction.

“But it started with a visual image,” she says. “All the books do, because I trained as a painter. And for The Swimmer it was just one photograph - of a beach in Suffolk, where I caught, completely accidentally, an image of a group of people walking. I wondered who these people were, and that was the start.”

In fact, as she began to tease out her story of a young Sri Lankan doctor, Ben, who works illegally on a Suffolk farm as he seeks asylum (and whom the fortysomething Ria finds swimming in the river at the bottom of her garden, sparking a passionate affair), it was another picture which gave the tale a focus.

“I saw the photograph of the mother of Jean Charles De Menezes,” she says. “It was so moving - in the image she’s only just heard that her son has been shot in Stockwell by the Metropolitan police. There’s this expression of total shock and bewilderment, and I found myself wanting to know how she would cope in the weeks and months after. How she would eat, even. And I tried working it out in The Swimmer. I even listened to Wagner and Strauss to try and understand the rhythm of grief and lament.”

The Swimmer
is a departure for Tearne, she explains, as the first three books are much more autobiographical. Her concerns about the country of her birth - which she left in the 1960s and believes she couldn’t return to for fear of her own safety - are still prevalent though, both in the character of Ben and in the closing phases of this fascinating talk. She speaks passionately about the traumatised Tamils of Sri Lanka, of a country which needs a change of leadership to effect real change.

And perhaps these political, humanitarian pictures she paints to the audience, an audience who could easily believe that all is now well in Sri Lanka, are the most important of all.

Ben East is an arts and culture journalist based in Manchester. You can follow him on Twitter @beneast74

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