Ameena Hussein is a writer, editor, and publisher based in Sri Lanka. In this interview with Women Talk, Ameena talks about her love for writing, writing about women’s lives, her book ‘The Moon in the Water’, which she says is a love letter to her Muslim community, and her latest non-fiction work on the 14th-century Moroccan traveller Ibn Battuta.
Photo provided by ©Ameena Hussein
How did this journey begin for you, as a writer?
I have always loved the English language but I grew up in an era where writing was not a profession. I would say, I became a writer entirely by accident. I think my degree in Sociology had something to do with it.
You graduated with two degrees in Sociology, specializing in gender and ethnicity. Could you elaborate on your time at University?
When I went to the US for my tertiary education, I didn’t quite know what I wanted to do. The American system was good for me because for the first two years you can follow very diverse subjects. In my second year, I did a subject on sociology and loved it. It seemed to have worked out well, because sociology is one of those degrees that allow you to work anywhere. In addition to Sri Lanka, I was able to work in America and Switzerland as well. I always think of sociology as being a fluid subject that allows you to apply your learning towards whatever that you choose to do.
Fifteen was your first book – a short story collection. How was this collection written?
For my bachelor’s degree I did a thesis on South Asian Immigrant Muslim Women in Los Angeles and I was hearing stories from women from the sub continent. When you are asked to write a PhD thesis or a Master’s thesis or a report everything has to be very cut and dry. You can’t get emotional about anything. The stories I couldn’t put in my report I began to write up in a notebook. That eventually led me to write the stories I published in Fifteen.
When did you decide to publish your writing? It was in 1999 when you published Fifteen and there was also a link between sociology and the stories that you wrote for Fifteen.
At the time I published Fifteen, I was working as a sociologist at the International Centre for Ethnic Studies. Mr Regi Siriwardene who was the editor of the Thatched Patio, the journal of the institute, became my mentor and he encouraged me to publish early stories in the journal. I did that under a pseudonym. So, very few people knew that I was writing.
When I had a collection of stories ready, Regi, very kindly made a case to the ICES directors, that this would be a good book to publish and they accepted his opinion. I am very lucky, they did, because at that time, there were not many publishing houses in Sri Lanka you could offer your work up for publication.
Fifteen was short listed for the Gratiaen Prize. In their comments, the judges said that it was man hating. But I read it and I think that it is a brilliant expression from a female gaze. You are writing for women, about women, as a woman.
Firstly, thank you for your kind comment. When I write, I pretty much write the way I feel and think, so I was surprised at how the judges framed their comments. I did meet a judge many years later, who seemed to apologise for their comments, but so much of time had passed that I no longer felt stung by what they had said.
What I would like to say is that many of my stories are about women and that even if at first reading a woman seems to be having a dismal life, there is always some redemption and strength by the end. Even if it’s a perverse angle of eating too much, or just disappearing into the earth as a form of protest. For too long men have written about women. For me, it is normal to write about women. It is what I know best.
Your second book, a collection of short stories, Zillij, went on to win the State Literary Award. How did Zillij come to be written?
I wrote many of the stories included in Zillij while I was living in Geneva. I had taken a year’s break from work and was working on the stories. I find that distance gives me a better perspective. So, while some stories are based in Geneva, there are many stories written about Lanka.
I read your study Sometimes there is no blood, which you did for ICES, about violence that women face behind closed doors. It was quite compelling and the stories that you captured are quite moving.
Doing this project was an eye opener for me. I was working in the rural areas for the qualitative research. While we did spend the nights in the towns of Matara, Nuwara Eliya and Anuradhapura, our research would take us far into the hinterlands. Very often, I was disoriented and had no idea where we were and realized that I didn’t quite know my country well. Perhaps it was that research that inspired my love for travelling within the country. The report is also very personal in the sense, it relates the stories of women who have undergone violence, instead of just reducing them to statistics and numbers. It was an experience that definitely moved me.
It is very personal, what you have written.
Yes it is. Perhaps that is why I may not have been a good sociologist. My last story in the collection Fifteen is based on the personal experience of doing research with two young assistants, one of whom was about to be married. Our time together meant that we shared personal stories and I listened to their frank opinions on the lot of women in a traditional society. I wanted to write about that too.
You are also working on a non-fiction project now. Could you elaborate on that?
Yes, I am. Have you heard of the fourteenth century Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta?
Do you know he came to Sri Lanka?
But do you know anything more than that?
I am afraid no.
My non-fiction book which is actually a travelogue is based on Ibn Battuta’s route of travel in this country. It was quite interesting and challenging to map his route and then embark on the travel. I am currently immersing myself in reading a lot of history – both world and local. I am hoping that my book will help people understand that nobody can live in narrow worlds. Even as far back as the 14th century people had to adapt culturally. When I see the world and my country today, I find it strange that people are finding it more and more difficult to live together. They may be from the same country, or look the same or have the same religion, but there is always a difference they would prefer to focus on.
With Ibn Battuta you have a man from another country, who writes about all the countries he visits. And while he may have his own opinions that you may disagree with, he offers us a window to life in the 14th century both in our country and the world.
Let’s talk about The Moon in the Water, which I really loved reading. When that book came out I also did a video story about it for Bonsoir in 2009. This book tells the story of an adopted young Muslim girl and her struggle with identity and belonging. How did this particular story come to be written?
I like to think of this story as a love letter to my Muslim community in Sri Lanka. I wanted to document the way I had lived, as a child, because I believe we are losing that style of life. The theme had been in my head for a long time but I didn’t know what shape or form the story would take. I just knew I wanted to write about the fun, the love, the joy, and the craziness that families go through. Good crazy and bad crazy. The catalyst to the story came when I heard of an actual case of a Muslim couple who had adopted a boy but when the adoptive father died without making a will a host of complications arise. There is a legal problem here, a conundrum. Under Muslim law, Muslims cannot legally adopt. They can adopt under the civil law. But if they adopt under the civil law and they die intestate, that is, without making a will, then inheritance of their estate is governed under Muslim law. Because Muslim law does not recognise adoption. And therefore that child doesn’t inherit under Muslim inheritance law. He is completely cut-off. I used that story to write about the lives of the Muslim community in Sri Lanka.
My father who is a retired lawyer wrote a small opinion, a tiny little book of about 30 pages, on what exactly Muslim law is. In it, he opines, because Muslim law does not recognise adoption this boy cannot actually legally inherit. The Supreme Court judgement came soon after my father’s opinion is published in favour of the boy’s cousins. I suppose I disagreed with my father’s opinion. And it is from that time that the incident started germinating.
When I wanted to write about my childhood I wanted to find a way to combine the two stories. I thought I would make it more interesting by making the two siblings adopted by two different ethnicities but to also to reflect the Muslim community in the early 70s and 80s. We were a conservative community but we were also more relaxed I think about how we lived … That’s how The Moon in the Water started.
In an interview with Sanjana Hattotuwa for YATV, you said that you are a ‘thinking, believing Muslim woman’. Does that reflect in your writing, perhaps, through characters like Khadeeja in Moon in the Water?
Entirely. The character I empathize more with is RaushenGul. Khadeeja is like a warrior running helter-skelter with a lot of angst and confusion. RaushenGul is the one to watch. When I write, I want people definitely to enjoy the book, to laugh, to giggle, to have some entertainment, but I also want them to think. Last year, I was asked by two different journals – one a Spanish-based journal and one an American-based journal – to write a short story on the theme of violence … The two stories can be seen as a diptych, a match. One is on Buddhist-Muslim violence and the other is on violence against Muslim women by the community. One can be seen as violence within and the other is violence without. Muslim women seem to be in a nutcracker. Even if the Muslim woman has issues within her community she is unable to express her opinion because it is seen as betraying her community. The political climate which also posits the communities of Sri Lanka as being in opposition doesn’t encourage minority communities to feel safe and stable in the country. There is always a state of instability and flux. This certainly affects Muslim women, more than others.
Something that you have said is that ‘I am a strong feminist and I believe that women’s stories have been told by men for too long. It’s time we begin telling our own stories’. When women tell stories about women can those stories be (mis)interpreted as ‘man hating’?
Men have been relating women’s stories for so long, that we think it is the norm. We have been schooled to accept their opinions, be they chauvinistic, woman hating etc. It’s time for women to tell their own stories and if they so wish to even tell stories about men. If someone wants to construe the outcome as man hating it is very much a reflection on the man centric world that we have. I believe we are all on a journey and many opinions can co-exist. There isn’t one way of being a woman. There isn’t one way of being a Muslim and there isn’t one way of being a Sri Lankan.
Just to go a little bit back to your childhood, which you said is also reflected in The Moon in the Water. You say you grew up in a very traditional Muslim household. Did it impact you or helped to develop as a writer?
I think everything that I have experienced in life has helped shape me. I am me because of that. If I had had a completely different childhood I might be a completely different person. I did grow up in a very traditional family with my relatives living all around me. For the longest time, I thought that everybody lived in extended families. I had a very strong grand-aunt who influenced the rest of the family and we had our good times and hard times and sad times and joyous times like everybody else I imagine.
Do we have a more conservative image of what it means to be Muslim women in mainstream representations of diversity in Sri Lankan society today? I feel that we do not see many characters like RaushenGul, Khadeeja, or yourself for that matter, in those representations.
How do people change their perception of anything? It is because they can see it in the media; they see it on film. If we want to change people’s perceptions on anything or anybody, you can do it. And the best way to do it is film, TV, books, songs.
I once gave a lecture on Ibn Battuta in Sinhalese, it was at the SLFI for a group of people, numbering about 70-100. After I finished my lecture, the first comment from an older man was that I did not appear to be a Muslim woman. When I questioned him, he indicated that since I was not in hijab, I was not representative. I laughed and told him there were many Muslim women in the audience whom he may not recognize because they are not in hijab. I also told him that when I grew up Muslim women did not wear the hijab or abaya. Muslim women covered their heads certainly but either with a sari or a loose shawl.
The way I see it, the State is complicit, as are film directors, advertising agencies, companies, they are all complicit. If they approve an advertisement of a Muslim woman covered up then they are also conveying to us if you are a Muslim you must cover up. And if the State and other actors are doing this then they deliberately want the Muslim women to be seen as different, alien, and the other. Because they can easily not show us like that. I don’t have a problem if people want to cover or they don’t want to cover. But I think we also need to reflect the many kinds of Muslims as we need to reflect the many kinds of Sri Lankans. I never think of myself as a different kind of Muslim. I come from a very conservative extended family. I was brought up in an extended family. I still live in a family compound. And we are all Muslim in our own ways.
Your publishing house Perera Hussein has been responsible for the proliferation of English literature by Sri Lankan authors. What was the beginning of Perera Hussein and how has it progressed since then?
Perhaps it was when I wanted to publish Fifteen that I realized there was no Sri Lankan publisher I could access. As I mentioned earlier, the book was published by an NGO. This gave me an idea that somewhere in my life I would like to start a publishing house. But it was when I met Sam Perera the idea became a reality. He made it the business that it is. I am afraid I cannot take any of the credit. Perhaps I just have the ideas and someone else has to implement them. Now, after 13 years of existence, I am very happy with the work we do. This year we started our non fiction imprint. It’s called Sailfish and we have already published three books with two more coming out in September of this year. I would encourage more publishing houses to be established here, for that gives more opportunity to writers.
You also have another home away from Colombo.
Yes, I do. I live part of the time in Puttalam, where we have a farm. This is another dream that I have wanted for the longest time – to be able to live out of Colombo. Puttalam is a wonderful and quirky town. It is a Muslim majority town but we live in a Sinhala Catholic fishing village. The jostling of the two together makes for very interesting living.
I live in an off the grid house. We have no electricity but we do have lights with solar panels. We live a typical farm life. There are lots of errands to be run, equipment to be repaired, fertilization to be done. All that takes up a lot of time. Sometimes I try to write there and it’s very peaceful and tranquil there and quite productive as well. Unfortunately, I cannot spend as much time as I would like to. Perhaps in the future, I can invert the way it is, and spend more time there and less in Colombo.
Interview Date: 1 August 2017
Interviewer and books photo: Shashini Ruwanthi Gamage