|Turning a new page for women’s cause
Daily News - Ruwini Jayawardene
The stories circulating around her triggered her imagination and compelled her to pick up the pen and begin threading stories together.
With colourful strokes of imagination she painted complex thoughts, feelings and emotions in words which elevated her to be among the most acknowledged page-turners of Sri Lankan writing in English.
Ameena Hussein’s latest book, a novel named ‘The Moon in the Water’was launched recently and had been long-listed for the first Man Asian Literary Prize 2007 ( also dubbed as the ‘Asian Booker’). Her work had been included among the best 23 unpublished Asian novels in English during the era but it is not the first time she tasted the fruits of success.
“I am inspired by everybody’s stories, mostly women. They are the focus in my work. Even my first book, ‘Fifteen’, deals with women. I am a strong feminist and I believe that women’s stories have been told by men for too long. It’s time we began telling out own stories,” she expressed.
Her first book, a collection of 15 short stories titled ‘Fifteen’, was shortlisted for the Gratiaen award in 1999 . Her next book of prose, ‘Zillij’, named after a Moroccan mosaic, a terracotta tilework which used to decorate walls, ceilings, fountains, floors, pools, tables and many more items, took the readers on a voyage to the past and is centred on certain complex issues which have evolved into the present. The book won her the State Literary Prize in 2005.
Born in Colpetty, Ameena grew up in what she describes as a ‘very traditional Muslim household’. Her father Madhi Hussein was a lawyer and her mother, Marina Caffoor, was a housewife. She schooled at St.Bridget’s Convent, Cinnamon Gardens and engaged in higher studies at the University of Southern California where she took up Sociology.
Much like her heroine, Khadeeja Rasheed, in ‘The Moon in the Water’, her stint in the US moulded her personality and took her thoughts to a new direction. Her ground-breaking research on violence against women, ‘Sometimes There is no Blood’, which she did for the International Center for Ethnic Studies while she was the editor of their magazine,’Nethra’ revealed many aspects on how Asian women undergo unseen violence behind closed doors.
The project was based on the incidents she unearthed in Anuradhapura, Matara and Nuwara Eliya.
“No one had done that kind of study before. You talk to the women and you realise that many women bear with it because the culture condones it.
We shy away from the topic and if it is taking place, the mother justifies the situation to her children saying that that is men’s nature. There is no support system for women if they want to leave their husbands to protect themselves as well as their children.
It is considered as social stigma,” she said adding that gradually women are veering towards a more independent route.
“The cultural implications still have a traditional outlook. This does not differ according to social status. Abuse takes place in wealthy families as well as those suffering from poverty.
Even if the woman pulls her socks up, people will look at her indignantly. However the Muslim women I had come to contact with are strong and outspoken.
They are the ones who control household matters,” she added.
Ameena was one among the few who spearheaded the inception of the first Galle Literary Festival, the first international festival held to celebrate literature in Sri Lanka and had been a constant participant of the much talked about the event which is eagerly waited upon by book lovers across the globe.
“I have grown up with books in my life. I can’t say one book or the other has inspired me because there are thousands of books out there, all good, all inspiring. There was no single book that inspired me to write ‘The Moon in the Water’, but I suppose the last 20 years have allowed writers from India, Africa, South America and South and South East Asia to be heard on an international scale.
They have all inspired me, in the sense that our voices can be articulated in our own way, telling our own stories and taking ownership of our own literature,” Ameena reflected adding that she is a fan of Sri Lankan writers.
“My favourite international writer changes frequently according the book that I am currently reading. A book that I read recently and made a huge impression on me was Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’.”
Referring to the title of her third book Ameena said she had used a Sruthi expression ‘Look for the Moon in the Sky, not in the Water!’ to bring out the theme of her work.
“Life is full of illusions and sometimes we forget this and it is misconstrued as the truth. The book is not about me but everybody I encountered in my life,” she revealed.
Ameena aims to script a novel with a political strand for the future. She is engaged in research on the subject.
“It is not a short time between writing a novel and launching it. It takes a few years to conduct research if it is based on facts.
If you are lucky to get a grant then you can devote all your time but you have to earn your living while engaged in research, writing, polishing and rewriting until the final draft is up to your satisfaction. You hand it over to the publisher and then the publisher takes about another two years.
‘The Moon in the Water’ was written about three years ago,” Ameena observed.
She is not interested in turning to poetry because she does not consider herself a good poet.
“I prefer to leave that chore to better poets,” she smiled.
“My goal is to write better books in the future and to own a publishing house that will publish the best books in Sri Lanka. I wish to contribute in some way towards building a Sri Lanka that we are proud of, one that holds up the concepts of justice, truth and fairness.”
She is married to Sam Perera and the couple run a publishing house named Perera Hussein Publishing House, formed in 2003 to empower talented young writers to gain exposure through their creations.
“I am fortunate in that I have had many memorable moments in my life but I believe that the most memorable is yet to come.”