Channa Wickremesekera is one of the leading authors of the Sri Lankan expatriate community based in Australia and his past his work have often pierced political themes of key importance. Written during the war and the immediate after-war period, novels such as Distant Warriors (2005) and In the Same Boat (2012) investigate topics that were part of the public and global imagination. In the Same Boat, in particular, is written at a time where the refugee crisis and the illegal migration of people from Sri Lanka began to make headlines in the post-war aftermath. Both Distant Warriors and Walls (2001) are set in the chambers of the migrant Australian middle class community investigating the anxieties and tensions that play out in those domestics. If at all, published in 2005, Distant Warriors satirize the schism between the Tamil and Sinhala diasporas who, in their migrant status, still carry in their heads a ‘shadow war’ inspired by the real ravages which they try to identify with back in their land of birth; as their children – the second generation – drift further and further away from roots which their parents try hard to entangle with them.
The friction between two generations, their colluding views and ways of life and the diversity of the life-trajectories they espouse – though not in anyway original to the migrant novel – is central to Wickremesekera’s work from Walls to Tracks (2015). In the latter, he ventures further into the complexity of a second generation Lankan Australian’s suburban life as he is caught in between values and cultures as well as sexual desire and identity. Shehan is a mid-teen son of an “atypical middle class family” who is being educated to complement a sense of stability and control which his parents yet subscribe to. With the arrival of Robbie – the anti-thesis of his parents’ idea of a friend for their child – in school Shehan’s life arrives at a crossroad; specially so, as he becomes aware of his growing sexual attraction and desire for Robbie. The novel builds up not too adrift from a regular teen romance except the same-sex orientation of the affection and care that is being exchanged. Robbie himself is a broken and down and out teen from a disrupted family and with an abusive father. The group Shehan hangs out with itself – as a unit – is a collective of misfits of different ways; loosely fit and seeking some morsel of impermanent comfort from one another. As such, Wickremesekera attempts to steer his narrative in complex directions in search of compelling modern day realities, abuse, violence and apathy that hover over suburban youth of the day.
Wickremesekera is strong in his portrayal of the relationship between Shehan and Robbie; specially, in stenciling Robbie’s reception and response to the doting and care of his Lankan friend which remains ambiguous and vague. Robbie is at one point invited to move into the garage of Shehan’s home. It is here that the closeness of Shehan’s feelings – Shehan’s ‘crush’ – for Robbie becomes apparent to his parents. Their reaction to the relationship itself is ambivalent – for “atypical Sri Lankan middle class parents” they take in good faith their son’s romantic affinities towards a local with a broken home minus definite future aspirations, while yet cautioning him that he is “chasing something [he] cannot get”. They forecast that Robbie won’t stay in for more than a week which – as it turns out – becomes true. After a strained episode, and with a desire to see his mum and sister who is left behind with the abusive father, Robbie packs his bags to leave. In the process he has a confrontation with Shehan:
Now all the joy I had of having Robbie there was to end, so suddenly, after just one week. It was too much too soon. I guess I was behaving like a jilted lover. But at the time I did not realize it. Maybe I didn’t care either. All I felt was hurt and the hopelessness.
“How could you?” I heard myself asking, half crying, voice breaking. “After everything I did for you!”
I guess I couldn’t help that. My heart was doing all the thinking and talking now.
But the accusation made Robbie start. He looked at me in disbelief for a few moments as if trying to figure out is I was serious. One look at my face would have convinced him that I was beyond serious. I was desperate. Then those thick, full lips curled into a strange smile. A smile of contempt. (93).
The life of young Shehan becomes a torment as Robbie is expelled and thrown into an uncertain fate. More so, his hurt and anxiety is exacerbated by the removal of his close friend from school and his sight:
Life became miserable now. For two days I didn’t hear from him; my text messages were not answered and when I called, his phone was turned off…. I spent most of my time at school daydreaming and scribbling on paper, thinking of Robbie, wondering where he was and wishing he was there, sitting next to me, drawing funny faces of teachers in his book. I wished I could be there where he was, wherever it may be. At home it was no different. I told my parents I had homework and spent most of my time in the room, in bed, thinking, longing (101).
Robbie’s death occurs with no less violence than in which we localize his living moments. He is found smashed up to death near the familiar rail tracks. He had had a go at his violent father Gary whom he had stood up to in defense of his mother, and had left home to meet his end. Robbie’s death is left for speculation and Shehan suggests that it could have been at the hands of a group of Afghans whom Robbie antagonizes fairly early on in the story, or at the hands of a rival school gang. With his mother in hospital and nursing her wounds, Shehan’s family undertakes Robbie’s funeral.
At the end of the narrative, there’s a deep sense of incompleteness: as if the ending is arrived at with less finesse and decor, almost as a hurried conclusion of the matter. This, for me, is a strength of the narrative and that lack of a polished send off complements the overall absence of symmetry and evenness in the lives of its dramatis personae. The lack of sentimental melodrama and unwarranted lingering makes the relationship echo real and makes it ring true. This is an aspect which the other noted Lankan writer who has invested on same-sex themes – Shyam Selvadurai – fails to achieve in his early fiction such as Funny Boy (1994). Selvadurai’s same-sex streams are steered to some aesthetically pleasing, elaborately decorated coffin of sorts. Wickremesekera leaves the carcass in the open and snaps the narrative once the desired experience he wants to communicate is perfected.