Niromi de Soyza speaks fluent Tamil and Sinhalese and writes vivid
beautiful English. For many years she worked for the Red Cross in
Sydney, where she still lives with her husband and two young children.
Q: Tell us more about your book Tamil Tigress.
Tamil Tigress is the story of my childhood, growing up in Sri Lanka during the civil war in the 1970s to 1980s. It is told in the voice of that young person. It is rich in detail, as I had written the very first account in 1988, the same year I left the Tigers. While most teenage girls would be thinking of fashion, boys and partying, my friends and I ended up fighting a civil war with a rifle, a cyanide capsule around our necks, and wearing the same clothes for months, enduring starvation, illness and primitive conditions. While the setting is political, the story is personal - its about friendship, love, loss and endurance.
Q: What made you want to tell this story?
After the 30 year civil war ended in Sri Lanka in 2009, boat loads of Sri Lankan Tamils began arriving here in Australia seeking asylum. I found that in Australia, as perhaps it is elsewhere in the world, there was a lack of understanding of the complex culture, politics and traditions of Sri Lanka. Many knew that there had been a civil war in that country but little else. It made me realise that most information on Sri Lanka that was available outside the country was either historical or political reportage. Other than Michael Ondaatje's beautiful book, Running in the Family which was published in 1982, I didn't come across contemporary memoirs by Sri Lankans that appealed to a wider audience. This compelled me to share my story, although that meant I had to finally deal with the emotions I had buried away for over two decades. I wish my story was a happier one, full of teenage mischief and family dramas instead of the tragedy it is. But the book has some light moments too - after all, I was only an ordinary teenager, who adored my friends, admired the Indian actress Sri Devi, and sadly loved the 1980's fashion.
Q: Have you faced any criticism from the community or people in general because of this story?
I have been overwhelmed and humbled by the support and encouragement I have been receiving. People from many different backgrounds have taken the time to give me detailed feedback on how it has made them feel and think. A Sinhala man from Sri Lanka told me that my story had touched him deeply and he's thinking of sharing his story of what it was to be on the other side. Of course there are people who cannot accept someone's right to tell their personal story because it does not fit with their own agenda, whatever it may be. The small group who criticise it, set out to clumsily nit-pick, generally without reading the book in its entirety. Tamil Tigress is not an academic/history text book, its a memoir. Those who read it with an open mind and respect the right of an individual to tell their story the way they remember it, are able to see my book for what it is - a personal experience.
I am also honoured that the book has been chosen by the Australian government's Get Reading! 2011 campaign as one of the 50 Books You Can't Put Down, which is what people have been telling me also, that they couldn't put it down till the end!
Q: the name Niromi de Soyza is based on that of Richard de Zoysa - why did you opt to go for this particular name?
Journalist Richard de Soyza had a great influence on me as a youngster. In the early 1980s, television was still a novelty in Jaffna and I watched in awe when the charismatic Richard came on our small screens to read the evening English news. I later learnt that he was murdered sometime in February 1990 for his work in Human Rights. I am now able to honour him in my own way by having the opportunity to speak about him. Although the war in Sir Lanka ended over two years ago, the effects of it is still raw for many. Some still continue with bitter divisiveness and combativeness that characterised the civil conflict, even outside Sri Lanka. Civil war does that, and the long term effects will take many years to dissipate. The war is over, thank God, let the community return to peaceful co-existence wherever they may be.
Q: What do you wish to achieve from telling your story?
I hope to provide a humanised account of what happens to ordinary people in a civil war. We have all become desensitised to wars in distant countries and the casualty figures we see in news reports don't speak to us of loss, heartache and human suffering. There are no winners in a war, and as the British philosopher Bertrand Russell put it, 'War does not determine who is right - only who is left'. I also hope that Sri Lankans on both sides are encouraged by my story to come forward and share their own stories, which in turn will help others. Sharing personal stories from both sides can help people relate to each other at a human level and I hope it would lead to greater understanding and healing of wounds.
Q: How has the reaction to your novel from the public personally been for you?
Personally, writing and publishing my story has been an amazing journey. From the trepidation of sharing something so personal with the entire world and having to deal with emotions I had buried away for so long, I now find myself faced with strangers telling me that I am courageous and inspiring. I'm humbled because these people have given me their time to read my story amongst the thousands of stories out there and to share their thoughts with me. Their words, along with the love and support of family and friends, has helped me greatly in dealing with the emotions that are still so raw, after two long decades.