The Root and the Hour

The “Sinhala nation” does not exist, and yet the state is designed in its service, and all politics revolves around its fears and desires. This is how we got where we are.

This is not the need of the hour, you might say: we were talking about gas, and food, and fertilizer, and the absent dollar. I agree. This is not the need of the hour. The hour, which has many needs, is greedy. It wishes to swallow up all thought with its many mouths. The hour has no time for the day or the decade, much less the century. With nothing but the eternity of hours in our hands, we exchange the important for the urgent. The hazard is not simply that the one goes unaddressed in favour of the other: it is that the many branchings of the urgent are rooted in the important, and by ignoring the root for the branch, we address symptom but not cause. Worse, we accept the unaddressed cause as a given, take its framings for histories, incorporate its agendas into our purported solutions, and thereby create more and more urgent needs for the hours to come. That, too, is how we got where we are.

El incendio de noche, Francisco Goya, c. 1793

Ever since independence, and in fact, even before independence, Sinhala-Buddhist discrimination, boycotts, and pogroms against minorities—“riots” is how they are often described, but we are beyond euphemism and out of fucks to give—are the basis of how this country works. The pogrom, in particular, is not a moment of aberration. It is fundamental. The pogrom is a disciplining engine. Its purpose is to restate the nation-state. The pogrom is a ceremonial recitation of the vision statement, for a country defined in the attempt to create a clear-cut, fixed Sinhala majority that would forever rule the island: rendering of half the Tamil population stateless, boycotts against Tamil businesses, the erasure of the Tamil language, violence against peaceful Tamil protestors. This was the defining issue at independence, and, with hundreds of thousands dead and the North under occupation, it is the defining issue today. This is not, as it is usually framed, “the Tamil question.” This is the Sinhala question.

The baseline environment of discrimination, punctuated by the regular cycle of pogroms, serves economic purposes, ideological purposes, and political purposes: undermining, destroying, and looting minority businesses; intimidating and terrifying minorities and dissenters into submission; and creating security crises that can be exploited for political power. It reinforces the border of the nation: who belongs to the majority and who does not. It is a simple machine, containing no sophisticated electronics but only mechanical wheels and levers that any fool can oil and maintain. Many fools have.

There is a problem of rhetoric in describing the pogroms as solely either disorganised or organised. Casual descriptions tend to fall into one or the other, but neither works as an explanation by itself.

On the one hand, if you say the Sri Lankan pogrom is solely disorganised, spontaneous violence by Sinhala Buddhists against Tamils or Muslims, then you risk absolving state actors (or other ruling-class actors, such as opposition politicians attempting to destabilise the state) of responsibility. The direct involvement of the likes of Rajaratna and Mettananda in the 50s or Cyril Matthew in the 80s or any number of contemporary examples demonstrate that state and ruling class actors are absolutely a factor and cannot be ignored. Much scolding of “ignorant mobs” or appeals to the better nature of said “mobs” relies on the underlying idea that violence erupts spontaneously because of bad ideas held by other people, and can therefore be avoided by exhorting said other people toward personal growth. Of course, there is plenty of evidence that a lot of perfectly ordinary people have terrible, racist, violent ideas, and it’s not much of a stretch to imagine many of them happily joining a mob given the opportunity. We can accept this as a contributing factor, but not the sole or ultimate cause.

On the other hand, if you say such violence is solely organised, entirely managed by the state and/or other nefarious actors, then you risk absolving the Sinhala Buddhist polity at large—it’s essentially a denial that widespread or structural racism is a serious contributing factor, which it undoubtedly is. Pogroms require years of indoctrination and propaganda, to prime and maintain a sufficiently large segment of the population in the necessary cultural separatism, supremacism, paranoia, and ethical illiteracy required to make mass outbreaks of violence possible when its instigators demand it.

So. obviously, the answer must be that the pogroms are both organised and disorganised. They have always been nurtured and prepared and heated up over years, then actively incited and led in the moment of boiling over. It’s important not to lose sight of this “both,” though, because what matters is the interaction between organisation and disorganisation. Instigation can but does not require conspiracy of the more obvious sort. Sri Lanka is, by design, a leaking gas cylinder and the political culture is to sit on it and light matches.

It is not enough to say “stop lighting matches.” Even the leak isn’t the root of the problem: it is the nation-state, framed as compressed, productive, explosive fuel. This is indeed useful for those who cook with it—we know their names and their dynasties well—and they are least inclined to change the state of affairs, because for them these are the affairs of state. But for those of us who are under pressure inside the cylinder, rendered and reproduced as toxic and flammable, the need of the hour and the need of the century are aligned: we have to find our own safe way out, because the only other destinies that shall be made available to us are conflagration or consumption.

The Sinhala question is not a question: it lacks precisely that sense of questioning, of openness or discovery. The Sinhala question is an assertion, a definition, a tautology; it is only a question in that it troubles those capable of being troubled, just as it comforts those who are not. The Sinhala assertion is simply this: the island belongs to the Sinhala nation from the strait to the ocean, and the state, coterminous with the island, must serve the Sinhala nation. The occasional attempt to gentle and liberalize this assertion simply adds one word (“first”) to the end of that assertion, acknowledging that those outside the nation may also be included on sufferance within the state. As our constitution puts it, Buddhism shall have the foremost place, while other religions shall have their rights assured; the official language is Sinhala, and Tamil shall also be an official language. The Sinhala state serves the Sinhala nation, which is formulated as a fixed, pre-democratic majority and therefore defines the Sinhala state, and in this way the two continually reproduce each other. And meanwhile other people may also be there, as long as they remain relegated and understated, which is to say, neither part of this nation or another.

The Sinhala assertion justifies the Sinhala state, but it produces the Sinhala nation as a given. It is easy to identify the Sinhala state. It is the deterministic finite state machine—the elected representatives, the legislature, the executive, the judiciary, the bureaucracy, the laws, the police, the military—dominated by those enculturated as Sinhala, speaking Sinhala, and prioritizing Sinhala interests. It accepts certain inputs but not others, and produces predictable outputs in response. It is, by definition, unjust and undemocratic.

But what, exactly, is the Sinhala nation? Is it those enculturated as Sinhala, speaking Sinhala, and prioritizing Sinhala interests? No, not quite. Imagine an enthusiastic Western tourist who becomes a de facto immigrant, perhaps living down south and opening a boutique bed and breakfast, who learns fluent Sinhala, adopts Sinhala customs such as the New Year, wears sarongs, converts to Buddhism and can quote his Walpola Rahula as easily as his D.T. Suzuki, goes to temple on Poya days, makes Vesak lanterns, marries a Sinhalese and fathers children, identifies so strongly with the culture that he says we when he speaks of Sinhala interests, and is proud of it. Is this person Sinhala or part of the Sinhala nation? Obviously not. The answer is “No, but his children are half Sinhalese.” This answer is not really an answer to a question: this answer is the Sinhala question, which is the Sinhala assertion. It is the statement that to be Sinhala is not in the mouth, not in the head nor body, not even in the heart, but in the blood.

This statement is a fiction, a fantasy—an epic fantasy, a myth of origins imbued with great power, for all that it is, at a very simple level, without meaning. It means nothing, and yet it means everything: it is why blood is shed. It is the essence of Sinhala racial-national thinking. Not to be too Sapir-Whorfian about it, but there’s something telling about the use of the same word for race and nation (and species for that matter,) especially when that word becomes a rallying cry.

What, precisely, does ජාතිය mean in Jathika Chinthanaya? It is usually translated nation, as in National Thought or National Consciousness, but Gunadasa Amarasekara, its primary theorist (most recently seen being cringe on main) has of course long since clearly identified the nation with the Sinhala Buddhist, so it could be translated more accurately as Racial Consciousness. That is indeed the great intellectual contribution this ideology represents: anxieties about birth rates, fertility, and replacement, racialized demographics as power. As with the Mahinda Chinthanaya, it barely deserves the description of thought, much less consciousness. It is, rather, the unexamined unconscious of an unconscious nation, tottering somnambulistically over brink after brink, doing itself terrible damage with each crash but so far, never waking up all the way.

In this, the ideology is far older than the late articulation given to it by the likes of Amarasekara. It is the same reasoning through which the demographics of the island, as represented in the flag, were set at 5:1:1; proportions obtained through not only the violent disenfranchisement and deportation of Tamil populations in the very moment of independence, but through the differential definition of populations by race and religion. Tamil-speakers are broken up by religious and regional groupings, and Sinhala-speakers are not, though they could also be: a grandparental generation contended with Kandyan and Low-Country Sinhalese as distinct races, and if Sinhala Christians and Sinhala Hindus and Sinhala Muslims had been counted in similarly distinct silos, the proportions would shift again. All such definitions are fluid, unfixed, and of relatively recent provenance: the “Sinhala nation” is about as old as the car, or the telephone, which is to say, a device utterly inextricable from modernity. It is impossible to use a colonial tool of division for anticolonial campaigning without opening the way to tremendous postcolonial violence. The inability to rid ourselves of this device is, at root, how we got where we are.

Ranil Wickremasinghe gave a speech the day before Gotabaya Rajapaksa returned to the island—under Ranil’s protection, as always, continuing his service as Gota-by-proxy for these past few months. In this speech, he cited Buddhism as an explanation and justification for a neoliberal capitalism. An incoherent one, in that he described it in terms of a national desire, rooted in Buddhism, to be free of debt 1, while the world he and Gota are building is one of deep and permanent indebtedness, but this is only incoherent at the level of mere economics, whereas Ranil is speaking on the level of Racial Consciousness. The appeal is to Sinhala pride, traditionally a precursor to tremendous violence (the Sinhala nation having willfully inherited the mantle of whiteness, “Sinhala pride” is merely Kandyan KKK kosplay, and nothing to be proud of) but Ranil wants to extend this technique to directly support economic violence as well.

This rhetorical gambit seems to be a pet theme for Ranil. A notable previous attempt was his 2005 book Politics and Dharma, presumably ghostwritten but no doubt to his direction, which argued, via a tiresome and irrelevant restatement of samma ajiva, that capitalism was fully compatible with Buddhist values. Perhaps it is: the idea of what “Buddhist values” are has been so severely degraded in this country, from Mahanama to Mahinda, that there seems to be no reason why Buddhism should object to mere exploitation once it has already enthusiastically condoned genocide. But unlike Buddhist jingoism and unlike Buddhist pogroms, which rouse passionate, violent support from much of the self-identified Sinhala nation, Buddhist capitalism only tends to rouse mumbling acquiescence at best. The Sinhala nation is a great many people who have been successfully taught to hate the other, while the neoliberal capitalist rhetoric has successfully taught a great many people to hate themselves (as witness the many people begging for their own impoverishment and exploitation that you will see in any conversation about privatisation: many actively wish for public services to go away and despise the notion of a public good.) But the two rhetorics do not (yet) fit together, despite Ranil’s attempts to try and make them click into place. Persuasion is a field of wrecked experiments from whose ruins you can trace the outline of many a political project, but just because something has crashed before doesn’t mean that failure is preordained.

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1: This, incidentally, is why it is important to look first at the dirty underside of things, whether speeches by a President, press releases by the IMF, strategic meetings by a ruling party. There are always positive, or at least less-negative spins or aspects or readings that are possible. But if you don’t anchor yourself, then you risk getting lost in a frothy cloud of hypothetical positivities that may or, more likely, may not transpire. The worst that is openly spoken of, on the other hand, can be guaranteed to be the least of the trials to come. In most public statements from political actors, only the worst even approximates the real. The rest is sugarcoating, or more pyrotechnically, flares being sent up to distract any heat-seeking criticism. Top Gun isn’t the only 80s propaganda currently enjoying a massive resurgence.

The Extractivism of Setting and the Traitor’s Text

There is a particular tendency in genre fiction very well demonstrated by this thing that Jayaprakash Satyamurthy found under a rock and dragged into the light last year.

Or rather, there are quite a few things happening here at the same time, and they are adjacent, perhaps, but distinct. Let us disentangle them somewhat.

Sometime in the mid-twentyteens, Bryan Thomas Schmidt put out a subs call for an anthology of fiction from writers around the world—the phrase he used, in fact, was “foreign natives”—except Africa, because he’d already got Mike Resnick to represent Africa. Why did he think Mike Resnick, a white American, could represent Africa in such an anthology? Because of Resnick’s Kenya-themed “Kirinyaga” books and stories, of course. Because in the tiny, insular world of white SFF of his generation, Resnick had carved out that niche. He had become, canonically so in this pocket whites-only universe, the African SFF writer.

A somewhat less ugly example. Has there ever been an article in the Sri Lankan media about Sri Lankan speculative fiction that did not mention Arthur C. Clarke? I don’t know the answer to this question for a fact, but I suspect not.

Quite the classic cartoon map of a tiny tropical island, no? There is more than one coconut tree, at least.

Clarke was, in point of fact, not Sri Lankan, but he lived here in a state of such absolute colonial privilege that they made a new category of resident just for him. Seeing as he was capable of distorting the very concept of citizenship around himself, as a wealthy, famous, white English settler in a newly postcolonial nation, it is unsurprising that he continues to occupy the high ground in the unconsidered literary history of Sri Lankan speculative fiction. It is a negligible feat, by comparison. Unlike in Resnick’s case, the identification of Clarke with Sri Lanka (or rather, the other way around) is widespread in writing about SFF, both local and occidental. The island becomes a funny line in his author bio, a quaintness, much like the number of cats an author might have.

There is something wrong happening in each of these instances, obviously. For my purposes here, the question at hand is not whether the stories are good or not, or whether the authors/editors are good people or interesting artists or not. Clarke certainly wrote some wonderful stories; he may also have been a pedophile, a persistent charge that I’d long dismissed as a common slander against a gay man until the relatively recent accusation from Peter Troyer, as documented by Jason Sanford. Neither Schmidt nor Robert M. Price, the editor of Secret Asia’s Blackest Heart, seem likely to be interesting curators from my perspective, given their contemptible sensibilities, but it’s certainly possible that their anthologies have included stories that I might have liked. Any fool can pick obvious winners. Many fools do.

These things are not irrelevant, certainly, but they also confuse the issue because they are more compelling and more immediate than what I’m trying to point at, which is how canons are manufactured.

This essay is not, of course, actually addressed to the likes of Robert M. Price, an established bigot, or the fashy little press that gleefully publishes these white power anthologies. This is not a callout. Such a thing would be ridiculous. Price’s introduction to this anthology (readable via the Amazon preview) calls Edward Said a leftist propagandist and declares that orientalism is a good and desirable thing. There is no thought to engage with here: it is the desert of the clowns. Rather, I’m talking to the kind of people who write about books: critics, journalists, engaged readers. This is not about this or that particular book. This is about a tendency. A mechanism. A movement or transfer.

Are Resnick’s “Kirinyaga” stories particularly racist? I know I’ve read one or two, but it’s been decades and I don’t remember them at all, so don’t take my word for it either way. Clarke was not racist or even condescending toward Sri Lankans in his fiction, as far as I can remember. On the other hand, I would not bet a single rupee that Secret Asia’s Blackest Heart is racism-free, but who knows? Stranger things have happened. But the presence or absence of racism in the texts is not at issue here.

Nor is this about #ownvoices. It would be absurd to say that only Kenyans can write stories set in Kenya, or Sri Lankans in Sri Lanka. Sofia Samatar isn’t Kenyan either, but “Ogres of East Africa” is wonderful. Putting it in the same context as Resnick’s Kirinyaga is in fact vaguely embarrassing, a condition exacerbated by the fact that Resnick won multiple Hugos in the 90s for those stories while “Ogres” took third place in that year’s Locus poll. This tells you something about how genre literary awards fail, yes, but it also tells you something about genre canon formation. If you asked for Kenya-related speculative fiction from, say, a Hugo-voting audience (as a shorthand for a historically canon-forming, white-dominated, American-dominated body in English SFF), you’re still much likelier to hear about Resnick than Samatar, and long before you hear about Ray Mwihaki or Clifton Gachagua or any other writers actually from Kenya.

Recognition as a writer needs time. You must be published widely, read widely, remembered and reviewed and talked about. Resnick had work published decades before everybody else named here. These are deep structural advantages—whiteness, citizenship in the metropole, proximity to the western-based major publishing industry, early-mover advantage in name recognition. This matters because it turns canons into a kind of colonialism of the speculative imagination.

Like so.

Canon is a tricky word. I am using the term lightly; I mean those works and writers who are widely recognized and repeatedly cited, which of course produces multiple and varied groupings depending on who you ask and for what purpose. Every such canon is formed by citation and repetition. Every act of curation contributes to it. Every anthology of African or Asian fiction, every article. Even a listicle adds a pebble to the pile. And in speculative fiction publishing, white Western writers, which is to say, specifically, white writers from the metropoles and settler colonies of the long British-American empire, especially those of previous generations, have had decades of a head start. Their canonization for work that draws heavily on the third world—as setting, as prop, as raw material—was built on the same lines as all other colonial enterprises, like the settler-colonial squatting that Resnick or Clarke perform.

Many, many traditions abound in writing fiction about place. They are often and easily confused. At minimum, you could make a crude distinction between work by the people who are, in the important sense, from there (i.e., including diasporas) and work by the people who aren’t (i.e., including resident white expats.) This does not automatically mean that the former is good and the latter is bad, or even that one is necessarily more authentic than the other. In the first place, authenticity is a trap and best avoided by everyone. And it is quite possible that sometimes an outsider will see more clearly than an insider. But this is not an evenly balanced sometimes, and it is especially not so when that place is a third-world colony of the empire. The contemporary publishing industry remains nearly as concentrated in the heart of the metropole as it was then. The imbalances of access and proximity have changed but little, and those imbalances are governed by long histories of orientalism, exoticization, and exploitation even if any given work is not. The question is not (or at least, not only) “is this book racist?” but how much easier it was for that book to be published (and reviewed, and cited, and canonized) than a contemporary work by an author from the place the book is writing about.

An example. Clarke’s Fountains of Paradise, a book precisely as old as I am. Fountains is set in a version of Sri Lanka, and written by someone who had at that point been resident in Sri Lanka for decades. Here, too, I read the book so long ago that I don’t remember it at all. I have no quarrel with it and I’m not trying to cancel it—I feel like I have to keep making this disclaimer to forestall people summarizing this whole essay as me trying to cancel various books or people. Fountains probably won a Hugo and a Nebula and so on.

Yup, there they are.

This is a good example of a book that falls, for me, squarely on one side of that line about writing about place. It is (probably) a fine book in the tradition of books that use Sri Lanka as setting or inspiration, but Clarke, as an almost ludicrously privileged Englishman sahibing it up in the colonies, had several orders of magnitude more access to the Western publishing industry than anybody who lived on the island in 1979. My father’s first novel (Tilak Chandrasekera, පස්වෙනියත් පුතෙක්) came out that same year, as a matter of fact. It was “self-published”, as many local books were at the time, and by local standards it was quite successful, going on to multiple printings in the 80s and 90s.

My brother drew the cover art (both the original design in 1979 and this updated one for the fourth reprinting in 1990.) Self-publishing was a family business. Even I (eleven at the time) was recruited to proofread this one.

පස්වෙනියත් පුතෙක් is not speculative fiction, but it is absolutely a book about place, what would probably now be called autofiction—for my father in his first book, that place was the village in Kurunegala where he grew up. A village that, in the 1930s-40s that the book is set in, was in fact arguably in the jungle, or at least jungle-adjacent. (You could find some jungle there even in the 80s: I once managed to get lost in it as a boy. What can I say, jungle happens. Even the Mahabharata describes us as जाङ्गलवासिन, jangal-vasina, jungle-dwellers.) Clarke had arrived in Sri Lanka when my father was still a teenager, though out of the jungle by then and living in the same city. By the year these two books were published, Clarke had been living on the island for more than half of my father’s life, already a fixture. My father had no quarrel with Clarke either: he spoke of him admiringly, and bought me a copy of the Sinhala translation of 2001. They didn’t really live in the same country, as writers, for all that their houses were perhaps three kilometres apart for the decades of their later careers. They were by no means writing about the same place, and success as an author meant such wildly different things to them that they were not even on the same planet.

This is why it’s so much more complicated than writers who are from there and not from there. A work that is in a significant way about place could, then, be many different kinds of text.

For example, you have the imperialist’s text, which sees a place the way colonial administrators saw it. Leonard Woolf’s Village in the Jungle is a classic of this type, with Woolf having been himself the very same kind of colonial administrator who appears in the text as the only oasis of sanity and rationality in a gothic horror of native madness and violence.

Clarke’s renditions of future Sri Lankas are a less heavy-fisted version of the same: the island is urbane and genteel and tropical and, most of all, small. The expat’s text, the postcolony that is merely the metropole writ very small, mimicking the upper-crust Colombo 7 life that Clarke understood.

Then we have whatever this is. A burdensome thing. Perhaps we could call it the kipling text.

Whether the orientalism renders the objectified as infantile, monstrous, exotic or what have you, what matters for all these texts is that there is a distinct flavour of that place, something like a spice, that can be taken out of it, mixed into a dish, a taste that the discerning reader can pick up, perhaps even become expert at picking up. Can you tell River of Gods from Song of Kali in a blindfolded taste test?

Consider an even more casual encounter with place: the tourist’s text. This is the author’s note from Trouble in Nuala, which is the first novel, published 2016, of a self-published cozy mystery series now at least ten books deep. The Inspector de Silva Mysteries is “set in the 1930s amidst the rolling green hills of colonial Ceylon” and is written by a white British woman, Harriet Steel.

This is the extractivism of setting at its smoothest and most efficient, its pathway having been cleared by a century or two of the texts that preceded it, that hacked their way through the jungle and laid down rail into the village.

Now in my sixth year as fiction editor at Strange Horizons, I have read a very large number of short story submissions and there have indeed been some, not many, stories that use Sri Lanka as a setting. A few are even authored by Sri Lankan writers, on the island or from the diaspora. Most, however, are not. Certainly, the worst have been strong examples of the tourist’s text. They have a certain distinctive quality of overextraction and give a great bitterness in the mouth. What’s hardest, as an editor, is that I try not to be more demanding of the Sri Lankan setting than I am of any setting. Or rather, I try to be no less demanding of any setting. What is true of the island is true of the world.

But there is also more than one kind of text in the other(ed) and orthogonal tradition, the writing of those who are from there. The tourist text can be written in both, and often is. And there are many others, both on the island and off it, often overlapping: the witness’s text, the refugee’s text, the exile’s text. Too, there are the comprador’s text and the patriot’s text, the paired science fictions of muttering uncles, seen more often in the newspaper opinion columns than on the bookshelves. And then there is the ideal that I think that any writer with some shards of conscience and consciousness might aspire to, the traitor’s text.

The traitor’s text must refuse authenticity—which is a fetish of the patriot, the tourist, and the imperialist. The traitor’s text is an ideal, being the work that must critique both the big empires and the little ones, so the comprador’s text and the patriot’s text are also traps that await all of us who are, undeniably, from there. Pits shallowly disguised with dry leaves. The traitor’s text is the measure, for me, of what writing about place must reach for. It’s available to anyone, whether you’re from there or not, but some things about it are just harder to reach if you’re not.

It’s important to say, I think, that I use setting in this essay deliberately. I do not say culture. I talked this over with Nandini, who pointed out that my use of the extractivism metaphor puts this essay in dangerous proximity to unintentionally reifying culture in the process of trying to do the opposite. This is one of the traps in talking about this, that it can so easily be confused with a superficial argument about appropriation. This is not about appropriation: this is about the problems of setting in fiction that trouble us all because we live in the same empire-haunted world, ruined by colony and postcolony alike, this tainted, unstable ground. There is no true and authentic fixed thing, and no one can, or should wish to, lay claim to it. Imagine the horror, if there were such a thing that you could hold in your hands, that you could never put down or toss away, how it would burn and cut. Jungle is not an object: it is a process. It jangles, it jungles. Sometimes jungle is inauthentic, being merely colonial-era plantations gone back to the wild. Sometimes the jungle in question is urban. I live in the city, crocodiles in the canal down the street, I’m in a WhatsApp group (alongside three hundred of my overly meme-happy neighbours) run by the local grama niladhari, who issues updates on vaccination schedules and so on. The title of his job, essentially the lowest rung of local government, has changed several times over the decades (gammuladaniya, grama sevaka, grama niladhari) but the prefix remains intact. It means village.

By its very nature, the traitor’s text must be layered. It is complex, because the world it describes is complex. It cannot essentialize. It cannot be condescending or onanist. It can never be cozy. This necessarily makes it a more difficult text to engage with than all the others, which makes sense because the traitor’s text can only exist in response to all the others: it comes after them, logically if not necessarily chronologically. When I write a horror story about a village in the jungle, it comes after Woolf, and must struggle with Woolf, and this would be true in many senses even if I had not read Woolf (I have, but as often happens, I only read the book after having already responded to it several times over.) This canon exists because Woolf has over a hundred years of citation. Woolf even has authenticity, having been in and around the very situations he writes about. This is why authenticity doesn’t matter in fiction. I do enjoy Village in the Jungle as a gothic horror—and that ending is magnificently written—but to enjoy it, you must understand that the bulk of its power and horror is in how and why Leonard Woolf came to be the person to write it.

The Red Flag

This was going to be a Twitter thread but then I was just typing furiously and realized it was just too long, so here it is in abbreviated essay form.

The first and most important thing to understand about the Sri Lankan flag is that every version of the lion flag is, definitionally, racist and fascist in symbolism, including the official one. It was intentionally designed that way, by committee. The proportions of the “majority box” to the “minority stripes” (5:1:1) were determined by population ratios which were determined by:

  1. racialized census categories introduced by the British Empire in the preceding few decades and enthusiastically taken up by the burgeoning Sinhala-supremacist postcolony, which divided the Tamil-speaking population into sub-races by religion but not the Sinhala-speaking population and
  2. the chaos introduced by the then-contemporary Citizenship Act, which made a massive proportion of the Tamil-speaking population stateless and disenfranchised.

The clear intention of the national flag’s design was to centre this Sinhala supremacism and marginalize minorities, represent them as barely-tolerated outsiders at best. Contemporary dissent (e.g. Senator Nadesan) makes it clear that this was not an analysis that was somehow beyond them. It was pointed out, very explicitly, and ignored.

The reason the flag is fascist in addition to being racist is (in addition to its reliance on racialization, the glorification of the dominant “race”, and the warlike symbolism, all fascist standbys) is because this lion also came accompanied by an entirely fictional mytho-history concocted by E.W. Perera and D.R. Wijewardena. The story is that the lion flag represents a return to a mythic precolonial history, which it does not. Purported centuries-old or millennia-old connections to Kandyan flags and Dutugemunu &c. are nonsense: fantastical worldbuilding as background for nation-building. Flags of the precolonial world did not serve the same purposes as nation-state era flags, any more than “Sinhalese” represented a racial designation rather than a political designation in the era before colonial racialization. They did not carry the same meanings, and the lion had no special place: you’ll find plenty of other animals wandering about in flags and other precolonial iconography, a whole zoo of them. The idea that there could be any sort of rebooted franchise, a meaningful remake, a direct connection between a symbol and its meaning before and after over two hundred years of colonial reprogramming and brainwashing is laughable.

Perera, an epic fantasy writer before his time, simply invented a brief and outsourced the design to a London designer (Southwood & Co. in Regent Street), presumably some white guy, who knocked off a generic European heraldic lion passant with finials and called it a day. At best, they were more likely influenced by British and Dutch colonial flags of the preceding generation than anything else, but seeing as how Perera, Wijewardena et al. were already thoroughly brainwashed by colonial programming, this would have been perfectly acceptable to the Sinhala supremacist mindset. It was Britishness that the Sinhala elite wanted and envied, to finally become the white man, the colonizer, the master sir.

The specifics of the flag’s design clearly didn’t really matter to Perera or Wijewardena, in any case, given that they found whatever the designer came back with acceptable. One wonders if there were private rounds of feedback and redesign, but I suspect not. The details only matter if you give a shit. All they wanted was to put a lion on it. Their strategy of decolonization was merely to ensure above all that the “Sinhalese” inherited the colonial mantle of whiteness on the island. Whiteness exists to be the race that dominates other races—this is why “race” exists and why it was invented—and in the postcolony, at least in Sri Lanka and probably elsewhere too, the changing of the guard was not reflected by the deconstruction of this construct of race, but by its rigorous enforcement. The goal was not and never unity: such things are judged by what people do, not what people say, and the national flag is the perfect example. Taking the colonizer’s place, becoming the colonizer was the only ambition of decolonization-era Sinhala elites. And it remains true today, which is why the national flag now exists in multiple unofficial variations, each one making the flag’s true nature more explicit than the last.

The version of the flag seen in the tweet, meanwhile, is of particular interest because it actually has no history that I’m aware of: it is an entirely new thing under the sun. Even the alleged historic flag of Kandy had finials, not fig leaves, so this is not that. Besides, all legitimized versions of the flag have the lion holding the sword by the hilt, not by the blade. The only flag that I’ve seen before with that design is Dayasiri Jayasekera’s innovation from 2020.

At the time, this was seen as a simple, if ludicrous error, given that it apparently got all the way to this moment without anybody noticing.

Of course, this version of the flag has the minority stripes, so it too is not a match. The perahera flag cannot claim a history even two years old; it is freshly hatched, mere days in the making.

But the return of this blade-holding lion makes me think that this is perhaps not an error after all. Perhaps it is merely a catwhistle, a new icon chosen by fascist thought leaders as being more appropriate for contemporary Sinhala modernity, a self-harming lion, a bleeding lion that can’t stop cutting itself.

Invisible Collagism

From the Literature Clock, a project I love for its particularity, its ridiculousness, and weird genius

In a throwaway anonymous blogging project between fifteen and twenty years ago, I spent some months making poems, or hyperlinked poem-like objects, that were collages of a sort, composed entirely out of lines quoted from other people’s published poems. I cited each line by linking it to the site where I’d found the text of its original poem. The game was to choose lines in such a way that they worked together, in some aesthetic that I can’t quite recapture now but at least still feel that there was in fact a there there, something a little like a Dadaist cut-up, I suppose, though I only encountered those later and was not intentionally trying to emulate them.

(Why was this a blogging project instead of a document? I don’t think anybody was reading that blog. Perhaps the occasional random passerby. It was a public project but not one particularly meant to be encountered, if that makes sense: “publishing” these poetic-extract objects, even just on a blog that nobody was reading, was at the time enough for me to take it seriously as a small art project. I was teaching myself some things, and that required both play and a kind of earnestness. But I worried then, as now, that my disposition is such that I simply would not take seriously work not intended for publication: the brain’s wise lizard knows.)

At first, I used full lines: I would try to make a line from one poem match the next line from a different poem not only in rhythm or some kind of harmony or pleasing disharmony, but also to choose lines in such a way that they could be read one after the other as if they had been born that way, creating through their juxtaposition a new meaning, or at least an intriguing nonsense. But after a while, keeping complete lines untouched became tedious because there were so many instances when things almost worked but not quite. So instead of quoting lines in full, I began to quote fragments. I still refused to write my own words as connecting glue, so I took the connecting words and phrases too from other poems.

(Why this refusal? I think at the time it was—and still is, I suppose—because I write little poetry, and I am uncomfortable with the form. That’s not to say I don’t touch it at all. A couple of years ago, at the very beginning of the pandemic and around this very time of year, a few days before Independence Day with the planes growling overhead, I put together a whole chapbook of poems, with my own words this time, and my own layout and design to boot. This is the first poem in it, “langurous”: I was reminded of it today because all these things happened again, dog and monkeys and planes. It is the nature of these circular days, these years turned in upon themselves.

But I have not written a poem since this chapbook. So perhaps my experiments with poetry may be considered seasonal at best.)

The collage project ended the day I took the word “and” from somebody’s poem and used it to link two phrases together. It was important for the game that I did not just write my own “and”; it was an “and” taken from some poem that I loved very much. I linked this solitary word to its source. This provenance made the “and” special, and the game lawful. It also made the game complete: there was nowhere left to go, and so it was done. Sometimes an ending comes upon you long before you understand you were working toward it.


A few years ago I half-wrote this (some of it escaped as twitter-thread radiation at the time, so if some of this sounds familiar, that’s why) in reaction to, among other things, a Sri Lanka politician—it was Mangala Samaraweera, in fact, whose recent death and subsequent hagiographies are what reminded me of this half-written essay again, before today’s headlines—saying that he was not a Buddhist but “a person who follows the Buddhist philosophy,” which has long been a Sri Lankan middlebrow commonplace for people who want to distance themselves from the tacky or ugly parts of Buddhism. The objectionable, depending on the objectors, might be the old-fashioned ritual trappings, the pogroms, the philosophical or salvific failures, or the politicized establishment. Common in all of these is the rescue of Buddhism from itself. Each is a search for some pure and uncorrupted heart, a philosophy, a way of life, some higher teaching separate from the muddy and the goday and the bloody. But at least for those whose objection to actually existing Buddhism in Sri Lanka is its cost in lives and to life, this search merely recreates the problem on slightly higher ground. Looking for the pure and uncorrupted heart is how hell was made.

The Gandharan Fasting Siddhartha, from the Lahore Museum. I like him as an icon of failure—this represents one of the unbuddhist paths of experiment. Also, he looks metal af.

Since this is a context where religion is racialized, it is also commonplace to say that you were born a Buddhist. I was born a Buddhist, in this sense, which means that I went to temple on the full moon, learned the Pali prayers by heart, cut bamboo to make Vesak lanterns in May, and as the members of my family died one by one, invited seven monks from the local temples to come sing the prayer for the dead. All that sort of thing. I did these things not out of considered and intentional choice but simply because this was the world I knew, and those were the things one did in it. Eventually, as with most things lacking a heart, my practice of the rituals faded away. I have not made a Vesak lantern in decades. I don’t miss it, but I remember the feeling of that childish religiosity like fresh-cut bamboo on my fingertips—too smooth, too easily broken, and too sharp at the edges.

I don’t call myself Buddhist any more. There was a long time when I still automatically used it as an identifier in forms and affidavits, but even that has passed many years ago. But because Buddhism is racialized in Sri Lanka, it’s also impossible to entirely escape it: regardless of what you believe or don’t believe, practice or don’t, Buddhist privilege is inescapable if you have a Sinhala name or had a Buddhist childhood. For example, I know the ඉතිපිසෝ, which is a short prayer of praise for the Buddha, now most notable for its use as a shibboleth to distinguish Tamil speakers from Sinhala speakers during the 1983 pogrom. Once you know things like that, I feel, this prayer—and all the other Pali prayers—become unspeakable. They stop meaning what they say; they stop meaning what they might have once meant. Now they mean something else.

That article, itself a hagiography to yet another asshole politician, includes anecdotes spanning the period between the 1977 election and the 1983 pogrom—I was born in 1979, of an age with the Prevention of Terrorism Act, so when I say this was the world I knew, I mean that I have never known a Sinhala Buddhism that was free of this violence. And its pedigree goes back decades, arguably centuries: it is safe to say, at minimum, that no-one now alive has ever known a different Sinhala Buddhism. And yet people constantly appeal to the spectre of one, something clean and untainted whose abstract purity in a higher realm justifies the violence in its defense in this one. This appeal is the heart of Buddhist fascism, and as a rhetorical move it is not restricted to the Sinhalese.

However, if the situation was such that there was only one learned lama or genuine practitioner alive, a person whose death would cause the whole of Tibet to lose all hope of keeping its Buddhist way of life, then it is conceivable that in order to protect that one person it might be justified for one or 10 enemies to be eliminated — if there was no other way. I could justify violence only in this extreme case, to save the last living knowledge of Buddhism itself.

The Dalai Lama, 1997 interview

Is it necessary to explain that this is wrong and deeply foolish? Is it not self-evident? Clearly, it is not self-evident. Myanmar’s 969 movement adapts this fatuous comment with ease into a justification for more generalized violence in Buddhism’s “defense,” and you will find the same language and same reasoning anywhere you care to look in Sinhala Buddhist rhetoric. It is the standard rhetorical manoeuvre by which Buddhists declare themselves above normative Buddhist ethics. Buddhist ethics is valuable, they say, because, e.g., it forbids killing, therefore killing is justified to preserve those ethics, which are certainly too valuable for everyday use. Buddhist ethics are like the good china, the fancy heirloom teapot you have in the glass cabinet for visitors to admire, but you are definitely not going to serve tea out of it.

To the Sinhala Buddhist proponent of violence, what they are doing is not hypocrisy, but sacrifice. Their belief is that they are selflessly ruining their own karma in order to save Buddhism for future generations. The violence, you see, is altruistic. The well-known fascist monk Gnanasara, for instance, made a production of this rhetorical move in 2019, by first declaring first that he would abandon his political activism to meditate and focus on religious pursuits, and then “changing his mind” because nirvana can always wait, but fascism is urgent. And “nirvana can always wait” has been standard-issue since before Independence, and the work of Walpola Rahula. In contemporary Sri Lankan Theravada, Buddhism is what is most useless to Buddhism, and exists only to be put aside.

But even that little zinger risks replicating the same manoeuvre I’m trying to argue against: the implication that there is a cleaner Buddhism, somewhere, even if in a purely hypothetical realm.

Why do I say “unbuddhist” instead of “non-religious”? Why අබෞද්ධ instead of නිරාගමික? Mostly, it’s that the latter tastes like cardboard to me. An airless word, a nothing word of studied neutrality: that isn’t what I’m getting at. People also say “atheist” here sometimes, by analogy with the popular Christian version, but that is entirely meaningless in this context, since the (non)existence of gods is not at issue. I like “unbuddhist” because it’s a pejorative to reclaim, perhaps, but also because it signals both opposition and proximity, in the same way that an atheist is someone who exists in a theistic framework and opposes it. Much of my thought, my fiction included, is inflected by buddhisms of various types. Nor is it particularly unusual for people to customize their buddhisms in this way, by dropping the parts they find objectionable and streamlining others—in fact, this was how the 20th century reform movement worked in the first place, stripping out what they considered empty ritual and ramping up the activist politicization.

But if you disavow the monks, political or otherwise, assuming an otherwise is even coherent; if you take away temples, relics, prayers, and rituals; if you take away poyas and the flag; if you ignore all the endlessly pedantic numbered lists of nonsense like the Thirty-Two Characteristics of Great Men; if you put aside orthodox understandings of karma and rebirth, samsara/nirvana, and meditation; if you have little interest in the alleged life of Siddhartha Gautama and less still in jatakas, buddhas, pacceka-buddhas, arahats, bodhisattvas, heavens, hells, or gamified enlightenment bonus points; if you ascribe little significance to the middle way, the four truths, the five precepts, the eightfold path, and so on, in that the important parts of those are derivable from ethical first principles and the rest are historical oddities and stray leftover bits; if you are specifically opposed to the linking of buddhism to race and nation and history, to “Sinhala-ness” in Buddhism, to the idea that a “Buddhism” even exists that could or should be “protected” or put in a constitutionally “foremost” place, all of which I do—then even if you continue to find, for instance, the paticcasamuppada, the trilaksana, and the idea of sunyata valuable and emotionally and intellectually significant, as I also do, you are definitely not a buddhist. You are merely a picky asshole, as I am. What I’m talking about here is not reformatory. This is not a stripping down to essentials, because I also don’t care about a lot of the essentials. This is merely an accommodation: my accommodation to the religious world I grew up in. This is what’s left of that world, after some consideration. It is possible, I think, and desirable, to disavow without appeal to purity.

But let’s talk about a real Buddhist instead.

Earlier today (and this is what prompted me to dust off this half-written essay yet again—truly this is an extremely cold take despite its hot-takeish timing) Gnanasara was appointed chairman of a “One Country One Law” presidential task force, signaling not a mainstreaming, exactly, since he was already thoroughly mainstream, but perhaps an upshift in Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s willingness to publicly and directly associate himself with the likes of Gnanasara, something the Rajapaksas used to be a little shyer about. More precisely, it’s a signal that the administration believes that the mainstreaming of Buddhist fascism has been successful enough that a figure who was once somewhat controversial even for their own base might now be more broadly acceptable. Perhaps they are wrong about this, but in a way the appointment is a self-fulfilling prophecy: even if it gets reversed, it means that the next ratchet on the overton window will be that much easier.

I’m mixing the personal and the political here in a messy way. I’ve been trying to write about my own experience of navigating a buddhistic worldview, but it would be hard to explain why all that flensing was necessary without pointing at what was and is in the world. Buddhism is not about the ideas. It’s not even mostly about the ideas. It is a social practice with an organic history. In Sri Lanka, that history has been violent for a long time even before the tremendous violence of the last few generations, from the caste restrictions of the nikayas to the genocidal justifications of the Mahavamsa.

But I bring up Gnanasara here because he’s exactly the kind of monk a great many Sinhala Buddhists would say (or used to say—I would guess that he is more acceptable to them today than he used to be ten or even five years ago) was not a “real” monk. And yet his real-monk-ness was formally endorsed and insisted upon by the highest Buddhist authority in Sri Lanka. If you wanted to call the Dalai Lama and ask him for a second opinion, it is fully consistent with Gnanasara’s perspective. This is the real Buddhism: if you think it isn’t, the error and the apostasy are yours.


Happy Stanislav Petrov Day! And this is a special Stanislav Petrov Day, because 2021, in addition to being the second plague year, is the Year of Lem, so in addition to apocalypses that are and might have been, we must also confront the untranslatable other.

A Lem story was recently published in English for the first time, “The Truth,” in a translation by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. I was reminded of Solaris by this passage:

Just before the explosion, the string of plasmatic flame, until now almost uniform, had narrowed at identical intervals like a plucked cord, and then, having broken down into a series of round grains, had ceased to exist as a whole. Each of these grains was growing and changing, the borders of these droplets of atomic heat became fluid, and projections began to come out of them, producing the next generation of droplets; then all these droplets converged toward the center and formed a flattened ball, which, contracting and inflating as if it were breathing, was at the same time sending out on reconnaissance something like fiery tentacles with quivering tips …

This short story was published three years after Solaris, and you can see the echoes of the one in the other. “I wonder what we could talk to the Sun about? What are the common issues, concepts, and problems that we share with it? … First communicate with the bacteria in your bodies, with the bushes in your gardens, with the bees and their flowers, and then you’ll be able to consider what methods to use for sharing information with the Sun.” Lem’s question is precisely not about the alien as the other, in fantastic literature’s all-too-easy (and racist) device of racialization, whether in elves or klingons, but about the alien as the incommensurable being: a response, perhaps, to the widespread failure of fantastical literature to imagine aliens that are not merely foreigners to be, in some fashion, conquered and tamed. The solar entities in “The Truth” are even more unknowable than the planet Solaris, which at least has the decency to haunt its intruders in their native guilts.

It’s easy to see why Lem was not fond of the cinematic adaptations of Solaris. The extended review of solaricist literature that takes up so much of the book is both masterful and unfilmable, because it is so very much a thing of text. Even the lovingly detailed descriptions of the transient formations of Solaris, the mimoids and the symmetriads and so on, are not about those visuals, for all that the images are stunning—rather, the book is about the different interpretations of what those phenomena mean, as advanced by generations of theorists of Solaris, and the dizzying effect of moving through these endless models and theories as we the reader mirror the history of futile attempts to make sense of something that is incomprehensible in any human frame of reference.

He was simply a pedantic classifier, one of those whose outer calm concealed an unflagging passion that consumed his whole life. As long as he was able, he relied exclusively on the language of description; when words failed him he managed by creating new words, often infelicitous ones that did not match the phenomena they were intended to describe […] “dendromountains,” its “extensors,” “megamushrooms,” “mimoids,” “symmetriads” and “asymmetriads,” its “vertebrids” and “rapidos” sound terribly artificial, but they do give some idea of Solaris even to those who’ve seen nothing but a few blurry photographs and poor quality films. Of course, even this conscientious classifier was guilty of rash moments. Humans are constantly coming up with hypotheses, even when they’re being cautious, and even though they’re quite unaware of it. Giese believed that extensors constituted a root form, and he compared them to greatly magnified and heightened versions of tidal waves in terrestrial oceans. Besides, anyone who’s immersed himself in the first edition of the work knows that he originally named them precisely “tides” led by a geocentrism that would be amusing if it weren’t for his helplessness.

Lem, Solaris

Tarkovsky’s 1972 Solaris makes a heroic attempt to adapt all this rampant textuality to video. Where in the book we read the text of Burton’s testimony, in the film we see a film of it. There is even a film within the film within the film, as the recorded younger Burton attempts (and fails) to show his tribunal what he has seen on Solaris—while the older Burton impatiently fast-forwards through chunks of his younger self’s testimony. Or Gibarian’s cryptic note to Kelvin, which in the film is a (somewhat less cryptic) video instead. All of this works quite well. What doesn’t work is that film adaptations seem compelled to insert massive doses of sentimentality absent in the novel. Tarkovsky, for instance, adds forty minutes of opening prologue set on Earth, attempting to ground Kelvin before he’s sent off to space. There is a father and a crying aunt. After forty minutes of this, the film finally catches up to the novel’s in media res opening.

Interestingly, this is not where Tarkovsky breaks up Part 1 and Part 2. Part 1 continues through Harey’s arrival, her dress without seams, their first conversation. It’s only when Kelvin takes her to the rocket that the film switches to Part 2, even though there is no significant gap in time and no break in setting. Even the theme of violence is not new by this point, because Kelvin reached for a gun (absent in the novel) as soon as Harey first arrived.

Other people’s ghosts are only eerie, perhaps, but our own are compelling. Kelvin, upon seeing again the woman he loved, who killed herself long ago, cannot help but respond to her with tenderness along with the terror and revulsion. “Don’t be afraid,” he tells the ghost haunting him. They are both afraid. How to tell the beloved dead that they are dead?

Neither Tarkovsky’s film nor the 2002 Soderbergh Solaris make any serious attempt to depict Solaris itself. At least in 1972, you could argue, maybe Tarkovsky didn’t have the technology to make a real go of it: he did what he could to suggest strange fluids and miasmas. The 2002 film is, unexpectedly, even worse on this front. There is no attempt to CGI up some mimoids. The planet is merely a vague blur in the distance while the focus is entirely on the romance between George Clooney and Natascha McElhone. “The book is called Solaris,” a caustic Lem observed on learning this: “Not Love in Outer Space.” Though this is true even of Tarkovsky’s film to some degree, or at least its marketing. All adaptations are, sooner or later, Love in Outer Space. But Solaris is not any recognizable human storyteller, and therefore not a romance novel author. The hauntings are not an opportunity for the guilty or grieving to make peace with their lost ones; it is not a neat device of closure or an attempt at communication. The hauntings are an epiphenomenon of human proximity to the truly alien: we only shatter along the faultlines that we bring with us.

Facilis Descensus

In “Break It Down Logically” I wrote about a 1949 short story by Howard Schoenfeld, originally published in the anarchist journal Retort before being reprinted in F&SF. The editors and publishers of Retort, Holley Cantine and Dachine Rainer, also published Schoenfeld’s account of his incarceration as a conscientious objector to World War II.

Ten years after Schoenfeld’s story was reprinted in F&SF, Holley Cantine also published a story of his own in F&SF. It was called “Double, Double, Toil and Trouble”:

I found that by leaving the city I had shed the radical movement like a bad dream. While I still believed vaguely in the desirability of socialism, once I had the chance to achieve some perspective, it became perfectly obvious that the wrangling little sects that had consumed so large a part of my life would never amount to anything, and I was well quit of them.

To fill the void in my life left by the cessation of political activity, I began to revive my old interest in magic.

Holley Cantine,“Double, Double, Toil and Trouble”, F&SF, 1960.

Cantine’s story is about the narrator’s mastery of a single magical ability, which he calls doubling, whereby he can magically produce a duplicate of any object, including persons. This is an inversion, in a way, of the neat closed loop of Schoenfeld’s rabbit vs. not-rabbit. Cantine posits doubled rabbits instead, a profane multiplying of objects—like Borges’s “mirrors and fatherhood” (which, incidentally, was published the same year that Schoenfeld and Dellinger were in prison, though not published in English until the year after Cantine’s story), an abominable mass reproduction.

The narrator at first merely uses this ability to multiply his scant resources so he can sell them and make money. It’s not wealth he’s seeking: he is content with self-sufficiency. What he really wants is to form an amateur brass band with himself. So he duplicates himself, or rather, himselves, one per instrument, and in the process discovers that the process of duplication is not perfect and his copies are not identical, having inherited different aspects of his moods, interests, and politics. One of his doubles returns to the radical politics that the narrator himself had given up on, by doubling and redoubling himself into an army and invading the Capitol. (This story predates the Marvel Comics character Multiple Man by fifteen years.) The imperfection of the doubling is doubled down upon: the militant self, attempting to defeat a conventional army through sheer numbers, doubles and redoubles himself relentlessly, the fidelity of the copies and the copies of copies becoming only ever more degraded, their politics only becoming more violent and less coherent in every iteration.

Between the publication of these two stories in F&SF, Dachine Rainer founded the Committee for the Liberation of Ezra Pound with, among others, e.e. cummings. Pound was arrested for treason for his pro-fascist radio broadcasts in Italy during World War II, and institutionalized in an American mental hospital for over a decade. Rainer wrote this in his defense in 1991:

It was once fairly common knowledge and it must be stated here that Pound was declared insane as a humanitarian act in order to avoid a trial and what in the hysterical postwar climate would most probably have been an execution.

Dachine Rainer, “Standing Up to Ezra Pound“, New York Times, 1991

Rainer is fully a Pound apologist here, even to the point of denying that he was a fascist or antisemite, which seems to rather fly in the face of Pound’s extensive body of pro-fascist and antisemitic utterances. “He is obviously crazy,” Hemingway wrote of Pound a couple of years before his arrest.

He deserves punishment and disgrace but what he really deserves most is ridicule. He should not be hanged and he should not be made a martyr of. He has a long history of generosity and unselfish aid to other artists and he is one of the greatest of living poets. It is impossible to believe that anyone in his right mind could utter the vile, absolutely idiotic drivel he has broadcast. His friends who knew him and who watched the warpeing and twisting and decay of his mind and judgement should defend him and explain him on that basis. It will be a completely unpopular but an absolutely necessary thing to do. I have had no correspondence with him for ten years and the last time I saw him was in 1933 when Joyce asked me to come to make it easier having Ezra at his house. Ezra was moderately whacky then. The broadcasts are absolutely balmy. I wish we could talk the whole damned thing over. But you can count on me for anything an honest man should do.

Hemingway in a letter to Archibald MacLeish, 1943

A couple of years after this letter, about a month after Mussolini was shot, the sixty-year-old Pound was arrested. They held him at a detention centre in Pisa, apparently within sight of the leaning tower.

For the first three weeks of his detention, Pound was in the specially reinforced cage that can be partially seen at the left in this photo.

A photograph of the row of ordinary cages shows just a corner of this special one. All have concrete slab floors, about six feet wide and six and a half long, simple timber frames, ¼″ wire netting walls, flat wood and tar-paper roofs, except that for Pound’s the steel grille is about an inch deep with four-inch interstices. The cages were open to the elements, to the summer sun, to wind and rain, to the dust blown in from the road to Pisa or from the drill field on hot windy days; and open too to the constant observation of the guards posted to watch him night and day, and to the gaze of passing military police and prisoners on their way in or out of the camp. All night a bright ‘reflector’ light shone on the cage. For furniture he was at first given just a slop pail and six blankets, and slept on the concrete; after some heavy rain, a cot was put in, and took up half the space; then he was given a pup tent which could be arranged to provide shelter from sun and rain. There was a general order that he was not to be spoken with—anyone could stare at him in his cage, but no one was to have a word with him.

A. David Moody, Ezra Pound, Poet. Volume III: The Tragic Years 1939-1972 (2015)

A young guard at this camp, David Feldman, wrote about Pound decades later, too.

After about three weeks of his caged existence I could see a change occur, an unpleasant change. He appeared to have lost weight and stopped all activity. He looked terrible in his army ‘fatigues’ that became larger on him daily.

I recall a three or four day gap between my strolls past “The Cage”. When I did find time to return to the area, I found him gone. It was at least a week later that I discovered him in the medical area. A good friend in the dispensary informed me that, “He cracked”. The truth is that he became hysterical, lost his memory, and was having nightmares […]

He made good progress and after about three months he was really fit. He was so fit that he asked for and received permission to use the dispensary typewriter. It was at the typewriter that I approached him just to say hello. (I never thought of him as a criminal, just a poet.)

David Feldman, “Ezra Pound, A Poet in a Cage“, Paideuma: Modern and Contemporary Poetry and Poetics, 1981

A lot of sympathetic writing on Pound dwells on the cage. It is part of the iconography of his rehabilitation, or rather, the rehabilitation of his image, as Pound himself continued to associate with fascists and white supremacists during and after his incarceration, and he unsurprisingly continues to be an icon for neo-fascist movements like CasaPound today. The simultaneous project of imagistic rehabilitation is meanwhile ongoing (note The Tragic Years in the title of Moody’s biography above.)

For a particular type of unsympathetic response to Pound, we turn to Malcolm Cowley, to whom Hemingway once referred as a stupid-looking potato face. Cowley wrote:

The spoiled great poet was also a spoiled traitor, despised and laughed at by his foreign masters. After being arrested by his own countrymen he was sent to a mental hospital without being granted the dignity of a public trial. It was the perfect retribution, a spoiled punishment for a soiled crime.

Malcolm Cowley, “The Battle over Ezra Pound”, New Republic, 1949. This is after the imprisoned Pound controversially won a poetry award.

To Cowley, Pound’s imprisonment is “perfect retribution” for what he considers a failed treason, because he finds Pound’s broadcasts “silly and ineffective.” They were of course silly, but fascism is silly—the beliefs, the ideas, are so mind-numbingly foolish that they often hardly seem to bear refutation and yet they must be refuted. Both Rainer and Cowley point out that Pound is not directly responsible for any deaths, though from opposite directions: Rainer uses this to claim Pound’s total innocence, and Cowley to suggest that his guilt is ameliorated by his sheer incompetence as a traitor.

Hemingway, MacLeish, Rainer and others supported Pound’s eventual release, sometimes through gritted teeth. In 1957, Hemingway, then a recent Nobel winner, wrote yet another letter in support of Pound’s release, in which, Michael Reynolds writes in his biography, Hemingway continued to “emphasize that he could not abide Pound’s politics, his support of fascism, or his anti-Semitic and racist views.” When Pound was released the following year—the indictment of treason being finally dismissed because he was judged incompetent to stand trial—he received a cheque from Hemingway for $1,500 to sponsor his relocation to Italy. As he had said to MacLeish over a decade before, Hemingway did what he thought an honest man should do.

Of course, Pound had been a mentor and early champion of Hemingway, along with many of the other writers who supported him. Their campaigning for his release was also, perhaps primarily, driven by their sense of indebtedness to him, their need to rescue his celebrity status as a great poet. Where does that leave the less connected writer at the mercy of the state? Would Pound have been less worthy of support if he had not been a famous and much-admired poet with personal ties to Nobel Prize winners? Well, obviously not—and equally obviously, he would not have received that support either. Celebrity trumps principle, in practice if not in theory.

To become a traitor is easy, so easy that it often seems like treason is the natural point at which the citizen would come to rest, gravitationally speaking, if one were not artificially suspended above the pit, as it were, of this original sin by grace of the state—an unearned support easily withdrawn, if you were to oppose the wars of your state, for instance, or the state of your war, which would make you a traitor regardless of whether you oppose this war because you oppose all war, even a “good war”, or whether you support the enemy. For the paranoid state, it is the same operation in either case. Lacking the discerning organs of principle to distinguish between nonviolence and fascism, for instance (what states tend to have instead of principle are constitutions, which are, as self-proclaimed non-war-criminal Kamal Gunaratne indicated recently, just so much toilet paper) the pareidoliac state can find opposition in a grain of sand, enemies in a wild flower.

“Front rouge” [a poem by Louis Aragon] contained several lines advocating militant aggression against the liberal government of Léon Blum. […] Taking the commands “Feu sur Léon Blum” (“Shoot Léon Blum”) and “Descendez les flics” (“kill the cops”) literally as a call to arms (and extracting them from their poetic context), Blum’s Department of Justice accused Aragon on 16 January 1932 of attempting to incite unrest, an act punishable by a prison sentence of five years. […]

Upon hearing the news of the accusation against Aragon, [André] Breton immediately drafted a rebuttal. He circulated this rebuttal as a petition, acquired over three hundred signatures, and published it […]

Breton’s act of solidarity probably saved Aragon from being brought to trial, for the Blum government, at first incensed by the poem’s treasonous call for violent insurrection, felt even more threatened by the negative publicity it would receive as a result of surrealist agitation […] Not wanting to be associated with the dictatorial tactics of censorshop, Blum’s justice department simply dropped the case.

Carrie Noland, “Red Front/Black Front“, Diacritics, 2006

As Hemingway and others supported Pound despite disagreements, André Breton supported Louis Aragon in this situation despite their having fallen out. Upon his release, however, Aragon promptly doubled down by publishing a repudiation of Breton’s petition, the very one that may well have kept him out of prison. Aragon called Breton counter-revolutionary for arguing for the right of a poem to be read as a poem. He’d wanted it read, it seemed, as a call to direct action, and felt that Breton was unnecessarily muddying the clear waters in which les flics were to be descendu.

Break It Down Logically

Howard Schoenfeld’s short story “Built Up Logically” was published in F&SF in 1950, when Schoenfeld was thirty-five. Ten years before that, he spent almost a year in prison for being part of a group resisting conscription for World War II, a group led by David Dellinger, who would go on to a lifetime of anti-war protests. He protested against the American war in Vietnam, for instance and so became one of the Chicago Eight.

Dellinger—played by John Carroll Lynch in Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020), who also played the Zodiac killer in Fincher’s Zodiac (2007) and Marge’s husband Norm Gunderson in the Coen brothers’ Fargo (1996)—spent three years in prison in the early 40s to Schoenfeld’s one. He could have been exempted from service as a divinity student, as were most of his group, but chose prison instead as a pacificist. In Schoenfeld’s account of their shared prison experience, Dellinger caused a stir on his very first day by crossing the colour line in the segregated mess hall and sitting with the black prisoners, for which he was of course punished. Dellinger’s background of privilege, a white man who went to Yale, is a big part of his story throughout his life. For instance, in 1969 the Chicago Eight became the Chicago Seven after the chaining and gagging of Bobby Seale (as Gil Scott-Heron puts it succinctly in “H20gate Blues”), the kind of treatment that Dellinger, as a white man, would not be subjected to. Over the years Dellinger became an elder statesman of protest, defanged through lionization. Here is how he was described in 1987:

For the past five weeks, Dellinger has been in a D.C. courtroom as one of 18 defendants in a First Amendment civil-disobedience case. The group was arrested last August while protesting nonviolently in the rotunda of the Capitol. It opposed what it saw as the government’s support of killing and violence by the contras in Nicaragua. On Feb. 12, he and his codefendants were found guilty on three counts: unlawful entry, blocking and impeding public space and unlawfully demonstrating in the Capitol. Dellinger and nine others will be sentenced in April. Last Monday, eight co-defendants were given suspended sentences.

At 71, Dellinger was the senior protester. He was also the most jailed—“oh, about 50 times, I guess, I’ve lost count”—and the most articulate.

From Yale to Jail”, Washington Post, 1987

Dellinger himself had something to say about that article in his memoir published a few years later under the same title.

To this day, I am more apt to mention the education I received in prison than the one I got at Yale. But that attempt at identification with some of society’s rejected can also bestow a different kind of unwarranted prestige. Having spent nearly three years in prison for the sake of one’s principles (and numerous shorter stays) is viewed in some circles as more impressive than it should be. So I point out that compared to most of the people I met in prison I was a short-timer. And for similar reasons, I have never kept count of how many times I have been arrested or in jail, a question I am frequently asked by the media and others. (One media writer wrote that I said “about fifty times,” but he made that up.)

David Dellinger, From Yale to Jail: The Life Story of a Moral Dissenter, Rose Hill Books, 1993

Howard Schoenfeld’s account of the prison time he shared with Dellinger in 1940 as a conscientious objector took the form of an essay published in the newspapers later in that decade and eventually, in 1950—the same year as his F&SF story—reprinted in Prison Etiquette: The Convict’s Compendium of Useful Information published by Retort Press.

Schoenfeld in solitary, from Prison Etiquette.

Prison Etiquette was an anthology co-edited by Retort Press owners Holley Cantine and Dachine Rainer, anti-war activists and writers, themselves conscientious objectors and fascinating characters—more on them in a different essay. Rainer and Cantine had worked with Schoenfeld before: his F&SF story, “Built Up Logically,” was also a reprint, having been originally published in their anarchist journal Retort a year earlier, under the title “The Universal Panacea.” Retort didn’t pay contributors at all, so one hopes F&SF paid full rates for reprints back in the day.

Always thought this was a hideous cover.

There are some small differences in the text between “Built Up Logically” and “The Universal Panacea”. Here is an link to the full F&SF issue with “Built Up Logically” and here it is in audio, via a 2008 reading at the Slug of Time podcast; here is a PDF of the full issue of Retort that contains “The Universal Panacea.” The differences are mostly to do with drug references carefully excised in the F&SF version. This version has been anthologized numerous times—for instance, it appears in the 1973 Penguin Science Fiction Omnibus edited by Brian Aldiss, which, via a second-hand bookshop in Colombo sometime in the mid-90s, is how I encountered this story for the first time.

“Built Up Logically” is funny, twisty, and metafictional: the initial narrator-author Aspasia, who writes himself into the story twice so that he can get laid offscreen in the background “without interference from the censors” while continuing to narrate in his primary characterization, is engaged in an eventually deadly struggle for authorship of the story with Frank, who has a certain gimmick whereby he can invent things and make it so that they have always been part of the universe, such as rabbits and pianos, and eventually the universe itself.

More than the contest between would-be narrators for authorship, more even than Sally La Rue’s time machine that moves the whole universe forward in time so that everything always looks exactly the same and you’re not sure if anything real has happened—is there a better image of Progress—this is the part of this story that stuck with me for the last quarter-century or so.

The opening lines of “The Universal Panacea” (Retort, 1949)

The universal panacea in question is, explicitly, marihuana, as Schoenfeld puts it—so “The Universal Panacea”, in its original form, is less about narrative metalepsis and more about being extremely high, unless you consider those, not unreasonably, the same thing. The F&SF version excises all explicit mentions of weed, but without changing the line to make the edit make sense. For instance, it simply replaces reefer with cigar, like so:

“The universal panacea,” Frank said, lighting a cigar. “Have one.”

Opening line of “Built Up Logically”, (F&SF, 1950)

This tobacco-ized version never made sense to me. I was a smoker for some fifteen of the twenty-five years since my first reading of this story and it didn’t seem like a natural thing for a smoker to say. But it’s a very odd story, so I’d chalked this line up to another random oddity for a long time, only to discover that it does in fact make perfect sense in the original, much in the way that the mysteries of the universe resolve themselves when you’re high.

The thing with the rabbit is one such profundity that, however, does not seem to lose relevance upon sobriety. Everything—any object, any creature, any sufficiently complex part of the universe you care to point at—implies the rest of the universe. The universe, considered as the union of rabbit and not-rabbit: not just the space and time it takes up as a particular being, but its ancestry and evolution, the environment it requires and is adapted to, the cosmic laws and material histories that must be in place in order to rabbit.

I say any sufficiently complex part of the universe because it seems to be that such cosmic reconstructibility relies on a focal point (the rabbit, the piano, a poem, a prison) that is the way it is because everything was the way it was. So the universe you build depends on your choice of focus. The world you make depends on the seed you use as its absent heart. You could reconstruct a universe from a hydrogen atom or from water or a rock, but such a universe does not necessarily need to include a human civilization. You could reconstruct a universe from a bone flute and it would not include the history that postdates that object. A rabbit born well before this story was published—say, while its author was in prison—would be markedly different from a rabbit born after: the latter would carry in its body the mark of the bomb pulse, as we do.

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Strange Halves

I started thinking about this essay after my story “Redder” was published, to briefly talk about a specific technique of storytelling: stories whose structure is intentionally discontinuous but nondual, built out of seeming halves. As always, this essay is brought to you with the support of my patrons! Some personal news in the meantime: having written what will hopefully be my first novel, I am now represented by Michael Curry of the Donald Maass Literary Agency.

Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s film Satpralat (2004) is called Tropical Malady in English, not Strange Creature, which would be a more literal translation of สัตว์ประหลาด. Most reviews speak of the film as having two halves. In fact, it’s difficult not to speak of it as having two halves—there is an explicit transition between the two, and while there is (some) continuity of character, there is a massive shift in style, register, and tone. This may not seem all that uncommon a device: for example, Lawrence Michael Levine’s Black Bear (2020) does something very similar, where Aubrey Plaza’s character goes from being the manipulator in the first half to the manipulated in the second. But Black Bear flattens itself with its framing device that repeatedly shows (yet another?) Aubrey Plaza character drafting multiple versions of a screenplay, of which the two halves—the bear in the road and the bear near the boathouse—are only drafts in different genres. So Black Bear is less what I’m talking about and more like an American remake of Sion Sono’s Antiporno (2016), where the first half is revealed in the second half to be a film, with the power dynamics of the film-within-the-film being inverted in the story of the production of that film-within-the-film. But both Black Bear and Antiporno have continuity between their halves: they are not discontinuous halves but unfoldings.

In Satpralat, the first half is a romance between two men set in a world seems like ours. The second half is a world apart, a fantastical sequence of transformation and apparition, where one of the lovers is sometimes a tiger, but not the generic cinematic weretiger that one might be forced to imagine, with the howls and chains and writhing and cracking bones and predictable guilts; no, this is not that. Between these worlds, these halves, there is a pause: a black screen that slowly fades into a tiger who announces that we are embarking on a new path.

Still from Satpralat (2004): the threshold between its halves.

The halves read each other, but we encounter them, necessarily, in sequence. So it is only in the second half that we understand that we’re meant to read both what we’re seeing now and reread what we saw before. An hour later, when we get to the tiger facing the man in the jungle, we understand their dynamic of desire and pursuit. The first half reads the second as much as the other way around. This isn’t metafiction: this is a mirror-fiction that doesn’t tell you which side of the mirror you’re on.

Still from Satpralat (2004): the climactic faceoff.

In Jess Barton’s strangely doubled poem “Lord, Be A Femme” (2017), published on Tumblr, read by the author here, and included in the Nameless Woman anthology, available here for free, the transition is similarly tight and explicit—“My asshole becomes a glorious portal through time and space fucked back to Mayan brothels in Guatemalan jungles.” Then it does, and we are in another world peopled by men who are jaguars, not tigers. But at the same time (and in another time) it’s the same people and the same story, too. This is what’s important about these strange halves: despite being clearly distinct, they are not dyadic but nondual. Not separate stories cut together, not unfoldings of a fiction into a metafiction, but each half precisely a reading of the other. A prediction, or a prophesy—a vision. The cloud of connotations shifts too much with each of those words. Prediction is too sfnal, a model or forecast; prophesy is too fantastical, a destiny, a fate, a doom. Vision, at least, feels appropriately mystical, or at least mysterious: a weird, a word, a word in your ear, whispered by the voices of the dead.

In April 2019, Shakthika Sathkumara was arrested for a short story that he had posted on Facebook. The story was in Sinhala, called “අර්ධ”: ardha, which means half. The strange arrest was instigated by a faction of Buddhist monks who I would have called hardliners if there existed a softer line worth speaking of; as it is, they are merely representative. Their problem with the story was, in a word, blasphemy.

It would be four months before Sathkumara was even given bail. The case is still ongoing, and the possibility of prison time is still on the table. Meanwhile, the story, originally written in Sinhala, was eventually translated into English and published by the Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka. I did my own translation, too, though I didn’t publish it at the time: well, there it is, for what it’s worth. It seemed redundant then, and perhaps it is even now, because such cases are not truly about the words or about art or its place in our lives.

What precisely about Sathkumara’s story was so objectionable as to land its author in prison is itself somewhat entangled. One half of that tangle is simply that it depicts monks in an unflatteringly realistic way, such as by acknowledging the rampant child abuse that characterizes Buddhist temples or by having a monk named Gnanasara show up as a character accusing social workers of helping “Tiger families,” or even just by having the main character be an ex-monk who sees monkhood as pointless and miserable and is glad to be rid of it. In other words, the story depicts Sri Lankan Buddhism as it is. Its genre is unbearable realism.

Then there is the other half, perhaps the major part of the offense that was taken: the blasphemy. This is the brief short-story-within-the-short-story where Siddhartha is cuckolded by his charioteer. This fiction-within is too small, you might say, to constitute a half. But considering its outsize impact, its wildly disproportionate consequence, it would be more correct to say that this paragraph is the bigger half of the story. As the fiction-within gives way to the metafiction, the characters acknowledge that the joke is unspeakable: the narrator urges its author to burn the story-within. Perhaps if he had, the author’s author would not have gone to prison. But what then would have been lost, and whose loss would it have been?

In May 2020, Ahnaf Jazeem was arrested for a book of poems, “நவரசம்,” Navarasam, written in Tamil. He is still in prison. The book is now online but not yet in translation. The accusation this time is not blasphemy, but promoting terrorism; where Sathkumara was detained under “hate speech” legislation, Jazeem is being detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. As that article notes:

Ahnaf’s book of poetry was also cleared by an eminent scholar of the Tamil language and retired Professor of Tamil at the University of Peradeniya, M.A. Nuhman, who famously authored “The Murder of Buddha,” a poem about the burning of the Jaffna Library in 1981. Professor Nuhman said he had read Jazeem’s tiny anthology of 45 poems after hearing of the poet’s prolonged detention under the PTA and found nothing on extremism in the collection.

“On the contrary, there are several poems against extremism, violence, and war in this collection,” Professor Nuhman said in a statement on Jazeem’s arrest.

Professor Nuhman, a widely respected Tamil scholar, said Jazeem work mostly concerned religious morality, humanism, love and a peaceful life. “How can these sentiments be seen as promoting extremism,” he questioned, adding that the authorities who could not read or understand poetry in the Tamil language may have run away with that notion because there were a few pictures of people in arms depicted in the printed version of Jazeem’s anthology.

The discontinuity between prosecution and defense is so complete that these two halves of each case are not even debating the same thing. These cases are absolutely about the freedom of art (dead as it is on this island, are we not still haunted) but at the same time these cases are, clearly, not truly about art at all. What here has been lost, and whose loss is it? These cases aren’t even necessarily about words: Ahnaf was arrested and detained without investigators or magistrate being able to read the book, which they still are not. The prosecution happily wallows in illiteracy; it is the belated defense that must now read poetry, that must seek real translation, that must argue that words mean things and that the truth matters. The prosecuting state is happy to take the easy position that truth is reducible to power, and that art is at best a nuisance and at worst a kind of disease—hardly a pandemic, of course, merely the last remnant pockets of infection, something nearly eradicated.