UA Professor Adele Barker recently spent a month in Sri Lanka to visit a land she first fell in love with when she received a Fulbright scholarship to teach at the University of Peradeniya in 2001. She wrote about her time there, as well as a visit she made shortly after the 2004 tsunami, in Not Quite Paradise: An American Sojourn in Sri Lanka, out this month from Beacon Press. Barker will read from and sign her books at Antigone Books at 7 p.m., Friday, Jan. 29, and at the UA Student Union BookStore at 4:30 p.m., Tuesday, Feb. 2. She will also participate in the Tucson Festival of Books in a panel discussion on travel memoirs on Saturday, March 13. For more information on Barker's recent travels, visit www.huffingtonpost.com/adele-barker.
Why did you travel to Sri Lanka for your Fulbright?
I've done a lot of academic stuff, but I really wanted to do creative nonfiction, which is why I wrote the book. I also wanted to live in someone else's shoes for awhile. I applied for the Fulbright because it was time for me to take a breath and live differently, and write. As the months went by, I realized there was much I wanted to say about the country we had found ourselves in, about the war, the social displacement and nature—the beautiful small places that found itself in such conflict.
And you keep going back.
In 2004, I thought I had finished the book. Then I woke up the morning after Christmas in Tucson and saw pieces of the island where we had lived disappearing into the sea. I understood, after the shock of the first few days, that I had to get back, and so in the fall of 2005 I returned for eight months to take stock of what had happened and to take measure of the war.
What made you return this last visit?
The civil war ended, and that was what really prompted me and my son to go back. Just enough time had elapsed since the Tamil Tigers were defeated in May of this past year that I wanted to see how the country was faring in the process of post-war peace building.
Did you see the change you hoped to see?
It's a very complicated small country, fraught with incredible problems. We went up north where most of the war had taken place, and we saw how the city of Jaffna, once the epicenter of the war, was rebuilding. ... We also came right up against the camps for the IDPS, the internally displaced persons. We weren't allowed to go into the camps, but we were allowed to meet with some of the people who had been released. They were primarily (university) students from Jaffna. It was one of the most heart-breaking moments I've spent in Sri Lanka. The university's vice chancellor personally had gone over to one of the camps and pulled out 400 students. ... The whole notion of academia as the ivory tower doesn't work there. If you're an administrator, your job includes how to feed your students and sometimes how to get them out of displaced-persons camps.
Did you meet any of these students?
I wanted to meet with some of the girls in particular. A friend of mine set it up. I arrived that morning expecting to meet with five girls, but there were 75 in the auditorium. What do you say to them? Here I am coming back to a life of privilege. I know where my family is, I have a roof over my head and I have food. I told them how helpless I felt and I told them that the only thing in my life that had come even close to their experiences is the loss of people I love. ... Everyone in that room had either lost everything and everybody, or nearly everything and everybody. ... "What do you need most of all?" I asked them. One girl stood up, "Madame, we need bicycles. We can't get to the university." ... Most of all, though, they (said they) need their families back.
How can healing take place?
Healing is going to be the toughest part of recovery from this war. I think the country needs to start with a truth and reconciliation commission. I understand that there are plans for one, but it still hasn't happened. Without one you have a situation in which both sides see themselves as the only victims in this war. It's impossible to comprehend what a lot of these people have been through.