By Claire Kirch
“All fiction is nonfiction,” declares Ru Freeman. A social justice activist and freelance journalist, her creative writing explores many of the same themes as her political commentary: war, peace and reconciliation, education, and women’s issues. Born in the capital city of Colombo, in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) in 1967, the daughter of a civil servant and a teacher, Freeman recalls a tumultuous childhood and young adulthood in a family of intellectuals, set against a backdrop of political conflict and discord.
Her life clearly informs her fiction. Freeman’s second novel, On Sal Mal Lane (Graywolf), weaves together the experiences of a large cast of characters from 10 families of various religious, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds who make their homes on a quiet street in Colombo. Ordinary citizens, the fabric of their lives is ripped apart by the real-life civil war that erupted in 1983 following years of tension between two ethnic groups, the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority. By the time the war ended in 2009, 25 years after the events in On Sal Mal Lane take place, an estimated 100,000 Sri Lankans had perished.
“In Sri Lanka,” Freeman, 45, explains, “you have to live with everybody else. You don’t get to isolate yourself. So, when there are riots, or war, or suicide bombs, it doesn’t just kill one group; it kills a lot of people. They are from everywhere, from all religious backgrounds, from all ethnicities.” It’s a history of violence that Freeman, who now lives with her husband and three daughters in a bucolic village on Philadelphia’s tony Main Line, knows all too well.
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