Proust Questionnaire: 17 questions with Vivimarie VanderPoorten
By Yong Shu Hoong
There were many dark sides to the civil war in Sri Lanka, where Tamil-Sinhalese tensions provoked violence and bloodshed from 1983 to 2009. But this deathly chapter of history has also spurred the creation of noteworthy Sri Lankan literary works like Vivimarie VanderPoorten's poem 'Explosion', which records the devastation wrought by the 1996 bombing that ripped through the Central Bank in Colombo.
The poem is included in her first book, Nothing Prepares You, which in 2007 won the prestigious Gratiaen Prize, an annual literary prize founded by the Sri Lankan-born Canadian novelist, Michael Ondaatje.
VanderPoorten's second collection of poems, Stitch Your Eyelids Shut, was a joint winner of the State Literary Award in 2011, while her third poetry book, Borrowed Dust, was shortlisted for the Gratiaen Prize in 2016.
Born in Kandy of Sinhalese and Belgian ancestry, VanderPoorten is a senior lecturer at the Open University of Sri Lanka. She holds a BA in English from the University of Kelaniya, Sri Lanka, and an MA in Applied Linguistics and a PhD in Educational Sociolinguistics from the University of Ulster, UK. She is currently considering the possibility of writing flash fiction.
1. What are you reading right now?
I am currently in El Paso, Texas, at the University of Texas at El Paso on a Fulbright grant, so I am reading a collection of stories by Benjamin Alire Sαenz, who is the former chair of the university's Department of Creative Writing. It is called Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club. I just finished reading Alan Duff's Once Were Warriors, which I had to read quickly in order to teach a class on the language of that novel.
2. If you were a famous literary character in a novel, play, or poem, who would you be, and why?
I would be Nora in Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House because Nora did something very brave given the context and historical moment of that play. I love her character, primarily because, when faced with the dilemma of choosing between what was legal and what was compassionate, she chose compassion, what she felt was the right thing to do. When, as a consequence of her choice, her husband humiliated her, she walked out of an otherwise comfortable marriage. I can identify with that.
3. What is the greatest misconception about you?
I think there are two. One is that I identify as a Burgher, which is an identity ascribed to those who are descended from the Dutch colonisers of the island. I don't. I identify as a Sri Lankan. The other is that I don't believe in love, because my poems speak mostly about failed relationships. But I do. I think love is the source of the highest worldly happiness, and a great teacher.
4. Name one living author and one dead author you identify with most, and tell us why.
Living author Sharon Olds, because she writes brilliantly about the mundane and everyday aspects of (especially) a woman's life and validates that experience. Dead author Anne Sexton, because I think I am also a confessional poet, and because, like her, I have struggled with depression and written about it, and because her poetry speaks to me.
5. Do you believe in writer's block? If so, how do you overcome it?
Yes, I believe in writer's block. It is the worst thing. And mostly because I think it is hard to overcome it. I still haven't found a way. I believe that writer's block is the universe saying, "Wait. Live, breathe, watch and listen for now." We just have to wait till it goes away of its own accord.
6. What qualities do you admire most in a writer?
I admire honesty and courage. When writers are unafraid to say what they are saying and how they are saying it. When they are brave enough to accept that they are vulnerable.
7. What is one trait you deplore most in writing or writers?
Big fat egos!
8. Can you recite your favourite line from a literary work or a piece of advice from a writer?
"To love. To be loved. To never forget your own insignificance. To never get used to the unspeakable violence and the vulgar disparity of life around you. To seek joy in the saddest places. To pursue beauty to its lair. To never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple. To respect strength, never power. Above all, to watch. To try and understand. To never look away. And never, never to forget." Arundhati Roy
9. Complete this sentence: Few people know this, but I
Have made a serious attempt to take my own life. (No need to panic, I am beyond that now!)
10. At the movies, if you have to pick a comedy, a tragedy, or an action thriller to watch, which will you go for, and why?
A tragedy. There is beauty in tragedy, because most of life is tragic, and also at the end of the movie I can say, "After all, it was only a movie."
11. What is your favourite word, and what is your least favourite one?
I am not sure I can pick a favourite, but I like the words "compelling" and "almost". I think my least favourite is "nice", because it is so overused.
12. Write a rhyming couplet that includes the following three words: ancient, teardrop and hillside.
On the hillside where ancient green memories lay
there's a girl like a teardrop, though why, he can't say.
(That sounds terrible! And now you know why I don't write rhyming poetry.)
13. What object is indispensable to you when you write?
Just the objects that are used for writing. My laptop computer.
14. What is the best time of the day for writing?
Late at night when everyone is asleep and the night, deathly quiet, tells you it is full of possibilities.
15. If you had a last supper, which three literary figures, real or fictional, would you invite to the soiree, and why?
I would invite Anna Karenina, Emma Bovary and Tess Durbeyfield, and we would enjoy our meal and recite Derek Walcott's poem 'Love After Love' and say to ourselves: "Sit here. Eat. You will love again the stranger who was your self. Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart to itself, to the stranger who has loved you all your life, whom you ignored for another."
16. Through poetry, you've written about both the horrors as well as beauty in your country. How have the recent anti-Muslim riots in Kandy affected you personally and as a writer?
I have been deeply disturbed by the violence, more so because my country was embroiled in a civil war for 30 years most of my life. As a writer, I feel the need to talk about this, but I still haven't been able to articulate the sense of despair I feel for the people affected by it and for the future of the land I call home.
17. What would you write on your own tombstone?
QLRS Vol. 17 No. 2 Apr 2018
She lived deeply.