Brixton Beach

de Roma Tearne





A ilha de Ceilão tornou-se independente em 1948, mas continuou a pertencer à Commonwealth. Desligou-se do Reino Unido em 1972, mudando o nome para Sri Lanka. Foi particularmente difícil a coexistência entre a população de raça Cingalesa (74,9 %) e a de raça Tamil (11,2%). Cada uma delas tem a sua língua. O Inglês manteve a sua importância, até para estabelecer a ligação entre as duas raças de tal modo que 10 % da população fala inglês fluente.

A permanente tensão entre os Cingaleses e os separatistas Tamil levou à guerra civil declarada em 1983. Em Fevereiro de 2002, a intervenção da Noruega conseguiu um cessar fogo entre o Governo e os guerrilheiros Tamil  (LTTE - Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam ) o qual foi tacitamente revogado quando em 2006 ambas as partes retomaram as hostilidades. O Governo retomou o controle da Província de Leste em 2007 e em Janeiro de 2008 revogou oficialmente o cessar fogo. Em Maio de 2009 foram derrotados e capturados todos os Tigres Tamil.

(De CIA – The World Factbook)


A autora deste livro, Roma Tearne, nasceu em 1954, de pai Tamil e mãe Cingalesa. No livro, a  mãe foge de casa para se casar após dez anos de namoro clandestino. Na vida real como no livro, o casal foi ostracizado pelos parentes de ambos os lados. Vista a sua situação, educaram a filha em inglês e decidiram emigrar para Inglaterra em 1964. O casamento desfez-se e a autora cresceu ao lado de sua mãe.

Desistiu da Universidade para se casar com um professor universitário (agora reformado), J. Barrie Bullen; tiveram 3 filhos.

Após as maternidades, Roma Tearne dedicou-se à escrita, tendo publicado seis livros. Voltou entretanto  aos estudos dedicando-se à pintura e escultura.

No corrente ano, teve a satisfação de ver este livro, Brixton Beach, (que já tem 9 anos) aparecer nos Estados Unidos, com uma crítica simpática no The New York Times.  Referiu o facto e o seu contentamento no Facebook.


Este livro é em boa parte autobiográfico, mas nem sempre é fácil descobrir quando o é ou não.

É um livro triste, poucas são as ocasiões de felicidade. Desse modo, o livro desagrada a quem espera algo alegre, que não encontra.

A escrita é literária, esmiúça longamente as descrições.

A nostalgia da terra natal está sempre presente e a autora deverá ter lido muito e consultado pessoas para aparecer autêntica.

Aqui e ali aparecem reminiscências dos portugueses: o nome que dá à sua personagem, Alice Fonseka vem do tempo colonial português (1506 – 1658), apesar da grafia diferente. A certa altura fala-se de um doce de origem portuguesa chamado “boroa”.

Para melhor compreender a autora e a génese do seu livro, junto alguns textos biográficos e autobiográficos.






Sat 4 Jul 2009


Roma Tearne, Brixton Beach


A healing art

Alfred Hickling acclaims a moving account of the human cost of civil war


Alfred Hickling


On 19 May this year the president of Sri Lanka officially declared the defeat of the Tamil Tigers, apparently bringing to an end 26 years of civil conflict. The duration, as well as the complex ethnic divisions, caused the Sri Lankan civil war to go unreported for long periods of time. As Roma Tearne observes: "the war had become a worn-out habit on the island ... the brutality of which was hardly noticed in the west. Other wars, more important ones in larger, richer countries, hit the headlines."

Tearne came to England at the age of 10, when her Tamil father and Sinhalese mother settled in south London in 1964. Since then she has pursued a dual career as a visual artist who has exhibited at the Royal Academy, and a novelist whose recurrent themes are the devastating impact of the war on domestic lives and the redemptive power of art.

Her debut novel, Mosquito, featured an exiled Sri Lankan writer returning to the country and falling in love with a 17-year-old artist. Of all Tearne's work, this was the book that most directly engaged with the violence of the civil war, particularly the Tamil Tigers' deployment of female suicide bombers, who descended from the north like mosquitoes "but, unlike the mosquitoes, were full of a new kind of despair and frightening rage".

Bone China, which followed, was an expansive, semi-autobiographical family saga spanning the 1960s in which a Sri Lankan girl finds her feet in Swinging London and discovers a rare talent as a composer. Once again, the central character of Brixton Beach, Alice Fonseka, is an artist - a sculptor who works with found objects - though this time Tearne brings the story shockingly up to date, as the novel begins with a vividly realised account of the aftermath of the 7 July bombings of 2005.

The opening scene plunges straight into the horror and confusion of a British doctor, Simon Swann, as he runs towards the carnage on the Edgware Road. Tearne establishes a potent sense of the atrocity through sharp, sensory fragments, incorporating flashes of "acid green jackets", "a bracelet on a blackened arm" and the all-pervasive smell of "sweat and rubber and explosives".

It is clear, as Dr Swann performs his duty, that he is frantically worried about the whereabouts of a woman who lives in a house known as Brixton Beach. To discover who this woman is, and how Brixton mysteriously came to possess a shoreline, Tearne winds the narrative back 30 years to an idyllic Sri Lankan beach, where the young Alice is receiving her first cycling lesson from her beloved grandfather Bee, a renowned artist and printmaker.

At first, the war seems safely remote from Alice's blissful childhood. But intimations of the conflict begin to infiltrate; first when Alice is discriminated against at school for having a Tamil father; then when her mother loses her baby due to the wilful negligence of a Sinhalese doctor. The family head for Britain, where the Fonsekas' marriage crumbles as Alice's father joins a radical sect which supports the Tigers, and her mother slips into dementia, crafting cardboard coffins and dressing a collection of dolls in her dead baby's clothes.

As with the heroines of Tearne's previous two novels, the therapeutic power of art enables Alice to survive. She names her house Brixton Beach and is mentored by a young art teacher who encourages her to develop the driftwood creations which provide a symbolic link to her lost home.

As a visual artist, Tearne instinctively thinks in terms of texture and colour. Yet more often than not her metaphors have a musical value. She writes of tension on the island "stretched like a cello string", or of Alice's footprints "marking the sand like musical notation". The conflict itself sets a discordant tone: "The war began drumming again. After months of silence it marched in two-four time; a two-conductor orchestra without direction."

Above all her prose is illuminated by a painterly sensitivity to light. Alice inherits her talent from Bee, who is slaughtered in reprisal for harbouring Tamil refugees. "Words were not his thing; explanations were best done with brushes. The colour of a place, the angle of the light, a tree, these spoke volumes."

In Bone China, Tearne observed that "a mantle of despair was settling like fine dust on the island, clogging the air, blotting out its brilliance and choking its people". It remains to be seen if the pall of civil war has finally lifted, or whether Sri Lanka is experiencing another of its many false dawns. Whatever happens, Tearne has preserved the emotional impact of this sad historical chapter in three remarkable novels dedicated to what has become "the invisible story of the British empire".

      Friday 26 June 2009 

Brixton Beach, By Roma Tearne

   Reviewed by Julie Wheelwright 



There is an ironically named 1970s skateboard park in South London known as Brixton Beach, a concrete patch a stone's throw from the High Street. In the same spirit, Roma Tearne has given her latest novel a title with a twisting double meaning. A family saga based on the lives of three generations of Sri Lankans, stretching from the beaches of the Indian Ocean that inspire artist Alice Fonseka to imagined ones in Lambeth, it is a poignant follow-up to her previous novel, Bone China.

Threads, themes and characters in Brixton Beach seem familiar from Tearne's earlier writing. Alice is a gifted and exuberant nine-year old, daughter of a Singhalese mother and Tamil father, when she arrives in Britain in the late 1960s just as the civil war in Sri Lanka is taking hold. Her mother, traumatised by the stillbirth of her second daughter and the death of a close friend, finds Britain unbearably cold. Worse still, Alice's father Stanley has turned into an unlikely lothario, flitting between the bed of an English civil servant and a Tamil spiritual leader. The marriage and family life founder.

This Brixton is devoid of pleasure so Alice works hard to find it through her art, the legacy of her Singhalese grandfather Bee Fonseka, who is grieving her departure. Here Tearne has taken a bold step by portraying Bee as a political figure who risks his life to help Tamil victims of the terror spreading across the island, with "ghost-people disappearing softly through the rustling trees, voiceless and despairing".

Born of parents whose relatives are at war, Alice feels alienated from both and struggles to find her own identity in London. There is relief from this emotional turmoil in Tearne's landscapes, from which Alice and her grandfather draw their spiritual sustenance. Like Tearne's paintings (she is also an accomplished artist and has mounted exhibitions in London and Oxford to coincide with the novel's publication), they are delicately and finely wrought.

The impact of civil war on those considered lucky enough to have emigrated is poignant. Haunted by the loss of her infant, Alice's mother Sita degenerates, losing her memory and becoming obsessed with dolls, tragic symbols of her unresolved grief. But the little white coffins she fashions echo the corpses that Bee sees washing up on the beautiful beaches of Alice's childhood. In both cases the dead remained unburied and improperly mourned.

Tearne takes another writerly risk here by opening the novel on 7 July 2005. Like Ian McEwan in Saturday she has a surgeon, Simon Swann, caught up in the events, searching for his lover amid the chaos. This is a tough challenge, as every Londoner has their own vivid memories of the victims stumbling from the underground and neighbourhoods festooned with yellow tape. But Tearne pulls it off because so much of the novel is deeply grounded in the slow eruption of violence in Sri Lanka, so that the terrorist attack seems part of a larger global conflict.

Although the novel's plot perhaps suffers from borrowing from her previous works, Tearne is a vividly sensitive writer who spares her readers unnecessary sentiment and hones in on raw emotions just below the surface. The refugee in all of us can recognise the desperate desire to belong and the sometimes terrible price we pay for it.

The New York Times

    May 26, 2018

  A Novel of Sri Lanka’s Civil War, in Lush Tropical Detail


By Susan Wyndham


By Roma Tearne
429 pp. Aardvark Bureau/Gallic Books. $15.95

From the opening scene of her new novel, “Brixton Beach,” Roma Tearne signals that political violence and memory are among her themes. A doctor runs through the streets of central London, navigating the mayhem caused by explosions on Underground trains and a bus, and looking for a woman he knows. No date is given but many readers will recognize the terrorist attacks of July 7, 2005, that killed more than 50 people and injured more than 700. The fictional doctor’s name is Simon Swann.

There will be no further mention of Swann until much later, but the allusion to Proust pervades this fine nostalgic novel. Uneasiness lingers as the author turns to another set of characters in Sri Lanka in 1973, a year after the island nation shed its colonial name, Ceylon.

At the center of the four-generation family story is Alice Fonseka. In this tiny country with complex politics and culture, British influence remains strong, and 9-year-old Alice has been raised on books like “The Wind in the Willows.” Conflict is rising in the north between the Singhalese and Tamil ethnic groups, including disturbing reports of riots and a bomb, but the violence has not yet reached the family in the south.

Alice is more concerned about the imminent birth of a sibling, and the tension between her Singhalese mother, Sita, and Tamil father, Stanley, a stenographer at a factory in Colombo, the capital, that imports fruit for rich Singhalese “who could afford to live like the English.”

Dreamy, stubborn Alice is happiest when staying with her mother’s parents, Bee and Kamala, in a village on the southern coast. Their home, the Sea House, seems a paradise where Alice can play on the beach and take inspiration from her grandfather’s artworks.

Tearne, an accomplished British novelist, artist and filmmaker who was born in Sri Lanka, writes with cleareyed love for the country of her childhood and depicts its lush decay in painterly detail. “The city air smelled of a thousand different things: orange blossom hidden in a secret garden, and drains, and the blistering smell of freshly ground turmeric. There was something else, too, something sweet and metallic, like the smell of fireworks on New Year’s night.”

Tragedy is stark against the beauty. A prejudiced doctor causes Sita’s baby to be stillborn. Bombs explode, and Tamils are shot by the army. Bee and Kamala harbor a wounded man, putting the family at risk. Bee, for all his hatred of racism, dislikes both his son-in-law and the British. Stanley leaves to seek a safer life for his family in London, enjoying a single man’s freedom.

Every character and every relationship is sensitively articulated as a microcosm of society. When Sita and Alice follow Stanley, civil war has ripped Sri Lanka apart and will do so for nearly 30 years, all but ignored by the West. Distressed at losing his daughter and granddaughter, Bee’s “heart was hanging on its hinges,” with worse to come.

Despite its dramatic events, the first half of the book at times seems slow moving. In retrospect it is clear that Tearne has effectively evoked a child’s sense of time and an adult’s languorous memories of childhood.

The narrative picks up pace, as life does, in the second half, years passing in a page, scenes switching from England to Sri Lanka and back. In safe, gray London, Alice is a lonely schoolgirl and then quickly a woman, wife, mother and artist. Traumatized and unsettled, Alice and her mother, now divorced, retreat into memories of their estranged country and family. While Sita descends from depression into dementia, Alice channels her homesickness into her colorful house, which she names Brixton Beach, and her sculptures, which Tearne imagines with precise ingenuity. As the story comes full circle, hope, love and history collide with an unsparing force that resonates into the contemporary world.

Susan Wyndham is an Australian journalist and author, and a former  literary editor of The Sydney Morning Herald.

Textos escritos pela autora


Sat 14 Jun 2008 

October 8 1950 ...

... a moonlit night in Colombo, a Sinhalese girl, a Tamil boy and a secret love which would cut them off from their families and cast them into exile. Until now. Their daughter, Roma Tearne, explains what happened next

Roma Tearne



My mother was born in Sri Lanka on March 18 1920. Seventy-five troubled years later, in the early hours of a September morning in 1995, I received a phone call from a London hospital informing me of her death. Until that dawn call that changed everything forever, I had not imagined life without her. She had gone to bed as usual the night before, but suffered a massive heart attack.

Later that morning, I went back to the house and found her orange court shoes, turned inwards towards each other. They were left exactly as she had stepped out of them for the last time.

I knew I would be the one to ring my mother's many relatives in Sri Lanka: the uncles I had once known, the cousins in whose gardens I had played in Dondra, the southernmost tip of the island. Over the telephone, on a line that crackled and faded, it was difficult to gauge their individual reactions. I told them it had always been her intention to visit once more. Now she never would. At her funeral a few days later, there were only a handful of people present. Afterwards, I stood looking at the flowers. Four wreaths marked the end of her life. I wept at last. Why had none of her relatives sent even one?

In order to understand, I needed to go back to the 1950s and revisit a past that existed, still, in the country I had left as a child. It was a place on which I had deliberately turned my back. For although I had spent the first 10 years of my life there, I was still angered by what had been done to my mother and fearful of opening old wounds.

My parents married after 10 years of courtship. Ten years of letters travelling secretly between them. The need for secrecy grew out of the bitter hatred that existed between the two main ethnic groups on the island. Eventually these groups, the Sinhalese and the Tamils, would clash in a terrible civil war that continues to this day.

Back then, my mother was a young journalist who wrote under the pen name of Heartsease, an indication, I had always felt, of her essentially romantic temperament. My father was a poet. He was an up-country Tamil, she a southern Sinhalese. Rumours of war were sufficiently threatening for my parents to keep their friendship hidden.

My mother, with her gift for writing, her love of the English language, her intelligence, was the eldest of five children. Her own mother, my grandmother, had died of malaria some years earlier. Afterwards, my mother began to notice her father visiting the servants' quarters late at night. Sometimes she would catch him creeping back to the house at dawn. She turned for comfort to reading novels and to her own writing. She was working to support her brothers, helping her father pay for their education.

A passionate girl who adored her siblings, she was by now in her 20s and her father wanted her married off quickly. It was the tradition for the eldest child to marry before the others could be given away. Accordingly, a string of suitors (all hideous, according to my mother) beat a path to her door. Unbeknown to anybody except her youngest brother, however, Heartsease was corresponding with a handsome Tamil boy, a dreamer with beautiful large eyes who would one day become my father.

At her request he sent her a picture of himself. My mother was overjoyed. She placed the photograph in a satinwood trunk under her bed. Every evening, she would pick jasmine flowers and place them like an offering next to it. She was making a shrine for my father's image. A shrine of love. This was an affair of words alone, innocent and all the more powerfully seductive because of it. Many years later, on the eve of our departure for England, I would watch as my mother burned their correspondence. It was as if instinctively she understood; the new phase of her life would have less to do with love.

Their elopement was not without drama. Hearing that her father would be going away on a longish trip, my mother sent a letter with her travel details. But moments after she had posted it her father changed his plans. Panic stricken, my mother sent her little brother to the post office to bribe the postmaster and get the letter back. Even in those days, tampering with the mail was an offence, but in her desperation my mother no longer cared. Another letter followed with revised information. The fateful date was fixed - October 8 1950.

Creeping from the house late at night, my mother walked with her young brother, now 18, to the railway station. He carried her pathetically small trunk. They stood shivering in the balmy air; she with suppressed excitement, he with unhappiness. Silently he kissed her goodbye. She was the only mother he had really known and he was losing her. Moments later she boarded the non-stop express that would speed along the coastline, following the moon towards Colombo and my father's arms. The last my mother remembered of that night was her brother running along the platform, waving his white handkerchief, crying, "Goodbye, Sis!"

The next day, after a hasty wedding in a register office, my parents had their photograph taken. My mother in a pale lemon sari embroidered with roses, unsmiling and frightened; my father looking nervous and unhappy, fearful, no doubt, of the price that was about to be paid.

That evening my father took his new bride home. He was met by a stony silence. My grandmother, rendered speechless by the presence of a Sinhalese girl in her house, refused to look at her. There was the most terrible of rows. Eventually my mother was sent outside to sleep alone on the veranda, like a servant, and my father spent his wedding night in his old room.

They lived this way for nearly a month, but things went from bad to worse. My grandmother, who doted on my father, began to behave as though my mother did not exist. My father's sisters followed suit. Worst of all, my father's aunt went out of her way to make life hell for my mother. Down in Dondra things were no better. My maternal grandfather was beside himself with rage. Shame had engulfed him so that he hardly left the house. It was unthinkable that a Sinhalese girl from a good family should marry a Tamil dog, he said. The entire family agreed. All of them vowed they would never speak to her again. All except the youngest boy.

Into this sorry state, with mutual hatred between Tamils and Sinhalese escalating, I arrived. The child of a disgraced union, neither Tamil nor Sinhalese, born with a foot in both worlds. By the time I was two, my mother's youngest brother had finished university. He alone continued to visit regularly, stopping off in Colombo on his way down south. My mother cried every time he left us. My father left the house on these occasions, feeling awkward and guilty at the sight of her pain. There was nothing he could do.

Finally, unable to bear the loss of her own people, my mother took me, now aged three, by train to visit my grandfather. I have no recollection of the journey, but in the diary I found after her death, she wrote: "The servant opened the gate and took your hand. 'Mama come,' you demanded, but the servant closed the gate. 'Go on,' I told you. 'I'll wait here.' And bravely you went. Later, when we were going home on the train, you gave me the 100-rupee note your grandfather had given you. When I hugged you, you wriggled away, saying sternly, 'Mama, don't cry. I don't like him.'"

I never saw my grandfather again. My uncles were instructed that when my grandfather died they were to stop my mother walking within a mile of his grave. He would die without knowing what had happened to his eldest daughter, without saying goodbye.

A few years later, as open war broke out, we left by boat for England and my mother began her journey into a different kind of exile. I can honestly say I had no idea how much she longed for her home in Dondra. In England, we were occasionally sent photographs of the cousins with whom I used to play, but the letters that accompanied them were written in a close-curled Sinhalese script that I was fast forgetting.

The conflict in Sri Lanka continued, but my mother now had a new worry. She was no longer getting on with her husband. Love in a country at war was one thing, but taken out of context, my parents' relationship began to fade. They stayed together, unhappily, but my father had fallen out of love. Then one afternoon, returning home from school, I caught her crying over a letter. When pressed, she told me that her father had died. Her adored youngest brother, married now with four children, had written to her. He told her he had been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. My mother saw that she had reached a point of no return.

Time passed slowly. I finished school, dropped out of university, began to paint and married an Englishman. When my eldest son was born in 1980, seeing him through the eyes of a new mother, something stirred within me. I watched my mother walk slowly towards me along the hospital corridor, bringing food, visiting her first grandchild, her face alight with a new happiness. She looked fragile, very Sri Lankan, and my heart ached for her. A slow understanding of what her own life must have been like began to develop within me.

When my second son was born I felt these moments of revelation grow stronger, but then, soon after my daughter was born, my mother died, followed shortly by my father. Suddenly their story, and the long shadow it had cast, came into sharp focus. I found myself painting a series of images in shades of grey and white. Called Waiting for Summer, they were imbued with my parents' longing for home. I began to paint my children, too, with new eyes. Under summer skies I noticed how my daughter's hair lightens while both her brothers have freckles. They have roots in two separate worlds, yet have still not seen the place where I, their mother, was born. I have never been back. For after my parents' death, it seemed pointless to seek out a place that had so little love to offer.

Then, five years ago, a strange thing happened. While working in our house, a builder accidentally threw my old trunk into a skip. It was the same trunk that long ago had been my mother's jasmine-scented shrine of hope. Carried across the seas on a journey that took 21 days, it now belonged to me and held the old photograph albums and diaries written by Heartsease. By the time we realised what had happened, it was too late, and the skip had gone, taking the trunk with it. Apart from a diary and two or three blurred photographs, I no longer have anything to remind me of my parents. I had been orphaned a second time. Maybe this was what was needed to push me to do the thing I had been avoiding for so long. To follow in my mother's footsteps, to write. I started on my first novel. For four years I worked furiously. It was as though a dam had broken. At last I was fitting the pieces of my parents' lives together.

Early in April this year, on the publication of my second novel, Bone China, a journalist came to interview me. Hesitantly, I told her a little about my parents. The article was printed. Last week I received a phone call from a cousin, the daughter of my mother's little brother, now long dead.

"Uncle Sugi was asking about you," she told me, hesitantly. "There was a photograph and an article in the newspaper, here. Everyone is saying you look exactly like your mother!"

There was a pause. My Uncle Sugi was the one who had been the most critical of my mother. "I think he would like to read the book."

I waited, holding my breath.

"He is an old man, Roma. Will you send it?"

Yesterday morning I posted it off. More than 40 years have passed since that fateful night in Dondra when a young girl boarded the train to Colombo to meet my father. Though they are both gone, my father's dark eyes look out at me through my sons' eyes and my mother's smile is my daughter's, too. Hybrids, all of us; that is our strength. For in our hybridity lies the hope for the future.


Bone China by Roma Tearne is published by HarperCollins


    Friday 18 April 2008


  Roma Tearne: The enemy within

     Writer and painter Roma Tearne saw Sri Lanka's civil strife played out within her family. Julie wheelwright talks to her about the arts of memory and survival


Roma Tearne gives me a wry smile over our lunch at a local bistro near her Oxford home. "You know," she says, leaning confidentially over the onion soup, "You didn't ask me anything about the civil war." For a moment I blanch before she laughs. "What a relief! I get so tired of being asked about the obvious." The family of the Sri Lankan-born writer and artist left Colombo in the early 1960s, when the former British colony had already seen a series of violently suppressed uprisings that left many civilians dead.

The conflict, which escalated into a full-blown civil war between Tamil rebels and the Sinhalese-dominated state in 1983, is the background to her first novel, Mosquito, and plays a central role in her new book, Bone China (HarperPress, £16.99). In both, Tearne's characters are shaped by war. Whether she writes about a suicide bomber, an immigrant torn apart by longing for the past or a matriarch whose children flee the country, all are affected by forces beyond their control.

But Tearne has the gift of scratching beneath the surface of the headline events to reveal war's subtle and devastating effects. In Bone China, she explores three generations of the De Silva family, who see the decline of their tea plantation in the political limbo between independence after 1948 and the rise of a Sinhalese government that imposes draconian language laws. Three sons head for Britain, their idealised land of refined literary culture.

What they encounter in 1960s London, however, is indifference and disappointment. As Savitha, wife of Thornton de Silva observes, "We are nobody... we are displaced people." Life for the family in Colombo is little better as Grace and her alcoholic husband, Aloysius, struggle to survive against the increasing violence and hatred towards the Tamil minority. They pour all of their hopes into the next generation, their only grandchild Anna-Meeka.

At the launch for Bone China, Tearne says she tackled the issue of autobiographical elements in her novel head-on: "The story of the De Silva family evolved from traces of real incidents and real events." Her parents' "terrible sense of loss stayed with them until they died". They never returned to Sri Lanka, and the civil war was played out in microcosm between their families. Her Tamil father was a poet who wrote for a local newspaper on which her mother, a Sinhalese, was a journalist. They secretly corresponded for years, knowing that because of their religious and ethnic differences a relationship was forbidden.

Finally, they met and fell in love. "My mother eloped in the middle of the night," says Tearne. "My father met her on the station platform in Colombo, wearing dark glasses and looking devastating."

By crossing this divide, Tearne's parents were made outcasts. "How naive of them to think that their families would accept them," she says, a hand fluttering up into the spring sunshine. Her mother's family disowned their daughter, the father demanding that she should be banned from coming within a mile of his grave. "My uncles, her brothers whom she adored, would have nothing to do with her." The rupture even affected Tearne, who as a child spoke English, the lingua franca, rather than Sinhalese or Tamil. "I got caught right in the middle of it," she says. Meanwhile, her father was struggling to find work because he belonged to the Tamil minority.

"My father was being persecuted, and both families hated each other and hated the fact that they had married." Her parents decided to emigrate to Britain, the country of George Eliot and hope. Or so they thought. She remembers her father weeping when his UK visa was denied. "I was seven or eight. He was this very beautiful man and tears were pouring down his face." But when the family finally left on a rough 21-day ocean crossing, with their Tamil relatives following them over the years, the families remained unforgiving. "My mother's family felt betrayed when she left. Not only had she married a Tamil and was bringing up a child speaking English... but she left, like a rat on a sinking ship," says Tearne.

All these elements are reflected in the fictional relationship between Savitha and Thornton, who settle in south London and attempt to carve out a life. They feel a poignant loss of status. But their 10-year-old daughter, Anna-Meeka, who goes to the local state school, has little trouble fitting into British society. Tearne admits that this reflected her own experience.

"What I wanted more than anything else was straight hair. Naturally, I wanted it to be blonde and I wanted to speak with a cockney accent, which I managed to do," says Tearne, who now speaks a perfect RP. The accent was just another way to fit in among her peers, who were incredibly accepting of her. "I thought Brixton was paradise – I really thought it was wonderful."

Ironically, Tearne saw her parents as "huge snobs" who found the adjustment to living in Britain much more difficult. "I didn't want to be like them," she says. "It was the old, old story of children rebelling, but they took it so terribly personally because to get here had cost them so much."

Tearne did, inevitably, encounter more than just "open-hearted generosity" as the child of immigrant parents. After school, she took up a place at a teacher-training college in Rugby. But when she wrote an essay on Charles Dickens, a lecturer accused her of plagiarism because, he said, "if I could write like that I wouldn't be at this university, I'd be at Oxford".

Tearne was so appalled that she dropped out and soon after married her husband, an English professor. It wasn't until her youngest child was a toddler that she went back to university and, rather than reading English, studied painting at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art in Oxford. Since then, she has steadily sold her work, had exhibitions at the Royal Academy, won a prestigious Leverhulme residency at the Ashmolean Museum, and currently has a fellowship at Oxford Brookes University.

Recently, Tearne has rented a studio, where she plans to begin painting again after four years writing fiction. "I'm longing to physically touch the paint and to stretch a canvas," she says. But, she adds wistfully, "I might not have anything there; I might not be able to work on my next novel and paint at the same time."

There is a strong connection for Tearne between the themes of loss, longing and memory, central to her fiction and art. She is working on a project about found objects, and a photography exhibition on the memory of the displaced in Bradford, drawing on the neighbourhood where she grew up. Back at Tearne's home, she produces an album of photographs which show the family house in decay; the garden, once her father's greatest pride, now blousy and overgrown. It is a vivid and sensual illustration of the loss and longing Tearne captures in her fiction. "The writing and the visual work," she says, "they're constantly working together." Even Bone China grew from a painting, and Tearne's desire to work on her themes in another medium.

A few months after her mother's death in 1993, she painted a woman with her face hidden and only the back of her head visible. One night, coming home, she saw her painting through the window. "I thought, that's my mother, and I cried for the first time since her death." It was her mother's idealised image of home that contrasted sharply with her family's rejection, and the violence of the civil war, that moved her to begin writing. But she set aside this first story, and instead began Mosquito, a novel about a middle-aged Sri Lankan writer who falls in love with a 17-year-old artist. This first novel dealt much more directly with the civil war.

For Tearne, however, there is something more elemental at work than the way that political violence and racial hatred has distorted lives. "What I'm really interested in is the slippage between the gaps of daily interaction – the things we don't see – and the half-hidden suppressed truths, the lies we tell ourselves." As a child, she felt constantly in the dark, having to guess at the real source of the pain that her parents carried. Even now, she says, her parents' families in Sri Lanka stubbornly cling to their sense of betrayal. After Mosquito was published, she rang her Sinhalese relatives to tell them. "There was complete and utter indifference," she says. "The bitterness is still pretty endemic."


Roma Tearne's parents, a journalist and a poet, emigrated from Sri Lanka with their daughter to south London in 1964. On leaving the local comprehensive, she attended a teacher training college before marrying Barrie Bullen, an English professor at Reading University. She later trained as a painter at Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art.

Her work has been exhibited at the Royal Academy. In 2002, she became a Leverhulme resident artist at Oxford's Ashmolean Museum, and is now a fellow at Oxford Brookes University. Her first novel, Mosquito, was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award and the Kiriyama Prize. Her second, Bone China, is published by HarperPress. A mother of three, she lives with her husband in Oxford.



Colombo Telegraph

 APRIL, 29, 2012


   The Cluster Bombs In Sri Lanka’s Paradise


   By Roma Tearne


Ah! They have found some cluster bombs in Paradise and no one is responsible. No surprises here. Naturally the army will blame the rebel Tigers but hey, the rebel Tigers are dead so they cannot answer for themselves.
The consequences of Sri Lanka’s war live on and on untended while its children are maimed and destroyed. Young limbs, young minds, what amounts to the future itself, destroyed in a moment by those with power in their hands. While the world continues to sunbathe on the island’s sunlit beaches.

Years ago, as a child living in London, listening to the arguments going on around me, I used to hate the fact that I was Sri Lankan. I understood perfectly, even then, exactly what was happening in that dreadful country. Wasn’t it simple? Some Tamils, discriminated against for years, wrongly, resorted to violence in order to get their voices heard.
Thereby playing into the hands of majority rule.
For in those days the majority of Sinhalese hated the Tamils people without quite knowing why.
The words to describe this, as every child of ten knew, were, Prejudice and Discrimination.
From then onwards this Discrimination and Violence stalked the streets as government after government began to push the Tamils back from the capital up towards the north of this beautiful island.
The Dog that came to represent the Tamil people, got itself a bad name with which to hang itself, and Hey Presto! majority rule had the upper hand. Or to put it another way, the right to kill as many Tamils as possible in the name of anti-terrorism. It mattered not that many of these Tamils were innocent civilians. Who cared about the details. All is fair in love and war. Isn’t it? So that, as the lorryloads of white paint arrived at the capital to wash down its bloodstained, bullet marked walls, the phrase on the lips of  everyone was:
‘But the Tigers are terrorists, don’t you know…’
Yes, and the people who govern the country are murderers.

And murder, as the world knows, will out. Eventually.
So that in spite of The Great Whitewashing Programme other images are seeping and oozing out of the cesspit. Images that will not go away.
Of the dead,
The maimed,
The innocent,
The disappeared.
Children whose faces stare out from eternity pleading for recognition.
The truth remains that every single time a tourist visits the world’s ‘Number One Holiday Destination’, every time the uninitiated say that things are fine in Sri Lanka, the abuse, rape, murder and torture in that place is being endorsed.

Two children were killed last month. What were they doing? Trying to collect scrap metal to sell. Unaware they were touching an explosive device. Thus has innocence always been destroyed by grown men.

We in the West must remember that the real cost to life cannot be counted immediately after a war ends, but several generations later. Sri Lanka and its people, one hopes, will one day understand this, too.

Roma Tearne is a Sri Lankan born novelist and film maker living in the UK. She left Sri Lanka with her family, at the start of the civil unrest during the 1960s. She trained as a painter & filmmaker at the Ruskin School of Fine Art, Oxford and then was Leverhulme artist in residence at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Subsequently she was awarded an AHRC Fellowship and worked for three years in museums around Europe on a project accessing narrative within the collections