“As a parent, I seek to change the world for and with my child.” So begins “All Our Roots Need Rain: Queer Parenting from the Sri Lankan Diaspora”, by N. Gitanjali Lena. But to do that, she continues, her son must understand his family and cultural history. This in spite of culturally pervasive heterosexism that leads many to alienate, and attempt to block them from this fundamental right:
Sri Lankans have survived three decades of war. This is still a time of war. Three generations of children have only known our island in crisis. My son has only known the island from a distance like many other children of immigrants and refugees. The cultural distance increases exponentially since his mother is queer and unmarried. The sexism and homophobia of my various communities act like border officials keeping us out.
Several aunties and uncles flatly ignore my co-parent, my son, and me. We don’t get invitations and their children are kept away from us. One of my aunties was shocked to see that my son was respectful and articulate despite being raised by queers. Another aunty on seeing me at an event without husband said, “Well at least you have a son, you have someone.” Some roots get overwatered, rot, and need to be pruned. That said, I am incredibly lucky to have a loving and supportive mother, father, sister, cousins, aunties, and uncles to provide me and my son with a sense of community.
Over the years I have learned to understand the choices my parents made in assimilating. Who am I to judge them? As part of the pre-war, late1960s brain drain, they charted the immigrant journey from Sri Lanka to France to England to Canada. They eloped when my Sinhalese grandpa prohibited their marriage. Twenty years later that same grandpa hid Tamil friends and neighbours in his home as Sinhalese mobs hunted them down on the streets of Colombo.
In Ottawa in the 1980s, they were young middle-class professionals who wanted their daughters to fit in. You see, multiculturalism, that celebrated liberal phenomenon, was in its infancy, and we still got plenty of knocks at school for being “Pakis,” even though we pointed out that we were actually Sri Lankan. As a result, we didn’t want to be Sri Lankan and they stopped trying to teach us. But the presence of all my grandparents in our home at different times in my childhood was like an umbilical cord to Sri Lanka.
The way my grandparents died is typical of the divided and tormented experiences of our families. My Sinhalese grandparents died dappled in the fierce gold Colombo sun, while the Tamil ones died wrapped in the grey chill of Ontario. The Sinhalese half died at home in their Kotahena neighbourhood where they belonged. The Tamil half died diasporic deaths, lost in Scarborough and Markham, but left clear instructions: bury us backhome. I loved my grandparents so deeply but often reluctantly, misunderstanding them until it was almost too late. To me, the death of each grandparent was more than the loss of a loved one. With each I lost a library, a teacher, a storyteller, and a historian. That’s what relatives hold for you when dominant European cultures reflect no part of your ancestry or culture. For example, when the Sri Lankan army burned down the Jaffna library in 1981, my grandpa became my Tamil library. This is critical for a people surviving genocide. Now that he’s gone, I rely on my uncles and scholarly friends to teach me about our political history and our social movements. Neither of my grandmothers lived to meet my son but they would have nurtured him well, while tenderly anointing his temples with 4711 eau de cologne. When I told my Tamil grandpa I was pregnant, he told me I was courageous. He knew full well that I would be scorned as a queer mother. Truth be told, he was relieved that I didn’t want to have an abortion. He accepted my son as his “kunju” and adored my co-parent who is a Black working-class queer woman. Clearly my grandfather understood me. Traditionally, he chose each grandchild’s Tamil name. He had originally suggested names with meanings like “Prince of the world” and “King of the universe,” but when I requested something less macho, he came up with “Amuthan” meaning “sweet like ambrosia.”
Lena continues by discussing her aunts’ stories of brave resistance to male oppression in war, the experience of seeking out different communities within the diaspora that can make her feel whole:
We go to as many family and community events as we can, to feed our thirst. There are times I feel comfortable in my skin and there are times I stomach the anxiety about how my son will be perceived and treated. Sometimes I am so nervous I cannot eat, which is tragic since I am cheating myself out of home-cooked crisp vadais with pol sambol, tangy meen curry, fiery prawns, and iddiappam. Instead, I just smoke outside with my uncles and male cousins. My relatives can afford to travel so my son has a great deal of contact with family, but I doubt that is enough. I know myself through family, especially when surrounded by a sea of white. But I also know I am more than just our maze of relatives and family friends. My family is primarily Tamil and Sinhalese, middle-class and Catholic. I want my son to know all kinds of Sri Lankans: queer ones, wild ones, Hindu and Muslim, Burgher ones, working-class ones, socialist ones, musical ones, mixed-race ones. We have to dig for our roots. We have to dig deeper past the surface of colonial manipulation and patriarchy. All sides in the conflict have rewritten ancient and modern history, overemphasizing ethnic divisions and other war-promoting propaganda. We Sri Lankans need to crack open taboos and speak to others. That must be why I yanked my boy from mild-mannered Ottawa and plunked him down in the GTA (Greater Toronto Area). Now we are a short ride away from the Scar, home to all things Tamil and diasporic. We call it Little Jaffna, and even though we are from Mattakalaippu, it feels so familiar. Hanging out in Scarborough is cheaper than the several thousand I’d have to save up to take him home, and safer too. The GTA is home to the biggest Tamil diaspora in the world, but no out queer Sri Lankan or Tamil group exists. Thankfully, with a handful of queer Sri Lankan friends in Toronto, on both the Tamil and Sinhalese sides, I get to feel whole now and then. Part of the difficulty of teaching my son about his roots is the hypermilitarism of Sri Lankan society and the simultaneous trivialization of war as a game in the West. Everywhere we go there is a camouflage motif, a soldier movie, a toy gun, a military Halloween costume. Our wars are real. They happen somewhere we have been. The business of war takes our loved ones from us in so many ways. Tamil communities are full of refugees and people traumatized by war. The sounds of fireworks trigger terror memories of cluster-bomb showers. War is not a theme party. Being Sri Lankan in a time of war makes the diaspora self-conscious. Ethnic divisions have grown deeper in some ways and generations are damaged and scarred by torture and rape. That is the dejected backdrop for teaching my son about my homeland that was once a paradise. Seventy thousand people have died, millions are displaced, unique ecosystems are ruined, economies have collapsed, libraries have burned. Forgetting our home is not for us. We are needed in the struggle to rebuild and re-vision. As a queer people we have been told that our struggles are frivolous in a time of war. But there are wars within wars as women and children know; there are social dynamics like homophobia that intensify wars; there are power structures like patriarchy and imperialism that laid the foundations for the war and that continue to undermine peace. These details are not peripheral. Claiming the fullness of our experiences can allow our roots to spread out wherever they need to go.
Follow the link to find more from Who’s Your Daddy? And Other Writings on Queer Parenting. Also, check back tomorrow for more excerpts in the lead-up to Family Day.