By Dilshan Boange
Among the new areas of fiction writing being explored by Sri Lankan writers, narratives that bring to light the ravages of war spreading through war zones like Syria certainly deserve attention. Sajla Anees is a Sri Lankan fiction writer whose debut novel Refuge explores a world torn asunder by the brutality of war. An Attorney-at-Law by profession, Sajla is a past pupil of Methodist College Colombo. In this feature, she discusses her work and what has guided her to become a novelist.
Q: At what point in your life did you decide to embark on the path to become a fiction writer, and what was your main inspiration?
A: I’ve wanted to be an author ever since I was a child. When I was schooling, I remember having books where I’d write down stories. It was only one that I completed – that too, a murder mystery. I even got it checked by a teacher but didn’t go beyond that. Looking back, I’m glad I didn’t, though I am appreciative of my teacher taking her time for me.
As for inspiration to write fiction – I think it comes from the books I read, and encouragement of loved ones. I usually enjoy reading books that have a lot of depth to them – books that bring out the bitter truths of life, the heart-wrenching kind. I also like writing such content, sometimes with a touch of hope, as I personally find a lot of healing in doing so. When my readers find relatability in what I write, it motivates me to write more.
Q: Your novel Refuge is a story that is set in the tragic backdrop of the Syrian war. How did you, as a Sri Lankan approach this subject?
A: Syria is a Middle-Eastern country, and Arabic is the language spoken there, though there are variations in their dialects. As someone who’s familiar with the Arabic language due to being a Muslim, I found it easy to include certain Arabic phrases used by us on a daily basis, in the book. The faith they practise is the same that I practise – Islam, which is something else I found easy, as there are references to faith in the book. The book revolves around how the main character Noora, finds strength through her faith. It wouldn’t have been as easy had I chosen to write a book based on a community whose native language and faith I wasn’t familiar with.
As for their culture in terms of food, this was something partly new to me, as I had already tried out some of the dishes myself prior to writing the book; a friend of mine once made us Basbousa (a dessert) and I had the opportunity to try out falafels in Iran.
In watching video clips and reading articles, I was able to get an understanding of the surroundings; what the camps looked like, the inside of tents, the rocky mountains, etc. Again, since I’ve been to countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran, where the geography is quite similar, it helped me with my descriptions too.
Q: How did you gather material for this story, such as details and information related to people and locations in war torn Syria, to build up the background of the main characters and the landscape in general?
A: Something I struggled for quite some time with, was figuring out the locations to suit the timeline. My main character doesn’t remain in the same location throughout the book. In fact, she has to keep moving from place to place for safety reasons. As I have included some of the real attacks that took place, I had to ensure it fit in well with where she was at the time. After having researched on that, I got it checked by a media team there who cover news reports.
I was also able to get in touch with some UK volunteers via Instagram who worked at the camps to check my content and its authenticity. They even narrated to me some of the hardships the Syrian sisters they knew had to endure. And to this day, I will admit that Refuge does no justice to their real sufferings.
I even read books such as The Girl from Aleppo (Nujeen Mustafa with Christina Lamb), news articles and watched documentaries to help build up the background.
Q: How long did it take you to build the storyline and narrative structure? How much planning went into this story before you began writing it?
A: It took me approximately one-and a -half to two years to complete the book. I must admit I was a little all-over-the-place when writing the book. I had the beginning and end sorted out at first. It was the middle part of the story I struggled for long, with. Even though I didn’t expect the book to turn out to be a novel, (since I’m an underwriter), it did turn out a satisfactory length! While writing the book, I was also planning out other chapters. So I can’t say, I was the best at organising. At a point, to make things easier, I wrote down the timeline on a Bristol board with the events, character introductions, etc. I also had a separate book to write down research information so I could go back and check whenever.
Q: Do you personally feel that you can connect with any of the main characters that you created in this novel?
A: Yes, I do. Since the book is a first-person narrative, I felt less restricted to write from the perspective of Noora. It was more like, ‘what would I have felt or done had I been in that situation?’
As for many of the other characters, I must say they were inspired by the people I’ve met and known personally in life. I’ve even included dialogues from real-life conversations I’ve had with people.
Q: How has the response been to the book so far after publication? And have you begun work on your next novel?
A: I’m honestly very happy with the response to the book, all praise is to Allah. Sales may not have been as much as I expected, but no complaints! Covid-19 did take a toll on many, but I believe there’s always great reason behind what happens, even if we can’t always comprehend what it is. My family, the publisher- Jeremy Muller, friends and readers have been very supportive in promoting the book in their own ways.
As for my next novel, I haven’t publicly made a statement regarding it. But since I am asked now, well yes, I have started working on it. I started working on it towards the end of November last year. It is something that requires research too, so I am taking my own time on that.