Book Talk

Perera-Rajasingham, Nimanthi.Assembling Ethnicities in Neoliberal Times. Ethnographic Fictions and Sri Lanka’s War, 2022.Colombo: Tambapanni Academic Publishers. ISBN 9786245529025

In the past two decades, Sri Lanka as a subject of study in the social sciences and humanities has grown in popularity. Yet and still, there are only a handful of peer-reviewed book-length publications that explore the topic of Sri Lanka, and a majority are authored by social scientists.

‘Assembling Ethnicities’ stands out because of its rare and innovative combination of genres; novels, cinema (both feature films and documentary films), art, theatre, ideological spaces like Gam Udawa, and tourist resorts all fall under the probing gaze of the author’s carefully crafted study. Overall, the book’s multi-disciplinary focus is its greatest strength, which offers a comprehensive study of how colonialism, nationalism and neoliberalism intersect within the context of the armed conflict in Sri Lanka.

Nimanthi Perera-Rajasingham’s book employs assemblage theory, most famously associated with the French academics Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, to argue that ethnicity and nationalism are fluid systems determined by local, regional, and global forces. This book also returns us to Qadri Ismail’s critique of the discipline of anthropology ‘In Abiding by Sri Lanka’. Though Ismail privileges literature as a more meaningful site of inquiry due to its indifference to objectivity, Perera-Rajasingham proposes “to learn from the tensions […] paradoxes and shared entanglements” of these two fields of study. More specifically, the author proposes the study of “ethnographic fictions”–multi-disciplinary narratives produced by those within the Sri Lankan conflict.

The focus of the first chapter on the state-sponsored village reawakening programme, better known as Gam Udawa, is our first glimpse into the author’s “shared entanglement” with sociological subject matter. Not only does the author reveal the cultural myths that undergird this enormously significant development scheme, she locates it at the intersection of neoliberalism and ethno-nationalism. The chapter demonstrates how the state inscribed neoliberal development projects, such as garment factories, as a means of restoring the glorious past of the Sinhala people (symbolised by paddy cultivation), which is the inspiration for the chapter titled “The Factory is like the Paddy Field.”

Given my personal investment in literary and media studies, I approached the second chapter with great anticipation. The chapter offers a series of meticulous close readings of Tamil French writer Shobasakthi’s novel Gorilla, which gained greater prominence following the release of Jacques Audillard’s film Dheepan (2016), starring Jesuthasan Antonythasan, Shobasakthi’s legal name. What stands out is the author’s bold claim that the Tamil Tigers adopted neoliberal policies both inside and outside of its de facto state, which runs contrary to previous scholarship that viewed the Tiger-controlled territories as labouring under an outdated, centralised economy.

In the third chapter, the author turns her attention on a popular site of sociological inquiry—gender dynamics in garment factories. Just as in Chapter One, the author intervenes in existing debates about gendered neoliberal spaces and in this case, she focuses on working-class women’s theatre.  A significant aspect of her argument is that “Tamil exclusion [is] central to how identities and experiences are produced” in the garment factories where the women workers are predominantly Sinhala and Buddhist. While this chapter on garment factories is indispensable for a study of neoliberal spaces in Sri Lanka, as it builds on the work of feminist sociologists (Hewamanne, Lynch, et al.,) and calls attention to a site hitherto under-examined (working-class women’s theatre), it represents another example of the collusion between racism and capitalism.

More importantly, this chapter provides a rationale as to why working-class Sinhala women who espouse a strident critique of patriarchy and neoliberalism fail to resist institutionalised racism and suffer from a lack of empathy towards ethnic minorities.

Located at the intersection of human rights discourse and neoliberalism, Chapter Four places the United Nations report on the final stage of the civil war and the British documentary film The Killing Fields in conversation with two fictional works: the widely studied novel Anil’s Ghost and a Sinhala adaptation of The Trojan Women. Here, Perera-Rajasingham argues that international human rights discourse and ethnographic practices intersect. Her argument is predicated on a critique of “objective witnessing” (a cornerstone of human rights discourse), as the author contests the feasibility of a universal humanity guaranteed by the UNDHR; more specifically, she asks “if designating certain groups as objective” and others as not does not reproduce the “international division of humanity” which parallels the international division of labour crucial to neoliberal economics. In this chapter, perhaps more than any other, pairing empirical texts with post-empirical texts leads to fruitful results and provides insights into the rights discourse that seems paradoxical and insoluble at first glance.

The concluding chapter, once again, yokes together two distinct genres: fiction and art examined against the backdrop of the tourism industry promoted as the principal mode of neoliberalism in the former war zone. One of the most stimulating discussions of the book is located in this chapter and focuses on the “state-military-corporate” nexus that transformed the war zone, especially on the East coast, into tourist attractions. Here, the author points to the cruel irony of a luxury resort specifically themed to invoke tradition, “a hotel meant to memorialise the traditional way of life” (the fisheries community), has actually resulted in its exploitation and erasure. Likewise, she is equally critical of the global tourist industry which, she argues, worked hand in glove with the state and the military, not only in Eastern Sri Lanka but in the North as well.

Finally, Perera-Rajasingham’s book concludes with the representation of the former war zone in literature and art. While the author argues that Romesh Gunesekera’s novel Noontide Toll is re-mapping and remembering the war zone, the insightful discussion of the Jaffna-based artist Thamotharampillai Shanaathanan, who “creates a landscape of affective belonging,” offers a powerful counterpoint to the corporate and military sponsored neoliberal projects in the former war zone that dazzles with the potential for reclaiming the loss of life, land, and home due to three decades of armed conflict.

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