Roma Tearne is the author of the novel Brixton Beach, which takes place in Sri Lanka and England. Her other books include Mosquito and Bone China. Born in Sri Lanka, she is based in the U.K.
Q: What inspired your character Alice and the story you tell in Brixton Beach?
A: I suppose the answer is simply my mother. Long ago when I was still a young teenager she told me, “No one will ever hear my story. Why should the world care?”
At the time I was going through teenage battles with my mum but the words pierced my heart. Trying to show indifference I tossed them aside.
But then many years later soon after her death, as a mother of three children myself, I remembered what she had said in a moment of despair. It was to take another few years but then with wiser, sadder eyes, I saw how she had suffered with each child that was murdered.
The dedication in Brixton Beach is to her with the simple statement that her story would not be lost. Indeed, it hasn’t been. Of all my books it is the one that has sold the most around the world. And at last I felt her life had not been in vain.
And the character of Alice? Well she came out of my head really. The paintings described are some of my own but that is the only link with reality.
Q: Many readers may come to the novel without much familiarity with the history of Sri Lanka. What do you hope they take away from the book in that regard?
A: I didn’t set out to write a political novel. In politics it is the human story that matters, always. People can judge the politics of Sri Lanka as they wish. I merely wrote about the things we do to one another.
I also wanted (rather passionately I admit) to highlight the plight of the immigrant and how hard they have to work at integrating how long the journey is.
I address this in Simon’s thoughts in the very last paragraph of the novel, which I rewrote about 15 times. Alice brought the beach to Brixton in the end. What a triumph!
Q: As a writer and an artist, how do you see the two coexisting in your work?
A: Well, you know, I describe the paintings and installations in the book from the inside out. And the funny intense way of seeing that an artist has, well it sort of slips into the writing too.
Q: Are there other novels focused on Sri Lanka that you would especially recommend?
A: Look, this is a tough question. I don’t like novels based on a specific country. I would if I may recommend an atmospheric book I read recently. A Pale Views of Hills by Ishiguro springs to mind. A wonderful, luminous novel. I could go on in this vein but won’t. I have a real horror of novels by countries! Really sorry.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Well, something entirely different. I’m dealing with the same issues that I’ve always cared about; migration, the effects of conflict, the human price, that sort of thing, but this time I’m treating the subject in a totally different way. Fingers crossed, I hope it works!
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Oh, okay, as you are twisting my arm…I’m working on a series of small paintings, my first in 16 years! (Gulp!) You can see the drawings on my Instagram feed.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb