In the tradition of In the Time of the Butterflies and To Kill A Mockingbird, On Sal Mal Lane is a tender, evocative novel about the years leading up to the Sri Lankan civil was.
On the day the Herath family moves in, Sal Mal Lane is still a quiet street, disturbed only by the cries of the children whose triumphs and tragedies sustain the families that live there. As the neighbors adapt to the newcomers in different ways, the children fill their days with cricket matches, romantic crushes, and small rivalries. But the tremors of civil war are mounting, and the conflict threatens to engulf them all. In a heart-rending novel poised between the past and the future, the innocence of the children—a beloved sister and her over-protective siblings, a rejected son and his twin sisters, two very different brothers—contrasts sharply with the petty prejudices of the adults charged with their care. In Ru Freeman’s masterful hands, On Sal Mal Lane, a story of what was lost to a country and her people, becomes a resounding cry for reconciliation.
1. You’ve structured On Sal Mal Lane into five sections, each a consecutive year, beginning with 1979, which works so well to show the changes in Sri Lanka and the families on Sal Mal Lane that you write about during a period of civil war. Was this a structure you conceived of before you began writing or did you try others first?
RF: No. The story was first written start to finish with numbered chapters. Then it became divided by character, with each chapter focusing on one or the other of the Herath children, and the story moving forward within each of those sections. Eventually I divided it into the five years and titled each chapter. It was an organizational structure that presented itself after the book was written. During each successive set of edits I would add a new chapter, or divide one chapter into two or more chapters, but the years framed the whole.
2. Your first novel, A Disobedient Girl, is also set in Sri Lanka, and in it you also write beautifully and candidly about powerful themes: class, poverty, war, family, and friendship. Was one novel more challenging to write than the other?
RF: Not really. If anything was a little more intentional, it was writing the story of Biso (the older woman in the first novel). Her story was so full of need - for a better, safer, life - and yet so hopeless due to circumstance and, to a certain extent, the content of her own character, that it was sometimes hard to return to her story when I’d finished writing a chapter that dealt with the young girl, Latha. And yet, in order to give them equal space and equal attention - in order not to get carried away with one over the other - I had to force myself to get back to her story.