"I learnt from an early age that no one would fight my battles for me" - Minoli Salgado
Meeting Minoli Salgado at the Fairway Galle Literary Festival was truly exceptional. Not only does she have an impressive portfolio to her name, she is also fiercely independent and resilient in her character.
So there we were, sitting by the poolside at the Galle Fort Hotel, going beyond our allocated 20 minute talk time because in front of me was this remarkable lady opening up to me about managing two different careers, talking to me about her personal life and telling me what challenges she faced living abroad, being of colour, to get to where she is now.
Having lived in Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Indonesia, Salgado settled down in the United Kingdom where she is now a Reader in English Literature and a Director of the Centre for Colonial and Postcolonial Studies at the University of Sussex.
She is also the celebrated author of ‘A Little Dust on the Eyes’ which was the recipient of the inaugural SI Leeds Literary Prize in 2014.
Author and an academic, Salgado gives us an honest insight to her journey.
How did your career begin?
Well, it depends on which career you mean. My career as an academic started early because I started teaching straight after my PhD. I’ve been an academic for a very long time and started teaching at Sussex University in – oh! It dates me to say it, so let’s just say a very long time, many many years ago! And over there – I don’t know how it is here in Sri Lanka – the pressure is on you to publish as an academic. You have to not just publish but to publish original academic work of a very high standard. While I was starting as an academic, I also began writing short stories and I was lucky enough to get the very first short story I wrote published in a good journal, so I guess you could say my writing career began then.
How do you manage being a writer and an academic?
Well, there’s a lot of pressure to develop your career in academia and as a young lecturer trying to find my way, trying to find the time to write as well was actually very difficult. I manage both fields with great difficulty. Academic writing takes a lot of your mental space and that compromises the imaginative space you can give to writing. After some years I went part time and I divided my working week. I was very disciplined. I thought ‘those days are for my students and these days are for my writing’. It meant that I didn’t have a moment free but that I had time to write the book. Now the writing career is taking off, getting the balance right is a challenge.
Talking about writing, your book “A Little Dust on the Eyes”, how much of it was fiction and how much of it was reality?
Well, the emotional register of the book is mine and the sensibility is mine. But in terms of it being autobiographical, it’s not. It’s historical fiction. I mapped the characters and they were very real to me. I set up a contrast but also a connection in terms of displacement. There are two women in the story, one of whom is a PhD student in England (Savi) and another who lives on the South Coast of Sri Lanka (Renu). I was interested to relate Savi’s displacement and dislocation and connect it with Renu’s sense of being an outsider, partly because they are women, partly because of their class. And I wanted to show that the experience of the war is more than a question of where you are, more than a question of geography. I wanted to show that war displaces people in profoundly different ways but, at the end of the day, it displaces all of us.
Because this book was a long time coming, did you ever want to give up on it?
Never. I went part time as an academic to write a book I had been carrying with me for a long time, so there was no question of giving up. But, there were times when I thought this is actually a much bigger project than I had originally planned because by the time I began writing it the tsunami had taken place. I knew this book would be about the war and the tsunami. And then I thought, how do you recreate the tsunami in fiction? I started to wonder whether I had the language for it and if I’m the right person to write it. I thought about the ethics of being a displaced writer outside the country, writing about these big issues that people had lived through. I was very conscious of the ethics of bearing witness to these events and I engaged with that within the context of style and voice. So anyone who reads this book will be aware that this is a book that asks questions of readers as well as to how we bear witness to events.
Who are your writing influences?
They are many and varied but tend to be international writers who combine poetic and political sensibilities – for example, Anne Michaels and Ismail Kadare. And of course, Michael Ondaatje. The first time I read Running in the Family I was blown away by it. I teach a lot of Ondaatje’s work and believe he has brought to bear upon Sri Lankan fiction in English a poetic sensibility that not only expands its scope and register but also deepens it and enriches it intellectually.
And there’s also Salman Rushdie, who is in many ways the complete opposite of Michael Ondaatje. He’s one of my favourite writers because he combines high and low art – his work is entertaining and deadly serious. He forces us to see writing as a form of social and cultural intervention. His work reminds us that writers have a role to play in saying things that other people would not dare say and saying it in ways that compel us to think and respond.
Did you always know that you wanted to become a writer; that you wanted to teach and have a PHD in literature and become an academic?
Let me tell you something I haven’t told any other journalist. When I was in my mid 20’s I looked through my primary school exercise books and I came across this essay I wrote when I was 11 at a school in Malaysia. We had been asked to write an essay on ‘What I will be doing when I’m 21’. In it - after a long paragraph on how I’m going to look after my parents - I came across this one line that really struck home. It said “When I’m 21, I want to be a writer, preferably a poet, or a teacher at a university, or a teacher at a school”. I was so shocked when I read this because in my mid 20’s I had already started writing, taught at schools and was on my way to a PhD.
On reading this, I realised that there was a continuity in my life – that despite the multiple displacements, something had followed through.
Do you ever remember a low point in your life that was the catalyst to one of the biggest changes in your life?
Well, I was in boarding school for most of my childhood, from the age of almost 7 till I was about 18, first in Malaysia and then in England. And that’s tough and it toughens you up. I had to adjust to separation from home and family at a young age. It wasn't easy, but on the positive side it taught me resilience and emotional independence. It is a sink or swim situation and in my case it taught me - in the long run, of course, for these things take time - not to be phased by difficulties or sudden change. I learned early that no one would fight my battles for me. Despite the inevitable sense of abandonment, the whole experience gave me a strong sense of my own worth, a sense of the need to make something of myself, and to make something positive come out of a long, difficult period.
Being a woman of colour, is it difficult to get yourself established abroad?
I think a lot of people assume if you are living abroad it might be an easy – or at least an easier- life. It’s actually very tough and there are very few academics or writer-academics in my position. Just to put this into context: I’m the only brown face in a department of almost 50 faculty at my university. My uncle, Gamini Salgado, happened to be the first non-white professor of English in England. That was in 1977, nearly forty years ago. And it’s a sad truth that ethnic minorities are still seriously under-represented in university departments, still a rarity. To get somewhere you have to work very, very hard, be quite tough, and have faith in yourself and a belief in what you do.
I also believe that it is important to take every opportunity that arises and to see challenges and difficulties as opportunities in disguise. There were lots of times when things would come up and I would think ‘I don’t want to do that,’ but just pushing myself and putting myself out there made a difference. You have to say yes to opportunities and challenges because it will make you grow as a person.
What is your greatest achievement so far?
I hope it’s yet to come. I have got plans to do lots of other things. But for now, I would probably say it is raising my children and giving them the best childhood I can, while teaching and writing books that I love writing and believe have to be written.
What relaxes you?
Swimming, long country walks and listening to music. And I like to dance! I know that it sounds crazy but I love salsa and jazz. Writing is such a sedentary occupation, so sometimes dancing can loosen you up, take you out of the moment and get you set to write again.
Interviewed by Panchali Illankoon
Photographs by Pradeep Dilrukshana