Sinthujan Varatharajah is an Eelam Tamil political geographer, essayist and researcher, raised in southern Germany and currently based in Berlin.
What exactly does it mean to be a political geographer? What led you to that career choice?
I study and work with spatial realities from a sternly sociopolitical viewpoint. This could entail a micro analysis of, let’s say a junction in a city or building block in a banlieue, to the more meta, border regions or relationships between outer boroughs to the centre. What led me to it? None of it was planned. I honestly fluctuated between different degrees and built up an interest for relationships between power and space over the years. I started of with studying politics and human rights before ending up in sociology, and then kind of by coincidence, I ended up taking a course with a focus on race and space. It shaped me in such a way that I ended up applying for a PhD program in political geography. Generally speaking, my research interest lies in geographies of power, so I look at marginalised spaces and most of my work has so far touched on the subject of statelessness, refugees, oppressed castes and invisible geographies. The PhD that I started was also specifically looking into the architecture and spatial realities of refugee camps in Germany.
What kind of practicality did this work offer you in Berlin, when you were working with refugees in housing?
At that point, in 2015, I worked for a German start up which was trying to find alternative housing options to camps, for refugees. Practically speaking, it meant that we were allocating refugees from within refugee camps into flat shares in Berlin and across the rest of country. That was something quite radical, considering how racist our housing legislations are in regards to refugees. As someone of refugee background, it was something that was quite close to my heart. I understood that there's very few ways of changing the system, but that was one particular, straightforward and practical way of doing it that could create long-term and structural benefits for concerned groups.
Do you identify as a refugee? Is it a term you would use to describe yourself?
I was born into the state of being a refugee, at a refugee camp in West Germany, so I never really crossed a border. From the very beginning, I was stateless. And I was not attached to any type of citizenship, or any type of stable legislation or residency in this country or any other country for that matter. So therefore, I think it's probably the most realistic way to describe myself. I am now a citizen of this country, so I'm legally no longer a refugee. But the fact is, sociologically, emotionally and mentally, there's still all these attachments to those experiences, especially in terms of how this particular refugee identity has always been stigmatized and how many people who come from a refugee background are forced to erase that particular part of their history in their biography; or being subsumed into a more generic immigration discourse that loses the specifics of what refugee, particularly war refugee, experiences are like. Crossing a border, being able to stabilize your residential status and speaking new languages doesn’t erase any of these experiences, these traumas. The question is, are we posing this question from a legal point of view, from a sociological one or from a psychological one.
Do you mind give me a bit of background on your family and what led you to be living in a refugee camp in the first place?
My family is of Tamil origin from the Jaffna peninsula in Eelam, which is north of Sri Lanka. Technically Jaffna and the whole of Eelam is under the sovereignty of Colombo, but this sovereignty is contested. Both since and prior to independence, there have been a lot of ethnic, one could even say racial conflicts that occurred in the country. In 1948, when the country became independent from British colonial rule, after 400 years of being oppressed by different European Empires. The new state quickly turned into a Sinhalese fascist state. Sinhalese are the majority ethnicity of the island, they make up around 70% of the entire population of this small country. The Tamil population makes up around, depending on how you view it, up to 20%. You can divide them up into people who come from indentured labor backgrounds, and then the ones who have been living there for much longer.
Did Sri Lanka play a role in the Partition of India? How was the country positioned during that time? Did it gain independence after that, who did it belong to, was it a part of that subcontinent itself or was it always separate?
The island was colonized in the 16th century already by the Portuguese. And then, after almost 100 years of Portuguese rule, the Dutch took over for another 100 years, before the British came. And the British then united the three kingdoms of the island and created a single unitary state, which then quickly became a British Crown Colony. It was ruled independent of the British Raj as a separate crown colony. The independence of the subcontinent happened a year prior to Ceylon’s independence. The way the British left Ceylon was, however, influenced by what happened on the subcontinent. Since 1956, there were a number of laws passed by the Sri Lankan government, which very clearly discriminated against Tamil people. These were language laws, education laws, labor laws and other laws, that literally pushed many people into the peripheries and margins of society, mainly because they were not part of the majority people. As Sinhalese people had a majority-minority complex; they falsely felt as if they were and still are, a minority, even though they continue to be the majority. So they ended up creating all these affirmative action programs for themselves, which turned out to be highly discriminatory against Tamils in particular. Things quickly turned into violence against Tamils. From 1956 onwards, there were regular riots, which turned into pogroms, which then turned into entire genocidal campaigns. In 1983, some would say 1981, the war officially started. July 1983 is referred to as Black July, which was a significant event in Eelam Tamil history, in which more than 3,000 Tamils were slaughtered for a week by Sinhalese mobs. This forms the political backdrop to when my parents left, in 1984. 1983 was when a large number of Tamils started to flee the country.
Where did they go?
Most Tamil people first left to the Soviet Union, which served as a transit point to reach East Germany, then West Germany, and a lot of people, if not most, including my parents, had the intention of heading from there to Canada. However, a lot of people got stuck, my parents included. There were different reasons why they ended up staying - firstly, there were seven months between my mother and father's departure from Sri Lanka to to Western Germany, and when they arrived here, a regulation was passed which racially profiled Eelam Tamil refugees and rendered their status upon arrival further vulnerable to state scrutiny. It affected us and our request for asylum. When Sri Lanka was colonized, did the colonizers play a central role in starting the conflict between the Sinhalese and the Tamils? Or, more importantly, did they help dehumanize the Tamil population on the island? I think you could definitely say there was an impact in terms of how the state regulated who is who, and what identity is the identity that shapes you the most, how to label you and relate you with another. There have been various ways of integrating different parts of populations into the colonial system, which then fueled polarization and conflict. I think a lot of present-day nationalism within colonized societies, originates in some sort of quest for justice from colonial injustices.
How does the caste system and colorism play into what happened in Sri Lanka at that time? And how have these aftermaths manifested themselves in your life since?
I think caste is something that's always silenced in conversations around the genocide and the conflict back home. Something I always emphasize is that the first riots that happened, meaning the first modern riots that occurred in the country, were caste riots not race riots. Anti-caste resistance fueled and informed the national resistance movements: practices of boycotts, organizing, and political mobilization were practiced by oppressed caste groups against the oppressive caste groups before the latter started to adopt these political tactics in regards to the national question. When they had entered the mainstream, privileged castes started erasing the particular anti-caste history behind such practices. These polarized caste relationships within Eelam - Tamil society, very much shaped the conflict in terms of who was able to leave, who had to stay back, who had to fight, who lost, who experienced more material losses, and who underwent rather emotional losses. All these kinds of questions are oftentimes tied towards caste origins, even the question who was able to flee where to and when, is shaped by caste. Colorism, on the other hand, plays a part in terms of how Tamil people are dehumanized from a Sinhalese position. It's fueled by the Dravidian - Aryan divide. Tamils are Dravidian, Sinhalese Aryans, but these terms and categories of course don’t respond to how race and ethnicity play out in reality. I think the assumption is that the majority of Tamil people are darker skinned. Whether that's actually the case is something I'm always confused about. I think back on the island, yes. A lot of Tamil people are darker-skinned than other groups elsewhere. But when you look at people here, in exile, depending on their origins over there, but also depending on the country they're in and the kind of climate they're in, they turn out to be much more light skinned than what everyone assumes to be a so-called ‘Tamil look’. There are number of reasons for this. In thinking along colorist lines, this is a conversation that shouldn't be reduced to Sri Lanka. It can be extended to so many other spaces, such as India, Malaysia, Singapore, honestly all of South Asia for that matter. But in Sri Lanka particularly, the way in which Tamil people have been dehumanized is also about their physicalities, in the sense that they are subhumans in the perspective of those people who are racist towards Tamils. Their humanity is less existent, and that belief enables them to unleash the type of violence we can track back to decades before my own birth. Similar things could be said in a more rhetorical way in how it plays out in India, for instance.
How does/did religion play a role in the Tamil - Sinhalese fight or the Tamil resistance movement?
I think religion plays a huge role from a Sinhalese perspective, because they're predominantly Buddhist. They hold onto this idea that the island is where the original form of Buddhism has always been practiced. Therefore, it's a sanctuary of Buddhism, which needs to be protected. In this sense, any religion other than Buddhism is seen as a threat. I think that the Buddhist nationalism that evolved out of that relationship between the island and its people, turned into a particularly lethal force. It created Sinhala Buddhist fascism, which fueled this conflict. A lot of the time, Buddhist monks are actually very actively involved in all types of violence, from 1983 Black July, leading the mobs with lists that marked Tamil names and homes, to boycotting peace talks and threatening the government from making any kinds of appeasements towards Tamils.
What religious background were you raised with?
I'm mixed - my mother is of Saiva background. My father is also originally Saiva, but he converted. I was raised as a Jehovah's Witness, and many of my uncles and cousins are Pentecostal, which is also a very caste-related history. It’s something very common that we find in a lot of oppressed caste histories, whether on the island or on the subcontinent, that people exit formalized Hinduism to join an alternative religion. Personally I’m not religious anymore.
It's interesting to think about the false illusion of Buddhism in the West, maybe even the uneducated perspective, as it sees Buddhism as the least violent religion out of all.
I think that's a very Eurocentric, Abrahamic kind of perspective which erases or negates the fact that humans are in many ways violent, and whatever ideology people practice, they'll always be able to turn it into something violent. When you think about Buddhist relationships, or state / religion relationships towards any minority, there's always different forms of violence present.
How does your identity, caste and traumatic history play a role in society today both for you and your family here in Germany? It seems like your work is very influenced by your history and your position when you're held up against like a white, German space.
I was politicized quite early on. And not necessarily because my parents pushed me into that, but rather because I was curious. I was conscious that there was something different about our presence. I would try to understand and contextualize it, but it was very hard to understand the particularities of it when there's only limited literature available to you. A lot of Tamil parents, really most parents who come from traumatic, kind of violent experiences - the way to cope is to silence them, to render them into a kind of an afterthought or something very intimate that they wouldn't share, something that they censored from their children, also as a protection mechanism. But at the same time, it still infuses your every day, in so many different, invisible, unspoken and nonchalant ways that you're only able to truly understand when you look at it retroactively. It’s those times when you try to understand: what happened in that particular moment in my childhood? Why was that? And I think now, having gone through that process of understanding how that conflict continues to effects us - how the persecution, demonization, displacement plays a role in our lives - I’m better able to place these experiences in my life. It took me a long time. It’s still a process that I'm undergoing - really trying to understand the impact these experiences still have on who I am today. I'll probably never reach the point where I'm able to say: now I've understood everything. It's also really hard to pause and look back because the present is not pausing, it doesn’t provide the type of relief we’d want from it. It's completely shaped by the past.
Did your family face a lot of racism in Germany?
I wouldn't know where to start. Racism follows you from birth until death, especially in a situation like ours. It leaves you with many scars. Our parents told us very early on that the society we live in, does not consider us to be equal, and therefore, it's in our best interest to work really hard and establish ourselves in a way to protect ourselves from abuse, from being misused and from being harmed. Germany is quite a racist society, as are most societies. But when you flee from a very racist state, to another racist country, it's difficult, especially for my parents, because they very soon realized that this is not a solution to our quest for seeking equality, either. You're stuck in this constant state of fear of having to move somewhere else. The question is: where to? If every place is like this.
Did they ever consider potentially leaving Germany behind and continuing on to Canada?
We always lived under a constant state of fear, but also a constant state of departure. I always say, we lived out of bags because the potential of leaving was always present. But more in the sense that they thought, 'oh the war will end soon and then we'll go back'. But the war never ended. The narrative was always: ‘when you finish this stage at the school, then we'll go to Tamil Nadu, or we'll go to London. Or then we'll go to Canada.’ In a way, they were always trying to find a way to leave this country behind.
Did they never feel comfortable here? They never identified with Germanness?
I think they do but more subconsciously, especially when you think about how long they've now lived here, only then do you realize how many traits they have adopted, how many characteristics, how they talk, how they think, how they feel, how they express themselves. You can see that there's a lot of aspects of their behavior that have been europeanized, or westernized. But honestly, I think they've always had this feeling that this country is not going to protect us. So, once they realized that they won't be able to leave, they became very keen on pushing us to leave this country. They encouraged my older brother to go to the UK, me as well, and when I decided to move back here, they were quite outraged because it didn't fit into their sense of how my life would play out. But also what development means and what evolution means, because for them, Berlin is the city they first arrived in when they got to this country. So for them, this is clearly a step back in our geographic progression towards the West. It's not progress. It didn't make sense to them. They thought, there's not an economy here, and there aren't many Tamil people here, nor is there any future for you here because your future is in the UK or Canada. That's also something very widespread or commonly heard amongst European Tamils: that it's better over there because there are more of us. And they're doing much better than we are doing here. That mindset is very much based on credit-based cultures, so viewing all those nice homes and cars, as indicators of wealth and happiness. But when you look at a country like Germany, our mobility is very, very limited here. One of my friends would always say, when Tamils get their passports, the first thing they do is move to the UK. I think it's partially because there's an infrastructure there and a bit of a community, but also the remnants of a colonial mindset. It's ironic but it makes sense because they're completely shaped by the British education system. And so they believe that education system is much better there, which is simply not true, but that's why they are much more eager to push their children to go there. They think that here, we lack role models. We lack the possibility of understanding who we could be, who we could become if we, for instance, moved to the UK. It's also about job opportunities. Here, you are limited to being a cleaner, someone who works in a restaurant or a factory. When my mother came to visit me in the UK, she would always be like, 'Oh my god, there are Black and brown women working as cashiers' and she'd be so fascinated, so much so that I had to go to the job center with her one day, to get her a National Insurance number, so she could start working in the UK. I remember when we grew up in southern Germany and we applied for supermarket jobs, they'd say, 'you could work in the back, by the storage unit, because we wouldn't want to shock our customers by placing you at the cash register' and I think that's a very common attitude. The fact is also that they are by now much more accepting of Middle Eastern people, based on their phenotypical traits, than they are of people like us, because they're not used to seeing us. And clearly our phenotypical differences are much larger. The way I'm approached in this country is through the English language because they can't imagine someone like me to speak German. They can't fathom that I might be part of this country. And that's a very specific way of approaching darker skinned people. Middle Easterners, for instance, or pale skinned people in general, may get approached in broken German when they're spoken to, but for someone who looks like me, you just get straight-up English. It's interesting, because a lot of people don't see this as racist and I'm like: that's racism at its finest.
Are you mistaken as Black a lot?
Yeah a lot, but not just by Germans. It's the same for a lot of South Asians who come from Pakistan, Northern India, Bangladesh, they also have very little understanding of how complex the entire region is, how much diversity there is, and how we're instilled with so many images of light-skinned, pale-skinned, Iranian-looking people, that people like us just don't seem to exist for them. We're outsourced into a completely different spectrum of geography and physicality, which I find intriguing at this point in my life. For a while, I felt a lot of anger and I wouldn't identify with terms such as South Asian, brown or desi. I still don’t. These are terms that I still don't use as self-reference, and a lot of Eelam-Tamils don't use them either because none of these categories and the people who widely use them, respect us. Throughout the region, we are discriminated against and this discrimination continues in different diasporas too. When I was living in London, I had a lot of South Asian friends, and the ways in which they talked about Tamil people was just outrageous and so harmful. That way of diminishing Tamil peoples' humanity has also been internalized by many of us as a result. Last year, I did a series on Instagram where I was sharing images of different Tamil people to simply understand how complex and beautiful we can be despite all the off putting things we are told by so many others, and what we have come to believe ourselves. To be honest, it was quite sad to see how many people were touched by it, because so many of us are deeply convinced that we are not worthwhile. And that we're not beautiful because that's something we're constantly being told by every pale skin group, from North Indians to Europeans. It took me a very long time to understand that we could be beautiful. I was very ashamed of myself. I was ashamed of my family. I was ashamed of my community. I tried to pull in my lips, to bite them, to squeeze my nose and squeeze my eyes as a child and youth a lot. These were typical markers of being Tamil, but essentially also markers people from the region and elsewhere associate with Black people in general. Anti-Tamil racism mostly includes aspects of anti-Dalit and antiBlack racism. When my brother moved to UK, he wouldn't tell other South Asians that he is Tamil or that he's from the island, he would tell them that he's from Mauritius, because that would confuse them. When he told me that it reminded me of what we were taught as children in regards to caste. Caste is geographically based, so simply by stating where you're from, which village or city you are from, you could already derive a certain caste profile from that person. Likewise, we were always told to lie to people when asked where we are from, by saying that we're from Negombo, which has a large Tamil population but is outside of traditional geographies, meaning it doesn't have a clear caste profile. That confused people and so they wouldn't ask any further questions. And this is similar to what my brother then did in terms of race: he placed himself in Mauritius, a place that has a history of indentured labor and slavery, which many people don't know much about. Therefore, by saying that he's from Mauritius, he acted in a preventive way, to protect himself from any type of anti-Tamil racism, from other South Asians. Twist in the story: Mauritius also has a significant Tamil population, of which many are of Dalit background too.
The amount of thought that has to go into: how do I present myself in order to make myself acceptable?
It's interesting to relate this to what's happening on social media as well. When you think about dark-skinned representation online, these unfair and lovely sort of campaigns, they are often based on a sensation that doesn’t exist. They make darker skinned people look like exceptions, as if they are something so rare, so out of sight, something to discover. But darker skinned people are everywhere, they may be largely absent from popular media, but we form a large part, in many places the majority, of people of this part of the world, particularly in Dravidian regions. I’m more or less intrigued by how much we’ve sucked up to this racist propaganda that abstracts our reality so much that we need to look at highly curated photos to see what forms part of many people’s everyday. Let’s look at Pakistan: we’re so convinced that Pakistanis are all just pale skinned people, but when you go to Pakistan, you see so many different colored people, because it's also a country of immigration and refuge, from so many different parts of India. So, you actually have quite a lot of Pakistanis who are not pale-skinned, but people aren’t conscious about them. We have a lot of Dalit Hindus in Pakistan, specifically in the Sindh region who don’t look like pale-skinned Punjabis or Pasthus. Those people are also never integrated into the national imagination. We can also say the same about Tamil cinema in Tamil Nadu, India: Kollywood never reflects who Tamil people truly are. When I look at Tamil Instagramers from the island who are now living in exile in other parts of the world, the people who are popular are always light or pale skinned Tamils. The people who are popular for their looks and nothing else, are literally always pale-skinned. It’s always the same pattern. And that's something I find even more harmful, because the majority of us are not pale skinned people, so why are we buying into these tropes and imaginations about who we should be when we are clearly not? Why do we further engage in these masochist industries that harm us?
What saddens me the most, is that the people with that light skinned privilege, don't use their platform and their privilege to speak for the fact that it's not accurate, that it is a misrepresentation. It could be a great opportunity as a point of departure to really tackle such issues, yet unfortunately, a lot of people profit from that privilege, and are complicit within that kind of narrative, rather than speaking up against it.
There’s a deep public disregard to harmful behavior by famous people. We excuse them, we excuse their behavior because of 'what they're supposedly contributing to society’. I think a lot of these complicities are simply not talked about. Gender and color intersect in most societies - a man needs to marry a lighter skinned woman. And if you act any differently, it gives people a platform for mockery, a lot of people wouldn't take them seriously. The queer spectrum is also not void of colorism and racism. There’s so many micro and macro dynamics that are shaped by colorism, which in this particularly context is however always related to casteism and racism. When I think of actresses like Mindy Kaling, I'm reminded of how we're always homogenized into a single group, but also how we participate in that process, in this circus. I was looking at this image from an event some time ago, it was a picture of Aziz Ansari, Mindy Kaling, Hasan Minhaj and Riz Ahmed. I found this so interesting, because there's so many things that separate all four of them. But in a way, you've consumed all those narratives of immigration, of Partition, of being South Asian in the West so much, that you really believe they’re the same. But just look at them, they look like nothing alike. Elsewhere we’d say they must be of maybe two different races, but here we don’t because we’ve become convinced by this idea of a homogenous state and region. I'm interested in the myth of how a state creates homogeneity, how societies often demand for homogeneity. This is something that we see a lot happening in India and in Sri Lanka too, in the sense that the 'center' creates a storyline that everyone needs to fit into. And if you challenge that storyline in any way, you'll be undermined, both violently and in other, more subtle ways. And that is also what people in the diasporas do.
Do you consider yourself part of the Tamil diaspora?
Yes, although I’ve gone through phases. I grew up in a village and I only had white friends. And when I went to the UK for the first time, I saw how many people from that region there are. It was fascinating but I was also quite saddened by the fact that I was never exposed to that. So when I started studying there, I reached out to them and I tried to create what you would call a South Asian friends circle, people from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. When I look back on that, it was more romanticized than it was real because Tamil people, especially from the island, we're always put into the appendix of any history and any storyline, so much that we have to defend ourselves to fit into other people's narratives. People ask us about Partition, but Partition has nothing to do with us. Everything is very relegated towards that trinity of Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh, but it always leaves out all other places. And there's an intent in doing that, so there were things that I could relate to, but at the same time, I also faced a lot discrimination from my Bengali and Pakistani friends, for example. I realized that my craving for a kind of bonding or unity, wasn't necessarily shared. So at some point, I just rejected those circles and that sense of identity, as well. I watched this Netflix show called Never Have I Ever, in which the actress is Eelam-Tamil, from Canada. I was quite fascinated. I remembered that in The Mindy Project, Mindy Kaling casts these North Indians to play her parents, who share none of her physical features. And this was a reminder to me that Mindy is the project of an Indian-American diaspora, an upper class, middle class, mobile diaspora, which also finds a way of uniting, realizing itself by leaving behind all tensions that underly the foundation of this nation state and that might be considered an issue, or might be considered something that disrupts. A lot of times, these conversations are considered inconvenient and uncomfortable, therefore, they're left out. And when I watched 'Never Have I Ever', I was fascinated by the fact that the actress was pushed into all these Indian vernaculars and spaces, how she navigates them. I found it quite interesting because the parents are of Indian-Tamil origin, but I wondered - for the people who consume this show, do they consider how her particular origin is actually not subcontinental? Would they see that tension? What does it mean when we flatten ourselves for others’ consumption, or when we’ve so deeply internalized such reductive views on us, that we’ve become blind to our own complexities and differences. How much does an oppressed identity need to be evoked before it becomes troublesome, disturbing and inconvenient? That’s something I often wonder about. How much of it do you need to silence or are you able to silence, to become ambiguous or neutralized? For some, based on their phenotype, you could simply refrain from saying anything and you could pass as generically South Asian. What does that mean? It means, Indo-Aryan. I’ve seen that happen with lots of pale-skinned Tamils. Another common practice is for Tamils to shorten their names to become much more pronounceable, recognizable, digestible. I find that so devastating, quite despicable, to be honest. Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, the young Eelam-Tamil actress from Never Have I Ever, consciously and vocally didn't shorten it. It’s quite telling of the generational shift, because people from our generation are still deeply shaped by the fact that people make fun of our names, tell us they're too long and inconvenient. I mean, look at Mindy Kaling, though she’s Indian Tamil-Bengali, her actual last name is Chokalingam, not Kaling. I remember that racist joke by Russell Peters, a Canadian comedian of North Indian heritage, made about Tamil names, which everyone laughed about, myself included, before realizing - this is deeply racist. I think that names are also quite symbolic of how you need to erase a certain part of yourself before it becomes possible to consume you, to deal with you. It's the same with M.I.A, she oftentimes gets consumed and used for different reasons, but very few people are actually aware of what her origin and her story is. Nonetheless, she's always been very clear about it, most of her work involves it, yet at the same time, she's been misappropriated for all kinds of discussions. When she fits the South Asian narrative, everyone's ecstatic, but when she doesn't, they're the first to drop her, because there's no allegiance for Eelam-Tamils. And that is a very Tamil, particularly an Eelam-Tamil experience. We're very negotiable. There's no anchor; there's no state that we relate to, because in all countries that we live in, we're minorities, minorities that are 'edgy' from a state perspective because we're conscious of our identities, because we are deeply resilient. This is why M.I.A. could never maintain a mainstream image - people read what they want to read, but in reality, she was always very clear about who she is and where she's from, which is why she became too inconvenient at some point, to be fully incorporated into the mainstream. I don't care if someone doesn't hire me because of what I say or what I believe in. I know I become less attractive for certain markets - but I've also realized, if you negotiate these things and police yourself to a certain degree, then you're able to really 'make it'. You make your story line easier to read, because otherwise it's too confusing. I think the current generation, still thinks that it's harmful to be bold about who you are. Another example: in Paris, there's an area which is completely Eelam-Tamil, it's called La Chapelle. But in French it's called Little India - we call it Little Jaffna but they call it Little India - and we're really just written out of history, even the history we build, shape and write ourselves. This can also be seen in Tamil food too - its many specific pronunciations, and the ways in which it is transliterated into Latin letters. Thosai is a good example. It’s been popularized as dosai, even if it’s actually transliterated as 'th' or ‚sai‘. Yet it has become d o s a, around the world. This makes it very evident that the hegemony we live under has a particular place and root, Sanskrit-Hindi cultural, which actively undermines the Tamil presence. But their presence is so forceful, so dominant that we end up adjusting our own language, just to be able to function properly within this system. Why do we subjugate ourselves to that kind of pressure? The type of pressure that forces us to say dhal instead of parappu. What the fuck is dhal to us? That type of erasure has historically both challenged and harmed us. It puts into question what we define as South Asian and what we want it to mean. I'm always left thinking: what are we creating? Because my interest is not in stabilizing these regions, in stabilizing the category of South Asia which is a category created through colonialism, but rather, to undo them and to understand that our relationships are not based on the fact that colonizers decided that Lahore has something to do with Colombo. I want to undo these myths, and not force myself into group identities that uphold those boundaries and separate us from so many other possibilities of being. We have more to do with Java, Yemen and Somalia than we do with Punjab.
Does your work as a researcher and as an essayist surround this topic of aiming to inform/educate people, about the Tamil experience? You've stated that people make assumptions about you, and even if they place you in the region of South Asia, they definitely don't know your history. Has your work attempted to function as a way of telling these untold, silenced stories?
When I started to be much more vocal and active in 2007, a lot of our work was oriented towards the outside, so we wanted to communicate the genocide, the violence Tamil people are subjected to, as a way of mobilizing them to do something. We lobbied states, we lobbied the UN, we lobbied at different universities and institutions, etc. But at some point, my work shifted because I have an interest in doing something more sustainable, something that actually is more inward-directed. The kind of silence that I was raised in, was something I've always found quite challenging, but also something that wasn't healthy for us as a community. So even in the work that I do now, although a lot of people can access it, understand it and even relate to it, my interest is much more in uplifting the Eelam-Tamil community. Eelam-Tamils have always been my prime audience. That's where my heart is and everything else is just positive collateral damage. I don't discount that, but it's not my main intention. And I've been very clear about that - I'm always interested in politicizing Tamil people, making sure that they're responsible, conscious, more progressive than they usually are, and generally just understanding of how we can create educational tools to help each other but also to create a society that's less harmful to one another.
Have you been able to build and/or foster a Tamil community through your work? And if so, what kind of feedback have you gotten from other Tamils throughout the world in regards to what you are producing and creating?
I've been using social media in a way in which I'm never just nationally bound or reduced - but always been transnational, always used all types of media to connect to each other, and to find each other. I'm always conflicted with the term community, to be honest - to me, it's so loosely used, it's just not precise enough. I don't know what it means - it could mean anything, or nothing. It's really just used as a tool, in the end, so I don't want to link my work to community. But I know a lot of people do appreciate my work. From very early on, people started writing me, anonymously or through different platforms, sharing their experiences of encountering my work, reading the things that I wrote, and that's always been quite touching and also interesting, because when you write something, or when you produce something, it's very difficult to understand how the reception of it will be. If there even is one to begin with. And in the process of producing, you're just working into the blue, and you have no sense of where this might go. So, when I did an exhibition for the Berlin Biennale, 'How to Move an Arche' - I realized, I tend to have a hard time taking things seriously when I do them myself, because I only understand how well they've been received and also implemented once I get feedback. That's the point when I start to realize that I'm actually not so bad at what I'm doing. And that's something I came to understand by way of people very generously sharing their thoughts and emotions with me. Sometimes it can feel a little overwhelming, but it's important to understand that people have so few outlets, and it's not always a matter of me reading a message - it may often be more important for this person to communicate something in one way or another. My response to that is actually secondary. And sometimes, I receive long messages from people in corners of the world that I never thought my work could reach, which is definitely one of the positive sides of using social media and internet as a platform.
Can you tell me a little bit about your latest exhibition?
My exhibition was basically looking at the partition of Germany, through the lens of refugees moving through a divided city. By focusing on this particular aspect of the wall history, I was trying to counteract the established narrative of the Berlin Wall as a physical barrier undermining people's movements. The exhibition used everyday infrastructure points to understand how Tamil refugees engaged with the city. My interest was in telling a local story, because I think a lot of times in the art world, particularly in Berlin, we have a very so-called expat friendly environment which caters to more so-called global stories rather than bringing local stories to a global audience. These stories remain abstract to most, they don't touch people. Therefore, my interest was more in telling something that is very particular, rooted in our present geographies, but isn’t limited to that. These very local movements are indeed also global movements. I tend to find myself working with the banal aspects of everyday life. Personally speaking, it’s so much more fascinating to build a story from something small, then to broaden it and bring it back to something more tangible. That's the art of doing it. A lot of times we get lost in trying to tell the grand narrative. And in my exhibition, the narrative was very limited to the city of Berlin, but at the same time, it was speaking towards a more global Tamil narrative. It touched people sitting in different parts of the world, who have no relation to Berlin anymore, whose children have often never even been here. My idea was to also understand that Tamil geography is not just limited to the Indian Ocean, it has extended. And a lot of times when we talk about diasporas, we talk about the English speaking countries, or even in Germany, we talk about western Germany, but we never talk about Berlin as the starting point for Tamil life in this particular territory.
It sounds like you weaved many personal experiences into your latest exhibition. How does it feel to be so exposed to a greater audience in regards to your personal narratives, experiences, history & trauma?
I think my way of politicizing myself was to always understand my own history, my own biography, and to take it apart, dissect it and try to understand what it means in the larger scheme of things. And that's how I, at some point, started to instrumentalize myself for a political cause. Some would probably say this isn’t healthy, but I'm not so sure what is healthy in face of such histories. At this point, I've reached a certain distance to my story, so it's really only a story. There's only certain moments in which I reflect back and it doesn't feel like someone else's story, but it becomes my story again and then it becomes a bit more difficult to engage with it. But otherwise, I think over the years, I've really started to abstract it in my head, also to better cope with it as a mechanism for survival. It's also, in a way, a self healing process - making sure that younger generations are able to access knowledge and histories that I didn't have access to. And using the access that I have, that I worked for and built, to make sure that the difficulties we have should not continue to be the same difficulties for coming generations. I strive to challenge the silence, break the cycle and create an archive - something that people can tap into. If we don't have books, which we don’t in the traditional sense, then we create them - I want to make clear that we, as Tamils, are capable of doing that, also in languages that are powerful in this very unequal and unjust world. Today we are able to tap into resources that our parents never had. When I was working with the Biennale, and they were using the #eelam or #tamil hashtags - that was mind blowing. In any other political discussion, this would be completely undermined, because there would be some Sri Lankan person attacking that narrative. But here we are, establishing a sense of normalcy, creating platforms where we become visible and don’t have to justify or centre our many oppressors. I stopped waiting for people to give us that stage. And I stopped doing things for free. We’re always so used to doing charity. Any type of work that is community oriented or related, also volunteer work, it's assumed that you wouldn't be compensated for your labor. And this is something I'm still learning to challenge. Now, when universities or other institutions invite me to speak somewhere, my first question is: what is your pay? Knowledge should be paid for. Labor should be paid for, especially as exploited people, we should be conscious of how undervalued our labor tends to be. Unfortunately, in the Tamil community, which in this case is very much culturally similar to other Asian communities, there is a devaluing of emotional labor, of anything that is not necessarily materially aspirational. It's also gendered, in the sense that it's considered female, soft, overly emotional, unnecessary. That’s something I'm also actively trying to challenge. I once wrote an essay about my mother, who's a writer, yet as a child and as a teenager, I never considered her to be an artist. And that's because everyone always said: 'your mother works as a cleaner, and she can't live off of her writing'. But what they didn't say was that her writing was in a language that was not valued, even though Tamil is one of the oldest living languages and has one of the richest literary bodies, yet still, it is dismissed as invaluable and irrelevant in most places outside of Tamil regions (even in India). For the longest time, I was very intrigued by people who grew up in artists scenes, but so did I - I was just never made aware of that. My mother's friends were also writers, but at the same time, they were also cleaners and factory workers. At some point, I had to make that switch, even within myself. I would not call myself an artist, but I also know that I'm aesthetically inclined, and what I like to do always touches a certain aesthetic. Whatever people want to call my work, is up to them. I feel much more secure saying I'm a researcher, because I like precise work that I can back-up with information and facts. But, I also have an interest in making sure that its delivery is aesthetically pleasing to consume, that it's soft on the eye, that it touches your emotions, that it stays with you - that it's not just pure information. The tool of delivery is as important as the content. And that's something that I'm always conscious about. I do think that there's an importance for marginalized, poor communities to understand that they're able to tap into the 'arts'. They might not need to do 'straight-up art', or practices that are considered 'artistic', but they’re still able and eligible to do so. My interest also lies in making things accessible for myself, because I'm still at a stage where I’m trying to figure out what my preferred ways of expression are. I still need to remind myself of my own potential, of how capable I am. Often I forget that. I understand my own potential more through the eyes and lips of others than my own.
Have you ever visited South Asia? Would you ever consider going back to Sri Lanka?
I've been to Sri Lanka and I've been to Eelam - to Sri Lanka about three times and to Eelam twice, once by myself and twice with my family. The first time I went there I was about 12 years old, and we were only allowed to go to Colombo. It was full of military checkpoints. It was quite terrifying, because we had to hide any trace that could identifies us as Tamil, meaning we weren't allowed to speak in Tamil publicly, we weren't allowed to wear anything that could identify us as Tamil. We couldn't wear a pottu or particular chains, or anything that shows you're Saiva. As a child, it was quite traumatizing - my father and oldest brother also couldn't come because they would have been subject to been scrutinized as being part of the resistance, because they were old enough to be suspected of being part of the Tamil resistance. We were allowed to go because we're still young enough, and my mother and my aunt were women - motherly enough not to be considered a threat. To be cognizant of how fearful your parent is, makes you feel quite exposed and relate to your surroundings differently, because there's no one to protect them and thus, also no one to protect you. So in that sense, I hated it. As a Tamil at that point, you had to go to the police immediately upon arrival - every Tamil person had to register themselves at the police to give them information of where you're staying, who you are, why you're here, how long you're here for and if you don't have that registration, they might just throw you in prison. So, if you're outside of Eelam going to say Colombo, or even if you come to visit home from abroad, that's the first thing you have to do. I remember when we went to the police station, I was holding my mother's hand and she was shivering. It made me quite conscious that we have no place to go back to. You're stuck in between different places that don't want you - the degrees of not wanting you may differ sometimes, but generally speaking, no one wants you. And then eventually, instead of going to the island, we used to go to Tamil Nadu, because that was the only viable alternative. Our relatives would meet us there. We would go to the coast, close to the south of Tamil Nadu, and we would always watch Jaffna, or what we thought was Jaffna, from the ocean, from the other side. It was a way of recreating a sense of home, but also of forgetting - forgetting for three weeks, a month or two, that we're refugees here and everywhere - forgetting that we have no place to go. But even in Tamil Nadu, we're strangers, people would immediately identify our accents. When we went in 1994, the first thing they asked us was: are you terrorists, or: are you Tamil Tigers? We arrived in Chennai and no one wanted to give us a hotel room.
If you went back today, to Sri Lanka, would you be safe as a Tamil person?
I think generally as a Tamil person, you're not equal and you're threatened, especially if you're politically vocal. You're allowed to talk about a certain type of pain, but it needs to be dated enough for it not to apply to the present, and therefore not have present-day consequences. You're not allowed to have aspirations that originate in that violence and inequality - you need to actually just embrace the status quo, which is a country for Sinhalese by Sinhalese. Anything that destabilizes the status quo is considered a threat. Therefore, yes, as a Tamil person, if you actually decide to raise your voice, you are still, even after the formal end of war, subject to all kinds of forms of violence. I think, the way anti-tamil racism plays out is maybe more subtle now - it hides itself under the disguise of so called reconciliation and restitution, or language parity, all these kinds of efforts of making sure that it looks all good, but actually, it's not good and doesn't feel good. The feeling part is for Tamils to explore. The visual part is what others consume and rave about.
How would you describe your upbringing and growing up in a refugee home? Did you feel torn between two cultures a lot of the time? Or were you maybe encouraged not to identify with either as much as the other?
I think there were clear boundaries between different spaces. Our home was always a Tamil space. And we were very conscious of the fact that once we opened the door, we'd be in a different place where we’d have to act differently, speak differently and think differently too. In that sense, it was always quite clear cut, it wasn't as confusing. We weren’t torn as everyone always wants us to be, when discussing the process of framing our identities. But at a certain age, the conflicts and tensions started to increase based on how frustrated I was with being told I can't be German, and then no one understood or cared for what being Tamil is. No one even knew what or where Sri Lanka was, for that matter, so then you're left without any references. I think that was something that frustrated me more, but at some point, I became bold enough to be okay with causing confusion. When someone would ask me: where are you from? I would say, I think you're really trying to ask what I am, and I can very clearly tell you what I am. I might not be able to attach a geography to it, but I feel secure enough to tell you what I am. Because what I am is not limited by a particular geography. There's a saying in Tamil: there's no country without a Tamil, but there is no country for Tamils.
When you were growing up, did you feel the need to assimilate into German culture outside of your home? And if so, was that harmful?
I think the German state and society, have an interest in assimilation - there's a lot of policies that drive you towards assimilation, including pushing refugees into rural places where they're isolated. In that sense, I think yes. I only realized this the first time I went to London to visit my brother, when I was 18. I hung out with him, his Tamil friends, and some of his Indian friends. And I thought, wow - I feel like there are certain things that I couldn't develop where we grew up, because I didn't have that confidence in stating: I may not be like you. And that trip was quite transformative for me. I only realized it once I left, how much I adopted and adapted - but I remember not wanting to return to the completely white world I was raised in. Yesterday, I was telling some acquaintances about how I'm not in touch with most of my friends from school. I have no friends from that period of my life. When I grew up, I didn't have any friends to begin with. Only when I was about 17, I started to become more 'cool'. I was just so different, and people couldn’t deal with that. I realized that I've outgrown them, I've also outgrown who I used to be. But in the end, they are what they are - they're just a reflection of the limits of their social spheres. When I meet them, I realize that their fascination with whom I've become, is much larger than my fascination with whom they've become. I speak much more clearly, more confidently, more eloquently. I correct them. I speak back. I speak up for myself, and that's something I wasn't taught. They used to call us coconuts - brown on the outside, white on the inside. But I think that just happens when you grow up so isolated. You become so isolated that at some point, you also seek isolation from those people, because you just don't have the same references, you don't understand how to deal with them. The thing is, I also become overwhelmed in a larger Tamil space, because I don't think I function so well in that either. You don't fully belong anywhere in the end. It really makes you wonder: do you really need to foster a sense of community? Or is it really just a sense of being respectful towards each other, appreciating each other's presence, by not limiting to what extent we share, but also embracing what differences we might have. I'm learning that there's only so much I can get from another person. Simply being Tamil is not enough for me to relate to another person. And that's good to remember because sometimes, you end up being romantic about something you shouldn't be romantic about. Most humans are assholes and no society is free of violence. To be conscious of that is good for yourself and for your own mental health.
In what ways do you stay connected to your Tamil heritage outside of your work?
Speaking in Tamil is something that I really value and actively seek out. I create opportunities for conversations - it's a process for me, understanding that I can actively change the realities that I'm confronted with, force them to change to some degree at least. I speak to my siblings oftentimes in Tamil. We switched at one point to German and I'm trying to undo that. I love interacting with Tamil people, especially the older ones, listening to their stories and understanding the many museums and archives that sit within us. I'm not very religious, so I wouldn't say I engage in my Tamilness religiously. And other than that, I'm very keen on receiving information - I watch and read a lot of Tamil news. I don't think my home or life would indicate that I’m Eelam-Tamil. When I look around me, I can sense that I have an urge to differentiate the space I live in from the spaces I used to live in. Generally speaking, I don’t feel like I have to wear my Tamilness on my sleeve. And I don't mean that in the sense that I'm in way ashamed of it. But I don't have to force it either and perform it more than necessary.