Published on behalf of author Natasha Pillai
My mother is from Negombo, a heretofore little known fishing town in Sri Lanka. I have only been twice. It is difficult to overstate how easily family and cultural ties are eroded in a diaspora. But as Sri Lanka seemed to grow past its thirty-year civil war, my parents and I began to develop a stronger and more mature relationship as they re-established ties to their birthplace. As a symbol of this renewal and reclamation of my heritage, we planned to visit Sri Lanka over the summer, visiting all the important cultural sites I never saw during the war.
On Easter Sunday, April 21, nearly 300 people were murdered during the most holy and beloved holiday of my childhood. Although no members of my family were killed, the damage to my parents’ neighbors and local parish defy words. I pored over every English-language news reports as if sifting through abrasive sand. Page after page of articles explained my motherland to me as if I was it was a neglected part of my backyard that I should consider sunning myself in once it had gotten cleaned up. Finally, I saw it. A Washington Post article leading with a picture of a pale Jesus statue in St. Anthony’s Shrine covered head to toe in blood spatter. I dropped my phone and strangled back a cry. That image has been flashing before my eyes for days now. With those images comes still more images and searing rage. The rage has been long buried and has only fermented with time.
On the front page of the Washington Post, a screenshot from the New Zealand mosque shooter’s Facebook live video of the event. He is about to enter the mosque, and his gun barrel is within the frame. Crime dramas tenderly depicting dead sex workers in dumpsters, or naked and prone on autopsy tables. A play soon to hit Broadway where the sexual assault and degradation of slaves is framed as liberating and gratifying. Online media companies asking potential women hires what traumatic experiences they would be willing to exploit for clicks. Mike Brown’s body lying in the street. Tamir Rice gunned down in seconds. Black children starving as vultures look on. Brown children running from napalm.
We haven’t even gotten to the Seahawk-created media yet. We haven’t gotten to Trayvon Martin’s murder re-enacted on stage. Domestic violence including strangulation re-enacted on stage, with added racist overtones. Attempted suicide (strikingly similar to the attempted suicide of my loved one) graphically re-enacted on stage, now with extra striptease. Sexual assault narratives that use classic and even cliched erotic tropes.
My parents had always been deeply suspicious of airing family stories to outsiders. As a child I had thought they just wanted to protect themselves from criticism. Every day I have spent at college makes me want to beg their forgiveness. “Representation,” “amplifying marginalized voices,” “awareness of world affairs,” all of these are just ever-wilting fig leaves covering a base, rapacious hunger for oppressed peoples’ suffering. Women only get the mic when we are willing to plumb the depths of gender-based violence. Meanwhile, HBO turns women’s degradation into top ratings. People of color must painstakingly recount every detail of alienation and humiliation to drooling white audiences. And of course, the sons of some European billionaire are given the dignity of New York Times profiles in death, while Sri Lankan mothers, fathers, and children are merely ironic bloodstains on a statue.
I could learn to cope with it, I think, if it was only news media that did it to us. It truly turns my stomach when we do it to ourselves. Women need to talk freely about sexual violence perpetrated by individuals, but if we let ourselves and each other talk about our exploitation in a salacious manner, we are reinforcing the epistemic and psychological violence done by us by patriarchy. Those of us from oppressed or colonized racial and ethnic groups need to commit to speaking to our own people and to other oppressed or colonized peoples instead of using our communal trauma to get sinecures from white colonial literati, media, and academia. I am tired, so tired. Liberal social justice discourse focuses on identity to the exclusion of emphasizing our memberships (and more importantly responsibilities) in our communities. Our experiences are not just our own, and we forget that to the benefit of our own oppressors.
I beg you all. I am so tired. If you cannot guarantee my Sri Lankan family and neighbors dignity and humanity in death, please let us slip past your news feed. Along with all the other victims of atrocities in our postcolonial world, we’re at least used to that.
Anyone interested in making a financial contribution towards rebuilding the parishes destroyed in the attack or caring for injured or bereaved survivors can contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.