We all have great conversations almost every day. But there are some conversations we have that are powerful enough to describe an entire chapter of our lives.
This is a picture of me receiving the National Literary Award for my novel in 2009 from Mahinda Rajapaksa, the president of Sri Lanka. The award, previously won by other Sri Lankan authors such as Michael Ondaatje has reputation of an average recipient age of 50. I’m the youngest National Lliterary Award winner in the world. When I walked up to the stage there was applause suddenly paused by a searing silence. Everyone was surprised to see how young I was.
The conversation I’m having in this picture was no longer than 15 words but looking back, I realize it defines my entire childhood.
The President: “How old are you?”
Me: “Sixteen, sir”
The President: “How old are you, really?”
Me: “I really am sixteen, sir”
When I published my first novel at the age of fourteen, (after being rejected by several publishing houses that said they “don’t publish books written by kids”) I received all kinds of criticism. Titled Colombo Streets, my book was based on the lives of children (like myself) growing up with the war in Sri Lanka. While the book sold out 3 editions in a year, became a national bestseller and received many great reviews, there were also many people in my country who argued that children/ teenagers should not be allowed to publish work about sensitive topics such as ongoing wars and civil conflicts. Some were so infuriated that they created entire hate-blogs on my writing. “A word of advice to parents: Encourage your children to read first, buy them books, rather than let them publish their book. They will thank you for it, when they are ready to write their novel as adults,” one of the bloggers wrote. I never quite understood why people believed my age should keep me from publishing my work.
I think back to this conversation every now and then. The reason I treasure it so much is because it reminds me of who I really am. How I learnt to break conventions at such a young age, and how I should never let anything; may it be my age, gender, or the color of my skin; hold me back from living my dreams.
I’m eternally grateful to this conversation. Because I truly believe, it is what brought me to Bennington.
So yeah, that’s a great conversation to me.