Saraid de Silva (Photo: Supplied; Design: Tina Tiller)
Saraid de Silva (Photo: Supplied; Design: Tina Tiller)

BooksDecember 13, 2021

A first look at the hottest novel in New Zealand right now

Saraid de Silva (Photo: Supplied; Design: Tina Tiller)
Saraid de Silva (Photo: Supplied; Design: Tina Tiller)

An excerpt from Amma, the novel-in-waiting by Sri Lankan Pākehā writer Saraid de Silva, which last week won the inaugural Crystal Arts Trust Prize and $10,000. But first, a short explainer:

Never heard of this prize, what is it again?

The Crystal Arts Trust Prize is for University of Auckland students and it was established by James and Rosetta Allan (yes that Rosetta Allan – her novel Crazy Love was published by Penguin this year). The couple are also funding the best first book category at the Ockhams, and a $5000 scholarship for Masters of Creative Writing students. 

$10,000 is a lot eh?

It’s the richest writing prize at any university in the country. It’s also worth more than all the Ockhams prizes, except the biggie, the Acorn. 

When can I read the book? 

Apparently publishers (plural, local and international) are already very interested, so hopefully in 2022. De Silva is signed to Angelique Tran Van Sang at Felicity Bryan Associates, in Oxford. 

Amma tells the stories of three South Asian women and is set across Singapore, Hamilton, Sri Lanka, Invercargill, Melbourne and London. The manuscript earned first-class honours, with examiner Alison Wong commenting: “De Silva has written complex characters and relationships with acute observations of the migrant experience, of trauma, pathos, racism and isolation, humour and place. Amma is a compelling read.” 

We can’t wait to read the whole thing, and we’re very proud to publish this excerpt. 


Sithara, 1984, Invercargill

Maria Louisa Sithara Fernando sits on the floor of her bedroom getting ready for school. It is 7am on a frozen morning in July. Her room is lit by one bulb on a stand with no lampshade. Her hair, long enough to kiss her waist, is dead. 

Back home, in Colombo, her hair was alive. It floated outwards as though underwater when she was sad, unfurling softly around her face. Sometimes it said the things that she could not. Her hair reached out to her amma when they lay down after lunch, too full and too hot to do anything other than bask like lizards on the wooden seat they called a couch and watch the ceiling fan twist slowly above them. Things have changed since she got here. Her family, herself. Both have shrunk. And when Appa died, her hair gave up. 

The sun has not yet risen. The edges of the sky are fading from black into ghostly blue. If she loses concentration when leaving the house on mornings like this, her school shoes will slip on the black ice like she has two little enemies on her feet, and she will have to windmill her arms to stay upright. That moment between success and failure always feels like an eternity. 

Sithara is all triangles. She has a skinny neck and a pointed, almost hooked chin. Her crooked nose interrupts her face. She avoids her reflection in the mirror nowadays, scared that the longer she looks, the more likely it is she will see something two-dimensional, something empty.

A section on the other side of the road is home only to a few sheep fenced in with wire. They are missing this morning. She wonders if it is too cold even for sheep. Tiny scraps of plastic are twisted around the wire, bouncing in the wind. 

She brushes and ties her hair like she always does for school, with a severe middle parting, weaving it into a plait. It shrugs itself into the elastic and hangs heavy between her shoulders, plain and unfeeling.

 

Invercargill is a small town that thinks it is a city, at the bottom of a country full of white people who think they live in England. Everyone on television and radio here speaks like the Queen. Sithara hasn’t been anywhere else in New Zealand yet. She hopes it isn’t all like this.

Sithara, her amma Josephina and her brother Suri all live in a narrow red house in Clifton. They came six years ago with her appa, Ravi. They were shocked into silence by their new home. Everything about it was unfamiliar: the blood-red wood, the sharp, skinny window frames, the way it leered over them.

Amma wore a jacket and a coat over a banana-yellow sari. She stuck out on the dull street like a sunflower. They had no real winter clothes. Amma stuffed a pink sarong under a sun hat as they walked here, it drooped out from the rim like big wilted petals. She let her suitcase fall to the footpath, pushed both hands deep into her sleeves and scowled at their new home.

Appa just looked at the empty roads, checked left and right as though he had missed something. His hair was like Sithara’s used to be, an extension of his thoughts, breathing. He kept it long at the top, brushed back from his face in an elegant side parting. When he was happy his curls rustled together like whispering leaves. 

Appa was anti-gravity; he lifted the rest of them up, turned them towards the sun. He loved to listen to Sithara recounting her dreams, and to Suri reading poems aloud. He laughed at himself so quickly. He was the only one who could turn Amma’s moods around. It was like he freed her from herself. He was actually the friendliest of the lot of them, but because he was dark, with a thick accent, he made the white people wary.

Sithara and Suri stood still, as paralysed as their parents, waiting for a cue. Suri’s chubby fingers held Sithara’s tight. She wanted to help, she tried to think of something to make him smile, but lost the words in surprise when she opened her mouth and saw her breath materialise in front of her. She reached out a hand, trying to touch the ghost of her thoughts. 

Where are all the people? Appa said softly, as the strangeness of this place poured over them all. 

 

Sithara yells for Suri to get out of the bathroom. She rests her forehead on the plasticky beige surface of the door, annoyed but unsurprised to be kept waiting. Ever since Appa died, Suri’s attention span has deteriorated. Now, he will often start doing one thing and then stop halfway. In these moments he looks as though he is being pulled under, deep into a memory. One of Appa’s lungis draped over the stair rail will turn Suri into a statue. 

Sithara knocks again, harder. Still no response. She goes to her bedroom and returns with a 5c coin, pushing it into the fake silver door handle and turning until it pops open. 

Inside, Suri is sitting on the closed lid of the toilet, resting his chin in his hands and staring at the wall. He doesn’t flinch when she enters. His legs are longer than hers now, but his eyes behind large wire-rimmed spectacles are still gentle. She sits on the floor in front of him and leans her back against the wall. 

What’s wrong? she asks. She tries to sound casual. The silence between them stretches. 

Ethan called me a cockroach, so I punched him, Suri says. 

She frowns, unsure how to respond. Sithara’s accent has faded, Suri’s is still strong. She should have helped him get rid of it. He stands and smooths his hair down in the mirror, then shuts the door behind him, leaving Sithara sitting on the floor. She sees a tiny pink razor on the bathroom sink, balled up tissues next to it. Suri was trying to shave. 

She has been ripping out her own moustache with Amma’s tweezers since before they even got here, after their cousin Nisal told her she had whiskers. That night she had stood in front of the bathroom mirror quivering, cursing the thick hairs that framed her upper lip, daring herself to pull. The first was so surprising: she could see the white root, slightly bulbous, and it made her feel clean. After a few she got the hang of it. She started to understand the tweezer’s weight in her hands, that it was better to press the flat side against the skin than to dig the point in. The bloody mess left on the bench by Suri makes his look more difficult. She clears the debris before brushing her teeth. She will have to tell Amma to buy him a real razor. 

 

Mornings in the Fernando house are quiet. Amma gets up before either of them and starts preparing food. Every morning she cooks something different – she soaks pink lentils for parippu, roasts and grinds peanuts for gado gado or marinates chicken in cinnamon, chilli and cloves. 

The three of them give each other a wide berth. The cold grey light of their kitchen in winter feels normal now. Back in Colombo they lived in a bungalow where the doors stayed open even when it rained. Aunties and uncles came in and out, accusing one another of being too skinny. That house was never slack-jawed or gaping like this one. Appa’s death is impaled in the middle of them all. 

Amma is frowning into the pantry. She is beautiful, although she doesn’t seem to care. She has wide eyes and full rose lips, a nipped waist and tiny ankles. Men’s eyes follow her with reverence and a touch of resignation, like she is someone else’s Christmas present. Male grocery clerks hold her bags a little too close to their chest, so that Amma has to lean forward and brush their fingers with her own to retrieve her things. Sithara’s Principal at St Mary’s, Mr Banks, always makes a beeline to Amma, leaving Sithara shuffling her feet. It is hard to be the daughter of such a pretty widow.

The pantry smells faintly of dried coriander and star anise. In front of Amma are rows and rows of glass jars with white labels marked in scratchy cursive. 

Green gram, Desiccated Coconut, Cornflakes, Wheat Flour, Besan

She is probably trying to figure out if they have enough for dinner this week. To Sithara there is always an abundance of food, more than they can eat, but Amma never seems at ease. Without looking up from her list, she tells her to take some breakfast. 

I’m not hungry thank you Amma, Sithara says. 

She knows this will not sit well. But the thought of eating idiappa, drenched in the pale gold kiri hodhi that sits on the stove, is too much to bear. Her nails will end up stained with turmeric and her classmates will notice. Amma kisses her teeth, scolds her.

I got up at five to cook for you, girl, she says.

The Spinoff Review of Books is proudly brought to you by Unity Books, recently named 2020 International Book Store of the Year, London Book Fair, and Creative New Zealand. Visit Unity Books Wellington or Unity Books Auckland online stores today. 

Mad Chapman, Editor
The Spinoff has covered the news that matters in 2021, most recently the delta outbreak. Help us continue this coverage, and so much more, by supporting The Spinoff Members.Madeleine Chapman, EditorJoin Members

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