Immigrant fiction is its own profitable genre, and publishing houses in England and the United States seem particularly keen on cashing in on the stories of writers from the Asian or African diaspora. It’s hard to summon any enthusiasm for more fiction marketed as a “stunningly assured” work that offers us a “kaleidoscopic view of contemporary immigrant life”, especially, if in the case of Roshi Fernando’s Homesick, it comes with a cover of an enlarged (presumably exotic) eye, with fine almost henna-like (and presumably exotic) patterns decorating the foreground. Luckily for Fernando and her readers, however, within the first few pages it becomes evident that Homesick is a work distinctly at odds with its unfortunate jejune packaging.
Homesick is a series of interconnecting stories featuring a cast of characters tied to an extended Sri Lankan family in southeast London, most of whom we meet in the title story, “Homesick”, when they gather together in Victor and Nandini’s home for a new year’s celebration to usher in 1983. We’re introduced to Victor and Nandini’s children: Rohan, Preethi, and Gehan. It is Preethi who turns out to be the character who anchors the various characters and stories throughout the course of Homesick, and Fernando follows Preethi through several stages of her life until the last two stories in the book, where a changed, wrung-out Preethi has been to hell (war-torn Sri Lanka) and back (home in England).
Fernando is an English writer of Sri Lankan origin, and because her stories revolve around Sri Lankan characters and moves between Sri Lanka and parts of England, her fiction will inevitably be characterised as a comment on “contemporary immigrant life”. That’s certainly one way to describe her stories—so many of her rotating cast of Sri Lankan characters are immigrants, or children of immigrants, heavy with the burden of a known or unknown past. Less than the experience of immigrants, however, which seems to signal a clear demarcation between home and (not) home, or there (what was once home) and here (what is now home), the strength of Fernando’s stories come from characters that are both homesick and sick of home and always out-of-place.
The scope of Fernando’s stories are wide, though the best ones feature Preethi. Perhaps because it was the character Fernando felt closest to and also because it’s the character we spend the most time with: from the heady days of youth where she befriends an ostracised, disabled working-class English boy and discovers her brother’s sexual preferences by accident; to her later years where she’s happily married but then does not, find herself caught between the crossfire of opposing camps while in Vavuniya, Sri Lanka; to when she returns home, scarred, bruised, weary, and dangerously close to alcoholism.
One of my favourite stories, “Sophocles’s Chorus”, gives us a youthful Preethi slowly blossoming into her sexual and intellectual powers: she kisses the most lusted-after boy in school, she reads Howard’s End and Antigone, she is the star in a school play, and her dreams and words and images slowly bleed into one another until fantasies and imagination hold the possibility of becoming real. But these moments of youthful potential and hope, moments that appear to be touched by a sort of otherworldly grace, sour pretty quickly, and the kiss becomes a shame that Preethi must endure under the watchful, cruel eyes of her peers.
What starts out as tragedy on the page, experienced from a distance as a reader of Sophocles, becomes the unwished-for reality: all that held the promise of something sweet becomes rank with wrong choices and misdeeds, and Preethi slashes her wrists in the bathtub. She survives this suicide attempt, of course, but the Preethi we meet later will always be raw and vulnerable, always approaching the edge of something, only to be pulled back by someone: a husband, a cousin. Families will consistently fuck you up, Fernando seems to say, but sometimes they also don’t let you die.
The stories in the first half of the book are ambivalent; they have an unfinished feel, and you’re dropped into a character’s life while they’re in the midst of a reckoning or a change. These stories are particularly powerful in their uncertainty and leave a vivid, lasting impression. (Of this, “The Fluorescent Jacket” is particularly a stunner.)
The latter half of Homesick, however, feature stories with neat, almost saccharine, endings; “Research”, “Test”, and “The Terrorist’s Foster Grandmother”, for example, are bold in terms of ideas but timid in execution; the last, in particular, feels especially contrived for maximum effect and emotion. The latter stories read as though they were worked over numerous times to round off perfectly in the style of creative writing programmes—epiphanies come suddenly, profundity is found, and the right emotional note is reached. This insistence on some sort of resolution, even at the expense of having that particular resolution come off as trite, rob the later stories of its affective power.
Despite that, Fernando is a tender and intelligent enough writer to mine for unexpected revelations: in “Test”, for example, Rohan thinks back on a visit to Sri Lanka, “a place of such extremities” that allowed him to enjoy, revel in, and take pleasure in “extremes of himself”. “He found a beauty and a love within himself for himself,” Fernando writes, and it’s an interesting comment, of course, because liberal ideas and ideals of self-love are something that the conventional narrative always tries to locate in the civilised West, but as a closeted gay teenager in London, Rohan had to go back “home” (or, travel far from “home”) before his own self was revealed to him as something worth loving.
It’s this miserable, complicated, absolutely essential idea of home that dogs Preethi ‘til the very end, until l she is literally made sick by it, depressed and with a drinking problem. “Nowhere is home, nowhere! And it makes me so angry!” Preethi tells her cousin Nil in the final story. Preethi, like Fernando, is also a writer who writes a book about her experience in Sri Lanka, only to be told by agents and publishers that she would have to modify her story in order to sell it: “The publisher who had gotten back to her was worried that the war in Sri Lanka would simply not interest an audience: it is a small island, its infighting interesting only to those connected to it, and perhaps some pinko-Marxist Guardian readers.”
Sometimes “home” is just a combination of all the places you’ve been and the people you’ve met, and you try to cobble a story out of it because writing is a way for you to find or make a place in the world. But there’s always the question of what will “interest an audience”, as Fernando reminds us—what if your writing is your home but your writing doesn’t find a home?
Wary as I am of fiction about immigrants, I’m well aware that it’s the genre’s very saleability that allows writers like Fernando to be published. Homesick could have easily become a work of fiction that’s small-minded and predictable, and it veers dangerously close to it in some of the later stories, but Fernando’s ability to craft bold narratives and intriguing characters allows her to come very close to approximating a Zadie Smith-like cacophony, a sort of explosion of identities and issues.
Unfortunately like Smith, however, Fernando’s style leans toward realism—she wants to rein in the uncontrollable trajectory of ordinary human lives in order to give her narratives a distinct progressive arc. One certainly looks forward to more of Fernando’s work, especially if she’s able to eschew the need for neat resolutions and elaborately-structured emotional affects and be more willing to linger in uncertainty and ambiguity. While James Wood might scoff at “hysterical realism”, I can’t help but ask for more hysteria, less realism.