Books

Sri Lankans, Americans Peace Corps Workers and Tourists" 'The Beach at Galle Road'

While certain stories are arresting and moving and particularly astute about the displacement caused by war and exile, The Beach at Galle Road is mainly concerned about the inner landscape of its characters.


The Beach at Galle Road: Stories from Sri Lanka

Publisher: Algonquin
Length: 280 pages
Author: Joanna Luloff
Price: $22.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2012-10
Amazon

Joanna Luloff’s debut work of fiction, The Beach at Galle Road: Stories from Sri Lanka, is a collection of 13 interlinked stories that covers a variety of characters and perspectives. From American Peace Corps workers finding love with their Tamil students and tourists in Kandy meditation centres running away from family back home to young Tamil boys conscripted by the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) and Tamil women attempting suicide after they’ve lost friends and family to the country’s civil war, Luloff uses her stories to cast a wide net.

Luloff is currently an Assistant Professor at SUNY Potsdam and worked as a Peace Corps volunteer in Sri Lanka from 1996 to 1998. In a note included in the promotional material that came with this book, she maps out the personal and political impetus behind this collection: “It was important for me to try, as best as I could, to offer multiple points of view, political positions, and geographic locations in my book.”

These points of view are indeed abundant. The characters return again and again in various stories as they’re all linked through a chain of events that bring them into each other’s lives, even distantly, through the war itself and the events that lead to it. The Beach at Galle Road starts off with a Sinhalese host family who have opened up their homes to foreign volunteers and English teachers and tourists—a situation similar to Luloff’s own homestay arrangement while she was in Sri Lanka.

In “Galle Road”, Luloff takes the reader into the life of Janaki, the owner of the guesthouse, whose own troubled history involves a sister, Lakshmi, whose Tamil-sympathising husband vanishes one day without a trace. In this story, Lakshmi comes back to her sister’s home in Baddegama after working as a maid abroad in Saudi Arabia, a position she took up after her husband’s disappearance. Lakshmi appears in this small village as spectacle: short hair, short skirt, high heels, brightly-varnished nails. But Lakshmi herself is already in the process of disappearing: the more visible she is to others in the village because of her unconventional feminine appearance, the less visible she is to herself and to her family. She becomes more of a cipher to her sister. Lakshmi wakes up at night dreaming and thinking of her missing husband. “Do you think he can find me here? How will he know where I am?” she asks Janaki. When Lakshmi goes missing, Janaki has her own questions: “Which way are you headed on Galle Road, Lakshmi? What stories will you tell about the journeys you will take?”

Other stories deal with tourists and aid workers or volunteers in Sri Lanka who come to this country to escape something or someone at home—a familiar narrative that’s practically a cliché, but Luloff is sensitive and cautious enough not to mock either their futile ambitions or their privileged sense of Western subjectivity that affords them this ability to run away. When Sri Lankan characters in The Beach at Galle Road disappear, they disappear. When American characters disappear from their American lives, they turn up in Galle, or Colombo, or Kandy, teaching English, administering aid, falling in love with the local people. Luloff writes that she wrestled with her own privilege and position before she was able to write these stories—the multiple points of view in these tales were her way of reckoning with what she had seen and lived with in Sri Lanka.

In “I Love You, Come Home Soon”, Sam is an American living in Janaki’s guesthouse, teaching English and falling for one of this students, a young Tamil girl named Nilanthi. He’s also dating Melissa, a Scottish volunteer working with the British Council. As Luloff writes, Melissa “didn’t know that Sam had accidentally fallen in love with one of his students at the teachers college.” Meanwhile, when Nilanthi and a few other students visit Janaki’s home as part of an extracurricular activity devised by Sam to allow him to be closer to Nilanthi outside of school, Janaki tells him: “Tamils are tricky ones. You shouldn’t trust them.”

Sam is estranged from his own parents in a psychological sense, but unfortunately enough they choose to visit him in Sri Lanka, after which his mom contracts a fever and spends much of her holiday ill and in the hospital, and his father fulfills all that is required of the role of Domineering White Man who is Appalled by the Native Conditions. Sam and Nilanthi never actually touch, or kiss, or confess their feelings and Sam, despite being American who is used to American love the American way, is selfless or considerate enough to recognise this. It’s a liminal love affair. It happens through unsaid words or a glance. Perhaps it was just an infatuation. Of course, nothing comes of it. In the later stories Sam turns up with Melissa in a beach hotel at Unawatuna, and Nilanthi’s life takes a dark and unpredictable turn. In the later stories, she rarely thinks about Sam again.

Oddly enough, Luloff’s stories focusing on American women in Sri Lanka—Carol the tourist wanderer in “Where She Went from Here” and Lucy the Peace Corps worker who rooms in Janaki’s house and then moves on to Jaffna in search of a real authentic Sri Lankan war experience she can write home about—are some of the weakest. In “Up North”, for example, Lucy volunteers at a refugee camp and quails in the face of the actual human faces of the war: faces ravaged by illness, and bodies mutilated by bombs and soldiers and impoverishment, left to fester amidst dirt and germs and lack. Lucy sees this and shrinks.

Lucy likes the narrative, the power that comes from controlling it and creating expectation in her readers—in this case, the people who read her letters. Bored of telling them of her boring activities of teaching English to students, away from the exciting dangers of the war, she goes in search of the war but doesn’t know what to do with it once she finds it.

In “Where She Went from Here”, Carol, wandering about in the Kandy meditation centre while imagining her mother’s disappointment at her daughter’s life, appears a little like the narrator in Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love—not a point in Luloff’s favour. While most of Luloff’s stories mine the interiority of its characters, Carol and Lucy both appear curiously detached from life and themselves. In a way, some of this detachment might have something to do with alienation and female subjectivity—especially the white female subject in a brown country—but this is not something Luloff hones in on. It does, however, come out in its worst in the form of Sam’s girlfriend Melissa, berating K., the narrator of “The Sunny Beach Hotel”, about the beastliness of Sri Lankan men. Luloff ends the story with K. trying to convince Melissa of “their shared predicament”—but there is clearly nothing shared in their individual economic predicament, something that’s glossed over in this trite story about gender difference that has Melissa trotting out the conventional anger and platitudes of me-first consumer feminism.

The later stories in this collection are some of the strongest. These are the stories that focus on Nilanthi and her friend, Sunitha, like in “January Tie”, or on Nilanthi’s family members, like “Children’s Games”, which shows Nilanthi’s younger brother’s attempt to run away from the war to which he has been forcibly recruited. By the final shattering story in the collection, “And Now Home Again”, the character that emerges as the lynchpin of this collection and its moral centre is Nilanthi, the young Tamil girl now a grown and bereft woman without family, without friends, and without a voice after a botched suicide attempt in which she drank lye. Her friend, Sunitha, had earlier attempted to kill herself with lye—with greater success. Nilanthi and Sunitha’s stories circle hesitantly but movingly around issues of Tamil femininity and female performance.

By the end of the book, however, Nilanthi, ravaged by grief and finding that her home is no home at all without her family members, turns away her “new husband”, the much-older Dinesh—a family friend and neighbour—who married her by slipping a ring around her finger while she was still in the hospital. “He proposed to her while her throat choked its opposition”, and so Nilanthi attempts to drive him away by refusing to “play the proper wifely role”. As a person who attempted to die but did not, she returns to her family home far different from what she was in her younger days: a proper Tamil girl who was intelligent and clever, who was meant to bring honour to her family by becoming a school teacher and living the proper life.

Now she can only gurgle and drool where before she could recite poems by Keats on the school stage. Nilanthi is seen by the other villagers as a ghost of her former self, a woman riddled with bad spirits and bad luck, with dirt caked around her ankles and under her fingernails, unkempt and unattractive, practically grotesque. She communes with the ghosts of her dead mother, brother, and friend, “comfortably surrounded by her ghostly army”. Her cultivation of her disfigurement works: “Madness was considered an ugly thing, so she would make herself hideous, a grotesque thing tangled up in the village’s pity and repulsion.” Dinesh, who was counting on the village’s envy after his marriage to his young bride, finally disappears from her home. The ghosts, the reader presumes, still hang around.

While certain stories are arresting and moving and particularly astute about the displacement caused by war and exile, The Beach at Galle Road is mainly concerned about the inner landscape of its characters. Luloff’s commitment to multiple points of view means that she rarely allows the narrative to take a particular position, but feels compelled to end each story with some form of closure that often feels weak, uninspired, even trite. In this scenario, the Sri Lankan civil war becomes an abstract evil thing, and the material conditions that lead to it are subsumed under a host of characters we are meant to empathise with. As such, it’s easy for a reader unacquainted with the details and complexities of the war to moralise and make false equivalencies between the Tamil condition with the Sinhalese one through the prism of suffering individual characters.

Although Luloff describes, in particular, the anguish of the Tamil population at the hands of the Sri Lankan army—disappearances, rapes, violations at checkpoints—she also, in the story that focuses on Lalith, the young Tamil soldier, chooses only to show the manipulations and evil stratagem of the Tamil Tigers that paints a one-sided story of Tamil militant extremism. Thus, one comes away from the collection assuming that the Tamil Tigers represented the Tamil nationalist movement on the whole, while the Sri Lankan army’s brutal violence is barely talked about, much less represented. Neither is the Sri Lankan’s government longstanding record of abuses against its non-Sinhalese populations.

In this sense, fictional characters come to the fore while the historical situations into which they’re placed disappear, much like the lost characters that populate this collection of stories. And much like the living who are left behind, the reader is left only with more questions.

6

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.


In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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