Abstract: Mary Anne Mohanraj's Bodies in MotionBodies in Motion is a collection of interlinked stories, tracing the paths of two families from Sri Lanka in 1939 to present day America and Sri Lanka. Over the course of the book, we experience intimate moments in the lives of family members as they traverse difficult geographic, social, and emotional terrain. The stories examine the characters' attempts to reconcile the conflicting demands of social duty and individual desires, a conflict that has often been simplistically represented as an East/West dichotomy. They also raise questions of identity, especially for immigrants and first generation Sri Lankan-American Tamils, whose engagement with their own ethnic identities becomes politicized in various arenas.
These personal stories play out against the backdrop of the Sri Lankan civil war, the ethnic troubles between the minority Tamils and the majority Sinhalese. These troubles have a long history on the island; the two groups struggled for dominance for much of the more than two thousand years since they first arrived there. (It is worth noting that while both groups reach for originary myths to justify their occupation of territory and rights to autonomy, the original Sri Lankans, the Balongoda tribes, were wiped out and/or assimilated by Tamil and Sinhalese invaders.) Despite these ancient struggles, for the most part, Sri Lanka has enjoyed a reasonable peaceful multi-ethnic society (a conception which emphasis harmony and a spirit of live and let live), rather than a pluralistic society (in which tension between ethnic or other distinctive groups is a main feature).
The inherent divisions between Tamils and Sinhalese were accentuated by the effects of various waves of colonization (the Portuguese, for example, built many Catholic schools, and Tamils often converted and as a result, received a better education than the bulk of the Sinhalese; the British favored the minority Tamils as well, perhaps due to comfort with Tamils arising from familiarity with their language and customs resulting from British governance of the large state of Tamil Nadu in India). The last of the colonial powers left in 1948; the Tamil/Sinhalese conflict erupted into violence in 1958, and then resurfaced emphatically during the 1983 riots, when thousands of Tamils were killed. This event created intense sympathy for the Tamil guerrilla fighters, the Tigers, both among Sri Lankan Tamils in Jaffna (the northernmost major city, primarily Tamil), and among immigrant Tamils in America and elsewhere. This sympathy manifested in two primary forms: in the bodies of young men and women who joined the guerrilla fighters, and in a flow of financial support from Tamils abroad, which primarily went to purchase weapons and other military supplies.
The book attempts to examine the ways in which both ethnic and gendered political realities (and manufactured ideologies) intrude on private lives. It also looks at the ways in which the stories which get told serve to reinforce powerful hegemonic structures, while the stories which are perceived as subversive are silenced, thereby putting individuals in the frustrating position of constantly relearning the lessons their parents and grandparents had painfully learned before them. For the most part, these conflicts play out in sexual arenas, where a heteronormative monogamous endogamous arranged marriage model serves to reinforce cultural norms, and where individual characters tend to resist that model through infidelity, exogamy, homosexuality, etc. But by utilizing a multiplicity of narratives, with multiple stories to represent each of several sexual/romantic relationship options, the book attempts to avoid the trap of setting up an overly-dogmatic dichotomy in which the more traditional options are represented as purely negative, and the less traditional (more Western (?)) options are represented as purely positive and desirable. In the end, these stories hope to illustrate the complexity of individual human identity-formation, and the ways in which people try to find happiness for themselves and for their loved ones, despite well-intentioned relatives, despite impulses toward safe conformity, despite war and chaos.