Image from a promotional tour called Book Riding, paginating the streets
I browse through Sri Lankan books sometimes, mainly to feel better about myself. They’re usually self-indulgent and horrid. A while back, however, I came across a book that actually looked and read good. Much to my discredit, my first reaction was jealousy. The book was ‘Sri Lanka’s Other Half: A Guide to the Central, Eastern and Northern Provinces’. My thought was, why didn’t I think of this first, and why is a white writer doing it. Coming from a kalu suddha like me, this is doubly distasteful. I mention it only because it’s true. The author, Juliet Coombe, is an English woman who’s made Sri Lanka her home and set up an innovative publishing house. Along the way she’s stirred up an amount of controversy, but mostly for her race, and how it fits into Sri Lankan identity. Recently I sat down with her for an interview on this and other issues.
Juliet Coombe sits down with her baby on her hip. For me even making the appointment was difficult because my girlfriend has a kid and he was sick at home. I mentioned this to Ms. Coombe but then got caught in the linguistic tangle of talking about a non-biological child that you still have a relationship with. I think I gave the impression that I had a son. She checked up on me later, confirmed that I have no offspring and asked if I was making it up. I wasn’t. She then invited us all to Galle, which was nice. Being a different sort of family, we struggle to fit into Sri Lankan society and at the same time love living here. Ms. Coombe is understanding of this from, I think, an experiential level.
Why are we doing this interview?
We’re re-releasing Around The Fort In 80 Lives. We’re changing some of the people, adding some interesting new ones. People come to me with new information as well, that someone was murdered in this house, etc. The history of the Galle Fort is evolving.
How has the Fort changed?
It’s becoming like St. Tropez. It’s still a ghost town in certain sections, but there was a time where I couldn’t buy a dress. That’s changed.
By now the kid has wandered off, followed obligingly by Marsh, a hotshot ad exec. He enjoys the kid’s company like only someone that doesn’t have kids can.
Why are you here? Why do you live in Galle?
I’m married to a Sri Lankan. My husband’s family owns the main kade in Fort. I didn’t have much choice really, but I come from a family that adapts, I’m always cheerful. I’m happy. I’m in a place full of stories.
Throughout the interview Ms. Coombe emerges as driven in a very adaptive way. She is intent on changing things, but at the same time she seems comfortable with that process of change. That is, she is happy in the moment, something she said she tries to instill in her staff.
I recently wrote something about Colombo not being a very livable city, something she said she’d like to rebut.
What makes Colombo interesting?
It’s full of unusual people. People who make it here are really smart.
So why don’t you work here?
The minimum to stay here is now like $80, it’s not longer a cheap city. I employ writers and they all stay in Galle with us. No rent, no food, they just save.
Is publishing books actually profitable
No, not until you get 25 books. A book is only profitable in its 3rd edition. You can’t look at it in terms of two years or five years, more like 25 years. All of our books have oversold their estimation, and this was before the war ended. I didn’t expect to employ staff. I ran the Galle Literary Festival for the first few years. Also worked flat out to build infrastructure. You need some place to sell to.
Is there a market?
Yes, massive. People love well researched books and great pictures. Can’t put tourists in the equation though, that’s a bonus. Tourism is unpredictable. I’m doing a survey over a year, seeing why book sales fluctuate.
Why do you do this work?
With the Galle Literary Festival, there were three things I wanted to do, 1) find talent 2) lay the foundation for a university town 3) if I’m going to have a publishing company, have a vehicle for debuts. I’m not charitable and I’m not out to save anyone.
I feel like I should leave something my kids can step in to. I want to leave a great book behind. You should have goals.
As a white woman in Sri Lanka who is writing about Sri Lankan, Ms. Coombe has encountered a lot of opposition, a lot of people saying things about her, including charges of racism. We talked about that.
So, what’s that like?
I have all of these labels, but I wouldn’t be married to a Sri Lankan if I was any of these things. I’ve been viciously attacked by academics, even to my face, to the point where I had to walk out of the room. If I could I’d bring down a bunch of Brits for Sri Lankans to just throw things at, to get it out of their system. Global community is the future.
At this point Marsh the babysitter/executive interrupts for a book signing and photo-op. I shall end the interview part here.
Growing up in Canada and America, I am actually very similar to Ms. Coombe intellectually. Being brown and Sri Lankan, however, I am not perceived as an outsider, giving me different experiences as well. Thus I am able to both appreciate her dedication to quality publication about the island while feeling vague nationalistic twinges of jealousy at her writing about the island at all.
At the core of most of my blogging is really an exploration of identity, how we construct it and what it means, and what that particular illusion can be used for. Ms. Coombe is also an exercise in identity, establishing herself in a country with millions of migrants and only hundreds of long-term immigrants. She’s doing good work about Sri Lanka in a country that won’t even let her become a citizen or even a resident, but she does it nonetheless, and with gusto.
Ms. Coombe is also one of the lives in Around The Fort, making her 1/80th of what looks to be a very interesting book.