“A Pained Spectator of the War”: Anuk Arudpragasam on “A Passage North”

The Sri Lankan Tamil novelist talks to us about his Booker Prize-longlisted novel, his aversion to writing dialogue, and what’s next.

Zinara Rathnayake

September 3, 2021

“A Pained Spectator of the War”: Anuk Arudpragasam on “A Passage North”
Anuk Arudpragasam's "A Passage North"

When I picked up Anuk Arudpragasam’s novel A Passage North, I felt like it was a long, faltering train journey I would take with my observant father when I was a child. We would sit inside a crumbling vintage passenger coach of a sluggish goods train that would consistently arrive hours late to its destination. I remember that I didn’t nag my father during those train rides; instead, I reveled in those journeys. For me, reading Arudpragasam’s novel was a similar experience.

The novel is the second for the Sri Lankan Tamil author, and recently earned him a spot on the 2021 Booker longlist. As I began the book, I was impatient; there’s little plot or dialogue among the characters. Instead, Arudpragasam, who has a general “aversion to writing dialogue,” stresses emotions and philosophy over developing a plotline. As the novel progressed, I couldn’t complain; I found myself immersed in the author’s beautifully crafted and long, but descriptive, prose.

The 33-year-old author centers A Passage North on a Sri Lankan Tamil youth named Krishan. When Krishan hears about the sudden death of his grandmother’s caretaker Rani, a Tamil mother who’s left traumatized by the Sri Lankan civil war, he makes a dutiful visit to the north to attend Rani’s funeral. Like Arudpragasam, Krishan is a “pained spectator” of the war; he spent his childhood in Colombo, far from the battlegrounds between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Sri Lankan government in the north and east of the country during a civil war that lasted from 1983 to 2009.