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DARK TOURIST by Hasanthika Sirisena



by Hasanthika Sirisena

Pub Date: Dec. 10th, 2021
ISBN: 978-0-8142-5812-5
Publisher: Mad Creek/Ohio State Univ. Press

In her nonfiction debut, a Sri Lankan American writer and artist ranges across a variety of topics, from disability to queerness to grief to war.

In several essays, Sirisena explores her relationship to her father, a Sri Lankan doctor who, just before surviving a stroke, secretly married his dead wife’s cousin—and then lied “to his three daughters and to both families.” Another essay revisits the grief she felt at her mother’s untimely death, especially acute because “I’m obsessed with female toughness.” In “Confessions of a Dark Tourist,” the essay that lends the book its title, the author describes the experience of touring former battlefields of Sri Lanka’s decadeslong civil war. Later, Sirisena writes about her bisexuality (“I’ve never really located my sex life around an identity, and I’ve typically thought of myself simply as very fluid”) and her relationship with her “lazy eye.” The book concludes with two essays on visual art: The first is about South African artist William Kentridge and “his level of technical ability and also the breadth of his craftsmanship”; and the second is an epistolary essay about the concept of punctum as applied to the Beatle’s song “A Day in the Life.” Sirisena makes good use of research throughout her personal narratives, incorporating information about the mysterious Lady Windermere syndrome into a chapter about her mother’s illness, musing about an Elizabethan marriage that purportedly inspired Romeo and Juliet in a chapter about her father’s secret marriage, and describing a plane crash in the chapter about her father’s career trajectory. Several of the essays are formally inventive, most notably “Abecedarian for the Abeyance of Loss,” which is designed as a child’s beginning alphabet book. At its best, the book shimmers with honesty, vulnerability, and circumspection, and the experimental essays are both visually and textually fascinating. Taken together, however, the essays lack a common thread, making the narrative feel disjointed at times.

A solid collection about identity, art, disability, and grief, best read an essay or two per sitting.