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Giving and Gaining
Episode 525th November 2021 • Voices of Exchange • U.S. State Department ECA Alumni Affairs
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Poet, Foreign Service Officer, and U.S. Speaker Program Exchange Alumni Indran Amirthanayagam was born in Ceylon, a country that -- in name anyway -- no longer exists. In this episode of Voices of Exchange, Indran recalls how this feeling of loss for Sri Lanka’s former way of life inspired many of his writings and led him to call himself the “border-crosser.”  To Indran, it’s all about shedding old skin and learning new things - or, giving and gaining, while pushing linguistic and cultural boundaries.


Indran Amirthanayagam:

My name is Indran Amirthanayagam. I'm an exchange alumni. 

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And, and... It's if you're a poet, you write poems to help bring people together, you know, to make peace. Um, that's ultimately, I think the goal of poetry writing, it's not an, a violent act. It's rather a pacific, uh, expression, a nonviolent expression of essential human truths. And, you know, we want to be free. We want to respect each other. We create laws to enable freedom to, to thrive, and these are ideas and we struggle with them in every society on the planet, you know, in every country. But, uh, Mari- Mario Vargas Llosa, uh, the Peruvian writer once said, "A democracy is the least bad systems." You know, I mean, it's enough to last, it's, it's the best we have, but let's, let's promote it. And, and, and poetry can play a role in that, uh, in that, uh, in that promotion. Yeah?

I think, I think it's a, it's a kind of exercise, like physical exercise. You, you go for a walk, you go for a run and you get into shape. I mean, you need to li- be limber, you know, and, and limber and free your mind and, and get it moving and, and get thoughts flowing and, and move about the day and move about the page in the same way with your, with your pen. Um, or with your, or, or typing. I mean, I do, I admit, I write a lot of poems directly on a, on a laptop or an, or on a phone and then transfer them to the laptop. But of course, traditionally I used to write on paper and I still do occasionally. The, the advice I would give is just, is, is to, is to, if, if you feel inspired to write poems, um, don't limit yourself, you know, don't feel that this is a, a minor matter or a minor art or something that, um, is just helpful for yourself. It's, it is helpful for yourself, but it also helps heal the frayed bonds that have been, that have been broken, or that have been, uh, challenged within the society, within the social fabric.

I listen to the music outside in the, in the birds song and in the air, the movement, the rustle of the wind, uh, I mean there are, there are rhythms and, and, and, and echoes that all around us as we go about our days both inside the home and outside walking. Often my poems come from walking. I'm walking and the lines, um, start to come to me to the rhythm of the, the steps, you know, so it's a walking rhythm that I, that I find, um, writing in. Um, I write about anything and everything. I mean, I write about love and war and loneliness and, and, and God, and I, I write, um, because I think, you know, once I also used to say that poetry is not only useful for the funeral or for the commemoration, but it is very helpful there. But it goes much beyond that, I mean, poetry, um, I believe does make something happen.

W.H. Auden used to say, wrote once, poetry makes nothing happen. It exists in the valley of its saying, a way of happening, a mouth... I've always railed against that phrase. I mean, I love Auden's poetry, but I railed against the idea that poetry is essentially useless. I think poetry is, uh, uh, a kinda word music, just like the guitar interprets music, creates music or the piano. So the voice and, and the, and the mind writing through the fingers creates, um, uh, taps into the music that, of, of ordinary speech. Um, I, I'm very much connected to music, uh, word music in poetry

I do believe that, uh, rhythms and rhymes and melody and so on are all part of the poetic utterance, yeah, or poetic speech. So I write about everything, and ev- anything. There isn't a subject I haven't tried writing about. Sometimes I write a poem about a subject that I know a little about, and then I have to research and I learn more about the subject. And then, uh, and then it becomes part of the poem. Um, so it's a act of discovery, it's a movement towards discovering something about the world you want to share with your fellow man or woman, or, um, in your community. For me, a poem doesn't have any importance if it's only written for myself. It, it belongs, it, it no longer belongs to me once it's written, once it's shared once it's published once it's broadcast, once it's read. Yeah.

And it's, it's, uh, it's almost has a religious function, you know, uh, of, uh, uh, you know, the, the notion of, of doing good works. Well, I mean, you, you, if you're engaging with the, with the muse and writing down the stories of your tribe, of your people, of your country, of your, of your world, um, you're helping, um, uh, towards each other, towards readers, listeners towards a deeper understanding of where they, who they are, where they come from. And I think that's a great, um, blessing to be able to engage that. And, you know, for example, um, when I write a poem, um, about... The other day I wrote a poem, it was in my book, Migrant States called the Migrants Reply and it, and the subject where the, uh, the migrants were coming to our borders and, and, and, and what they bring to the, to our conversations, to our cultures.

Okay. Um, this from the Migrant States, which, um, let me see the Migrants Reply. We've been running for so long. We are tired. We want to rest. We don't want to wake up tomorrow and pack our bags. We've gone 10,000 miles. We have boarded a row boat, tug boat, bus, freight train. We have a cell phone and some bread. Arise, a dry, our breath needs washing. What next? You're putting up a wall on your Southern flank. What an irony. The country that accepts refugees does not want us. We qualify. We have scars and our host governments hunted at least some of us; the rest fled in fear. Gangs do not spare even the children. White vans took away our uncles, our cousins. Do you think they'd been made into Ploughshares?

Aye what are you saying too easy, too easy to wear our hearts in these words, in slings, on our faces, furrowed perplexed, what happened to kindness to strangers? Why do we have to be herded like prisoners held in a holding camp? We are human beings and like you in safer countries, we have the same obligation to save ourselves and our children. Oh, the children look at them, give them food and school and a new set of clothes. Give them a chance, whether you are red or blue, the eye of the hurricane does not discriminate. We are your tumbling weeds, hurling cars, flooding banks, and we are diggers of the dykes. We can teach you so many languages and visions. You would learn so much. You would never ever say lock us up. The Migrants Reply.

I was going to say it comes from a book called The Migrant States and, and it's a book really about America, but a very broader America than the United States, you know. Because when you think about the America[s] and I think about America, I think about, about Chile and about Canada. And I think about, um, Haiti, you know, I think about the continent and all of its peoples and cultures and languages. And, and so it's a celebration of this America, uh, and it's an America that I've learned about through diplomacy, you know, the, the chance to work and live in different parts of the continent and in, in Peru and in Argentina, in Mexico, in Haiti. And, uh, so it's inevitably, I've learned a different, underst- have a new, developed, a new understanding of America through the, uh, through this experiences, these life and different cultures, American cultures, and work. So in that sense, diplomacy and poetry have gone hand in hand for me.

I was appointed in New York, uh, first and I was, uh, writing there and I was a journalist as well, writing to the small newspapers in, in Manhattan and writing theater reviews, writing, uh, columns, uh, cultural, um, culture

And so my life as a writer, as an artist in New York, you know, New York is a very friendly place if you, if you're in the arts, you, you really do get a lot of community support from your fellow artists in your field and, and others. And, uh, so that was the life I was living in New York. And then I took the foreign service exam. Uh, my elder brother - also a diplomat - had, had encouraged me to do that, and I did. And I, the second time I, I got through the first time, but not the final stage. I, there was the in-basket test that, that stayed with me. I think my handwriting was to blame. And then I went to the second, I did it again. And then I got through the second time and the se- and then I had to say goodbye to New York. It was not easy - for about a whole year I was saying goodbye to every place I loved in that city, which I loved so much. Um, walking across the Brooklyn Bridge and, and, and ta- taking leave. And then I went to Washington, um, to join the US Information Agency, which no longer exists, but at the time you could be a Foreign Service Officer for USIA or for the State Department.

And I, and I joined USIA, uh, and I was posted, uh, initially I was supposed to go to Caracas and then follow up in Mexico City. I ended up in, in Buenos Aires and following up in Brussels. (laughs) And this is, these are the vagaries of the Foreign Service. You know, you, you have to be flexible. I love Buenos Aires, I learned a lot from my first experience there. But, uh, so you have to be flexible, patient and, uh, and, and, you know… Look, it was hard to say goodbye to the poet's life in New York and the relative freedoms one has to write about what you want and think. And I remember I wrote an op-ed in the New York Times about Sri Lanka, which, which is a not easy thing to get an article placed there and meant a lot to... But then I, then when I joined the Foreign Service, I realized I couldn't just do that. I, it, I would have to let certain things go. Um, and then I, I had some anxiety about that for about three years. I didn't write a poem. I, I did a lot of reading. I learned languages - Spanish, and then French, and when I was in Brussels, I taught myself French through reading La Monde everyday. And, uh, and I had a bit of instruction as well at the Foreign Service Institute...

But the point being, I had to break through that understanding of, learn how to balance the poet's life and the diplomat's life. And I had to learn from experience that you could do both, you know, for a while, I thought I had to give up one for the other and I did for about three years. And then, and then I, my son - about to be born - uh, the night before his birth, I wrote a poem about that, about that, about this, and then that unleashed a whole, the poetry that had been stucking up, you know, for, for years.

You know, I, I felt there was so many stories that I had to tell and that I was learning about as well in my new work as a diplomat that I wanted to, to share with the world. So, and my mean, preferred means of sharing was the poem as opposed to a novel or, or a short story or, or, or a play.

Um, you know, so, um, life is about learning, uh, new experiences and learning new things and also, uh, shedding old skin and giving up certain things. I mean, when I was in New York, I was a, a great fan of the theater and I would go and write reviews of plays. And I was really engaged with the theater. When I started to go abroad that I, I had, I sort of gave that up, you know. Yes, there is theater in, in Argentina, especially, and there's theater in Mexico, and so on. But, but it's a different relationship. Um, and so, um, and when you learn a language, it changes the way you look at your own original language as well. And I think that's one of the great, uh, benefits of, of working as a diplomat. It's just, it's the learning of languages and how those languages have improved me, my conscious conscience and consciousness, you know? I've become a broader, more global person as a result of the language learning and the engaging with different cultures. So it's a, it's a privileged position to be a diplomat. It really is. I mean, you, you have this, um, opportunity not only to represent your country and your people...

example, or about [inaudible:

But, um, but then when I, when I left India and I, and the newspaper asked me to write a regular column for them, and then I got into some hot water (laughs) internally. Because I was told, ‘you know, people know you as diplomat, they know you as coming from Sri Lanka. I mean, it, it's not helpful for us, for you to be, to be writing these pieces.’ So I had a choice to make, I could either challenge it internally and say, well, look, I, I'm not, I'm not questioning government of our, our foreign policy opinion or anything, or I can let it go. And I ended up deciding to let it go, you know, let that offer go. And just because I was, I wanted to respect, uh, keep my career flourishing and keep moving. But so you do, you do give up things and you gain things.

I continued to write poetry and I was writing poetry in Spanish and it was in the Spanish world and Latin America. And so people started to know about my work and I, and I got an invitation to read from my poetry, um, in, in Chile. And, um, and then I, then, you know, then I can't remember who contacted whom first, but, but, uh, our embassy, our public affairs section in Santiago um, learned about my poetry and want- and then reached out to me asking if I would, I would come as a Speaker to, to the country. And I, and I was delighted to do that. And, and I was at the time working in Monterey, Mexico, uh, as I was a PAO there. So I took some leave and I went to Santiago to do this program for the embassy. And it was a lovely program, I mean, I, I read poems, I talked about American poetry.

You know, we, I think we tell stories to each other. We tell, we talk about our feelings to each other, we talk about our, our experiences, our traumas to each other, we share. And then in the sharing, there is healing both in for each of the teller and for the receiver, you know? And so I think there's a inevitably our understanding of, of each other improves, deepens through the sharing, whether it's in person, speaking poems in a, in a group, uh, whether it's virtually down through, through video and, and, and radio.

Um, but it's, um, it's basic to diplomacy. I think if we don't understand the other, uh, that person remains the other, and that's the basic, uh, recipe for war and for division and conflict, you know? We have to eliminate the concept of the other. And the only way we could do that is by promoting, uh, unions and meetings. And so spoken word is a way of uniting, uh, peoples and, and eliminating or helping to eliminate this notion of the other, you know?

I, I um, it's a very sensitive subject as a migrant, uh, in the United States. I remember during the Iran, uh, it was a long time ago now, the, the hostage crisis, um, under Jimmy Carter's presidency, when I was in, um, I was in Philadelphia, a college student.

Uh, and I, I had to run out of a bar to escape a group of people who saw me as a, as a threat to, as an Iranian as somehow a, who assumed that I was somehow part of this, um, violence that was being committed against those diplomats and others who were held hostage in Iran at that time. So how do, how can poetry help with that? I don't know. I just think we have to, we have to do our best to share and keep sharing by all means necessary.

And so, um, I think mutual understanding and spoken word are uh, uh, bread and butter of our work and I, and always need to be, I mean, it's hard to know how to measure necessarily the impact of a program on somebody's consciousness, but if you, but, but that's the fact that it's hard doesn't mean you shouldn't do that program.