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Hasanthika Sirisena: On the Importance of Literature

Author and essayist Hasanthika Sirisena discusses the power of the essay with her new collection, Dark Tourist.

Hasanthika Sirisena (she/they) is a writer and cartoonist and a faculty member at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She is the author of the short story collection The Other One. Find her on Twitter and Facebook.

Hasanthika Sirisena: On the Importance of Literature

Hasanthika Sirisena

In this post, Hasanthika discusses how she came to writing her collection of essays, Dark Tourist, the power and continued interest people have for literature, and more!

Name: Hasanthika Sirisena
Literary agent: Kate Johnson, Mackenzie Wolf Literary
Book title: Dark Tourist
Publisher: Mad Creek Books/Ohio State University, 21st Century Essay Series
Release date: December 10, 2021
Genre/category: Essays, general interest
Previous titles: The Other One
Elevator pitch for the book: Deftly blending reportage, cultural criticism, and memoir, Hasanthika Sirisena’s Dark Tourist pieces together facets of her own sometimes fractured self to find wider resonances with human universals of love, sex, family, and art—and with language’s ability to both fail and save us.

Hasanthika Sirisena: On the Importance of Literature

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What prompted you to write this book?

I have always loved the essay and love the work that I see in venues like The New York Times and the New Yorker. The essay is so vital and really at the forefront of social change, and that attracted me. I wanted, for example, to write more about the experiences of my father and mother as immigrants in the South, and I had tried to tackle my experiences as a queer, South Asian woman in fiction but had failed. The essay just felt the perfect form to do this.

But I also realized that the essay is truly a playground for formal innovation. There are braided essays, lyric essays, hermit crab essays, essays that incorporate reportage. There are so many essayists I admire—Elena Passarello, Nicole Walker, Wendy S. Walters, Sejal Shah, Anjali Enjeti—and that I feel I learned from. I discovered that I could write very seriously about a range of issues—queerness, disability, immigration—but also have a lot of fun doing it.

How long did it take to go from idea to publication? And did the idea change during the process?

I started writing essays about five years ago after my short story collection won the Juniper Prize. I was very lucky. When I first started publishing essays, I was able to place a few in literary magazines like the Michigan Quarterly Review and Copper Nickel. Working with the editors at those magazines helped me to hone the craft of essay writing and also helped to build my confidence. I’m not sure that this book would have come together in the way that it did without their support.

Also because of the support of these magazines, I did become more and more formally ambitious. Epiphany, for example, published my first graphic essay—“Abecedarian for the Abeyance of Loss”—last year and the process of drawing that and conceiving that essay for them helped me to believe that there was interest out there in work that tested formal constraints.

Hasanthika Sirisena: On the Importance of Literature

Were there any surprises or learning moments in the publishing process for this title?

I knew from the process of publishing my first story collection about the importance of prizes and contests. I did work to educate myself about prize contests that included publication of a book-length work. These give books a double boost when the prize is announced and later when the book is released. The Gournay Prize is a relatively new prize but it’s already made a big impact in the essaying world. I was delighted to discover it.

I’ve also been deeply impressed by how the editors and staff at Mad Creek Books/Ohio State Press have handled putting my book out into the world in a time of a pandemic. I never felt this book wasn’t important to them (even when they had, I’m very sure, concerns that far outweighed any single book). So, the second surprise—which isn’t really a surprise—is that literature still matters, and this occasionally arduous process of putting a book into the world still brings us some small joy during a time of immense grief and loss.

Were there any surprises in the writing process for this book?

Editors and magazines want essays—fragmented essays, lyric essays, deeply personal essays! I’m acting editor for West Branch magazine, and I know that I am always looking for good essays. I was also surprised to discover there’s a lot of interest in graphic essays.

By the way, as a graphic essayist, you don’t have to be able to draw anything more elaborate then a blob with dots for eyes. Online magazines are hungry for graphic essays, but I’m surprised at how many print publications are now interested in publishing comics. That said, there is only one graphic essay in this collection and that has to do with cost, so limitations still do exist.

What do you hope readers will get out of your book?

A sense of playfulness and joy but also a deep and serious meditation on how we rebuild after loss. I think a lot about the last line of one of the essays in the collection “Lady” when my mother asks me to tell her story from beginning to end. I want people to know that there’s someone out there deeply interested in you and willing to hear you even in grief—especially in grief.

If you could share one piece of advice with other authors, what would it be?

Don’t be afraid to be adventurous. I engaged in a fair amount of reportage for the book and that took me into places I might not have gone otherwise. I’m grateful for those experiences. I also decided to push myself and try new forms—the hermit crab essay, the lyric essay, the graphic essay. There’s a lot of support out there for writers who are adventurous. Don’t discount publication in literary magazines as part of the process of creating a book.

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