Ashok Ferrey writes short stories and novels. He studied mathematics at Oxford, and worked in London on construction sites before returning to Colombo, where he continues to build houses and also works as a personal trainer. He spent his childhood in Somalia, which he describes as “staggeringly beautiful,” but has not returned for fear that the country has changed too much. He came to writing at 42, after his father’s illness with cancer. He loves dogs, avoids talking about mathematics at literary festivals, and doesn’t believe in smart phones. His latest novel is The Ceaseless Chatter of Demons. Excerpts from an interview:
You began writing as a reaction to grief but you’re known as a comic writer…
That’s the strange thing. When Colpetty People came out, it was what you call a sleeper hit. People would stop me on the street and say, ‘I laughed and laughed’. And I thought, hang on a minute, are we talking about the same book here? To me it’s not a funny book. I can recognise there’s humour there, but I don’t write to make people laugh. It’s a by-product.
You’ve said that Sri Lankans are the most complicated people in the world. Why?
There have been so many influences. It’s been a colony for over 400 years, colonised by not just one country but three. We have so many different religions. So does India, but in Sri Lanka it’s all concentrated in a very small area. We also have the tropical island mentality, where there is no urgency to do any work or better yourself. Money does not motivate us. Time and again I have foreigners asking me how can we motivate our workers, and actually there’s nothing you can do, short of being mother, brother, father, sister to them. So all these factors combine, and you have this complex people who will never tell you want they want or mean. They’re too polite on one hand, and shy. But they will resent you if you don’t understand what they want at the same time.
I’ve also noticed that while everyone seems very jolly, there’s an underlying violence…
Yes, there is a passive-aggressiveness that comes from the authorities, who don’t let us laugh or express ourselves. Maybe it’s also in our nature. I always give this example: If your neighbour plucks a jackfruit from your tree that’s on his boundary, and he’s been plucking it for years, I will never say anything. For years, I will tolerate it. I will go to his house and smile sweetly. I will never mention the jackfruit that he plucks from tree on my side of the border. One day, years later, I will take a knife from the kitchen drawer and stab him. You know? And that is not by any means an Ashok Ferrey exaggeration. It happens all the time. It’s in the newspapers.
In terms of publishing, do you think Sri Lanka feels a bit overpowered by India, or is there a sense of a thriving, independent voice in English language literature?
India is 20 years ahead of us. I’ll probably be shot at home for saying this, but facts must be faced. India has a big population, and so there’s a critical mass of readers. We probably have a critical mass in Sinhala and Tamil, but not in English, so your poor author sits there writing almost in spite of himself. He has other jobs but he feels a compulsion to write but there aren’t enough people to buy his books. There’s no machinery of marketing, publicists, editors, proof readers.
How comfortable are you with solitude?
My wife will say I’m not comfortable. That I relish all this pizzazz and going out. I think it’s the other way round. If you saw me at a lit fest in the author’s lounge, I just sit by myself. Whereas my wife will happily stalk a famous author… Quite often at these big gatherings I zone out. But physical solitude I’m not so good at. I get bored sitting in a room. If I had a book inside me though I wouldn’t be bored at all.
Have you ever gotten in trouble in Sri Lanka for your writing?
Oh, quite a lot. For all the wrong reasons. One woman at a café said very sniffily, ‘I must say, your biceps are far better than your writing.’ Then there was another newspaper editor who wrote a vitriolic piece about me only because some shirtmaker had invited a few men in Colombo to turn up as male icons in black tie. The poor editor saw this and went berserk. ‘Arm candy in his Yves Saint Laurent jacket,’ he wrote. Actually, it was an Oxfam dinner jacket for 5 quid. So I do piss people off for the wrong reasons, which is why I try to keep the various careers separate, because I think Sri Lanka is a deeply feudal place where a writer is a lowly creature and must not get above himself.