Brotherless Night: A Tamil Family Faces the Beginning of the Sri Lankan Civil War

V.V. Ganeshananthan and her book, "Brotherless Night"
Photo credit: Sophia Mayrhofer

How do you craft a captivating piece of historical fiction? And how do you do so when its history is recent and personal for many readers, yet entirely unknown to others?

V.V. Ganeshananthan’s second novel Brotherless Night embraces this challenge by placing an intimate focus on one family, which keeps the novel grounded while giving it a strong emotional center. Following her debut novel, Love Marriage, which was set in Canada, Sri Lanka, the United States, and other diaspora communities, this new story takes place during the early years of the Sri Lankan civil war. The conflict lasted from 1983 to 2009, and involved majority Sinhala-dominated Sri Lankan security forces fighting Tamil militant groups, primarily the Tamil Tigers, who said they were fighting for a separate state for the Tamil minority following discrimination and violence from successive governments. 

Brotherless Night tells the story of Sashi, a Tamil woman recalling how her education, including her time in medical school, was disrupted by the conflict. Ganeshananthan explains, “Because of the school's proximity to the war, Sashi’s experience as a medical student is really different… including practicing medicine in ways that she didn't expect.” Set in the northern town of Jaffna, the story primarily represents members of the ethnic Tamil minority. “Jaffna is a historically Tamil-dominated city, and throughout the war, civilians there endured great hardships as the Sri Lankan government and Tamil militant groups fought over control of the town. But that story hasn’t always been given the space it deserves,” Ganeshananthan says.

To ensure historical accuracy, Ganeshananthan was thorough in her research. She began work on the novel in 2004, when she was an MFA student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and spent the next two decades speaking with people who had experienced the war first-hand. “I would think that I knew a story,” she says, “and then discover that it was more complex than I had originally understood.” The novel doesn’t shy away from the brutality of war. It contains violent and sensitive material that, she hopes, serves as “an accurate reflection of what it might have been like for people to live through that time.”

A Fractured Family

The people Ganeshananthan interviewed often talked about the time period by sharing stories of what had happened to their loved ones or their homes. “So many people who told me their stories told them through the lens of a family,” she says, “so it seemed very natural to make the same choice in the novel.”

This attention to family also helped dramatize the complexities of the war, and drove the story’s central conflict. In an early draft, Sashi’s four brothers all died. But as the novel developed, Ganeshananthan reversed course, expanded their characters, and gave them a more central role. She explains, “They all have different politics and different views and take different actions in response to the war, as does [Sashi] herself.” Sashi’s brothers, who are also students, are subjected to violence at the hands of the state and its supporters. The boys develop varying relationships with Tamil militancy, and two of them eventually join the Tamil Tigers. 

As she watches her family fracture, Sashi must navigate not only their choices but also her own as she is drawn further into the conflict. When a friend of her brothers invites her to work at a field hospital run by the Tigers, she accepts and finds herself presented with even more difficult decisions. She struggles to find her place in a rupturing society. “When she feels lost,” Ganeshananthan says, “Sashi turns to other women: mothers organizing a march, a feminist reading group for university students, and an anatomy professor who is also a political dissident.”

Completing the Novel

Ganeshananthan is an associate professor in the English department’s highly ranked MFA Program in Creative Writing at the University of Minnesota. She joined the faculty in 2015 having finished much of her research, and worked on expanding and revising the novel. She found an unexpected resource in her late colleague Professor Qadri Ismail, who grew up in Sri Lanka and provided valuable insight into the story’s time period. She also consulted with the University’s Human Rights faculty, some of whom read a portion of her book. “It was great because it was people from all different fields,” Ganeshananthan explains. “They have an enormous amount of expertise.”

As Ganeshananthan neared completion of the novel, she faced the challenge of developing a physical disability. “I had hand problems off and on for years,” she says. “Then, in April 2021, I looked at my hands and discovered they were swelling in a weird way.” Unable to type manually because of pandemic overuse injuries, she was left using voice recognition software, which she described as fine for composition but “not great at non-Anglo words… and positively tedious with regard to revision.” The University’s Disability Resource Center and English department connected her with two student workers who typed for her as she wrote and revised. With their help, Ganeshananthan was able to thoroughly edit Brotherless Night and shape its final form.

Present-Day Context

Brotherless Night was selected as a New York Times Editor’s Choice novel, and appeared on the cover of The New York Times Book Review. The Star Tribune described the novel as “riveting, heartbreaking, extraordinary,” and a “propulsive masterpiece.”

The novel’s subject matter is especially vital given the limited awareness of the Sri Lankan civil war in the United States. Even now, American citizens pay little attention to the current economic and political turmoil in Sri Lanka. Rather than depicting Sri Lanka’s people, coverage tends to focus on its political significance to larger nations. Ganeshananthan laments the limited readership of these news stories and how coverage of Sri Lanka tends to be “through the lens of China or India, which are global powers.” She says there is not enough emphasis on “Sri Lanka as itself, a place where people live and do things.” 

Ganeshananthan hopes followers of Sri Lankan news will read the book and better understand how ordinary people are affected by politics. Of course, she adds, it is also possible that those who spontaneously pick up Brotherless Night will feel motivated to learn about Sri Lanka’s current events. “You write hoping it helps people find each other. That’s the work of a good book.”

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