Making Space: Creativity and Resilience in War-time Sri Lanka

Elizabeth Dean Hermann
→ Professor, LDAR

 My half-year sabbatical last year was spent in the post-conflict regions of northeast Sri Lanka, acountry I was first invited to immediately after their thirty-year civil war ended in genocide in 2009. Since then I have been partnering with local organizations and universities to rebuild local capacity in terms of education, skill sets, problem-solving capabilities, leadership, and entrepreneurship. This time, almost a decade later and thanks to my sabbatical and the Fulbright Commission, I was able to step back and focus less on the urgency of post-war reconstruction and instead on questions I had begun to formulate over the years about the nature of human resilience in the context of unspeakable violence, uncertainty, and terror.

Rinoshan Susiman, Scenes from Jaffna, 2016, digital photograph. The works pictured here are by artists from Batticaloa, Sri Lanka, who are friends of the author. Images reproduced courtesy the artists.

At RISD, my teaching focuses on ideas of resilience as well, though in starkly different contexts. In the discipline of Landscape Architecture, resilience and adaptability are conceptual frameworks applied to coastal communities facing the threat of rising oceans and climate change. In my urban courses, resiliency is as much about the environment as it is about society, creative capacity, cultural production, and the economy. Now, rather than having my practice frame discussions in the classroom, I had the opportunity to bring discussions generated within my studio teaching back to my practice and research. During the eight months I was away, I was situated at the Swami Vipulananda Institute for Aesthetic Studies at Eastern University in Batticaloa on the east coast of the country. There I worked with Director S. Jeyashankar to develop new academic programs focused on cultural stewardship and processes of peace building and reforging national unity. My main focus was the research and writing for my manuscript Beyond Silence: Creativity and Conflict in Sri Lanka and Colombia, which looks at creative action at a multitude of scales during both countries’ civil wars.

Societies caught in prolonged civil conflict experience waves of terror and extreme violence alternating with periods of uneasy calm. Heightened levels of uncertainty, distrust, intimidation, and fear leave the population feeling hopeless and enveloped in a situation they perceive as beyond anyone’s ability to control. Scientists have shown that where understanding and an anticipated end to terror are fully absent, the brain becomes disengaged from its normal processes of seeking patterns and linkages from which it can then construct meaning.

SP Pushpakanthan, Disappearance(detail), 2018, ink and watercolor pencil on paper, 90 x 40 in. Collection: Johnson Art Museum, Cornell University.

Sri Lankan psychologist Daya Somasundaram writes that as violence continues and the sense of trauma being inescapable grows, such psychological adjustments are accompanied by social adjustments including, among other things, the short or long-term suppression or loss of meaningful communicative capabilities, a condition he terms “learned helplessness.”1Cultural theorist Henry Giroux calls similar developments a condition of “organized forgetting” or “disimagination,” a self-imposed mental state of both individuals and communities. This somnambulant and dehumanizing psychological condition is further fueled by those in power who, in Giroux’s words, “generate false narratives that promote mass fear, quietism, and passivity.”2 This effective disassembly of creative thought processing leading to a mental shutting down and emotional withdrawal replaces the flight instinct. It is an act of self-preservation amidst a growing sense of worthlessness and disposability. Once embedded in the collective psyche, this state can effectively render a whole society mute. Yet, even then, some are capable of shedding this shroud of silence—some with force, though most in small and subtle ways.

Sociologist Lynn Thiesmeyer has stated that with silencing, knowledge is able to survive and ideas take hold by being filtered, displaced, and represented through other forms of expression and action.3Through processes of accumulation then, rare outbursts and seemingly small expressive acts can coalesce within mental, physical, and social space that must be uncovered and entered to allow such actions to bloom and grow. As with any living system, the ability to survive and thrive is situated in place and must be built upon action to lead to the emergence of creative possibility. Neurobiologist Semir Zeki describes creativity as being fundamentally a quest for information which, once attained, is fed back into the brain for mental processing. Creative acts, Zeki says, obey “supreme laws” of the visual brain upon which our very survival depends. The first law is the ability to focus on constant and essential information. The second is that of abstraction or “the process in which the particular is subordinated to the general, so that what is represented is applicable to many particulars.” Through the first law we “know,” he continues; through the second, that of abstraction, we “learn.”4We go from knowing ideas to“living” ideas. In other words, focusing on the invariant and essential and transcending particulars through abstraction allows for projection and action. And when abstraction is externalized, articulated through constructed words or matter, it invites mental participation by others in a process of “decoding.”

Susiman Nirmalavasan, Mothers of the Disappeared, 2014, mixed-media installation.

In this way, creativity as communication, meaning-making, and personal and communal learning sparks the construction of meaning and learning within others. As such, the creative act and mental processing are in an eternal dance of give and take, both within the context of the individual actor and that of the actor/creator within the world. In the face of collective trauma and its resultant crisis of meaning, communication and the active co-creation of new meaning are essential to both any semblance of society and the survival of the collective body.5 Such is the nature of human resilience—that which allows humanity to regain footing. When one is silenced by one’s conditions, what allows one to break through and reclaim individuality and agency isthe basic human impulse to express thought, which, in order to be successful, must find a different outlet. This process is not easy and can be as unbridled and violent as the very forcesthat led to muteness in the first place. What seems to determine how well one progresses past silence and moves from one state of emergence to another is the ability and speed with which one enters into processes of abstraction, refiguration, and an awakened search for meaning.

Humans are hardwired to interact with their physical surroundings and with each other, and when encountering situations where spoken words fail, gathered thoughts and the need to communicate frequently turns to written and visual articulation. Yet unlike the power of either the spoken or written word, which themselves are immense and already give imaginative shape to mental processing, visually expressed creativity—which moves parallel to ideas crafted through words to express ideas through physical matter and action—makes fears and aspirations manifest in tangible space. These two creative acts of forming ideas through recombining and refiguring symbols and structures are interrelated—in most cases near inseparable. Each looks to the other when their own articulation fails. The crafting of thoughts, language, and experience into new expressions and actions rendered through negotiation with matter, place, and space within a world shared with others, is a concrete, constructive, and necessary step toward shaping an alternative future.

While I am still working through what I have observed over my years of studying the Sri Lankan conflict, I have identified seven distinct phases or states of resiliency restoration that those capable of engaging in creative action can inhabit. Whether one progresses through these various states or through all or several is still unclear. The phases, listed below, start with what the Japanese-American poet Janice Mirikitani describes as the “birthing of rage,” a phase essential to escaping “our strongest prisons built with walls of silence.”6


I will end here with two short poems I wrote as part of a series titled Piece Work/Peace Work, marking the tenth anniversary of the end of the Sri Lankan civil war. The first tells the story of an uneducated young wife of a suspected member of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), one of the “Disappeared” taken at the end of the war. She had approached me one day with a borrowed smart phone, showing a photo of her son’s recent 8th birthday. In the picture she stood behind him to one side with a young man on the other. “That’s nice,” I said, “Who is the man?” “My husband,” she replied in broken English. Now I was confused, as I had been toldher husband had been “disappeared” almost nine years earlier. One of her friends offered to explain. Yes, he had been missing since war’s end, and the son asked each year when he wa sexpected to return. This year the wife, determined not to let another birthday pass without the father at their young son’s side, took matters into her own hands. On the borrowed phone she had managed to download a Photoshop-like program and on that small screen, collaged the wedding photo of her husband, the only image of him she had, into the birthday scene. It was perfect. The second poem is about an artist friend who as a young child experienced the violent murder of his father in the bed in the room next to his. He had been killed along with all other adult males inthe village in one of the war’s many retaliatory attacks in the eastern part of Sri Lanka.

Your Presence
You stand beside me
In faded tones of grainy youth.
Aglow with pride and conviction,
Yet so unsure of the road ahead.

Your presence, my grounding.
If only assembled fragments
Of both past and present,
Crafted through longing and absence.

Your gift is my now.
Eyes of you,
Laughter so familiar.
Innocence and oblivion.

Can presence be reforged through memory?
I don’t know. I can only try. Every day. For our sake,
Both for the moment and what is to come.
To be shielded by your presence.

Anguished lines flow endlessly from my hand.
Binding tighter fleeting memories of a childhood too quickly ended.
Passed along recollections or personal truths,
They beat incessantly upon my brain.
My breath quickens. My skin is damp.
And when I wake from fretful sleep,
I arise, once again, suspended above the void,
my tortured routine my only salvation.

Anguished lines flow endlessly from my hand.
Binding tighter the severed ends, the floating forms, the stain of red.
Binding me to a past that defines me.
Binding me to a frenetic present.
Binding me to a persistent plea for calm.

Anguished lines flow endlessly from my hand.
Binding tighter the work itself.
Madness or meditation?
Like reintroduced blood into those long-lost veins,
or the invisible cord tethering me to home,

These lines hold me upright, facing my darkness,
harnessed by the grip of their dense interweaving.
When do my lines become yours?
Might they loosen just enough to embrace all still caught in the fury of this storm?Maybe then the torment will ease, the winds die down,
And the ground beneath my feet become solid for the very first time.

P.S. I finished this essay on Easter morning as the news broke that eight coordinated bomb attacks had killed almost 300 people that day in Sri Lanka’s capital Colombo, nearby Negombo, and my beloved Batticaloa. 500 more were injured. I can only weep.

1. Somasundaram’s discussion brings theories of “learned helplessness” to the context of war and communication and examines how this condition can ripple through an entire society, leading to collective paralysis. He is a senior professor of psychiatry at the Faculty of Medicine, University of Jaffna, in northern Sri Lanka, and a member of the Jaffna chapter of University Teachers for Human Rights (UTHR). His books include Scarred Minds: The Psychological Impact of War on Sri Lankan Tamils and Scarred Communities: Psychosocial Impact of Man-made and Natural Disasters on Sri Lankan Society.
2. Henry A. Giroux, “The Disimagination Machine and the Pathologies of Power,” symplokē, 21:1–2 (2013), pp. 257–69; The Violence of Organized Forgetting: Thinking Beyond America’s Disimagination Machine (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2014). Giroux’s discussion of the“disimagination machine” (a term borrowed from Georges Didi-Huberman) is situated in a different context—the current condition of America’s capitalist society, where “material deprivation, galloping inequality, the weakening of public supports, the elimination of viablejobs, the mindless embrace of rabid competition and consumption, and the willful destruction ofthe environment speak to a society in which militarized violence finds its counterpart.”

3. Lynn Thiesmeyer, ed., Discourse and Silencing: Representation and the Language of Displacement (Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing, 2003), “Introduction,” pp. 8–12. Silencing, as Thiesmeyer points out, involves an outside body stifling, transforming, or de-valuing the discourse of another. Silencing is different from choosing to be silent, though both may happen simultaneously within a given context.

4. Semir Zeki, “Art and the Brain,” in Daedalus, 127:2 (1998), pp. 71–103. Zeki, a professor of neuroesthetics at University College London, focuses his research on the organization of the primate visual brain and the neural basis of aesthetic appreciation of art.

5. See Gilad Hirschberger, “Collective Trauma and the Social Construction of Meaning,” in Frontiers in Psychology, 9:1441 (2018). Hirschberger, a professor of social psychology at IDC Herzliya, Israel, focuses on the conflict between Israel and its neighbors.

6. Janice Mirikitani, “Prisons of Silence,” in Out of the Dust (Honolulu: University of HawaiiPress, 2014), pp. 122–126. First published in Shedding Silence (Berkeley: Celestial Arts/TenSpeed Press, 1987).

Elizabeth Dean Hermann teaches courses on urbanism, urban systems, urban vulnerabilities; onenvironmental, cultural and economic resilience; and on local and global social-impact andcommunity-based design. Her practice and research focus on South Asia and the cultures andenvironments surrounding the Bay of Bengal.