Kanya D’Almeida: 1st Sri Lankan to Win the Commonwealth Short Story Prize

Kanya D’Almeida is fascinating. Her work is real and raw. She’s the first Sri Lankan to win the Commonwealth short story prize. Her intriguing piece ‘I Cleaned The’ – (https://granta.com/i-cleaned-the/) was chosen from among 6000+ pieces of work to win the regional prize for Asia.  She shared with Pulse her battles as a writer and a mother. Indeed, the world can be more empathetic towards mothers silently struggling daily to be heard and understood.

What was the starting point of your life as a writer?

I spent a lot of time writing from a very young age. I was six years old when Maggi gave free booklets with their food. So I carried this little Maggi notebook around determined to write a whole story, and I did it! From that point, it was something that I always did.

As I got a bit older too, I, together with my friends, made some flyers and went around to the neighbours. We told them that if they called and commissioned us to write a short story, we would do it and deliver it to their houses.

I was sitting near the phone that afternoon, waiting for my neighbours to call and solicit these stories from me – and nobody called! I was shocked because I thought it was such a brilliant and amazing offer that I’d come up with. That was my first disillusionment as a writer, realising that people don’t read that much.

That’s how it started. A passion for it as a young child, I suppose.

Could you tell us about your journey as a writer?

Well, it hasn’t been a linear journey. This journey’s been all over the place, from writing for school essay competitions and plays for assembly to trying to get into writing programmes later on, in my 30s.

I spent four years as an undergraduate attempting creative writing and fiction. I gave it up since I found a calling in journalism. It was much more concrete. There were deadlines, a topic to explore, quotes to get, and that was it! Whereas fiction’s so vast because it’s creating the entire world. It’s completely up to you. I felt that journalism was a more sturdy form of writing to anchor myself to.

To be honest, I kept getting rejected from all the programmes and schools that I applied to. It wasn’t until I found a place at Columbia.

Even with that, I wasn’t accepted. I was put on a waiting list and there was one professor who fought for me to be accepted and receive financial aid. I couldn’t afford to pay the full tuition fees. She encouraged the department to give me more money and helped me to get a fellowship. I worked a desk job in the writing department to support myself as I was going through the programme. So, it’s been a very wobbly journey, but now I’m on a slightly more linear course as a writer – let’s see, who knows!

Could you tell us about winning the 2021 Commonwealth Short Story Prize?

They announce it in stages and the first thing is the shortlist. Getting on the shortlist felt like the biggest victory because from 6,000+ entries – the chance to get on the shortlist is so remote.

From the minute I made it to the shortlist, my parents, sister and people closest to me said, ‘that’s it! that’s the win, it doesn’t matter what happens after this.’

After that, everything felt like a bonus, by the time they announced the overall winner, I was just in a constant state of disbelief! So I just took it, but it’s taken a long time for that to settle in, and it feels wonderful.

How has your family supported you and helped you to be successful?

My family believed I was meant to be a writer. It was always something that scaffolded my upbringing. My father and sister were very critical of my writing.

I feel it’s needed – especially now that there’s nothing more helpful for me than tough feedback – from people who are genuinely committed to my work and want to see it be the best version of itself! It’s much more helpful than aimless praise or flattery. That support is there for whatever I choose to do with my time.

I’m not good at handling motherhood. It’s an ongoing struggle to adjust to this new life of having a child dependent on me. It’s been especially tough for my family and husband, and I’ve gone through some bad mental health episodes in the postpartum period. I guess that’s what unconditional support looks like, right?

They’re there for me when I decide to come out and spend an hour writing, then they’ll spend time with my baby, but if I choose to spend months without writing a single word, then that support is still there! So I’m very lucky to have that unconditional support from a big group of people.

How do you balance family (especially motherhood) and your career?

I struggle. It gets worse and worse. Recently, a woman I follow on Instagram posted that we’ve normalised a mother’s suffering. It’s so expected to go through this hardship of feeling isolated. The most hurtful thing she’s been told as a mother is, ‘don’t worry, the child will be okay’. She’s thinking, ‘but I won’t be. I’ll remember this, and this time will always impact me’. I find that to be very true. I still haven’t recovered from the birth of my son. It was so traumatic that I still live with that every day. I feel that even though I have this support network, many people don’t have the luxury of it.

It’s quite absurd because I think if we invested more as a nation in a mother’s holistic health (mental, emotional and physical), we would solve many social problems. After all, if the mother’s supported, the child’s supported, and thus, the family’s more supported. It’s pretty obvious to me, but it’s very difficult to impact.

Your writing is very impactful and unique. How do you get inspiration and ideas to form the characters? Is it from life experience?

I steal a lot of things from my life. People who know me always see something of either themselves or someone we know in my stories. I have to admit that right off the bat. However, when writing fiction, the surroundings or an experience could be a source of inspiration, but then it takes a life of its own.

I’ll see a person and my mind can’t stop following that person around. I’ll wonder, what’s their day like? Are they in debt? Are they on their way to settle some kind of a personal conflict? It’s very difficult to switch off my imagination. I’m constantly cooking up stories and ideas so it’s hard for me to say exactly where they come from.

What is your creative process like and how do you deal with creative blocks?

My process is a terrible mess, but I’m starting to get a bit more on track now. I don’t deal with creative blocks very well. I have writing that’s unfinished and it’s a constant source of anguish to me.

Now that I’ve gotten this one short story down and received some recognition for it, it’s easier for me to model a creative process based on it – to take the available time and chip away at it. Write through the bad writing. Sometimes I sit down and produce exactly what I want. At other times it’s not very good. I’ve to pulp through those moments even if it’s rubbish. I get it on the page and then start again the next day, delete what I don’t need and carry on.

I’ve never had a lack of ideas. Just a matter of bringing those ideas to life on the page.

What message would you like to give to other writers? And how can we encourage more readers?

As a writer who struggles to write, and a book lover who lately struggles to find the time to read, I have only one piece of advice: do it every day. Even if it’s just writing one sentence, or only reading half a page. Unrealistic goals are a good way to kill the joy involved in reading and writing, so start by doing the bare minimum and see where that takes you (in the spirit of honesty, I don’t follow my advice, but I strive to get there!).

What are your plans for the future? And how can others follow your work?

My current passion project is my podcast, The Darkest Light, where I collect and share women’s stories of childbirth and motherhood in Sri Lanka. I try and fail to stay on top of my Instagram game, @thedarkestlightpodcast – you can follow me there for updates. I’m also slowly churning out a short story collection, but when I’ll finish is anyone’s guess.

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