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In my thirties, perhaps around the age of 35 or 36, I knew that I would one day write a book. A book about being terrorized as a young boy who experienced a brutal civil war in Sri Lanka and then transformed in Canada in his late teens and early twenties. I wanted to tell the world this survival story. A Tamil boy’s survival story.
In war, there are no winners, only survivors. I’m one of the many survivors of the Sri Lankan war. Since I arrived in Canada, I have been living in two worlds. One with loss, grief, and haunting memories. And the other with peace, prosperity and profit. One is painful and the other is gratifying. Like me, many Tamils often struggled to reconcile between the two. I thought this book could help to heal those festering emotional wounds of mine and countless others.
I wanted this book to give voice to a generation of Tamil immigrants who are coming of age now in Canada and other Western nations and tell the untold story of them and/or their parents leaving Sri Lanka and their experiences prior to arriving on friendly shores to build a better future.
Also, I wanted to tell our collective story to reach a wider audience by appealing to those who have experienced genocide and ethnic cleansing, beyond the Tamil community. At the very least, I wanted to document my family’s story so that future generations of the Ratnavel clan will know what happened to their ancestors.
While living in Vancouver I was contemplating this idea but didn’t know where to even begin. By chance in 2009, I came across Jonathan Kay, the comment editor and columnist at National Post [a Canadian daily newspaper], during the height of Sri Lanka’s war against Tamil Tigers. Jon and I were on the opposite sides of the debate of this contentious war. I was for the Tamil freedom struggle.
Despite this, Jon was very gracious and allowed me to explain the Tamil side. I wrote my first ever op-ed column on March 20th, 2009. Subsequently, I wrote four more columns for National Post. The war ended in May 2009. We went on our separate ways. But we kept in touch.
Jon kept encouraging me - that I should write a book about my experience. It was reassuring given I already had this idea. It was out of our periodic discussions over the last decade of our friendship that some of the ideas explored in this book were developed.
In July 2016, I moved to Toronto. It was a career move. On June 4th, 2018, Jon introduced me to a well renowned Canadian literary agent and entertainment lawyer. We met at the agent’s office near downtown Toronto. But nothing came of it. I went on to focus on my career and the business. Then the pandemic hit the world. During a phone conversation, Jon again casually mentioned that I should reconsider writing the book. I agreed.
HUMANITY IN A MILITARY UNIFORM
On September 29th, 2020, just before Toronto went into a full lockdown (again), me, Jon and the literary agent met at Astoria in Greek Town on Danforth. I pitched the book idea. Again, the agent didn’t budge. Jon suggested, “Why don’t you let Roy write three chapters for you and if you are not happy, we will go our separate ways.” Surprisingly, he agreed.
A few months later, Jon voluntarily wrote a 3,170 words long and incredibly detailed book proposal. I, on the other hand, didn’t know where to begin. I finally mustered up the courage and wrote a 1,000 words sample chapter and sent it to Jon for his review. He replied via email stating, “This reads like a blog, not like a book. You need to bring your reader to your world. Set the scene. Tell them what your mother cooked, where you went to school and what kind of animals you saw growing up. Stuff like that.” My first attempt was a ghastly failure. I gave up.
A few months had gone by. I tried to abandon my literary ambition, but I did so with the consciousness that failing at this wasn’t my true nature and that sooner or later I would have to settle down and write it. Also, I knew that I had a facility with words and the power of facing unpleasant facts, and I felt that this created a sort of private world in which I could get inside it to confront my ugly past correctly. And I knew it would be therapeutic and cathartic.
Months later, on Easter Sunday, April 4th, 2021, after dinner and a few scotches, I found my liquid inspiration to pen my first sentence of the book, “There are some places that will surprise you.” I began. It was 9.30 at night. By 6 a.m. when I finished, I had written about 7,000 words. Chapter one was done! A week later, chapter two, then three. The words started pouring onto the pages like a dam had broken. In total, I had written about 22,000 words.
Thirty-five years of memory, heartache and trauma spewed out in a matter of weeks. I let my fingers dance on the keyboard to the pain of my past and then onto the word document. My dear friend Bahi Kandavel donated countless hours of his time and provided me with very honest feedback at every stage of this initial process and much-needed edits to clean up the manuscript. He made me realize how rewarding and enjoyable the process of creating a book can be.
On May 11th, 2021, I decided to submit the first three chapters. Though I had written about six chapters by this point, I felt comfortable with only the first three of them. I still had four more chapters to write, as per my book roadmap checklist that was stuck on my home office wall. I hit that send button on my email to the agent while not sure of the outcome.
On May 18th, 2021, the phone rang. It was the call I was waiting for. I nervously answered, the agent was on the other line. He said, “I was moved by the first three chapters, Roy. It moved me to tears. As a Jew, I can relate to this story so well. I believe you don’t just have a book; you have an international book. I would love to represent you.”
What a day to receive such a message. It was Mullivaikkal Remembrance Day! A Remembrance Day observed by Sri Lankan Tamils to remember those who died in the final stages of the Sri Lankan Civil War. That very same day we signed an agency agreement. Michael Levine of Westwood Creative Artists officially became my literary agent.
Immediately, we both went to work. He went on to pitch the book to publishers at large and I went back to writing. On June 4th, 2021, in just two months after I started, I penned the last sentence of the book. Sixty days, ten chapters and about 85,000 words later I let my fingers rest. The idea that was rattling in my head for more than 15 years finally saw the light. I was relieved.
In the meantime, many publishers declined the manuscript. But Michael received positive replies from two publishers. One of them was a small publisher, and the other was Penguin Random House. Both publishers liked the first three chapters but wanted to see the rest before they made their final decision. Once my friend Bahi went through all the preliminary edits, we sent the completed book to both of them. Then we waited, again.
I’m grateful to my wife Sue and son Aaron for never once complaining when I spent many hundreds of hours working on this book. This book would not have been possible without them. Throughout this book project, I am thankful for their love and understanding and for all the encouragement they have given me. Especially to my wife for always putting up with my craziness and for being endlessly tolerant and supportive.
Months of waiting ensued. I was so nervous. I kept checking my personal email every hour, every day. Then we heard from the small publisher. It was bad news. It was a scathing review. My confidence shattered. Michael being the pro said, “Roy, remember no one knows anything.” He continued, “I represented the author of Life of Pi, and we were rejected by so many publishers. Then it became a mega success.” “Well, then I’m in good company,” I remember thinking.
A few months went by and then on October 7th, 2021, I received the email I was anxiously waiting for. It was from Michael; he forwarded an email with a message which read, “Good news. Will call this pm.” I scrolled down. The original email was from the editor Nicholas Garrison at Penguin Random House. In part, it read, “I have been struck all along by Roy’s courage, his humility and his warmth. It would be a privilege to work alongside to publish a story that means so much to him.” My knees buckled. I was in a lineup to get a sandwich for lunch. I had to leave the line and sit down to collect my thoughts.
While I dreamed of being a published author many times, I could’ve never imagined being published by a venerable publisher such as Penguin Random House – the largest English language publisher in the world and the publisher of many fine titles.
This book is a conventional memoir, artfully informed by historical material. And dedicated to freedom and democracy. My appreciation for both is boundless. I wrote this book as an act of gratitude to my late father, who I observed intently as a young boy. He also instilled in me a love of the English language. By observing and listening to him, I gained knowledge of how humanity functions. Learning English from him helped me put this knowledge into words. This win was for him.
Few back-and-forth contract negotiations and some bottlenecks later, on December 3rd, 2021, all parties involved finally signed the official book deal. What a great 52nd birthday present.
Prisoner #1056 was born!
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