Why you should care
Because Sri Lankan lit probably wasn’t covered in English 101.
The first thing you notice about Ashok Ferrey are his biceps. That, or his mop of white hair, which sets off his brown skin, or his surprisingly light eyes. Or his Oxford accent. Then come his three professions, which, when strung together, are unique: builder, personal trainer, writer. Oh, and former mathematician.
Ferrey is the kind of person who’d probably catch your attention at a party because of this unusual mishmash of interests and occupations. He is a Sri Lankan fiction writer who will not explain the tiny island to you in postcolonial fashion by spinning tales of impoverished dark-skinned people. What he will do is make you laugh, and occasionally blush. Ferrey is known for satirizing Sri Lankan society: In one book, a mother calls an exorcist on her son; in another, a motley crew of typical national figures, from a tuk-tuk driver to an NGO director, assemble. His most recent work is The Professional, a novel set largely in London, in which a young, Oxford-educated Sri Lankan takes a job as a male escort (yes, including the night work) when he’s unable to get a visa.
Ferrey’s work is increasingly read in India, and he’s well-known in his homeland, having been shortlisted twice for Sri Lanka’s Gratiaen Prize — instituted by countryman and fellow author Michael Ondaatje — and for the State Literary Award. There are those in the region who say Ferrey has a kind of Tom Wolfe appeal, an ability to “get it” and spit back the country’s goings-on. His satire can serve a social function, says Maryse Jayasuriya, a professor of literature at the University of Texas at El Paso. Given Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict between the Sinhalese and Tamil populations, “satire is a good way of critiquing a society in order to inspire reform,” she says.
Still, Jayasuriya says, it’s “always been extremely difficult for creative writers in Sri Lanka to become known, especially in English.” And though Ferrey replies to politics in his work — he wrote the novel Serendipity during the final years of the last bout of conflict — he has the gall to write about the kinds of things English novelists write about, houses and everyday life, rather than penning a Hotel Rwanda-esque explanation for Sri Lanka 101. One hopes that would work in his favor; the literary marketplace, though, may not oblige.
The ideas that mathematics taught him infuse his work in quiet ways.
Despite the fact that he works out two hours every day, training clients in Colombo, Ferrey says, “I’m basically a lazy bugger.” He writes a book every three to four years, letting stuff stew until it emerges essentially fully formed. His first story collection, Colpetty People, had been in the works for 44 years, he says, and came out when his father got cancer. Ferrey’s sister and doctor brother both live abroad, which left him, a “bookish mathematician,” in charge of life-changing decisions. After each visit to the hospital, he returned home to write. Three months later: a book.
The question of artistic fame doesn’t seem to concern Ferrey. He’s grounded, perhaps because he faced career questions at a younger age. At 23, fresh out of Oxford, Ferrey found himself working “bum jobs,” because he, like his protagonist Chamath in The Professional, couldn’t get a visa. (Parallels, however, end there.) With the help of 5,000 pounds from his father, who was “something of a gambler,” Ferrey bought a house in then-ghettoized Brixton. The flipping began.
It was not a literary life, and Ferrey says he didn’t put pen to paper until his 40s. “Between 22 and 32, I’m telling you, I did not read a single book,” he says. Every night after manually laboring all day, he fell asleep in front of the TV, a roasted chicken in front of him. At Oxford, things had been different; math was poetic and mental, and for Ferrey, it still remains “the only truth in the world.” He says the ideas that mathematics taught him infuse his work in quiet ways.
Ferrey has lived plenty himself: Born in Sri Lanka, at age 8 he moved to Somalia, where his father worked for the U.N. He headed to England to attend a Benedictine school, then, after a year of living illegally post-Oxford, he got his visa and, in a “useless, histrionic gesture,” bought an old, run-down house in Sri Lanka. His place is stunning now; Stefanie Wege-Aluwihare, one of Ferrey’s trainees and friends, describes their workout sessions on the terrace of his 150-year-old colonial home, where they look out at palm trees and green parrots while doing 250 situps and talking politics. “It’s a piece of sanity,” Wege-Aluwihare says of Ferrey’s home.
Today, Ferrey is “coasting a little,” having just packed another book off to his publisher. He is thinking about houses: His mother had to demolish a family home, and he is rebuilding something with the remnants. Listen to him talk about it, and he might be getting misty-eyed about his literary craft. It’s very Proustian. “The thing is,” he says of assembling the stuff of his ancestry into something new, “you can never really rebuild the same thing.”