Reading Hasanthika Sirisena’s Dark Tourist is like sitting down with the most interesting, smartest friend you know. The collection, divided into two sections entitled, “Loss” and “Recovery,” intermixes memoir with history, cultural criticism, art theory, humor, and incisive, insightful commentary.
Sirisena makes sense of her life and experiences through the lens of history. The first essay, “Broken Arrow,” seamlessly shifts focus from the narrative of Sirisena’s young father and his career as a physician in rural North Carolina to the events of 1961, when a B-52 bomber is forced to crash land with its cargo of nuclear weapons. She considers what it would have meant for her family had the bombs detonated over Goldsboro, where she would eventually grow up. Sirisena describes the plane with humility and honesty, writing, “But I am not being fair when I reconstruct this plane using only bolts and plates, tonnage and turbo-power.” She goes on to note, “I am always shocked when I read about plane crashes (as I like to do) to realize that planes aren’t built to beat nature… but to defy it.” Her meditation on her father’s medical career lays bare the risks he took with his own health, ultimately resulting in a stroke that disabled him significantly. We’re left wondering, as Sirisena does, what if… What if the bomb fell? What if her father hadn’t taken the job? What if he had taken care of his health?
Another essay, “Amblyopia: A Medical History,” is an episodic piece devoted to the author’s vision loss related to an auto accident in her teen years. She grapples with cultural attitudes towards disability and what it’s like cultivating relationships when you feel ugly. Sirisena considers John Milton’s vision loss, making meaning of her difficulty with diagnosis and treatment through his history and letters. The author moves from defining medical terminology to slights from men, both known and unknown, to her mother’s attempt to help with the injury and vision loss. The piece is both irreverent and sobering.
Sirisena began her education as an art student, and her strengths as an artist are highlighted in “Abecedarian for Abeyance of Loss.” She provides a context for the form, noting, “While abecedarians may be the most familiar literary form since almost all of us learn to read by using them, they were originally associated with spells and prayers: a mnemonic device that helped us to remember the lines and deliver the incantation even more powerfully.” What follows is Sirisena’s own ABC book, “an attempt to seam [her] memory” featuring lines like “C Crave It; D Deal It; E Eat It.” The effect is familiar and disarming.
Other stand out essays in the “Loss” section are “In the Presence of God I make this Vow,” in which Sirisena explores a clandestine Renaissance wedding in order to make sense of her father’s own secret marriage. Following this, “Confessions of a Dark Tourist” gives a critical look at war tourism in Sri Lanka, and “Pretty Girl Murdered” provides an exploration of Sri Lankan attitudes towards women and gender.
The second part of the book, “Recovery,” tends towards more theoretical work; however, Sirisena already has the reader in her palm, and where an essay on art theory may not seem inviting out of context, it’s compelling in this collection.
Later in the collection, readers get “Soft Target” and “The Answer Key,” two essays that explore gender and queerness. In the former, the author recounts a dangerous encounter from her post-college years within the framework of her queer identity. In the midst of a giddy conversation, Sirisena tells a colleague about a questionable party she attended during art school; however, she admits to lying about the place and outcome because she feels ashamed and uncertain of the actual events. Sirisena also explores how gender identity played a role in her self-confidence and social agility during her early life, noting, “I was awkward, unremarkable and, worse, immature. No one — not men, not women — hit on me, ever. This didn’t have anything to do with my looks and probably more to do with my essential awkwardness.” She enriches the reader’s understanding of her circumstances by discussing writers Carson McCullers and Dawn Langley Hall.
“The Answer Key,” is a list of 500 words, terms, and phrases that are all associated with queer identities, for instance, “103. Larry Kramer 104. Coming out 105. Heterosexual 106. Bear 107. Aubrey Beardsley 108. Misgendering.” The piece has a secret message that readers can decode by following the first letters of the bolded terms. The negative space in this work presents the reader an opportunity to engage with the work, doing some of the work of explanation, rather than passively reading or observing the labor of listing.
The term “think piece” can often be used pejoratively. However, it seems that to call these works essays, though I do love essays, is to undersell how utterly compelling and thought provoking they are — and how much they make one think, long after the essays have been read. After finishing Dark Tourist, a reader should expect to spend many moments considering Sirisena’s insightful take on life and its complications. You will want to hear more about her and from her. You will tell your other interesting and smart friends, “You need to read this book.”
By Hasanthika Sirisena
Mad Creek Books
December 10, 2021