Childhood friendships and the divide between social and ethnic groups are both common themes in literature and serve as a launching pad for Sri Lankan-born Australian author Patricia Weerakoon in her novel Empire’s Children (2015).
Set on a tea plantation in Sri Lanka, the story centres on a friendship between Shiro, the daughter of a native tea-maker, and Lakshmi, an Indian child labourer who works on the plantation.
Both girls have dreams exceeding their status – Shiro wants to train as a doctor and work on foreign missions and Lakshmi wishes to move beyond her work as a labourer – but both are constrained by the social framework of the country, which at this time was part of the British Empire.
To emphasize this, Weerakoon includes as characters the English brothers Anthony and William Ashley Cooper, who are heirs to the plantation and who look down on both native Sri Lankans and Indian labourers as inferiors.
The author – who is based in Sydney – said she had been inspired by her own childhood, which in many ways mirrored that of Shiro.
“We migrated from Sri Lanka 26 years ago,” Weerakoon said.
“I grew up on a tea plantation and when I came to Australia, I realised people here were fascinated by these places. So as soon as I retired I decided to put pen to paper and tell the story.
“I mainly wanted to depict my childhood and some of the distinctions between different classes of people who inhabited it. The British, the Sri Lankan tea makers like my father and the Indian labourers.”
These distinctions were inimical to the story and allowed her to explore how people responded to some of the injustices they encountered.
“The one thing I wanted to show was that you couldn’t do anything about the differences that existed and what they meant. For example, my father used to have to stand up and serve the British bosses and he used to hate it because he was a very proud man,” Weerakoon said.
“But he couldn’t do anything else. He had no choice. He didn’t know any other job. But as shown in the novel, there were several British supervisors who were quite nice as well. I wanted to document what it was like, even if I did it through fiction.”
As well as her desire to depict this world, Weerakoon said she was influenced by her Christian faith in writing Empire’s Children, adding that it had been an important facet of her parents’ lives growing up in Sri Lanka.
“I didn’t set out to write a Christian novel, but it was a lens through which I saw the story, in part because faith was very important to my parents. They had a very simple but profound faith,” she said.
“I also went to a missionary school, as did my husband, so many of us at that time grew up at the feet of missionaries.”
Research and preparation for writing the novel was mainly built upon her own recollections and those of other people who had lived in Sri Lanka in similar settings.
“When I was researching for this, I tried to find as many books as possible on tea making and the tea plantations of Sri Lanka,” Weerakoon said.
“I contacted many friends who had grown up on the tea plantations and I spent a lot of time speaking to them and to people who’d worked on the plantations.”
Empire’s Children was published in June 2015 by Rhiza Press and in October 2016 won the CALEB Prize for Published Fiction. The prize was awarded during the Omega Writers Conference – held from October 28 to 30 October in Sydney – which promotes faith-inspired literature.
Title: Empire’s Children
Author: Patricia Weerakoon
Publisher: Rhiza Press
Reviewed by: Caroline Smith