This is what I’m thinking, melodramatic as always, while Rajani and I watch Tsunami: The Aftermath. It’s mid-October 2009, the weather is strange and warm with warning signs, and I am laying into this miniseries as I have never laid into anything before. How the camera preens the hotel guests like royalty, exoticizes the Thai people in the midst of routine: the way they slice open the bellies of fish, wait on rich guests at the luxury hotel, fold trawling nets over and over onto themselves like elaborate curtains. Everything is a portent, or a mistake. Rain dripping from a palm leaf. Birds a black spiral in the sky like snow crash. How a little girl crayons a picture of her family splashing happily in the bright blue water, when the series is told in reverse, starting with Sophie Okonedo’s character running through debris, screaming for her husband and daughter, gashing her leg open on splintered metal.
“Oh, fuck this,” I say, “Really? A fucking flashback? They started with a fucking flashback?”
We see the hotel guests dining, complaining about minor issues, and it all seems like an obvious rhetorical device. Look how happy these people are, how unsuspecting. How the story, in spite of the one Thai character native to Khao Lak, gives us a Western perspective of trauma.
Later we are shown a Buddhist temple, the grounds strewn with bodies, the monks, of course, serene in the face of death. “Helloooo, stereotype,” we say. They are seated in a prayer circle, the Thai journalist prays too, and then the white Western journalist sees they are cremating Western and Thai bodies alike and insists on taking a photo because Western people like to bury their dead. Maybe have an odd prayer or two. The Thai journalist is incensed at around the same time Rajani and I are, he snarls, You syndicate that photo, you slam us back to being a Third World Country. It doesn’t matter to you. You’re not Thai.
Later the British ambassador says, My priority is the British nationals.
Maybe this is the point.
When the tsunami struck in December 2004, I was on layover at an airport, Minneapolis, I think, on my way back to college after Christmas break, wearing jeans and winter boots and headphones blaring Dir en Grey’s “Kasumi,” and I glanced at the TV and saw CNN’s footage of the Sri Lankan coast, ravaged by water. I was standing then, my Discman popping open on the floor and ripping the headphones from my ears. People around me staring. I must have looked possessed, walking up and down the length of my departure gate, on the phone with my parents, voice shrill and rising, waiting for a word or inflection to make me believe everyone was all right.
Of course it never came. Was it then or later that I learned about a temple drifting in the current to the shoreline, a family of seven plucked from the beach? We took a picture with them when we visited. The children were small and dirty and curious. They had that look about them already, like nothing would surprise them.
When I got off the phone I went to the bathroom. Sat on the toilet with my jeans around my ankles, stared into my underwear, dug my nails into my thighs searching for pain. I thought about all the things I called mine: dorm room, laptop, bed, clothes, pencils and pens, dinner plates, prescription pills, furniture, a sorority house full of sisters, a real sister, stuffed animals and action figures, parents who loved me. When I returned to my dorm room I unfolded the Internet like an origami crane, stripping image away from image until I found the one I wanted: titled Merry Christmas, a wet slab of dirt-strewn concrete, palm frond tatters, the top half of a Sri Lankan man’s head, resting on the pavement on its shredded half-jaw. One white eye rolled open. The other shut and bulging. Had he seen the twelve-foot wave coming for him? Was he looking at it when it swept him up? Was he looking at the ground beneath him, praying each time his feet struck the pavement that they would bear him up to safety?
It wasn’t so arbitrary, surviving the wave. If you ran, you died. If you climbed, you lived. If you held on, you left it up to luck.
I am reading all I can about Harvey Dent, who made his own luck every time fate dealt him a bad hand. I’m mixing my metaphors now, cards and coins, but it all amounts to the same thing. Plausible deniability. Everyone gets to claim they never saw it coming.
On 9/11 I was in transition too. I was starting college, I was on a bus full of rising freshmen, I was making friends. We sat in the back and parodied boy bands as we rode back to the campus lodge after a class trip mountain hiking. Our bus was stopped by through-hikers and we groaned because we were starving, we thought the bus had broken down. We couldn’t see or hear anything, but suddenly a hush cloaked the entire bus, and our chaperone got back on and stood at the front. The World Trade Center has been hit by two planes, she said. If you live in New York, we’ll arrange transportation for you once we get to the lodge.
It was on her face, that look.
I was born in New York. I didn’t buy it. But a girl who lived in Soho started to cry.
For the rest of the ride I looked out the window and tried to remember all the movies I’d seen where the towers defined the New-York-at-night skyline. I couldn’t remember any. There was no television at the lodge, so it wasn’t until we got back to our dorm rooms the next day that I could pull up the footage online, and read the accounts of people who survived, or who were so close when the planes hit they claimed they could see, amidst the black smoke and flames, the shapes of human figures leaping to their deaths.
This disaster turned everyone into me: people searching for reasons and patterns in anything, trying to make the tragedy theirs. Satisfying their urges with the numbers 9 and 11, which made for an answer better than We have always been vulnerable. 911 is the emergency hotline, they say; or 9+1+1=11, which is the number of martyrdom in the Koran, or 19 al-Qaeda terrorists plus 4 planes minus 3 buildings hit is 11 again, and the number 911 is a Sophie Germain prime and an Eisenstein prime and a Chen prime, and whatever that is it has to mean something, right?
Read backwards, as 119, it can be plucked from Biblical Hebrew with number theory to mean the perfect sacrifice.
They say most people remember where they were when they first hear of national tragedy. One of my grade school teachers told us he was in sixth grade, in class, when his teacher made the announcement that Kennedy had been assassinated. His teacher, a man, was crying, and that impressed him more than the fact that the president was dead. Class was dismissed early, and he treated it like a holiday except when he got home his parents were crying too.
Kennedy died on November 22, 11/22, which added together yield 33, the age of Christ at his death.
When ethnic tensions in Sri Lanka exploded into war I was four months in the womb. The year was 1983. As many as 3,000 Tamils were killed in organized massacres. My parents, Tamil, stayed in America. The street number of their address was 33. I was born on November 13, 11/13, which added yields 24, a semi-perfect number, the number of hours in a day, and the age I was when the bus bombings in my parents’ hometown became newsworthy. When the tsunami struck I was 21, coming of age, able to drink and vote and go solo to R-rated movies. Four months prior I had almost drowned.
4. 9. 11. 13. 21. 24. 33.
When we know what we want them to mean, we always force the numbers to work.
I didn’t cry for 9/11. Not for the tsunami. Not even for the bloody end of Sri Lanka’s civil war. The only time I did was in January 2009, when I read the full text of newspaper editor Lasantha Wickrematunga’s posthumous essay about journalism, politics, risking your life for the truth, accepting that for this you will be killed.
The line where he says: No other profession calls on its practitioners to lay down their lives for their art save the armed forces and, in Sri Lanka, journalism… Countless journalists have been harassed, threatened, and killed. It has been my honor to belong to all those categories and now especially the last.
And I had tried to kill myself for so much less.
For months after the tsunami, I found myself singled out by white people, standing in line at the grocery store, for the bus, for a seat at my favorite diner, asking, “So what do you think about the tsunami?” as though there is anything to think. I’ve been asked this about the end of the war, too, by a woman who on the same breath added, “It was so hot when we traveled there for the first time; we were so uncomfortable!”
No one asks this about 9/11. It’s an American tragedy. This makes it global. We all know how horrific it is without having to ask.
Toward the end of the second half of Tsunami, the British ambassador says: While no one will forget what they have seen over the last six days, out of tragedy has come the most astonishing resilience and strength. The overwhelming love and care of the many volunteers who have been brought together by this sequence of events, and the extraordinary selflessness and compassion shown by the people of Thailand to perfect strangers has been very humbling. I’m proud to have been a part of this. None of us will go home the same.
The mini-series was filmed on location in Khao Lak, Thailand, one of the hardest-hit areas, to the protests of victims and grief counselors who thought it was too soon. It was filmed and released in 2006, barely a year after it actually occurred. Others thought it provided employment, could help speed up the healing process, raise awareness. They recreated part of a hotel to destroy it, and then used a hotel that had been rebuilt since the wave struck. They may have used amateur footage of the wave.
My problem is that it seems to say that not all victims are equal. The only Asian character, the only one who loses everything, family, house, job, land, is sidelined by the foreigners’ grief.
It’s equally true that when I first heard about the tsunami I was waking up at home, groggy and uncaffeinated, to the sound of a CNN anchor talking about tragedy. No mention of airports or razor blades. And I remember, just as distinctly, huddling on the couch next to my mother on the morning of December 26, she in her housedress and me in my ratty plaid pajamas clutching my coffee mug as it slowly cooled.
Maybe, my shrink says, You saw a clip on the news the following week, when you were on your way back to school. It made the top headlines for a long time.
If I think too hard about it I’m no longer sure if I saw the amateur footage of the wave or the aftermath flashing across the airport TV screens or the decapitated head of a man who looked like an uncle who’d already died. Or when I heard about my kid cousins pointing out the corpses washed up and floating on the veranda. Or if I even did.
You have a right to your feelings, my shrink says.
Do I? I was never there.
In the end Tsunami is what I have been constructing all my life: a composite of fiction and fact, real location, special-effects waves, real photos, characters inspired by real journalists, survivor stories, footage that could have been lifted from the camcorders of hotel guests and workers, who filmed the wave unsuspectingly, though even if they’d recognized it for what it was, it probably wouldn’t have saved them. But it is, apparently, the only way the story can be told.
Vyshali Manivannan is a Ph.D. candidate in Media Studies at Rutgers University. She has published and presented scholarship on comics and animation, Internet subcultures, and the value of transgression, most recently in Fibreculture. Her first novel Invictus was published in 2004, and she has also published work in Black Clock, theNewerYork, Consequence, and DIAGRAM.
Read an interview with Vyshali here.