Roma Tearne

  • Sri Lanka


Roma Tearne is a painter, installation artist, film maker and writer.

She left Sri Lanka aged ten years, and has since lived in Britain. She studied for an MA at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art, Oxford, and was Leverhulme Artist in Residence at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. She was recently awarded a Fellowship in Visual Arts by the Arts and Humanities Research Council of Great Britain.

She started to write while working at the Ashmolean Museum. Her first novel, Mosquito (2007), set in Sri Lanka, was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award and the Kiriyama Prize. Her second novel is Bone China (2008) and her third, Brixton Beach (2009).

Roma Tearne is a Creative Writing Fellow at Brookes University, Oxford. Her latest book is The Swimmer (2010).

Critical perspective

The importance of historical memory has long been a central concern of Roma Tearne’s work as painter, installation artist and filmmaker since the 1990s.

To Tearne, writing is another artistic medium suitable to investigate these concerns and to explore how language can produce emotions. Thus it is not surprising that in her first three novels: Mosquito (2007); Bone China (2008); and Brixton Beach (2009), the writer dramatized the violent civil war that opposed Tamil rebels against the Singhalese regime in her native Sri Lanka. The war broke out in 1983 and was first suspended by a cease-fire in 2001. However, because diplomacy failed to find a political solution, the conflict started again in 2005 and it officially ended in May 2009 with the surrender of the Tamil Tigers and the death of their leader Velupillai Prabhakaran. Fought over a period of 26 years, in Tearne’s own words 'the war had become a worn-out habit on the island ... the brutality of which was hardly noticed in the west. Other wars, more important ones in larger, richer countries, hit the headlines.'

As the daughter of a Tamil father and a Singhalese mother, an autobiographical element often found in her fictional families, Tearne experienced the divisive effects of the conflicts in her family microcosm as both her parents were made outcasts by their own relatives. In her writings Tearne is particularly interested in documenting the effects of the civil war on her characters’ personal lives and the ensuing traumas of migration and diaspora to the United kingdom. While Tearne’s fourth novel, The Swimmer (2010), is set in East Anglia and is less concerned with a Sri Lankan locale than her three previous books, the civil war still shapes the life of Sri Lankan doctor and asylum-seeker Ben. As other post-colonial writers concerned with the consequences of the end of the Empire in their own countries, Tearne interweaves highly personal and intimate narratives within a larger political and social context. Tearne’s books are rich in metaphorical language and visual imagery that the writer borrows from her work as a painter.

Mosquito is the novel that confronts more directly the reality of the civil war and whose main character, the internationally-renowned Singhalese writer Theo Samarajeeva, follows the opposite direction from Tearne’s other characters. While the majority of individuals created by Tearne escape from Sri Lanka to the United Kingdom, 40-something Theo journeys back to his homeland when his Venetian wife Anna dies in London. Although Singhalese, Theo has Tamil sympathies which provoke the suspicion of his own community and jeopardize his relationship with the 16-year-old artist Nulani. The title of the novel refers to Tamil female suicide bombers who come from the north with the rain like mosquitoes, but, unlike them, 'the women were full of a new kind of despair and a frightening rage.' Another powerful set of images in the book conveys the violence of the civil war through reference to the Eden-liken environment where such acts occur. For example, the splintered parts of a brain that has been blown up are compared to 'delicate fronds of coral on the sand'. Significantly, while he is being tortured, Theo loses his memory, a scene that symbolizes the efforts of totalitarian regimes to silence artists and repress collective memory. In articles and interviews, Tearne has repeatedly argued that it is the writers’ responsibility to remember and speak out about the atrocities of the civil war, especially now that its official ending may result in a convenient whitewashing. In her Independent article 'Sri Lankan writers must remember and speak out', Tearne openly asks for the establishment of a truth and reconciliation committee to investigate the crimes of the civil war years. Of these, the author points out the burning of the Tamil library in Jaffna for its highly symbolical value of reducing the historical and cultural memory of a whole people to ashes. To Tearne, taking art and culture out of a country is like taking its soul.

Bone China and Brixton Beach explore the tensions within Sri Lankan society that would lead up to the outbreak of violence and would force thousands into exile, tearing apart families both emotionally and geographically. Both novels combine a focus on the characters’ struggle for survival in a hostile homeland with a narrative of immigration and exile into a foreign country, the United Kingdom. The De Silva family in Bone China and the mixed-race Fonseka family in Brixton Beach have to integrate in a new society, which, especially for their eldest members, is far from their idealized expectations. As Savitha puts it to her husband Thorton in Bone China, 'We are nobody'. Caught between the old ways of their Sri Lankan heritage and the overwhelmingly liberated modernity of London, the De Silvas and the Fonsekas experience a sense of loss and non-belonging that undermines the stability and unity of their families. The younger characters, Anna-Meeka in Bone China and Alice in Brixton Beach, fare better although they too experience the grayness of London and the loss of their most cherished relatives such as grandfather Bee for Alice. With Brixton Beach,Tearne also started to develop an interest in portraying the effects of apparently remote conflicts on British society and in framing her characters’ lives within the context of a bigger global conflict. The novel opens with the London bombings of July 2005 whose events intersect with Alice’s story and with the surgeon Simon Swann’s attempts to find her. The Swimmer further develops Tearne’s observation of contemporary British society and of the interplay between world conflicts, immigration and the racist agenda of the far right. As in her first novel, the relationship between the two central characters, the 43-year-old English Ria Robinson and the 25-year-old Sri Lankan asylum seeker Ben, is threatened not only by their age gap, but also by social conventions and racial prejudice.

Tearne simply does not believe that the civil war between Tamil and Singhalese has ended. 'Memory does not die easily,' she says, arguing that any process of reconciliation should include also the diasporic communities of the two ethnic groups. Her writings can provide a springboard for an open and frank discussions of the events that have had such a tragic impact on the lives of so many Sri Lankans.

Luca Prono, 2010


The Swimmer
Brixton Beach
Bone China


Costa First Novel Award
Kiriyama Prize

Author statement

I write because I am compelled to. Because for me some things are better expressed in words than in paint. Since I was a child I have engaged in both painting and writing in order to understand the world. Both give me a sense of fulfilment but writing presents me with a broader canvas and sustains my interest more seriously and for longer than painting.  


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