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Six Years in the Heart of Dixie




In 1989, while finishing graduate studies at the University of Texas, at Austin, I accepted a teaching job in Alabama, where license plates proudly proclaim it’s the “Heart of Dixie”. Dixie is the nickname for the 11 Southern states that formed the Confederate States of America, which fought and lost the Civil War with the Northern Union states. These Southern states have a terrible legacy in terms of slavery, the KKK, and the murderous treatment of Black people. These areas are also notoriously backward, in terms of literacy, standard of education, and healthcare.

Not all my friends, in Austin, were pleased with my move to Alabama. One, a liberal woman from New York, said that she would “not stop to change a flat tire in Alabama”. I was aware of the legacy of the deep South, but most universities are open minded communities, and English departments oases of liberalism, so I didn’t anticipate much prejudice. The job market was tight, and, as a foreigner, I felt fortunate to find a job.

The University of South Alabama the city of Mobile, is a comprehensive university, with medical and engineering faculties, in addition to arts, sciences, business, education, computer science, nursing and social sciences. In 1989, the enrollment was about 12,000 students.

The English Department was, in every sense, traditional, dominated by White males and gracious Southern ladies, all of them White except for one Black female professor. James Dorrill, the chairperson, was a Jesuit priest and a Harvard man. To their credit, they hired me – the first from Asia (and the face, skin colour, and accent not matching the name) – to teach English to Americans.


Mobile, Alabama

The city of Mobile was the epitome of a conservative, Southern city. During the Civil War, it was one of the last Confederate cities to surrender to the Union Army. Mobile port, used to ship cotton from large, slave-holding plantations during antebellum (pre- Civil War) times, became a leading dockyard during the two World Wars, 200 ships having been built during World War II. When I arrived, the port had seen better times, although cruise ships would occasionally dock, and timber and coal had replaced “king cotton” as the main export.

Vestiges of Mobile’s halcyon days remained in the downtown area, dominated by the Greco-Roman style Catholic cathedral. Gracious Southern homes, with their open verandas, large casement windows with wooden slats, tall Grecian pillars, and the weathered brick walls gave the area a 19th century appearance. Streets lined with old oak trees that met in the middle enhanced this ambience. Some houses, in the Queen Anne style, had elaborately decorated exteriors. The gardens were full of flowering shrubs, shaded by magnolia, weeping willow, and ancient oak trees hung with moss. What these homes evoked was a leisurely lifestyle – iced tea, mint juleps – and old money. Uniformly, all these houses were occupied by Whites.

Not far off, but in a world apart, lived the poorest Blacks. Their wooden houses – mainly of the one-room shotgun style – were near collapse due to neglect, and I wondered how people managed to live there. A scattering of discarded furniture, rusty appliances, like refrigerators, and even vehicles raised on cinder blocks, filled the weedy yards. People sat on their porches, staring at the road, or hung around aimlessly, apparently with nothing much to do. A supermarket, or even a 7-Eleven, was nowhere in sight.

Two roads lead away from the downtown area, westward. One was Old Shell Road, where the houses and vegetation resembled the downtown area. Spring Hill College, an old liberal arts university, was on this road. It even owned an 18-hole golf course. The newer parts of Mobile were along Airport Boulevard, which ran parallel to Old Shell Road and was the main thoroughfare. Here, Mobile resembled a typical American mid-sized city, with a few department stores and numerous strip malls, McDonalds, Burger Kings, and other fast food outlets. Typically, affluent subdivisions, housing spacious, stately homes, were set far back from the road. The less affluent houses – flat, single storied, ranch homes – lined the roads. Apartment complexes catering to tenants of various income levels, were scattered throughout the city. The most prominent tree was pine, not of the coniferous Christmas-tree variety, but unattractive, with thin, long needles. These pines grew along the roads and alongside the houses. Fallen pine needles and cones smothered the grass.

Mobile’s population was about 200,000. Religion triumphed over everything: more than 200 churches, mainly Baptist, served the community. Catholic churches were also numerous. Typical of conservative societies, rich people and businesses paid low taxes, and the result was the erosion of funding for public education and health services. For lack of permanent classrooms, some classes met in converted mobile homes. This problem was often discussed on TV and in the newspaper, but no solution was in sight.

Air pollution was high. A number of paper factories operated nearby, and when the wind blew towards Mobile, a foul odor of sulphur dioxide enveloped the city. I would get up some mornings to this odor and a thin sheen of polluted mist, which might last till midday.



I taught writing, what Americans termed rhetoric and composition, both at the freshman (first year) and senior (fourth year) levels. In addition to Americans, the freshmen classes had international students coming from a range of countries in South and Central America, Asia, and Europe, the latter mainly from former Soviet republics. As a result, in terms of accents, varieties of English spoken, and cultural features, my classes resembled a mini-United Nations. I found this delightful. In a class of 25, I could have students speaking 15 different languages.

At the more advanced class, the students came mainly from engineering and computer science. Many students were older adults, either returning to university after taking years off for full-time work, or starting university after raising a family. I had interesting conversations with some of them – about their jobs, their struggles to meet tuition payments, growing up in the South, pros and cons of American cars – and gleaned much about American life. One topic never touched upon was race relations.

My classes were taught in a computer lab, for which I had raised funds. For some students, this was their first use of a computer. Teaching composition is my forte, and I received positive evaluations from most of my students. American students could be blunt and confrontational at times, but, despite my “foreignness”, I never heard a racial slur in or out of class, or read a racist comment in the anonymous end-of-term evaluations that students provided.

Among my colleagues, in the English Department, my favourite was Patricia Stephens, not the typical Southern belle by a long shot. Pat, who taught American literature, had a smoker’s rough voice, and a no-nonsense, direct manner. She had attended college in Memphis when Elvis Presley was performing at the clubs there. I introduced Pat to V.S. Naipaul, and she told me his travelogue “A turn in the South” was the best book about the South that she had read. Later, we team taught a graduate course titled “Rushdie and Naipaul”.

My wife and I also had a close friendship with Prof. Dorrill (we called him Father Dorrill), the Chair of the English department. Once in a while, we invited him home for a Sri Lankan meal, which he enjoyed. We kept in touch over the years, and, in 2016, I returned to Mobile to see him when Father became feeble after his health deteriorated.

Race relations

Since arriving in the United States, in 198, for graduate studies, I lived in Washington DC, Philadelphia (for one semester) and Austin, Texas. In Washington DC and Austin, I had met Black students and professionals, studying or working confidently alongside Whites and apparently being treated equally. In Philadelphia, where the University of Pennsylvania was in the downtown area, I often saw down and out Blacks, some homeless and others perhaps addicted to alcohol or drugs. Raggedly dressed, trundling a shopping cart that held all their belongings, they would sometimes wander around campus, and even walk disruptively into lecture halls. In Alabama, a state where Blacks people had been persecuted since the days of slavery, and where Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s struggle for civil rights that had been met with violence, I did not expect to observe smooth relations between the Blacks and Whites.

So, I was surprised to observe the two main races getting along without any visible friction. Black professionals appeared to be respected – we had Black professors and even my doctor was one – and a few could be seen managing department stores and other businesses. But, on Sunday mornings, when everyone attended church, the racial division became clear. Most Blacks attended their churches, while the Whites went to theirs. Although a few Black folks attended church alongside the Whites, I could not imagine a White person in a Black church.

From my readings and observations, I gradually began to realize how matters stood. As long as the Blacks knew their place, and stayed there, the society could be harmonious and functional. When these invisible boundaries were crossed, trouble could erupt.

In this milieu, how could my family define ourselves? We were clearly not White, and had no Black roots either. The term Asian was for Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese, and Koreans. My wife Fawzia had a Muslim name, but hardly anyone realized that. Americans are notoriously ignorant of world geography. When asked, I told them that Sri Lanka was the little island below India. But, how many of them could even point to India on a world map?

Fawzia worked for a while as a librarian, at Spring Hill College. Not once did Fawzia or I face any type of racial discrimination in Mobile. But, when our son was attending high school there,
a clash broke out between students from the two races, which turned into a minor riot. When we went to pick our son up, the area was surrounded by police cars and armed policemen.

Two incidents provide evidence of the acute racial discrimination that had existed in Mobile before my time. In 1958, Jimmy Wilson, a Black handyman, had been condemned to death for stealing $1.95 (yes, less than two dollars) from a White woman. The jury may have been influenced by the woman’s testimony that Wilson had spoken to her in a disrespectful tone. (Fortunately, due to an international outcry, including a plea from the Pope, Wilson’s sentence was commuted). Second, the last recorded lynching in the USA had occurred in Mobile in 1981. A young man was killed elsewhere, but brought to Mobile and hung from a tree. During my 2016 visit, I was shown the tree.

After six years in Mobile, in preparation for a move to Hong Kong, I had advertised my house and car for sale. One day, a Black family came to see the car and later came into my house to discuss the deal. After they left, my neighbour, a middle-aged White woman, rushed in, saying “I hope you are not selling the house to them”. She didn’t mind Sri Lankans, but didn’t want any Blacks in the neighbourhood.

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Credibility in governance through elections and not security forces



Ranil Wickremesinghe

By Jehan Perera

President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s warning that he is prepared to declare a state of national emergency and use the military to suppress any public protests for change of government would reflect the pressures he is under. The manner in which he has used the security forces to deal with the protest movement has been unexpected. His words and deeds are contradictory to what he has previously stood for as a five-time former prime minister. This is especially true in the case of the ethnic and religious minorities who have consistently voted for him and his party at elections. They have felt safer and more secure under his governments which always sought to reduce the heavy hand of state oppression in which national security is given pride of place. He has always promised them much though he has been unable to deliver on much of what he promised.

Notwithstanding the unfortunate rhetoric and actions of the present time the belief still persists that President Wickremesinghe is the best of the available options. Recent pronouncements of the president have reignited hope that he will address the problems of the religious and ethnic minorities. He has stated that he does not want to leave this problem to the next generation. He has said that he wants to resolve this intractable national problem by the country’s 75th independence anniversary on February 4 next year. The hope that the president will make a fresh effort to resolve their problems has led the main Tamil party, the TNA, to desist from voting against the budget which passed with a relatively small majority. Their spokesperson, M A Sumanthiran said in Parliament that due to the president reaching out to them, stretching out his hand, they did not vote against the budget although they disagreed with it.

It is not only in words that the president has reached out to the ethnic and religious minorities. Reports from the north and east indicate that the Maveer (Heroes) Day commemorations this year took place without incident. During the past two years scores of people were arrested and a massive presence of security forces blocked the people from participating in public events. On this occasion the security forces did not get involved in any attempt to stop the commemorations. University students distributed sweets and even cut a birthday cake to celebrate slain LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran’s birthday. The analogy that the president drew to himself being seen as a Hitler who exterminated ethnic and religious minorities is misplaced. The release of those held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act for engaging in similar acts in the past would further contribute to the reconciliation process.


In this context, the president’s use of militaristic rhetoric can only be understood in relation to the growing economic crisis that shows no sign of abating. The anticipated IMF bailout package is at risk of getting indefinitely delayed. It was initially anticipated to come in September then in November but now January is being targeted. Japan’s top brokerage and investment bank, Nomura Holdings Inc, has warned that seven countries – Egypt, Romania, Sri Lanka, Turkey, Czech Republic, Pakistan and Hungary – are now at a high risk of currency crises. Sri Lanka is in third place on the table of risk. The next devaluation of the rupee could see another spike in inflation that will make the cost of living even more unbearable to the masses of people.

The president is on record as having said that the economic crisis will get worse before it improves. Both anecdotal and statistical evidence indicates that it is indeed worsening. University teachers at the University of Sabaragamuwa reported that attendance in their classes was down by at least a quarter. Students who come from other parts of the country are unable to afford the cost of meals and so they stay at home. A study by the Institute of Policy Studies has shown that about four percent of primary, 20 percent of secondary and 26 percent of collegiate students had dropped out of school in the estate sector, which is the worst affected. The future costs to the country of a less well educated population is incalculable and inhumane.

As it is the situation is a dire one for large swathes of the population. Research from the University of Peradeniya has revealed that close to half of Sri Lanka’s population, 42 percent (up from 14 percent in 2019) are living under the poverty line. Professor of Economics Wasantha Athukorala has said there is a dramatic increase in the poverty level of over three-hold across the past three years. In 2019, nearly 3 million people lived below the poverty line, but that number has increased to 9.6 million in October 2022. In these adverse circumstances stability in a polity can be ensured either through legitimacy or through force. It would be tragic if the latter is the choice that is made.


President Wickremesinghe has been stressing the importance of political stability to achieve economic development. His recent statement that the security forces will be used to negate any unauthorised protest is a sign that the government expects the conditions of economic hardship to escalate. The general public who are experiencing extreme economic hardship are appalled at the manner in which those who committed acts of corruption and violence in the past are being overlooked because they belong to the ruling party and its cliques. The IMF has made anti-corruption a prerequisite to qualify for a bailout, calling for “Reducing corruption vulnerabilities through improving fiscal transparency and public financial management, introducing a stronger anti-corruption legal framework, and conducting an in-depth governance diagnostic, supported by IMF technical assistance.”

It is morally unacceptable even if politically pragmatic that the president is failing to take action against the wrongdoers because he needs their votes in parliament. As a start, the president needs to appoint a credible and independent national procurement committee to ensure that major economic contracts are undertaken without corruption. Second, the president needs to bite the bullet on elections. The country’s burning issues would be better accepted by the country and world at large if they are being dealt with by a statesman than by a dictator. Government that is based on the people’s consent constitutes the sum and substance of democracy. This consent is manifested through free and fair elections that are regularly held. Local government elections have been postponed for a year and are reaching their legal maximum in terms of postponement. These elections need to be held before March next year.

Elections will enable the people to express their views in a democratic manner to elect their representatives for the present. This would provide the government with guidance in terms of the decisions it is being called to take to revive the economy and place the burden in a manner that will be acceptable to the people. The provincial council elections have been postponed since 2018. Democratically elected provincial councils share in the burdens of governance. The devolution of power that took place under the 13th Amendment was meant to promote ethnic harmony in the country. The president who has taken the position that he is for a solution to the ethnic conflict should seriously consider conducting the provincial council elections together with the local government elections se their financial costs. By doing so he will also gain legitimacy as a democratic statesman and not a dictator.

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WEDNESDAY – Movie Review



The Addams Family is back with a new tale to tell! Originally created by Charles Addams as a comic strip published in The New Yorker, it offered readers a sarcastic take on the ‘typical nuclear family’ by substituting it with a more macabre bunch of strange and eerie individuals. Since then the titular family has been adapted on to the big screen many times, from live action movies to animated versions, the Addams Family has gained many fans throughout the years. Created by Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, with Tim Burton working on four episodes of the eight-part series, Wednesday is a welcoming tale for young fans, but unfortunately fails to think outside the box and remains anchored to the floor with a messy storyline.

Dead-eyed Wednesday Addams (Jenna Ortega) is a stubborn, independent and intelligent teenager in this new series. Her penchant for attracting trouble wherever she goes alarms her parents, Morticia (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and Gomez (Luis Guzmán). With an already strained relationship with her parents (specifically her mother), Wednesday is enrolled at Nevermore, an academy for outcasts like herself. Having attended the academy themselves, Morticia and Gomez are hopeful that their daughter will ‘fit right in’. Caught between trying to build her own identity and other teenage complexities, Wednesday soon finds herself in the middle of a twisted mystery.

This is the first time audiences are introduced to a teenage Wednesday, which allowed the creators to build a new world on their own terms, but while keeping true to the original nature of the character. The creators do a fair amount of world building by introducing other outcasts like the Fangs (vampires), Stoners (Gorgons), Scales (sirens) and Furs (werewolves), among others. Nevermore Academy itself is beautiful and comes with the classic package of creepy crypts, hidden rooms and secret societies. The series also offers a decent amount of gore, although they could have added more given Wednesday’s proclivity for gore-related activities. The series deals with classic young-adult tropes which includes teenage crushes, bullies, relationships and even prom, among other things. The series navigates through Wednesday’s journey of self-discovery, which is a new avenue for both the character and the fans. From understanding and displaying her emotions to discovering her identity and understanding her peers, the series takes a deep dive into heavy material.

Ortega’s performance as the titular character plays a major role in keeping audiences glued to the screen. This is also the first time viewers are shown a teenage Wednesday Addams, which works to Ortega’s benefit as she depicts more dimensions to the ghoulish, morose character many are associated with based on previous renditions. Her facial expressions and ability to deliver on seriously emotional moments strengthens her role as the lead. The rest of the Addams Family, even with limited screen time, lack the eccentricities their characters should have. Hopeless romantics Morticia and Gomez seem incompatible in this version and Uncle Fester is far less crazy than he ought to be. The only member worth mentioning is the Thing—a severed hand— who brought more character and spirit to the series acting alongside Ortega. With barely any room to develop a majority of the characters are prosaic and tedious, even though they remain vital to the plot.

Apart from Ortega, Gwendoline Christie and Emma Myers deserve honorable mentions for their roles as Nevermore’s head teacher, Larissa Weems and the peppy Enid Sinclair respectively. Enid quickly became a fan favorite as the character was the polar opposite to Wednesday. Her character is vital to Wednesday’s character development and their journey to find common ground as mismatched individuals is amusing.

Christina Ricci who played Wednesday in the 90s returns as ‘normie’ teacher, Miss Thornhill and unfortunately barely stands out and this in large part due to the messy storyline. The series is bogged down with numerous subplots and overlapping tropes and the characters with potential for growth are completely overlooked. With love triangles, bullies and killer monsters on the loose, the series self-destructs and the climax sinks into disappointment.

At the end of the day, Wednesday plays to the beat of the new generation and touches on new themes, which is welcoming seeing as the character should grow up at some point. While not everyone may relate to Wednesday’s teenage perils, it is interesting to witness her growth and her journey as an ‘outcast’ or ‘weirdo’. And while Wednesday doesn’t exactly offer a distinctly unique story, it gives audiences a small taste of what Jenna Ortega’s Wednesday is capable of. Creating a story around a well-established franchise is a difficult task, and in this case the creators fail to add value to their visions. If the series continues, the creators will have the opportunity to think further outside the box and push the limits to Wednesday’s character and give audiences a bone-chilling experience. Wednesday is currently streaming on Netflix.



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Stage set for… AWESOME FRIDAY



The past few weeks have been a very busy period for the new-look Mirage outfit…preparing themselves for their big night – Friday, December 2nd – when they would perform, on stage, for the very first time, as Donald Pieries (leader/vocals/drums), Benjy (bass), Niro Wattaladeniya (guitar), Viraj Cooray (guitar/vocals), Asangi Wickramasinghe (keyboard/vocals), along with their two frontline female vocalist, Sharon (Lulu) and Christine.

They have thoroughly immersed themselves in their practice sessions as they are very keen to surprise their fans, music lovers, and well-wishers, on opening night…at the Peacock, Berjaya Hotel, in Mount Lavinia.

Action starts at 8.00 pm and, thereafter, it will be five hours of great music, along with EFFEX DJs Widhara and Damien, interspersed with fun and excitement…for the whole family!

Yes, opening night is for the whole family, so you don’t need to keep some of your family members at home – kids, especially.

Working on their repertoire for Friday, bassist Benjy says “what we will dish out will be extra special, with lots of action on stage.”

It would be interesting to see Sharon (Lulu) doing her thing with Mirage, after her early days with the Gypsies, and, I’m told, a dynamic performance from Sharon is what is in store for all those who make it to the Peacock this Friday

Edward (Eddy) Joseph (centre) with Donald and Benjy

While the band was at one of their practice sessions, last week, they had a surprise visitor – Edward (Eddy) Joseph, a former member of the group Steelers, who is now based in Germany.

Eddy is here on a short visit and is scheduled to return to Germany, tomorrow (30).

He spent an hour with Mirage, at their practice session, and says he is disappointed that he would not be around for the group’s opening night.

However, there is a possibility of several well-known personalities, in the showbiz scene, turning up, on Friday night, to experience the sounds of the new-look Mirage, including Sohan Weerasinghe and Joey Lewis (from London).

Rajiv Sebastian, too, says he is keen to be a part of the fun-filled evening.

You could contact Benjy, on 0777356356, if you need to double check…their plans for AWESOME FRIDAY!

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