Book Review: In My Mother's House

Sharika Thiranagama's In My Mother's House is a unique, dense book that's best read early in the morning with something highly caffeinated. An anthropologist who now teaches at Stanford University, Thiranagama writes dispassionately (if at times verbosely) about issues close to home. She was born in Jaffna, Sri Lanka and her mother, Rajani Thiranagama, was assassinated by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 1989. Shortly thereafter, she went with her father and sister to London, where she grew up.

The book is a product of extensive field research and weaves academic theory with a collection of personal stories. It's an anthropological endeavor showcased through personal accounts - told principally through the eyes of Tamils and Muslims who were born in Sri Lanka's northern province. Displacement, identity, the family and home, and the effects of political violence are central topics.

Thiranagama devotes an entire chapter to Tamil militancy and notes that one of the principal goals of the book "is to reframe conventional academic and journalistic accounts of the Sri Lankan civil war, and in particular, accounts of Tamil militancy." Indeed, in this chapter her insights are nuanced and captivating. The history of Tamil militancy goes well beyond the story of the LTTE and, whether readers agree with Thiranagama's arguments or not, other militant groups such as the People's Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) and the Eelam People's Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF) are worthy of further study.

Given that Muslims have frequently been left out of discussions and reflections upon a war that pitted the (mostly ethnic Sinhalese) military against the (almost exclusively Tamil) LTTE, her devotion to Muslim issues and perspectives in general and displacement in particular is refreshing.

Thiranagama is a talented, engaging writer. The book is extensively footnoted with the author doing a good job of positioning her own arguments within the existing academic literature and showing how and where she tries to break new ground. That said, there are times when she goes too far, making parts of the text seem choppy or awkward.

Thiranagama has written a thoughtful, well-researched book that will be of particular interest to academics and Sri Lanka specialists. Readers less familiar with the complexities of Sri Lankan politics or the country's civil conflict would also benefit from some of her insights, but would be better served starting elsewhere first.