On Hasanthika Sirisena’s Dark Tourist

The pleasure in reading Hasanthika Sirisena’s Dark Tourist rises from witnessing a curious and insatiable mind at work. In their new essay collection, Sirisena writes with a stunning range of character that sparkles through her disparate subjects and through the clarity with which she sees herself. The eleven roving essays feel simultaneously urgent and light-hearted, and Sirisena shines when they gather their conflicting emotions together like a bouquet offered in grief. In other words, these essays feel like life does: they’re messy, wondrous, hard, and exquisite. 

In Dark Tourist, Sirisena pairs an eclectic range of well-researched topics with intimate personal narrative, and she plays both off one another to find new, startling depths. In “Broken Arrow,” the book’s opening essay, Sirisena follows her father’s experience of immigration to North Carolina, where she grew up, and the 1962 crash of a B-52 Stratofortress in her hometown while it was carrying a delicate payload of two hydrogen bombs. Sirisena writes, “I am not trying to compare my father’s immigration—which was, in fact, a success given his successful medical career and his loving family—to a plane crash.” Look again, they say, at chance, at decisions made in an instant to do the best we can in the circumstances we’re given. In “Lady,” Sirisena weaves together her mother’s mysterious illness, Oscar Wilde’s play Lady Windermere’s Fan, armchair diagnoses, and gender concepts in medicine with such precision and coherence that by the time Sirisena pulls back from her tapestry at the end of the essay, we find a gentle and lucid portrait of a mother’s strength that often eluded Sirisena while her mother was alive.

As a practice and an industry, dark tourism dwells in tragedy. Tourists visiting sites of violence grapple with the visceral horror of war zones, mass graves, and prisons in part to confront the question of death, both their own and others’. Sirisena’s explorations of dark tourism manifest in literal and poetic ways. In “Confessions of a Dark Tourist,” they visit civil war sites in Jaffna and Mullaitivu in Sri Lanka, where they were born. As Sirisena navigates her own reasons for touring prison cells that held the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, she also recounts the history of severe disenfranchisement of the Tamils by the Sinhalese, the evolving history of dark tourism around the world, and the pervasive questions of ethics and grief begging for acknowledgement. “My uncle advised me that if anyone questioned me to tell them, firmly, my last name was ‘Sirisena,’ a surname that identified me as ethnic Sinhalese,” they write with marked ambivalence about both her identity and the trip, aware of the permissions, privileges, and guilt she holds. Here, and throughout Dark Tourist, Sirisena presses into places of pain and presses the gauze to the wound to help it heal. 

Though the concept of dark tourism lends a bleak aura to the book, Sirisena resists dwelling in melancholy. Her subtle and sly humor throughout magnifies states of despair while also creating a full, rich portrayal of a person trying to understand themselves, their family, and art. Sirisena, who is also a visual artist, offers an illustrated interlude in “Abecedarian for the Abeyance of Loss,” a gorgeous graphic essay (referred to by Sirisena as “elaborately manic doodles”) that nods to a personal index of art historical influences including alchemical drawings, the paintings of John Singer Sargent, and Sanskrit art. In the entire second half of the book, titled collectively as “...And Recovery,” Sirisena’s voice is most sure and steady as they wind around gender identity, art, and philosophy. “Six Drawing Lessons,” a knockout essay that takes the shape of William Kentridge’s book of the same name, wrestles deeply with the question of what we expect art to do. In “Punctum, Studium, and The Beatles’ ’A Day in the Life’,” we find Sirisena on one side of an epistolary exchange, frothing with hope that the work artists do means something, that it moves us. 

For Sirisena, theory is meant to be practiced, and it’s a delight to see her pick apart philosophy and try to apply it to her own life and experiences, and, to allow her experience, in turn, to inform her philosophical interpretations. Subtle and complex, the haze of dark tourism that permeates this collection provides the foundation for Sirisena’s haunted questions about what it means to live an ethical and an aesthetic life. 

Jenna Crowder is a writer and editor living in Maine. Her writing has appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, Art Papers, Boston Art Review, BURNAWAY, Liminalities: a journal of performance studies, and Temporary Art Review, among other publications. She is currently working toward her MFA in Writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts.