'Brotherless Night' explores a young Sri Lankan Tamil woman's life, love and idealism set against civil war

A person smiles next to a separate photo of a book cover
Twin Cities author V.V. Ganeshananthan’s second novel “Brotherless Night” took almost two decades to write. It’s the story of a young medical student caught up in the violence of the Sri Lankan civil war which began in the 1980s. Ganeshananthan says she wants the story to show the importance of the way women support each other and how this becomes even more important during times of conflict.
Courtesy of Random House; Sophia Mayrhofer

V.V. Ganeshananthan, an American of Sri Lanka Tamil descent, became interested in writing about the Sri Lankan Civil War as it raged on into the early years of the new millennium, before ending in 2009.

“I started the novel when I was 23, 24. And at that time, I think was just driven by intense curiosity. I did start the book before the Sri Lankan Civil War ended, and was already interested in this period, because I had been handed a book called ‘The Broken Palmyra,’ which was a beautiful piece of writing.”

But she said it was also a documentation of human rights violations by Sri Lankan security forces, Tamil militants and Indian peacekeepers.

“And so I was interested in that material. And then when the war ended, I kind of returned to thinking about that.”

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She immersed herself in research, talking to survivors and experts, reading and writing. Lots of writing. And rewriting.

“This novel did take me almost 20 years, and it would have been maybe more pleasant for me if it had been faster.”

Startling prologue

“Brotherless Night” opens with a startling sentence:

Listen to author V.V. Ganeshananthan read from the opening of her novel "Brotherless Night."

I recently sent a letter to a terrorist I used to know, he lives near me here in New York City.

It's the voice of Sashi, a New York emergency room doctor, who narrates the story. She's immersed in her work, but can never escape the memories of being a high school student in war-torn Sri Lanka in the 1980s.

“Even when I was growing up in Sri Lanka, before I had ever heard the word terrorist, I knew that if a certain kind of person wanted something done, I should comply without asking too many questions. I met a lot of these sorts of people when I was younger, because I used to be what you would call a terrorist myself.”

Sashi's family is part of the Tamil minority, and as the bloody violence erupts, each of her brothers is pulled in different ways into the fight.

Women in war

In “Brotherless Night,” Sashi, the medicine-obsessed high schooler, becomes Sashi, the medical student. But her commitment to the ancient ideal of “first do no harm” is soon sorely tested. A young man for whom she has unrequited feelings asks her to help in a field hospital set up by the Tamil Tiger rebel group. She has misgivings about the Tigers, but says yes.

“And she believes very strongly that people, regardless of their political beliefs, deserve to have health care,” said Ganeshananthan. “But she also finds herself in situations that politically and morally she can't abide.”

Both sides commit atrocities, and Sashi is enraged by her older brothers’ defense of brutality as necessary for their cause. “Brotherless Night” shows a family tested by political beliefs and the realities of war. It's a book about love in all its facets. It's about family, education and medicine and about the power of writing. But most of all, Ganeshananthan says, it's about the vital roles women quietly play in society.

“In Sashi, we see someone who gathers strength, specifically from her friendships with other women, and also from her own mother, from her grandmother. And a lot of the kind of quiet acts of care that make the society able to continue — in some form — during this intense period of conflict come from civilians, come from women, come from civil institutions, like universities, like hospitals, right, like libraries.”

Reading and writing

Ganeshananthan will launch the book with a conversation with Curtis Sittenfeld at the Magers & Quinn bookstore in Minneapolis on Thursday, Jan. 26.

She could talk about one other reason which may have slowed the novel, but also may have added to its power.

In 2021, she learned she has a debilitating motor disability in her hands, which makes it hard for her to write. For a while, she used voice recognition software, but she says that while it's good for composition, it's terrible for revision.  

She found a solution in the English department at the University of Minnesota, where she teaches. She engaged the help of two students as scribes. She says basically she read the entire book aloud to them, and they took down her revisions. 

“And I think I often have said to my students ‘read your work aloud to yourself,’ but, like any teacher, I am sometimes a hypocrite. And so, in this instance, I had the great benefit of: No, I was forced to do that. And I think that that also just kind of turned the screws on the prose.”

It worked. The New York Times recently featured “Brotherless Night” as one of the big books of January. “Little Fires Everywhere” author Celeste Ng described it as “an achingly moving portrait of a world full of turmoil, but one in which human connections and shared stories can teach us how — and as importantly, why — to survive.”