Amma by Saraid de Silva

It’s been difficult to write this review of Amma because the book hit me with a tidal wave of grief. 

Which perhaps I should have expected. Saraid de Silva’s debut novel is a phenomenally polished debut, laden with lush specificity, that bottles the lives of three very different women across several very different countries and decades. It’s the kind of book that people searching for unchallenging, relatable content should probably skip over. But it was relatable enough to demolish me—in a way I saw coming, like the Jaws theme. 

That’s the magic of Amma. At its core, as de Silva says in The Post, there is a loneliness to each of its protagonists. They’re angry. They’re searching for connection, but too deeply tangled in their own specific experiences of the world to reach out and find each other. They’re in conversation with the ghosts of each other, as families often are. 

I wanted to honour that, so I discussed this book with my youngest sibling, L. We share many touchstones with the cast of Amma: like Josephina, we grew up in Singapore, in close contact with our Tamil paatti. Like Sithara and Suri, we moved from a warm, busy country to a New Zealand winter as children whose siblingship was forged through surviving together. Like Annie, we’re mixed-race queer disasters who are sometimes powered by the physicality of our emotions. Like all of them, we’re angry people, gathering the bravery to stare family dysfunction in the face. Like all of them, we’re at odds when family comes up.

This is a little bit of that conversation.

k: The blurb talks about Josephina aged 10 making a choice that has ramifications for the rest of her family. At first, I thought the ripple effect was purely negative—trauma being passed on through lack of communication and further reactive harm—but as the book drew to a close, I felt that what the family inherited was her protective, lifesaving anger. That rage is a survival instinct that can be terrifying and out of control but can also force you to be brave, right? To have conversations you don’t want to have. What’s Josephina’s legacy for you?

L: I think her legacy is one of anger and stunted communication. It’s such a migrant family thing. But each character juggles this legacy and shapes it for themselves, and we see that anger is not always a bad thing. It gets Sithara into adulthood and into her career and place in New Zealand as a migrant woman, and it steers Annie into her own career too, the ways she helps her community. They’ve harnessed that anger and used it to make their marks on the world. 

Honestly, I’m envious. I think they did better than our family did at piercing that Asian family ‘we don’t talk about those things’ barrier, maybe because that anger helped them do it.

k: Yeah. I knew going into Amma that it was going to tell a story that I would find both familiar and alien. de Silva does a fantastic job of sketching locations and times into three-dimensional space with an elegant economy of prose.

But I don’t think I was prepared for the parts which spoke to me. There were some little shining moments of surprise and recognition—the way Hamilton’s described, the mamasan at the brothel in Josephina’s childhood. de Silva’s prose is blunt and lush, in a way that feels apt for a story that spends so much time closer to the equator. What stuck out for you?

L: That initial description of Hamilton made me cackle, for sure. 

k: It was quoted at samesame but different the other week, actually. Everyone loves it. 

L: Other things that stood out to me: the little ways that characters and moments become real. Josephina’s methodical approach to physically removing reminders of news she’s received from her life, as if that’ll remove the problem. The initial interaction with her husband, the observations of the sex workers in early Singapore. It’s really transporting writing. 

One thing that really stayed with me is Sithara wearing her hair in that classic plait at the end. Middle-part, hair heavy in a rope on your back. I’ve never felt more Indian than when I’ve worn my hair like that, like our paatti does, and I really connected with it.

k: On that note, how do you feel about the mother-daughter and grandmother-granddaughter relationships in Amma? I think about us having our own paatti nearby recently, and the ways that women of that generation and age get especially when they’ve lost their husbands and are finding comfort in family and facing the way younger generations challenge what they thought the world had to be.

L: Well, you know that the moment I finished the book, I picked up the phone to call Paatti. 

k: Right, yeah, you did.

L: She was here for three months recently, and it was really good to get to spend so much time with her and talk about her life growing up. I even drew a family tree. But even with all those branches written out, I know I’m missing so much about her lived experience. What it was like to be her. 

It’s also hard to confront how lonely she is. It was her first visit since Thaaththa died, and honestly, I think she was depressed. She hadn’t been alone before then since she got married at 19 and even now I think she feels the world is moving on without her. Like, she never calls us first because she doesn’t want to disturb us. 

k: I should call her. You told me that, too. I somehow didn’t realise it was possible for me—of course, our parents made it difficult for me to connect directly with her, in that they stopped me from telling her I was gay and I just never . . .  thought to bypass them. It’s not the same as the dynamic in Amma, of course.

L: It’s different because we don’t live together and distance makes it hard. The way Josephina approaches family toward the end of her life makes me slightly hopeful, actually. I know it’s unlikely that we’ll get to bridge that gap. We’ll always be in two separate worlds. But I can hope. 

k: We live in different times. The options available to Josephina or to Paatti were different from those we get now.

L: Yeah! And de Silva talks about that so deftly in so many ways. Josephina has so much agency, but she’s also so marked by her time and her trauma. The way she reacts to Annie doing gymnastics, right? The different ways that the two of them understand men as dangerous to girls. 

But also it’s not even just about different times. There’s just different lives. I think about Suri and Sithara at school—what is it like to realise that you’ve grown up with your younger sibling, assuming that all the shit he’s getting is the same as you? That you’re protecting him as his big sibling who’s going through exactly the same stuff? And then you find out that the danger is homophobia, not just racism, and you had no idea. 

k: That really got me in the chest—that intense bond they have as siblings, in part because of that moment together. But they just never talk about it, that feeling of deep connection, and in adulthood, there’s a real heartbreak to it coming apart.

L: They really don’t talk about anything. And it’s like . . . this is a story that’s about not talking about things. It’s a story about getting away from each other. Because these intergenerational migrant stories, right, they’re always ‘Blah blah blah, and we found our way to each other. Our lives are woven into each other’s. We could never escape’. But this is three people living three separate lives and even when they learn to be a little more honest with each other, that doesn’t change. There’s such a realness to that distance.

The way the book is structured mirrors this. We learn about each of these people’s perspectives and watch them grow up. It’s not some kind of mystery time skip that’s keeping details from us, we get to see them become the people who they are at the end.

And I also wonder about Suri seeing Annie show up at his door—like, what do you do with that? Here’s someone who’s the representation of a lot of the ways you are alone in this world, away from your family. Except she’s a whole grown adult and you have to delicately figure out how much she knows about you, or  doesn’t know. And you get to tell her about your father because your sister—her mother—apparently never did. 

k: That loss of something she didn’t know she didn’t have—that information that should have been hers. We gleaned so much about our family from our parents or from Paatti in tiny bits as adults or near-adults because they never really wanted to give us anything. That stuff was bad and in the past and not relevant to the world they wanted to raise us in, or whatever. 

L: So many of those tiny bits give so much context. Like, they’re just small anecdotes but they make a lot of other things make sense. That’s something this novel does well. I wish we’d gotten to hear more from Sithara—I really wanted to see more from her view throughout her life to flesh her out more—but it consistently gives us just enough of these vivid details that these people make complete sense to us. They’re vivid and messy and brutal and real. They’re hypocrites, too, and that’s what makes them so human.

k: And they’re so human in how they’re connected to each other. That’s the thing about having family—you don’t choose them, but you’re connected to them for life. Even if you cut them off! There will always be things that you do that are influenced by something your family once did or didn’t do. So often when we connect to the people in our family, it’s by becoming people who carry some of them in us without necessarily connecting or having that conversation directly with them. They don’t talk to each other, they just become each other. And the ways in which they don’t become each other are also part of their connection.

L: There’s a resoluteness to all of the characters. They each hit a breaking point—a different one—and decide there’s nothing left here for them and go on in search of something else. Different kinds of leaving. Annie leaves because she wants answers. And I think—that comes with being a kid, right? At some point, you realise your parents are people. Then you get to the ages your parents were when things happen and suddenly that becomes more real. But what sticks out to you depends on who you are. 

k: That’s interesting, isn’t it? The different things that we latch onto. I was surprised by how deeply Sithara plaiting her hair at the end struck you, but it makes sense that it hit differently for you than it did for me. Plaiting my hair when it was that long was something I experienced as being about a general brown masculinity, and less about being South Asian like you experienced it. And I can’t get away from this toward the end:

Annie sees the three of them – Gran, Mum and herself – swimming in the same dark water. They don’t cross paths, they just stay side by side, keeping their eyes locked on each other.

The thing about parallel lines is they never intersect. They’re never the same age as each other at the same time, but their stories line up. 

L: Yeah, what I’ve realised in this conversation that I didn’t when I was reading is that it never really was about coming together, was it? It was about them finding themselves separately, but together.

And it makes sense that the hair-cutting is more of a moment for you and the plaiting for me. We’ve also lived parallel lives, aligned more to some of these characters than others. 

k: On that note, I’d love to see how you feel about other reviews of the book. Chris Tse says “It binds three generations of remarkable women, each juggling their own desires and secrets with the expectations placed on them by tradition as well as the volatile environments they find themselves in. A book as shocking and revelatory as any family secret, it will leave you shaken and reminded of the power of love and loyalty.” Love and loyalty is an interesting place to leave off to me, because it’s not really what I’d pull from the book first.

L: That’s not the vibe for me either. This shit is about anger and stubbornness and trauma. 

k: But thinking about it now, there are a lot of choices we make for ourselves that are also choices made out of love and loyalty. Like us choosing to go back home and meet our extended family for the first time as adults, later this year. It feels both selfish and loyal for me. More than anything else, it feels necessary.

L: I guess we’ll find out what kind of choice that is.

I emerged from Amma a different person. I emerged from that conversation a different person, with new questions about what Amma brought up for us. Where is home? Where can someone like Annie, or like L and I, desperately jealous of people who have more confident places to stand, locate ourselves? What does it look like to have let time soften and harden us, as it has all of Amma’s cast? How have our boundaries shifted and coalesced as we’ve grown? What, at the end of the day, is important about blood?

We’re testing the waters with each other, always. Family is an open wound and a lifeline, a site of betrayal and redemption. I think about Annie, finally, asking: Don’t you feel like we wasted so much time? Isn’t it awful? But time spent recovering isn’t wasted, or so my therapist says. Time spent finding our ways back to each other—as in the book, time that brings us to that shining moment of courage and resolution—is not wasted. 

I think about the queer child as catalyst, over and over, precipitating heartache by simply treading softly in the world. Grandmothers as lonely matriarchs. Cutting people off because you love them and you can’t keep bleeding out. Booking flights back because you love them and you can’t keep bleeding out. There’s something to be said about diaspora brownness, the ways that each protagonist thinks of her other-ness differently, in relation to how she parses the world around her. They construct themselves as outside the world they live in while fighting so hard to be part of it. From that position on the threshold, they see themselves as people for whom love is scarce, even when it isn’t. 

“de Silva is a remarkable wordsmith, and much of the book’s impact comes from her incredible ability to capture humanity with such clarity of spirit and prose.”

I recognise the stubbornness that gleams in Amma’s protagonists in myself and in L. We spoke about the book for nearly three hours, but much of the 120-page Zoom transcript is us litigating the language we each use to describe our family, the ways we parse Amma in relation to each other. One thing stuck: I said that to me, the imperfect reunion the book finds its way toward felt like the least real section of an excruciatingly honest book. That was a problem with me, not the book. “I think it came back to having given up on that kind of honesty in our family,” I said. L agreed.

Amma scoured me clean; I suspect it’ll be deeply moving to anyone willing to be confronted by it. de Silva is a remarkable wordsmith, and much of the book’s impact comes from her incredible ability to capture humanity with such clarity of spirit and prose. I love the way it’s so unabashed about allowing brown women the kinds of stories they don’t often get—ambivalence and loathing, rage and regret. It’s autobiographical and it’s not, as I heard her say on that samesame but different panel. It’s the kind of story I wish I had the fortitude to create in my own life. Maybe I’ll find my way to it in time. 

Amma is a powerful, commanding book. It refuses to apologise, like its main characters. It is stubborn and vivid and far too alive, as hair can be.

You can purchase Amma from your local bookseller, from BookHub, or directly from Moa Press.

Featured image courtesy of Moa Press.


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