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Sunila Abeysekera, Sri Lankan activist, feminist and human rights defender

by her daughter Subha Wijesiriwardena

Saturday 10 September 2016, by siawi3


March 21, 2016 · 1:02 pm

In My Mother’s Skin (A Personal History)

Subha Wijesiriwardena

(This was written as a Creative Writing exercise, in writing personal histories. This piece is about my relationship with my mother, Sunila Abeysekera, who was a renowned women’s and human rights activist. She died in September 2013; importantly, this is also about my relationship with her death.)


I’ve found it’s easiest to invoke my mother’s spirit when my heart is breaking. I am young. I am in love; heartbreak is common. I follow some simple steps: I turn off all the lights except the one in the bathroom. I take a long, hot shower; hot, hot, where the heat sears my skin and scalds my scalp. Sometimes – usually – I weep and weep. My tears become indistinguishable from the water. That’s the part I love. I will have music playing, something from her collection. Some brilliant, mournful, angry woman. Joan Baez maybe; Diamonds and Rust.

Soon, it’s no longer just my heart that’s breaking — everything inside me is glass and it’s all been knocked off the table. Since her death, nothing has stayed in its rightful box — like tears and water it’s all mixed-up: no matter the reason for which the crying began, it always ends up being because I miss her.

But she is even more easily invoked when I am trying desperately to keep the pieces together. My mother’s spirit rises up from the hot steam of the shower; it tells me to sellotape the broken pieces back into their meaningful whole. It tells me to gather together the unraveled bits of myself and walk out, complete again.

But you’ve left a big hole inside me that nobody else can fill. I’ll never be complete again.


I was born into the arms of other women. You gave birth to me in a delivery room you had filled with your women-friends. Nothing could have been a more prophetic start to my story.

The feminist-film-maker stands in front of me, familiar, though we have never met before. ‘I’m a big a fan,’ I say. ‘I was raised by a feminist activist; she introduced me to your films. I think you knew each other.’ I wait. ‘Who? Tell me!’ she laughs. ‘Sunila, Sunila Abeysekera was my mother’ I say. And though I have experienced what happens next many times now, it is really always extraordinary. This little woman leaps at me, takes me in her arms – lets me take her in mine – cries into my shoulder, squeezes me tight, tells me she is so sorry for my loss — ‘our loss surely’ — tells me I should never hesitate to call, tells me I should consider myself family. In her embrace, I feel the embrace of every single one of them.

And for a moment — Here is where I belong! Here is my place. This is my world!

But then something collapses, like a tree in a distant forest it only makes a small sound, but I hear it –Can I still belong here if I don’t become you?


I imagined the ‘becoming’ in the days when her life was coming to a close. I was already half-way there: I listen to her music and read her books, I’ve fostered an apologetic fondness for old-fashioned British crime drama; I am disappointed in love – some days, standing there thinking, ‘I want him to terrify me, but he doesn’t’ — , and I take for granted the people who do.

The only way to be without you, is to become you.

But the business of being in my mother’s skin is a lonely one; I didn’t see that coming. She had spent her life in a sea of people, but had made herself an island. Am I an island in the making?


In that hot shower, I sit quietly on my haunches, letting the water run. My own spirit rises from the steam this time; ‘Hello, stranger.’ It is in being broken that I finally meet myself.

When I come out, I turn off Joan Baez. My heartbreak is my own.

My feminist mother and I, her only daughter: we became each other’s projects, each taking on the other as her life’s work. But maybe it was not the best way.

I, thinking her so full of contradictions, trying to figure her out so I could be her one day; she, probably hoping I would see they were not contradictions, just the way life really is, hoping I would develop my own. I would tease her for being a silly romantic, saying ‘Aren’t you some great feminist?’. She would tease me back saying ‘How did you become so cynical?’ I think she was saying it’s possible to be both.

I don’t know who I am if not her daughter – I don’t know how to be her daughter with her gone. I don’t know I don’t know I don’t know. These days, I just feel led away from myself.

My mother is more than just my source material – I’ve been rummaging around in you for my truth, like you’re an old suitcase. I am more than her feminist project.

I feel most complete with the big hole inside me that no one else could ever fill. The hole is your place in my heart, the hole is my inheritance too.