Strange Fruit begins with Maya, a Sri Lankan who is flying away from home. The reader gets a glimpse of what makes up Maya’s memories of home, of Sri Lanka, when her fingertips touch the sand in her pockets, left behind by the sea she waded into with Malik, the one who made her fall in love with Sri Lanka after years of being away and considering pain and violence her only memories of the island.
The first chapter, the girl with the storm in her head, begins with Black July, when Maya is only ten years old. The reader is given a detailed account of how Maya spent that day in July, at first trading cheese and chilli sandwiches and scotch egg, waiting for her mother to pick her up and finally that ride back home. The author simply, but strongly, describes the events that take place, how Maya and her mother are questioned and asked to pronounce the word ‘baldiya’ or bucket. Being made to pronounce this word was a simple trick to determine the ethnicity of people. The events are described in simple English, almost as if it was ten-year-old Maya writing the story in third person instead of first person.
However, the writing style of the author is not a weakness and does not bring down the quality of the story. It instead makes it easy for the reader to relate to the characters and understand the events that took place as experiences adults and children have alike, instead of being events that belong to the adult world. This is seen throughout Strange Fruit and it makes the conflict in Sri Lanka something that affected everyone and not just people of a particular ethnicity, area or age.
As the story unfolds, the reader learns how Maya, her sister Varuna, mother Lakshmi and father Arun are forced to hide in a neighbor’s house to escape the mob, later walk in a house that was now a ‘shipwreck of a home,’ and how Maya is diagnosed with epilepsy. When the family is tired of the emergency drills, Maya’s mother suggests moving to London.
Authors who write about Sri Lankan families who left the country for safer and greener pastures often paint a rosy picture of the lives abroad. Aziz doesn’t. He instead, in Chasing Leopards, starts with how Maya hated the cold and the grey. Maya’s thoughts on the British climate are expressed this way, “That’s what being British was all about. Insulation.” The author goes on to describe how the life Maya lived was different to those of others living in Britain, starting from Maya’s family never going on holiday, how her mother missed her life in Sri Lanka and how Arun, Maya’s father, is a “husk of his former self.”
“Varuna was the one who endured the schoolyard taunts with a steely stoicism: Maya was the one who ended up responding to them and ending up more often than not in detention,” Aziz writes. The reader then learns how Maya becomes known as ‘The Fighter’ and how, thanks to the right medication, Maya’s epilepsy is held at bay.
The second chapter, the boy with the crooked smile, starts with Malik. Predictably, the girl who grabs Malik’s attention is Maya and an epileptic fit results in Maya spending the night at Malik’s. They fall in love as the story goes on. The reader is also introduced to Kiran, Malik’s happy-go-lucky friend. The two boys, lifelong friends, are also from Sri Lanka. The reader is then given a detailed account of Malik’s childhood and regarding the terrible days of 1983, Aziz writes, “They have had parallel experiences of living through some of the worst days and nights of their lives, and somehow found comfort in that common memory.”
The story really starts when Maya decides to join Malik and Kiran on a trip to Sri Lanka. When Maya’s family objects, she assures them the ceasefire made it safe. Maya’s father’s words, “When will you learn Maya, that it will never be safe. Never. We thought it was safe all those years and then see what they turned around and did? Took everything from us. Everything,” give the reader a hint of what awaits Maya in Sri Lanka.
When Maya returns to Sri Lanka, she rediscovers everything she loved about the island, especially the beautiful beaches. Maya, Malik and Kiran are often joined by Grace and Fish, friends of Malik and Kiran, and the group has fun exploring Sri Lanka. It is during their visits to beaches and trips to various locations in the island, that Maya and Malik fall in love and their love for each other grows as Maya’s love for Sri Lanka grows stronger.
“I think I need to try and find…a third place. A place where I can be free to be whatever the hell I am, without anybody needing to fit me into a neat pigeonhole. Where I can just live my life without constantly being reminded of the fact that I am neither one thing nor the other,” Maya says. This is what, it feels, the entire story is about. Strange Fruit isn’t a story about a conflict between two ethnic communities and it isn’t about a war that resulted in many deaths, injuries and dark memories.
Strange Fruit is about the conflict within us all, to find a place where we belong, a place where we can call home. Maya leaves her place of birth, the place she calls home because she doesn’t know any other place to call home. She builds a life in Britain, where she never fully belongs. When she returns to the island, all is well, until she realizes that Sri Lanka will never be a place where she could settle down. This game of tug-o-war in Maya’s mind nearly costs her the life she built with Malik. However, it is this conflict that makes Strange Fruit not just a story about Sri Lanka or about love, but a story about humans and the lives we live.
Strange Fruit is also not a story that is only about Maya, Malik and Kiran. It’s also about Soldier Boy, whose story interrupts Maya’s story. Soldier Boy’s story is in italics, so the parallel stories do not confuse the reader. Soldier Boy’s story meets with Maya’s story at Buddha beach, and this is a turning point to both Maya and her friends and also to Soldier Boy. The character of Soldier Boy is one of a young boy hardened by battle. He kills people with no second thoughts and follows orders without questioning if the orders are moral or immoral. However, this seemingly cold nature of his changes when he comes face to face with Maya, who spends her days in Sri Lanka, helping orphaned children.
Strange Fruit is thus more about discovering oneself instead of being about themes that have been explored and written about by many. We aren’t given a detailed account of the war and the author never attempts to color either party of the conflict as good or bad. Strange Fruit is also not a love story. Maya finds strength in Malik’s love and they build a life of their own. However, Strange Fruit doesn’t make us realize the power of romantic love alone, instead we see how important the love of parents are and how lost we are without the love of our parents. Aziz also writes about the love between friends. Often, literature ignores and even denies that there is love between male friends. The word love is rarely used by male characters. However, in Strange Fruit, the love between Malik and Kiran is as strong and important as the love between Maya and Malik.
Strange Fruit was written by Afdhel Aziz, who lives in New York after growing up in Sri Lanka and living in London for 15 years. He visits Sri Lanka often and is interested in “exploring the tension between the beauty of the country and the violence that sometimes lurks beneath its surface.”