J.S Tissainayagam

On life inside a Sri Lankan jail and the liberating experience of the Nieman Fellowship

Life in prison is paradoxical. It is perhaps the most “public” of spaces in that it does not allow any privacy for its inmates. In fact, the lavatories at Welikada Jail in Colombo, Sri Lanka, do not have doors. But the privation I endured and the habitual encounter with layers of latent hostility and resentment bred illusions of privacy.

It forced me to a build a mental cage and bury myself within its Styrofoam interior. The only physical space you could claim as your own was at night – a meager six feet by three feet – where you spread your sleeping mat. But that made mental space, the comfort zone into which you retreated when they tried to break you emotionally, sacrosanct.

After living almost two years in such bleak, cheerless surroundings, followed by almost another six months in a series of safe houses where physical comforts increased but the mind remained tormented by anxiety, breathing the air of freedom was as traumatic as the lack of it. So when I found myself in August 2010 in a new community of 24 other Nieman Fellows and their partners, people hovering in that liminal space between familiarity and strangeness, it took me a lot to wrench myself out of the mental cloister I was used to backing into when meeting new groups of more than three or four people.

But how welcome they made me feel at Lippmann House! My long silences verging on unsociability were not taken amiss. My laconic responses were never taken to be rude – at least no one stopped talking to me! Bob Giles and other members of the staff, my fellow-fellows and their partners, gave me and my wife the space to restart life together after the long separation. Such resumptions not only require mutual commitment between two people, they also need to be nourished by a sense of community, and the Nieman family provided it. For that we are profoundly grateful.

Standing to deliver my Sounding, before a roomful of essentially unknown people in late September last year, I thought to myself “Why am I going unburden my life story on them?” But that warm late-summer evening with the lights turned low in the Knight Seminar Room, seemed especially suited to revealing intimate secrets. I have not told them in such detail since nor, I think will I, for some years to come. But that was a moment for retrospection and confessions – not the so-called "confession" extracted under duress from me that was the main evidence the Sri Lankan judiciary used to award me a 20-year jail term – but giving voice to terrible times in the past, cathartic in their telling.

It was not only classmates Nazila, Hollman, Waheed and I – victims of political violence and repression – who spoke about unhappy pasts endured in carrying out our professional duties. The class of 2011 was comprised of men and women of sorrows who were acquainted with grief. Many had had personal tragedies, mostly to do with their health. It is easy to say “Soundings ought to deal with journalism and not be a gush of sentimentality.” But how do you extricate one from the other? Journalists, whether they write about politics, medicine or business, do not write about them in the abstract. They write about these subjects in relation to people who make them.

Journalism is intimately connected with human beings. And, however hardnosed a newshound one might be, to go out day after day and document people requires sensitivity and perception into human aspirations, joy and suffering. So offering a platform to journalists to share the vicissitudes in their own lives, in a community of sympathetic souls, is to offer sensitive people a chance to grapple with their own emotions, which, in turn, will nourish their desire to document those of others.

The Nieman Fellowship was exceptional in that it did not expect a product as many conventional fellowships do. No papers, obligatory conferences, tutoring students or anything of the sort. You were given the keys to the awesome resources of Harvard and told to do pretty much what you wanted. In that way, it was a platform that opened up possibilities to either continue in journalism, or to explore new vistas in academia, write a book or do something else. It did not matter if the possibilities could be realized (if at all) only in the future.

There was nothing of an implied contract with Nieman as in other fellowships, where a specific product had to be delivered by deadline. What the fellowship expected was for you to avail yourself of the resources of Harvard; what it implied was that you would use it for the benefit of humanity – either as a journalist or in anything else you turned out to be. The open-ended nature of the relationship gave one freedom but also a great sense of obligation, not to the Foundation but to do to the best in what one chose to be. 

From the outside, Lippmann House might seem a country club for the leisured. And jests such as “Nieman15” – that fellows put on 15 pounds due to sedentary lifestyles during their Nieman year – only add to this perception. The Nieman year certainly gives time off, but to think, to explore and to heal. 

In a way I found that I was not the only one who was imprisoned. So were the others, confined by bars of stultifying routine, unsympathetic bosses and that ever-present fear of contemporary American life – being laid off from work. For all of us, the Nieman year was a liberating moment. May it remain the same for those who come after us! 

J. S. Tissainayagam
2011 Nieman Fellow