Not Quite Paradise: An American Sojourn in Sri Lanka

Not Quite Paradise: An American Sojourn in Sri Lanka

by Adele Barker


View All Available Formats & Editions


A chronicle of life on the resplendent island, combining the immediacy of memoir with the vividness of travelogue and reportage
Adele Barker and her son, Noah, settled into the central highlands of Sri Lanka for an eighteen-month sojourn, immersing themselves in the customs, cultures, and landscapes of the island—its elephants, birds, and monkeys; its hot curries and sweet mangoes; the cacophony of its markets; the resonant evening chants from its temples. They hear stories of the island’s colorful past and its twenty-five-year civil war between the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil Tigers. When, having returned home to Tucson, Barker awakes on December 26, 2004, to see televised images of the island’s southern shore disappearing into the ocean, she decides she must go back. Traveling from the southernmost coasts to the farthest outposts of the Tamil north, she witnesses the ravages of the tsunami that killed forty-eight thousand Sri Lankans in the space of twenty minutes, and reports from the ground on the triumphs and failures of relief efforts. Combining the immediacy of memoir and the vividness of travelogue with the insight of the best reportage, Not Quite Paradise chronicles life in a place few have ever visited.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780807001257
Publisher: Beacon Press
Publication date: 01/04/2011
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.70(h) x 0.40(d)

About the Author

Adele Barker, who was awarded a Ucross Fellowship for her work on this book, is the author or editor of five books on Russian literature and cultural life. Most recently, she received a Fulbright Senior Scholar grant to teach and write in Sri Lanka.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews

Not Quite Paradise: An American Sojourn in Sri Lanka 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 14 reviews.
AmyElizabeth on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Not Quite Paradise is the memoir of Adele Barker's journeys in Sri Lanka, beginning in 2001, just three weeks after 9/11, and culminating in 2006 with a brief intermission in between the two. She arrives with the intention of teaching literature at the University of Peradeniya, but is caught up in a war and way of life that she desperately tries to understand.I say this is a memoir of her journeys, but mostly it is a memoir of Sri Lanka. Barker gives many details about the history of the island, particularly the civil war between the Sinhalese government and the Tamil Tigers, a separatist group fighting for an independent Tamil state in northern and eastern Sri Lanka. This war lasted over 20 years and was felt by all: violent election days, scattered land mines, curfews, "normal murders," and poverty. Barker details her adjustment to daily life, but she could never be completely accepted by the native Sri Lankans because of her skin color; to be white was to be in a caste above others, to be seen as either a perpetual tourist, an aid worker, or of no threat to either side divided by civil war. While she tried to break these stereotypes, in one respect by refusing to hire a housekeeper so she would not be seen as "British and colonial," she soon realizes that not providing this job keeps one more Sri Lankan unemployed. She relents, and makes the most of her position.When Barker returns to the island in 2005, it is to see the damage done by the tsunami of December 26, 2004, which killed 48,000 Sri Lankans in as little as 20 minutes. Her goal was to walk the circumference of the island as much as possible, and it did seem possible, considering there was a cease-fire that appeared to be holding steady. Barker travels through many cities, gathering people's stories of "when the water came to the land." She researches why there was no early warning system and what the government was doing to prevent a catastrophe such as this from every happening again. In her travels, she sees sides of the civil war that aren't publicized, at least not once one leaves the northern Jaffna peninsula: the way not all Tamils are Tigers, how the government was desperately trying to lay siege to the Tigers but in turn was laying siege to its own people, and how the Tigers were not always seen as the enemy by those who lived under their laws. I went into this story thinking I was going to be experiencing a personal story of one person's journeys through a land that differs greatly from our own, and in a way that assumption was correct. However, this is much more a story about Sri Lanka; we do not get a very good look at Adele Barker. We know where she is from, that she has a son, and that she is a professor. But that is about all we are told, and I believe the reason behind this is that we do not need to know the details of the person writing the story. The story is about the people of Sri Lanka, their lives in a nation continuously torn apart, and how such a nation can come together, albeit briefly, when disaster strikes, and then just as quickly return to war.Barker narrowly avoided disasters on a consistent basis. There were many bombings, murders, mine explosions, and threats that could have kept her from ever finishing her book. Thankfully, she was spared them all. Her experiences made the story real, and were a reminder that tragedy is always close at hand in Sri Lanka, but it is also taken in stride. This is a world I will never see for myself, but I was given a glimpse into its complexities and its beauty. Barker seamlessly ties together everyday life against the backdrop of a war-torn nation, giving you a behind-the-scenes look at something only those brave enough to experience it can really comprehend.4 out of 5 stars. Barker's writing, while not poetic, is honest, thoughtful, and emotional. I found myself rooting for her and the friends she made in Sri Lanka, as well as those who helped to guide her through her journeys. I
gaijinsue on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
It takes a certain kind of woman to up and move from Arizona to a war-torn, wet country on the other side of the world. Such a woman is Adele Barker, who, in 2001, shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States, brings ¿ drags? ¿ her fifteen-year-old son Noah to Sri Lanka where she will spend the next year teaching Russian literature.Barker and her son settle in a house at the edge of the jungle where they quickly realize that they are not alone. Along with many ants, the house is inhabited by rats and geckos, and frequently visited by monkeys, one of which steals the television antenna. Although Barker has been planning on doing the housekeeping herself, and resists anything that smacks of colonialism, she soon finds herself with a maid, a tuk-tuk driver, and a gardener. After all, these people are depending upon her for employment. Over the course of her stay, these people also become her friends.The author never explains what initially attracted her to Sri Lanka. She spends a lot of time trying to sort out the conflict between the Muslim Tamil Tigers, revolutionaries who have pretty much taken over the north of the island, and the Buddhist Sinhalese. (Barker lives in primarily Buddhist Kandy, where there is a shrine housing the Buddha¿s tooth.) She is also curiously remote about her personal life. Although she mentions the break-up of a friend¿s marriage, she never writes about her own romantic entanglements. (Don¿t expect Eat, Pray, Love in Sri Lanka here.) Also, as an expat mother myself, I was interested in her relationship with her son. How did she convince him to go to Sri Lanka? What was his school life like once he got there? Was he adopted? (She mentions that he is from Paraguay.) Does he have a father? Although she alludes to some problems that Noah is having at school, and to his boredom in a place with no TV or decent soccer pitch, she doesn¿t go into great detail. Perhaps this is out of consideration for her son¿s privacy, or an innate reserve, but I wanted to know more.When Barker leaves at the end of the year, she vows to return one day to hear the northerners¿ point of view on the civil war, but then something bigger happens ¿ here, where most people had never heard the word ¿tsunami¿ before, a 30-foot wave crashes over the coast of Sri Lanka washing away tens of thousands of people. Barker returns to the country, this time without her son, who is now a college student, to check up on friends and survey the damage wrought on ¿the day when the sea came to the land.¿ She finds heartbreak and loss at every turn, but also resilience.At one point, she admires a woman¿s gold necklace:¿It was all we had left,¿ a young woman who looked to be pregnant said. ¿When the sea came to the land, many of us had our saris on. Do you know how to wrap a sari?¿ she asked me with laughing eyes.¿Don¿t test me on it,¿ I replied, ¿but kind of. With help. With pins.¿They all laughed.The one who was all smiles continued. ¿We lost our saris in the wave. The sea unwrapped them from us. When we came out of the sea, we were nearly naked. Some of us had slips on. Some of us had nothing. But we had our jewelry.¿Although Barker herself remains something of an enigma, her affection for the people and the country is never in doubt. And as one disaster supplants another in the public imagination, she presents a clear portrait of an island nation persevering in the face of challenges.
cameling on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
If anyone wants a quick history lesson into Sri Lanka, this is a good book to read. I didn't know much about Sri Lanka before I started reading this memoir of an American woman who went over to Sri Lanka who received a Fulbright scholarship to teach English literature. She brought her son with her and together, they started to carve a life for themselves among the colorful locals and other expatriates.Barker brings to life the characters she lives with and befriends during her stay in Sri Lanka. She doesn't gloss over the inconveniences that plague their everyday lives, such as the torrential rains and the power outages to name but 2 of what I would consider to be the hardest things to have to resign oneself to.What make this more than a simple travel essay is Barker's coverage of the rich history of Sri Lanka, the colonial masters who put their indelible stamp on the island, the very tragic dissolution of harmony that used to exist among the Tamils, Sinhalese and Moors who lived there, and the violence that constantly shadows and threatens to erupt with next to no warning at any time. Throughout all of this, the humor, gentleness and warmth of the people shine through in her writing.I'm glad I read this book because it's given me an appreciation and a look into a place I didn't know much about.
katiehuber on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Not Quite Paradise by Adele Barker doesn¿t know what type of book to be - a memoir? A travelogue? A political commentary? Some books are able to effortlessly blend these areas, but Not Quite Paradise was not quite able to accomplish this feat.The first part of this book is about a professor who travels to Sri Lanka - one time to teach and the other to do research for her book after the tsunami hit. She writes about getting used to living in a foreign country. Many of her observations seemed trite. Her son traveled with her to Sri Lanka with her, but I feel like I learned more about her dog than her son. And then one day she mentions he¿s heading home. And then a few months later she leaves too. I felt like this part of the book was very underdeveloped. She also uses this part of the book to tell a lot about the history of Sri Lanka, especially of the civil war that was still being fought.The second part of the book finds her back in Sri Lanka after the tsunami hit ¿ this time without her son. She travels around the country interviewing the Sri Lankan people about how the tsunami affected their lives. She also uses this research period to go back and visit many of the friends she met during her first trip. The problem was that since the first part of the book was so brief, I felt I never got to meet these people in the first place. In this section of the book, I felt there were some interesting stories, but very little to link them together. One thing that really bothered me towards the end of the book was the a phrase she used a few times too many ¿ a version of ¿¿they were as sick of this war as we were.¿ Did she not realize she had already used that phrase just a few pages before?My overall feeling towards this book was that is was very disjointed. One part in particular, she writes about the civil war going on in Sri Lanka but adds a random paragraph about her grocery shopping right in the middle of the chapter. What I did like about this book was that I learned a lot about Sri Lanka that I didn¿t know before.
labfs39 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Less than a year ago, the Sri Lankan government announced that the 25 year old civil war with the Tamil Tigers was over. The end came after a horrific standoff on a tiny strip of land with civilians caught in the middle. After following the news that week in May of 2009, I felt compelled to learn more about the history of Sri Lanka and the war. My ignorance on the subject was complete: my only glimpse into the conflict coming from one of my favorite novels, Anil's Ghost, by Sri Lankan born Michael Ondaatje.

This memoir, Not Quite Paradise, begun while the author was a Fulbright Scholar in 2001 and finished after her second visit after the tsunami of 2004, was a gentle introduction to Sri Lankan culture and history. I particularly enjoyed the first half of the book, which was about her year-long teaching stint in 2001. Her writing in this section was fluid and descriptive, with funny details that made me feel connected with her experience. The second half of the book is more tense in language and reflects her desire to get at the impact of the tsunami and the experience of people in northern Sri Lanka. Although her experiences in this half were still interesting, it was less first person and more journalistic in tone. Throughout the book, the author refers to first hand accounts of early travelers, and I may try to find a couple. I have also been inspired to read a more historical book on Sri Lanka, as well as look up some Sri Lankan fiction. I will add my recommendations here as I go!
reenum on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is the usual fish out of water travel story from Western Europeans and Americans: American goes to foreign country, expresses wonderment at the local customs, experiences massive amounts of white guilt, and engages in tons of navel gazing.So much potential, but ultimately a disappointment.
whitreidtan on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Adele Barker is an American who went to Sri Lanka on a Fulbright to teach university for a year immediately following the terror of Sept. 11. She traveled back there again after the devastating Boxing Day tsunami of 2004. This book, part memoir, part travelogue, part political history tries to marry the two experiences and to illuminate Sri Lanka for the westerner.In the first portion of the book, Barker arrives in Sri Lanka with her fifteen year old son and faces some of the culture shock inevitable to anyone moving from a familiar culture to an unfamiliar one. Instead of staying in the city, she and Noah move further into the country, to the town close to her university. This takes them farther from the ex-pat community and enables them to meet and become involved in the daily lives of the Sri Lankans around them. It also forces Barker to learn Sinhalese quicker in an effort to communicate. Her observations about the people and the customs around her are interesting and often lead her to wander into the history of Sri Lanka (once Ceylon). In addition to this history, she finds herself interested, saddened, and horrified by the ongoing violence between factions of Sinhalese and Tamils, continuing to wage a civil war that rends family, land, and a sense of oneness. The end of her subsidized year approaching, she sends her son home and soon thereafter follows him. This happens very abruptly in the book, cutting short any continued tales of daily life in Kandy, which was a shame as the rhythm of life in other places is so very fascinating.The second part of the book opens with the news of the tsunami and Barker's unfolding knowledge of the devastation. She worries for the friends she's made, frantically calling and e-mailing to find out their fates. And eventually she makes her way back to this island that has so captured her, this time without her son. She meanders around the island, needing to see the impact on the people of the "day the sea came to the land" for herself. She hears and recounts tales of new misses, amazing luck, and stumbles on the sorrow of hearing that someone she knew daily had disappeared forever. She examines the good and the inefficiencies of the aid proffered this tiny island nation and laments the misunderstandings about the survivors' needs and continued displacements of the people. She doesn't probe too hard at the psychological remains, knowing that this is not her story. And she does, on this sojourn, go to the war torn portions in the north of the island to see the perspectives from there not only from the tsunami but also from decades of unrelenting war.The book is a fairly complete short history of the island with political information evenly interspersed. Where it tends to fall short is on the memoir side. While Barker mentions her friendship with many local people, she doesn't really bring those people alive for the reader. And she is remarkably reticent about her own and her son's personal lives while there aside from the initial adjustment to a very foreign culture. Despite this lack, I did enjoy the book and certainly feel more educated about the state of an island nation about which I previously knew very little. Sri Lanka has always felt a little exotic to me and while it probably still would were I ever to visit, its current events are definitely more familiar to me after having read this book. The two portions of the book hang together awkwardly since the two sojourns were made for such disparate reasons but read more as two separate journeys connected only by country and author, they are fine. People looking for a true memoir or ones who want more of the personal should be warned that that is not a strength of this book before reading it. But it is a fascinating glimpse into another culture nevertheless.
madhatter22 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
In Not Quite Paradise, Adele Barker recounts two extended visits to Sri Lanka - one made in 2001 to teach Russian literature, and one in 2005 months after a devastating tsunami hit the island.I enjoyed the book as a history of Sri Lanka. Baker paints a vivid picture of the island and I felt I learned a lot about life there - especially about the long conflict between the Sinhalese and Tamils and how it has affected the country and its people. I was especially struck by how the war was such a part of their lives that much of the violence was taken for granted. It was also particularly interesting to read about the politics involved in rebuilding the country after the tsunami.I didn't feel the book succeeded as well as a memoir. There were a lot of holes in the narrative as concerned Baker's own life, and I had questions about her motivations, emotions, family and life outside of Sri Lanka that went unanswered. When she did make observations and talk about her feelings, she was often repetitive.If you want to learn something about this fascinating country, this is likely a more readable introduction than many other histories out there, but if you're looking for an "Eat, Pray, Love" type memoir, you won't find it here.
LivelyLady on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I loved the idea of this book and I did love the first part. I am enchanted with the idea of a woman taking a teenage child to a foreign country to live for a year or so. This is a wonderful idea and makes for great reading.For me, the combination of the above AND the author's return visit, post-tsunami, just did not meld together well. While the first part was filled with awe and wonderment, as well as the fun of learning a new place and lifestyle, I found the second part to be like walking through mud. It just was too contrasting for me to enjoy.Would this be good on the screen??? Maybe with some tweaking so the audience would leave feeling a bit uplifted. I felt sad and almost like I wish she had never gone to Sri Lanka at all.
Chatterbox on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is an intriguing but uneven saga of an American professor's sojurn in Sri Lanka -- or rather, her two sojurns, one teaching as a Fulbright fellow to college students in the mountains near Kandy; another, two years later, as she returns to investigate what has happened to the 'pearl' of Southeast Asia in the wake of the tsunami.It's a beautifully written and intriguing look at the divided country that is Sri Lanka -- hence the 3.5-star rating. But it never really transcends the "foreigner traveling through a strange and exotic land and writing about their experiences" genre, any more than the 19th century sagas by the British colonial officers that Barker reads and cites in the pages of this book did. At least Barker acknowledges the difficulty or impossibility of ever being more than a part of the culture, and she is certainly conscious of the all the ironies of Western relationships with the Tamils and Sinhalese communities. Aid agencies full of goodwill provide tsunami survivors with replacement fishing boats, but no nets, and no homes. The tourist areas are rapidly rebuilt; those that no tourist will ever see are left until last. Barker's book covers a lot of ground, and will be of interest to those with a casual interest in Sri Lanka or looking for a basic overview of the country and its political, economic and social dilemmas. What is missing, however, is what transforms a memoir into something more important or significant -- an overarching theme. For instance, Emma Larkin (I believe, a pseudonym) wrote a fascinating book about following George Orwell's tracks through modern-day Burma. Given the themes that Orwell explored in his own writings, and the issues that dominate Burma/Myanmar today, that made for a brilliant work of reportage, one that gave to the writer's ruminations, random encounters and observations an overarching theme. That's missing here. (Another example might be a more recent book, Jake Adelstein's Tokyo Vice, which starts off feeling like a "gaijin in Japan" book, only to morph into a powerful indictment of organized crime by a rare foreigner who became an insider of sorts, reporting on the 'vice beat' for a Japanese-language newspaper.)Throughout the book, I kept wishing for more -- a theme, a unifying message. Why did Barker travel to Sri Lanka in particular? Her brief discussions of teaching Russian literature and Emily Dickinson's poems to the wartorn Jaffna late in the book made me wish she had found a way to integrate her teaching and her students throughout the book; it would have been more interesting than some of the rest of the content. In other parts, the reporting is too heavy-handed and self-conscious, almost as if she is looking from the outside at herself as she talks to a priest who tracks rainfall levels, or Tamils in Colombo recalling the beginning of the country's sectarian violence. Nowhere is it clear WHY she is asking these questions. What is it that motivated her to write this book? Or did she just decide, wow, if I'm going to be in Sri Lanka, a country off the beaten track, I might as well do this? I requested this book from LTER in part because a friend of mine has spent time in parts of Sri Lanka working with various nonprofit organizations, before setting up her own group, and I've heard stories from her about living in Jaffna throughout the period of violence that Barker describes at the end of her book. It was an intriguing and carefully written general introduction to the country, but one that doesn't really do justice to the country or the issues. It works well as a primer, and told some compelling stories about intriguing individuals, but always seemed to back away when the most compelling parts of the narrative. Above all, it's a memoir -- it's not about the tsunami, or the war, or the Tamil/Sinhalese rift, but about the author's experience of them, thoughts about them, etc. This would probably be a great book to read for anyone contemplating a trip to the island
Colie025 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I had a really, really hard time getting into this book and I'm not sure why. Usually I really love travel writing, but this seemed a bit emotionless to me, and I would have liked to have heard more reactions to the people she was meeting, and more depth into her relationships with the people she met. I dropped this after about 50 pages, but am hoping to pick it back up again this summer. Although I wasn't wild about it the first time, I'm hoping it was just a case of wrong book at the wrong time.
bananna on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
When I told a friend I was reading a book about Sri Lanka, he said he didn¿t know that much about Poland. The tsunami of 2004 awakened some of the western world to this island nation, but obviously still bypassed many. I myself knew of the tsunami and it¿s devastating impact on this part of the world, but I still knew nothing of the war housed there. Barker changed that. She takes us deep into the life of the island and the war through her part memoir, part travelogue book. Barker blends the history of Sri Lanka with her life there during a year of teaching and her travel back after the tsunami. The first half of the book is compelling and engaging. The heat of the island is felt, the students whom she teaches are audible, and her colleagues are welcoming. The second half, while steeped in the tragedy of the tsunami and mired in the realities of civil war, is dry and distant. Barker pulls me in with her tangible description of life in a foreign land, but leaves me feeling like I¿ve been through a history class in the end. The personal aspect was slowly slipped out from under me as a reader. Still, I feel for Sri Lanka more than I knew to before reading this book and for that I am thankful.
zibilee on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Professor Adele Barker has just arrived in Sri Lanka on a Fulbright scholarship to begin teaching at the University of Peradeniya with her teenage son, Noah. As Adele begins to steep herself in the culture of the island, she does battle with the native insect and monkey population, learns the ways of the natives and discovers the intricacies of the civil war that has raged out of control on the island for the past twenty-five years. Adele and Noah tentatively begin to carve out a life for themselves in the island paradise that they are inhabiting, but soon discover that even for foreigners, Sri Lanka can be a dangerous place, full of old prejudices and bloody conflicts. Adele begins researching the problems and unrest of the area, speaking to participants on both sides of the conflict as she tries to comprehend just what the fighting is all about. She makes close friends on the island and comes to regret the day she must return to Arizona, never knowing that upcoming events in Sri Lanka will force her to return. When she sees the news report documenting the terrible tsunami of December 26th, 2004, she understands that she can't stay away, and this time travels to the island without her son. What greets her upon her return is devastation of the highest order and a population that is torn, battered, and bruised. Adele formulates a plan to traverse the perimeter of the island to witness the destruction firsthand but discovers that her plan is almost impossible due to the political conflicts and unrest on certain parts of the island. Making her laborious way across the landscape, she discovers the painful truth surrounding the humanitarian aid that never reached it's intended targets and meets the families of people whose very existence has been wiped away "the day the sea came to the land." Shockingly stark in its implications and intimations, Not Quite Paradise unveils the hidden and painful history of the beautiful island of Sri Lanka and its inhabitants.Despite my efforts to truly keep up with world events and geography, I find that in some ways I am always falling short. When I requested this book from Library Thing's Early Reviewers Program, I had been hoping to brush up on a bit of history and geography regarding a place that had never fallen into my radar. I have to say, I had never really given Sri Lanka any thought before, and to make matters worse, I don't even think I could locate it on a map. I feel that I got much more than I ever bargained for when I read this book, finding out not only where Sri Lanka was, but also a myriad of information about the conflict that has been tearing apart its natives for more than two decades.Adele Barker first begins her memoir speaking about the very things that would strike a lay person upon traveling to Sri Lanka. Her reactions to the heat and the crowding fill the first pages of this book, and it only when I was well into the story that I could see that the things that Adele had been discussing early on were only surface impressions of a place that is steeped in religious and cultural upheaval. Adele and Noah make the difficult progression to the house they will be renting, discovering that the house has been overrun by nature, mostly the pestilent kind. It was pretty humorous to hear about her battles with the indigenous ant population and the problems that she had keeping a television antenna from being stolen by monkeys. She spoke profusely of the people that she shared quarters with and her daily trips to the market for fresh food. The first three or four chapters were basically given over to her reaction to life on the island and the people she came to befriend, and while reading, I got the mistaken impression that this was going to be a light arm-chair traveling kind of book. Boy, was I wrong!As Adele begins to get into the groove of the island and begins to teach her English literature classes, she receives warnings from both colleagues and students about the violence lurki
Anonymous More than 1 year ago