January 11, 2018
Ambalavaner Sivanandan, novelist and champion of the victims of European racism, has died
by Michael Barron
The Sri Lankan-born writer and intellectual Ambalavaner Sivanandan, better known as A. Sivanandan, died in London on January 3. He was ninety-four years old.
Sivanandan’s unorthodox rise to become one of Britain’s most outspoken supporters of minorities began in Colombo, the commercial capital of Sri Lanka (then Ceylon). Though he aspired to be a writer, Sivanandan studied economics at the University of Ceylon, and was hired soon after graduation to work as a manager for the Bank of Ceylon. He was one of the first native Sri Lankans to be appointed to that position during British colonial rule.
In the early sixties, he moved to Britain, where, unable to find banking work, he took up employment as a librarian for London’s Institute of Race Relations, which describes itself in that period as an “independent educational charity” whose purpose was “to carry out research, publish and collect resources on race relations throughout the world.” In 1972, the same year Ceylon achieved full independence from the British crown and officially renamed itself Sri Lanka, Sivanandan led a successful protest challenging the IRR’s prioritization of race relations, and was named the organization’s director. Under Sivanandan’s direction, the IRR adjusted its mission to focus on “the needs of Black people and making direct analyses of institutionalised racism in Britain and the rest of Europe.”
One of Sivanandan’s first initiatives was to transform the IRR’s journal Race into one more focused on racial justice, and renamed as Race & Class: the Journal for Black and Third World Liberation. Under Sivanandan’s editorial leadership, the new R&C opened its doors to radical thinkers and activists, including Angela Davis, Edward Said, and Noam Chomsky, quickly becoming a leading responder to the social tumults engulfing the world’s former colonies.
Despite being a constant contributor to the journal, Sivanandan never gave up his literary aspirations and in 1988 published what would be his sole novel, When Memory Dies, which tells a multi-generational story of Sri Lanka from its twilight days as a British colony to its violent rebirth as an independent nation. When Memory Dies went on to win the Sagittarius Book Award and the prestigious Commonwealth Writers’ Prize.
Sivanandan’s successor at the IRR is the noted social theorist Liz Fekete.
Michael Barron is an editor at Melville House.