2019 in novels

Novels read: 40 (not including those I didn’t quite finish, or not on my Kindle, for that matter, because I can’t remember if I did read any physical books this year)

I decided to fully embrace the fact that 95% of what I read (and watch) are murder mysteries. That’s ok; no one should dictate to you what to read. I knew I wanted to return to books over TV as my drug of choice for mindless entertainment. I didn’t set any quantitative goals. I just read whatever I wanted to. I still watched a fair amount of TV, particularly in the weeks after the Easter Sunday attacks, but I haven’t felt the need to switch off with TV since this summer, and I haven’t watched much besides Criminal in the fall (clearly only crime has the power to tempt me). All in all, a win, a good haul of books, and I fully expect to read more than 40 novels in 2020.

Things I learned: As a fan of Agatha Christie since age 11, I haven’t yet been able to get into Dorothy L. Sayers (2020 goal?). I can’t read too much of Philip Kerr without getting terribly sad. Ngaio Marsh’s stories are really well-crafted (I’m glad I kept going, they get better after than disastrous first book), but the murderer is always the most disposable person (Agatha Christie, ice-hearted queen that she is, does not hesitate to sometimes pick the person you like best), and I’ve become so used to the clean Christie denouement that I can’t quite stomach either the reveal of Isabel Dalhousie’s fabricated problems (Alexander McCall Smith’s Sunday Philophy Club series) or Kinsey Milhone’s would-be heroic flailing during the last chapter after she discovers who the murderer is (Sue Grafton’s alphabet series). I’m going to stick with Marsh despite her unsatisfactory murderers because of the interesting commentary on colonial New Zealand that crops up so much in it, even though her treatment of Maoris is problematic and Inspector Alleyn is too good to be true (she seems less conservative in her socio-political views than Christie, though, and Detective Fox is my favourite sidekick).  In 2020, I’m thinking of trying Margery Allingham (all of the British Queens of Crime, because why not?), non-radio play versions of P.D. James’ books, and Americans like Dashiell Hammett. I could be convinced to read more psychological thrillers like The Woman in the Window, too.

Mohsin Hamid may be my favorite new author of 2019, and I’m going to read more of him in 2020. Dear Committee Members stood out for its epistolary hilarity (I’m a fan of Daddy-Long-Legs, what can I say? D-L-L was also my first introduction to Princeton, btw!). The Goldfinch took unexpected turns, and was pretty great to the end. His Favorites was a lot shorter than I expected, and I thought not developed enough (although I can see the argument that that was the point). Rachel Cusk is promising, and I am looking forward to the rest of the Outline trilogy. I’m glad I gave Kazuo Ishiguro another shot after my disappointing introduction to him with When We Were Orphans (and now I really wish he’d nailed that book!), and will be returning to both him and Claire Messud. Fleishman was ok, and the ending was disappointing. I finished Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep in a day – for me, it was a master-class in discreet world-building.

Things I really didn’t like: Judy Blume’s adult novels are uniformly trashy, although the one standout is In the Unlikely Event for the horrifying real events she draws from. The novel almost spoils the drama of what actually happened. Haruki Murakami leaves me cold; I read What I Talk About… the day after I ran my 10k and agreed with everything but thought the book needed some serious edits. I thought 1Q84 was excellent for the first 50%, and then limped for 500 pages into a deeply disappointing ending. I’ve been told to try Norwegian Wood by multiple people, but I don’t feel compelled to yet.

Summary: I like reading about murder, museums, and academia. WHAT A SURPRISE.

I’d like to read more South Asians in 2020, and although I will make a valiant effort, I suspect that once again, female British crime writers will dominate.

2019 reading list (not in chronological order)

Donna Tartt: The Goldfinch
Julie Schumacher: Dear Committee Members
Claire Messud: The Woman Upstairs
Philip K. Dick: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Taffy Brodessor-Akner: Fleishman is in Trouble
Kate Walbert: His Favorites
A.J. Finn: The Woman in the Window
Mohsin Hamid: How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia / Exit West
Judy Blume: In the Unlikely Event /Smart Women / Wifey / Summer Sisters
Kazuo Ishiguro: Never Let Me Go / The Remains of the Day
Rachel Cusk: Outline
Haruki Murakami: 1Q84 / What I Talk About When I Talk About Running
Philip Kerr: March Violets
P.D. James: An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (BBC Radio Collection Full-Cast Dramatisation)
Sue Grafton: A is for Alibi / B is for Burglar / C is for Corpse
Alexander McCall Smith: 1. The Sunday Philosophy Club / 2. Friends, Lovers, Chocolate / 3. The Right Attitude to Rain / 4. The Careful Use of Compliments / 5. The Comforts of a Muddy Saturday / 6. The Lost Art of Gratitude
Ngaio Marsh: 2. Enter a Murderer / 3. The Nursing Home Murder / 4. Death in Ecstasy / 5. Vintage Murder / 6. Artists in Crime / 7. Death in a White Tie / 8. Overture to Death / 9. Death at the Bar / 10. Surfeit of Lampreys / 11. Death and the Dancing Footman / 12. Colour Scheme


How strange it is that I spend my life in a perpetual state of missing-in-anticipation, holding fiercely on to fleeting moments with loved ones here while also wishing to be with loved ones in another part of the world, having roots in so many places that every day my joy at being ‘home’ for a short while in one place is tempered with the gnaw of homesickness for elsewhere.

I love this feeling of being rooted and yet I am always on the move, which of course I love too. This mode of being is both exhilarating and wrenching. And each time I leave a place I feel as though I need time and space to make sense of the flurry of feelings I felt so sharply this particular time, but if I indulged myself then I fear that I would not ever live in the present.

Being this way, feeling this sharply, oddly shapes my temporal sensibilities, because every day is simultaneously a first-time and a never-again. I think this is why I like to tightly circumscribe my everyday movements and fill them with as much familiar repetition as possible, temporarily thwarting the possibility of the never-again, and ritualising the mundane in ways that make them semi-sacred.

Even so, my line of work makes it difficult to ever live in a state of ‘now’, whatever that means. One part of my brain is always processing an archive of events from decades ago while the other plans potential future travel to access those archives. An anticipation for the past, that can’t be classified as nostalgia.

I think my sense of ‘now’ is therefore very much tied to a geography of a specific ‘here’.  Recently my years have been divided into a well-defined ‘Sri Lanka now’ and a ‘Boston now’ and a ‘Bay Area now’ with their attendant bedrooms and closets and cutlery drawers. I get them all a little mixed up from time to time, which leads to a strange stockpile of detritus in each place as I forget whether I needed to bring some necessary item with me or not. Rubber slippers and craft knives, especially, seem to disappear at one end and accumulate at another.

What is especially curious is the way July seems to me to be somehow followed by December, because I tend to spend both months in Sri Lanka, while the months of September to November seem to be in the completely separate universe of Fall Term at MIT. May and August always seem swallowed up in some sort of transitional wormhole. When I returned to Sri Lanka in January instead of December, after having celebrated my first Christmas ever with new family in the UK, I was so disoriented that I could not place what month it was.

All of this makes me think about what a strange word ‘diaspora’ is in the twenty-first century. Today, it awkwardly clumps together a vast swath of incommensurate movements, and does so little to capture the sheer breadth of experiences that can be had by those who are dug out of familiar terrain and transplanted, especially now when so many more of us do it repeatedly.

I suppose, growing up in Sydney, that I was part of the Sri Lankan diaspora in Australia, until my family decided to return to Sri Lanka and further somewhat muddied the waters of my miscegenated identity. I switched out Allen’s lollies for Delta toffee, easily purchasable toys for easily accessible extended family, and being wary of moist dark spaces that might house a deadly funnel-web spider to being wary of suspicious-looking packages in the bus that might house a deadly bomb.

I might not like to admit it, and I may not ever live in Sydney again, but I guess I’m now part of an Aussie diaspora – if there is such a thing, and if there isn’t, why not? – and it still shows more than two decades later. I still conscientiously buckle my belt in the backseat of a car and am somewhat distressed when I find myself without one, unlike most Sri Lankans who display no such discomfort. Eucalyptus and bottlebrush and acacia still impart a sense of home, which is why I found the Bay Area familiar before it really was. And of course I like Vegemite better than Marmite. Of course I do.

Now, on the brink of moving from Massachusetts to California, what am I? Cambridge diaspora? I knew how that small northeastern American city worked and how to make a full life for myself in it, and I am most certainly filled with a sense of nostalgia for a life that is definitively no more. Meanwhile, I am looking forward so much to calling a new place home, while also filled with dread at the thought that one day, just as I have begun to embody certain Californian values and habits and quirks, I will transplant myself again, and it will constitute yet another place to miss.

LGF Retreat Day 1: ducks on bikes


I’m in Madrid! The surroundings are gorgeous, the other Fellows and IYF team are incredible, and the food is delicious. It’s really hard to be present, though, because I’m taking my major exam in 2.5 months, and it’s the biggest hurdle of my PhD yet. One thing that is making it easier, though, is that the retreat is structured in a way that really helps me feel comfortable: an intimate group of people, close interaction with the IYF team (who also share their stories as we go along), and a good deal of unstructured time built into the day to help me process.

And as I’ve learned that blogging is how I process, here I am trying to capture each day’s learnings in the here and now.

Today is all about personal leadership.

Our icebreakers were first about building relationships (walking around the room and acknowledging others in different ways – high fives, handshakes, winks! – and a name game where we got in a circle and tried to call out the names of those on either side of us before the split-second time ran out). I surprised myself knowing all but two names in the room this morning. Admittedly, I’m inspired by an MIT professor, Ana Miljacki, who takes the time to memorize her ~25 students’ names before the second class.

We then moved to connecting with our purpose. Joel walked us through a visualization exercise where we envisioned our ‘workspace’, then thought of our team surrounding and connecting to us, followed by our family/mentors/supporters, followed by our communities. Figuring out whether to envision my desk in Cambridge or the Kakkaiyankulam classroom reminded me of my daily mental tug-of-war in apportioning my attention, and envisioning ‘supporters’ with whom relationships have become strained reminded me of how I want to be better at both strengthening great relationships and repairing ones that have frayed.

Jessie talked us through IYF programmes as a means to give us context for where we are now. I was struck at how they’ve scaled, not by having more Fellows annually – it’s still 20 a year and I think that number is perfect – but through strategic partnerships that allow for replicating and adapting the programme to different local contexts. Definitely useful to think about as I struggle to keep Building Bridges a ‘high-touch’ arts programme while reaching more young people.

Also, coming up with a ‘social contract’ for the week!



I loved the life map, because I’ve done a few similar things before but not quite as visual, and it was really fun to be working in colour. Also, great facilitation tip: I really appreciated how Joel shared his first, which collapsed the gap between the IYF team and ourselves. Here’s mine:


Three ways my personal story influences or shapes the leader I am today:

  1. Definitely my unending meditation on identity (although in a nod to my major exam reading, Frederick Cooper would probably berate me for using the term too loosely). I have an enduring sense of both belonging deeply and not belonging in Sri Lanka, I’m trying to figure out what form of identifying as Australian feels right to me, and I’m mulling over my fondness for Boston at a time when temporary visitors (and even permanent residents) are made to feel more unwelcome than ever.
  2. My fascination with meaning-making and stories themselves – not only because theatre changed my perception of self and others, but because it has made me fully aware that the shape of my story depends on which ‘beads’ I choose to string together – and my attempts to share this exploration through Building Bridges.
  3. Have to think more on this one!

A few key turning points I can use to talk to donors, staff, volunteers, and others about why I do my work:

  1. I can speak more explicitly about my “playground to playground” journey, from being bullied in one playground to building a playground through work that brought people with very different views together, although my ‘first play’ and ‘graveyard visit’ story-beads fit oddly in the middle.
  2. I’ve never really talked about how many plane journeys I’ve taken – my first time flying alone at age five! – and how these have completely transformed my outlook through immersion in different countries and given me reasons to think about who I am (and who I have been) in a particular place at a particular time.


Ducks on bikes: Jim’s use of David Shannon’s Duck on a Bike to help us think through what it means to lead (especially re: starting something we may not feel we know much about, and in the face of criticism or naysaying) was a hilarious and simple reminder to stay courageous – and to see the fun in the adventure!)


I was completely thrown (in a good way) by the very direct conversation about gender that happened directly after we discussed the ‘leaky pipeline’ problem – although more than half of new hires are women, less than 3% are CEOs. We did a “five minute fishbowl” where some participants chose to sit in the inner circle of two rings of chairs, and tried to honestly answer questions around gender discrimination, why the leaky pipeline exists, and what we can see being done to combar gender bias. I’m so glad we just tackled the subject head on, rather than skirt around it in our discussions around women’s strengths and under-representation.


Daily dose o’ inspo: Nat, who’s worked in Sri Lanka, and who I want to talk to about her gamification strategies for My Green World; Innocent, whose My Little Travelling Library really appeals to the lifelong reader in me (and who also works entirely with volunteers); Cristina, a fellow Tiger whose journey in creating and sustained EscueLab is weirdly similar to mine; Katia, an architect who went from unpaid commissions to working with the Ministry of Culture on Beirut Design Week and more with Architects for Change.

Also, here are my not-so-live tweets from today’s session, which include some other fun nuggets that seemed to belong better on Twitter.

From Prototype to Fruition (Session 3)


The last session of this three-week workshop discussed how we assess risk and test our assumptions.

For the first part of the class, we wrote down three key risks on stickies and assigned them to a box on the Lean Canvas – mine were around whether our paying customers were interested in design thinking methods at all, whether our funding model would require us to spend the bulk of our time catering to our paying customers rather than our low-income beneficiaries, and (if we focus on teacher training over student engagement) whether a lack of resources would prevent teachers from being able to implement what they learned.

Reading through the notes articulated by others in our class made it clear that the most well-articulated risks are those that have an implicit benchmark and are measurable. Continue reading

From Prototype to Fruition (Session 2)

Lean Canvas 1

Last week, we discussed some challenges around the lean canvas – from clear descriptions, to unique value propositions vs. solutions, to the different between a for-profit business idea and its form(s) as an impact venture. We also started assessing the risks inherent in our ideas.

Thinking in this way is new to me, and doesn’t come easily. To stretch my muscles, I tried to envision Building Bridges as a series of different ventures and assess the risks inherent in each (I’d love to hear feedback in the comments!). Continue reading

May: From Conflict to Collaboration


Nobody likes conflict, and we’ll often do all we can to avoid it. The problem is that agreeing too much is just as dangerous. It’s possible to end up with the unpleasant situation that management expert Jerry B. Harvey calls the Abilene Paradox, where everyone agrees to a course of action that nobody really wanted. It happens when everyone just ‘goes along’ with an idea because they wanted to please the group, and causes a lot of resentment and blame-shifting.

But it’s inevitable that we will disagree with someone in our family, on our team, in our community, online, on the bus, at the supermarket, and especially with people who don’t share our values. What do we do then? Continue reading

From Prototype to Fruition (Session 1)


I’m using my time as an exchange scholar at Stanford to take a number of short pop-up classes at the d.school; I’m hoping they will provide some useful tools for both incorporating into current Building Bridges programmes and for thinking about where we are heading next. One of these is From Prototype to Fruition – it’s a three-week taster taught by Stefanos Zenios and Matthew Glickman, drawing from the two-quarter GSB course Start-up Garage, and it’s offered within the d.school to encourage a quick-and-dirty, iterative approach to developing business models. Continue reading

April: Future Visions, Current Actions


The first three challenges for the year focused on identifying our strengths, tracing how personal history shapes our sense of self and values, and how to use these insights to clarify what we do, who we do it for, and how to leverage our personal networks of power.

The next three challenges revolve around leading and working with a team. While there are countless resources out there, it can all feel a little overwhelming. Where do you even start? How do you manage the delicate balance between leading and managing, macro-visions and micro-tasks, or present operations and future visions? Continue reading

March: Calibrating your compass


The first challenge for this year was to consider our strengths – who we are and how we function when we are at our best. The second challenge involved mapping out how significant life events, as well as our socio-political networks more generally, have shaped our sense of self. This month’s challenge incorporates those insights in gaining clarity in terms of why we do what we do, and who we do it for. You’ve probably read a lot about the power of storytelling, and these two elements are key to crafting the story you can tell yourself when you need to calibrate your personal compass. Continue reading

Exponential Ideation


Yesterday I took part in a d.school pop-out class called Exponential Ideation, with Elysa Fenenbock and Aithan Shapira, and it was chock-full of activities and prompts that I plan to steal shamelessly for Building Bridges. In fact, I would almost describe it as a (six-hour marathon) BB workshop for adults. At an art gallery! Today’s focus was on brainstorming as someone else (and reflecting on what that felt like), empathy as a form of ideation, translating ideas across media and industries, and changing constraints through unusual pairings. Here’s a run-down of what we did today, in case you find it as useful as I did. A note, though – I haven’t edited this post for readability, just used it as a brain dump for future use, so I apologise if it’s hard to get through. I hope the emphases and spacing and pictures help! Also, did you know that massaging your face can make your brain feel better? Continue reading