In Memoriam, Malathi de Alwis, 1963-2021

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With profound sadness we mourn and grieve the passing of our very dear friend and colleague Malathi de Alwis. Mala was instrumental to this project coming into being. She and Alison Crosby conducted a decade-long collaboration on the inhabitance of loss; on how to build, in Mala’s words, a “political community of the sorrowing” (de Alwis, 2009, p. 248) in the aftermath of violence. Remembering and Memorializing Violence: Transnational Feminist Dialogues arose to put that project’s findings from Sri Lanka and Guatemala into conversation with other memorialization practices, to expand the scope and depth of transnational feminist praxis and collaboration.

Mala is with us as we continue to build transnational feminist community, and as we struggle to reckon with the heart-wrenching reality of now memorializing and honouring her and her work.

As we discovered anew during a memorial to her held on February 27th, 2021, Mala had a truly remarkable ability to forge extensive, deep and lasting friendships and collaborations. As her friend Nivedita Menon so eloquently put it:

It was nothing short of magical, her capacity to make every single person in her widespread community of friends across the globe, feel special to her, linked to her through one or the other of her passionate interests. A feminist activist and scholar committed to understanding and countering ethno-nationalism in Sri Lanka, she was part of the wider community of South Asian feminists who constantly struggle to transcend the barbed wire borders of our nation-states in solidarity and hope.

Together with Hasini Haputhanthri, Mala recently completed the Archive of Memory project, which drew on everyday objects to tell the stories of ordinary Sri Lankans over the past 70 years since Independence. Over the coming months we will work to curate a collection of Mala’s memory work as part of our digital archive and will reflect on the enduring legacy of her brilliant scholarship in our forthcoming edited volume. We will strive to honor and emulate her extraordinary ways of being in and seeing the world. As her friend Sonali Deraniyagala wrote so beautifully:

… what made her rare and beautiful was a quality that infused everything she did. Mala could find wonder and astonishment in the ordinary. She could find value in the small details of everyday life. And this was because Mala really knew how to look at our world. She could do this better than anyone else I know. And ‘looking’ was not just something she did with scrupulous and practised eye – she did it with her entire, finetuned, being.

For me, this made Mala a vast, immense soul.

We will miss her terribly; we miss her already. She is the beloved absent-presence whose traces will continue to mark us all.

de Alwis, M. (2009). Tracing absent presence. In Chatterjee, P., Desai, M. & Roy, P. (Eds.), States of Trauma (pp. 238-253). Zubaan Books.