The Poetry of Diplomacy

Monday Magazine | June 19, 2008
Given the skeptical eye many Canadians cast toward the present political administration of our southern neighbours, the U.S. is probably thankful to have someone like Indran Amirthanayagam carrying the stars and stripes north of the 49th.

Amirthanayagam is the contemplative and eloquent public affairs officer for the U.S. Consulate General in Vancouver who was in Victoria last week for a whirlwind of meetings to ensure cordial relations are maintained in the Pacific Northwest.

“I see the consulate as a bridge, and all kinds of traffic flows across that bridge,” Amirthanayagam told Monday.

In the rather staid world of intergovernmental relations, Amirthanayagam seems an unlikely candidate to beat the drum of American patriotism in Canada, or perhaps he is just what the U.S. government needs as its perpetual war on terror and corresponding obsession with security fuels animosity in Canada and further abroad—a soft hand to dampen the blow, so to speak.

Upon researching Amirthanayagam’s background, one is surprised to find that his online footprint bears little resemblance to that of a government man, focused as it is not on diplomatic glad-handing or policy positions, but on poetry. Sri Lankan by birth and writing in English, French and Spanish, he has been published in anthologies, journals and solo collections around the world. This leads Monday’s conspiratorial minds to an obvious conclusion—he must be a spy.

“A spy? No I am not a spy,” he says chuckling. “I am more like a reporter for the American government. And as the government represents the people, I am like a reporter to the American people.”

To hear him speak of the country he has called home since the age of 14, it is as though Amirthanayagam is repaying a debt to the nation with his loyalty to their foreign service.

“I have a great love for the United States,” he says. “It is the excessive love of an adopted son. I am grateful for what I have been given.”

During his brief time in Victoria, Amirthanayagam met with mayor Alan Lowe—and the city’s poet laureate Carla Funk of course—and attended meetings with provincial Ministry of Education officials to determine how American history is being taught in B.C.’s schools, as well as meeting with Robin Pike of B.C.’s Office to Combat Trafficking in Persons to discuss issues of human smuggling between the two countries.

Being a man of subtle ideas, it is strange to hear him speak on the rigid subject of policy—but he is, after all, the empire’s salesman up north.

“We are increasingly interdependent,” says Amirthanayagam. “These three countries—Canada, the U.S. and Mexico—have grown much closer as a result of trade agreements. On the whole, I think trade agreements, like NAFTA, have been a net benefit. I would be naive not to acknowledge that people have been left behind. There are sectors in each country that have not been well served by them, but it you take a view of the whole, weighing the positive and the negative, I believe you would find that the standard of living has increased across all three countries. I’m not sure how much the public knows that.”

To his mind, there is nothing nefarious about the Security and Prosperity Partnership actively being hammered out between the business elite of the three nations, and he balks at the suggestion Canada will surrender regulatory autonomy in an agreement many feel is not meant to improve the quality of life for citizens, but to enrich the corporate executives invited to craft the legislation.

“There are always going to be disagreements and differing perspectives,” he says. “That is why negotiation is key. In any negotiation where you stand to gain something, you must invariably give something up so the relationship can improve.”

Amirthanayagam recognizes his country has lost international favour in the years since September 11, 2001, and must rebuild some burned bridges, but he draws on a line from William Butler Yeats’ “Easter 1916” to justify what has come to pass since that day—“All changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born.”

However, sitting across from Amirthanayagam, whose eloquence makes even the most unpalatable U.S. policies sound innocuous, and on the cusp of what could be a new political dawn for America, it remains tempting to invoke another poem of Yeats’ creation—one that begins, “Turning and turning in the widening gyre/ The falcon cannot hear the falconer/ Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.” M

Monday Magazine

Founded in 1975 to provide a critical voice in Victoria's political and cultural communities, Monday Magazine continues to shake British Columbia's conservative capital city with tell-it- like-it-is features and reviews. Targeting educated, active adults and Victoria's growing youth market, Monday...
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