It is August, 1964. A ship from Colombo is docking at Southampton. Roma Tearne is waving at the shore, her father waving back from the observation platform at the Ocean Terminal. Except she’s not.

She’s running around the 198 Gallery in Brixton with a jug full of yellowish liquid, telling me that this is what happened (look! here’s a picture of the observation platform, in a jar).

Her father had arrived three months before, on a ship with one burning engine… We are interrupted by Barrie, Tearne’s husband. He’s looking for masonry nails. He’s supposed to be pinning up the words ‘BRIXTON BEACH’, in foot-high metal letters, and he’s just discovered the walls are solid concrete.

Tearne is a visual artist by training — an MA at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art — working variously in paint, stone and celluloid, and exhibiting at the Royal Academy, London, the South Asian Arts Festival, Birmingham, and the Museo Laboratorio Arte Contemporanea, Rome. In 2002, she was made the Ashmolean’s Leverhulme Artist in Residence, where she spent a proportion of her time blindfolding the statues in the museum’s collection (which makes for one of the more eye-catching business cards, notwithstanding the ‘strip joint for the exceptionally over-educated’ overtones).

And for the last three years Tearne has been the recipient of an AHRC Fellowship in Visual Arts, during which time she created Watermuseum, a film inspired by two 19th century paintings by Richard Parkes Bonington and constructed using footage of Venice (shot while she was working at the Museo Navale a few years ago) intercut with new material and a mock-documentary voiceover. Originally made for Nottingham Castle Museum, Watermuseum was recently shown in Oxford’s Ovada Gallery, and Tearne has another film — an Arts Council funded work on memory and migration — due for release next year.

She is also a creative writing fellow at Oxford Brookes University. “Sometimes the work comes out visually, and sometimes as the written word.”

Or both. She opens a notebook, revealing two pen sketches of women she’d seen over coffee that morning, their banal chatter running round the edge of the page, forming an irregular frame.

It’s been a busy day. Before I arrived, Tearne was up at Parliament Square, on a journalistic assignment for the Evening Standard, penning a timely and very necessary downer on how peace hasn’t broken out in Sri Lanka just yet. The Tamil demonstration was in full flight: “It was very moving. Young, articulate Tamil women, women who lost babies… the war isn’t over just like that, there’s a humanitarian crisis… people don’t simply forget.”

She pauses, at pains to stress that she’s not just talking about the ‘war’ war — “Everyone thinks it only started in the ‘80s,” she grimaces — but the pervading inter-ethnic tension in Sri Lanka that has turned violent, on a regular basis, since the country gained independence in 1948.

Tearne was ten when her family left the island, her father, essentially, fleeing street-level political persecution — and worse. He was an upper-class Tamil Christian from Kandy; Tearne’s mother a lower-middle-class Sinhalese Buddhist from the south (an area of pronounced and often ugly Sinhalese nationalism): in the classic Ramesha and Jayanath scenario, they had met, fallen in love, and promptly been cast out by their respective parents.

But there is nothing romantic about the story. Tearne herself is regarded as half-caste, even though both her parents were, of course, the same colour; the father’s family live in England, now, “but I never see them”; and when her mother died the maternal branch didn’t proffer so much as a flower. I am reminded of a Chinese proverb (don’t ask where I got this; but it wasn’t from a cookie): “A bird and a fish may fall in love. But where will they live?”

“This is the prejudice in the war in Sri Lanka,” says Tearne, grimly.

Her first memory, which she included in her Costa-nominated first novel, Mosquito, is of hiding in a neighbour’s house while a man was set alight in the street. That was in 1958. Some Sri Lankan readers objected vociferously, and she herself had thought it was a fiction. But it wasn’t. She looked it up. It happened.

It wasn’t necessarily typical, though. “I hadn’t done any research for the first book. There were lots of facts that were wrong — but I wanted to write it from memory.” From memory, and about it.

“My writing and my art-work is to do with memory… starting from the position of my own.” Tearne has worked on this memory, professionally. She found a dolls’ house in the attic, which she’d brought with her to England as a girl. She photographed it — and in doing so realised she’d customised it, as a child, into a model of integration.

“When I started excavating my memory, I realised how much we bury.” Not all subconsciously, either. As a young girl in Britain, she wanted the boys to choose her for the rounders team; wanted blonde hair; ditched her accent (though her own children, she says, were quite the opposite, always expressing an interest in their Sri Lankan background).

This Brixton exhibition is called A Moment In Time That Mattered To Someone. I’m still looking at the photo of the Ocean Terminal, printed in black and white on an acetate sheet, scrolled into a jar and half-sunk in coloured water. Next to it are other images (in identical jars): a Kandyan dancer, a colonial gent, heavy machinery, prints from books. Largely, though, it’s photographs of Southampton docks.

The docks are soon to be demolished, Tearne tells me. All that will remain, then, are people’s memories, and images (which, she has argued elsewhere, are often nigh-interchangeable). There is a mad guy, she says, who goes down there every year to see the Titanic come in. Life is about to get pretty weird for him.

Each of these jars is a memory, distorted by time and distance — the scrolling, the colour, the refraction (‘scuse my physics) of the water. You might call these things time capsules, were the lids not off and the time wont to escape.

Another wall has a regimented grid of chalk boards — like in some Welsh village school in a Chatwin story — covered in abstract nouns, or short paragraphs on displacement. These are, she says, “about the way we tell stories. ‘What is a fact’?”.

And, on the far wall, other, Asianified, photos of Edwardian figures, turning the colonisation process on its head with a few bright colours and the application of some ink, some cloth, some old stamps. Tearne works a lot with “found photographs”, toying with the divisions between the various methods of remembering. Several of these old photographs — which she picks up in junk shops, mostly — seem little more than canvases for new artworks, leaving only the tiniest glimpses of the palimpsestuous (someone’s eyes, a flower) peeping through, like ghosts.

Having, latterly, traded her studio for a study, Tearne is reliant on a clutch of different-sized moleskines, which she customises with dust jackets and collages. The most elaborate pages from these notebooks are displayed on the walls around us, while others feature in the nascent ‘diary’ section of her website, and some serve — in facsimile — as end-papers for her new novel.

Brixton Beach is being marketed as South Asian literature, but to judge from the audiences at Tearne’s events the majority of her readers are white middle-class. I wondered if her books sell ‘back home’. She didn’t exactly say no (I asked a couple of people from that way, and they couldn’t put a face to the name) but she pointed out that her particular take on history — it’s always personal, whatever you recall — isn’t often understood by Sri Lankan readers, who are perhaps too close to the raw material to condone what they perceive, bluntly, as lying about historical events.

There was real hostility over Mosquito. In short, Sinhalese and Tamil alike, they told her not to come back to the island (she never has, in any case). They liked her second book — Bone China, about family and migration — rather better: “they didn’t get it; but they liked it.”

But Tearne admits great frustration at being, effectively, mute once her novels are in the public domain, especially when she detects hints of wilful misunderstanding from some quarters.

Brixton Beach is about displacement, migration, integration in the face of hostility, beginning and ending with the London bombings of July 2005, and diverting via a pre-war Sri Lanka that bears some relation to Tearne’s own family history. Brixton Beach is the name of a house, to which Alice, an immigrant child from Colombo, brings the ‘beach’ in her head. The beach is superimposed on elements of her new host culture, and vice versa (yep, host and hostile have the same root: riddle me that).

Amongst other literary signposts, the novel’s initial protagonist is a doctor named Swann, and there’s an art show called Searching For Lost Time — both obvious enough Proust references. In Paris, Tearne tells me, she went to the writer’s house/museum, where someone had laid out fresh madeleines — the ultimate literary trope for memory, courtesy of the man himself — “and there was the smell of limes. It was the smell of Sri Lanka.”

“But in a sense I’ve got out of me all the things I wanted to say about the war.” Her fourth book, already in progress, will be a more fundamental discussion of memory and how it is passed around by the generations.

Until then, she’s returning to her “found photographs”, making those contextless, parentless moments in time matter to a whole new set of people.

On August 25th she will launch her postcard project. One thousand postcards from the first half of the 20th century will be scattered around London and Oxford for members of the public to find. They then follow the trail, with help from a short story ‘clue’ to be released later on Tearne’s website. The project’s official title is Just A Line To Let You Know — a creative writing project with a difference.

lBrixton Beach is out now, published by Harper Collins. To join in the postcard project, go to