In 2022, Gayathri Hewagama published her debut short story collection, Conquering Karma: A Collection of Island Tales. The book consists of seven short stories arranged in two sections and is dedicated “with love” to “the scrawnies of Tear Island”; Tear Island being a caricature of Sri Lanka, the erstwhile Paradise Isle. Hewagama’s stories represent a diverse range and are written to bisect or brush past one another in places. The book’s first half consists of four stories written in prose that is self-contained in its being unprovoked where stories such as “At Mara’s Playground”, “The Prince and the Pauper – Act I”, and “Conquering Karma” stand out. These stories demonstrate an almost meditative quality as they draw on themes of self-discovery, introvert self-questioning, and working-through angst. In contrast, the book’s second half turns on aggressive self-expression notably infused with a measured use of satire and derision which Hewagama employs quite Dryden-like; though, at times, this experiment collapses leaving the writer more adjacent to Shadwell.
Take for instance the story “2024” with which the second half of the book opens. The story by itself presents a vocal critique of the mass political culture of the times which Hewagama articulates through an admixture of dystopian imagery pasted over the ignominy of widespread political illiteracy. The symbol of this culture running on mass dependency on political dynasties is the “eheyya”, a political breed quite like the masses in a novel like Orwell’s 1984. In fact, “2024” opens with a ritual atmosphere probably framed that way to echo exercises such as the “hate ritual” in Orwell’s book: state-imposed drills which keep the mass psyche under the sovereign’s thumb. In “2024” there is a parade of sorts in which the eheyyas take part as onlookers:
“On the thirteenth day, of the thirteenth month, when the island clocks strike thirteen, they may catch a glimpse of a scrawny populace in loin cloth, commonly known as eheyyas, gathered by the entrance to the Great House, waving flags with a lion at its centre, clutched in their frail hands. For it was on every thirteenth day, every thirteenth month, when the island clock struck the thirteenth hour that the motorcarde carrying the sovereign clan, six hundred and sixty-six in number, would reach the Great House gates”. (69)
The almost pagan effect Hewagama conjures from the use of repetitive numbers – an effect akin to the sinister arts and witchcraft – energizes the uncritical camp-follower in the eheyya, only to peter out being unable to sustain or develop into a more wholesome critique: “One distracted eheyya,” Hewagama continues that section, “put his palms together at the motorcade instead of waving the Lion flag”:
“The things was that, in the initial commotion generated by the arrival of the first gargantuan conveyer with deep-tinted shutters, [the eheyya] had had his Lion flag thrown from his hand… To avoid being electro-pricked by the taser points of the sentinels, the eheyya did what an eheyya could. He let go of his palm-pressed suppliant posture, plunged his hand below his waist line, pulled [out his penis], which he began to wag vigorously.” (70)
As mentioned earlier, Hewagama’s descend into the bawdy resonates with a neo-classical disciplining on the writer’s part, but with such over-reach what she had thus far developed with the utmost concentration and application is abruptly compromised from delivering a better fruit.
For an audience receptive of Gayathri Hewagama’s breeding ground as a scholar and creative practitioner – one familiar with her Peradeniya days, initially as a student (2004-2008) and then as an academic of the English Department there (2009-2015) – sections of the story “The Prince and the Pauper – Act 1” offer resonant reading matter. In key sections of this story a character bearing the united characteristics of two of Hewagama’s influential Peradeniya peers – that of poet, academic, and superannuated dramatist Dhanuka Bandara (now living in an undisclosed location in the United States) and poet Ashan Weerasinghe – makes the reader’s acquaintance. This unnamed character is commonly referred to as the “man with the sooty beard”; incidentally, an arsenal neither Bandara nor Weerasinghe were known to have, even though on occasion the latter was endowed with a sooty mustache.
The “weather-worn satchel” the sooty beard man carries, the obsession with Nietzsche he demonstrates, the love of Dostoevsky – “Dear Fyodor. J’adore!”, his inner voice speaks -, a general appraisal of Russian classics, and a preoccupation with Arthur Schopenhauer further stabilize the bearded character as an admixture from which tell tale signs of Bandara and Weerasinghe – and, of the duo, more Bandara – cry out. Ashan Weerasinghe – who, at Peradeniya acted in two of Dhanuka Bandara’s plays, majored in Sinhala, was fixated on the subaltern, and wrote the two poetry books ඊළමක් වූ ප්රේමය and ද්රෝහීන් ඕනෑ කර තිබේ – was often associated in those circles with Schopenhauer, and where the sooty beard man reaches out his free hand towards a Schopenhauer with “yellowed spine” and “pages uncrumpled” one cannot but help think of Weerasinghe. While Weerasinghe on occasion carried books with spines of memorable colour, a poem in his debut collection narrates falling asleep on a Schopenhauer book1. On the other hand, Bandara’s fascination with Nietzsche, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky was often the stuff of conversation over tea. His poetry and theater have, in degrees, reflected their influence on the young artist. In talk these names often predominated. As much as Weerasinghe carried the heavy book and Bandara philosophized about it, in Hewagama the two come together, one as being symbolized by a “wrinkled” book, and the other, in a book with a “yellow spine, yet uncrumpled, unsoiled”:
“The man with the sooty beard sits while in meditation. Then, picking up the books, he stuffs them inside his satchel, the belt of which he flings over his head and across his chest. He stands up, the pile of old newspapers under one arm and starts walking towards his little hideout on the outskirts of the bustling town. Over the lake he goes, crossing the old stone bridge precariously poised above the water. A bustling town with a lake at its center. A bustling town with a name as sweet as Candy” (36).
If, in the above extract, one is to replace the lake with a river, there are many bridges leading away from Peradeniya.
Intriguingly, except for this singularly palpable allusion to Weerasinghe-Bandara Conquering Karma is devoid of further cross-reference or insinuation of sorts to Peradeniya as a place and space, or to Hewagama’s circle there. For the work of a writer who seems to have transcended the Peradeniya romance – a syndrome that often burdens those who spend at least three years in the university – and to have abandoned other influences on her growth as a literary creator, Weerasinghe-Bandara (via the sooty bearded man) alone remains the karma which Hewagama has not entirely succeeded to conquer.
1 Ashan Weerasinghe’s poem “Presentation”:
"The World is a presentation to me" - Arthur Schopenhauer
කුලී කාමරේ ගල්තලාව
නොහොත් ඇඳ කියන එක උඩ
ඔබ මා එක්ක
අවදි වූ විට
ශෝෆන්අවර් කොට්ටය යට. (37)
Hewagama, Gayathri M. Conquering Karma: A Collection of Island Tales. Jam Fruit Tree Publications, 2022.
Menaca Calyaneratne’s A Fistful of Stars is a collection of 61 seemingly simple and innocuous poems. Written in uncomplicated Spartan lines of an easy metre, “yet grab you I will like its the end of the world”, a line from the poem “My Way”, is the collection’s longest single line. The arrangement is dominated by personal themes which set the general tone of the corpus. Poems, among several others, such as “Braille” (on a sudden realization / a non-religious epiphany), “Peace” (coming to terms), “Teacup” (resilience), “Incompatible” (of life’s ironies) and “Kind” (persistence) deal with abstract ideas and themes, and are poised between sequences of otherwise introspective and soul-searching musings.
The vast majority of poems involve a You and an I (or, much less in appearance, an us). As many as 40 out of the 61 poems play out between the You and the I, peddling anxieties, advertising for acceptance, betraying possession; pleading, urging, demanding, taking, and giving. In those 40 or so poems – except for a few articles that interest an academic point or two – nothing new is presented which the reader hasn’t heard or seen in the last 600 years of English verse. To explain further, in terms of idiom, content, context, and the frills, the poems are somewhat pedestrian. In several poems, (towards the collection’s tailend), however, the You – or the immediate Second Person as addressee – is replaced with a Third Person singular She or – as it happens in the poems “Emergency” and “Water” – with its plural: a They. In the poem “Caring” where this substitution is introduced to the collection, the shift is both disarming and memorably sudden. The pattern set by the You and the I – by then, a familiar and expected sustainment page after page – gives way to the following sequence:
She held me
Stroked my head
Rubbed my shoulders
Held my hand with both of hers
Asked if I am alright
Called when she got home
Cooked my favourite dish
Watched Star Wars with me
Left a thin feather on my pillow...
... (Updated my status)
Sang to me
She watched me sleep. (34)
(Despite it not being for the lines’ poetic merit, this poem constitutes the key moment in A Fistful of Stars). In “The Fetcher” – a poem accompanied by an instructive quotation which claims women and children spend 140 million hours each day collecting water -, the referent She is present as a carrier:
She carries the water
Every drop counts
As tears escape
She years for rest
To just immerse in water. (46)
The concluding poems also indicate a frustration of feeling built on an implied deterioration of the relationship between You and I. The purring softness of the initial verses where – having “come armed/with a smile” – I yearn to “take your heart hostage” in the “dead of the night” to “demand/a single kiss” (1) is replaced by heartbreak and fury:
Take a bow
You are nothing
How you played
Othello never looked
When the curtain falls
Look at me - your audience
You are nothing without me. (49)
The Desdemona-like hysteria in the reference to Othello has written in it a complexity which, at best, insinuates abandonment and male indifference; or, otherwise, a heart thoroughly wounded by its own over-expectations. The proactive intent and torrents of passion seen in poems like “My Way” (quoted below) further demonstrate the growing urgency and fermentation of a desire that cannot hold itself back for poetic refinement:
I don't know how to love
Like you do, my love
Yet grab you I will like it's the end of the world
Kiss your nose, with your eyes closed
When you and everyone else dare forbid
I will leave my print on your forehead
In my embrace you will know
You are everything that I wish to own
But I won't say a word to make a claim. (56)
The strength in A Fistful of Stars is in its emotional build up and introspective poise. The book reads best when considered as a teleological corpus. One might concede that Calyaneratne, through the collection, maps a personal catharsis of sorts. The poetry has its moments in presenting the reader stars by the fistful. But, the book’s success is mostly dependent on the size of the individual palm.
Calyaneratne, Menaca. A Fistful of Stars. [Publisher Not Declared], 2019.
Krishanthi Anandawansa’s Simply Freckled (2014) followed her debut I Picture the Mosaic (2009); a collection that was dedicated to Achintya, the one “incomprehensible, beyond understanding”. Of this unselfconscious and forthright book, poems such as “My Diary”, “Checkpoint”, “Marketing”, “Suicide” and “Tsunami” stand out (a word-economist, Anandawansa thrives in poem titles that don’t test one’s patience). A defining feature of this collection is that Anandawansa doesn’t try to pretend or appear to be cool. Particularly in Sri Lanka, a writer who doesn’t wallow in self-importance is a refreshing find. I Picture the Mosaic presents such simplicity which speaks in the book’s layout and line up, and in its content, artwork and form.
However, my first impressions of Anandawansa’s poetry go as back as English Literary Association readings at the University of Peradeniya in 2004 and 2005. A poem she presented at a writers’ conference at the Senate Room, University of Peradeniya, I remember, even moved the great stoic Nihal Fernando to nod in meditative agreement. I no longer remember the title of this piece. The poem, however, deliberated on how the world order was predestined and how the insect caught in a spider’s web was a part of that designation. The narrator, who curbs her natural instinct to break the web and save the dying bug, dares not to disturb the universe – Prufrock-like. The presentation of this somewhat complex idea, I remember, demonstrated alluring simplicity. Despite the house being teemed with esteemed Peradeniya and visiting dons who penetrated structure like one did the cheese, Anandawansa steered with clarity that evening in presenting what would have, perhaps, even gone down as a boring, deterministic idea. This was a good five years before the promise of I Picture the Mosaic.
Fast forward in time, Anandawansa’s long-awaited second collection, Simply Freckled (2014), failed to thrill or live up to the tone and temper of its predecessor. Simply Freckled was an ambitious project that collected 48 poems endorsed by a preface written by the late Ashley Halpe which promised the reader “a near-bewildering kaleidoscopic variety of experiences” and “a vibrantly feminine poetic voice” (Simply Freckled 7). However, despite the variation in experience and event – which, after all, is a commendable foresight to have when collecting two score poems – Anandawansa, in this book, often miscues the conversion of ideas into articulations and expressions with the same carrying power as some of her Mosaic poems. In instances, the ideas fail to convert at all, leaving much to be desired in their diminished and crumbled states, simply freckled.
A rereading of I Picture the Mosaic after Simply Freckled encouraged me to rejoice over the Early Anandawansa in poems such as, for instance, “Suicide” where she engages in the existentialist line which marked some of her university verses in the mid-2000s.
What courage and strength of mind in unison needed
to end all for a worthy cause? ...
... What exactly is left?
The lesson and cause frozen
with time, to be rubbed away gently from hearts and minds. (Mosaic 14)
Anandawansa’s deliberations in the poem “Marketing” might break the hearts of many university administrators of the 2020s who insist on “learning outcomes” and “course objectives” that guarantee in making the university graduate “employable”, and thus “marketable”. Despite some universities allocating actual cadre positions and curriculum space to ensure the development of Graduate Employability (sic), even as late as the mid-2000s when Anandawansa presumably wrote “Marketing”, it was normal for an undergraduate student to question the hard politics of soft skills. In the corporate world that speaks in such a register, marketing one’s assets is the glory road. Anandawansa’s self-deprecating response is perverse and cynical:
He said "You should learn to market your assets."
I am neither interested in marketing nor getting big money.
It is hard to live with such a conscience, in such a damned market world.
They pass me off as a kid still trying to learn the ways of the world.
I am a parched coin from ancient history; a golden egg from the white
hen in the beanstalk castle.
I only have a market in Fairy Land. (Mosaic 3)
In “Checkpoint”, the poem’s narrator recounts an embarrassing encounter at a military checkpoint: a premise numerously exploited by creative writers for its violence on the female person. From the screening of personal details and personal belongings to one’s being suspended and made to feel vulnerable and exposed the checkpoint-space, over the past four decades, has cut deep into the imagination of the war-affected country. Her luggage “disorderedly scattered / upon a table in front of the barracks” – her “books, notes, food, clothes / all in one messy heap” – the poem’s narrator is made to “feel like a clown” when she had to ask for soldiers to return her identity card which they held on to:
But now I had to stand there
amidst the tall soldiers,
abhorred by the filthy jokes and comments
on my parents.
Felt like a clown...
The soldiers' laughs, winks, stares, glares,
the bewildered looks of the commuters
comfortably seated back through the glass.
I was almost in tears.
Seeing this, they gave my most precious NIC
and shoved me back into the bus. (Mosaic 25)
The poem leaves the soldiers’ comments for the reader’s imagination, but little doubt is left as to the damningly personal and uncompromising nature of these comments. Anandawansa’s delivery pitches in the zone of many warzone narratives that reach catharsis in the vicinity of the checkpoint. The rape and murder of Chundikuli Girls’ College student Krishanti Kumaraswamy in 1996 – coincidentally Anandawansa’s namesake – is one such “checkpoint-tragedy” that has reached the public imagination in multiple creative forms. Anandawansa’s experience offers empathy while – especially from a southern interventionist point – extending the range within which gender and identity complexities of the “checkpoint” ought to be read.
Since Simply Freckled, which was published in 2014, there is no record of Anandawansa publishing poetry in the form of a collection. It is understood that she has resigned to a career teaching English in a university. Such assignments generally enrich the poet’s soul. Its harvest, perhaps, is worth our patience.
Anandawansa, Krishanthi. Simply Freckled. Sanghinda Printers and Publishers, 2014.
Anandawansa, Krishanthi. I Picture the Mosaic: A Collection of Poetry. Organization for Literary Accomplishments, 2009.
[This article was published in the Sunday Observer on 14 November 2021 as a correspondence by Vihanga Perera]
Let this fact stagger you a bit: Vivimarie Vanderpoorten exempted, the English language poets taught in our school rooms (and in most university courses), by now, are done with their fleeting existence on earth. If one considered what begins with Patrick Fernando and ends with Richard de Zoysa as the elite canon of Sri Lankan English poetry (except Yasmine Gooneratne who migrated in the 1970s), none of them are here with us anymore. Nor do many in English studies show too much interest in the contemporary status of Sri Lankan poetry; not at least the trouble that was taken over Anne Ranasinghe (1925-2016), Patrick Fernando (1931-1983), Jean Arasanayagam (1931-2019), Lakdas Wikkramasinha (1941-1978), Richard de Zoysa (1958-1990) and Yasmine Gooneratne (b. 1935).
Surely, no one writes academically of Malinda Seneviratne, or Vanderpoorten in the same way they do of the “canon”. But, when that canon was still in formation in the 1970s and 1980s, its very birthing was done through well-mediated critical and academic interventions. Back issues of journals such as New Ceylon Writing, Navasilu, Journal of Commonwealth Literature and so on testify to the critical culture that supported this new arrival.
Let us dismiss the idea that the “great Sri Lankan English poets” were born great. To the contrary, they were a carefully and painstakingly constructed set of brand ambassadors: children of an emerging post-independence culture of a new nation that needed to prove its ability to make on its own. The midwifery of the academy in shaping the cultural agenda of the new nation, at one level, reflected its own existence.
In the 1960s, having relocated to Ceylon after World War II, Anne Ranasinghe was trained as a journalist. It is said that her emergence as a poet in the big stage was encouraged by Yasmine Gooneratne. When, in 1990, the state paramilitary killed Richard de Zoysa, Rajiva Wijesinha collected de Zoysa’s poetry into a single anthology in 1998. Carl Muller – arguably the most articulate Sri Lankan fiction writer in English to date – acknowledged Ashley Halpé as a mentor who encouraged him to submit the manuscript of The Jam Fruit Tree for the inaugural Gratiaen Prize which it won. These indicative examples provide evidence for the personal interest the academy had in shaping and in sustaining an emerging literary space. However, it by no way denies the existence of academics who thoroughly discourage creative writers and convert them into bonsai trees.
However, from the 1990s, the interest to groom a home-literature and a critical enterprise to support it began to gradually diminish. While the critical interest in resident writing ebbed as a whole, in particular, poetry has suffered in being looked over as an academic discourse. Despite the presence of academics who also write poetry, the academy’s role in nurturing poetry and grounding it with critical purchase has abated.
It has caved in to a degree where what supports the academy in a feast of dead poets at present is the canon that dates from Fernando to de Zoysa. Does this imply that people who compose at present are of a poor quality? Does it suggest people have lost interest in composing poetry at all? What caused the search for and encouragement, grooming, and benchmarking of new poetry – the prerogative of the English academy through the 1970s and 1980s – to seemingly terminate that function 25 or 30 years ago?
Up to the 1990s, even though individual collections were not too many, poets published in journals and anthologies which – more often than not – were quality-controlled by men and women in the academy. However, English poetry (in the conventional sense) has gradually dried up in the past 30 years. The preferred genre of the epoch seems to be the novel. Even the short story (which was popular in the 1980s and 1990s) has, like the Majestic City, recast itself as an abandoned plot.
In the past 30 years, who are the poets in Sri Lanka with at least two or three collections for a reader to set a measurement? Other than Seneviratne and Vanderpoorten (mentioned earlier), a few names such as Chamali Kariyawasam, Ramya Jirasinghe, Krishanthi Anandawansa come to mind. But I am someone who has dedicated life to keep track of the work of these people. Does the non-specialised reader also remember their works?
More crucially, why haven’t those who periodically write to papers and journals or scribe on the walls of their backyards taken the next step to publish for an audience? This last question is a tormenting one. For, there is no textual evidence to suggest that the “canon” had any superior poetry powers when compared with its contemporary counterparts. To the contrary, unsighted and unacknowledged, there is at least the better part of a dozen poets in Sri Lanka right now who, short of being conventionally-published, demonstrate a brilliance that has the potential to redefine the field. In the 1970s and 1980s, in an age in search of an identity post-empire, the academy supported the quest for an independent new expression. Responses of one epoch cannot be replicated in another. But, that historical awareness, nonetheless, is important in addressing abandoned machinery and lands allowed to waste. In the 1990s, Sri Lankan English Literature was seduced by globalisation. Borders crossed, part of it was relocated by trans-national capital in the global literary industry that power-brokered in big publishing businesses. The age of Tisara Publication and KVG de Silva covers – dull covers – was over. The glitz age of glossy covers, subtle paginated scents, and Penguin stickers had coming in. The global literary enterprise was never that high on poetry. Where the Third World was concerned, the global publisher relied more on fiction. As if the narrators of English books dealing with the Third World up until then hadn’t been so, the narrator of new global literature (we were told) was “migrant”.
Global capital sucked in the promise of post-colonial criticism and turned it into cosmopolitan theory that validated everything about the migrant writer. To satisfy the demands of global capitalism that cradled the book industry (to which the academy was connected in providing endorsement and reaping rewards) the post-national, cosmopolitan migrant writer, like Hamlet, had to be made complicated. Therefore, the “locality of the gendered, travelling, transnational, postcolonial, migrant self” kept changing like an amoebic microorganism and, in turn, defining what the global academy theorised and dished out as good literature.
For writers who wrote weird things about Sri Lanka – the kind of men and women who were once looked on with a certain doubt – were now called “dislocated transnational subjects” who were “spatially and temporally torn by the multiple forces of their ruptured status” as they, inhabiting a traumatic present (preferably in uptown New York, London or Toronto) tried to “reconcile with a past” that was no longer theirs. However, a necessary clarification: the global writer cannot and must not be blamed for making a life out of what s/he does for a living. The underlying fact is that as globalisation kicked in, our academy no longer had to preoccupy itself with what was homegrown. The global product as the better product was a tempting fetishism.
The theory that came with it helped to connect with the world and be a part of a bigger critical industry. Only that, the new order of things post-1990s backfired on what interest was left for the resident writers’ literature. Today, if you asked an average Sri Lankan reader to name some of the current poets in business, one wouldn’t be surprised if s/he struggled for five names that had sufficient critical reception. By sheer perseverance and charisma, Malinda Seneviratne has published and maintained a presence as a poet. From among his six collections to-date, four made the Gratiaen finals between 2008 and 2013 while winning the prize once. Perhaps, they exist somewhere in some form, but I am yet to come across serious academic reflections on Seneviratne’s work. Of course, in several essays and interviews, Vanderpoorten receives focus. But, Dushyanthi Mendis (who, in 2011, analysed the themes of love and death in Vanderpoorten’s poems) aside, whether anyone has produced an original thesis on Vanderpoorten’s writing is a reasonable question.
As mentioned before, short of being published, there are men and women who compose brilliant stuff in blogs, notebooks, online platforms, and social media spaces. What prevents them from moving to the next stage could be lack of finance, self-doubt (shockingly such a part of the present time), or – in an age of overwhelming mediocrity-made-brilliant – a distrust of being assessed the wrong way. The academy has to return in pioneering engagement with new and good writing and in creating a critical network for such writing to flourish. While older writers (“the ancients”) should be preserved through collaborations with good publishers, the academy must be selfless in its guidance and encouragement for new writers. Discounting a motely crew whose publications are done exclusively targeting the State Literary Award, there is tremendous potential in the English poetry scene under the uninterested radar.
Among the potential poets waiting to be born to the national stage in the ongoing decade are some who demonstrate a studied understanding of poetry as a craft, a sound reading of the English and local “tradition”, and – most crucially – an aversion to fake lit glitz. Among the few journals that periodically come and disappear, it is heartening to see New Ceylon Writing having digitised its archives and resuscitated itself for a new era. Except, unlike in the case of tea (which is inherently a colonial enterprise), the journal’s moniker stands to gain from a decolonising kiss.
[This article was published in the Sunday Observer on 11 July 2021 as a correspondence by Vihanga Perera].
Announced over the weekend, the Gratiaen Prize for 2020 ended up being the night of Carmel Miranda and Malinda Seneviratne. Miranda’s Crossmatch, a thriller set in the dark corridors and nooks of Colombo’s medical world, was adjudged the best work by a residential Sri Lankan writer by a panel headed by Dr. Mahendran Thiruvarangan, the literary scholar from the University of Jaffna, of which Ashok Ferrey and Victoria Walker were members.
Since its launch a few months ago – and since being longlisted for the Gratiaen Prize in March 2021 – Crossmatch has courted increasing reader interest. The book has now joined an Elite bandwagon of celebrated books of which Carl Muller’s The Jam Fruit Tree and Lalitha Withanachchi’s The Wind Blows over the Hills were the original laureates and, over the past three decades, includes the work of many game-changers in Sri Lankan writing.
Malinda Seneviratne’s translation of Mahinda Prasad Masimbula’s Senkottan as The Indelible, which was awarded the HAI Goonetileke award for the best translated work, did not receive the same media attention the works shortlisted for the Gratiaen prize did, until the last leg of the extravaganza.
While the Gratiaen Prize proper evolved over four months and – like a butterfly – came through three phases that included a longlist of seven, a shortlist of five, and a finale, the “translation prize” came to public notice more as an abrupt late arrival to the party. However, having taken up the translation of Senkottan – a powerful novel if not for its rather hurried ending – Seneviratne has offered literary enthusiasts with a delectable promise.
Like most good literary translators around, Malinda Seneviratne has remained an under-rated presence in the literary metropolis. The reason for this under-recognition cannot solely be his not being a sworn translator. The volume of Seneviratne’s original composition and his translated work – in both their intensity and the newness – is staggering, to say the least. At a time, I readily used excerpts of Seneviratne’s translations of Mahagama Sekara to teach the difference between sworn translators translating literary work and translation as the transfer of culture and idiom. Not soon after his days translating Sekara’s Prabuddha, Seneviratne won the HAI Goonetileke prize in 2012 for a translation of Simon Nawagattegama’s Sansaranyaye Dadayakkaraya (as The Hunter in the Wilderness of Sansara). The following year, having previously been featured in four finals, he won the Gratiaen Prize with the collection Edges. If history, at all, teaches us a lesson, all eyes should be on next year’s Gratiaen Prize and how Malinda Seneviratne features in it. If at all, it will be a shame if Seneviratne is invited next year to judge the prize.
The Gratiaen Prize is now almost 30 years old. As the prize has grown in stature, reach and its dominance over the prize tables in Sri Lankan creative writing, it has also firmly held on to the motto “One Shot”. This single shot has been rigorously implemented as a comprehensive in-house policy in the selection of judging panels. In 29 years, any given appointed judge (1993-2021) has not presided over the prize to exceed a covetous single occasion. The contribution of the prize to Sri Lanka’s creative world in mind, I feel that it is high time that this policy is revised. To clarify further, I find it an irreparable loss that some brilliant minds and leaders of Sri Lanka’s English literary world – men and women who have already judged the prize in the 1990s and 2000s as first choice selections – are not made use of in an age where the prize is more established, recognised, and – in certain years – have had as adjudicators foreigners whose literary brilliance doesn’t exactly match up to whom we have lost to the “One Shot” rule.
As the Gratiaen Prize evolves into its fourth decade, an intriguing outcome to look forward is as to who would succeed in scoring a second Gratiaen plum. This year’s final featured Lal Medawattegedara (shortlisted for Restless Rust) who, in 2012, had won the prize for his bestseller Playing Pillow Politics in MGK. Recent finals have featured Shehan Karunatilaka (the winner of 2008, among the finalists of 2015, 2016 and 2018) and Vivimarie Vander Poorten (winner of 2007 in 2016). Along with the writer of this article, Neil Fernandopulle and Sumathy Sivamohan are the others in this category of returnees demanding a second shot. Shehan Karunatilaka (arguably the most prolific writer of the past decade) making three finals in four years between 2015 and 2018 and yet falling short of the historical target serves as a measurement as to how uphill a task a second Gratiaen win appears.
This should only make writers rise to the challenge. Among other things, JM Coetzee is not a bad role model to have. In fact, Malinda Seneviratne’s triumph with The Indelible is probably the first instance where the same writer (in Seneviratne’s case, in 2012 and 2021) has scored twice in one of the two categories the Gratiaen Prize offers.
Having met her at the New Ink Literary Forum in June, I had the opportunity to interact with Carmel Miranda. With the unaffected air of a Shakespearean character with whom she shares a name, she shared opinion on the writing game: frank opinions about literature in Colombo in an air which, in its not buying into false idols, serves writers good. Miranda read and spoke at a New Ink panel she shared with Yasmin Azad and Neshantha Harischandra and commented on the dearth of good detective fiction and mystery thrillers in Sri Lanka and how Cross-match was born out of her desire to address this vacuum.
As Sri Lankan English writing becomes increasingly globalised by the day, the role the Gratiaen Trust as an institute and writers who contribute to its platforms (such as the Gratiaen Prize) will be assigned by the coming decade will have a far-reaching impact on how resident Sri Lankan writing is measured, valued, and set in circulation. As I have commented elsewhere, globalisation through the 1990s and 2000s has transferred the visibility of being a Sri Lankan writer as the work-right of our expatriate cousins. My energies are invested in reversing this process. The Malindas and the Mirandas as well as those who were shortlisted or were exempted from lists – as well as lit-friendly organisations including the Gratiaen Trust – have a common stake in this overarching programme.
[This article was earlier published in the Daily Mirror on 28 September 2020 as a part of Vihanga Perera’s column ‘Marginal Notes’]
A few months ago, I saw an advertisement in a local newspaper regarding a motor championship which fascinated me: Eliyakandha Hill Climb. Eliyakandha – for the latecomer – is the local name for Brown’s Hill, a steep climb not far from the sea in Matara. Long before this motor race, Eliyakandha’s call to fame was owed to a notorious military-run torture camp complex situated there during the state’s crackdown of the 1987-90 rebellion. The camp itself was run in an old manor-type house to which an elite family in the area had claimed. In its hay day, the persons brought to Eliyakandha were mostly destined to die. So, the torture camp was also called K-Point, or Killing Point.
The advertisement about motor cars racing up and down Eliyakandha hill reminded of two books written about the camp by two men who were tortured there but survived the ordeal: who, among hundreds of others, had endured the shattering experience of torture, reduction, and humiliation, to come out alive and take courage in writing down their tales. One is Rohitha Munasinghe – a pioneer of sorts in survivor literature emerging from the 1987-90 violence. His Eliyakandha Wadha Kandhawura (2000) is a harrowing story of unimaginable torture being carried out in the guise of counter-insurgency. I do not wish to go into details. It is sufficient to note that after reading some of its passages you can watch (without flinching) any horror movie.
A particular reference Munasinghe evokes has stayed etched in my mind: that of military vehicles (trucks and jeeps) moving up the steep Eliyakandha hill in “first gear”. It is a sharp climb for the heavy vehicles and – on different occasions – we encounter these jeeps coming and leaving the torture premises as they bring to the house of organized death high officials, newly abducted prisoners and food cauldrons.
The coming of these vehicles usher an ominous suspense. When they leave, they take away prisoners to be killed, or the crudely packed bodies of already killed men. In a different era, it was a different hill climb.
A second Eliyakandha survivor narrative was published in 2018 by Ajith Perakum Jayasinghe, a reputed blogger and social commentator. Written as an autobiographical novel, Jayasinghe’s K-Point, in many instances, confirms the depravity and bestiality unfolding in Munasinghe’s recollections. But, Jayasinghe’s goes beyond than being a mere retrospection to show a mature mind at work, as he reconstructs a past horror with reasonableness and revision. The preface to K-Point suggests that Jayasinghe has reconciled with the injurious past. His, in fact, is one of the most profound reassessments I have read by a violated person in characterizing his persecutor. Dismissing the conventional binary reading of victims and victimizers, Jayasinghe proposes that, in the torture camp of 1987-90, there were only victims: victims defined by the political crisis of the time.
Both Munasinghe and Jayasinghe write in Sinhala (a translation of Eliyakandha Wadha Kandhawura exists, but it is too weak a work to take us far). They are merely two icons of an emerging floor of survivor narratives from Sri Lanka’s proud histories of civil conflict: from 1971 to times post-2009. But, how rarely – if at all – are these survivor narratives meaningfully incorporated with our curriculum? We are living in an age where our award-winning poets themselves tire us with long essays admonishing the need for responsibility and justice. It is more fascinating than the hill climb advertisement that a post-conflict society (which parrots for the right season the right buzz words in reconciliation) takes no serious interest in survivors and their stories. These are the narratives that humanize the atrocity of conflict, drawing our imaginations and emotions to reassess the misplaced glory in the systematic taking of human lives.
Reconciliation, in part, entails overreaching private feelings and your reading of conflict from within your limited situation. It stems from a nurtured capability and a desire to reach beyond personal loss to understand an event with empathy. This is why survivor narratives are important for a post-conflict society: they propose necessary energy that can heal, and transform our collective vision to imagine, in humanistic terms, beyond the petty.
Holocaust survivor Primo Levi writes about what he calls “warning monuments”: leftovers relics of a conflict that reminds society of atrocity and violence. In 1944 and 1945, Levi was a prisoner at Auschwitz-Birkenau. His torture camp story is told in If This Is a Man (1958). Levi’s suggestion to preserve the memory of violence is a noble thought that, at present, is very far from Sri Lanka. In Sri Lanka, we are indifferent to the violated and have no remorse over such violence. Sites of demonic conduct are easily forgotten once their walls are re-painted, and are easily converted into the finishing line of a motor race. Enforced death has been such a banal occurrence – and indeed an integral part of political strategy – that our response to survival is skewed.
But, literature begins with ideals, morals, and human foibles. In other words, the true literature is in these narratives that we shut out of our classrooms. True reconciliation cannot be had in denial or with matters under the carpet. Perhaps, it is time to re-work what our children should (also) read as they grow to be responsible and empathetic women and men.
[This article was earlier published in the Daily Mirror on 2 November 2020 as a part of Vihanga Perera’s column ‘Marginal Notes’]
In the second half of the 1990s, Sri Lankan English writing began to witness globalization: a new phase where the arena came to be taken over by writers who, in the past, use Sri Lanka as a winter retreat. These writers published with big, multinational labels, were marketed as if they were titans, and hobnobbed among first world literary lobbies. From Shyam Selvadurai and Romesh Gunasekara in the early to mid-1990s, this brigade of writers grew through the 2000s and 2010s to included notable émigrés like Michael Ondaatje,A. Sivanandan, Karen Roberts, Michelle de Kretser and Roma Tearne. Yet others, like Chandani Lokuge, Manuka Wijesinghe, Nayomi Munaweera and Channa Wickramasekara – in spite of their expatriate status – published with local presses like Perera-Hussein who, in the past decade and a half, accommodated a fair number of expatriate authors.
In opposition to the rise of this expatriate department, the 2000s and 2010s experienced a steady decline of Sri Lanka’s resident/local writer. In spite of their publications being spaced out, up until the first half of the 1990s, Sri Lankan English writing was understood and bench-marked through the work of writers who lived and tread on local soil. In this assessment writers like James Goonewardena, Punyakanthi Wijenaike, and Raja Proctor were the leading novelists between the 1960s and the tail end of the 1980s. In DCRA Goonetilleke’s estimate, Ediriweera Sarachchandra – who made a late arrival in the English scene – was the best of local novelists of that generation. The most notable expatriate novelists of the 1980s were possibly Colin de Silva – who wrote a series of historical novels glorifying medieval kings – and Michael Ondaatje who, having left Sri Lanka as a teenager, was a naturalized Canadian citizen.
The setback of the resident writer was brought about by a combination of factors. At one level, the infancy of Sri Lanka’s English publication industry was no match to the globalized first world publication scene that, in the last thirty years or so, hosted our expatriate talent. From the writing of drafts to the nuance of the editorial desk, and from the quality of the final print to the budgets involved in marketing, the expatriate had a head start over her resident cousin. Then came the distribution channels, the accessibility of literary spaces, the breadth of the market, and media visibility. For socio-historical reasons, Sri Lanka’s English audience is a thin sliver. Unlike the reach of Sinhalese literature, it is in no way a mass audience. Within this small enclave – with small reader circles, myopic publishers (who, than building a business, seemed to do the writer a favour by publishing), lack of forums, and the dearth of critical appreciation, the resident writer gradually fell back in the race.
In the submergence of the local writer, the academy, too, had a part to play. Till the 1990s, a notable body of English creative writing had some connection with the English department, if not with the university. Most writers of the first four decades post-independence, had they not been academics of some degree, had had a university education. From Patrick and Vijitha to Chitra Fernando and from Ashley Halpe and Yasmine Gooneratne to Lakdas Wikkramasinha and Rajiva Wijesinha they were men and women who had linkages with the academy. Even the minor writers of that generation were university-produced. Its gate-keeping aside, the university took a deep interest in the continuation of literary production through journals such as “Ceylon New Writing” and “Navasilu”. This interest is further exemplified by the scholarly work produced by academics on aspects of Sri Lankan writing. Considered an authority of the subject, DCRA Goonetilleke alone has produced an expansive body of critical literature from surveys to appreciations of individual writers. However, post-1990, this situation begins to change in degrees. In the last 20 years, and in preference for alien corn, the academy has palpably turned away from home produce. As places of publication, the distance between Middlesex and Maradana has grown, as has the obliviousness to resident authors rotting in local bookstores.
The last decade or so has also demonstrated an erosion of critical spaces – from reviews and commentaries in newspapers to features that demonstrate depth. This is clearly visible in the approach to literature and art by newspapers. The inability in an emerging generation of newspaper writers to critique a literary work is alarming. Then, again, the emergence of new media and the takeover of media spaces by audio-visual forms have further diminished the critical engagement with literature and art. A few dinosaurs from a different age continue to write. But, the flourishing features sections that were thorough and well-written merely a decade ago have become things of nostalgia.
These are the circumstances of production, reception, and circulation against which a generation of resident writers – among them, Ameena Hussein, Madhubhashini Ratnayake, Lal Medawattegedara, Elmo Jayewardena, Ashok Ferrey, Ayathurai Santhan, Charulatha Thewarathanthri, and Vihanga Perera – have continued to persevere. The vanguard of this line is made by writers like Shehan Karunatilaka, Vivimarie Vanderpoorten, Visakesa Chandrasekaram, and Malinda Seneviratne. They represent a literary practice that stands to benefit from a resuscitation of the local literary landscape: an atmosphere that encourages local writers overseen by innovative publication – like what Perera-Hussein heralded with their arrival in 2004. This space also needs the academy to play a powerful role, for hard-hitting, nerve-wracking criticism, and people-friendly fora and platforms.