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 Post subject: Recent Developments in Sri Lankan (English Language) Literat
 Post Posted: Wed Jan 04, 2006 3:07 am 
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Recent Developments in Sri Lankan (English Language) Literature

@ WS

As critics like Yasmine Gooneratne and E.F.C. Ludowyk have pointed out, writing in Sri Lanka in the colonial period and that which immediately followed it was imitative, meant largely for entertainment, and did not amount to anything very much. English education that was brought in after the Colebrooke-Cameron reforms of 1833 created the kind of white-washed, alienated elite that Jean-Paul Sartre identifies in his preface to Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth.

Since the objective in initiating English language teaching into the school curriculum was functional, it did little to encourage literary work which was so uninspiring and meagre that for years Leonard Woolf’s The Village in the Jungle was regarded as the best Sri Lankan novel ever written. The deliberate downgrading of English overnight in 1956 prevented a healthy body of writing from emerging after Independence.

Nationalist feeling was such that writers felt diffident, even apologetic, in using a medium which, if not their mother tongue, was their first language of expression. When they did venture out into fiction, they were occasionally guilty of indulging in the Sri Lankan version of the "pastoral longings" that Walcott once identified in some Caribbean writing. This fiction was overly romantic and hypersentimental. A typical plot, of which James Goonewardena's The Call of the Kiralla is a supreme example, would involve a male city dweller, disgusted and disillusioned with the soul-destroying life in the metropolis, seeking a haven in a village where he finds serenity-not to mention a village belle.

Thiru Kandiah, who was the first critic to identify this debilitating feature, also took such writers to task for their inability to find an idiom to convey what he called a "distinctly Lankan experience." Subsequent critics, like Rajiva Wijesinha, argued that Kandiah was being unduly harsh on these writers and that his attitude really discouraged them. This is not the forum to judge the merits and demerits of these individual stances.

Be that as it may, while James Goonewardena and Punyakante Wijenaike, the country's most senior post-Independence novelists, adjusted themselves to the new climate and produced some memorable pieces in the next two decades, English fiction as a whole was in a forgettable state of stagnation, excepting the brilliant translation of his own Sinhala work into the English novel, Curfew and the Full Moon by Ediriweera Sarachchandra in which he examines the 1971 insurgency from the viewpoint of a professor who is caught up between his concern for his own students who are involved in the movement and his natural inclination not to get involved in politics.

Efflorescence of Sri Lankan expatriate writing
Ironically, it was expatriate Michael Ondaatje's publishing Running in the Family that gave a new impetus to Sri Lankan writing. Conveying the life and times of Sri Lanka's Burgher community with verve and wit and using postmodernist techniques that had never been employed in Sri Lankan fiction writing before, his novel, as Rajiva Wijesinha states, "marked the acceptability of Sri Lanka as a subject, while events in the country added to its attraction in this respect. It was much easier in the years that followed for writers, even if settled abroad, to deal with current Sri Lankan experience, since the dramatic political developments lent themselves to exposition even from the outside on the basis of what would seem universal concerns."

Ondaatje's novel was followed by a veritable efflorescence of Sri Lankan expatriate writing: Yasmine Gooneratne, Chitra Fernando, Chandani Lokuge, and Michelle de Kretser from Australia; Romesh Goonesekera, Ambalavaner Sivanandan, and Shyama Perera from the UK, and Shyam Selvadurai and Ondaatje himself from Canada are just some of the writers who have focussed on socio-political and historical issues pertaining to the island and grappled with the perils and pains of expatriate existence. Living as they do in "developed" countries, they have access to major publishing houses which guarantee the authors a wide circulation and their country of origin greater "visibility".

One must add, however, that critics are divided on the nature of their contribution, a division which would seem to be more-or-less demarcated along the lines of resident academics/reviewers being extremely critical of some of the writing for projecting an Orientalist and exotic world-view while their European and expatriate counterparts usually spring to the defence of these writers whenever the latter are subjected to censure from critics in the island.

There is evidence to suggest that some expatriate writers are getting wise to the kind of objections being levelled at them by Sri Lankan critics. Michelle de Krester, in her engaging novel The Hamilton Case, includes a Sri Lankan character named Shivananthan who emigrates to Canada and takes up creative writing. He has this to say about his new vocation:

An ash-smeared sadhu. The fragrance of cumin. I pulled them from my hat in earnest good faith when I first ventured into fiction. And my stories proved very popular with readers in the West. They wrote to tell me so. Your work is so exotic. So marvellously authentic.... The coloniser returns as a tourist, you see. And he is mad for difference. That is the luxury commodity we now supply, as we once kept him in cinnamon and sapphire. The prose may be as insipid as rice cooked without salt. No matter: call up a monsoon or the rustle of a sari and watch him salivate.

Ondaatje's Running in the Family did not inspire just other Sri Lankan expatriates. I believe Carl Muller's The Jam Fruit Tree, which was published in 1993 and created a sensation among the Sri Lankàn literati, was made possible because Ondaatje paved the way for him. Ondaatje, of course, dealt with the so-called upper class Burghers while Muller concentrates on the "railway" Burghers. Yet both are semi-autobiographical works of faction (as Muller calls his novel), and deal with the kind of hedonistic living and humour associated with the Burghers. This is not to belittle Muller's achievement, however. The Jam Fruit Tree appealed to individuals at several levels. Some relished the novel for it pungent humour; others for its explicit description of sex which was rare in Sri Lankan fiction till his arrival; still others were taken up by the manner in which it chronicled the island's history at a specific time.

Finally, there were those who delighted in its very powerful story line. Muller was not satisfied with a one-off success. The Jam Fruit Tree became the first in a trilogy. He then began to write at a prolific rate, dabbling in historical romance, postmodernist fiction, poetry and even science fiction. It was inevitable that he would move out of the Von Bloss frame because he was in danger of becoming his own stereotype.

The Sri Lankan campus novel
Nostalgia is a major theme in novels written since the 1980s, a phenomenon which is especially associated with the Sri Lankan campus novel. Chitra Fernando's Cousins, Daya de Silva's Days We Thought Would Never End, Mahasara Gooneratne's Lilac of the Tabebua, Shavindra Fernando's The Vague Poetess, Ràjiva Wijesinha's An English Education and E.A. Gamini Fonseka's Mirage in the Oasis are just some of the novels that followed Sarachchandra's example.

The better campus novels, however, do not make nostalgia an end in itself but explore other dimensions of campus life. The University of Peradeniya is undoubtedly one of the most picturesque in the world, a location that inspires creative writing. But this scenic beauty often masks its blood-splattered history. The 1971 insurrection practically began there; the July 1983 riots was given a "trial run" in Peradeniya in May that year when a few Sinhala students began to attack their Tamil counterparts; and the severed heads of about a dozen student leaders who were allegedly part of the JVP uprising of the late 80s were found one morning ornately placed around a pond in the centre of the University.

These campus novels, then, provide more than nostalgia because they also show how the society at the time impacted on student life and vice versa. Wijesinha's novel is particularly significant. He never did a degree in Sri Lanka but has chosen to shatter the aura surrounding the University of Peradeniya (though he has named Peradeniya only once in the novel, it is obvious that he is referring to this institution) by suggesting that academics at Peradeniya were more manipulative than intellectual. His is, therefore, a dissenting voice among a corpus of novels that treats Peradeniya with near veneration, despite recognising its potential for violence.

Although this presentation is confined to the novel, I thought it appropriate to mention here that biographies have assumed considerable importance in the recent past. Over the last 5 years or so, young English academics from Indian Universities who obtain a small grant for travel and research turn up at Peradeniya hoping that we would be able to find them research areas on Sri Lankan writing in English. They have informed me that topics on Indian writing in English have been more- or-less exhausted.. I have encouraged them to explore biographies by ex-civil servants because they generate a different kind of nostalgia for the immediately post-Independent era when the euphoria of independence was accompanied by a sense of satisfaction that "our people" were carrying out the work formerly done by British cadets with the self-same efficiency.

The bilingual intelligentsia
I began this presentation by suggesting that writing in English in Sri Lanka was at one time a preserve of the middle, or upper class elite whose first language was to all intents and purposes English. One of the most refreshing features in the Sri Lankan English novel of recent years, however, has been the number of "late-comers" into English fiction-those who would claim Sinhala as their first language of expression. They have added a whole new dimension to the genre.

I would add that in their different ways Tissa Abayasekara, Jagath Kumarasinghe, and Nihal de Silva, all Gratiaen Prize winners, demonstrate a possible new trajectory for English writing in Sri Lanka. Tissa Abayasekera won the Gratiaen for his novella Bringing Tony Home, a haunting, poignant work which recounts the sorrow of a child who is not allowed to take his pet dog with him in moving house; his running away from his new home to find the dog; and his anxiety-ridden and ultimately anti-climatic return to his old home.

However, his recent book, In My Kingdom of the Sun and the Holy Peak is a much more substantial success. Ajith Samaranayake comments, in reviewing the book, that 'this volume is a testament to a kind of sensibility which is fast declining in our coarse and vulgar times. Abeysekera's prose which is flavoured with his readings in classical Sinhala as well as folk literature and English fiction and poetry and which has a hauntingly pellucid quality to it is a reminder that he is one of the last few pillars of the bilingual intelligentsia.' One cannot agree more.

The three sections that constitute the novel cover three periods of Sri Lankan history: the first is located in the late 18th and early 19th century when prince Cunnersamy killed his stepfather and assumed the throne on the instigation of his mother's lover and chief minister Pilamatalawe, an action which ultimately enabled the British to capture the Kandyan kingdom; the second situated just before Sri Lanka is granted independence and the third in contemporary times. In the first sequence, the author draws on history, fable, myth and his own artistic imagination to capture the brutality, betrayal, intrigue, and insanity that characterized the period.

For the first time in Sri Lankan writing in English, myth, legend, postmodernist devices, the thriller and realist fiction have been blended without any apparent effort. One hopes that it presages other work like it. In 1982, when the pogrom against the Tamils was on the verge of taking place, thus destroying the Sri Lanka as we knew it, Herbert E. Weerasooriya wrote a book entitled The Tamil Lady and the Sinhala Lawyer which, as the title would suggest, explores the relationship between people from two different communities. To some critics, Nihal de Silva's first novel The Road to Elephant Pass, like Weerasooriya's work, is a form of wish-fulfilment.

Captain Wasantha Ratnayake has been given an assignment to pick up a female (LTTE) informant named Velaithan who has important information on the movements of the Tiger leader on a given day. Before the captain can complete his assignment, however, the Tigers launch a heavy attack on Elephant Pass. The captain has no option but to undertake a hazardous trek from Jaffna to Colombo with his charge. That the plot is at times predictable it must be said. The reader is aware that at some point during this fraught journey the Sinhalese army captain with fixed views on the ethnic issue and the well-schooled Tiger woman soldier will become more intimate.

Several false notes are struck when they begin to "debate" about the ethnic conflict and suddenly discover a mutual love for nature that counteracts their disparate backgrounds. The author also creates several 'still points' which allow him to launch into lectures on the different kinds of fauna and flora found in the island's jungles. Still, de Silva has charted the "human factor" which enables these two antagonists to be eventually reconciled with some skill. And he avoids some of these infelicities in his third and most recent novel called The Ginirälla Conspiracy.

This is a continuation of the campus novel and also a cautionary tale about ultra left, student politics on campus which according to the author, have produced the kind of cynical, self-seeking, Machiavellian politicians who enter parliament today. Our latest Gratiaen Prize winner is Jagath Kumarasinghe who was awarded it for "Kider Chetty Street". In doing so, he prevailed over two previous winners of the Gratiaen-Carl Muller (All God's Children), and Neil Fernandopulle ("This Side of Serendipity") Very few have read Kumarasinghe's work which was still in manuscript form when I left the country.

But as a member of the Michael Ondaatje's Gratiaen Trust which administers this prize I was one of those who vetted the manuscript and I am very excited at the prospect of seeing it in print. Kumarasinghe is Joycean in forging a new kind of English to capture the rhythms of Sri Lankan speech. His ability to render a scene with disarming humour and simplicity is reminiscent of Amos Tutuola. And in his knack of creating a community whose members constantly interact with one another one can see touches of Narayan or the Naipaul of Miguel Street. Obviously, Kumarasinghe is far from being a Joyce, a Tutuola, Narayan, or Naipaul. But I am convinced that his will be a seminal work which will inspire others to be equally daring in undertaking fiction.

Challenges and constraints
Let me end this brief introduction on Sri Lankan writing in English by referring to some challenges and constraints faced by Sri Lankan novelists. Many have wondered why Sri Lanka has not produced too many full time writers in English. I can think of only Jean Arasanayagam (whom I have not brought into this talk because I consider her primarily a poet) Carl Muller and Punyakante Wijenaike who are full-time writers. Mind you, the first two became full time after retiring from previous occupations. The same applies to Kumarasinghe, de Silva, and Abayasekera. At one point, the major shortcoming was the lack of publishers.

When I was first involved with the Commonwealth Writers' Prize in 1998, I was asked by the CWP chair that year why it was that very few Sri Lankans submitted their works of fiction for the prize. At their request, I organised a roundtable at the Colombo British Council with publishers, creative writers, journalists and two of the CWP judges for that year in attendance. But the outcome of the discussion merely confirmed what I had already informed the Commonwealth Foundation and my judging colleagues.

According to the rules of the competition only publishers could enter books and most Sri Lankan books were self published. A few, like Jean Arasanayagam and Carl Muller, had secured Indian publishers for their books but as they have informed me on several occasions, they earn a pittance from royalties because of exchange control regulations in India. It was to some extent because of that discussion in Colombo that the rules of the Commonwealth Writers' Prize were altered to accept self-published work. Conditions have now changed somewhat because major Sri Lankan publishers, like S. Godage, Godage International, Sarasavi, and Vijitha Yapa have begun to take an interest in Sri Lankan writing in English which they did not do previously. Many books of fiction have appeared under their imprint. Still, it would be untrue to say that Sri Lanka has a thriving publishing industry vis-à-vis writing in English.

The island has produced a host of young writers, like Neil Fenandopulle, Ashok Ferry, Pradeep Jeganathan, and Madhubhashini Ratnayake to mention a few. If Sri Lankan fiction in English never makes the grade, it would not be for a lack of individuals who have a gift for writing creatively. Having compiled the annual bibliography on Sri Lankan writing in English for The Journal of Commonwealth Literature since 1995, I can also vouch that the number of Sri Lankan novels has increased tremendously over the last decade. What is sorely needed is a process that involves quality control and reviewing.

Advances in technology have resulted in several printing establishments mushrooming in the country; as a consequence, it is comparatively easy for an individual to typeset a manuscript on his/her computer, request a graphic designer to produce a smart cover and then have several copies rolled out at a modest cost. But Sri Lankan writing in English still lacks a proper publishing culture. We do not have too many literary editors or publishers who can, say, read a manuscript and suggest that the author fleshes out certain parts, excise others, and make major corrections in grammar and idiom.

The accent (at least for some writers) seems to be to get a manuscript into print not to ensure that it reaches the best professional standards. I discovered just before I left Sri Lanka that Prof. Yasmine Gooneratne had gone some way towards addressing this issue by establishing the "Guardian Angels" in Australia. Here, a group of established, award-winning, creative writers have come together to advise new writers on how to avoid the infelicities that prevent even the most talented authors from producing sophisticated work: "poor expressions faulty syntax, trite vocabulary inconsistent characterdevelopment." No doubt young Sri Lankan writers who are serious about their work will be able to benefit from such a salutary programme.

One hopes that similar initiatives are eventually set up in Sri Lanka as well because it could be the best (if not the only) way for our writers to achieve the level of professional expertise required to confidently compete with authors from other countries for major literary awards.


The writer regrets his inability to provide full sources and references. This paper was prepared for an informal talk and not intended for publication. Since he is in the United States at present, he is unable to furnish all the references; as a consequence, he has omitted all to maintain consistency.

Dr.Walter Perera is Professor of English at the University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka. The above is an edited version of a talk given at the St.Ethelburga's Centre for Peace & Reconciliation, London on Friday 7th October 2005. Prof. Perera is at: walter@ids.lk

Written By:Prof. Walter Perera


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