Malinda Seneviratne has a lot to say that is of worth– when he is not writing in his columns, that is. He was down at the University of Sri Jayewardenapura on the 9th; reading and talking poetry to a gathering initiated by the university’s English Literary Association. This was chiefly a forum of English undergrads, but several Economics and Political Science dons, too, were there.
Malinda is a treat to listen to; perhaps, cos he projects himself and his stuff in an easy, unassuming way. A poem, per se. The delivery was a mixed bag — consisting of what he called the “lesser poetry” of Malinda Seneviratne; and the “greater poetry” of the likes of Ariyawansa Ranaweera and Pablo Neruda. Characteristic of Malinda Seneviratne poetry is the brevity of the moment and the focus on sentiment. He read from his more recent stuff – stuff written in 2010 – and the thoughtbubble that had often come to me each time I’ve heard him read made an unofrced return: the thought that it’s a pity that this man has not published for the past 20 years.
A strait-jacketed don wondered as to what this man was doing here — what are his publications? what is his relavance? who is that girl accompanying him? A poet needs no certificate, if the work speaks for itself. Perhaps, Malinda can benefit a bit if he signed up with Wendy Whatmore and presented himself all the more in kiwi-waxed shoes; the don, perhaps, was thinking.
A point which Malinda made in his exchange with the audience — that Sri Lankan literature is much richer in its “Sinhala output” than the restricted and clichetic “English lit”. Two sides there, Malinda — taken as a general whole, I think both Sinhala and English Literature in Sri Lanka (my experience in Tamil literature being insufficent) has had very little on offer that we can boast of. Malinda read from Ariyawansa Ranaweera and the blogger who signs off his little poems / verses as “Sandun”. But, considering that we’re talking of a tradition which is a century or so old, where are the trees, the fruits and the flowers? To me, both Sinhala and English creativity have been held back either detained or stunted by the “authorities” at the Top, who control literary production / consumption / preference. Literature, in this country, has been an elite enterprise. A few have owned it and an even lesser number have regulated it. Over the years this has been the reality, whether we like it or not. Perhaps, this point is more lucid when we consider the more recent, post IT Rev explosion of creativity all around — thanks to the internet and blogging.
Through blogs and electronic circulation that traditional, authoritarian check has been challenged. That is why the “Sandun”s come write to us at this crucial point in our transitive age. That is why the State is more cautious and is trying to impede barricades wherever it is possible; wherever it feels uncertain and insecure. Cos, creativity has entered a self-democratizing phase; and the optimist may safely say that we’re entering a new passage where the elitist pull of literature will have to be compromised.
Then, again, Anuruddha Pradeep — Political Science scholar who was with the audience — observed that Sinhala literature has a derth of “novels” that are of worth; whereas in the genres of “short stories” and “poetry” there is a vibrant discourse sustained. With this I can agree to a point — cos, to me, the more progressive of Sinhala writers have been Simon Nawagattegama and Ajit Thilakasena. One is dead and the other is not canonized. But, then, the likes of Sunethra Rajakarunanayake and Liyanage Amarakeerthi show signs of changing the trajectory of the Sinhala novel into new horizons. While seeing “lapses” in it, I was very much impressed by Atavaka Puttu, Amarakeerthi’s experimental text.
Again, Malinda’s ruling out of the Lankan English literary sphere as being “shit” and “classy” coincides with the year of Mark Wilde’s Chucking the Dragon and the first year since Shehan Karunatilaka’s Chinaman. To me, Chinaman is the best Sri Lankan novel in English to date; and I very much doubt that it will lose its mark in this sphere for the next 10 years, at least. This is one awesome text and it only resonates the emergence of a new idiom and of new creative formulae in “Lankan Eng Lit”.
The thing is we need to make more writers published. And these writers have to come from without that Upper Middle Class-and-Above “literarily fashionable” Colombo-centric milieu. The diversity of the “Sri Lankan English Expression” has to be drawn out. New Publishing Houses have to come in. The half-hearted bilingual writer who is still unsure whether to keep her stuff as a personal file, or as to whether she should go ahead and make it real has to be injected with confidence. The confidence factor and the financial constrains still persist. It is an age where everyone wants to be a writer. But, “wrong types” seem to be having the better success rate.
Malinda has always been known for his sense of humour. His anecdotes, too, were quite refreshing. And his presence of mind and the fact that he was “updated” with the dynamics happening around us in the “creative spheres” shows a “living poet” with an open eye and an open heart.
Malinda Seneviratne will be reading next at “SLAM” — a literary forum put together by the University of Peradeniya’s Student Welfare Centre on the 27th of November. Unless I am mistaken Malinda hasn’t read at Peradeniya since 2004. Maybe the “return (once again) of the prodigal” will be worth looking forward to.