“Stolen from Africa, brought to America
Fighting on arrival, fighting for survival”
– Bob Marley
Uncle Tom comes in many forms. Lasantha / Purpleboxers is just one of them. What I gather from my entry “Tradition and Individual Talents” (which was a response to SLAM — concluded a fortnight ago — and the number of hits it has had / responses it has received) is the trivial nature of the grounds on which we operate. This includes myself as well. After a rich exchange in my blog, in which Purpleboxers, Marlon, Ashan, Dhanesh, Sumathy have all had a go, Purpleboxers (most probably with the blessing of Juliet Coombe and Sri Serendipity) writes to the Lakbima News this week: he needs a greater floor to unpack the “racial slur” aimed at his friend and employer, Ms. Coombe.
I don’t know Lasantha a.k.a Purpleboxers. But, I have met Juliet on several occasions and have had open debates about publishing and stuff. Juliet finds my book covers horrendous and I find her sweet talk about wanting to be philanthropic regards Sri Lankan publications all crap. Juliet is here to make money and she will tap into the rich resource of Lankan English creativity — a hitherto under-represented literature in the global circuit — to do so. As a publisher she has every right to do so. As a PR officer she has every grounds to indulge in sweet talk. But, I criticize it; yet, I do not refuse Juliet. I criticize Juliet’s policy and play. But, I hold on to Juliet Coombe, the person. That is the only way forward. But, we should be prepared to take criticism as a regular blow; but, stand the test of the ring.
Lasantha a.k.a Purpleboxers, as mentioned, writes a yarn to the Lakbima News. The incident he is responding to and the assessment he makes can be found at http://www.lakbimanews.lk/mag/mag4.htm
Lasantha’s rhetoric demands our attention. He speaks of “reverse racism” and a violation of “human rights”. These are big words coming through the guns of uncle tommism. As to what I viewed “on scene”, I have already laid it out in the blog entry I referred to at the outset; Lakbima News has quoted that entry at length.
Now, there were at least 4 “press related people” at the SLAM forum. Indeewara and Ranga of the Observer, Rajpal of Lakbima News, Malinda, Dhanuka and Vishwa – freelancers. Over the past fortnight none of these aforementioned gentlemen have spoken of the Juliet-Danesh clash in terms of “racism”. I mean, in the context that SLAM gave impetus to at least 6 other boiler-point horn lockers — intense moments where Sam Perera clashed with Rajpal and, later, with me (and vice versa), Sumathy Sivamohan with Malinda Seneviratne etc etc — how come this incident along the same wavelength gets this much news space?
Mind you, the other “clashes” were not for any lesser stake. Inferences to class, region, ethnic affinity, political leaning etc were quite at the heart of these disputes. A publisher, for instance, would question my grammar; but, not the grammar of Sumathy Sivamohan. They would not check the irregularities of Shehani Gomes’ prose. These could be sensitive areas, if personal sensitivity is what we’re preoccupied with. This is exactly what Lasantha is doing on behalf of Coombe. While none of the others who were “snubbed”, “belittled”, “booed at” make the “assaults” the topics of a national forum, Lasantha writes of “racial slur against Juliet Coombe” — de-contextualizing what happened at SLAM; making it appear as if Coombe is the victim of a sustained anti-British attack by a paranoid brown bum.
The truth is, if you put the incident in context — that there were open exchange at the red zone level throughout the day, that exchange of this open nature was a mandate of the programme, that none of the others who were involved in similar exchanges had gone to town with their “emotional hurt etc etc — you will realize that Sri Serendipity (on behalf of whom Lasantha is employed and whose boss he is speaking for) is bloating this exchange out of propotion.
For the others that evening, exchange and debate was a part of the programme. Some did get belittled. But, that doesn’t mean that you coil up being vindictive and write petitions against those who criticize you. Lasantha David and Juliet Coombe should probe the ground before you determine whether you’re wronged or not. For instance, Purpleboxers / Lasantha, in his initial response to the SLAM experience, recorded in his blog, calls Sumathy Sivamohan a “racist bitch”. Perhaps, he doesn’t mean to (since he is decidedly an anti-racist); perhaps, it is just the wording, the blog being written in a moment of passion. Now, if one is to accuse Lasantha of being a “racist” based on this singular slip, recorded in a moment’s hot rush, we may do the guy a world of injustice. To accuse Danesh Karunanayake or Sumathy of “racism” you should check their track record; cos the very terms you bank on – “racist” and “violator of human rights” – are strong terms which are larger than the incident in question.
But, the strange part of all this is that Juliet Coombe — the one said to be “wronged” — has not uttered a word about the whole thing. At the other end, both Danesh and Sumathy have had their stance submitted; whereas, Coombe speaks through the proxy, Lasantha / Purpleboxers. So, we have the “wronged white memsahib” and her case being defended by a loyal Lasantha. Right throughout the process, the contextual Adela Quested hasn’t spoken. Is Juliet Coombe beyond all this? Is she traumatized and distressed that she keeps out? Or, is this too rabbly a ground for her to enter: hence, venture it through proxy?
Or, is this all a well-planned out publicity stint, to boost mileage? The vigour with which this premise is persuaded for the past fortnight makes one wonder. Surely, these people have spent all their lives in the closet of diplomatic definitions and safe houses to criticism, that you take to town when someone throws an argument at you. Malinda and Sumathy defended themselves against each other. Purpleboxers / Lasantha, in his Lakbima News piece, brings in all kinds of irrelevant details to evoke sympathy towards Juliet: that she traveled 100 miles with 2 kids to get to SLAM etc etc. The same morning, Ashok Ferrey was confronted by Nicola Perera. Nicola, in very few words, totally rebuked Ashok’s well worked out presentation of 30 minutes. But, Ashok didn’t write to the papers saying that he traveled 100 miles by train to get to SLAM and that he needs an apology for Nicola’s blatant attack. He usually accompanies his daughter to his readings. This day he had had to leave her behind. He does not cite this as a sacrifice made for which his work / views shouldn’t be held to the torch light.
What happened that day at SLAM was that a “brown bum” interpolated the narrative of a “white memsahib”. In the postcolonial Sri Lankan literary discourse — which is more colonial than post, which still venerates the juices reeking out of a white ass — this is unheard of. Lasantha paints out the incident in his Lakbima article in such a way that you feel poor Juliet, trying to get a minor point across, was steamrolled by an evil Dr. Karunanayake. No — Juliet was as equally assertive as Danesh. She responded to Ashan Weerasinghe’s (poet reading at the panel) claim that he ditches “nana-lala” with a prescription against the practice. Then, she justified the prescription from the perspective of a publisher and as a “learner of Sinhala”. All this time, there were many other writers / theorists present there — some who have been vocal against such “cultural imposition” in other fora, others who have defended “creativity” in the face of “straightjacketing policy” — but not one of them stirred. Not a single established literary critic / writer / theorist said “mum”. Then, after Juliet had sufficiently had her say, it was Danesh — a psychology don — who stood up to defend our post-imperialist creative impulse from what is now the bloated focal point of this entry.
Let Juliet Coombe be. Her credentials and where she has her contacts will carry her through. At the launch of Sri Serendipity’s Generation T I even heard the guy hosting the event say that “Juliet Coombe was more Sri Lankan than many of us”. When the colonizer first arrived he gave the “native savage” beads and balls in exchange for their land. The love for the Sri Lankan people, their literature and the culture will make her, in turn, carry on. I will be the laughing stock of history the day Juliet publishes me and outsells my self-published crap. On that day, folks, don’t ask me questions. I will be closed to the media lobby. Writers of Sri Lanka, work with Juliet Coombe, cos she is the lesser evil. Cos she has the potential to make you heard.
Take a better look, though, at those who didn’t talk that day. Remember till your last that it was a Psychology don who spoke on behalf of Sri Lankan literature. Now, that, is what is worth your discussion. Not whether Coombe came to SLAM with her kids or not.