The 5th edition of the Galle Literary “Festival” will be held in January, 2011. With time, this piece, too, will join its predecessors from 2008-2010 as the “forgotten rant” of a prejudiced motherfucker. Not that the GLF has improved. Over the years, it has become more and more self-assured of its pernicious enterprise that they no longer use pretexts or pretenses. Today, it is a mammoth tourist attraction, a money-maker and site for a week’s aesthetic relaxation for a VVIP membership.
I have throughout been a staunch critic of the GLF – for it is a cheating of our national consciousness. I see it as a misleading enterprise, and a selfish enterprise at that, where hi soc elitisms are reinstated in a country where expression is a site of struggle trying hard to break itself free. We have among us writers – experimental artists, poets with political vision and of a radical creative consciousness, people who are progressive in their conceptualization as practicing artists -, critics, thinkers who have a tremendous potential on offer. Then, we have the slim clique that breaks some shallow bread at the GLF; who, for the remainder of the year, doesn’t give a penny’s worth to the literature coming out of the Sri Lankan creative discourses, but, come January, are ready to be the leading whips at this so-called “festival”; busy at “putting Sri Lanka” and themselves “on the map”.
The Galle Literary Festival is a fraud. It is the Trojan Horse of literary consumerism – the type of literature which, for the more pronounced meanings to come out, requires a glass of wine or high tea to accompany it. Clearly not the kind of literary consumption the “ordinary” are used to. But, we’re talking about the number 1 show here. Mea culpa. With the conclusion of 2009 the horse was making ugly noises and the festival committee resorts to a “curator” to try and remedy matters. The “curator” thus referred to was / is Shyam Selvadurai. For a while this resort gave me some kind of hope – for Selvadurai was a man who, for a change, was an “artist”; and, I felt, that one could bank some faith on this expatriate of our literature. Last year’s GLF – I wrote back then – was a disaster from the stand point of “literature proper”. When you set apart the choreographers, the drummers and the conservationists there was very little “literature proper” on offer at the programme. Even here, the representation of “Sri Lankan English writing” was ever more discouraging. Out of a charted 48 acts, there were only about 8 writers from Sri Lanka in the programme line up with a solid bibliography to do the inclusion some justice.
But, what can God do when the substance is cancerous to begin with? And Shyam Selvadurai is no god of small things. This year, according to the GLF website, there are 62 acts lined up. Out of these 62, “Sri Lankan” artists occupy a paltry 15 seats. Out of these 15, five are clearly “extra-literary” elements: from fields such as dancing, human rights, conservationism, architecture and the like. Channa Daswatte, Sudesh Manthilake, Sunila Abeysekera, Yvani Deraniyagala and Sinnaiah Maunaguru constitute this sample. Yvani Deraniyagala is a descendent of Justine Deraniyagala – that is the justification the GLF website makes of her inclusion. Then, we have another group of writers who are “Sri Lankan”, but clearly of an expatriate / migrant stamp. Manuka Wijesingha, Karen Roberts, Randy Boyagoda – “born to Sri Lankan parents” but from Canada –, Roshi Fernando make this line up. Karen Roberts’ The Lament of the Dhobi Woman was published this year by Perera-Hussein. Ranjini Obeysekera, too, is in the line up – but, her fame is more in the fields of translation and trans-creation: which, in that sense, is a “special field”. When the math of subtraction and the Venn diagrams are done, out of the original line up of 62, we have the following ooze to represent what can be considered the “practicing resident writer of Sri Lanka”: Ayathurai Santhan, Liyanage Amarakeerthi, Prashani Rambukwella, Chamalie Jirasinghe and Vivimarie VanderPoorten.
This paltry representation of the resident Lankan authorship – restricted to 5 – informs us much about the ground reality of the “festivities” planned out by the people who run this fiasco. It is a vocal testimony as to how “empathetic” they are and as to how “sensitive” and “committed” they stand where Lankakn creativity is concerned. What does the wider Sri Lankan literary discourse stand to gather from this elaborate and pompous show of ungoverned vanity? I earnestly request all Sri Lankan writers to stand out of the GLF. This is a test of commitment – a test of commitment as to the independent spirit of the artist who, in her consciousness, bears an iota of value for “Sri Lankan creative expression”. Take the GLF for what it is – see it in the eye for the unadulterated business venture and VVIP retreat it has blossomed to be.
Prashani, Vivimarie, Amarakeerthi, Chamali and Santhan – we have our differences as well as our affinities. There are places we don’t see eye to eye; but, at some level, we do have some reverence for each other’s work. I personally don’t know Prashani Rambukwella and Chamalie Jirasinghe. But, I have read the work of both. You are both gifted writers, at your own merit. Some of you I may have critiqued when the pen is passed into my hand. But, that is solely my view – doesn’t mean that it has to be borne with weight. Amarakeerthi – you’re a writer with much progressive experimentation on your side. As I have told you before, Atavaka Puttu is a landmark novel in my progress as a reader. But, for these VVIP retreaters and the children of a greasy capitalism you are a mere exhibit on display. Vivimarie – no doubt this is a forum where your work will be celebrated. But, then, the wider picture and the wider implications of this “festival” holds nothing for the celebration of Lankan creativity at large. On document, things look trilingual and representative of the multi-cultural ethic. So, you get in Amarakeerthi and Maunaguru – and technically you are trilingual. But, is there a multi-representational commitment, as such?
The least you can do is to boycott the GLF. After all, the suspense dies: cos curator Shyam Selvadurai has laid a dry, placid wicket. And Sri Lankan creativity will suffer when this game is played the way it is proposed to be played. The plastic mask cannot cover the bankruptcy and the crassness of this venture – in the strict literary sense. Beef up this forum with more and more B grade “overseas writers”, buttress in conservationists, birdwatchers, coffee table scribblers etc – GLF will look more and more “chic”; but, it holds nothing positive for the immediate enhancement of our national literature. Over the past five years, many politically sensitive writers and critics – not necessarily extremists, but mainly those with open minds and negotiable moderate views – have lost hope in the GLF. I find this extremely pleasing and positive. It is best that we know the enemy and can demarcate the “class” for an entity of its own. Not that I am against “festivities” and “orgies” of sorts. But, that we’re fighting for a national literature and the representation of such a literary sensibility – a programme against “gall”.