Ameena Hussein’s introduction to Blue in itself is defensive and apologetic. This is more than a testimony to the fact that the “erotic venture” undertaken by her publishing house has fallen below expectation. The introduction is contradictory in its claims, for at the very outset we’re told that the collection in question is a volume of “erotic stories” and “poetry” by “contemporary Sri Lankan writers”. A sentence later, the editor – Ameena – claims that she had had sent out a “call to selected writers”, in an attempt to pool in contributions for the defined project. Of the respondents, we are told, the majority or so have been “fresh” rather than “established” authors.
The first problem I have with Blue is that the publisher has selected a theme – adult stuff – and sets out an advertisement calling in for contributions. The majority of the contributors, we are told, are fresh and new voices: among them writers who would pen out their “contribution” specially for the sake of this princely enterprise. Now, to what qualitative assessment can we submit this form of literary production? This is a commercial-driven venture, for the underlying understanding is that voyeurism has market mileage. At a past Galle Literary Festival Ameena herself made a loud statement that Sri Lankan literature is in want of “sex, sex and more sex”. Therefore, Blue can be safely viewed as Perera-Hussein’s attempt of satiating this market void. “It would be nice” the editor feels “to produce a little book of Sri Lankan erotica”. She is hopeful that the “sexual adventures (presented in the book will) leap off the page and into your bed” since the “point of [the] stories is to titillate and arouse”.
However, it is noticeable that the editor/publisher of Blue doesn’t make a strict demarcation between “blue” (porn / — in Sinhala – “waela” වැල) and “erotica”. Given the contemporary produce of literature, Sri Lanka – in fact – has a vibrant discourse of porn / “waela” (වැල); at least in the Sinhala medium. Ameena’s battle cry above, therefore, is one aimed at the English reading, English speaking, fucking in English readership/authorship. I make this qualification as she effortlessly speaks of a “Sri Lankan erotica”, whereas the allusion is to the reader/authorship delineated above. This reader/authorship is further limited by class and region. With little exception, Blue encompasses an elite psyche, with a socially elite commerce and traffic. This class and regional specificity can be seen in the exclusively VIP settings, VIP cushions and the VIP vehicles etc we see in the stories. An effort that comes the closest in defining “erotica” without this socially elite, politically “holier than” closed closet climate is in Shehan Karunathilaka’s “Veysee” (වෙයිසී???). I will come to that later.
The social backdrop against which this collection in “blue” emerges, the politics which it incorporates and the spaces it identifies in both orientation and execution become crucial when we attempt an appreciation of the work as a “national enterprise”. Clearly, “blue” / waela (වැල) is a site of struggle. Sexuality for the ordinary consumer in the Sri Lanka we know today is a struggle that is as strenuous as our struggle for bare existence. One has to have a “purchasing power” in sexual commerce as well. Ameena Hussein’s edition and the sexuality / erotica / blue it delivers is the fantasy of a close group that is not part of that struggle in sexuality / porn. Perhaps, it is wrong for me to drive the argument to that personal level. Yet, if I consider the “sensibility” presented to me in Blue and the hints of social and sexual elitism that are co-issued therewith, the collective authorship of the edition are above the politics of sexuality, as it hinders the “common citizen”.
The result is that Blue falls short of being a statement. Overall, it – through artificial convention (c/o the editor’s e.mail calling for entries) – becomes an exhibition of the often feeble attempts of a limited authorship (in itself limited by regional and class boundaries) at amusing themselves at “sex stories”. The bulk of the stories as well as the “introduction” by the editor strongly betray class-limitedness. The very assumption that the literature produced in Blue liberates the Sri Lankan of existing “sexual conventionality” in itself is a patronizing misreading of society. Maybe, Ameena is speaking on behalf of the conventional elite upper class sexual morality that she may be familiar with. But, then, that is not “Sri Lanka”.
There is much “erotica”, “waela” (වැල) or “blue” – erotica and blue to me, at least, are two things; though they are used interchangeably by the publisher alongside another term they resort to, “adult stories” – around us that there is little need to fetishize that presence or to make grand claims on that behalf. As hinted at the outset, the Sinhala “waela” (වැල) literary discourse in its contemporary face, which the Rajapakshe regime is so hell bent on cracking down, is both energetic and vibrant. For the past 2 years the Sinhala “waela” (වැල) sites are being smothered one after the other, only for them to resurface dodging the regimental arm; struggling for survival as a force and as a discourse. These Sinhala stories are “true blue”. They ARE erotic and sexually charged but are pornographic at its core – and holds no blemishes to the fact. For Ameena’s education, the stories and poems collected in her Blue, when juxtaposed with contemporary Sinhala “waela”, rarely ever comes to even being closer to “true blue”. In the Sinhala we have a radical “blue discourse” that, as an active and dynamic negotiator, deals between the “waela” (වැල) consumer (in Sinhala) and the all mighty regime.
Perera-Hussein’s is a feeble market venture. On the back cover we are told that the royalties of the book sales will go to the “Shantha Sevana Cancer Hospital, Maharagama”. Next to that claim a second statement tells us that the publisher “grows trees in Puttalam”. You publish a porn book – as claimed by the introduction, a book meant to “challenge the stereotypes of Sri Lankan sexuality” – and the return is redirected to the cancer fund. That, in the sense, is double charity, alright. But, the juxtaposition appears all the more ludicrous to me, for the pronouncements above are market gimmicks. So, on one hand the manifestation is of a radical and noble intention of furthering the sexual / blue discourse of “Sri Lanka”; and on the other, mileage-seeking consumerist fixations.
To “challenge the stereotypes of Sri Lankan sexuality”: so, is it that what in the popular discourse is labeled as “lesbianism”, “homoeroticism” and the like are not acknowledged or accepted in the wider sexual discourses of this island? So, are we to believe that Blue is presenting us with “Sexual possibilities” that – in a manner of speaking – will emancipate us from “Missionary style” and “Missionary preference”? A sexual encounter between a student and an unmarried thirties’ teacher at a convent school retreat (Me and Mrs. J) – this fantasy / fetish is already well established; nor does it radically reassess the sexual boundaries we play / fantasize with. For, in reality, you have a 1000 odd similar “stock” moulds of the “Teacher Fetish” category that are at your finger tip. Perhaps, in the narrow-mindedness of the publisher they are discovering new terrain. But, this is hacked, flogged and has for a long time been no unpredictable a line in “true blue”.
In “The Proposal” – the opening story – a woman gives a blowjob to the story’s narrator. The story is set in the high end of Colombo society and the spaces occupied by the characters are above the “site” of the “ordinary fellow” for whom sexuality and sexual purchase is a “struggle” of its own. Vogue is the fashion mag, Golf GTi is the mode of transportation. The narrator “races down Colombo’s narrow roads”. The memorable moment for me, though, is where the narrator is in ecstasy at a scintillating blowjob given him by his friend’s girl friend. Then, finally as he comes in the woman’s mouth he hollers out: “Marry me!”. This ejaculation and exclamation coincides with an epiphany I had: that Jesus did not die in vain.
Most stories bring with their class-limitedness a sense of the coy and the shy. Some writers are over-cautious in attesting the will which they have proclaimed to submit. Except for a revealing reference or two Blue, on the whole, appears Victorian in its self-consciousness. We find writers in the caliber of Carl Muller being much more explicit, vocal and out of pants even where he doesn’t manifest to “liberate Sri Lanka of sexual narrow-mindedness”.
Nazeeya Faarooq’s “No” has two references to intense carnal play. But, then again, the writer seems to be in want of an idiom of her/his own. This, in fact, is a drawback in many stories – the lack of a signature. The following excerpts are from Faarooq’s “No”:
“…they kissed passionately and he jammed his tongue into her mouth churning it this way and that way inside the moist cavity and his hand explored her erect nipples” (100); and, a bit later, “…his hand then forced her face towards that throbbing erectness and his other hand cupped her chin and tilted it so that her mouth was now in position…” (101).
Supplement the above recycled usage with the following lines extracted from “I’d Like to Hold Your Hand”, a poem by Xavier Fernando:
“I’d like to hold your hand
I’d like to kiss your lips
I’d like to kiss the soft down on your neck
Nibble on your earlobe…
… I’d like to feel the weight of your breasts
Heavy in the palm of my hands
I’d like to stroke the velvet of your nipples
As they harden beneath my fingers” (105).
The choice of words and phrases are hackneyed and impart a weary sense of déjà vu. The texture of the poetry, I feel, should survive another day to be the subject of a different forum. It also baffled me how the poem “What Reminds Me of You” by Coomerene Rodrigo fitted into the “blue”/“erotic” fluid in the first place. Perhaps, I need to read that poem again.
The compact “Bi-Cycle” by Natalie Soyza, “76, Park Avenue” by DRG and part of “Bus Stop” by Tariq Solomons held my fascination. However, the most memorable read for me was Shehan Karunatilaka’s “Veysee”. This is a story that attempts to capture the numerous sexual / quasi-sexual tensions that seam through a day’s work; and the fulfilling, half-filling and hopefully-filling negotiations we enter in an attempt to live the tensions through. Both the tensions and the “remedies” are presented for what they, at the best, are – another set of fantasies and fetishes of their own accord. “Veysee” threads through numerous “alternative sexual spaces”: the office, the net, the street and takes us into “alternative sexual modes” (for the want of a better word) from jerking off, dirty chatting to street voyeurism.
“You’ve come to a curious time in your life” Shehan’s narrator states. “You’ve lost faith in love affairs and pornography pleases you more than the prospect of a partner. You honestly prefer masturbation to sex and it begins to scare you” (75). Shehan’s narrator speaks from a “common urban platform”. The tensions are spatially urban and relevant to the post-IT generations whose hormones are generated alongside the technology. His ability, too, to seam together multiple crises – sexual, social, with the personal – is a strength that demands our attention:
“Your last three relationships broke down because you couldn’t notch up the required telecom points. And now your cellular phone is the nucleus of your existence. You hang it next to your car CD player and poke in your hands free set as you drive to work. You eat, sleep and urinate with it” (77).
All in all, Shehan’s protagonist ends up with a street hooker:
“You want to ask her about her life. Whether she is married. How much she makes. What she makes it for… You refuse to accept that this is pure commerce. But it is. She is providing a service and you are relieving an urge. An urge that has been building up in your loins for months. Months which threaten to turn into years.
Her warmth penetrates the condom. Your tongue aims for her lips, but she turns and offers her cheek. She moans and you know she is faking. Her moans grow frantic in an attempt to force a climax… You close your eyes and imagine. Anasu, Suba, the female cast of Friends, the woman newsreader on ITN, Dame Judi, Salma Hayek…” (95).
Shehan’s, to me, is a socially aware, — more so – a socially engaging narrative; which makes inroads to not altogether unfamiliar contemporary sexual / socio-sexual tensions and play. He responds to the project-manager’s call for “erotica” and / or “blue”; but, reaches far ahead compiling a commendable narrative. But, seriously, Shehan Karunatilaka, do something about the title: “Veysee” (වෙයිසී)?? Sounds more Wendy Whatmore than Bambalapitiya street alley.