A nation and a literature that is run on connections and nepotism can offer very little to progressive and democratic growth. The very principles of connection and know-whoism function to prioritize membership and arbitrate an exclusive category. Sri Lankan English Literature and the literati that governs it has often worked along this principle of inclusion/exclusion that, today, the said branch of creative output remains the prerogative of an insecure minority.
Lankan English Literature — the authorization of it, mainly; not necessarily the production of it — has traditionally been in the hands of the English Academy of the country. Since late, other proxies and offshoots of this academy, too, have come into the fray of creating “reader consciousness”. What is a good book? What should you, at this point, be reading? Today, apart from the streamlined Academy, we have publishers and other socialites of sorts giving us guides and hints.
However, English Literature being yet very much a cosmopolitan and Upper than middle class activity in Sri Lanka the directive, too, comes from an exclusively class-centred milieu. We have “brand names” being authorities of their own: Perera-Hussein Publishers, for instance, is a strong brand in the publication industry here. Sam Perera and Ameena Hussein always bank on modesty in refering to their porch-set office. But, the quality of their paper-work and the well managed company has made sure that P-H (the brand on its own) is a director of reader choice. “A new book by Perera-Hussein: better read it!” is not too infrequent a given.
Then, we have the pocket “reading clubs” such as the high-line “Hi” book club. These are VIP socialite gatherings hosted by the likes of Ms. Tudawe; and in my opinion a microcosmic projection of the surplus capital some folks in our country have to boot. But, the kind of publicity such programmes seek and the glitter and the gold involved makes it have a directive over a lesser critical, less informed literary mind.
There, too, are authorities such as the Gratiaen Trust and the State Literary prize. There are well reputed scholars and academics involved in these awards and their management. However, the Gratiaen Prize has by now lost much of its credibility. Even this year, the Gratiaen panel of judges came under the heavy fire of critics in Rajpal Abeynayake’s caliber. Yet, a “Gratiaen shortlisted book”, for the want of alternative awards, carries weight in the readers’ mind.
Irrepective of the above, the Sri Lankan reader has a lesser interest in locally groomed literature. Apart from the unavoidable — such as Chinaman –, a book with a solid promo run (one in the caliber of Chucking the Dragon or a P-H book), or with a socialite anchor — such as Colpetty People which, I am told, is the best selling Lankan book in English of all time — Lankan Literature in English has a vague and frail reader-base. In a recent interview given to Ru Freeman, Shehan Karunatilaka states that the “Sri Lankan English writer has to try a little bit more [not his exact words; a mere paraphrase]” to turn out some boundary-extending magic. Trying out a little bit more, Shehan, is not always the case. In fact, the Lankan publishers often seem to prefer to bank on mediocrity; and the authorities in literature here share the same squint.
An opinion that begs to differ from the authorities I have highlighted in this essay finds no place in the mainstream of Sri Lankan English literature. You are not essentially measured by your writing, but by who you, by definition are; and from as to where you come from etc. The “progressiveness” of one’s writing is not a factor; what matters is as to whether your politics complement with that of the Authority.
The impoverished status of our literature as a discourse has no groomed “alternative spaces”. On the whole, the exclusive divide between the “in” Colombo socialite literary consumer and the “dissentful other” is too sharp and final. The “alternative” becomes smudged into an arrogant dissenter; her writing becomes a queer disease unworthy of reception or scrutiny. One should not read Vihanga Perera as he, on policy, does not complement my stance; hence, I do not consume his work as they categorically fall into an excluded realm. I do not read Sumathy Sivamohan as she speaks against my classa nd national beliefs at forums and stuff. Her writing, therefore, is not to be entertained. If I followed a similar line of arrogance and bid to ignorance, why then, I would have next to nothing to read in Sri Lankan English Literature.
I am very much aware that the authorities will disallow the “alternative voices” to rise and come into the main fray. Because such a permeating will hinder the exclusive class and social interest of those that run the business of Eng Lit SL. But, the discourse will evolve in such a way that the Authority and the Academy will find itself challenged in the years to come. A time will come when a course in Sri Lankan English Literature will begin not with Punyakante Wijenaike and James Goonewardena; but with Carl Muller’s The Jam Fruit Tree. It is true that JFT is long used as syllabus material. But, the definition of Sri Lankan English Literature will be re-assessed in the future. It’s origins will be updated to 1993.
The parochialism and the exclusive Authorial tensions will only stultify the growth of the literature in question. While an Ashok Ferrey can multiply reprints it is merely a matter of surplus capital and leisure that retards the writer of the lesser economic status. It is never a matter of zest or ability. It is, rather, an essential matter of purchasing power. But, the progressive wave will come. Stultified as it may get, the alternative tension will relax itself.