The aftermath of the Gratiaen Prize 2010 (awarded in 2011) has so far been marked by two “moments”: Lakbima News‘ Rajpal Abeynayake’s extension of his criticism of this year’s panel of judges; his latest attack being leveled at the Trust’ chairman, Prof. SW Perera. This was followed by a detailed critique of the Prize winner — On the Streets and Other Revelations by Sakunthala Sachithanandan — by Sunday Observer‘s Ranga Chandraratne. Ranga, in a clinical study, discards Sachithanandan’s poetry as “loose prose dressed in poetry form” (not Ranga’s words; a mere paraphrase) and as the poetry being largely innocuous and shallow in depth.
In his analysis, Ranga questions the judges’ justification for their choice, questioning through a strong line of argument the antithetical nature of the “verdict” and the “textual quality” of Sachithanandan’s book. Where Chandraratne’s claim of Sachithanandan’s writing being “loose prose disguised as poetry” is concerned, I am remembered of another piece which (I think) he wrote some time back of Vivimarie VanderPoorten’s recent collection Stitch Your Eyelids Shut. Here, too, a similar claim was made of Vivimarie’s writing.
Ranga quotes the judges’ හේතු පාඨය as follows:
“For the writer’s unembellished writing style and use of appropriate literary techniques and devices, for the writer’s creative use of Sri Lankan English and unique ability to use words from both Sinhala and Tamil. To create an atmosphere and lend authenticity to what is described, for the vivid portrayal of characters and their situations which impact strongly on the reader, for focusing attention on inhuman situations, for invoking in us a need to reassess our behaviour and realign our practices.”
These words are quoted as being from the Gratiaen Head Judge, Feizal Samath. To Ranga, these words contradict the “loose literature” Sachithanandan provides through her poetry. The judges’ stress on “creativity” being in a so-called “Sri Lankan English” arrests Ranga’s attention. Ranga asks the question whether the prize has to shrink to a level where the totemic whims of an academic point (for Sri Lankan English is a highly theoretical debate, providing livelihoods to many Lankan academics out of the unquantifiable) carries so much mileage. I mean, what is “Sri Lankan English” anyway? Did Prabhakaran speak to his English sympathizers in “Sri Lankan English”?
My encounter with On the Streets and Other Encounters happened at the Vijitha Yapa Bookshop, Bambalapitiya last week. In fact, my visit to the shop was primarily to buy a copy of the work. I took the liberty of going through the 65 paged volume, skimming through the mainly narrative poems Sachithanandan had collected. Given the fact that I decided not to buy the book that day — a last minute change of faith — prevents me from quoting here from the text at length, but what I felt was that the Gratiaen panel may have found Sachithanandan’s work consisting of the “right kind of ingredients” and “inspiration” for it to be awarded the top plum this year.
A routine glance is more than enough to see that Sachithanandan draws on and plays around with a “Tamil thread” for the greater part of the work. As Ranga Chandraratne points out, her work is innocuous; and largely deals with a domestic and restricted world. Yet, within this space she often calls out to and conjures something “Tamil” — both in the remote and the immediate senses of it. What I, on first impression, felt was that she goes shopping with this “Tamil” notion. Nor is it a demonstration of a politically perceptive, or challenging manifestation of that identity. But, a harmless parading of little cultural strings — a flower decoration there, a food preparation here etc — that gives a politically reactionary, yet, “Tamil sounding” representation upfront.
In this post-conflict era of an uneasy peace gambit, Sachithanandan’s poetry can be quoted by the reactionary quarter as a poetry of “representation”. The Gratiaen Panel, through the recognition it has given Sachithanandan, can, in their own way, alloy with the noble national reconciliation project of the State. Sachithanandan’s becomes the easy horse to transport some “nation building” and “Tamil facilitation” on.
In fact, Sachithanandan and the Panel / State Mandate continue on a symbiosis of a sort. In Sachithanandan’s poetry is represented “what the masses ought to hear” (from a State mandate; as superimposed by the Panel) and her hailing as the Gratiaen Star of 2011 is therewith granted. Of course, I am not hinting at a “State conspiracy” to upset the apple cart of Colombo hi soc, but the tensions of the time which gives the garters by which the “acceptable literature” of the day has to hang is clearly manifested by Sachithanandan’s case. In a future entry I may attempt a detailed analysis of the poetry in question; but, I am willing to bank on some observations made by Ranga, as I judge the overall impact the poetry made on me at first glance.
How come the Gratiaen fails to deliver, every year? A harsh judge of my criticism may accuse me of harbouring a sour grape in my oral cavity, as I am myself an entrant to the prize almost every year I publish. I was once directly told by one of the most respected academics of my all time list not to submit to the prize. I was told something which I, at some part of my conscience, knew: that a writer who stands where I propose to stand and who engages with the little circle of literature production at the level I do — writing obnoxious reviews of books that come out, ego dripping and pissing off good people left, centre and right — will stand but an extremely puny chance amidst the “politics of prize winning”.
But, then, again, I am by no means a sole critic of the controversial finales the Gratiaen has produced over the years. Ranga Chandraratne himself has raised this issue regarding this year’s show; whereas, Rajpal Abeynayake, too, has focused on the Gratiaen’s this “queerness”. If you consider the last 5 years of the prize for analytical purposes, perhaps, only 2008 (awarded in 2009) yielded minimal controversy. And had not Shehan Karunathilaka submitted the outstanding Chinaman for the prize that year… heaven knows!
A reiteration is necessary here — we need to move beyond the Gratiaen and the cocktail night. It is heartening to see Godage coming up with an alternative literary prize which holds forth to English writing as well. How these programmes will take root will have to be seen with time. Yet, the Gratiaen is the persistent giant. And some serious revamping has to be done in terms of its credibility and quality in delivery. Let Sachithanandan be a winner. But, the ground work of appointing credible judges who can with impact stare back at their critics are mandatory as well as elementary requirements for any flourishing enterprise.
In English literary criticism — of current literary matters — there is a major void visible. To my mind, the Sunday Observer (however sordid the rest of the paper is) attempts at maintaining a decent supplement dedicated to the arts. The mainstream English media, apart, does not engage in any form of progressive criticism; and when the attack-worthy are attacked the criticism is often taken in on personal grounds. We have to come out of this sick mentality, if we are to move ahead. One should be able to draw a working line between comment and personality. Yet, in a combination of our sensitivity and our ego-ridden naivety we have often bungled in making such a demarcation. Yet, a progressive planning ahead is essentially required by the Gratiaen prize. It is of the utmost importance to our literature, as a discourse, to hold fort.