The Gratiaen Judges — prior to their verdict this year — deliberated on the neck-to-neck competition between two entries which had made their endeavour somewhat tedious. While the ultimate winner of the prize was given as Madhubhashini Ratnayake, vikileaks reveals that the so-spoken “close 2nd place” was Mariam Riza with her “Cry for Me a Little”. This is the story of her book.
Mariam Riza, as a short story “writer”, may have done her bit, but as an artiste who would prefer the inverted commas removed, she, in my view, has a long march ahead. That distance and trek would be the one between a Reader’s Digest soul searching piece and a Madhubhashini Ratnayake short story; and Ratnayake’s is not the best in the trade either. To say the least, Mariam has set the wrong sights as a creative writer – the entire Chicken Soup for the Soul approach would not carry her far. She, in her preface states that, her writing is “with a purpose” and that “even if one person is inspired or educated by her work” she, as an author, is satisfied. But, why presume that the world awaits a Messiah in you?
Mariam’s “Sri Lanka” is generally somewhat offshore to what I – as an individual – experience as Sri Lanka. The stories, the plot situations and the general air of events are highly class-bound, articulating the spirit and the colours of a milieu in social-economic experience removed from the general middle class (and lower) readership. But, this is permissible, for one cannot hold Mariam Riza at bay for projecting her world, her assumptions and mis/readings, even in an attempt to capture a wider “Sri Lankan resonance”. At the Gratiaen shortlist Mariam underscored that she, through her writing, wishes to put Sri Lanka on the map. This could be the reason why she picks and grabs from a wide range of “day-to-day” situations. One has to applaud Mariam for her ability to prop up situations and her natural bent to dramatize, which is evidenced by almost all stories. Perhaps, in a collection that collects eleven short stories and three pieces in verse it is easier said than done to maintain momentum and consistency; yet, Mariam has shown much efficiency in managing both.
Her plot calls and set pieces are largely new and fresh, even if unaided by the political and social consciousness one would expect from a Gratiaen shortlistee. Stories such as “Mixed Feelings” and “The Smell of Roses”, perhaps, makes more meaning to a reader akin to Mariam’s social stratum and political position (which I cannot empathize with all too closely) and are moved to laughter; but, the texts, to me, were strenuous as I felt a sense of “something missing” – a hiatus that drowned the stories from sounding “real”. In last week’s Lakbima News Rajpan Abeynayake had made a scathing attack of the Gratiaen Prize (in a regular delivery and not one of his ‘Lakbima Yarns’), condemning the prize for accommodating texts that lack social weight or the density of a solid literary work. Mariam’s text, surely, would go down well with a readership that has minimal social or literary contact – but, as much as Abeynayake predicts the winning entrant (on the merit of her previous publication) of not going far, so wouldn’t Mariam Riza; for, the text vibrates hollow when you set it against the street sense you, as an individual, cultivate.
Let me illustrate from her hitherto best highlighted piece, “The Smell of Roses”. The story comes across as a yarn of a gigolo working the top end clientele of a metropolitan hotel. The plot reveals to us a woman customer who comes to this hired pleasure giver in search of love, whom the latter refuses. The roses, which are recurrently referred to, are a gift from the woman and is a fairly clichetic reflection of the scent and aroma that is being sought after; which is absent in the woman’s. The story ends sixty years later, where the woman and the man re-unite on equal terms. The man had, by now, become a psychiatrist and the woman – surprise, surprise – had been waiting for him all along. Mariam’s axis in the story, I felt, had to do with the “sexual tension” in an exchange between the gigolo and the depressed woman. The focus, in that sense, is more on the grounds of the woman’s need for a relationship, the sexual taboos and restrictions that are thereby generated and of the man’s refusal to grant her her way. To say the least, the “sixty years later” annexation mutilates whatever energy the story had.
Nor does what appears as Mariam’s heterosexual, “family man” sexual bias do justice to those who are agonized by the cultural straight-jacketing of sexual mores. In other words, in Mariam’s story, the sexual encounter at hand and the many exchanges in its unfulfilled promise are meant to evoke humour: they, owing to the very “taboo” of sex trafficking, is expected to be “funny”. Mariam’s story, in its amateurish end, becomes a promise without fulfillment, both creatively and politically.
The common “absence of resonance” as located in stories such as “Seven Billion Children”, too, take away from Mariam’s creative vision. Here, the story opens with a man Abilin trying to manipulate the narrator, who, at the threshold of delivering her fifth child, is lost for means of sustenance. Abilin suggests that she offer him sexual favours in exchange of a stable life support. However, the woman, Menik, with allegiance to O. Henry, keeps the hearth going by cutting her hair and selling it at a saloon. Then, her dreams of being a mother in their poor, but respectable family is shattered as a “lady doctor” working for a “pharmaceutical agency” makes Menik the unwitting participant of a medical drug testing process. Menik is offered free clinics and check ups, but she, in the process, becomes a victim of a “failed drug” to which she succumbs.
The domestic setting here is highly trivialized, for Menik – the poor, out of sorts destitute – is deprived of any form of reflective capacity. She is a naïve recipient of whatever the strange medical woman has to offer her. Furthermore, Menik’s husband is seen to know nothing of his wife’s new clinic routines. The domestic exchange, for the sake of plot convenience, has been thus reduced, but leaving anomalies which make the reading exercise unsatisfactory.
Cry for Me a Little needs much more than tears to maintain sobriety. As it is it fails to impress stylistically or in its social and political relevance. Fulfilling the Gratiaen judges’ criteria (of 2011) can be an achievement, by all means. But, that should hardly be the end of your literary endeavours, for those are too easily fulfilled.
[Initially written for the The Nation]