[Written on request by tomahawk 69]
When we consider Water In the Moon, Vihanga Perera’s collection of essays on Sri Lankan English writing, there are several admirable aspects, undone by what I consider as drawbacks. Mainly, the collection tries to raise questions regarding contemporary Lankan English writing – and this is not too frequently done in any form, be it accessible academic writing or in newspaper or journalistic work. Most of the literature on Lankan English writers are done as academic sidekicks and are not easily reached – they are either priced too high, or too pretentious to engage lay interest. The writers and writings Vihanga has boxed in, again, has a contemporary relevance as a whole. With the exception of Shirani Rajapakshe (whose work I haven’t read) and Louis Blaze (whose inclusion, as we are told, is beside the purpose of the book) the other featured writers have a strong current appeal.
Michael Ondaatje, for example, is the “biggest thing” to be born out of Lankan Literature. Many debate Ondaatje’s legitimacy as a part-Lankan writer, but he is unanimously acknowledged for his Sri Lankan ancestry. Vihanga’s essay on Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table, with relevant cross references to other Ondaatje texts, therefore, is both useful and insightful for a reader who keeps track of the latest books to come out by writers such as Ondaatje. The same can be told of Karen Roberts, whose works since July I haven’t had the opportunity of reading. Vihanga’s views on Roberts’ Dhobi Woman is both original and engaging and it entices a reader who has some knowledge of Roberts’ writing to pick up the rest and follow suit.
Of the essays, I found the takes on Shehan Karunatilaka’s Chinaman and the two short attacks on the Galle Literary Festival the best. In subsequent e.mail exchanges Vihanga assures me that the first edition of Shehan Karunatilaka’s book is by no means what I had the opportunity of reading, when Random House took over the formalities. Though I have my own assessment of the “Great Cricket Book” to come from Sri Lanka I do not fail to see Vihanga’s point, where he argues that Chinaman is an analogy for the failure of the Lankan state in the ethno-political games that it plays. He argues that Karunatilaka’s parade of the minority identity is no inferior to the state’s showcasing of the same, but to provide its own back.
Vihanga, for some reason, dedicates much energy to a relatively simplistic writer – Nihal De Silva. The essay titled “An Issue of Pleasurable Sex” (p.49) was a treat, by all means; more so owing to the innocuous and playful tone, than the point of Vihanga’s argument. It is an article that is beside the general tone of the book. It is too playful to be in the company of the other essays: which are serious and morose. In my opinion, De Silva has already gained too much drive, owed to the mediocrity of our academy; but, then, again, the author is now dead.
Among the drawbacks I saw in Water In the Moon, one was to do with the range and scope of Vihanga’s selection. One felt that more writers could have been brought in and that he could have branched out into other genres and not limit himself to writers of fiction. Sri Lanka is not a country with an extensive literary output and that makes Vihanga’s limitation to fiction somewhat tedious. How many more fiction writers could you add, one may ask. The sad answer is, not many. Therefore, if he could branch out into other genres such as poetry, drama and blogging, a greater diversity could be drawn. Specially, in the field of drama, there is much on offer and long yards are being gained in that arena. One also feels that Vihanga could have branched off into a bilingual discussion, bringing in aspects of Sinhala Literature which, in spite of the availability of rich criticism, is still a “happening” field. But, then, I leave the benefit of the doubt to the writer, as he may have his own theories of organization.
While the inclusion of writers such as Shirani Rajapakshe and Ayathurai Santhan is commendable, Vihanga should also justify these inclusions. Notable absentees from Vihanga’s list of featured writers include Ameena Hussein (of whose novel ‘Moon In the Water’ only the title is given some prominence), Ashok Ferrey, Manuka Wijesinghe et al. All these writers have post-2004 publications, though Vihanga favours the likes of Nihal De Silva (whose The Road from Elephant Pass is from 2003), even as he insists the focus of his book is on “the most contemporary” fiction. Perhaps, it is the fear of having to give out negative comments on Hussein and Ferrey, whom Vihanga admires over many others, that keeps him from citing these writers.
Water In the Moon has no pedantic pretensions and is well accessible to the “lay” reader (as myself). It is a good mixture of perception, criticism, sly humour and dissent. It is meant to be an “experiment” at publishing “essays of contemporary relevance” I am told. Going by me, it is a largely successful experiment.