The shortlist of the Gratiaen Prize for 2013 (set to be awarded in May 2014) was announced last week at a newly furbished British Council wing. Out of what was announced to be almost nearly 60 submissions, three entries were shortlisted (according to the changing minimalist times?): all of them poetry collections by Inosha Ijaz, Chamali Kariyawasam and Malinda Seneviratne. The panel of judges for the year consists of Tissa Devendra, Shravika Damunupola and Vijay Nagaraj.
The first question that begs a clarification is as to why the shortlist was brought down from the usual five, to a minimalist three. With a submission list that touched 60, is it that the judges couldn’t find five suitable entries to make up five finalists? In other words, is the corpus of submissions that bad this year? To my knowledge, the competition hasn’t ever had a shortlist that fell short of the customary 5. In fact, in one year, there were 6 entries shortlisted, in a bid to give maximum encouragement to the keen competition. Nor did any of the judges clarify why such a cropping was done and there being no Q and A following the formalities gave no opportunity for that question to be raised.
The second question is of the shortlist being three poetry entries. While it was stated that there were entries covering a wide range of literary genres such as fiction, short stories, play scripts, film scripts, biographies and memoirs, the final three entrants were all poets. How acceptably can you justify such a finalization? If we hypothize (and my assumptions are merely to satisfy my lack of data) that there were 60 submissions in all of which 15 were poetry, that would still leave 45 entries representing genres that were not represented among the finalists. That is 75% of all entries, if considered purely on a genre-basis. The judges should have strong reasons for this — something which one might even call an “amusing judgment” —, specially since cross-genre judgment in itself is a tricky aspect which calls for the best in even the most expert in literary matters. Whether the panel, as a whole, is sufficiently honed to make distinct and subtle distinctions and pronouncements on matters of creative writing (matters the breadth of a hair, so to speak) across various and diverse genres was another point raised by some Press Gentlemen and an academic at the post-party buffet.
If we resort to the immediate past-Gratiaens, in 2010 there was an one poet-finalist in Sakunthala Sachithanandan, which was the case in 2011 and 2012 as well (in both years, Malinda Seneviratne). In some years, the shortlist — maybe at an unofficial capacity — loosely represents at least a text from the main genres; but, this year the arrears seemed to have caught up with poetry.
Of the entries I cannot say much, as all submissions are hitherto unpublished. But, I have in the past read the work of all three shortlisted candidates. Chamali Kariyawasam is a previously published poet and one hopes that her simple, flowing style is yet retained in her present work as well. Inosha Ijaz’s poetry was among the work of a cluster of “new” poets we have seen consistently in business over the past 3-4 years or so. Then again, other than what Inosha has published in newspapers I have seen very little of her work, though I follow her interesting poetry blog. Perhaps, some of those entries to popular news sources / published in her blog are among her shortlisted poetry as well. Malinda Seneviratne, with this shortlist, becomes the official brand ambassador of all Gratiaen shortlistees of all times. Making his 235th finalist spot, Seneviratne had submitted a corpus made out of his writings from the previous year. Perhaps, it is not without some irnoy that he has titled his collection as “Edges”.
The new furbished British Council premises took the guise of a fortress with heavy security (made of
rude, chocolate brown coloured kit-wearing personnel), with the evening’s formalities planned in a library with a dingy, congested front lobby for a very inconvenient after-event snack. British Council has always had a notorious reputation for uncouth securities from the earliest I have come across that institute at different capacities; and for the security staff there “PR” is merely the reverse of “RP”. If you are non-white, these securities get suspecious as to why you have entered the holy sanctum of the white and demand explanations every turn you take. The fortress being teethed at every five or ten yards makes matters worse, as these nincompoops woof at you every few strides and every other corner you take. The only chance you would have is to be dressed in a high society kurta or a kaftan and to walk about as if you are eternally pissed. We are more than ready to accept our skin colour being a bit on the tan side, but a little bit of awareness and training on the security’s part would help us to get about each other’s business in dignity.
The ignorance of the security hit a laughable (or lamentable) high when one guard gruffly called out to a Trustee and the Trust Chair (Prof. Perera) demanding where they thought they were going. On reflection, I was reminded of an incident in 2011, when I was at the gates of the British Council to attend a seminar in which I was supposed to speak and was not permitted entrance at the front gate as the security claimed the person coordinating that particular programme had not arrived to work yet. Needless to say, I was furious but the drama was cut short when the said programme coordinator arrived just then. Ironically, I was set to discuss Lakdas Wikkramasinha that day. Maybe Lakdas saw it all four and a half decades ago, when he had this to say of the esteemed institute:
“When they kiss my arse, O’ Muse,
Save me from the Clap”