The 1990s and the 2000s are, in that respect, crucial for the singular ongoing literary achievement where the emergent literature, with a few isolatable instances, is by and large turned away from, is blind to and inconsiderate of the political dynamics of the immediate time and social setting. During this period, works of English Literature that subscribe to the above philistine standards, almost completely stop being perceptive of the frauds, killings, abductions, incarcerations, breaches and breakdowns in the democratic structure which are afoot and under the noses of their upper lipped scribes.
Since the 1990s, politics seem to be a part of very few Lankan poets writing in English; who, even at times of alleged War Crimes, post-War Crimes, faceless hit squads and white vans seem to have fallen back writing of golden daffodils. When I was invited to contribute to The Pen of Granite, a PawPrint Publishing project on the poetry of the late Richard de Zoysa, the most crucial observation that was made was as to how with Richard ends a writer’s concern with the immediate day-to-day politics and social issues: how, the generation that takes over from Richard and the like have produced very few writers who descend from the colonnades of ivory to prick the underbelly of socio-political transaction.
In this respect, part of Richard’s activism is in his ideological liberation from a privileged class to which he was born, and of which he was a beacon for the first two decades of his life. Here, Richard, in his re-entering of society, has to first throw himself against the very walls which he was brought up to be the master of, cracking them from within and in breaking down the narrow, classed-corridor; and in venturing out. Most of his “political poetry”, dated between 1977 and 1990, readily testify to this coming of age, in political and class terms.
In terms of class, when Richard writes poems such as “Talking of Michelangelo”, his reading of the fashionable literary circuit of Colombo who (is seen to) sit in “Sapphic state…load[ing] chicken livers on a plate” (l.2-3), the phony and fatuous walk-talk of pretender-artistes, wannabe writers and other self-appointed high priests and gatekeepers of the rut that is often passed around as the “English literature” of Lanka is held to scrutiny. Crucially so, in the twenty five years that follow Richard’s death, the discourses of English writing in the country have become more and more entangled around the finger tips and temperaments of these phonies, who are often either cultural nincompoops or aliens – or, both – where the rest of the country is concerned. The “kaftan clad” bodies doing the “coffee mornings, soirees, teas” (l.6) have become more pronounced, if at all, that their phony forums have, in the interim, fleshed out into pretentious “festivals” and “scopes” of sorts, where they
Expound the need for nuclear freeze
Pop ice in drink, shake head, look sad
About the teeming underfed
Then launch into impassioned reading
Sonnet on the need for feeding
Them, while munching garlic bread (ll.7-12)
Parallel to this domestication of literature by aliens, the authority of the Academy (within the sphere), too, has waned and become less influential. The 1990s onwards, with the expansion of the expatriate literary circles and their works being prioritized as “authentic” representations of Lankan reality by transnational publication houses with clout and mileage, there is a decisive cleave between the bastions of the “resident writer” and the “expatriate”. The latter, for economic and geographic reasons, is fast becoming (if not, has already become) the quintessential center of Lankan English writing: a condemnable development for which the Academy, too, should partly be held responsible. The Academy, or the English Department, has either failed to generate sufficient critical channels in receiving these literary dumbwaiters, thus by omission assisting in a takeover; or, else, they are in league with these peddlers at various and varying levels. In an alarming degeneration, “resident writers” have largely been shut out or shunned.
In a Literature classroom that readily calls in wholesale Ondaatje, Selvadurai, Gunasekera and whoever is next to parachute a book from mid air, from Euro-America, the likes of Punyakante Wijenaike and James Goonewardena are making steady exits. In fact, Goonewardena – whose writing, in spite of being criticized for exotic injections, is still a literature of the soil – is fossilized into a mere detail of academic interest and no more: a classic case of a generation being sealed to a close in the early years of the 1990s. Wijenaike makes a struggling and stuttering survival, moving among External Degree programmes and GCE O/L Literature (before, I am told, her short story “Monkeys” was removed from that syllabus for being “blasphemous”, so bless whoever decides on these policy issues; so bless the NIE). Her Giraya (1971) and The Waiting Earth (1966) were recently republished by Samaranayake Publishers. But, in marking that shift which is undeniable in the Academic set up, Wijenaike, too, temporarily survives what looks like a losing battle.
Perhaps, Richard’s greatest strength as a poet is his perception and his commitment to the world around him, which, twenty five years after his death, remains one of the strongest achievements by a Lankan poet in the nation’s post-imperial aftermath. Walking out of a classroom today, the minimal smatter of Richard De Zoysa poems internalized into the carefully groomed syllabuses is, yet, (arguably) more potent in commentary, honest in representation and progressive in spirit than the Selvadurai, Ondaatje or Gunesekera that is invariably thrown in there. His is, with very little exception, the most progressive poetic intervention by a Lankan English author in the past three decades.
Between 1977 and 1990, Richard shares the same decade as Gamini Seneviratne, Regi Siriwardena, Jean Arasanayagam, Basil Fernando, Gamini Haththotuewgama and the like, whose in depth commitment to the reading of their times and the political and cultural spaces of which they are an organic part effortlessly interfuses with their poetic delivery. In this regard, Lakdas Wikkramasinha is a name I often juxtapose with Richard’s writing. In the past, I have often read these two poets as a continuation of a perceptiveness and social commitment welded into sheer poetic brilliance that is too rare to be found within a generation. Sadly, three generations from Lakdas’ Luster Poems and two decades and a half since Richard’s murder, we find no trace of the same spirit in almost none of the Lankan English writers actively about their trade today.
The 1990s and the 2000s are, in that respect, crucial for the singular ongoing literary achievement where the emergent literature, with a few isolatable instances, is by and large turned away from, is blind to and inconsiderate of the political dynamics of the immediate time and social setting. During this period, works of English Literature that subscribe to the above philistine standards, almost completely stop being perceptive of the frauds, killings, abductions, incarcerations, breaches and breakdowns in the democratic structure which are afoot and under the noses of their upper lipped scribes. Of course, there are exceptions to this observation – such as in Somachandre Wijesuriya, Tissa Abeysekara, A. Santhan or in Sivamohan Sumathy – but these literatures have been overridden by the general “white” wave (cited above), casting these aside as isolations and as works “not of the preferred scale”.
The most promising work yet to emerge from the expatriate / diasporic Lankan circuits (written in English), is, perhaps, Ambalavanar Sivanandan’s When Memory Dies (1998): a novel which is an accomplishment in the very commitment it shows in reading the historical evolution of the nation across three generations. Sivanandan’s is, therefore, a narrative that places itself on the very idea of reading history; suggesting, at times, a Marxian re-reading of the formation of the postcolonial nation. Very few novelists have come up to the ideologically-grounded nuanced reading of history and culture in the way Sivanandan does. Somachandre Wijesuriya, again, is a name that invariably comes to mind in his deconstructionist intervention of the post-1956 Lanka, being written from a socialist stance.
In contributing to The Pen of Granite – a Richard de Zoysa memorial – part of my concern was to raise these points (among others) as a discursive axis on which Richard’s poetry can be propped. In Richard is the signature of a generation that was felled and mutilated – that their incentive and activism wouldn’t pass on for the next generation in line. Perhaps, the vacuum of political commitment (in the spirit in which this phenomenon is referred to in the essay) in the works of the 90s and the 00s to the present, then, is not an accident or an abnormality. Perhaps, this is the sign that a generation had ended and that the court of arms of the political class (and its regimental agenda) is most firmly stamped in us: the generation on the move.
[This is arranged based on a submission made to The Pen of Granite: A Richard de Zoysa 25th Year Memorial, published by PawPrint, Colombo].