The first time a collection of my work was submitted for the Gratiaen Prize was in 1999 (for the 1998 prize). It was a collection of poetry which my father took the initiative in submitting. I was 14 years old and was writing verse that makes me want to die, when I read them now. I had no idea what my father was upto, but here he was asking me for a selection of my own writing. The only aesthetics my father had shared with me upto that point had to do with weeding the front yard, or cleaning the house once a fortnight.
I was judged as the winner for the Gratiaen Prize for 2014 a few weeks ago. My entry, Love and Protest, was initially shortlisted with three other entrants: Sandali Ash’s Rao’s Guide to Lime Picklings, Quintus Fernando’s Celibacy Factor, and Rails Run Parallal by Ayathurai Santhan. Being shortlisted pleased me. Being pronounced winner, as far as the understatement would go, was a pleasant surprise. I had made up my mind that the shortlist would be as far as I could make. Poetry, in competitions of this sort, has a fairly bad rival in prose. Besides, in my own mind, I felt at least one other contender had written quite well. The weeks running up to the Gratien final was profitably employed. The biggest preoccupation was to figure out who the elusive Quintus Fernando was: for he, that gentleman, wasn’t facing this rare spotlight right till the last. Some suggested Quintus Fernando to be a pseudonym. I really didn’t want a Shehan Karunatilaka, an Ashok Ferrey or a Malinda Seneviratne — as severally suggested — to climb that stage on the last day and claim to be the said Fernando. Quintus Fernando, however, was real enough. The speculations were all wrong.
Booksales picked up on the run up to the finals. And for once, I was not publishing my stuff. I would only get a percentage. I was honoured when Santhan pronounced me a “dear friend” to a packed British Council audience on the day of the shortlist. Ayathurai Santhan is a writer I like and respect a lot. The ambitionlessness of his writing, the pulse of the earth he brings into his writing and the simplicity with which he speaks of grave, serious topics is rare among the syndicate of Lankan authorship. I made friends with Sandali Ash, too, whom I think has something definite to offer Lankan writing. My publisher organized a reading featuring the shortlistees at the Sri Lanka Federation of University Women’s auditorium a week or so before the final. Malinda Seneviratne joined us, sharing his poetry. My friend Kianie Nonis read on behalf of Santhan who couldn’t make it.
Malinda donated me Rs 10,000 when I was struggling for cash, while publishing Stable Horses back in 2008. At a time where diesal was still selling at 50, this was a big amount; and the least I have done to repay Malinda is to tell the story wherever I go. At this reading, however, I didn’t tell that story as a story told once too often, too, loses its plot. Ishan Ranasinghe — arguably the oldest of my aquaintances/friends — had copped out of a busy schedule to be there. Ishan is also one I have immortalized in literary history, as he is featured in at least two of my novels. He is also there in two poems published in 2010 and 2012. Ishan said that he wants an invite for the finals. As a shortlistee, I could bring along my own guest. I gave in the name of this loyal friend.
In my mind I had two names that I thought would win. I had to read my poetry — as I had insisted that I will read them that night — and I was completely relaxed, part switched off from the goings on, texting a friend, when the verdict was given. I was caught off guard in such a way that I was, for a moment, caught in a predicament whether to send the message first, or to trot towards the stage. After a second’s indecision, I opted for the former and I completed that line of text and hit ‘enter’.
The finals was flooded with known people; and among them were several people who have been of tremendous support throughout years of writing and performing. Malinda, who was seated somewhere back, sent me a message ensuring that his record was in tact (He won the Prize in 2013). The first to congratulate me was my old friend Crystal Baines who was seated somewhere just there. My acceptance speech lasted two and a half minutes. Brevity is the soul of wit; and the lack of preparation.
Previous to this entry, I had been shortlisted for the Gratiaen Prize twice: in 2006 and in 2008. In 2006, when my maiden The(ir) (Au)topsy was shortlisted, Senaka Abeyratne and Isankya Kodithuwakku walked away with the plum. In 2008 Shehan Karunatilaka announced his entry to the world with Chinaman. My submission was Stable Horses. In all, I have submitted for the Gratiaen Prize on 8 occasions. These eight are exclusive of the first ever entry to the prize that was made under my name. And it is with this first entry that I would sum up this small submission.
The first time a collection of my work was submitted for the Gratiaen Prize was in 1999 (for the 1998 prize). It was a collection of poetry which my father took the initiative in submitting. I was 14 years old and was writing verse that makes me want to die, when I read them now. I had no idea what my father was upto, but here he was asking me for a selection of my own writing. The only aesthetics my father had shared with me upto that point had to do with weeding the front yard, or cleaning the house once a fortnight. His inquiry after poetry, therefore, was a memorable first.
Weeks passed as my father would get poem after poem typed by a colleague in office and would get them checked by me as proofs. A collection was finally made, four copies printed, and were spirally bound: the Gratien Prize was being made ready to amuse itself. I remember being to the shortlist of that year. The Prize itself would have been 6 years old, and the shortlist was held in an outdoor place. It is likely that this was the British Council in the old days when it still had that lawn. I am not very sure whether my father had any idea whom my poetry was competing againt; or as to whether he really believed that I had a real chance of scoring.
Curious enough, I have no recollection at all as to what my felings were, seated there with my father amidst garden lights. Lakshmi De Silva, if I am not mistaken, was seated quite near me. She was among the shortlisted that year. My father died in 2004, five years later. My first collection of short fiction (published in 2006) was dedicated to him. When I relate this anecdote of the unlikely Gratiaen entry, a close friend tells me that maybe my father saw the potential of my work yet to be. I am lucky that in my moment of unpreparedness this story didn’t come to my mind on that stage, being asked to say a few words, post-prize. This would have made an emotional story and one I would have been uncomfortable saying into a microphone on stage, with a spotlight and a crowd looking intently upon me.