Of Ameena Hussein’s work, I had earlier read Zillij (2005) and Moon in the Water (2007) which are later publications of a career as a writer that is said to have started in 1992. My encounter with her volatile and extremely engaging collection of short stories Fifteen (1999) happens after my reading of her later work, which left me with one pertinent question: what – what – happened to the spirit of Ameena Hussein who wrote Fifteen? What became of the raw, insistent, unabashed, unaffected, frontal voice that is so unaware/unconcerned/unheeding of an audience out there, tolerating no obstacle between herself and her delivery? Fifteen, I would say, is the best of Ameena Hussein to date. For people who may think Moon in the Water is her ultimate – as it has been more internationally read etc etc – well, Fifteen is more like the almighty water in the moon.
So, what became of Ameena Hussein? The voice of the penetrating upsetter of norm, and of narrowminded, inhibiting patriarchy? I think, what happened to that voice is that in subsequent publications – and with the inevitable awareness and consciousness of an audience afoot that accompanies recognition – it got tamed and domiciled: that the voice got domesticated and lost echo of its own self amidst the suffocating parameters of “good-book, good-storytelling”. The dynamo of Fifteen is Hussein’s personality and her inner spirit – in each observation that is made in that book, in every criticism that is leveled and every snarl made, what we hear is a personally concerned, personality-wielding voice that can be closely linked to the writer. In Moon in the Water and – maybe, to a lesser extent – in Zillij this possessiveness (a word I borrow from thovil, and not from love) between the writer and the writing is untraceable. The text is rendered bland and impersonal. The most vital ingredient that makes Hussein’s writing work is drained, and is substituted by a chemical that makes books go “international”. For a writer who can write as true and as honestly as Hussein does in Fifteen, this is an anti-climax: a sad one, at that.
A writer’s ultimate success and/or failure is not necessarily decided by the quality or the relevance of their prose or poetry. I would even say that the recognition of their work is least assessed by the quality of the produce, but by other negligible accessory factors. This is relevant to both Lankan and non-Lankan writers. There are committed, serious, dynamic men and women who write among us who are spoilt by premature adulation and laurels given dime-a-dozen, as much as they are automatically placed in the canon owing to the circles and triangles to which they belong. One such writer who has been corrupt by the people and fans around him is Ashok Ferrey – a fellow who takes his writing seriously, but who has been/was garlanded by undue glitz and glamour too early and too soon. All his books, since late, being published by Random House India is not necessarily a reflection of Ferrey’s genius, but of something randomly gone wrong in the publisher’s estimate of Lankan writing. The same fate is, to an extent, shared by Vivimarie VanderPoorten, who is, arguably, the most lyrical poet composing in English (published in Lanka) over the last decade (2006-2016), who became a “celebrity” on magazine covers and sundry after a single volume: Nothing Prepares You. VanderPoorten’s subsequent anthology was, in comparison, quite anti-climactic, and she has since undergone a poetic silence of sorts. A more honest and critical accolade would have helped VamderPoorten to grow and expand her craft.
Hussein is often located in the heart (if not the periphery) of the kind of mechanism that often is responsible for “overnight” literary icons, for whom Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, is the central vein of Lankan English creativity. In fact, Fifteen itself is published by ICES (where, I believe, Hussein was employed at one point), a Neelan Thiruchelvam initiative, but an icon for a closed non-governmental sector set up whose studies in ethnicity and related politics is a yard ahead of its occupation with literature. Hussein is equally identified with Galle Literary festival-like projects (periodically) and with other Colombo-English-speaking NGO activism. What I am striving to point out here is that over the years, the virility and energy of Hussein’s voice – as we encounter it in Fifteen – has been drained or stunted, and that her being tamed and domesticated within the NGO-run literary spaces of the metro has not helped her in building up on the platform she lays out for herself with projects like Fifteen. This is not to say that Hussein has an alternative. This is merely a theorized observation.
Perhaps, Ameena Hussein should go back to Fifteen. At times, the voice we hear there is repetitive and reveals crevices of the amateur. But, this is not a problem, as only a “desirable book” should have a formula that sells: the kind of book that heeds no repetitiveness or an amateurish streak of the person, even at the expense of it scything off what is honest and true in the expression. Soul-searching and time-travelling is essential for any writer who desires to find his/her stride or beat, and Hussein can prosper by where she ceremonially buried her ashes: in Fifteen. If the phoenix is to rise, those ashes may be of crucial significance.