Anne Ranasinghe, poet and holocaust survivor, passed away last week and was buried three days later in Colombo, two continents away from her native Essen, where she relaunched her life as a poet and cultural icon, after a ruptured youth affected by Nazi rule in Germany in the 1930s, and world war II. Personally, Anne Ranasinghe’s poetry was never among my favourite, nor was her writing progressive in my eye; but, notwithstanding, Ranasinghe is arguably one of the two best known and most widely read Lankan poets of post-independence: the other being, Jean Arasanayagam. From syllabuses to anthologies, and from academic papers to newspaper articles, Anne Ranasinghe’s work is widely represented for the right and wrong reasons. Her death brings down the lid on another of the generation of Lankan writers who have steadily contributed to the national literature corpus from the 1970s, through the 80s and 1990s.
Upon close analysis, Ranasinghe’s literary corpus is, in a word, somewhat repetitive in theme and scope, while her range is limited. Her social consciousness is, again, restricted by her classed, elite location as a member of the upper end of Colombo 7’s Rosmead Place, while her empathy with and reception of the culture and pulse of the soil appears to be superficial at best, and minimal otherwise. Her poetry is a reflection of these rubrics that give shape to her voice and delivery, and have been placed in perspective by writers such as Dhanuka Bandara who, in 2015, wrote a provocative – if cheeky – essay on Ranasinghe’s work, range and her call to fame (See link here ) .
How, then does a writer, who is largely monotonous and repetitive, comparatively lacking in social and cultural insight, politically disconnected with Lanka and its social, economic and political fates, and who is not necessarily a progressive experimenter in structure, style or craft end her career at 91 or so, as one of the most widely read Lankan poets? Partly, this is an indirect outcome of the good work by education policy-makers and syllabus-setters of the Lankan school, diploma and university systems who, by perpetuating Ranasinghe within the corpuses read and studied at these levels, has inject to her work a fetish value, endorsing it as a selection undiscardable from the classroom. It is evident that the various literature syllabi have a key role in the value addition to some writers, and the doing away with of others, thereby setting the measurements of canonization and legitimization of “literature” from the “not-so-literary”. The role of the syllabus-setter and her aptitude as a designer of literary value and cultivator of literary taste has to be therefore briefly examined.
If one is to consider the GCE Ordinary and Advance Level syllabuses for English Literature as (convenient) examples, the confusion and chaos in the syllabus design, as well as the directionlessness of the planning reveals to us the grim reality that faces literature studies at the national level. One of the prominent cogs of the GCE Ordinary Level syllabus-designer machine has had no substantial exposure to literature in a B.A classroom beyond the one fourth of a dozen texts offered in the heavily Language Studies-oriented Distance Learning first degree through which he has qualified into the Academy. To my knowledge, he is yet to complete his postgraduate requirements, but is since long being used as a vital resource in national syllabus design at the highest level by bodies such as the NIE. The GCE A/L syllabus is an even sadder tragedy of errors, where a strange mixture of incompetence, greed for recognition, lack of awareness of the ground conditions and lack of insight into the student sample have produced two farcical syllabuses (including the syllabus set to be introduced in 2017) in the past decade or so. The syllabus designers and (so-called) coursebook-writers at the GCE A/L Literature include (at least more than) one person who often show(s) abysmal spoken and written competency, while the team also includes persons who have no in depth exposure to Literature in graduate environments. It is deductive that none of these syllabus-designers have any knowledge of the classroom conditions or of the student samples they are assigned to accommodate by the syllabus they are meant to design. The 2011-2017 teachers’ guide is a shocking document, cheap and erratic, while displaying an amateurish and straight-laced approach to literature that is alarming and – to say the least – hazardous to the growth of scholarship. It is one of the most scandalous documents I have encountered in my life, and this is not entirely owing to its free and liberal use of Wikipedia and Spark Notes-type material.
The composition of the recent GCE syllabus-setter was used here to illustrate the creative and imaginative inadequacy of the steering force in literature education in as seen in recent years. The GCE A/L syllabuses from 1974 to the present will most certainly keep the doctor away (but the mental health inspector at close quarters), with its repetitive recycling and rehashing of a series of texts and writers, set within a rigid, firmly-set rubric. The syllabus policy, I am told, is for a syllabus to be exhausted after an eight year run. As such, we have between 1986 and 2017 three syllabuses, each one having a set structure that has gone unchanged and unaltered for 30 years. The same goes for the bulk of the syllabuses’ core content and selections. Of the three syllabuses of the defined frame, perhaps, the syllabus in use from 1997 to 2010 is the better and more progressive one. The syllabus currently in use, as well as the proposed syllabus set to be initiated in 2017 are both the work of a collective Frankenstein.
The cult status of Anne Ranasinghe’s poetry is partly the by product of imbecility at work. Perhaps, at one point, in a given moment, at particular juncture of Lankan literature’s evolutionary growth, Anne Ranasinghe may have produced a certain meaningfully locatable body of verse. But, clearly, the Academy has failed to receive her work critically, or to place her comparatively in the pantheon of our rhyming bards. One example is the increasingly diminished position a writer like Lakdas Wikkramasinha receives in university as well as GCE classrooms. Wikkramasinha, even in our time and age, is a unique and powerful voice, though he died as far back as 1978. Arguably, Peradeniya is the only university that still teaches a palpable corpus of Wikkramasinha’s writing; and that, too, might change with senior scholars such as Nihal Fernando and Arjuna Parakrama being led away from chalk and Chaucer by their ultimate retirements. Sri Jayewardenepura has its own full course of Sri Lankan Literature that enables a more detailed and focused study, but in heavily gendered English departments and with some deplorably theory-laden teachers, Lakdas Wikkramasinha has shrunk to an under-represented, innoucuously read fossil, referred to in a line or two which does no justice to his nuance and often multi-faceted and vibrant delivery. The disfigurement of Lakdas is so acute that even his name has, over the years, changed in its vowels: from Lakdas, to Lakdasa (refer to his Luster Poems for Wikkramasinha’s preferred spelling of his name).
I also suggest that a second – if at all a more forceful – factor that dictates Ranasinghe’s regal presence as an icon of Lankan English poetry is her non-Lankan origin. In his scathing poem Talking of Michelangelo Richard de Zoysa scoffs at the English literary hood of Lanka (himself included) as a double-faced, hypocritical entity that has its windows tight against social reality. The English literary sphere is often equally the bearer of colonial hang ups, and one that assigns fetish price tags to Caucasian expatriates. The adoration of average white-skinned B.A (General degree) holders by upper middle class, new capitalist parents in choice international schools in Greater Colombo often collapses the compartments of time, stringing in one extending chain of events the coffee and tea-cultivating Brit, the long migrated writer whom we still like to call “ours”, and the white-skinned educator we hunger after to make the Principal of our otherwise half brown-skinned school. Ranasinghe’s work, I suggest, has been more readily accepted owing to her “past” and the survivor tale with which she arrives. While Ranasinghe has been a readily included choice across syllabuses, it is intriguing how writers such as Gamini Seneviratne, Rienzie Cruze, Asoka Weerasinghe, Regi Siriwardena (from the 70s and 80s), or (for instance) a more versatile, perceptive and hard-hitting expressionist such as Tarzie Vitachchi have been grossly under-represented or never featured in the national curricula.
Anne Ranasinghe, to her merit, is evocative of powerful graphics and vivid images. Often, her writing transports us to a realm deeply resonant and “alive” with the confusion, chaos, blood and cold-blooded violence she frequently illustrates through her work. But, that alone is no arsenal for greatness, or for progressive representation. Anne Ranasinghe has now crossed the proverbial river. Who, now, will take her place?