Purpose, Function and Role: Literature without Borders, and the Bordering of Literary Awards.

In the present time, there are four major literary prizes to which Sri Lankan writers composing in English can submit their written work: the State Literary Award — the most senior of these prizes –, the Godage National Literary Award, the Gratiaen Prize and the Fairway National Literary Award. These four prizes, in that order, are presented by the Sri Lankan government through the Cultural Ministry, S. Godage Pvt Ltd — a leading publication establishment –, the Gratiaen Trust, and Fairway Holdings, who, since 2015 has constructive sponsorship interests in the literary space of Sri Lanka.

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A 1992 file photo of Dean Jones (Queensland and Australia) and Kepler Wessels (Australia and South Africa).

Out of these four awards, the ‘Fairway Prize’ is peculiar in its being a fiction-only platform, whereas, the other three forums facilitate multi-media interests. All four awards, in addition, purport to operate as ‘national’ prizes, and the wording that has carefully gone into their very baptisms testifies to this effect. What are the eligibility criteria for each of these four prizes? The Gratiaen Prize — still considered by many as the most prestigious of the four feathers — has a very carefully documented, extensive list of tick boxes through which eligibility is measured. The Gratiaen, as carefully worded, is a platform for resident Sri Lankan writers, and even if you are Sri Lankan and happen to live overseas, you are expected to fulfill a certain requirement of ‘being in Lanka’ for you to be able to enter the ring. Participation is application-based, copies of identity documents etc must be submitted for verification of identity. The process, in a word, is rigorous and serious.

The State Literary Award, though ideally the ‘premier’ of all prizes, is a less transparent process. The rules and regulations are not that freely available, application forms are only found in relevant offices in the Cultural Ministry from which those forms cannot be removed, a complicated submission process which is somewhat a ghost of a bygone era etc — and often than not, the State Literary Award leaves eyebrows raised and much to discuss and debate in the off season. The ‘new kid’ — and, should I say, the more ‘loaded’ kid — in the block of literary prizes is the Fairway National Literary Award: again, the name has all the linguistic necessities that denote a ‘national’ level prize, and it has earned a center-splash in the media as the FNLA also coincides with the Galle Literary Festival: another literary fiesta into which Fairway Holdings has generously channeled their funds.

Now, if the specifications of ‘Eligibility Criteria’ of the Gratiaen Prize is a long letter home, its counterpart in the Fairway Prize (as made available on the relevant website) is a regular telegram:

(1) Any original novel in print written in Sinhala, Tamil or English and published in Sri Lanka is eligible. Self published novels will also be accepted. The first publication of the novel must be in Sri Lanka and the novel must have a Sri Lankan ISBN number.
(2) To be eligible novels must be published between [Date / Month / Year] and [Date / Month / Year].
(3) The novel must be available for sale in bookshops.
(4)The decision of the relevant panel of judges as to whether a novel is eligible shall be final and binding. No correspondence in regard to this matter will be entered into.

The author and publisher criteria underlined here leave a few areas which, in addition to their being somewhat grey, are also prone for debate, interpretation and speculation: which, in that sense, should not be the case with regard to a table of criteria which is expected to clarify and define. But, then again, the prize is new and still in its early learning years, and in the maturing curve of things many apparent ‘loose ends’ may be discussed and revised in coming years.

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Inside Godage Book Emporium, Maradana.

But, as things stand, the Fairway ‘National’ Literary Award can — hypothetically — be contested by any one of Salman Rushdie, J.M Coetzee, Arundathi Roy, Chimamanda Ngoze Adichie, or even a posthumous Gabriel Garcia Marquez — that cheeky old dog — provided that the work is published in Sri Lanka and bears a Sri Lankan ISBN number. With it not having established the parameters of ‘national’ (or the specifications that govern participation within that signification), and by only highlighting the need for the respective author to have been published in Sri Lanka, a space which — at first light — appears to be a crevice of sorts has been left open. Sometimes, in literary platforms like ours – a young country with a small publication circuit with relatively fewer prize forums – one takes it for granted that its ‘national level’ prizes cater and draw the attention of ‘citizens’ of the country alone. But, in matters of definition one must not take things for granted.

(Out of four works that earned equal praise, the Fairway National Literary Award for 2017 was recently awarded to Amanda Jay: a first-time self-published writer who was shortlisted alongside Dutugemunu: Prince of Destiny by Rukmani Samaranayake (Sarasavi), The Song of the Sun God by Shankari Chandran (Perera-Hussein) and Wrath of Kali: The dark side of God by Mario Perera (S. Godage). At the time of the prize awarding, I had only read Dutugemunu and The Song of the Sun God which, in their different textures, made impressive and impactful ‘after-tastes’.)

DG5G7lcXcAAisba-1030x660As an extension of the premise I have already initiated — that on the definition of a prize-contestant’s Lankan origin and the continuation of it — I may also add a further point in its justification. In a private discussion on the matter, a friend was of the suggestion that not to have delimiting boundaries of sorts would perhaps contribute to enhance ‘good competition’ and would lead to better productivity. A second colleague was of the view that in a ‘globalized world’ one must shed delimiting factors such as ‘citizenship – legal or emotional’ and look at how wider, inspired participation contributes to the discourse of literature as a whole. The kind of logic that dictates ‘competition’ leading to ‘enhanced productivity’ does not necessarily work in a situation where you import from the first world — a world where the infrastructure and the machinery of literature circulation and consumption is of a different level, a world which is a part of bigger markets, bigger sales, wider reader-receiver cultures and so forth — a writer to lock horns with a Davidian manufacture that is the Lankan English literature industry. The notion of ‘healthy competition’ may make better sense in a situation where concerned parties are equal and are in parallel motion — like, for instance, in the case of Sinhala Literature, maybe — but, not in a situation where a prize that is meant (at some level) to felicitate at the national level and to give inspiration should equally take into consideration a writer who has already, by default, gone beyond that national forum (: Gabriel Garcia Marquez).

Even then, the existence of ‘national’ prizes in appreciation of literature and the arts cannot be scaled down to fit a wishful formula of ‘progress through open boundaries’. The purpose and function of these prizes by definition are of a national nature; and their awarding has to take into close consideration aspects which include the moral fulfillment the awardee (the Cultural Ministry, the Godage enterprise etc.) expects to satisfy by making that particular conferment. Besides, our age maybe ‘globalized’, but not one that can do without definition and boundary. Perhaps, one of the frontiers more vulnerable in this globalized illusion is the ‘national boundary’ and smaller nations and smaller industries — like Sri Lanka and its English writing niche — should not be unaware or undone by changing market tendencies in the Lankan book industry.

How do we inculcate and sustain a vigorous and (more) vibrant literary discourse? That, is the discussion for a different platform, and not altogether a new topic either (though some of its partakers are new to the panel). But, a sure first step would be to be set in a meaningful light the definitions and the labels; to upgrade configuration and to be clear on loopholes.

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