Tradition and Individual Talents

by Vihanga

At SLAM 010 there were 15 readers reading across 2 days – Ameena Hussein, Ayadore Santhan, Ashok Ferrey, Shehan Karunatilaka, Malinda Seneviratne, Sumathy Sivamohan, Shehani Gomes, Carl Muller, Liyanage Amarakeerthi, Mark Wilde, Isuru Prasanga, Mahinda Prasad Masimbula, Marlon Ariyasinghe, Namali Premawardena, Dhanuka Bandara, Ashan Weerasinghe and Self. Shehan, who is in Singapore, was represented by Prasad Pereira, while the illusive Mark Wilde (juliet Coombe’s million dollar secret) was foiled by an agent of Sri Serendipity Publishers.

SLAM turned out to be much richer than what we expected. Much richer, I say, for there at the centre of the forum was what many literary forums I have been to in recent years were lacking: the element of debate and opinion. Perhaps, SLAM not being an academic floor (though taking place at the Athenian seat of Peradeniya) prompted provoked exchange; but, this, in my view, is what our literary sphere needs, if it is to evolve as a more progressive discourse.

The flyer promoting SLAM proclaimed that this was a forum that brought together “different positions” in Lankan English creativity. As organizers we wanted to draw on to one floor the main people who were publishing today, representing different views and entry points. A pre-event criticism was whether SLAM was gonna be an “economy class GLF” — our belief was that it was not; and the intensity of the debates and discussions had much to offer us; at least it has left a lot for the readers without borders. There is little reason why it should be otherwise, too, for the critical reader who dropped by us.

Sri Lankan English writing is largely “Colombo-centric”. This is a fact we have to admit; nor should there be a problem in that. It is equally a largely “upper-than-middle-class” literature. The publishing, the marketing and the promoting of literature often takes place concentric to the above definitions. Then, at strategic locations away from this centre – but, in turn, interacting with it and moving around it all the same – there are the “rest of us”.   SLAM was the forum where readers from either end, and many who are un/consciously located in between this varied spectrum met. The arguments were insistent and provocative, perhaps, because of this very reason. The boiling point was consistently on the cards, because their positions were represented and defended with passion. For once, the scrub brush and the back scratch was kept out and open debate issued.

The literary-conscious media was represented at SLAM by several active journalists / critics. Rajpal Abenayake, Ranga Chandraratne, Indeewara Thilakaratne and Vishwa Daniel were among them. The forum was also livened by the voice of many earnest undergraduates and students. Being a graduate from Peradeniya I was thrilled to see a literary enthusiasm among the students which I didn’t know (to the same degree) when I was an undergrad, not too long ago.

There were no less than 6 hard-hitting spill overs. Sivamohan Sumathy, Malinda Seneviratne, Rajpal Abenayake, Sam Perera, Juliet Coombe, Danesh Karunanayake, Carl Muller were all engaged in intense opinion-exchange. Sam Perera went on to state that my university degree was crap, cos I — according to him — wrote sub-standard English with grammar errors and spelling mistakes. As evidence (maybe he chose not the best testimony to the fact) he presented the house the following line from my Unplugged Quarter:

“The staircase gives several burps as it received her weight on her climb to the upper landing” (UQ, 4).

He pointed out the irreverence caused by the word “burps”. Unplugged Quarter, on the whole, has 5 typographical errors: genuine errors of a fallible eye. The grammar I work with is the grammar which my works resonate. It is not the grammar I use to write my academic assignments — which is an obvious point, I believe, which requires no footnote or annotation. Sam said that he deduced that my academic work was written in the same “grammar”. Hence, his culpa. His hamartia.

Sri Serendipity's new book, The Suicide Club.

Grammar was at the heart of another boil-over that saw Juliet Coombe and her 2 crew of Sri Serendipity leave the room in protest. Here, Juliet was voicing her concerns over poet Ashan Weerasinghe — writing in Sinhala — not discriminating the dhanthaja and murdhaja consonants. Juliet pointed out how she, herself a “learner” of Sinhala, has often been put to discomfort by writers not sticking to the “proper grammar”.

For both Sam Perera and Juliet Coombe — this argument on “proper grammar” is old — very old. And as writers we have come a long way from being knuckle-dustered by these creativity-crippling conventions. Expression renews itself every moment and in every thought that is thought. Do you have enough space for your “proper grammar” to come in? Sam Perera said that grammar has to be “proper” as the publisher has a “responsibility” to the reader. These are high flown phrases and imagined consumer ethics that, in turn, hinder and block out the creative impulse. The reader who wants to read me will read me. The reader who wants to understand my writing will understand my writing. Readers who will to understand and read James Joyce have done so. Readers have not held down the publisher as being “irresponsible” when reading Laurence Stern, TS Eliot, Jean Paul Sartre, Andy Warhol, Orhan Pamuk — the list goes on; here, I am quoting merely a random few. If this is all what the top end publishing houses in Sri Lanka knows of creativity — in Lakdas Wikkramasinha’s words, “save me from the clap!”.

Ashan Weerasinghe --- extends the "no-nana lala" debate

Coming back to Juliet Coombe’s midfield collision of opinion — a member from the audience intervened and questioned Juliet’s legitimacy in questioning Ashan Weerasinghe’s grammar. Incidentally, at that point, there were only 2 “Sinhala writers” in the room; and both, coincidentally, were proponents of the “non-murdhaja” format. Ashan and Liyanage Amarakeerthi were the two — both prolific and “radical” (at least to me). Juliet’s problem, as I see it, is that she entered an already flogged debate (maybe she didn’t know this — that the puritan Sinhala grammarians were moving sky and earth to preserve the reactionary murdhaja complexity; while the likes of Ajit Thilakasena, and later, Amarakeerthi were taking a liberating stance with regard to the same) but with little understanding of the discourse. Juliet was interrupted by a member of the floor, Dr. Karunanayake, who asked what authority Juliet had — coming from “outside” — to impose grammar rules on the young Sinhala poet, who was pushing the boundaries of creativity at the expense of the puritan grammarian. Because, Juliet reiterated the fact that she was herself a “learner of Sinhala” and that she was often baffled by “deviant use of grammar” etc.

As I understood it, Karunanayake’s point was that Juliet is a “learner”; but, a “learner” who was entering the discourse Ashan Weerasinghe and co were re-fashioning, but to interpolate it; for her sake. I have noticed Juliet Coombe often underline the fact that she is “Sri Lankan” — for her policy and her work ethic, for the past 6 years, has been “Sri Lankan”. It may pass off in a less critical circle, perhaps. However, the cultural baggage we carry doesn’t pack or unpack just like that — through one’s insistent claim that s/he is of a particular nation. Michael Ondatjee became a “Sri Lankan writer” only as late as 1992: when he won the Booker Prize.

Crystal and Thilina in Dhanuka Bandara's "The Commode"

I also have to applaud the reception received by the emerging Sinhala poets Isuru Prasanga and Mahinda Prasad Masimbula. I think that their solo readings easily destabilized the performances by some of the more “established” writers. I am sure that the house will back me on this. In addition, we had Marlon Ariyasinghe — a friend for many years and who will shortly be published — Namali Premawardena and Dhanuka Bandara reading. I felt that their readings gave me much hope for the future of our literature. It is my earnest desire to see these people in print. Sri Lankan English literature needs to be decentralized and alternative narratives have to come in. This is what I wrote in the very first newspaper article I ever wrote; and it is the singular proposition I promote to this day. To see Marlon, Dhanuka, Ashan and Namali gives me much power and hope to carry on.

Marlon is easily the most radical and the most expressive poet I have come across. Not cos he uses swear words and stuff. But, the very critical level at which he makes his interventions and the intensity with which he delivers has always made me hold his writing at awe; and has even made me feel quite small at times. But, the tricky part is that Marlon is being published by a “international-targeting” publishing house. They have enough charm, rhetoric and sophistry to invert this “poetic giant” into a whoring dwarf. My earnest wish is that nothing goes wrong.

What the fish!! Bigger the better...

If you, dear writer, has to choose between pay cheques and principle, opt for the latter. Do not yield your creative impulse and your experimental strain for cheap thrillers and market mileage. Your principles and your experimentation will save the day; when that day, at some point, does come. Let the big publishing magnets fish around. They have enough bait. The pond will always have enough fish.