Literature and the politics of memory

21 December 2015 06:30 pm - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


Talking to Romesh Gunesekera – A perspective of all fields

As the saying goes, “Reading maketh a full man” and of course, sometimes, books can be your best friends. Literature has been there for generations, and some have changed history, made revolutions, and have generated revolutionary ideas and concepts. 

In English Literature, there were writers who made their landmarks in history, including modern authors, writing about politics, social values, human weaknesses, greed for power, the gap between the rich and poor, and social barriers and concepts, expressed through some literary masterpiece. 

Apart from International literature, we have our own community of English writers as well, such as Ashok Ferrey, Shyam Selvadurai , Shehan Karunathillaka, Michael Ondaatje and Romesh Gunesekera. 

They were able to captivate readers and conveying a message or some information through their own style, adding subtle humour, and also depicting the gravity and the reality of life. 

As for Romesh Gunesekera, he could be called as a man of many achievements, who contributed to put Sri Lanka in the international map of Literature. 

Born in 1954, he lived both in Sri Lanka and the Philippines and later moved on to London, where he’s based. 

His early stories were published in the Stand Magazine, London Magazine and Granta and his poems in the LRB, Poetry Durham and other magazines. 
His first novel, Reef, was shortlisted as a finalist for the Booker Prize. Later his  Monkfish Moon was one of the first titles in Granta’s venture into book publishing, which was shortlisted for the Guardian Fiction Prize.  It was shortlisted for several prizes and named a New York Times Notable Book for 1993. He has also written other novels such as The Sandglass, Heaven’s Edge, The Match, The Prisoner of Paradise  and Noon tide toll. 
He has won a numerous number of awards for his literary work , such as 2015 finalist for DSC Prize for South Asian writing. In 2004 he was elected fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

In 2005 he received Sri Lanka Ranjana honour , 1998 BBC Asia Award for Achievement in Writing & Literature, and University of Liverpool Rathbone Prize in Philosophy, to name a few. 

He has been a judge for a number of literary prizes including the Caine Prize for African writing, the David Cohen Literature Prize, the Forward Prize for Poetry. 

Having been the Guest Director at the Cheltenham Festival, an Associate Tutor at Goldsmith’s College, and on the Board of the Arvon Foundation for writing, now he is the Chair of Judges for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. 

Romesh is an amazing writer who can create a work of art through words, expressions and characters, ranging from Politics to human emotions, woven and connected together with immense creativity and imagination. 

The Daily Mirror had a short discussion with this man of all talents, regarding his literary work, and his perspectives of Literature in general. Excerpts:

Q  What, or who inspired you to take to writing?
As a child I enjoyed being in an imaginary world, especially one generated by words. When I was about fifteen I wanted to create these fictional worlds. There was no single adult who inspired me, but a small circle of friends who enjoyed writing for the exhilaration of it.

Q  Your first book, the Monkfish Moon is a collection of short stories, reflecting the ethnic and political tensions, which threatened Sri Lanka since independence in 1948. It was shortlisted for several prizes too. How do you reflect on the socio-political situation then and now?
My most recent book, Noontide Toll, is a kind of response to that first book. They make a pair. Both use short stories to paint a bigger picture, both deal with the tensions of their time.  The Monkfish Moon was published in 1992; Noontide Toll came out in 2014. 

There are of course big changes in the socio-political situation but some of the central issues to do with power and inequality remain.  In the more recent book, the politics of memory is prominent, and that is a reflection of our times.

Q What future lies for Sri Lankan writers especially after three decades of war?
I have seen a tremendous growth in Sri Lankan writing in all three languages, but especially visible in English, since the time my first book came out. I think the future is promising for Sri Lankan writers — there is a lot to write about besides the war. But big traumatic events have long lasting repercussions and don’t just fade away.

Q What is your perspective of Sri Lankan literature, both Sinhala and English, compared to global literature? Where do we stand? As an experienced writer how do you view the situation in Sri Lanka with regard to literary work?
 Sri Lankan writing has a long tradition of writing and literature in all three languages: Sinhala, Tamil, English. This plurality of traditions is an advantage and writers who can draw on all three languages will gain a great deal. Sri Lankan writing, like Indian writing or British writing, has to be a flexible notion. Language, background, affinity, focus all play a part. The other advantage is that Sri Lankan writing is enriched by the experiences of an extraordinarily widespread Diaspora. Sri Lankan writing, like Sri Lankan cooking, will use ingredients from all over the world and will have its roots in more than one place. The idea of Sri Lankan writing needs to be able to accommodate this diversity. Luckily, it seems to be happening. Sri Lankan novels, however one describes them, are gaining profile. International prize lists, like the DSC, are one indication.

Q What are your suggestions to develop the literary field in Sri Lanka?
Readers are the key. The writing will thrive when the readers thrive. Sri Lanka has high literacy — the first requirement. The book reading habit and an appetite for fiction is the other requirement, which I hope is growing. Newspapers like this one can play a significant role in reader development. By creating a buzz about books, especially literary books. If reading takes off, writing will too.

Q The Gratien Prize is the highest achievement given in the field of English Literature in Sri Lanka. And there are festivals such as the Galle Literary Festival, State Literary Festival, A&K Festival, and the Swarna Pusthaka. Are there any positive aspects from these festivals?
Yes, I think these are very positive and important reasons why writing has been flourishing recently in Sri Lanka. Michael Ondaatje’s founding of the Gratien was brilliant and writers and readers have benefitted hugely from it. The Galle Literary Festival showcased writing which I am sure has had a positive effect, particularly on young readers and their aspirations even if they only hear about it.

Before literary festivals started, there used to be writers’ conferences. Those were created to bring writers together. Festivals are about bringing writers and readers together.

Q We cannot talk about serious literature without politics .How do you compare the political system in Sri Lanka and England?
Now even the weather is recognized as a matter of politics. Call it climate change, if you like. Political systems everywhere are under stress. In today’s world, there is far more in common than we sometimes think. 

The refreshing surge in political participation, for example.  Social media and its effect on traditional politics is another common area. 
The importance of the ‘Like’ factor in the 21st Century. Instant judgments. news management. Public expectations of politicians, issues of accountability. What we expect of representative democracy. The corrosive effect of war on public policy. These are all important factors that affect the political systems of both countries.

I have just come back from the Philippines, which is gearing up for a presidential election next year. The rehabilitation of political figures seems to be very much on the agenda there, and this is to do with the politics of memory. 

The excesses of the Marcos regime for example are beyond the personal memory of most Filipinos as the majority was born after that period. The Martial Law era of the 1970s is like a nightmare that happened to somebody else, even though key figures from that time are still in politics. As a result there is a lot of manipulation going on with collective memory and history. 

How people regard what happened in the past is crucial. You can see this in Britain with Blair’s legacy, or what people remember of the Thatcher era, or the Callaghan years, or the Heath Years long ago. In the case of Sri Lanka, knowing what happened in the past is equally fraught and problematic.

Q Who is the best Sri Lankan English writer whom you have seen so far? Do you see a second generation coming up?
I don’t go in for notions of ‘best’ in writing. Books and writers speak to you in their own time. Some are urgent and immediately relevant and others reach you in a more leisurely way. There are lots of new writers coming on the scene in Sri Lanka and abroad and I think that is exciting. I’d recommend you read more than one book, more than one writer. There is a lot to discover.

Q How do you find the experience of being the Chairman of Judges for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize? What are your responsibilities? There is criticism by writers about nepotism and politicization of literary festivals in Sri Lanka. What is your comment?
This was one of the most unusual judging experiences I have had. All our meetings were in virtual space as the five judges were on five different continents and we were never physically in the same room, although our voices were. My role was to ensure that on this intercontinental journey everyone had a chance to express their opinions and that we arrived at a consensus. A good literary competition does two things: Highlights new writing that deserves greater exposure, and creates a serious discussion on literature that somehow enhances our cultural life.  This one did both for me. To talk seriously about fiction and engage with writers’ right across the globe was amazing. As for literary festivals, these are always a work-in-progress. Like everything else they need to evolve, spread, multiply. Criticism suggests there is significant interest.

Q Are you currently working on a new novel?
A: Yes. This interview is a short break. The characters are jumping and waving and calling me back. I better go.

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