- Jean Arasanayagam’s vitality within Sri Lankan literature can be mainly understood in two significant ways. Initially, her Dutch-Burgher origins and her position as an ‘outsider-insider’ within Sri Lankan culture and literary expression place her in an interesting position
- Specifically, at the height of ethnic tensions in 1983. What she experienced during the Black July riots marked a watershed moment of her literary expressions. The hopelessness, bitterness and suffering of ethnic violence was something she could observe at a distance, until July 1983
“You possess this one body,
is it possible to keep it inviolate
when it is already possessed by the
suzerainty of that overlord
Grand Seigneur, Death, we, humans, vulnerable
minions, subject to the Power that condemned us
to eternal serfdom in that closely-guarded fiefdom”
Jean Arasanayagam writes these lines in her poem titled ‘Mortality’, which appeared in her poetry collection Life of a Poet. As it represents, being mortal humans, we all live lives with one sure destiny: death.
However, some of us walk between the lines of mortality and immortality, by living their lives with much vitality and vigour. Poets and the writers mostly belong to this category, as they try to negotiate with their mortal selves and the infiniteness of life itself. This is where I would try to place Jean Arasanayagam, a prolific writer of our times.
Jean Arasanayagam nee Solomons was born in Kandy on 2 December 1931. She was a poet, writer of fiction and non-fiction and a painter of Dutch-Burgher descent. She was a graduate of the University of Ceylon, Colombo, and received her M. Litt. from the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, Scotland. Her prowess as a writer has been recognized by numerous National Awards, including the coveted Gratiaen Prize 2017 for her poetry collection Life of a Poet. However, her speciality as a writer exceeds mere awards, as the authenticity of her experiences and expressions represent above par excellence.
"This is what she tried to represent in her writings, as they are ultimately a part of human life. The infinite sufferings and the joys, the disappointments and the exultations find their way into her poetry"
My first encounter with Jean Arasanayagam was through her poetry, as a literature student, where I was enamoured by her literary expressions. My second encounter was at the 2017 Gratiaen Prize ceremony, where I was able to speak a few words with her after she won the award. She was a cheerful lady, jovial in her expressions. As someone who admires her poetry, hearing of her death on July 30, 2019, was a shock and a loss deeply felt.
Jean Arasanayagam’s vitality within Sri Lankan literature can be mainly understood in two significant ways. Initially, her Dutch-Burgher origins and her position as an ‘outsider-insider’ within Sri Lankan culture and literary expression place her in an
"As an individual who lived through transitioning times of Sri Lanka, she lived through many memories, consisting of both good and bad recollections. However, Jean Arasanayagam never identified herself as a victim, even at the face of terrible experiences"
Secondly, her transformation as a person who encountered ethnic riots and violence also played a significant part in her maturity as a poet.
Being a Dutch-Burgher by birth, her upbringing was more aligned with Western inclinations. She negotiated her positionality as a writer within these dynamics to find an authentic identity and a voice. In an interview with LeRoy Robinson in 1988, Jean Arasanayagam commented on her origins as a Dutch-Burgher. Answering a question on her search for identity, she says:
This is the country in which I feel my identity can be explored, especially in the present context. It is an identity with perspectives. In the past, I took things for granted. I was a Burgher. We were descended from the Dutch. We were Westernized. We more or less intermarried and mixed within this group. Now I am aware of many other factors, especially that I have not only Dutch blood in my veins. Being Burgher enables me to be fairminded, impartial. I do not see the current ethnic issue from one point of view. I am removed from this restrictiveness. My identity is found in my work, my writing. I question critically the aggrandisement and exploitation of Colonialism. These are inescapable facts.
Instead of making her hybrid identity an impediment, Jean uses it to portray authentic observations about Sri Lankan culture, traditions practices and related issues. Most of her poetry in A Colonial Inheritance and Other Poems proves this. For instance, in the poem ‘Epics’ which appears in this collection, Jean Arasanayagam speaks of a ‘semblance’ of her face that she finds in the colonial artefacts that are displayed:
Within glass cases
Artefacts of time. Minted coins abraded
Silver larins, golden guilders, stuivers,
Ancient swords stained with rust
And blood. Firearms antique,
And in my face – a semblance.
She acknowledges her duality within a culture that was conquered and ruled by colonizers, accounting for the atrocities that were committed by them. This acknowledgement helps to be impartial, placing her in a unique positionality within the entire process.
However, her origins represent only one side of her identity as a poet. Her marriage to Thiyagarajah Arasanayagam and being identified with the Tamil culture and community also played a significant role in her expression as a writer.
Specifically, at the height of ethnic tensions in 1983. What she experienced during the Black July riots marked a watershed moment of her literary expressions. The hopelessness, bitterness and suffering of ethnic violence was something she could observe at a distance, until July 1983.
As she states in her poem titled ‘1958…..’71…..’77…..’81…..’83’, which highlights the different years in which ethnic violence took place, “But now I am in it/ It’s happened to me/At last history has meaning”. Regi Siriwardena also substantiates this idea, where he says:
But it was in the crucible of July 1983 that Jean Arasanayagam’s poetry was completely transmuted. Like many other women of her class, she found herself undergoing the hitherto inconceivable as violence overwhelmed her and her family, and she was compelled to share the terror and anguish of a community to whose fate she was bound not by birth but by marriage.
Most of her poetry in Apocalypse ‘83 represents these violent realizations of what it means to be an ‘outsider’ within a space you identified as your own. Specifically in the poem Aftermath, she states:
I didn’t know this country, I didn’t know
That I didn’t belong until I was surrounded
Hunted out forced to disclose my identity
To spell out danger
Thus, the poetry she created after these experiences were touching and more mature than her earlier works. Her ‘insider-outsider’ position within the crisis, where the negotiations of her origins, her marriage and her identity as a writer interact with each other, makes these expressions more realistic and remarkable.
As an individual who lived through transitioning times of Sri Lanka, she lived through many memories, consisting of both good and bad recollections. However, Jean Arasanayagam never identified herself as a victim, even at the face of terrible experiences. As she states in an interview with Anshita Deval of the University
Time becomes timeless, the past is ever in our present, we have to return again and again into that past, in fact, exhume the past to explore the revelatory truth. History is alive to me, I explore it all the time. The journey involves a relentless search for the truth and nothing but the truth. One must, even in the process of undergoing intense alienation and suffering, avoid self-pity… No, I’ve never shed tears of self-pity. That would be cowardly. Victim – the very thought diminishes you, makes you weak. Defenceless. Moreover, the seabed is full of oysters – your selfhood is not the only precious pearl.
This is what she tried to represent in her writings, as they are ultimately a part of human life. The infinite sufferings and the joys, the disappointments and the exultations find their way into her poetry.
As she writes in ‘The Life of a Poet’, a poet’s task is not to seek glory or acceptance. It is to feel and to express human emotions, giving meaning to utterances. It is to be brave when bravery fails you and to take up arms against the injustice and violence with words. This is what Jean Arasanayagam did until the end of her days.
“No, the true poet is never the victor,
never seeks the cheers of vociferous voices
or the applause of surging crowds
drowning the voice of spontaneous utterance”
Even though Jean Arasanayagam writes these lines in ‘The Life of a Poet’, she is ultimately a victor within Sri Lankan literary canon. She might not have sought out glorification. But, it was given to her all the same, by those who understood and appreciated her work. Even though she passed away, marking a great loss to Sri Lankan literature, her contributions and her expressions will remain, immortalizing the name of Jean Arasanayagam and the messages of courage and humanity she shared.