Seeking out how texts are written, read and understood
Oscar Wilde’s Aestheticism was revisited at Keti Katha Kiyawamu, a literary discourse held at the Colombo Public Library recently.
Discussing three stories, Sunnadduli by Ajith Thilakasena, Mary nam wu Maria by Manjula Wediwardhana and Ardha by Shakthika Sathkumara, the discussants contended that a piece of work and its creator had no direct relationship to each other. Parallelly, they discussed how the literary community should respond to Shakthika Sathkumara’s arrest.
The writer was remanded under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) Act and the Penal Code over content deemed offensive to Buddhism for his short story Ardha. He was granted bail by the Kurunegala High Court on August 5, after spending four months behind bars.
Literary scholars Dr Kanchuka Dharmasiri and Krishantha Fredericks led the discussion, and readings and analysis were shared by literary critic K.K Samankumara, creative analyst Nadeeka Bandara and Open University lecturer Dr Athulasiri Samarakoon.
Among the questions asked were whether limits should be placed on socially sensitive thematic concerns, and how texts should be read and understood. Should a distance between the writer and the text be maintained? And most importantly, how can the short story be brought back into the forefront of national discourse?
The need for freedom of writing and expression was approached from different angles. The moderators explained that the stories from the three writers of three generations were specifically selected to demonstrate how different forms of rebellious writing have existed over time. Mr Samankumara who focused on Sunnaduli, declared that Thilakasena pioneered modernist writing in Sri Lanka. At a time when Realism was often depressing, and where the idea of a National-State was diminishing with the emergence of materialistic ideologies, the Peradeniya Gurukulaya with its aesthetic inclinations evolved at the Peradeniya University.
"Many in the audience believed that Sathkumara wanted to show how religion fails to diminish the human yearning for a materialistic life"
Through this, Thilakasena initiated his writings that symbolically represented anti-religious as well as same-sex content. With Sunnaduli, and a few more stories published in 1967, Thilakasena paved the way for writers like Gananath Obeyesekere and Victor Ivan, who researched and wrote along similar lines of contentious topics.
“Art is merely a decoration, like a Vesak lantern, in contrast to the artist who is a thinking, living being,” said Mr Samankumara, echoing the writer.
This was Thilakasena’s bias on Aestheticism - supporting the idea that art and the artist are separate.
Mr Samankumara highlighted extracts from Sunnaduli, that could be read from a feminist angle, but dismissed the possibility of such connections by stating that Radical Feminism came to Sri Lanka much later than 1967.
An instance where a sacred statue is damaged, a backdrop to the central story, was also viewed under the spotlight. Following these extracts, Mr Samankumara demonstrated how these denotations of sexuality and opposing views on religion detected in Thilakasena’s work had little to do with his personal beliefs.
He summed up by noting that this was merely modernist writing with the intention of catering logical solutions to society, or “a reaction to an action.”
“Perhaps social issues were mirrored unconsciously as a byproduct.”
Mary nam wu Maria by Manjula Wediwardhana, discussed by Nadeeka Bandara, was yet another story that transcended the limits of religious boundaries. Talking of relationships, infidelity and objectification in relation to Saints, the story had been extensively discussed and rejected by critics and the public alike. Ms. Bandara questioned these critiques and said:
“I cannot understand why the present-day society is unable to see how creative the author is. He is drawing contextual parallels of today, and of history.”
Meanwhile Dr Athulasiri Samarakoon discussed the timeliness of issues addressed in Ardha and asked:
“It’s true that we live within boundaries, but how do we cross over?”
He said this was exactly what was addressed in Ardha. Dr Samarakoon expressed the need for ideological, sexual and behavioural freedom for citizens with rights. He detailed how the search for identity is depicted through the character of Kasan, a clergyman. As for the incorporation of historical and present-day personals in fiction, he said this was merely to reproduce and recreate creative writing through multiple means. “Can’t we use this blend of mythical, historical and realistic symbols to give the story a completely different meaning?” he asked.
Dr Samarakoon concluded by saying that writing was a way of awakening the conscience of a reader, and that is what a writer strives at.
During the interactive question-and-answer session, an audience member stated that Ardha was in fact about restrictions of expression, adding that it was ironical that Sathkumara’s predicament was an extension of the same issue.
Another expressed the need to defend Sathkumara, his freedom of speech and his writing, rather than focusing on three short stories. One member responded by saying, “Art has to be discussed in order to show the depth and history of the crisis.”
Many in the audience believed that Sathkumara wanted to show how religion fails to diminish the human yearning for a materialistic life.
Others declared that his intention must have been to expose religious and political corruption, and thereby reconstruct religion through writing. Another opinion was that censorship was very much a part of the problem, and that it could only be countered through mass movements.
How Ardha is simply a story of restriction, power and liberation was stressed upon repeatedly.
One member gave a different reading, saying it is a story of guilt in a society that connects the man and the State through religion and culture.
Pointing out that stories should be read as a form of human expression alone, she said it was best not to compare and contrast one work of art with another, and that a piece of writing can be interpreted and be given different meanings.
"Others declared that his intention must have been to expose religious and political corruption, and thereby reconstruct religion through writing"
Three questions from the audience ended the discussion:
a)“If this story focused on another religion, would it be accepted by publishers?
b) How would the State react?
c) How differently would this discourse evolve?”
Future actions to do justice by Sathkumara were then discussed. Initiating an action committee, increasing the outreach to society via the media and giving statements were some solutions suggested.
The session drew to an end, instilling the idea that “To define is to limit” as were Wilde’s words, and how a writer or their writing can never be defined, nor limited, within a set frame.
*Keti Katha Kiyawamu (Let’s read Short Stories)