Kanthi Gunathilake is an unusual writer. She has written 52 works of fiction, and most of them are based in Japan. She writes about Japan and the Japanese with a level of knowledge and understanding that can come only with a deep feeling for the country and its people.
That she has lived in Japan for nearly two decades certainly helps, but her feeling and insights are not the result of a mere passage of time. Her books are not about expatriate (or gaijin) experiences in Japan. Her characters are Japanese and the writing unravels their actions and thoughts.
After writing so much, she hasn’t received much recognition. That she isn’t known in Japan is understandable because her books are in Sinhala, and haven’t been translated into either English or Japanese. But there hasn’t been much recognition at home, either.
Much of her work falls into the ‘youth romance’ genre. Of the five books reviewed, three – Kiyomi, Hima Bima Pamula and Noriko San – have young Japanese women as protagonists. They offer the requisite happy ending but are skillfully written. The author is quite good at producing dramatic tension through characterization.
In the novel Noriko San, Noriko and Chiko are close friends. Chiko’s elder brother Ichiro is a pleasant young man who begins to court Noriko. But the reader is left wondering what kind of man he is when Noriko hears that he has ties to the Yakuza, Japan’s underworld. She maintains dramatic tension in her stories with the use of such simple but effective devices.
Her writing reveals a close affinity with nature, and an obvious love of the countryside. Every book has detailed descriptions of Japan’s flowers and scenic beauty, along with rituals pertaining to Japan’s ancient and indigenous religions such as Shintoism, as well as with folk culture and festivals. While outsiders see Japan as a very industrialized and urbanized country, Kanthi Gunathilake takes the reader to a pastoral Japan where old world values and respect for the forces of nature still exist.
‘Puduma Hithena Iskole’ (Amazing School) is a children’s story. It isn’t actually about any school. Rather, it’s a heartwarming tale of friendship between two children. One is Yuki, a five-year-old girl whose mother was killed by a tsunami. Junkun, a six-year-old boy, is her friend. While exploring a child’s inner world, Yuki is unable to understand what people mean by saying her mother had died – she only knows that her mother doesn’t return home from wherever she is. But Juki learns what death could be like when Junkun disappears while trying to float on a toy raft in a river.
‘Hima Bima Paamula’ is a tale of young love, but its a story about Japan’s illegal immigrants who live in permanent fear of deportation. It’s brings together Yuri, a Brazilian girl of Japanese origin, and Mihran, a Bangladeshi student who stays behind as an illegal alien to earn some money, and helps Yuri through a difficult period of pregnancy as her Japanese lover disappears.
“Happy Beggar” is different from these Japanese stories as it is about a Portuguese fisherman and his family. Benjamin is considered lazy by the entire village but strikes fortune when his wife persuades him to move to a town and start life again. There is tragedy as Benjamin kills someone impulsively. This book, too, has a happy ending but her style makes for effortless reading, though one wonders if some of the names of her characters, such as Vessie, Ruby, and Meryl are Portuguese.
Her prose is easy to read and lucid. This is the opening passage from her novella “The Red Kimono.”
“The new day filled Hitomi with joy as she watched the sun rising from the Pacific Ocean. The wonders of the universe were amazing. But it was an illusion beyond description, a beautiful illusion which appeared and disappeared every day. The entire mountain range of Fukuyama was covered with snow. The white snowscape kissed by rays falling from the direction of the Pacific was a wonder to behold. The snow shone silvery in the sunlight, making the mountains shine like a conjuror’s trick.”
Her writing reveals a close affinity with nature, and an obvious love of the countryside
Kanthi Gunathilake can be contacted on phone no: 0718324824
The Red Kimono is based on a Japanese folk tradition. On Jan. 15, the sejinksi festival marks the ascendance of young Japanese from adolescence to adulthood as they turn 21, and earn their freedom. All her stories reveal such knowledge and understanding of Japan’s ancient culture and traditions.
Kanthi Gunathilake spent her childhood in Colombo and attended St. Anthony’s Girls’ School, where she excelled in Sinhala language and literature. She began professional life as a school teacher in Anuradhapura, but her life was transformed when she migrated to Japan in 1992 with her husband, a businessman.
Her literary talents seem to have blossomed there, shaped by her love of Japan and her culture. That she lived in Ibaraki Province, 150 km from Tokyo, obviously made a deep impression on her, as her books are full of vivid descriptions of the countryside. She is a writer who deserves wider recognition.