By Siri Gamage –
This month the annual international book fair is being held in Colombo. It is reported that hundreds and thousands Sri Lankans of all ages will flock to Bandaranaike International Sammanthrana Salava (Conference hall) to taste a sample of books published by local and international writers. Listening to Mr Vijitha Yapa in a recent Pathikada interview, it seems that the book publishers association of Sri Lanka have gone into much trouble to organise this mammoth event for the benefit of the reading public in Sri Lanka and visitors to the Island. A few notable books are to be launched during the book fair and school children in particular gets a discount, as are others in some measure.
According to Mr. Yapa, people still want to buy books and read even though the Internet has made inroads into the minds of reading public. Newspapers are also still popular among the readers in this Internet age when in other countries newspaper sales are declining. Among the books available for sale are those published in English and local languages. I am not sure if there are books in other world languages also for sale but a large number of Sinhala and Tamil translations will be.
Sri Lankans have been prolific writers and readers for centuries. They have put pen to paper to record their thoughts, experiences, imaginations etc. using whatever the languages they were familiar with and learned. Before the invention of pen and paper by the westerners, Sri Lankans used a traditional method and style of writing. Such writings pertaining to fields such as religion, medicine, history, are deposited in collections of Ola leaf or pus kola poth bundles. Writing, reading, and reflecting on human life, experiences, challenges, defeats and victories are part and parcel of a people who have developed their cultures and knowledge tools for centuries.
Writing and reading what we experience today or our ancestors experienced yesterday through fiction or non fiction provides not only much food for thought for us to be able to navigate our own lives but also important leads for next generations. Moreover, reading stimulates our critical faculties to look beyond day-to-day events and discourses in order to be able to detect ‘enduring patterns’ in our socio economic, political and cultural systems. The same applies to reading in international languages. When we read books in English or other world languages, we not only acquire insights about life experiences of other peoples and nations but also about their social systems along with specific knowledge fields such as various disciplines, e.g. social sciences, humanities.
However, when we read such books it is important to understand that knowledge imparted by books and other publications is not neutral and objective as some may want to portray. Writers who have certain biases in choosing the subject, topic, characters, the plot etc produce knowledge in specific social contexts. Writers are inclined to include certain messages in their work, whether they pertain to our economic, political, cultural and other fields. Some writers tend to go with the flow and depict human life in its romantic and fascinating dimensions. Others tend to be critical of existing social order due to its inequalities and imperfections and imagine or propose alternative possibilities. This is not unusual because there is a close nexus between knowledge and power as Michael Foucault (1926-1984) has amply demonstrated.
Writing itself is a powerful activity. One not only imparts messages –latent or manifest – to the reading public through writing but also influences the readers to change their thinking habits and patterns in a certain way. Moreover, books encourage readers to become writers thereby continuing the tradition of scholarship. Some writers have the abject intention of cultivating an audience. Others publish books on the basis of their continuing scholarly and creative activities as they evolve. Yet others are one-time publishers with no continuity or consequence.
It is pleasing to see that there are hundreds if not thousands of translations of books published in English and other world languages in the country and in the exhibition. While many young and old do not have the capacity to read in English due to lack of desire or circumstance, availability of translations make it possible for such readers to access world knowledge in their own languages. Thus the authors who translate books from other languages are doing an immense service to the reading public who is otherwise disenfranchised. Translations assume further significance because there is a concerted effort by the native English speaking countries to hegemonise the world of knowledge and knowledge practices by making English the only world language. This effort has economic and political implications to the advantage of native English speaking countries. This tendency also has the potential to erase the language diversity existing in the world while encouraging those who speak other languages to assimilate knowledge (ideas, arguments, perspectives, theories, methodologies) embodied in the books published in English to the exclusion of others. Language, literature, art, culture, creative work and other knowledge fields cannot be restricted to one language. Human imagination exists in multiple forms and they are expressed in multiple languages as a matter of course.
There seem to be a tendency in post colonial societies such as Sri Lanka to consider that the knowledge available in English as superior, objective and reflecting the only truth compared to knowledge available say for example in Indian, Sinhala, Japanese or Chinese languages. This is a myth created by ‘modernist thought’ during the British colonial period as part of the colonial project. Through my academic publications, I try to show this is not the case at least in social science writings. Knowledge available in social sciences in the English medium is PROVINCIAL rather than UNIVERSAL as writers such as Dipesh Chakrabarthy has shown.
Therefore, when we read books published in English and made available to us through the international book fair, we need to keep in mind that all knowledge is partial and they are produced in a certain social, economic, political and cultural context. Writers are human beings who are influenced by these systems and contextual factors. They are not godly characters with super human powers though they may represent a clan with better insights and power of articulation than many of us. Some writers display better skills in observation, reflection, and writing compared to others. Thus if you can pick a book written by a writer like Arundathi Roy, don’t hesitate to purchase it because her writings provide us with not only critical analysis of what is happening in the world today but also what could be done to change the world? In other words, try to distinguish between critical writers and establishment writers (those who emphasise the status quo) when choosing books. Because those written by critical writers may give you food for further thought and hidden messages as to how we can create a better world rather than continuing with the same old, oppressive systems where we are made prisoners of our own cultural, economic and political constructions and thought patterns
via elitist imaginations and creations. Look for books containing Imaginations about alternative social, economic, political and cultural spaces and possibilities among the hundreds and thousands of very descriptive books that do not add much to our existence or understanding.