By Malinda Seneviratne –
It is customary for the winner of the Gratiaen Prize for Creative Writing to deliver an acceptance speech. Accordingly, on Saturday May 24, 2014, as the recipient of the prize I addressed the audience. In previous years, The Nation has featured those shortlisted for the award as well as the eventual winner. Naturally, I excluded myself from these exercises. This time, however, for reasons that do not require elaborate, when the Features Editor wanted ‘something’ I said I would write what I remember of my acceptance speech. Later I realized that I might not remember everything and also that in the rush of the moment I left out certain things I ought to have mentioned. So in this piece I will write what I said and in italics add that which I did not but ought to have.
It occurred to me that 29 years from now, I would be just one of fifty Gratiaen Prize winners. Now had I not won, 29 years from now (who knows?) I might be the only one to have been shortlisted on five occasions. I’ve submitted to the Gratiaen six times over the past seven years. Looking back, the high point has clearly been winning the H.A.I. Goonetilake Prize for the Best Translation, that of Simon Navagaththegama’s Sansaaraaranyaye Dadayakkaraya. That was special because that text is an important literary landmark and because Simon Navagaththegama was one of the best writers in Sinhala in the second half of the last century. It was special because of who Ian Goonetilake was. He was an adornment to the Gratiaen.
In the past seven years, thanks to the Gratiaen, I encountered many good writers. Among the poets whose work I am acquainted with, there was Vivimarie Vander Poorten the winner of the 2007 Gratiaen. Ramya Jirasinghe, to my mind, is the most outstanding poet of my generation. There is Marlon Ariyasinghe who wrote a book called ‘Froteztology’ some years back. He was not shortlisted. There is Dhanuka Bandara, again someone who was not shortlisted. He has a kind of confidence in expression, wit and ability to dissect that is rare in one so young. Inosha Ijaz, shortlisted this time, is clearly the poet of tomorrow. Her mastery of metaphor and her ability to connect disparate things in new and thought-provoking ways is amazing. There’s another poet I must mention although he never submitted for the Gratiaen. Rasika Jayakody writes about love in poetic form in a way that no one I know can.
Among those who write prose, there’s of course Shehan Karunatilleka and there’s Asgar Hussein. I was impressed by Ruwanthi De Chickera and Nadee Kammellaweera for the script of their play ‘Kalumali’. There are probably others whose names I’ve missed.
There have been strange moments too. For example, on one occasion we were told that ‘unfortunately there was very little engagement with political themes’. I had thought that what was being assessed was literary worth of texts submitted. The judges may have their preferred topics, but that’s largely irrelevant. More seriously, when one yearns for the political what is implied is that there are political preferences which, naturally, factor in to decision. By the same token there would also be political positions opposed or even abhorred. I’ve often wondered, I must say, about the politics of the Gratiaen or rather its key players.
It was stated once that perhaps the Gratiaen Trust should consider having separate prizes for poetry, short stories and plays. Again, this surprised me. The Nobel Prize for Literature has been given not only to novelists. It’s a position that has been echoed by others, some writing to newspapers. The claim is that writing novels is somehow tougher. Well, more sweat does not necessary deliver better literature, if indeed there’s more ‘effort’ in writing a novel as opposed to a collection of poetry. Pablo Nerud, Octavio Paz, Rabindranath Tagore are among several poets who have won the Nobel Prize, I told myself.
So it’s been a long seven years. Let me begin with the first time I submitted. I was thrilled to learn that I had been shortlisted. That year, however, I was disqualified. I found out who had moved for my disqualification and was not surprised to learn that he is someone for whom the Gratiaen was an adornment. Let me not say anything more about that. That same year, I remember clearing someone’s name. In public. That someone, when the opportunity came, did not clear my name, even though that someone knew (and acknowledged to me later) that I was in the clear. I lost a friend that night. I gained a lesson.
I was disappointed. I didn’t want to submit to the Gratiaen again, but on the 30th or 31st of December 2008, I decided I would rag the next set of judges by forcing them to read something I had written. I had some poems but the collection seemed too thin. Fortunately I had another collection. I had been inspired by a beautiful book by Pablo Neruda, ‘The Book of Question’. It was to these questions that Inosha had provided those beautiful answers in her Gratiaen submission. The book inspired me to write my own questions, some 250 of them. So I broke them into groups of five and inserted each set between the poems. That gave me a volume. It was shortlisted. I remember Michael Meyer mentioning that it was a unique format. I told him how that unique format came about. He said ‘So you tricked us!’ and I replied, ‘it would seem I have!’ Shehan won that year. I feel privileged to have been shortlisted with him. When I listened to the excerpt he read out when the shortlist was announced I knew we had something special. Shehan also had the humility to pick my brains about sports journalists and newspapers later on. I believe some of what I said went into a later edit of his text.
I had a collection the following year too but the recipient of all those poems didn’t want them shared.
I submitted for the 2010 prize too. As I listened to the names being called out when the shortlist was announced, I remember texting Marlon, ‘No poets this time, brother’. I remember coming out wondering I knew what poetry was and whether I knew what prose was. I leave you to figure that one out. I remember Rajpal Abeynayake, the much vilified, asking me why I even bother to submit. I said ‘I want to indulge in a fantasy, that of what I would say in the event I win’. He asked me what I would say. This is what I would have said and I will say it now.
Good as these submissions are, they are nothing compared to contemporary Sinhala literature. The poetry of Sunil Sarath Perera, Bandula Nanayakkarawasam, Rajee Welgama , Sandun Lakmal and to a certain extent Sunil Ariyaratne….is far better than anything I have written. There is also (how could I have forgotten!) Ariyawansa Ranaweera, Nandana Weerasinghe, Ratna Sri Wijesinghe and many other lyricists. Masimbula, Mohan Raj Madawala and Manjula Wediwardena come to mind among the novelists. There’s no one who writes short stories in English that can match Jayatilleke Kammellaweera. The plays of Rajitha Dissanayake and Udayasiri Wickremaratne are exceptional. Indeed, I can’t think of anyone writing in English in Sri Lanka who can match Udayasiri for sheer versatility. I don’t know Tamil but my hunch is that the same can be said of contemporary Tamil literature.
I submitted in the following three years as well. As I mentioned on the first two of these occasions, upon being shortlisted, it was just poetry I had written in the relevant year. I was less and less thrilled, naturally, about being shortlisted. This is not to say that I didn’t want to win. Of course I did. I didn’t have great expectations and what expectations I had diminished from year to year. This year, and I did not intend any insult to the Gratiaen, I chose to attend an event by Bandula Nanayakkarawasam focusing on Mahagama Sekera. I just felt that was more important than attending a ‘shortlisting’.
Ok, I have to say ‘thank you’ now. First of all, I want to thank the Gratiaen Trust. If not for this prize I would never have collected my poetry. It is thanks to the Gratiaen that I was able to publish all my submissions. This year was to be the last, whatever the outcome. I had already got ‘Edges’ published. The other five all came out yesterday. I believe I am the most published English poet in Sri Lanka. It happened just list that. I wasn’t two days ago and now I am. I must thank Prem Dissanayake of Fast Ads and Surasa for publishing ‘Edges’. No one ever offered to publish my poetry but when I asked him, Prem Aiya immediately offered to do so. Sandra Mack of Ketikatha (Pvt) Ltd designed all the books. I am extremely grateful to Sandra for taking so much trouble at very short notice. It is thanks to her efforts that the books are there at the back of this hall. I must thank, also, Amarajeewa of Neographics for agreeing to print the books. I told him I will pay him slowly, but he merely told me not to worry and that I can pay in kind by doing some work for him
I want to thank all the judges of all the panels. It’s a thankless job. I have been a judge myself and it is not easy to read through all the books, especially those that are really, really bad. Judges make just one person happy or perhaps two. They disappoint a whole bunch of others. Writers are vain creatures as Ashok Ferrey pointed out a couple of years ago; we think we write very well and when we are young we even think that we write better than anyone has ever written. This is why I will never sit on a Gratiaen panel of judges. But I thank them all.
My father gave me words. My father, Gamini Seneviratne, is a better poet than I could ever be. My late mother, Indrani Seneviratne gave me heart.
I want to thank all of you, those in the audience, who have supported writers by coming here, showing appreciation for literature, year after year. It means a lot. Thank you.
I must mention now that there has not been any inspiration as wholesome, stimulating and critical in my poetic endeavors as the word of Siddhartha Gauthama the Buddha. To me, he is among other things, the greatest literary figure ever. His doctrine, or rather what I understand of it, has guided and framed my explorations with the word. If there’s any thread or recurrent theme in all the poetry I’ve written it is that most liberating of philosophies, Buddhism.