A discussion on Sunil Govinnage's Black Swans:
An exploration of the Sri Lankan migrant identity down under
Migrant Writing has taken on a significant facet of the contemporary
literary scene with the acceleration of the globalization process and
people now finding themselves developing a more multifaceted,
multinational form of identity in both cultural as we as a legal aspects
with Sri Lankans holding dual citizenship. The waves of migrations from
countries with Asiatic cultures to western countries since it began in
the 20th century keeps on increasing with many leaving their homelands
for greener pastures. Amongst the countries that has been and still very
much is on the list of top choices for hopeful Sri Lankan migrants is
Although many Indian migrants and their progeny who form the second
generation of migrant communities (from the east in the west) have begun
spinning narratives of their generational advents, and creating
celebrated works of fiction and enriching literary discourses, very few
Sri Lankans who migrated overseas seem to take up the task of 'telling
their story' to contribute to the growing body of Sri Lankan literature.
One may assume that the expatriate Sri Lankan communities domiciled
overseas can bring in their cultural experiences in to literary
discussion through the medium of fiction since it will very likely be
embraced by future generations when they seek answers to questions of
identity and how it all happened.
In the course of a recent conversation had with a granduncle of mine,
Dr. C. R. Panabokke a former Director of the Department of Agriculture,
the ongoing serialized novel Sunburnt Home by Sunil Govinnage came into
discussion. Dr. CRP remarked that he is a regular reader of SG's
installments and recalled some of his own experiences in Australia when
he was there in 1954 in Adelaide as a trainee sent on postgraduate work
as part of the activities of the Colombo plan. What is of relevance to
this discussion is that Dr.CRP observed SG's writings as presenting very
accurate descriptions of the Aussie mindset that one such as he had come
across when facing certain situations that has a noticeable cultural gap
that causes inefficacy to grasp 'ways' of the Aussie setup. Keeping in
mind that Dr. CRP's own experiences are a decade or two before the time
frame SG's serialized novel is set in, the former is of the view that
there is still much resonance that makes valid ground to explore the
Aussie mindset through Sri Lankan eyes.
Sunil Govinnage's fiction as Sri Lankan migrant writings
SG's literary endeavour therefore has begun to open discussion that
recollects through reflections how the Sri Lankan psyche (before the age
of mobile telephony and Google) dealt with scenarios that were a social
and cultural challenge on account of many aspects amongst which was
modern technological advancement which the Australians had the benefit
of, over Sri Lankans.
It is in this light that I believe SG's work of Short fiction -"Black
Swans" merits discussion as it provides a cameo into the psychology of
the 'Migrant' Sri Lanka dealing with a plethora of issues ranging from
unspoken homesickness to cultural alienation to dilemmas in social
values and much more. One must assume that the characters of Jayadeva
and family in "Black Swans" and the serial Sunburnt Home are one and the
same due to the similarity of how they have been contextualized and of
Therefore a discussion on "Black Swans" could also circumspectly
relate to the theme(s) in Sunburnt Home. However the purpose of this
article is not to expressly create such a line of intertextuality but to
look at "Black Swans" as a separate work of short fiction and discuss it
on the stream(s) of Migrant Writing and what it provides towards
furthering cultural dialogue through literature.
Focus of the article
In this article I wish to connect what can be read out of the text of
the story in connection with aspects of socio-cultural value that can be
related to from a Sri Lankan sensibility. I will opt for a more
postmodernist approach to analyze the text by itself rather than the
usual methods of discerning what the 'author intended to say' and impute
all that can be analyzed from "Black Swans" in essentially SG's
intentions and explicit message. It may or may not be so, let us leave
that open and focus on what the 'text' can tell one.
Jayadeva and Darwinian theory
The title itself evokes the most central of images that runs a
pivotal thematic element in the story's meanings. The fact that Jayadeva
(the central character of the story) embarks on a profound train of
contemplations by the sight of the black swans while out on a camping
trip starts the story with a thematic thrust that reflects the
overarching nature of the title. The black swan is very much a metaphor
as well as an image and a symbol and works very strategically through
The fact that the black swan is said to be part of the state flag is
very telling of what power bound connotations can be read out of the
text. After all any symbol of the State is an expression of power from a
point of the institutions as opposed to the individual.
The fact that Jayadeva ponders on Darwinian theory of evolution as
well as how it may be applied to explain the black swan which is
indigenous to Australia, speaks deeply of the character of Jayadeva and
opens the discussion (though not in a very subtle manner I believe) on
the idea/notion of 'otherness'. At this point one may suggest a
discussion on alterity (cultural otherness) is incited through the
subconscious of Jayadeva who even considers the black swan to possibly
be a 'mutation'. By using the word mutation the text gives ground to
infer that the white swan would be the norm and its dark cousin the
oddity or deviant.
Thereby if one were to ask what exactly does the black swan (as a
metaphoric image) symbolize? Amongst the numerous answers the text may
provide is that it is very likely a poetic image symbolizing the Asiatic
(or even African) migrant in a predominantly white society.
Could the tables turn on the White man?
The Darwinian theory of evolution and also the notion of 'survival of
the fittest' have connoted many lines to explore on a more politically
tuned theme. The white Australians claimed the land through use of force
from its original inhabitants who are dubbed as 'Aborigines' (once again
a term given by the Anglo Saxon discourse and not really the indigenous
term for self definition) and the fact that there is no secret about the
race politics that play significantly in such conquests it seems that
the more fitter claimed the rights of the conqueror. However the fact
that the waves of migrations to Australia from nations whose people are
generally darker in skin colour shows how a new evolutionary process in
Australian society is taking place. And the black swans it may be
interpreted, have greater strength to survive, which is quite telling
(in metaphoric language) of how the migrant adapts to ensure survival.
Though 'the other' presently in white Australia (or even western
European societies like England), the migrant may one day become the
sole survivor of the processes of power driven societal evolution that
may have unforeseen outcomes. After all, the present increases in
migrant populations in the west (though possibly still not so in
Australia) have caused much alarm amongst the dominant white segments.
Is it possible that the text may be inferring that one day it will be
the migrant who will succeed to the claims of being the dominant
population segment? Or even the next inheritors of that land? Very much
a potent (and contentious) prospect if one looks deep into the
discourses of Migrant Writing and what can possibly be deduced as to the
future of migrant communities.
Barbecues and curries and migrant dilemmas
The barbecue scenario in the story also seems to have some
significant symbolic value(s) built into it. Food and society are
effective means to devise a cultural study of a work which also can be
read for the validity that Marxist criticism places to such approaches
focusing on the connectivity between food and class. In "Black Swans"
the barbecue that comes into discussion seems to reflect the cultural
sensibilities of Australians and also offers windows to the migrant
mindset of Jayadeva.
The suggestion made by 'Peter', Jaydeva's Aussie friend to make a
'barbecue curry chicken' opens another vista to look at the migrant's
context in this line of food and culture/society aspect. Not being
conversant in the culinary arts I will not venture to suggest that a
'barbecue curry chicken' qualifies as 'fusion food'.
(I simply have no idea on the matter). But what can be extracted from
such a terming is that there is some connecting of two culturally
symbolic elements that can be a statement on 'identity'.
The Australians are known to be barbecue lovers who project it as
very much part of their cultural identity. The same goes without saying
when it comes to curry from the Asiatic viewpoint. The fact that curry
has become synonymous with the Asian identity has been taken to the
extents that white Australians use to word 'curry' or 'curries' as a
derogative for dark complexioned Asians such as Sri Lankans, Pakistanis
and of course Indians. One may even suggest it is the Aussie dialect's
equivalent of 'nigger' (which of course is a derogative for persons of
African origin in the USA).
The barbecue matter even shows how Jayadeva's own dilemma as a
migrant who is eager to be 'assimilated'. To want to show his Aussie
friends that he can do a barbecue just as good as making (a) curry is
telling of how he resents the position of the cultural 'other'.
To be able to do a barbecue just as good as many Aussie would no
doubt make him (in some aspect of symbolism) as good as any member of
the dominant mainstream social segment.
The food factor that the text presents seems a pathway to Jayadeva's
mind that possibly seeks acceptance of him by the dominant white
Australian, as more or less on par with them and not as the lesser