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Sunday, 6 February 2011





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Galle Literary Festival 2011 :

A vanity fair?

The scenario developing in and around the world heritage site Galle Fort and in the city of Galle associated with Galle Literary Festival reminded me the novel Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray. The novel was first published in 1847-48.

It satirises the 19th century British society. Vanity Fair refers to a never ending fair along the road of pilgrim movement which was held in the town of Vanity. The town of Vanity symbolises the man’s sinful desire for worldly things including name and fame. The GLF 2011 marks the fifth anniversary of the literary festival which have been from its inception excluded the vast cannon of Sinhalese and Tamil literature and Sinhalese and Tamil authors.

In the January 30th Edition of The Island, a trilingual writer by the name of Shyamalee Mahibalan has pointed out that “How did the English speaking elites of this country simply forget that literature of Sri Lanka does mean Sinhala as well as Tamil? After all, GLF is a literary event not an English only literary festival. Or is it our colonialist mentality that has skewed our judgment? If one attends any literary festival in a country with vernacular languages, you will be sure to see literature in native languages showcased. I cannot think of a Canadian Literary Festival without any French work. Can anyone imagine a Singaporean Literary festival without any work in Chinese or Malay?

I have raised the question previously whether it is possible to talk about the literature and drams of Sri Lanka without Prof. Ediriweera Sarachchandra’s classical play, Maname and his novels including Malagiya ethho and Malawunge avurududa; Mahagama Sekera’s novel, Thunman Handiya; Simon Nawaghtthegama’s works; Monica Ruwanpathirane ‘s poetry and literati representing Tamil literature such as Murugesu Ponnambalam, Shanmugam Sivalingam and M.A Nuhuman.

However, it should be borne in mind that featuring Sinhalese and Tamil writers’ work does not mean exclusive session should be conducted on Sinhalese and Tamil literature in Sinhalese and Tamil media. What is plausible within the scope of the festival is to conduct sessions on Sinhalese and Tamil literature in translation. It is a home truth that most of us enjoyed world literature and great literary works of Russian and Latin American writers in their English translations.

Politics of literature

A seminal feature of GLF 2011 was the politicisation of literature and questioning the sovereignty of Sri Lankan Government. Although politics is part and parcel of public life, perhaps, an inescapable reality, it is highly undesirable to politicise seemingly a non-political event.

The Festival commenced with the reports about a group of prominent literati of boycotting the festival over a tensed political issue. The move was backed by Noam Chomsky, Arundhati Roy and Ken Loach. Much published authors such as Noble Laureate, Orhan Pamuk was among the writers who pulled out from the festival. Later Damon Galgut also joined the group.

World forum, aftershocks the lingering legacy of Civil War

The most politicised event at the GLF was the BBC’s World Forum, titled ‘aftershocks, the lingering legacy of Civil War,’ which was held at Hall de Galle. This free event was described in the brochure as, “Sunila Abeysekera explores the challenges Sri Lanka continues to face almost two years after the end of the civil war; Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie portrays the lasting effects of Nigeria’s 1960’s civil war in her short story collection, The Thing Around Your Neck; Anjali Watson looks at post-war Sri Lanka from the perspective of wild animals and suggests that perhaps war was better for them.”

The very use of terminology to describe the conflict is polemical given the fact those very terms can be exploited by parties vested with interest to achieve their ulterior goals. For instance, at the start, the brochure says ‘two years after the end of the civil war’ and towards the end it says ‘Anjali Watson looks at post-war Sri Lanka’. Since Sri Lanka did not wage a major war, the term that should have been always used is ‘post-conflict Sri Lanka’.

Another important factor that seemed to have been missed out is that the Southern Province and even the Galle Fort, City of Galle witnessed the worse civil war in the 1980’s where all the parties to the conflict were accused of committing extrajudicial executions and human right violations.

There were parts of the human bodies dumped on the road a few meters from the venue, Hall de Galle where the BBC world forum was held.

The participation of human rights activists such as Sunila Abeysekara and the renewed interest that US Embassy in Sri Lanka took in the festival and US Embassy’s financial and logistical assistance in transporting academics from the East coinciding with the opening of American Centre in Jaffna hints out that the Galle Literary Festival would take a different course, may be literature assuming a subordinate role.

The GLF 2011 leaves behind many unresolved issues questioning the very motives of the Festival and its founder. This column will explore some of the contentious issues in the next couple of weeks.



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