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Sunday, 27 February 2011





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Galle Literary Festival and politics of literature

In this week’s column, I would like to explore one of the thought provoking sessions of the Galle Literary Festival entitled Aftershocks, the lingering legacy of civil war and the ‘after shocks’ of the session and the perennial issue of politics of literature.

The much –published session was moderated by Bridget Kendal and was broad cast over BBC. Sunili Abeysekara; Nigerian writer, Chimamada Ngozi Adichie; and Anjali Watson were featured in the session.

The description of the session on the GLF programme read: “Sunila Abeysekara explores the challenges the Sri Lanka continues to face almost two years after the end of the civil war; Chimamada Ngozi Adichie portrays the lasting efforts of Nigeria’s 1960’s civil war in her short story collection, The things around your neck, Anjali Watson looks at post-war Sri Lanka from the perspective of wildlife animals and suggest that perhaps, war was better for them.”

Before tackling some of the issues discussed or touched during the session, it is pertinent to look, at least, briefly, now non existing country called Biafra. It was a region of Nigeria inhabited mainly by the Igbo people and existed from 30 May 1967 to 15 January 1970. The secession was led by the Igbo people due to economic, ethnic, cultural and religious tensions and to safeguard a prosperous region from Nigeria. However, the civil war in Biafra claimed over one million lives leading to the collapse of Biafra and reintegration of the territory into Nigeria in 1970.

Intersection of politics and literature

Although the session was supposed to be a part of literary festival, the opinions and views expressed by both Sunila Abeysekara and Angali Watson seemed to be little or nothing to do with literature. Sunila Abeysekara was introduced as a human rights activist who had worked with displaced persons (Internally Displaced Persons). The crust of Sunila’s arguments was lack of access to IDPs. She said that she is concerned about ‘psychological and emotional peace’ of IDPs. Anjali Watson was described as one of the founders of ‘Wilderness and Wildlife Conservation Trust’ which she founded with her husband. Her basic concern was the co-existence between wildlife and human habitat.

Chimamada read out an extract from her short story entitled “A Private Experience”. “Even without the woman’s strong Housa accent, Chika can tell she is a Northerner, from the narrowness of her face, unfamiliar rise of her cheek bones; and that she is a Muslim, because of the scarf. It hangs around the woman’s neck now, but it was probably wound loosely round her face before, covering her ears.

A long flimsy and black scarf with garish prettiness of cheap things. Chika wonders if the woman is looking at her as well, if the woman can tell, from her light complexion and the silver finger rosary her mother insisted she wear, that she is Igbo Christians with machetes, clubbing them with stones. But now she says, “Thank you for calling me. Everything happened so fast and everybody ran and I was suddenly alone and didn’t know what I was doing…

Chimamada pointed out that one’s the ethnicity becomes an issue, it would be politicised combining with religion. She quoted a passage to highlight the point:

“Chika wonders if that is all the woman thinks of the riots, if that is all she sees them as –evil. She wishes Nnedi were here. She imagines the coca brown of Nnedi’s eyes lighting up, her lips moving quickly, explaining that riots do not happened in a vacuum, that religion and ethnicity are often politicised because the ruler is safe if the hungry ruled are killing one another…” (A Private Experience, p.48)

Apart from the politics of literature and human rights, the session provided an insight into how literature could intermingle with politics. The session also emphasised how literature could be a medium to discuss things which are not be able to discuss in non-fiction. The well-researched collection of short stories The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamada Ngozi Adichie is an object lesson, particularly for contemporary Sri Lankan writers in English.

It is pity that after a decades of conflict and when the ambers of the fire which consumed a large number of Sri Lankans’ lives on the both sides of the divide wafting off , a substantial canon of literature on conflict and issues associated with civil war both in North and East and in the South is yet to emerge.

I wonder whether the organisers of the GLF were aware of the Sri Lankan bilingual author, Sita Kulatunga who wrote Dari, the third wife, an elegantly crafted novel based on Nigeria. Kulatunga’s novel is a fine monologue of a woman who is plunged into a marriage at very young age partially due to her customs of the homeland and partly due to her poverty. Dari becomes the third wife of rich Alhaji Bello who is tired of his two marriages before.

If Chimanda’s collection of Short stories The Things Around Your Neck codifies the turbulent socio-economic life during and in the aftermath of Biafra war in Nigeria, Sita Kulatunga’s Dari, the third wife depicts the institution of family and a story of polygamous marriages in Nigeria through the eyes of a very talented Sri Lankan author.

It is a mystery how the GLF organisers selected Sri Lankan authors, particularly their criteria! The grim reality of the literary quality and content of the literary work of Sri Lankan authors featured in the festival is that they are extremely poor both in terms of content and craft.

In essence, those below-mediocre writers and their ‘literary work’ could not represent Sri Lankan literature in English or Sinhalese, but indeed the current crisis in the contemporary Sri Lankan literature.



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