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Sunday, 18 September 2011





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An outsider’s perspective

(Part 2)

Last week I reviewed the earlier chapters of Indeewara Thilakarathne’s ‘The Cultural Scene Thus Far’. These preliminary sections of the book focus in detail on three main elements. The first of these elements is the awards system currently in place for art, literature, film and music. The second is a comparison between current English literature written in Sri Lanka and the equivalent contemporary English Literature in other countries in Asia. Thilakarathne’s third discussion focus in the earlier part of the book is connected to the second; the use of standard English as opposed to Pidgin. The author clearly feels strongly about this subject, since standard English is vital to the success of Sri Lankan literature as an exportable product.

Author : Indeewara Thilakarathne
Publisher : Samaranayake Publishers

This week’s review of ‘The Cultural Scene Thus Far’ focuses on different writers from Sri Lanka and other parts of Asia who have made a real and lasting contribution. This section of the book is surely a veritable feast for the ‘culture vulture’. Thilakarathne has put together a collection of some of his recent columns from ‘Montage’ to make up this highly informative section. I picked up a lot of new names and information from these chapters, as well as plenty of inspiration.

Thilakarathne’s first example of an outstanding Sri Lankan author is ‘Martin Wickramasinghe and Sinhalese Literature’. This chapter focuses Wickramasinghe’s enduring influence on Sinhalese literature. Many of his greatest works have been translated into English, German, Chinese and Tamil. Wickramasinghe wrote his novels against the backdrop of the British Colonial rule that endured during his childhood. He began writing at the age of 13 and has written 14 novels and 107 short stories during his long life. Thilakarathne points out that Wickramasinghe’s ‘Gamperaliya’ is now widely accepted as the first Singhalese novel to depart from the established writing tradition. The novel marks a new sophistication due to its use of colloquial language, psychological concepts and inter-textuality.

Thilakarathne’s next example of an outstanding Sinhalese writer is Dayasena Gunasinghe, whom he refers to as ‘The Veteran Journalist and Impeccable Poet’. He was the son of a teacher and an avid reader of both Sinhalese and English literature. The brilliance of the journalist and writer was apparent early on, when, following his degree, he won a Commonwealth scholarship to study in the UK. Later he was able to teach and inspire other novelists and journalists to write in both Sinhala and English. When based in Sri Lanka as a journalist, he worked for Lake House and won the State Literary Award for poetry. Thilakarathne points out that Gunasinghe was a highly educated journalist who did not compromise his ethical standards. He also believed that journalists in developing countries should help to give a voice to marginalised sectors of society. Thilakarathne hails him as belonging to ‘a rare breed of bilinguals and literary giants'. This rare breed includes Martin Wickremasinghe, D.B. Dhanapala, Piyasena Nissanka, Meemana Prematilake and Chandrarathne Manawasinghe. Thilakarathne urges the reader to recognise Gunasinghe as a source of inspiration when he says that ‘crude language is used in both Sinhalese and English Sri Lankan writing.

Thilakarathne moves from the subject of the great writers of Sinhalese and English literature into Sri Lanka, across the water to Singapore. The focus of this chapter is ‘Edwin Thumboo - Singapore’s Poet Laureate with a commitment’. The aim of this chapter is to study Asian writers in general and the progression of good quality writing through to the present day. It would seem that Professor Thumboo is another outstanding writer who has set a standard for English literature in Asia. Thilakarathne points out that Professor Thumboo has also taught drama, poetry and creative writing. He also introduced English Language as a major into the university curriculum, so that graduates could be better equipped to teach a good standard of English in schools and junior colleges. Thilakarathne outlines Thumboo’s works of poetry throughout this chapter, as well as listing the various publications of articles and anthologies included in Thumboo’s impressive repertoire. He then goes on to discuss at length Thumboo’s work as a whole. He concludes the section by saying that Thumboo demonstrates the need for poets to commit to the creation of a Singaporean identity and image as a multi-cultural and multi-lingual society. The implication is clearly that poets from other countries in the region (including Sri Lanka) should “take a leaf out his book”.

Another of the columns which is featured in ‘The Cultural Scene thus far’ is the ‘Glimpse into Malaysian-Singapore literature in English. This is a more general discussion on Singaporean Literature and its evolution, contrasted with the development of Malaysian literature. This includes a brief outline of the history of Singapore and Malaysia and the subsequent formation of the English literary culture. Thilakarathne includes Colonial writings in English and finally an overview of some of the most influential writers and their personal journeys. This chapter is followed imediately by ‘Sri Lankan born Lloyd Fernando - a pioneer of English writings and theatre in Malaysia’.

This is a particularly interesting section, since it is a continuation of the topic Malaysian-Singapore writings in English. Yet the section features a Sri Lankan national who turned out to be a champion of Malaysian literature and drama in English. Lloyd Fernando was clearly a very determined and highly gifted individual, who made a significant contribution to the education system, as well as to literature and drama. Thilakarathne makes it clear that Fernando was a highly independent and forward thinking individual. I quote from this chapter “...Post colonial writers....must be prepared to engage with the active participants of this linguistic heritage.... Only through such as negotiation can a genuine opportunity to clarify the sources of problems involving the dialogue between East and West be successfully harnessed”. Thilakarathne points out that Fernando’s work marked a milestone in Malaysian contemporary literature. This is the type of discussion which is of great interest to me as a westerner living in Asia and beginning to study Asian writings. I would suggest that these chapters that I have just outlined will probably be most compelling to the foreign reader.

Included in this second section of ‘The Cultural Scene thus far’, is a chapter, which is again taken from one of Thilakarathne’s regular columns on the Sunday Observer, on the ‘Progression of Indian writings in English’. A couple of chapters later, there is another installment on Indian writing, dedicated to ‘Raja Rao - A great Indian novelist of the 20th century’. The earlier chapter draws parallels between the progression of Indian Literature in English in the post-colonial era, with that of Sri Lankan writings from a similar era. In this section, Thilakarathne briefly touches on the subject of English as the language of the ‘coloniser’.

However, this was covered in the earlier part of the book and the author only mentions it at this point to highlight how English has been used by generations of writers as an effective means of communication beyond their shores. Among the most significant subjects that the author broaches in this chapter are a) Interracial contact and cultural influences and b) Indian diasporic literature as a means of communicating a culture to those outside. I found this chapter very informative from a historical angle and another learning curve from a cultural point of view. Thilakarathne mentions Raja Roa in passing during the course of this chapter, describing his work as having similar characteristics to Sinhalese literary giants such as Martin Wickremasinghe and Gunadasa Amarasekara. In this comparison he includes acclaimed Sri Lankan writers of English, including Punyakante Wijenaike, Sita Kulathunga and Alfreda de Silva.

The later chapter, which is dedicated to Raja Rao, focuses on his life, eduaction and training as well as a bibliography of his literary work. There is a short description of each of a hand full of his novels, which, as a result of Thilakarathne’s reviews, I intend to read.

The remaining chapters of the second half of ‘The Cultural Scene thus far’ as a goldmine of new information for those from beyond these shores. There is quite a large section on the subject ‘The use of literature’, including a large amount of material about Sri Lankan diasporic writing. Included in the discussion about these writers, is a fair amount of information about the diaspora in Canada and other western countries, some of which I was already aware of, some of which I was not. Another column which has been included in the collection of chapters is ‘Some lessons from medieval England to Sri Lankan columnists’. Thilakarathne has really pulled out all the stops to make this subject as interesting, challenging and informative as possible. There are also a few chapters dedicated to ‘Colonialism, Imperialism and post-Coloniality’. These subjects have several have subsections, entitled ‘the post-Colonial ‘condition’, ‘neo-Colonialism’ and ‘cultural difference’, to name but a few. Some of these are political, some social but most are related, in some measure, to self-expression through literature.

There are other surprising chapters and sub-sections of chapters which the reader comes across during the course of reading the second half of ‘The Cultural Scene thus far’. I have not mentioned all of these in this article. Yet I trust my reviews and those by Sri Lankan contributors will have sufficiently caught the attention of readers to entice them into exploring this book for themselves. Since the book is essentially a collection of columns and essays, it is possible to read coherently even by starting in the middle and systematically working either backwards or forwards. It is also possible for the reader to pick and choose chapters from the index that seem as though they would be of most interest.

Though the book is undoubtedly more enriching when read systematically and in sequence. For the reader with limited time, the key is working out the best starting point for the sections of chapters which are of greatest interest. Whichever way ‘The Cultural Scene thus far’ is read, it is very worthwhile and will undoubtedly speak to each reader on one or more levels.

The writer has a Master's Degree in Hispanic and European Studies from Aberdeen University, Scotland. She also writes for The Guardian (UK).



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