A poetic journey from Sri Lanka to Australia
An interview with Sunil Govinnage:
At several points, the interviewee Sunil Govinnage contradicts the
interpretations of the interviewer in some of the poems included in the
collection Perth: My village, Down under. However, the poems speak
themselves eloquently revealing the mindset of the poet and agonies,
anxieties he faces in leading a life in the diaspora
Question: In your latest collection of poetry entitled Perth:
My Village, Down Under, you have codified some of your best collection
of poetry which, among other things, records your poetic journey as well
as personal journey from Sri Lanka to Australia and settling down in
The poem "Evening before the departure" describes not only
circumstances which compel you to leave Sri Lanka, but also the
reluctance on your part to leave Sri Lanka and leaving the close-knit
social network that you had. Could you elaborate on the circumstances
under which you left Sri Lanka and how profoundly it had affected your
emotional life as a poet?
Answer: My newest collection of poetry Perth: My Village, Down Under
published beautifully (perhaps more than its content!) is in some
respect may encapsulate my journey from Sri Lanka to Australia. But this
poetry collection does not include a single poem I wrote (still in draft
mode) from 1986 to 1988 the time we spent in Thailand.
The poems contained in the collection should be considered as an
ageing person's poetic imaginations that may be coded with many tags
including the term "disporic poetry". However, one should also take into
account that I still write and publish in Sinhala. In fact, my fourth
collection of poetry in Sinhala entitled Sudu Wesmuhuna Saha Wenath Kavi
(White Mask and Other Poems) should be out soon, and I believe that some
of the poems in that collection may be superior to my English versus!
You specifically refer to the poem "Evening before the departure",
and, indeed it may reflect my journey back to my new home Perth. A poet
or a prose writer should not provide commentaries on his or her work
after the work is published! As you have specifically picked on that
poem let me provide a few words (as my dearest friend Edwin Thumboo
might say) as a footnote more than a commentary.
It may be a biographical poem, but it does not speak about one
specific journey, but essentially my thoughts (more specifically a
combination of my reflections on each trip I have made back to Perth and
my memories of the time I spent in Sri Lanka (and those three and half
decades that nourished my educational, intellectual, emotional and
I read this particular poem in many countries and most recently at a
special session at the Singapore Writers Festival 2011, and each time
when I read it to different audiences, I receive mostly positive, but
different responses. Poets write on similar themes and I know a few of
them like Singapore's Edwin Thumboo writing on his native place called
Mandai or Australia's Les Murray (who was born in Nabiac, a village on
the north coast New South Wales) writing about his home and the farm
where he grew up.
In that regard, this poem is not unique. Perhaps one specific
difference may be how I represent my desire to combine my Sri Lankan
experience including my childhood and teenage memories and my intention
of carrying them as colours and paint them over the sky above the Swan
River in Perth (which I presume some VIP Sri Lankans watched while
attending the CHOGM meetings a few weeks ago!).
Perth has provided me not only a very comfortable livelihood (and
some great Australian friends and mentors) that many of my Sri Lankan
contemporaries may envy, but also different experience, and above all a
sense of place to arrange my poetic thoughts. All these have inspired me
to write poetry on various themes about my life and living in Australia
and my native country, Sri Lanka that I am deeply attached to.
Q. In the section 'Life in the New World', you describe your
experiences in the diaspora from the commencement of life and the
changes that Australian culture brought about, particularly in the lives
of off springs who readily absorbed themselves into the multi-cultural
Australian society. In 'A Day in the New World', you describe the first
day you spent in Australia as a new immigrant. How do you look on that
day which changed your life for good?
A: 'A Day in the New World' is not about my (our) first day in
Perth. My first day in Perth was spent worrying how to find a place to
live (and a job!) in a city where we had no friends (then) and or
relatives! Most of my feelings about early months in our lives are still
represented in Sinhala poems which first appeared in my first Sinhala
collection titled Matahaka Divaina (Isle of Memory) which you very
kindly reviewed favourably. Those poems as a whole have not been
translated or published in English yet.
You refer to the "the lives of offsprings who readily absorbed
themselves into the multi-cultural Australian society."
The second generations of children undoubtedly embrace the
"Australian Way" of life which is western, but I have my reservation
about the use of the term "Multi-Culturalism" in Australia. We have many
nationalities (270 as per the 2006 census) living in harmony in
Australia, but in my view, Australia is a mono-lingual and mono-cultural
society where we write and speak only Australian English that evolved
over the last 200 years!
Unfortunately, we as a nation have failed to preserve and continue to
use Aboriginal languages which have a history of 40,000 years.
I say this by looking at my other favourite country, Singapore where
they have adopted four languages including English, Chinese, Tamil and
Malay. Canada has adopted two languages i.e. English and French.
Q: The poem 'To our daughter who is on the move' deals with
the growing generation gap and the first generation of migrants could
not easily adapt to the changing social norms and ethos. How do you look
at this phenomenon?
A: In my view, this poem is not about migrant's "inability to
adapt to the changing social norms and ethos" but a father's quandary of
his daughter going away in early teenage years to a far off place
-Toronto- to study, and his reflections of his native country, its
origin (and myths associated with it.), and a friend called Ragu who
immigrated to Canada.
Q: In the poem 'The past is another country', you try to deal
with 'the past' created by the colonialists, drawing a parallel with
Ireland. Tea is a potent symbol of oppression. How do you reconcile with
the 'past made in another country' which also shaped the future of your
A: If you happen to live in another country, the past could be
linked to "another country"! I suppose this could also be applied to
Prince Vijaya who made Sri Lanka his adopted country or anyone who
chooses to live in another country for a variety of reasons. In summary,
I try to record my thoughts about two immigrants (one from England and
the other from Sri Lanka) and their interactions in words into a poetic
form. I cannot comment whether I have been successful or not in my
Q. The poem 'The wonderer and a new cult Movie' captures
vividly the cultural alienation and the growing generation gap. The
narrator has no roots in the adapted land and is virtually like an
'unknown actor from Sri Lanka'. How do you describe this phenomenon of
one's losing motherland and loss of cultural inheritance and the
identity crisis which accompanied it?
Answer: You give your interpretations to my insignificant
poetic phrases and I cannot justify my poems after they have entered the
public space. Apparently you presume, my poetry is purely biographical
and they are not! I have put my roots firmly in my adopted country,
Australia and I'm a proud Australian with deep and inseparable
affections and association with my native country and her people.
That's why I still write in Sinhala! I think that I have a good
knowledge of Australian history, culture, literature and even political
issues. So I'm not an unknown Sri Lankan in Australia! My criticisms of
the highest Australian political leaders have been published in the
public space in Australia, and I have freedom do so without fear or
I am also recorded as a writer in the Australian writers' database.
You must have a look at my profile in the AusLit website. You need to
read the poem again to understand what I am trying to communicate
through my chosen words thereon!
Q. 'A Retirement Plan' deals with many issues and cardinal
perceptions of life such as 'assets'. For some, financial savings are
the only asset but your assets are different. They too are moving away
from you leaving you alone to lead the rest of your life in retirement.
Isn't' this the predicament that most of the expatriate Sri Lankans
face when they reach the age of retirement? Another aspect of the poem
is the re-configuration of family ties particularly among children and
parents in the Diaspora?
A: This question is "your" interpretation of one of my poems!
Australia is a wonderful country (and discrimination against age is
illegal in Australia). Hence, age is not a factor affecting an
individual's work life, and there is no forced retirement age for those
who would like to work.
One of my dearest friends is a person who has reached 70 years, and I
understand that he is a very productive and happy person at his work
In my view, you are assuming a role of a sociologist or a
psychologist when you read my work! It is unfair to pick a poem such as
'A Retirement Plan' and generalise; "isn't' this the predicament that
most of the expatriate Sri Lankans face when they reach the age of
retirement?" Most of former Sri Lankans (that I know!) who have
domiciled in Australia lead very productive lives in all States and
territories in Australia!
Q. 'Remembering Our Twenty-Third Wedding Anniversary' deals
with the profound changes that time and other factors brought about in a
marital life of one's ' sweetheart'. Here the time is a master player
which has turned once two lovers into adults with their contrasting
The path to 'happiness' that the lovers had trodden long time ago,
changing careers, homes and counties seems to lead to a material
prosperity yet without 'happiness'. Your comments.
Answer: I don't think that it is easy to define "happiness" or find
two people who may agree on a given definition of the term! If you and
other readers who could define the term "happiness' in their own words,
and, then read this poem carefully, they might find the irony behind
Q. 'For those who are critical of my English Prose' deals with
the issue of language as a medium of creative writing. Although you have
lived in Australia for over 20 years, you still write in Sinhalese
unlike most immigrants who have jettisoned Sinhalese as they are
naturalised in Australia. Language is not only a medium of expression
but also a perception-builder. How do you grapple with two worlds; one
which associates with the past in Sinhalese and another which basically
associates with present in English?
A: The best and precise answer I could provide in response to
your question is to quote Prof. Wimal Dissanayake who wrote a column to
Montage on my English and Sinhala poetry. Let me quote: "What is
interesting about Govinnage is that he has opted to write in both
languages - Sinhala and English. .... What is interesting about
diasporic writings in English and Sinhala is the addresses of the two
are different. This is clearly evident in Govinnage's poetry.
His English poems are addressed largely to an Australian audience,
and hence issues of selfhood, cultural identity, alienation play a
dominant role in the poems. On the other hand, his Sinhala poetry
focuses on themes of memory, nostalgia and home."
Q. Most of the poems in the collection show your utter
disenchantment with the life in your adopted second ‘village’ Perth and
hardships encountered in the diaspora in integrating into the complex
matrix of life there. Your comments.
A: I am not a disenchanted poet except that I suffer from the
woes of worldly life including ageing! I am an Australian poet perhaps
who writes on different themes on Australia compared to many others,
primarily, white Anglo-Celtic poets. My Australia has given me a good
life style and the privilege to live in a democratic society with great
political and social institutions, and the ability to work as a
professional and an academic.
Perhaps, I must publish my poems reflecting my sincere love for
Australia soon! As you are familiar with most of my published Sinhala
poems (which are made in Australia!) you must translate them for the
benefit of Montage readers, so that they could see various themes that I
have covered in my poetry!
I am beginning to realise that my poetry has a wider audience beyond
the shores of Australia. For example, I was one of the two Australian
poets who were invited to read at the Singapore Writers Festival 2011.
(So how can I be disenchanted?) This is just one example to say that my
work may be appealing even to a few, beyond Australian shores. I have
read my English work also in Asia, Europe and North America. So, I
presume that some of my “disenchanted themes” may be appealing to some,
but not all. It is a pity those critics like you don’t pick on my poems
such as Travel Poems, Love Poems or Poems for Sri Lanka appearing in
this collection as they cover universal themes such as love, humanity,
affection and even despair!
Q. ‘A migrant’s song’ grotesquely captures the ‘cultural
otherness’ and the agonising vacuum in the emotional life of the
narrator who has apparently lost his language, Sinhalese which is no
longer used by the children, wearing a ‘white mask’ symbolising the
typical Western thinking and mentalities that children adapted. The
narrator wants to go back to his motherland to breathe his last. How do
you look at this plight of the narrator who has thoroughly disenchanted
with the diasporic existence?
Answer: This poem like many other poems in this collection is
a poet’s imagination and it’s not my soul’s song! It may speak for some
migrants who may be really disenchanted! Migrants in any country got
issues and perhaps problems and you are interpreting my words again. If
you want to understand Australian migrant poems and their feelings then
you must at least read the works of Malaysian born Ea Tiang Hongs (who
lived and died in Perth), and Melbourne poet, Ouyang Yu of Chinese
origin, particularly his collection called Moon over Melbourne and Other
Q‘A poem I may write in the future’ deals with dual personalities
created by two languages English and Sinhala. You are truly a bilingual.
How do you perceive this ‘duality’ particularly in a diasporic setting?
Answer: I’m simply a poet, perhaps an insignificant one in a global
scale and I write in two languages at present including my native
language Sinhala. I cannot explain how I select or switch between
languages as I write as ideas come to my mind. I reflect, and capture
various thoughts and ephemeral ideas that pass through my mind by
selecting a language that is most suited for the occasion.
That’s how it happens, but I’m not sure whether I qualify for the
adjective “truly bi-lingual” to describe my work or myself. I still read
Sinhala, particularly classical prose and poetry more than I read
Derrida or Foucault.
The Sinhala language is one of the most beautiful languages in the
world, and I am very proud that I could read and enrich my vocabulary by
reading Sinhala classics.
My Sinhala reading helps me to write in Sinhala, and I also read all
major poets’ works published in English without fail. All these help me
to reflect and continue to write. In addition, I have several great
friends and mentors and they know Sinhala and English languages. These
people include Wimal Dissanayake, Edwin Ariyadasa, W. A. Abeysinghe,
Parkarama Kodithuwakku, Udeni Sarathchandra, Thilakaratne Kuruwita
Bandara, and Palitha Ganewatte. I regularly meet and talk to poets and
writers and learn from them, and I know my limits and deficiencies. In
addition, my friend Edwin Thumboo’s association has helped me to improve
my English poetry and through him I have met so many poets out there.
Thiru Kandiah wrote two long essays theorising my work (which is
appearing in this collection) and Wimal Dissanayake’s recent essay on my
work contains a few good directions that I need to focus on my future
writings. I presumed all these help me to write in English as well as
It doesn’t require a magic carpet to be a bi-lingual poet if you take
an effort! Your readers may not know that I learnt English at the age of
seventeen as an impoverished teenager, and began writing English poetry
after I migrated to Australia in 1988!
Q. ‘My Australia’ deals with contradictions in the diasporic
life in Australia. The inability to integrate into complex multi-ethnic
and multi-racial life is aptly captured in the line ‘Created a Third
World within the first world’. Why do most of the first generation
immigrants ‘create Third World’ within their living space in their
adapted lands? Is it something to do with their inability to shed some
of the cultural baggage that they brought in from their motherland?
Answer: You are totally mistaken in interpreting the phrase --
‘Created a Third World within the first world’ -- in this poem! It
doesn’t refer to any cultural baggage I carry in my adopted country or
that I have created a Third World in my Australia! As you have assumed,
I have no inability to integrate into complex multi-ethnic society as I
have lived and successfully find employment and living and working in
culturally diverse groups on a day to basis.
This phrase you have picked up is about the plight of the Australian
Aborigines who live in Third World conditions which many people around
the world are unaware of! It is also sad that many Anglo-Celtic
Australian poets and academic don’t see this sad dilemma of the
I invite those who are either ignorant or insensitive about the
plight of Australian Aborigines to get their “facts” from the Australian
Bureau of Statistics (ABS) and to understand my poetic perceptions on
Australian Aborigines by reading the poems titled ‘Telephone Call from
Sri Lanka’ and ‘An Incident in Redfern’ appearing in this collection or
a poem titled Unfinished Poem in my first collection of English poetry
entitled, White Mask– A Collection of Australian Poetry.