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Sunday, 17 June 2012





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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 Perth.

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 spiritual life).

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 motherland?

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 attempt.

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 reprimand!

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 environment.

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 personalities.

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 this poem!


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 Poems.

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 Sinhala!

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 Australian Aborigines.

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.


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