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The making of a writer

Recently, my novel, Untouchable Woman’s Odyssey was featured in the Toronto-based website www.MyBindi serving the wider South Asian community.

Invited to be interviewed via a questionnaire, what appears in the published interview is an edited version. Below I produce the full answer to one of the questions in the thought that perhaps it may be of some interest and value for budding authors.

Question:

You used to be an actor and dancer in Sri Lanka. How did that art form aid in strengthening your creative writing skill?

Answer:

Suwanda Sugunasiri

I was a good dancer all right, but in acting, I was only in minor roles. That experience perhaps may be seen as speaking to a general artistic bent in me. Then there is the genetic factor. My father [Kalaguru Sauris Silva], though a school principal, was a renowned dancer himself and also a writer.

Before leaving for overseas on my US Fulbright scholarship in 1964, I had already published, in my mid-twenties, two collections of short fiction in Sinhala (Yamayudde ‘Life Struggle’, 1960; Meeharak ‘Idiots’(1963)). An English-medium critic characterised my second work as “an earnest pursuit of the art of writing…” or something to that effect. So presumably, I was trying to make my writing as technically perfect as possible, but also esthetically pleasing, even though the stories themselves were, thematically speaking, rather shallow. Youthful love, social values and experiences.I’d also done two translations. One was Bertrand Russell’s Commonsense and Nuclear Warfare. In their reviews, both critics talked about my flair for language, and how they didn’t stumble once in reading through. But the funny thing is that it was only after 50 years, reading over the paper cuttings I had with me, that I discovered what they had said of my writing! So possibly then I came with some experience in writing, gained also working as an official translator in a government department.

Learning from good writing

But as I need hardly tell you, good writing also comes from studying good writing. Doing a Master’s Degree [at Vidyalankara University, though never completed], I’d done a critical study in Sinhala, of The Origin and Development of the Sinhala Short Story: the first 100 years (1860 to 1960). In this research, I had studied Chekov, Maupassant and Poe – three writers who had had an impact on the latter day Sinhala short fiction. So, not only was I trying to learn writing as an art, but also the art of short story writing itself, by looking at them critically.

Good writing can also said to stem from literary inspiration. And in the case of this budding writer, that certainly was the case. I mean the rich creative writing in Sinhala. The first collection of short fiction, in the modern sense, appear in 1924 – Geheniyak ‘Woman’, by Martin Wickremasinghe. The first novel in the same modern sense, also by the same author, appear in 1944 (Gamperaliya ‘Changing Village’) which eventually came in a film version by the Cannes Film Festival Award winner, Lester James Peiris.

Equally importantly there were the books in Sinhala on Lit Crit. First was Wickremasinghe’s The Rise of Sinhala Literature, a massive literary survey, beginning with the Buddhist Jataka ‘Birth’ Stories, dating back to the Buddha’s time itself, but written down in Sri Lanka in the 1st c. BCE.

There was also the works on Lit. Crit, Prof. Sarachchandra introducing us to Sanskrit literary theory – as in Bharata Muni’s Natya Shastra, and dramatists like Kalidasa, predating Shakespeare by centuries.

On top of that was the translation literature. Rabindranath Takhur’s Gita Govinda, which incidentally I still have with me in Toronto, was a hit as were the translations of Soviet, French and American writers.

Earlier I talked about how those who ignore history are bound to repeat history [in response to a different question]. We can perhaps turn it around and say that those who take to history are bound to be rewardeed by history. What I’m referring to here is the rich classical literary tradition in the Sinhala Buddhist culture. Take, e.g., Therigatha ‘Poems of the Women Elders’, again going back to the Buddha’s own time – 2500 years, possibly the earliest poetry in the world by women. These were Paeans of joy of the ordained Buddhist women, both average and high class, who had found their freedom in the robes. Writes one,

“Freed am I
from the mortar and pestle,
and my crooked husband’!
Wow! This in the Buddhist Canon, the Tipitaka ‘Tricompendium’.

A little over a thousand years later, the blankverse (possibly again the first in the world?) written on the ‘mirror wall’ surface at the rock fortress of King Kassapa (7th to 8th c.). The 500 apsaras (nymphs) adorning the ceiling seems to have become a tourist attraction. The four-liners (mostly) were the personal poetic response to the voluptuous ladies, not very different from those of Ajanta and Ellora. The poems were apparently by average folk. Take this, e.g.

‘Budal am I.
Came alone.
Just about everyone
had scribbled.
So I didn’t’!
Ha!

But then there were the more sophisticated ones, highly symbolic and artistic. Well, you won’t be sorry to read the UNESCO publication Sigiri Graffiti, by the foremost Sinhala archeologist Senarat Paranavitana, who had been invited to decipher the Mohenjadaro Harappa script.

Then there were the messenger poems (13th c.) in the tradition of Meghaduta ‘Cloud Messenger’ in Sanskrit.To make a long story short, as a ‘culture vulture’, I was to be enriched, and inspired by, this rich tapestry of Sinhala literature continuing from an ancient past.

Like any other English-speaking literary buff of my generation, just about every English, French and Soviet author had a berth on my bookshelf. Not that they rested there happily ever after.

One or more of them would appear at our youth study group (Samskruti) where we had the benefit of the input of university professors, teachers, writers and critics.

If that is all related to the Sri Lankan context, and Sinhala writing, there were possibly other influences specifically on my English writing skills.

I’d been a Columnist in Sinhala all right [Dawasa, under the pseudonym Madhupa ‘honey-sucker’]. But it was writing a regular column for the Toronto Star, in the 80’s and 90’s, that perhaps made me conscious of the process of writing. Allowed only 750 words, it was a great exercise in precision. Imagine trying to guide Canadians who could not even pronounce the word Multiculturalism, through the labyrinth of the new -ism! In fact, one of my columns, Who, then, is a Canadian? made it to an anthology for use in High Schools - Dimensions II, (Glen Kirkland Richard Davies (Gage, 1996)). Its sub-title was Precise Thought and Language in the Essay. The piece made it even to Opening Exercises for Schools, produced by the Government of Ontario.

Another influencing factor may have been my critical writing on literature in Canada. One was “Sri Lankan Canadian poets: the Bourgeoisie that fled the Revolution” (Canadian Literature). Another was Step Down Shakespeare, the Stone Angel is Here (2007), both now in a published collection under the second title [Godage, 2012].

The reference is, of course, to Margaret Laurence at a time when Canadian women writers got the short shrift. This was a time when ‘Canadian Literature’ was basically nothing more than British literature. (See Priscilla Galloway, “What’s wrong w/ high school English … it’s sexist…, un-Canadian .. outdated” (1980)).

All this is not to mention my work as the GOM – Grand Old Man, of South Asian Canadian Literature. Commissioned by the Secretary of State, I crisscrossed the country – only 3000 miles across mind you, in search of anything written in English, French or any South Asian language, hiring researchers in Punjabi, Gujerati and Tamil.

The report, The Search of Meaning ((available online), was submitted in 1981 although it was 1985 before it came to be published by the Secretary of State.

Then there were the two Anthologies I edited. One was a Special Issue of the Toronto South Asian Review on Sri Lankan literature (1984). This was possibly the first time the literature in Sinhala, Tamil and English were brought under the same cover.

The other, titled Whistling Thorn (Mosaic) (1995) brought to the attention of the wider Canadian public, probably for the first time again, some of today’s leading S Asian Canadian writers - Neil Bissoondath, Rohinton Mistry and Moyez Vassanji, among others, to put in alpha order.

Between the Sinhala writer in me and the first collection of poetry in English (The Faces of Galle Face Green, 1995, Toronto: Toronto South Asian Review [Sarasavi, 2006]) was a gap of over three decades when my nose was buried strictly in the academy.

Even though I was the furthest from creative writing or even reading works of literature in any language, I came to write umpteen number of term papers earning four degrees [MA (Pennsylvania); MA, MEd, PhD (Toronto)].

This is not to mention my 500 page Doctoral thesis, seen by an examiner as an “Extraordinary thesis” “judged by any criteria”. So all this may have helped me in honing in my skills. Of course, my education had been in English all my life, except up to Grade 2 or 3.

Sorry for that long answer, but it can be said that I am the writer that I am today primarily by being at it in some manner or the other – academic, popular, creative.

My writing being in two languages possibly helped, brain malleability (as research shows) possibly allowing me a flexibility in language use.

This is not to mention my early studies in Latin [at Nalanda Vidyalaya under Principal D C Lawris], academic studies in Pali and Sanskrit, and later, French.

Then there was the critical look at literature, and the inspiration – 2000 year old Sinhala literary tradition, and the younger Western literature.

Did I talk about my academic training as a Linguist (in the same department at UPenn that produced Noam Chomsky), allowing me yet another angle to look at language?

Now, shouldn’t I be banished from the literary world if I were not to produce a work of fiction – Untouchable Woman’s Odyssey, that would be less than “an extraordinary first novel”, in the words of University of Toronto English Professor, Chelva Kanaganayakam?

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