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Sunday, 27 October 2013





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US university honours Lankan literary luminary

Sri Lanka’s annals of literature hold an indelible pedestal for the name of Jean Solomons Arasanayagam. A prolific poet and prose writer of ingenuity, her impressive body of work to date has earned her much recognition as a voice whose craft as a writer reflects rather significantly the ‘spirit of the age’ in which her artistry in words takes shape.

Jean Arasanayagam at the Bowdoin College Convocation

To any student of English literature in Sri Lanka, the name of Jean Arasanayagam resonates strongly the ‘voice and will’ for Sri Lankan identity, explored and sought to be resolved within the textual realm of writing itself.

Through the English literature syllabi at GCE O/Ls and A/Ls at school level and then in the numerous undergraduate studies at university one encounters the voice of Jean Arasanayagam; expressive in imagery and metaphor, steadfast in her beliefs, and in some subtle and gentle way calling the reader too to awaken the sense of introspection, to gaze inwards, and ask what it means to be ‘who you are’ in the environs of history, society, and the innumerable institutions that form our ‘self’.

A graduate of the University of Peradeniya, Arasanayagam also holds an MA in Linguistics from the University of Stratchclyde in Glasgow, Scotland. She is a Sri Lankan writer whose works have been translated into German, French, Danish, Swedish and Japanese. At the convocation held on May 25 Bowdoin College USA, honoured the Sri Lankan writer of great distinction with the degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa. The honour conferred upon Arasanayagam can perhaps be thought of as a feather earned for the identity of Sri Lanka’s growing community of writers.

The Bowdoin citation

The citation by Bowdoin College says, Arasanayagam “a poetic witness to social and political history”. The president of Bowdoin College Barry Mills, on inviting the much admired Sri Lankan writer had said the following about Jean Solomons Arasanayagam:– “Yours is a voice of conscience, of experience, of wisdom and of hope. You have given generously of yourself in encouraging young writers including students enrolled in the collegiate Sri Lankan education program.” Part of the program to honour Arasanayagam included a reception at Moulton Union Bowdoin College that set the ground for interaction with students, faculty and families which was held on May 24.

Sri Lanka is now at crossroads in the 21st century. Looking to the future also means remoulding outlook as to what the Sri Lankan ethos must meet and ‘converse’ with the discourses of a ‘globalising’ world.

The meeting of paths between Bowdoin College and a writer whose work is the cornerstone in many ways to post independence Sri Lankan literature, we could surely hope that Sri Lankan expression through literature is gaining wider recognition.

Just as an ethnic or religious minority in a country may very rightly seek to have its voice heard and not drowned or diluted under the larger, more voluminous clamours of a majority, it is fair to say that in the coming decades one of the concerns among Sri Lanka’s community of writers in English, would be to see that their writing be given its rightful share of recognition.

Ethos that has its distinctness rooted in its own nationhood as opposed to the more commonly understood labels that take a basis of geography as ‘South Asian’ or ‘Asian’ literature, whereby the ‘regionalist genre’ approach, may, while surely being a strength in some ways, also deny the ‘Sri Lankan experience expressed through literature’ attention to be noted for its own unique merits.

In this light what Bowdoin College has performed is, reflectively speaking, a service, symbolically to Sri Lanka’s writers of today.

Civil reciprocity

Lines drawn on water, Jean Arasanayagam’s latest work, is a book of poetry. The book has been dedicated to Bowdoin College which speaks of a civil reciprocity in the light of Sri Lankan literature gaining more recognition among western academia.

The opening of the dedication reads:

“My poetry collection Lines drawn on water is a tribute to Bowdoin College, Maine, USA which has bestowed on me the honour of Doctorate in Letters. My personal thanks go to Barry Mills, president of Bowdoin College and John Clifford Holt, William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of the Humanities in Religion and Asian Studies.”

President of Bowdoin College Barry Mills presents Jean Arasanayagam with the D.Litt degree, as Prof. John Clifford Holt looks on.

Arasanayagam offers the reader insight as to what stirred within her the inspiration for her book in a preface like essay, bearing as its heading the title of the book. She speaks of how she had chanced upon while reading Jungle Tide by John Still. The factor of inspiration Arasanaygam tells us is to be found in Chapter V (Wild Beasts and Buried Cities) of Still’s book.

The part that has ‘spoken out’ to and set her thinking in motion is Still’s record of a rock inscription which bears the nature of a kingly decree whose author is now unknown to history and thus cast into the doleful abysses of namelessness, which is truly one of the greatest fears any writer could have as to what their work could finally serve as their legacy to posterity. An understandable fear and quite justified one may say.

‘Immortality’ through the beauty of their creations bequeathed to their fellow man is what perhaps lies as a subconscious desire in every artist who ever cared to take means to have his name be ‘authored’ to his creation.

Milan Kundera the Czech born writer in his novel Immortality speaks of how artists and politicians pine for immortality through their legacies left upon this earth.

In this world where impermanence is the one certainty that we may be assured of, what can guarantee any mortal the stature of immortality to be endured as long as human memory exists? If even what is ‘carved on stone’ cannot assure a king, no less, of what he assumed would be eternal identity and symbolic existence in the eyes of man, what hope does a writer of today have, Arasanayagam posits the silent question, to herself, and the reader.

Ever since humankind realised of their one assured common destiny on this earth is to exit it physically, many a man has sought to find defiance to mortality through means to create, author or ‘qualify’ into history.


When thinking on these lines in the context of what was cited by Still, which Arasanayagam found to nourish for her creative veins, Shelley’s sonnet Ozymandias comes to my mind. Fortunately for the ‘King of kings’ carved out in the lines of Shelley, his name remains to proclaim itself to the future, he, Ozymandias, never saw, although the grandiose works he claims exist all around him have turned to dust and cannot verify the claims of the incomparable greatness the inscription seeks to establish as its ‘author’s’ doings, or ‘qualifications’, to be venerated and awed at as deserving immortalisation in history.

It is sadly for that olden king lost to the records of Sri Lankan history and the memory of man, found as a mere ‘scrap of poetry’ that he was not awarded at least the kindness that fate had in store for Ozymandias whose name, at least, endures.

John Still notes of that nameless king that his fate was finally to be –“like a line drawn on water.”

However much we try to establish with means of ‘identification’, be it through subscriptions to institutions or authorship over creations that range from art to architecture, we may rest assured that as humankind we share with absolute certainty what was articulated by the late John F. Kennedy –“For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s futures. And we are all mortal.”

As a writer whose topics deal very prominently with issues of both collective and individual identity, Jean Arasanayagam’s self reflection holds in the subconscious anxieties of ‘what finally will my writing serve?’ She is arguably a writer who believes her writing must serve purposes that will contribute to salutary ends.

And while her journey as a writer continues, this milestone in the nature of the recognition conferred on her by Bowdoin College for her contributions to the world of letters, will surely, as ‘time’ courses its passage as a ‘respecter of no persons’, aid to the endurance of her name.

Arasanayagam is a writer whose body of work deserves its rightful place in history, and remain in human memory for long time.

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