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Sunday, 13 April 2014





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Renaissance in art and culture

Prof. D.C.R.A. Goonetilleke

D.C.R.A. Goonetilleke is Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Kelaniya. He is a well-established and recognised critic of the 20th century and post-colonial literature, and a leading authority on Sri Lankan English literature. He is an authority on British literature of the Empire and the Commonwealth in general, and Sri Lankan writing in particular.

He was elected World Chairperson, Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies (ACLALS) and organised its conference of 1995 which brought honour to the country.

He was Foundation Visiting Fellow at Clare Hall, University of Cambridge, a Fellow Commoner of Churchill College, University of Cambridge and a Henry Charles Chapman Visiting Fellow, University of London and Guest Professor of English at the University of Tubingen, Germany. He holds a unique record in Sri Lanka as a distinguished scholar.

His major works in English literature include Developing Countries in British Fiction, acknowledged by international academia as a pioneering step in post-colonial studies, Images of the Raj, South Asia in the Literature of the Empire. Joseph Conrad:Beyond Culture and Background and Salman Rushdie.

He has served his own country by introducing the work of many Sri Lankan writers to readers and scholars worldwide through six anthologies. In “Sri Lankan English Literature and the Sri Lankan People 1917-2003” he has provided a comprehensive contemporary history of Lanka with an evaluation of Sri Lanka creative writing from its origins to the present day.

The impressive achievements were attained parallel to 44 years of imparting knowledge to students and serving on numerous national committees on cultural activities and the teaching of English.

In an interview with the Sunday Observer’s Montage, D.C.R.A. Goonetilleke speaks about literary criticism and related subjects.


Question: Literary criticism is your forte. What are your special interests in this field?

Answer: Over the years I have lectured on literature from Chaucer to the present in the university. I have actually published a book on literature from Shakespeare to the present and I find that even my work on Chaucer has come in useful on and off. Yet my full length studies of British writers have been from 1880 to the present.

That is, Rudyard Kipling, E.M. Foster, Leonard Woolf, D.H. Lawrence, Joyce Cary, Joseph Conrad and Salman Rushdie. However, at the moment I am best known for my work on Conrad and Rushdie. My recent book Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (Rouledge London and New York) has been highly acclaimed.

My edition of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (Canada:Broad View Literary Texts) has been reprinted several times. My study of Salman Rushdie originally published in 1998 went into a second edition in 2010 where I take into account Rushdie’s novels published after the first edition of my book.

It has been a pleasure to me that both non-Muslim and Muslim critics have found my Rushdie book acceptable. My longest chapter is of course on the Satanic Verses, which earned Rushdie the fatwa. I have published 21 books in all. My book “Images of the Raj” was published by Macmillan, London, in 1988 and because experts had praised it, the publishers have kept the book in print till today.

Of special interest to Sri Lankan readers is that this book contains the most thorough account of Leonard Woolf’s Sri Lankan works especially Village in the jungle. I have also published short contributions on American, British, Norwegian, Indian and New Zealand literature in Reference books and Encyclopaedias. In sum, I am interested, and have published literary criticism, in a variety of fields.

Complete history

Q: Your Sri Lankan literature and the Sri Lankan people 1917-2013 is a complete history of Sri Lanka’s English literature from its beginnings to 2003. Do you wish to update it?

A: As a Sri Lankan, I naturally respond to the literature around me. I have anthologised Sri Lankan literature in English several times for publishers in India, notably Penguin Books, and for Vijithah Yapa in Sri Lanka. The latest books are Kaleidoscope Volumes I and II published by Vijitha Yapa.

My most valuable contribution in this field is my book Sri Lankan literature and the Sri Lankan people 1917-2013 published by Vijitha Yapa.

This is a complete one-volume history on Sri Lankan English literature seen in the context on the history of the Sri Lankan people. It provides not only a literary history but also a cultural and social history of the modern age.

At the time I wrote the book, Sri Lanka was grappling with terrorism. I found after writing the book that my longest chapter was on this subject, running into 54 pages. The book went into a second edition in two years and I then added my revised view of Leonard Woolf’s Village in the jungle as an appendix.

I hope to update the book once the second edition is sold out. Actually, I have written on Sri Lankan literature in English after 2003 for Encyclopaedias published abroad.

Q: You are the co-author of Learning English-Books I and II. These are very useful books for students. How did you include these in your repertoire?

A: It is a little known fact of my career that I followed a Diploma course in English Language Teaching in a prestigious foreign institution. Even though we were taught a course on the English Language at the University of Peradeniya as a part of B.A Honours program, I felt I needed this extra knowledge when I was put in charge of the Intensive Course in English in all Sri Lankan universities in the 1980s. I studied Language Planning abroad and wrote an essay on the subject for a Sri Lankan journal in 1983. In that essay I have put down in writing an idea that I had expressed verbally earlier at meetings--that English language should be taught to all students at the Advanced Level and a paper on English language should be included in the Advanced Level examination; a pass in it would not be compulsory for university admission but would serve as a useful qualification.

This was meant to empower both urban and rural students. I was unable to get this idea implemented because of opposition. The country lost approximately two decades. Two colleagues and I published Learning English I and later book II.

Language teaching

Q: When it comes to language teaching, should we teach Sri Lankan English or British English?

A: In our books we have taught English as spoken and written by educated Sri Lankans. We have not divorced speech from writing. We think that students should write in the same way they speak but we have not taught Sri Lankan English as is presently conceived and we have not created this kind of artificial issue. There is no definitive book on Sri Lankan English and though my books have been published abroad, it has never occurred to me that I am writing International Standard English. I think these labels would impede rather than assist English education in Sri Lanka.

Q: What do you think of the cultural scene in Sri Lanka?

A: After terrorism ended, I see a remarkable liberation of creative impulses in Sri Lanka. I find that there are now more plays being written and staged in Sri Lanka in English and Sinhala, and this is partly because audiences are now not afraid to go to the theatre. Drama especially requires a live audience.

I also find that there is a great deal of music being produced in Sinhala and the most striking feature of it is that there is an enormous number of happy and lively songs being sung, for more than I have heard in the past. I have also been struck by Tamil pop music and dancing which do not accord with traditional Tamil culture.

It also gives me pleasure to see on television the open air pop concerts which include Sinhala, Tamil and Hindi music, and people dancing in a way we did not see for 30 years. Altogether there is a great renaissance in the arts and a great sense of freedom.

Q: A few decades ago literary criticism was a serious subject at universities. Do you think that the present generation takes literary criticism seriously?

A: A part of my pleasure in being published by reputed publishers abroad stemmed from the belief that I was blazing a trail for younger academics to follow, and I do hope they will. When I was halfway through my career, the late Ian Goonetilleke (incidentally, he is not a relative of mine), Sri Lanka’s greatest bibliographer, said that “I was on a lonely eminence.” This should not be the case.

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