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Sunday, 20 September 2015





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Government Gazette

National Literacy Month:

Celebrating the power of the written word

September is National Literacy Month, a month that both reinforces the value of reading and writing and reminds us the two fundamental props of life remain elusive to hundreds of millions of people across the world. UNESCO recognizes literacy as a fundamental human right and the foundation for lifelong learning, as an essential tool for human development in its ability to transform lives and an instrument of empowerment for individuals, families, and societies alike, and has for over 65 years worked to ensure that literacy remains a priority on national and international agendas.

The Literacy Month was introduced in Sri Lanka by S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike in September 1956 to address the need for the upsurge of literature, following language policy changes. The Month has over the years evolved into a major calendar event, currently spearheaded by the Sri Lanka Book Publishers' Association, which was formed in 1984.

The highlight of this year's National Literacy Month event is the Swarna Pushpaka Award, which will see Rs. 500,000 being awarded for the best novel published this year. Though an annual event, this year's prize money is the biggest to be awarded by any organization for Sinhala novels. Five semi-finalists will also be awarded Rs. 50,000 each. Former Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake will be the Chief Guest at this year's award ceremony.

The Colombo International Book Fair at the BMICH, which had its inception in 1999, is a much looked forward to event by all book lovers in the country. It is already being recognized as a landmark event in South Asia. The Book Fair begins on September 18 with over 400 stalls. Close to 50 foreign publishers along with scores of local publishers, partners and bookshop owners are expected to participate in the 10-day Fair.

Over 1.5 million people are expected to attend the Book Fair. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe will be the Chief Guest at the opening ceremony on September 18.

Here we explore the essence of the National Literacy Month, the Colombo International Book Fair and the importance of literacy with, Vijitha Yapa, former President of the Sri Lanka Book Publishers' Association and Siroma Benaragama, Manager, Library & Information Services, British Council, Colombo

Thirst for books is very high

Siroma Benaragama
Pic: by Chinthaka Kumarasinghe

Q: Could you explain the importance of the Literacy Month and how it is relevant to Sri Lanka?

A: The thirst for books, knowledge and education in Sri Lanka is very high. Sri Lanka’s population has the highest literacy rate of 98% in the South Asia region.

It is vital that we make the general public aware of the importance of literacy.

Nelson Mandela once said ‘A reading nation is a winning nation’.

During the month of literacy, Colombo International Book Fair has now become an annual event, which gives the opportunity for book lovers to visit and purchase books at a discounted price.

In addition, it also provides the opportunity for many local and international institutions related to book trade to promote their publications and other services.

The British Council will also be participating at the Colombo International Book Fair and this is mainly to make the general public aware of the products and services we offer in our libraries, teaching centres and examinations in developing skills in English Language.

In addition we have observed that people who are interested in reading do register with us as library members during the fair.

Q: How do you encourage the reading habit in Sri Lanka?

A: The British Council is the United Kingdom’s International organisation for educational opportunities and cultural relations. We have three British Council libraries in Colombo, Kandy and Jaffna and have partner teaching centres in Galle and Matara. A total of more than 25,000 members are registered with us in using our physical (more than 75,000 items – books, DVDs, CDs, periodicals, etc.) and digital resources where we have more than 100,000 e-books and nearly 14,000 e-journals.

We play a major role in encouraging the reading habit among children. We have events and activities to educate parents regarding the importance of reading to a child and also developing the reading habit among children, so that they start reading at an early age. We have story telling sessions to support the parent and the child, so that they know how to relate a story in an interesting manner. Parents can play a crucial role in helping a child become a successful, fluent and eager reader. We get the children involved in our reading programs.

These have been designed in a way that they get influenced to read more due to the competition among children. We have been able to use expertise of our UK qualified teachers to inculcate the reading habit among children, by making it an enjoyable experience for children. This experience itself encourages them to read more confidently even though they are not used to reading material in English and this will be the main reason for their next visit to our libraries at an early age.

Q: How does British Council make reading a meaningful exercise for students?

A: We have our annual reading programs with different themes every year where we run it during school holidays in August and December.

In addition we have also started carrying out these Reading programs in schools mainly due to the requests we’ve been getting through schools where we get children to participate in our program and get a certificate and a medal at the end of our program. This has become very popular among children due to the nature of the reading program – every book they complete they get entitled for a small gift which influences reading the next book.

Q: Do you try to collaborate with the higher education institutes here to improve the quality of research in Sri Lanka?

A: We have already started making undergraduates and postgraduate students aware of the importance of referring to reliable resources, which would help them to avoid plagiarism and also regarding our on-line resources which consists of more than 110,000 e-books and nearly 14,000 e-journals, which would be beneficial for their research studies. Currently we’re working with Research Institutes in the UK in getting access to their on-line research material which could be beneficial for everyone in the research field for their studies. This will also help them in avoiding plagiarism.

It is one big giant bookshop

Vijitha Yapa   Pic: by Sumanachandra Ariyawansa

Vijitha Yapa, former (founding) editor of The Island and the Sunday Times, the former President of the Sri Lanka Book Publishers’ Association, and owner Vijitha Yapa Publications, the largest publisher of books in English in Sri Lanka.

“We promote Sri Lankan books in other countries such as the London Book Fair, Frankfurt Book Fair and the South Korean Book Fair. These are events where we go and meet the respective people and try to see how we can do business because I think Sri Lanka should not be restricted to just Sri Lanka because we have a lot of talent and opportunities.

“The money that is collected at the Colombo International Book Fair is used to award scholarships to poor students who have passed the Advanced Level examination but who do not have the money to study in university. We charge a very nominal entrance fee of Rs. 20. Students and children are allowed in free as well as the clergy.

“Vijitha Yapa Publications is the largest publisher of books in English in Sri Lanka. There again we are trying to promote these books overseas. So we have accounts in Amazon and various other places where these books are actively promoted. The response to this means certain books have been very successful. For example, Road From Elephant Pass by Nihal De Silva is now running in 21 editions and that is a record for any book in Sri Lanka in the English language. It was awarded the Gratiaen Prize in 2003 and also the National State Award for literature. This shows that there is a thirst for English Literature in Sri Lanka.

“The Colombo International Book Fair is important in promoting the reading habit in Sri Lanka. We have various ways in which we go into our schools to assist with their programs and to assist with school libraries. In promoting the reading habit, which is very important, our battle is with the Internet. E-books are not very popular in Sri Lanka at the moment, mostly because of the cost involved. It is less expensive to purchase an English fiction novel in our bookshops than to download it on the Internet.

“The exhibitions are also held in various schools with discounts so that children are encouraged to buy. And there are special prices which are given to the libraries and to the universities so that they can get the latest books at good prices.

“In the 1970s students had to take all their exams in their mother tongue. And this created various problems because the communication between children who speak Sinhala, Tamil and English deteriorated. When I was in school I had friends and we would converse in English. But that changed and that led to a lot of problems in the country such as miscommunication and led to the terrible war. But now the government has said that English is compulsory in schools. So that is a very important aspect and it will take a little time but I think in the coming years that will change in terms of communication also. And the fact that there is a greater demand for books in English is an indication that attitudes are changing and that books are a tremendous means of communication and understanding and building bridges. So the type of literature that has emerged especially because of the war has meant that there is a greater understanding of the problems that are associated with the communities.

“We don’t have huge bookshops in Sri Lanka like for example in England.

In Oxford Street there are forty or fifty thousand feet of space available for book stores but this is not available in South Asia. At the Book Fair, for the first time in Sri Lanka we are having 400 stalls with hundreds of publishers from all over the world displaying their books. So it is one big giant bookshop and there are discounts given in an attempt to encourage reading.

There are also other programs for children who can write, who can draw and we facilitate inter-communication between the publishers and the authors. We organize special seminars for them and there are book launches. It’s actually not just a book exhibition, it is a book festival. And this year we have extended it to ten days which includes two weekends.”


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