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Indian SubContinent: Sri Lanka: Sri Lankanwriting in English: The bicultural experience in apostcolonial contextJean Arasanayagam aa Writerinresidence at the University of ExeterPublished online: 18 Jul 2008.
To cite this article: Jean Arasanayagam (1995) Indian SubContinent: Sri Lanka: Sri Lankan writing in English: Thebicultural experience in a postcolonial context, Wasafiri, 10:21, 63-64, DOI: 10.1080/02690059508589432
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/02690059508589432
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Sri Lankan Writing inEnglish: The Bi-CulturalExperience in a Post-Colonial Context
Contemporary Sri Lankan literature is acontinuous process of the decolonisation ofthe writer's self from the past, marked by aradical break from the colonial matrix interms of individual experience. The writer isimmersed in the discovery and explorationof new roles, re-defining them in terms ofthe uniquely Sri Lankan experience andattitudes. The exploration entails a complexpassage through an historical past, a newjourney through the indigenous locale andthe awareness of the issues that merit achange of vision. This vision embraces andis conscious of the vast range of experiencesreflected in the social, economic, culturaland historical realities of the island. Oncethis saga has been undertaken, there is noturning back.
Sri Lankan literature in English iswitnessing a great resurgence of creativity.Translation from Sinhala and Tamil fictionand poetry is gaining ground and beginningto close the gap between reader and writer ina multi-cultural, multi-lingual and multi-social society. In the past this was separatedby the divisive forces of an alien coloniallanguage English, one that had been inthe possession of an elitist English-educatedminority. English was identified as thelanguage of subjugation and oppression andwas symbolised by a new term of referencewhich was applied to the English language Kaduwa or sword. The Sinhala-only Billof 1956 in which the language of themajority ethnic group in the island wasgiven official status encouraged thedivisiveness within the country.
According to Dr Thiru Kandiah inPower and the English-Language Weapon inSri Lanka, 'No one knows for certain whenor where this use of the word originated. It iswidely believed however, that it did so in thespeech of some helpless children in rural ofsemi-urban Government schools, as theirresponse to the traumatically frustratingexperiences in the well-nigh useless Englishclasses they were obliged to attend ... Fromthere it spread to the Universities and thoughless comprehensively, to society in general.However this might be, the fact is that theterm is widely used in colloquial Sinhala
speech for the purpose of referring to theEnglish language'.
Be that as it may, English is both thebridge and the link language in Sri Lankatoday and many of the writers are both bi-lingual and representative of the bi-culturalexperience in Sri Lankan literature. One ofthese writers was Patrick Fernando who wasinfluenced by his Roman Catholic faith andhis background in Western Classics. Hisattitude towards a readership in Sri Lankaand abroad was: 'A Ceylonese writing to beread by anybody anywhere cannot move in afield that is exclusively "Ceylonese" or"Oriental" '. Another poet LakdasaWikkramasinghe, in his poem 'Don't talk tome about Matisse ' , he examines thejuxtaposition of two opposing cultures. TheEuropean tradition is symbolised by theavant-garde painters of the ImpressionistMovement - Matisse, Van Gogh, Gauguin -yet Wikkramasinghe identified them withthe trauma of conquest and subjugation. Theparadox of the bi-cultural experience isapparent in his work. However, he possesseda knowledge of European painting, part ofthe cultural heritage of the Western educatedsocial class to which he belonged, anexperience which the indigenous people hadno acquaintance with. Even as a writer whorebelled against the colonial experience, onewho regarded that it was 'cultural treason' touse English, the language of theconqueror/subjugator, he had no alternativebut to use the language of that culture. ToWikkramasinghe, Christianity which camewith the colonial experience was identifiedwith the suffering that the aboriginal andsavage were subjected '...with a gun withtwo nostrils, the aboriginal crucified byGauguin...' Religion and faith of the socialgroup he belonged to also influenced him.Education and conversion were closelyassociated with the missionaries. This toowas part of a milieu that Wikkramasinghebelonged to.
In a poem I wrote called 'TheColonials' we see an identification of the oldcolonials with the neo-colonials whoemerges from one's own terrain. However,writers like B.R. Blaze, being a DutchBurgher had a different attitude towardscolonialism. In his poem 'Ichabod'(Meditations in the Old Dutch Fort atJaffna, 1934) the Dutch colonial experienceis an heroic one:
Hoe lang de eswigheid! And yet theirnameShall grace eternity,They suckled nations, ancestors wetraceThey stretched an Empire, we definea race;And as we ponder over pedigrees,They vied in works of art and deeds ofgrace.
(R. Blaze, 'The Prodigal Sonand Other Poems')
Here Blaze quoted from the Dutch language('How long is eternity'). The Empire of hisancestors was something to be praised andvalorized.
The map of the past has changed, itsboundaries experienced radical trans-formations, the ownership of territoryquestioned, freedoms wrested from the oldconstraining order of things. Together withlanguage, social and political imperatives,inherited and borrowed ideologies havechanged. It is a return to 'the true self and'the concerns of the true self. It is in theclaiming of a new inheritance, the newliteratures in English claim credibility andacceptance. There are new witnesses tohistory, not that of others, but of one's own.The trauma of conquest and colonialism isdocumented. There are new areas, newspaces to be filled by those who arewitnesses to history in the aftermath ofIndependence.
The writer is an evolutionary being,with a consciousness of the era and times inwhich s/he lives and creates andinvestigates, the world s/he inhabits, awareof all the issues that compel the act ofcreation.
At a recent seminar conducted by PeterFaulkner at the University of Exeter, thepoetry of Geoffrey Powell was read anddiscussed. 'Ovid in the Third Reich' hadparticular reference to the writer in our timesand in our age. The Third Reich existseverywhere. The poet cannot be content witha life preoccupied by the pursuit of personalhappiness - 'my family and my work'. Therole of the writer in the current situation is apowerfully vocal one - influential, respon-sible, radical, interrogative, subversive,prophetic, identity-seeking, in a societywhich is multi-racial , multi-lingual andmulti-religious, fraught with tremendousforces of social and political upheaval. It is asociety in transition, with the fragmentationand displacement of the individual not onlyin the urban scenario, but in the country as awhole, embroiled in ethnic conflict and
political uprisings. These are facts conjoinedwith emigration, refugees, migrant workersin the Gulf States and Gender issuesinvolved with patriarchy and the traditionalvalue system. Child abuse, child prostitution,rape, wife-battering, drug addiction, urbanterrorism, war and violence...the issues arenever ending. A new metaphor has to besought to create the new terms of reference.In the process of exploiting the potential ofauthentic experience, the mind, the psyche,needs to rid one self of the outdatedparaphernalia of language and metaphor - noapple, no snow, no cuckoo, no nightingale ordaffodils bind the fictions of thecontemporary mind. The writer has no moreneed of imitative writing of that colonialperiod or taking their models from theliterature of the Victorians or that of theRomantics. They no longer needed toconform to the standards defined by thecolonial context which generated specificallegiances to theme, language, metaphor.
The jungle is now the habitat not onlyof the wild animal or reptile, but also of theguerilla and the victims of massacres; theslumland or shantylands of the marginalisedin the urban environment; the war tornPeninsula of Jaffna in the north; thefragmentation and dislocation of life in thecity; the new settlements, the 'refugeecamps' of the displaced; the Universitycampus in Peradeniya. It is no unfamiliarhabitat, no alien territory or environmentwhich the writer inhabits, explores orinvestigates.
The best Sri Lankan writing in Englishtoday bears a profound consciousness of theera where the writer lives and creates,dealing with the issues of a particular milieu.The writers themselves belong to differentethnic groups, some of them minority andmarginalised groups which function in aplural society where the majority is SinhalaBuddhist. In this environment, there existdominant and ascendant ideologies andhegemonies. Devi Arasanayagam, whoteaches at Toronto University, says,'Nationalism, identity, history play a pivotalrole in contemporary Sri Lanka'.
In 1917 Lucian de Zylwa a Ceylonese,wrote the first novel in English The Dice ofthe Gods. S.J.K. Crowther wrote The KnightErrant in 1928. J. Vijayatunga's Grass forMy Feet appeared in 1935. George Keyt'spoetry ('Images in Absence' and 'TheDarkness Disrobed') were published in the1930s. Patrick Fernando's collection ofpoems The Return of Ulysses appeared in1954.
In continuing the premise that literaturetoday in Sri Lanka deals with a society intransition, with its radical breakawaymovements from feudalism and colonialismto post-colonialism and modernisation, thewriter deals with a maelstrom of issues,conflicts and sometimes even dividedloyalties. All this is grist to the writersmill. The beginning is apparent inEdiriweera Sarathchandra's Curfew and theFull Moon which examines the issuesinvolved in the insurrection of 1971. JamesGoonewardene's An Asian Gambit (1985)also deals with the insurrection, as doesPunyakanthi Wijenaike's short stories 'TheSun' and 'The Rebel'.
The 1960s saw the emergence ofseveral new writers. What was needed was amaturity of vision and understanding of boththe individual and the universal predicamentin which were inherent the forces of politicaland social turmoil and upheaval.Divisiveness is no longer one of languagealone, but of ethnicity, dichotomies whosetragedies are inherent within a multi-culturalsociety.
The 1970s saw a progression of theseideas (the seeds of which began in the1960s) while the 1980s marked an upsurgeand regeneration of the creative writer whoexploits to the fullest, the potential andrealization of the uniqueness of his/hermilieu which entails the tragedy, horror andsuffering of a country embroiled in ethnicconflict between the majority Sinhalese andthe minority Tamils. The title of my poemwhich reflect these tragic events Apocalypse'83 focuses on these events. Some of thesepoems written in a refugee camp 'come asthe voice of our collective sense of horrorand tragedy'.
A great deal of literature wasprecipitated by the events of 1983. Actsof Faith a play by Rajiva Wijesinha;The Intruder a play by ThiagarajahArasanayagam, poetry and fiction by writerslike Maureen Seneviratne, NirmaliHettiarachchi, Suresh Canagarajah, AshleyHalpe, Richard de Zoysa, Basil Fernando, tomention only a representative selection. TheSri Lankan journals that have been seminalin presenting the new writing are NewCeylon Writing, Navasilu, New LankanReview, Channels and Phoenix.
The writers in Sri Lanka today show aprofound commitment to their work. Thesewriters are helping to create their ownunique and individual tradition. India hasplayed a major role in the publication of SriLankan writing. Some of the writers whose
work is being published in India are JamesGoonewardene, Rajiva Wijesinghe, CarlMuller and mine. Writers (some of themexpatriates) like Michael Ondaatje, YasmineGooneratne, Romesh Gunesekera, ChitraFernando, Chandani Lokuge, ShyamSelvadurai, Guy & Indran Amirthanayagam,Anne Ranasinghe and Ernest Mclntre havedistinguished themselves in the realm offiction, poetry and drama.
The value of Sri Lankan literaturetoday lies not only in its importance to itsown society and culture, but also to theuniversal context where we could well usethe description of the Guinean authorCamara Laye: 'The cultures of the world asall participating in one dance, each with itsown special movement, contributingsomething significant to the total rhythm.Any attempt to suppress one of them takesaway an essential unit or beat from theoccasion of the whole'.