I am in Singapore conducting some workshops at the Singapore Literary Festival on writing. My mind retreats to where I belong; Sri Lanka and my thoughts drift to what the literary scene in my homeland is or where it is heading. Yes, the “Year of English” was announced and that would create a positive impact and the masses may be a little closer to taking a few motivated steps to become better acquainted with the Queen’s language.
Good thought, timely too.
That brings me to the more isolated subject of English writing in Sri Lanka. We have publishers and distributors and people who read. Yes, we do have authors and poets too, very good ones at that. They come out with excellent books that decorate the shelves at Odels and such places and have a “browse-may-buy” look at Barefoot and similar places. Such would be the life span, seldom reaching the vast literary world that spreads across oceans. That’s for the good ones. The “not so good” gather dust in manuscript form, publishing expectations dwindling with declining opportunity till the author weary of recurring disappointments admits defeat and goes into oblivion. Another could-have-been published author or poet buried.
Are we making any progress? Is there a reasonably navigatable path for that young writer/poet or the retired literary lover or the house wife who sits in front of her computer to publish? Can they with a genuine effort come out with a book that would find a seat on a book shelf? I doubt.
Today’s technology is writer friendly, Google will give all the information you need and the PC will let you cut, chop and erase and replace and paste and delete and do a hundred things that were denied to the author of yester year. But has that increased the book and poetry output? No I do not think so. It certainly would have rapidly added numbers to the list of people who want to write and starts to write, but not many go the full distance, not even half. Most often they fade away sighing and crying the sad and defeating death march of “none to publish my work?”
I could be wrong in my statistics, but if I am somewhere there in the vicinity of accuracy, last year’s Gratiaen Prize short list was all in manuscript form. Certainly not for the lack of quality, simply because it is not easy to publish. To be fair by the publishers too, they run a business and they have to back winnable horses, maybe sure horses. That leaves the “also rans” in limbo fading away with their aspirations of becoming successful authors and sorrowfully giving up the quest of a life’s desire to be recognised as writers and poets. They get defeated, inheriting mortgaged hopes and vanishing dreams. It discourages the next wave and they too lament on the “who will publish me” line which results in a sharp decline of the new writer/poet who has so much to say and no way to get started.
Are there any answers? Yes everything has an answer. There need to be some organisation that gathers book lovers and the infant literate under the same tent. The “would be” authors and the “could be” poets should become team mates in their search for publishers and distributors. If the big guns do not fire, look for catapults, the idea is to publish. There are many pelicans like me around who had trod that difficult publishing path before, people who can shed some light to the newer minds. That encouragement is needed for a budding writer to re- believe and the emerging poet to see a rainbow amidst the clouds of discouragement and begin to thump back on a key board again.
New writers in Sri Lanka have been defeated by just two questions. “Who will publish my book?” And “who will read my story?” That’s where most get stumped. The two questions do not have ice cream answers. Or I could say no answer at all. Then why bother? Let us write for the love of it, you have a story and you want to place it on print. Just do it. I went through this mind boggling mire writing an 850 page book and never knew who would publish it and had no idea who would read it either. It didn’t matter, I was writing and enjoyed the journey and I knew at the end if all failed, I could still get some A-4 paper and print it from my computer and make it compulsory for my two children to read. Yes, I had the publisher, ME, and the audience, my son and daughter and I plodded on for ten long years. “The Last Kingdom of Sinhalay” was the result and I humbly say it won me the State Literary Award. My two children, the planned audience read and some others too may have followed and there by hangs a tale.
If you are a literature lover, a reader or a poet or a writer or want to be one, think of forming a collective voice. It would be for people to gather and talk books and seek ways to help each other. I have too many irons in the fire and too many decades on my birthday, if not I would have led the charge. But I am always willing to be a soldier and would be proud to be associated in creating a group shrouded in literary simplicity. Maybe Artscope would come in and give the media coverage. Maybe we can find a simple place to gather and get a Pineapple man to come with his Annassi Basin and a Gram seller to sell kadala gotu where book lovers could meet and swap ideas.
We can even call that team “Annassi and Kadala Gotu”’
Who knows, reverting to Gray’s Elegy, we may have a mute inglorious Milton eating pine apple with us or a miniature Khalid Hussieni munching gram in a corner. Such things are possible when people believe in themselves.
It is the thought that matters; yes some would raise eyebrows and think I have got my marbles mixed. But I have heard such before and have marched many a time to different drummers and gone way past people who laughed and scoffed from the sidelines.
Whatever the means maybe, there is a great need for new writers and poets. Let not the thoughts you foster in your inner voice to write be wasted like confetti after the bride’s walk. There are so many like you who may read Artscope, aspiring authors, poets, journalists and the appreciators of literature who would be willing to look at a “Annassi and Kadala Gotu” gathering to exchange ideas and make humble inroads to literature.
Mr. Editor Artscope, the first ball I bowl is to you. Swing some thoughts my way and see how you can score. I like to think that there would be many who will respond so that you may not have to look for who will write the next story in your column but will have a well laid buffet to choose from.
Where have all the authors gone? Gone to graveyards everyone; will that happen? When will they ever learn? That too is a good question. Books and poems have to be written; new ideas must float around to give different flavours to the Sri Lankan literary scene. If they cannot be published, print them and photocopy them, pass them around and let them be read. Make ten copies and gift it to ten people. One becomes an author not when you sell a thousand copies, but when you have what you wrote in print, photocopied or otherwise.
Be a writer or a poet who carry the courage to write and not one who dreamt and died with thoughts undisclosed, words deprived of life they richly deserved.
To be defeated after writing is sad, but it is infinitely sadder to be defeated before you start.
Capt Elmo Jayawardena can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org