Mapping the World in Sinhalese
Chamini Kulathunga in Conversation with Liyanage Amarakeerthi
Introducing an ultraminor literature from a geopolitically minute space in the East—for example, from an island nation like Sri Lanka—into the galaxy of world literature, a terrain largely and sadly dominated by the West, is perhaps harder than communicating with aliens. Or maybe the saddest part of it is the fact that the analogy of “communicating with aliens” came to mind when I was looking for a way to describe the nature of the exchange of minority literature between East and West. Although we were taught and are now teaching our children that the world—or anything for that matter—is not merely black and white, the number of times authors and translators from minute literary spaces have to convince the gatekeepers of world literature that there are literatures in between and beyond what they have recognized as “majority” and “minority” literatures is shockingly surprising. This has been the everyday reality of the agents of Sri Lankan Sinhalese literature, myself included, for a very long time—and it may very well remain the case for a long time to come. At this point, I am beginning to wonder if what the gatekeepers are scared of is the entrance of a potentially ungraspable regionalism into the comforts of world literature they have enjoyed since time (im)memorial. However, the stories of the contemporary Sri Lankan Sinhalese author, academic, critic, political activist, and translator, Liyanage Amarakeerthi, occupy a beautiful liminality of ultra-minor regionalism and universalism as his stories cut into the deepest wounds of contemporary socio-politics in Sri Lanka only to reveal the universal pangs that lie deep down at the core of the wounds. “The Story of a Dreamy Sky,” a short story of such nature from his latest collection, was published in my translation in World Literature Today Online in August 2020, marking a remarkable feat in my years-long efforts to introduce Sri Lankan Sinhalese literature into the oeuvre of contemporary world literature in translation. The following is a conversation that came about as a result of an email exchange I recently had with Liyanage Amarakeerthi on his writing process, influences, notable publications, and his ideas on translation. What started as a personal correspondence, mostly for my research purposes, soon became an interesting exchange of ideas and anecdotes about literature that we collectively decided to share with a wider audience.
Chamini Kulathunga: How did you get into writing? Did you always want to be a writer?
Liyanage Amarakeerthi: I started writing when I was about fourteen years old. I thought I had stories to tell and poems to write. I wrote so much that my mother even met a printer to talk about publishing a collection of my poems. It didn’t work out. I don’t remember why. Perhaps the cost was too much. That was around 1982 or 1983. I still continued to write, and in 1985, one of my poems got published in a national daily called Dinamina. Following that, I regularly sent out poems and short stories to the literary pages of newspapers.
A crucial event in my childhood that made me want to write was the gradual collapse of my parents’ marriage. I was old enough to witness its course. At the time I was born, my father was doing financially quite well. By the time I was thirteen or so, our finances started going downhill. My mother even had to become a day laborer. This collapse got me reflecting about life, society, and so on. Perhaps that was mainly why I became a writer. In fact, one of my earliest stories was about a failing marriage. It first got published in a newspaper and was then included in my first short story collection. It’s like the famous opening line of Anna Karenina, “happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” I can quote this line by memory, my family was unhappy in its own way. That unhappiness made me a writer. And then there is the pleasure of telling a story.
CK: You obtained your Master’s and PhD degrees from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and then spent several years teaching Sinhalese at Cornell University. Places like Ithaca and Madison as well as American characters make brief appearances in some of your works. Do you think that your time in the US has had an impact on your writing? If so, how?
LA: I spent more than ten years in the US, and I have many friends there. I am working on a novel that is partly set in the US. Yes, my time there did indeed have a huge impact on my writing. One important thing was the kind of exile it resulted in for me. Those years provided me with a critical distance from my native land and culture. Many writers find it hard to develop a sort of outsider’s view when writing while living in their native places. For me, being able to live abroad for a while was helpful in taking an outsider’s view of my own culture and people. A sort of emotional and intellectual exile is needed for a literary writer in order to have incisive insights into his or her own culture. Living abroad for a while can help you gain that mental skill. My mature writings show my cosmopolitan consciousness, a rooted cosmopolitanism. I think this consciousness is very important to me as a writer.
Then, of course, the most serious years of my literary education were spent in the US. I read a lot while there. At Madison, I took graduate courses in Comparative Literature, South Asian Literature, American Literature, Literary Theory and so on. In addition to the reading required by the academic courses, I intensely read on my own. Since I went there as a Fulbright scholar, I had enough money to buy the books I wanted to read, and I didn’t have to work, so I had enough time to read. In addition, I had many American, Indian, European friends who were into literature both in Madison and Ithaca. They also recommended books to me. We regularly discussed books.
When I returned to Sri Lanka in 2008, I shipped nearly one thousand books I had collected over ten years.
CK: Most of your novels and short stories are rather long, but the creative twists and suspense in them nevertheless sustain the readers’ interest. What does your writing process look like? How do you maintain the momentum of your writing and remain inspired?
LA: I pay a lot of attention to the craftsmanship in fiction writing. You may have noticed that my stories are rather dramatic. When I am pregnant with a story, so to speak, I try to live in the reality of that story. In addition to the story itself, I keep thinking about the “discourse,” i.e. the mode of presenting it to the reader. The “discourse” could be all the devices I use to narrate the tale. Surprisingly, sometimes the issues related to the presentation of the story get resolved by themselves almost without my conscious interference.
As for inspiration, I think it was Philip Roth who said that “writing is more about perspiration than inspiration.” I agree with that. When you are a writer, you are always attuned to the matters of the world and attentive to your own self. Then there are stories. But you also have to sit and write them down. For that, you need the physical labor Roth is talking about. As a university professor, I don’t always have time to sit down to write my stories. So, my writing process is not very systematic. But I try to note down story ideas in a notebook each time they pop up in my mind. Still, I remember losing great story ideas that I failed to write down. Once they are gone, it is difficult to recall them unless they reappear themselves. They sometimes do. When I have time, I go back to my notes and flesh them out. But they often end up becoming something other than what I had originally planned them to be when jotting them down as story ideas.
CK: The bulk of your writing is politically charged, often drawing on events and incidents from the 70s and 80s in Sri Lanka, when a lot of political turmoil was going on in the country. This was when a communist youth uprising was happening while the government in turn brutally suppressed the movement. And then there was the civil war in the North-Eastern areas of the island. You also talk about several incidents the Sri Lankan minority communities have encountered. Why do you think it’s important to talk about these events through your writings?
LA: Yes, I always do return to the youth uprising in the 80s. I was a young man during that time. Several of my relatives were active in the rebellion. I myself had connections with the student wing of the rebels. I also had an uncle who was a regional leader of an old left-wing party, whom the rebels considered an enemy. They were extremely tragic and chaotic times. I feel that it is difficult to paint a picture of our country during the 80s without referring to the youth uprisings in the South and the civil war in the North.
It is important to talk about those events for several reasons. For one, writers should not let society forget such cruelties. The failure of Sri Lanka as a postcolonial state was the main cause of those armed struggles. As a writer I want to sustain and enrich our collective consciousness of such events. And you might have noticed that I am critical of both the state and rebels, and I hate all manners of political violence although I can understand that, more often than not, violence is a product of history.
CK: Your latest short story collection Gedarawata Sitiyama (The Map around Our House) was published as recently as June 2020. The collection includes stories based on a range of topics and subjects from contemporary post-war Sri Lanka including war veterans, Sri Lankan domestic helpers in the Middle East, and even the lives of the generation senior to yours who lived through armed uprisings and coups. The opening story, for example, the translation of which was recently published in World Literature Today Online titled “The Story of a Dreamy Sky,” is one such story. You directly cut into the heart of the events in the recent past like the civil war and communist youth uprisings in the 80’s that many Sri Lankans seem to have comfortably left behind but nevertheless impact the lives of contemporary Sri Lankans. What prompted you to write this set of stories?
LA: Putting these stories into a collection was deliberate. The title of the book and the title story were also selected carefully. “The map around our house” is the cognitive map around our life in contemporary Sri Lanka. It could very well be the surrounding of anyone’s house, too. The eventfulness of Sri Lanka’s postcolonial history has made it convenient to forget many tragic events. Some people like to act as if our history was built entirely around Buddhist precepts. But that was not the case. Mostly, it is the Buddhists and Buddhist clergy who are responsible for the violence that was caused in our recent history. I say this as a Buddhist myself. And other religions are equally responsible. The most recent largescale violence in Sri Lanka, the Easter Sunday bombings, was caused by Muslim extremists. I focus on religions here because they claim to be the guardians of ethics. It should also be noted that the so-called guardians of other aspects of society have also failed miserably. In this collection, I have included stories about a range of characters from different walks of life. And they are from several generations. So, my “map” is not just about space, it is also about time.
CK: The narrators in most of your powerful and creative stories tend to be male. But you also write stories, particularly short stories, that have female narrators. How do you get into the mind of your female narrators? What kind of research goes into accessing the female perspectives of the topics you write about?
LA: This is a difficult question to answer. I am not sure if I have been able to successfully tap into the female consciousness. But I have been blessed with the kindness of many women including my mother, grandmother, sisters, teachers, mentors, friends, past girlfriends, and my wife all through my life. If it wasn’t for the kindness of these women, I wouldn’t be here today. Therefore, at times, the female characters in my early stories are mostly idealized. I like to think that I have become better at getting into the female consciousness now, and I am particularly happy with a female narrator in my latest collection. In terms of research, I attentively listen to the things women have to say. There are female students who would share personal stories about their lives with me. That helps, too. When Nabokov was writing Lolita, he used to eavesdrop on teenage girls. I do that, too.
CK: You often use raw colloquial Sinhalese in your writings. In texts like Atawaka Puththu (Half-moon Sons) you even use long and convoluted sentences to resemble colloquial Sinhalese for much of the text. The extent to which you push the spoken variety of diglossic Sinhalese into a literary text, a space primarily dominated by the written or the high variety, has been criticized by several purist scholars and writers, who have pointed to your academic affiliations as a professor of Sinhalese language and literature. Could you talk about why it is important for you to write in extremely colloquial Sinhalese? What effect do you aim at achieving through that?
LA: Sinhalese is a wonderfully flexible language. In addition to its diglossia, there are numerous regional variations. And one can always play around with the word order. And then, in terms of vocabulary, we have loanwords coming from Sanskrit, Pali, Portuguese, Dutch and English. There is an entire lexicon of “pure” Sinhalese as well. For a writer, all these linguistic features are useful resources. I have used colloquial Sinhalese mainly in two novels. In two others, I have used the high register of literary Sinhalese. Even in my recent novel, I play with the “language of the learned.” There, I do that to accomplish a sense of irony. It is a story about an underworld man who learns to use the “language of the learned.” While the other gangsters kidnap people, this man kidnaps the discursive devices of the learned people including their highfalutin language. But to return to your point about colloquial language, I like the musicality of spoken Sinhalese. It gives me a certain immediacy to the life I want to portray. In colloquial Sinhalese, you can easily combine many words together, and the wordplay is so much easier because of that. That is why I managed to be so playful in Half-moon Sons.
CK: Your latest novel Rathu Iri Andina Atha (The Hand that Draws Red Lines) was shortlisted for the 2020 Svarna Pustaka (The Golden Book) Award, one of the most prestigious literary prizes in Sri Lanka. What’s the novel about?
LA: It is the story of the underworld man I just mentioned. He is not necessarily a gangster, he just steals the language of the learned. For an accidental murder, he is sent to jail for ten years, and when he comes out, he takes note of the learned people such as university scholars who participate in television talk shows as connoisseurs of literature, mainly of songs. He was planning to rediscover himself, so he decides to re-enter society as a professor. In jail, he learns Japanese and Japanese culture. So, once he finishes his sentence, with the help of his underworld boss, who has now become a wealthy businessman and owns a television network, he enters the world of the learned middle class and becomes famous as the “Japanese Professor,” claiming that he is a professor based in Japan who is on a brief visit to Sri Lanka. Through a television talk show, he becomes extremely popular in the country as a man with great taste. There are many twists in the plot. But the main story is about this man who re-invents himself after a term in prison.
CK: There’s a huge demand for translations in Sri Lanka, particularly for translations into Sinhalese. Something I’ve noticed is that most of the texts that have been and are being translated into Sinhalese are based on the English translation if the text was not originally written in English or Tamil. But the Sinhalese translators rarely ever acknowledge or credit the English translation they use. What are your thoughts on this as someone who also translates both academic and creative works into Sinhalese?
LA: This is sadly true. And it is wrong to do so. Many Latin American novels have been translated into Sinhalese from their English translations. We hardly ever see the name of the English translator. Writers like García Márquez, Vargas Llosa, Haruki Murakami, and many others are well-known among Sinhalese readers, but not Gregory Rabassa, Edith Grossman, Natasha Wimmer, and Philip Gabriel. Without those great translators, I wouldn’t have had access to Latin American literature. Many Sinhalese readers wouldn’t have access to international literature because there is no one in Sri Lanka who translates directly from the Spanish. Nearly all German, French, Portuguese, Spanish, Chinese, and Japanese literature, for example, has come to Sinhalese through the English translations. Their English translators are our invisible friends and unsung heroes.
CK: There are many references to texts from world literature in your works. What books have you been reading lately?
LA: I am an avid reader of literature from around the world. My American education exposed me to many great literary works and writers in the world. And I like to think that I am participating in world literature even though I happen to write in a small language.
As for the recent books I have been reading, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad is one of the fascinating novels I have read most recently. During my time in the Boston area I saw some houses that had been used as “underground railroads,” so I easily identify with the novel. Right now, I am halfway through Pamuk’s Istanbul, a wonderful memoir. Another great novel I have read recently is The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen. It was my only exposure to Vietnamese lives during and after the war, especially Vietnamese people who migrated to the US during those days. For me, it is a modern-day Heart of Darkness. George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo was magical in its craftsmanship. In addition to those, I have recently discovered Muriel Spark, a writer from the generation previous to mine. After reading The Mandelbaum Gate, I thought I would read some more by her. I try to stay connected to the literary scenes in the West. But living in a provincial town in Sri Lanka, it is very difficult to continue that, and COVID-19 has kept my foreign friends from visiting me! There are several friends who visit me regularly from the US and UK with books and news about books. But I regularly listen to NPR programs on books.
Liyanage Amarakeerthi is a contemporary Sri Lankan writer. He is the author of eight collections of short stories, five novels, and two collections of poetry. He is also a writer of two children’s books, six academic books, and ten translations into Sinhalese. His novel Atawaka Puththu (Half-moon Sons) won the Best Sinhala Novel award at the 2008 State Literary Festival. He is also the recipient of the National Award for Literature in 2000, Swarna Pusthaka Awards in 2014 and 2016, and the Vidyodaya Literary Award in 2014 for his fiction and prose works.
Chamini Kulathunga is a Sri Lankan translator. She is a graduate of the Iowa Translation Workshop and a summer visiting fellow at Cornell University’s South Asia Program. Chamini was the former Blog Editor and a staff editor of Exchanges: Journal of Literary Translation and is Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Sri Lanka. Her writings, interviews, and translations have appeared in Asymptote, Los Angeles Review of Books, Los Angeles Review, Project Plume, Exchanges, DoubleSpeak, Bengaluru Review, and elsewhere.
Originally published on Hopscotch Translation
Tuesday, February 9, 2021