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Drowning in a tsunami of cliché?

The Gratiaen Prize 2009

The Gratiaen Prize – for those of you not up on your South Asian literary gongs – is an annual award given to Sri Lankan writers for creative writing in English, f(o)unded in 1993 by Michael Ondaatje, with his English Patient Booker winnings.

Writing-in-English is a small crowd here – ‘here’ being a few postcodes of Colombo, principally – as evidenced by the number of past Gratiaen winners who have subsequently become Gratiaen judges (and vice versa). Especially in the predominant fiction category, standard output tends to involve small concerns (gallery openings, affairs, playing cricket in the street) as none-too-subtle metaphors for the big issues (civil war, tsunami, political corruption, colonial legacy). There can be a lot of earnestness. And a lot of cliché.

Until last year, anyway, when Shehan Karunatilaka’s matchlessly ballsy Chinaman: the legend of Pradeep Mathew appeared to recalibrate the entire business overnight. The citation for Chinaman made a totally unambiguous point of praising it for talking about contemporary realities in contemporary, realistic parlance. And it has just, finally, been published – thanks to the Rs. 200,000 prize-money, awarded for that explicit purpose.  

Result: high expectations at last week’s British Council shortlist announcement.

Since January, the triumvirs of the Gratiaen’s reader-writer-academic judging panel had waded through 29 novels, 8 books of poetry, 9 collections of short stories, a few hybrids, a couple of fantasies [sic. as though a separate category], 1 memoir, 0 plays: a grand total of 52 submissions from the last calendar year.

The judges weren’t sparing any blushes. Their opening remarks – ‘moments of rare pleasure in picking out the rare gems, very rare’ – suggested a significant proportion of the 2009 submissions didn’t warrant finishing, let alone re-reading. Clearly, they said with a certain tone, many writers felt obliged to represent the Sri Lankan ‘zeitgeist’ (War – check. Tsunami – check). They noted the abundance of Ceylon-era nostalgia novels: ‘only a few of these, depending on the historical research, were convincing.’ They lambasted the continuing strain of mango-and-monsoon village tales. I was quite cheered.  

That said, I also inferred an important unspoken criterion: viable submissions needed not only to be by Sri Lankans but about Sri Lanka. Macro: a disconcerting remark about the absence of any ‘Muslim perspectives’ this year, as though the Gratiaen were ideally a collect-the-set deck of Happy Ethnic Families. Micro: a potentially-ominous fixation on ‘meticulous research’. Competitive authors, it seemed, need to deal with issues – and in Technicolor historical detail. The judges’ concern that Sri Lankan readers might not get certain international references (for example, to such exotic locales as the Campo di fiori or Knightsbridge), seemed actively to encourage parochialism, rather than inspiring the island’s writers to compete globally. A bad idea even if it were not wrong (the Colombo literati know Knightsbridge better than I do). 

So, given these demanding-yet-slightly-contradictory criteria, who made the cut?

The Whirlwind – Santhan Aivadurai. War novel. Villagers in a northern internment camp, run by the ill-starred Indian Peace Keeping Force. Clunky prose, shoe-horned literary references;

Tangled Threads – Premini Amarasinghe. Past-and-present emigration novel. Funny in places, and written in real, spoken English (not the wistful Brahmanic tones of an all-seeing Dickens-type narrator). A serious contender;

Singing of the Angels – T. Arasanayagam. Short stories, ‘reflecting the traditional and religious aspects of life in the North.’ One begins, ‘The peaceful afternoon is rocked by a mine blast.’ Foreigner-proof vocab – chembu, pooja, Thambi;

Mirror of Paradise – Asgar Hussein. Short stories, domestic scale, wryly humourful. In one, somebody unwittingly drinks a urine-sample (guffaws all round). Ceylonese pseudo-poetic standards (rain, fruit, etc.) cheerily sent up. But punch-lines sadly hammered home.

Mythil’s Secret – Prashani Rambukwella. Children’s novel (published). Fantasy, involving a yaka, or demon, and a boy finding his way in the world. Light dusting of satire, but overwrought prose: ‘sweet-smelling smoke billowed from the shell-shaped holder.’ (All SL writers think they are poets first and foremost. Blame Uncle Michael.)

Pity the judges. They can only work with what they’re given. but two of these manuscripts are not publishable, let alone prize-winners. Are the panel obliged to find 5 shortlisters (10% of total entries)? The unofficial remit of the Gratiaen – ‘Encouraging creative writing in English’ – is not, I feel, specific enough. Perhaps some pointers (not to say rules)?

As for the writers – and at the risk of ending up with a short-term surfeit of Colombo-centric urban tales – many would do well to focus on what they know, and worry less about trying to empathise with the war-afflicted in the Vanni triangle (this goes double for under-employed, ex-pat NGO workers – not that they’re eligible for the Gratiaen).

In his speech for the inaugural award, Michael Ondaatje stressed the importance of supporting serious literary talent, lest Sri Lanka be ‘known only by the clichés of a tourist board and by the nature of our politics.’

Lesson not learned. Alas for Sri Lankan writing in English, Chinaman – already flying off the shelves – begins to look like a fluke, a one-off rather than the start of a new trend.

Meanwhile, and purely on the basis of audience laughometer, my money’s on Hussein’s piss story to win – by a nose.

The winner of the Gratiaen Award 2009 will be announced on Saturday, May 8th.

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