Ameena Hussein (sociologist, editor, publisher, novelist; b. 1964, Sri Lanka), has published two award-winning short story collections, Fifteen (1998), and Zillij ( 2005). She was also an editor of Sometimes There is No Blood, a survey of research on violence against rural women by the International Centre of Ethnic Studies in Colombo and, from 2004 to 2007, the editor of Nethra, a creative literary journal. In 2003 she co-founded the Perera Hussein Publishing House www.ph-books.com. Her novel The Moon in the Water was long-listed for the 2007 Man Asia Literary Prize, and appeared in print in early 2009. She lives in Sri Lanka.
IWP: What are you working on right now?
AH: I am compiling and editing a collection of Sri Lankan erotica written in English titled Blue. It is the first of its kind here in this country so I am rather excited about the whole project. It should come out by the end of this year. I have always been interested in the written erotic word and it had been a project that I thought I would do far in the future as I believed that Sri Lanka was not ready for such a book. Therefore it was a nice surprise when I began my research and started to listen to what the younger creatives were doing. I discovered that a lot of their work had sexual themes. Now, if you don’t know Sri Lanka which is a fairly conservative country, it is a rebellion of sorts – a rather mild one, but a rebellion nevertheless. That motivated me to bring out the collection sooner. I put out a call on my publishing house blogsite and received many submissions. The interesting thing is that almost none of the established authors wanted to contribute. I think they were guarded and wanted to watch and see what turned up. Instead many new writers sent in their work, a lot of it which was good. In a way, I am kind of glad the way it turned out. It’s like the cutting edge of Sri Lankan fiction in a naughty way!
IWP: What book(s) are on your nightstand ?
AH: I just finished a Paulo Coelho book – The Witch of Portobello – and found it most tiresome. I am fascinated by the Paulo Coelho phenomenon. I want to know why people love his books? The book I am currently reading is: Theft by N.S. Koenings which I am enjoying tremendously. I am also dipping into The Illuminated Prayer by Coleman Barks and Michael Green. Whenever I look at books today, I always look at it with the eye of a publisher. This is a beautifully produced book that talks about the Muslim ritual of prayer and there are lovely illustrations, nice explanations, all the things that will attract the non-ritualistic praying Muslim.
IWP: What author, living or dead, would you like to take out to dinner and a long talk?
AH: There are so many I couldn’t settle on one. But perhaps, I would be honoured to have dinner with Aristotle and instead of having a long talk, would be privileged to have a long listen instead.
IWP: As a publisher, what do you look for in the manuscript stack on your desk?
AH: I look for fresh writing and interesting stories. I find that increasingly more and more difficult to find. Either people are all writing with the same voice, or their writing is just not good enough, or their stories seem to be irrelevant in the current age we are living. But that is an extremely subjective opinion. What I may not like, some others may do. In short, what I look for is a manuscript I begin to read and I want to continue to read. I want a manuscript that will hold my interest.
IWP: What writers, or work, out there are in need of more translation and attention? What current literary neighborhood excites you?
AH: This is a serious question especially here in Sri Lanka. With the introduction of the language bill in 1956 that crippled English and disenfranchised Tamil, a strange phenomenon happened - all three languages existed, nevertheless, in three parallel worlds here within the country. The largest segment is Sinhala, the next is Tamil and the smallest and most insignificant is English. The three worlds survive quite happily without intersecting or meeting the others. This is also partly why the ethnic conflict was exacerbated and why the class conflict simmers. I am ashamed to confess that I don’t read either Sinhala or Tamil literature. Not because I don’t want to but because my command of both languages is weak. Therefore, I would love to see more translations appear on my desk, of work that is written originally in Sinhala or Tamil. Unfortunately in the whole country there may be only one or two competent translators. This means that they are overworked and perhaps the last thing they want to look at is fiction.
IWP: In your view, and experiences, what literary festivals and awards in your region are opening up new directions ? Or are most just riding the market crest?
AH: The Galle Literary Festival, here in Sri Lanka of which I am one of the founding committee was started in 2007. It has not only showcased Sri Lankan writers who write in English but also opened up a whole new world to readers and writers in Sri Lanka. Speaking for myself, I know that I have improved as a speaker, presenter and hopefully as a writer too, because of the festival as a result of the sheer exposure to hundreds of people, tens of writers and academics and is a little like a crash course in literature. For Sri Lankan literature in English it is a wonderful thing. The other festival in the region is Jaipur in India. Unfortunately even though Jaipur is free, it sounds too big and unwieldy for me to attend, but perhaps another year in the future. Jaipur is much bigger and louder and more high profile than the Galle Literary Festival but that is the very reason the Galle Literary Festival is more accessible for writers and readers.
About awards, we have just one competitive award in Sri Lanka. My personal grouse is that South Asian publishers are not allowed to enter for the Booker or the Orange Prize or the Pulitzer or in fact any prize in the Western World. The reason is that even though the writer may be non western the publishing house HAS to be based in those countries. This puts the the small publishing houses like ours at a huge disadvantage. We are unable to send our books in for the really big prizes or any prize for that matter- the exception being the Commonwealth and the Dublin Impac. And frankly no-one knows we exist or our books exist outside the home country. I would like to see more prizes being set up in South Asia open to the region rather than the countries.
IWP: What pressing political issues in your field of vision need more attention?
AH: Having just finished an ethnic conflict through military intervention (not through negotiation which would have had a different outcome), there is a lot for us to contend with. Right now, press freedom, and clamp down of political dissenters are the key issues. Minority issues are also crucial and currently don’t look as if they are getting any attention. I would like the literature that we publish to reflect that. But so far manuscripts of that nature are few are far between. Perhaps we need a bit of time and space before we can truly write on these topics with some depth. In the meantime a group of ordinary citizens of which I am part of, have formed an organization called Citizen’s Initiative. We were first involved with working with the thousands of displaced citizens housed in camps after the conflict. We are now involved in working with the resettled IDPs to assist them to be self sufficient and independent once again. Our main problem, of course, is funding. If anyone is interested in supporting our ventures, please contact the organization at firstname.lastname@example.org