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Literary Arts in Sri Lanka

For the past ten years I have led a double life, for not only am I a writer I am also a publisher of English language books. Sri Lanka has two official languages: Sinhala and Tamil with English as the link language. Each language enjoys a parallel existence, rarely meeting or intersecting. The three languages have their own set of publishers and publications catering to their own group of readers carved out of a population of twenty odd million. English writing and publishing in Sri Lanka is the smallest segment and yet today it is the window to the larger world and reflects a vibrant and promising future. I like to think that the publishing house I co-founded was instrumental in this.

Till the late 90s very few people in Sri Lanka would have thought of writing fiction as a viable profession. It was a concept that did not exist, until perhaps now. The lack of local publishing houses that nurtured writers or accessed the international market made it difficult for anyone serious about writing to consider it as a long term option. This lacuna motivated me to return to Sri Lanka in the early part of the twenty-first century and found a Sri Lankan publishing house that would focus on Sri Lankan writers writing about Sri Lanka. As a publishing house, we have published a variety of genres covering novels, short stories, poetry, memoirs, and some hard to define books as well.

While Sri Lankan writers write on a variety of subjects – poverty, romance and politics, an enduring topic that many manuscripts deal with is our recently concluded civil war. It is a theme that fuels much debate and discussion. In fact it preoccupies Sri Lankans for vast amounts of time. And yet, I am frequently asked by local readers and journalists why many Sri Lankan writers only want to write about the war. Sometimes the question is posed as though it is a problem. Their rationale is that readers have lived through the war, know what it was all about, so why should they have to read about it. Can’t writers give them something to escape to? I can see their point; it is the Bollywood solution which is South Asia’s response to anything troubling – run away to a fantasy land. My response is, if writers want to write about the war, let them, for writers and writing are a reflection of society’s concerns and a way for us to learn about life at a variety of levels. The example I often offer is that of World War ll and the Vietnam war. Even today, almost 66 years after the former and 40 years after the latter, articles, books, television series, films, conferences, and discussions still abound. And while it can be seen as a reminder of a modern dark age that most people would want to move from, it also offers society a new angle or view point to look at our past. It is a way of learning lessons, an alternative ‘truth and reconciliation’ process.

The first writings on the Sri Lankan civil unrest appeared during the war. And today, just five years after the fighting has ended there are many well written and thought provoking books being published. A good example is one of our recently published books: Island of a Thousand Mirrors, written by Nayomi Munaweera, a tale related by the eldest daughters of two families from opposing sides of the war. Having hit prize lists like the Man Asian, Commonwealth, DSC, Godage and Dublin IMPAC, with regional rights sold to Hachette, India and world rights to St Martin’s Press the book is positioned to be a global best seller. In fact I believe the best writing on the conflict is yet to come for like Chimamanda Adiche’s Half of a Yellow Sun, a certain distance is necessary for perspective and analysis.

I did not realise it at that time but when we started the Perera Hussein Publishing House in 2003, in essence I was creating a job that did not previously exist in Sri Lanka. There was no profession called publishing in the country at that time. In fact, even today, when I travel and offer my passport to the immigration officer, he asks me whether I own a newspaper, as publishing houses with regard to books have not yet entered the wider consciousness.

Today, when I have interns who work a summer with us, in preparation for a degree in publishing at a university overseas, I am amazed that degrees such as creative writing or publishing exist. The availability of these professions and the entry of big publishers into South-Asia and the resultant bidding wars, have led to the creation of a new breed of writer that influenced by the larger world exists in Sri Lanka as well. These writers write for both the international and the local reader, they will be paid royalties on books sold, will have their books entered for international and local literary prizes, will speak publicly and be interviewed on their writing, will appear at literary festivals, and might even teach creative writing. And in contrast to earlier times, these writers can be first published in Sri Lanka and achieve international recognition.
It is a coming of age of both writing and publishing in Sri Lanka. And I am proud to play an on-going part in that journey.

This essay was written in preparation for the Silk Routes Symposium, held in the Maldives, March 2014.