Thursday, November 11, 2010

Sri Lankan Writers in English

“Lankan writers in English are making their own particular contribution to our critical awareness of Lankan reality…” Do you agree? A discussion in relation to three Sri Lankan English poets .

           Sri Lankan writers in English have a distinctive style of writing. As Ashley Halpe points out Sri Lankan writers in English make their own particular contribution to Lankan reality and to the exploration of human potentiality that is central to art of any importance. Their writings represented different situations that occurred during the eras they write. The speech patterns of Sinhala and Tamil influenced the writing style of Sri Lankan English. English literature is one variety of English in Sri Lanka. Sri Lankan writers in English explore human potentiality through exposé of characters. These characters have distinctive characteristics that make them different from the characters of other literatures. Through their writing they make their audience aware of Sri Lankan history including the eras of colonialism and post colonialism and social issues like internal riots and ethnic conflicts of the country. Sri Lankan writers in English play a major role in performing the characteristics of Sri Lanka in the international arena. Among those writers the poets like Lakdasa Wikkramasinha, Yasmine Gooneratne and Patrick Fernando can be taken as Sri Lankan writers who addressed different perspective views of human beings as well as social issues.  
           In Lakdasa Wikkramasinha’s poetry he dealt with native problems of Sri Lanka. He is a distinctive character among good local poets. As Suresh Canagarajah indicates Lakdasa Wikkramasinha as a better example of a Lankan poet who succeeds in reconciling the discourses in his own terms. His stand point is clearly in the rural, folk, native cultural and literary traditions. In fact in being a poet of no mean stature in one of the indigenous languages (i.e., Sinhala) he is unique among Lankan English poets in his literary bilinguality. Besides, he is a relatively committed poet with a fairly clear and consistent socio-political stand point. [Canagarajah, 1995]
           As a poet he is essentially native. His use of language is essentially and outstanding colored by local idioms. For example the opening lines of the second stanza of the “From the life of the Folk Poet, Ysinno”,
            ‘He made his way to the Walauwa at Iddamalgoda
and to the Menike said ‘how poor he was.’
 Those native words emphasis the controlling local interpretations of the poem. The most important fact is this line shows something unusual in British English, but common and economical in the Lankan Standard English. By using such contrast he has managed to build up a simple and natural language that makes easy for Sri Lankans to understand. But at the same time we see his familiarity with British English through the words like ‘benison’, ‘fealities’. Through the poem he dramatizes the feudal relationship between the folk poet [Ysinno] and the mistress [Menike] of the house. We see the rudeness and egoism of Menike and poorness, loyalty and faithfulness of Ysinno.
‘So she said, wait for the yala
Harvest and take the straw.
                    Ysinno said, O the rains are coming near
                     my woman fretting, her kid will get wet’

But at the same time the poem ends by showing the generosity of the Menike. The poem is like a reminder of past where we remember the social inequalities that occurred due to feudalism. Furthermore his use of archaic words reminds us obsoleteness of this system. In addition to that “The strength of Wikkramasinha’s discourse then is that by fusing the two discourses, he is able to telescope both traditions to widen our perspective. While sympathetically evoking as an insider a mode of relationship still popular and legitimate in rural Sri Lanka, he also subtly detaches himself to warn us of its possible limitations. Thus his native and Western sensibilities are nicely balanced…” [Canagarajah, 1995]
           In his poem “The cobra” he talks about the mythical beliefs of rural Sri Lankans. There we see how those rural people get obsessed by the power of cobra without considering its deadly impact. The belief is based on fear that if a cobra was killed it will come to took the revenge. The poet is calm but bitter about the death of his woman. This death comes as a harshly irony contrast to the mythical veneration with which the other villagers hold the cobra.  This poem too we see his literary bilinguality through the terms like ‘dunkiriniya’, ‘my woman’, ‘lamp of my heart’.
           Suresh Canagarajah depicts Wikkramasinha as a politically committed and socially conscious poet in Sri Lankan English poetry. And he appears as an angry poet. For example in the poem “The Death of Ashanthi” he criticizes his own family members who belong to the local landed gentry for exploiting their home maids sexually and or else. [Canagarajah, 1995]
“… she was perhaps used
                 by my cousin:privert in the army,”
 There he criticizes his own class for reinforcing sexual exploitation and he identifies himself with the lower class.  
           Yasmine Gooneratne is an outstanding female poet of Sri Lanka who belongs to the Western educated minority. During the time she wrote the social patterns of Sri Lanka have changed from her childhood. At that time mother tongue oriented culture and education emerged in the country and that affected to the anglicized minority of the country. [Raheem and Fernando, 1978] So it is clearly evident the fact that this situation has an effect on Gooneratne’s poetry.
           In the poem “This Language, This woman” she depicts her ideas a defender of English language. As Suresh Canagarajah points out in this poem Yasmine Gooneratne protests against the nationalists in the country. She argues that the nationalists are simply jealous of not having English for their mistress even though they have a brief unsuccessful ‘flirtation’. [Canagarajah, 1995] the poet is using the metaphor of woman to depict the language. She is mounting a farced defense of the English language. Furthermore in detail she points out due to the accidental birth of Sinhala language those speakers do not know the value of English language.
                                         “Beware how you insult her
in your ignorance, accident of your birth.
      Goaded by the jealous fury of your own girl”

She draws a class distinction through the poem. English is characteristically in positive feminine term and the characterization of English show its capacity to regenerate, loyal, love and subtle. She has a very elite sort of vision and that shows how much she is colonized. She says that she is trying to defend the language by writing.  Through her poem we see how the Western educated minority in the country try to defend the English language and the negative attitudes that they have towards the English language.
           Yasmine Gooneratne’s “Peace Game” and “Post-Office Queue” are two poems that show the class distinction. There we see the upper class people’s attitude towards the working class people. And also she presents the snobbish and contemptuous qualities of the upper class people. In the poem “Post-Office Queue” the sister is a woman from a privileged class. It is like a conflictual exchange, only the upper class woman [the poet] speaks. And the lower class woman is not given a voice. She is presented through the narrator’s voice. The narrator is sort of anticipating the lower class woman and she is speaking for self defense. There is a sense of snobbery and content.
           As Lilamani de Silva points out “this poem reinforces class mythology. The upper class narrator is an absolute snob, and is viciously self –defensive in acknowledging her separation from the ‘other’ in terms of the class and language.” [Silva, 1995]

“There is not very much that we share,
      Sister, although I know you are standing
                                              …that your life lacks salt.”

In a way the narrator constitutes herself. And we see both classes are been insular and narrow minded. The poem is about an everyday incident. But as it represents through the upper class character we see only one side of the story. Moreover the poet shows the impossibility of crossing the class barriers though both of them are women.
“I suppose you know you really stand to win
                                         And I know who is going to be hurt.”

We see that both women have their insular virtues.  Likewise the poem can be considered as an amazing, snobbish and callous piece of writing. Addressing to a lower class woman standing next to the poet in a post office queue and the poem ends with the conclusion
“But to ask in English for a stamp is not yet a moral sin;
                                Your insular virtue need not make me dirt.”
The poem demonstrates defiantly upper class attitude which misses entirely the point and pathos of social barriers. [Raheem and Fernando, 1978]
The poem is such a subtle criticism where a high class woman sees her own differences comparing to the privileged.
           Again we see the same situation in the poem ‘Peace Game’. The poem is a mildly suggestive satire on war. She satirizes the inequality of the sides playing the peace game, or the inequality of the sides fighting for war. Here also the poet presents class distinction and there we see two side ‘Odds’ and ‘Evens’. ‘Evens’ belong to the upper class people who were ‘swell’, ‘upright’, ‘regular guys’ and poet represents them. And like the earlier poem here also ‘Odds’ who represent the lower class who were ‘little, patched and scrawny’ were not given a voice.
“We Evens were a well-fed lot
           and tough, so that the little patched
                and scrawny Odds would never dare.”

           On more universal term the meaning of the poem seems to be that wars are not fought on equal terms. It is one party, the more powerful that chooses the ground and makes the rules and plays the game, not for war but for peace. As Lilamani de Silva indicates, “the thesis is that since the ‘Evens’ have the edge over the ‘Odds’ in terms of class power even at the outset, the contest has a predictable end in the game as in life. But the poor are always victims in the race.”  [Silva, 1995] Nevertheless in both poems the poetess objectifies the lower class people and in a certain way her writings affected to draw a class distinction in the country.
           Patrick Fernando is another famous Lankan poet whose writings contributed to display Lankan reality and to the exploration of human potentiality. He wrote with a certain confidence. We see a vivid imagination working through his poems. That has a peculiar originality of its own. In point of actual achievement Patrick Fernando is one of the most talented poets belonging to the period after 1956. He is not exclusively Sri Lankan or Western. His poems can be read by anyone anywhere as they have a universal appeal. Suresh Canagarajah introduces Patrick Fernando’s poetry represent the dominant ethos of Sri Lankan English poetry. [Canagarajah, 1995] He is a native writer and he deals with themes typically native in the West coast of Sri Lanka.
           In his poem ‘Fisherman Mourned by His Wife’ he deals with the theme of love and marriage between a young fisherman and his wife. The fisherman is dead and the wife in her grief analyses the various stages of their relationship. Through images the poet draws a realistic picture of the hardships of their lives. Most of his imageries are drawn from the sea.  
“…not yet tanned…you in old boat brown”

The line shows how fisherman is conditioned by the life he leads. Next the narrator analyses the nature of their marriage. It is a union arranged by their elders. She recalls the first days of their marriage and its consummation while his chastity and inexperience in sex are revealed. Their love blossomed forth after marriage.  The relationship portrayed reflects the typical native ethos. And also both fisherman and his wife’s characters represent folk culture of Sri Lanka. Moreover Suresh Canagarajah depicts his ideas about their relationship as follows;
“Fernando succeeds to a great extent in capturing the specificity of the relationship of the fisherman and his wife as a conservative arranged marriage. However he goes beyond simple stereotypes to show how the relationship blossoms into deep understanding- and love. He also evokes the psychological complexities in the emotions and attitudes of the partners which depict the relationship as humanity alive.” [Canagarajah, 1995]
            Patrick Fernando expresses a different theme in his poem ‘Life and Death of a Hawk.’ It is the enigmatic nature of the highly elevated life and the pathetic death of the hawk that form the subject of the poem. Patrick Fernando shows his own bafflement at the enigmatic nature of the great men ending in meanness. The poet uses the image of a hawk that often can be seen in the Sri Lankan sky. But the theme is universal as it can be applied to any society.  The whole poem carries the theme of however majesty, however powerful this is the common end of all living creatures. The poem is a symbolic of destruction of things beautiful and splendid by violent and incongruous forces.
            Though there can be seen slight differences among the above mentioned Sri Lankan writers in English all of them have taken a certain effort to explore human potentiality. With direct and indirect messages they portray characters. The characters that they portray and social, economical and political issues that they brought out are more familiar to the Sri Lankan audience rather than Western literature.  The clash between native and alien discourse is an unavoidable factor for those writers. Suresh Canagarajah points out how Sri Lankan poets face to the clash of native and alien discourse. According to hi Patrick Fernando ‘ignores and overlooks the clash; Yasmine Gooneratne consciously manipulates the clash to justify her standard. … Lakdasa Wikkramasinha integrates the discourses effectively with a solid grounding in the native cultural traditions and social context.’
            However Sri Lankan writers in English have a distinct style and with their writing they create a separate variety of English literature in Sri Lanka. And those writings affect to Sri Lankan audience as well as to the Western audience to widen their critical awareness of Lankan reality.


Canagarajah, S. “Reconsidering the Question of Language in Sri Lanka.” From Essays on Poetry of Sri Lanka. English Association of Sri Lanka, 1995

De Mel, N. (ed) Selective Readings from the poetry of Yasmine Gooneratne. English Association of Sri Lanka, 1995.

Raheem, S and Fernando, S. Women writers in English. Volume 17, 1978.


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  2. Where can I have the poem, the Cobra?