- ‘Go Catch a Star’ author on motivation, learning languages, and following one’s passions
By Shailendree Wickrama Adittiya
Darshani Abeyrathna has two great passions in life: Writing and teaching. She says that having to choose between the two would be impossible, but fortunately, she doesn’t have to pick one over the other. She teaches English as a second language, writes children’s books, and also uses creative activities like storytelling and games to help her students grasp the language.
Her debut novel Go Catch a Star was nominated for the State Literary Award under the children’s literature category in 2022. This came as a surprise to her since she never applied for the award. Upon further inquiry, she learnt that the selection committee had shortlisted the novel, having gone through a list of books published within the year maintained by the Department of National Archives.
“It was a huge moment for me because even though I have been writing for some time, I have never published before. This is the very first book I published, so getting nominated for the State Literary Award was a big thing I achieved from the very first book that I wrote, and it has encouraged me to write more,” she said, while in conversation with The Morning Brunch.
Go Catch a Star is a children’s book written by Darshani Abeyrathna and illustrated by Erandathie Damunupola. Damunupola’s art brings Abeyrathna’s story to life in depictions of Sri Lankan culture and village life.
“That was my tangible experience, because I grew up with my grandparents and had the opportunity to swim in the river and go to the beach, and I always learnt the language through experience,” Abeyrathna said, adding that her grandfather would purchase all the weekend newspapers, which she would read despite not understanding the context of the articles as a six-year-old child.
“My grandparents made a great impact on me because they also read a lot and my parents always encouraged me to read and write as well, saying that I will learn something out of it.”
She extracts from her own experiences in Go Catch a Star, with characters like Kiri Amma and Kiri Aththa, which is what she calls her grandparents, and family life she is familiar with, especially as she comes from a large family – her mother has seven brothers and three sisters. Her grandparents prioritised the education of their children, so despite many hardships in their youth, they have come a long way today, Abeyrathna said, adding that this is something she wants to portray to her students.
The author explained that most students in State universities come from rural areas where they haven’t had an English teacher, thus limiting their access to the language. Consequently, rather than going through lessons in a structured manner, they are taught English through games and stories.
“Although this is a children’s book, anyone who wants to improve their command of the language can read it,” she said, explaining that even if the language itself is not something they fully understand, the reader can relate to the story.
‘Go Catch a Star’
Another aspect highlighted in the story is dreaming big and reaching for the moon and stars. It motivates the reader to be better.
Telling us more about the process of writing the story and having it published, Abeyrathna shared: “I always wanted to write a book, but I didn’t think I would be able to do it this soon. Fortunately, I have a really good friend, Erandathie. We were at Colombo University together. We were chatting at the university canteen one day, and she too was interested in writing a story. She is a really good illustrator.”
The duo got together and used the free time they had during the Covid-19 pandemic, working over the phone and online, to write the story and complete the illustrations for it. Publishing the book posed its own challenges, however, as Abeyrathna had no experience in this area and had to do a lot of research. Self-publishing came with its own issues, and ultimately, she found a publisher for her book.
“I have written some other stories as well, but I haven’t been able to publish them yet,” she said, adding that she is hoping to publish her second book this month. This too will be a children’s book, a genre she is keen about focusing on.
Childhood and education
Abeyrathna studied at Girls’ High School in Kandy and Maliyadeva Girls’ College in Kurunegala, and while schooling, she took part in writing competitions at intra-school, inter-school, and regional levels, both in Sinhala and English.
“My teachers, both Sinhala and English, understood and recognised the fact that I was good at writing and encouraged me to write more.”
Even today, she writes in both languages, and said: “If you can express your feelings regardless of the language, if you can deliver a message and the reader can understand what you have written, whether it’s in English or Sinhala – that should be the ultimate goal of the writer.”
She added that a writer needs to reach the heart of the reader, regardless of the language used.
Abeyrathna completed a degree at the Sri Jayewardenepura University, and was an article writer and assistant secretary for the university’s media grid, J’pura Flames. During this time, she also had the opportunity to intern at a newspaper and write for a magazine, which is how she got started in print media. Having completed her degree, she worked as a journalist, before leaving for Italy in November 2017, having received an opportunity to be a volunteer teacher in English as a second language for kindergarten and high school students for two months.
“As soon as I returned to Sri Lanka, I got the opportunity to work as a lecturer for Sri Jayewardenepura University. At the same time, I started to work for some media stations and also started a master’s in English as a second language and a master’s in linguistics. I also completed two postgraduate diplomas, one in diplomacy and world affairs, and the other in English as a foreign language.”
Abeyrathna has also taught at a few universities in and around Colombo and is currently a lecturer at the Colombo University.
“I found that when teaching English as a second language, especially in the Sri Lankan context, the students find it really hard to practise the language because they always have a fear of making mistakes. So rather than only teaching English, what I do is motivate them, always asking them to step out of their comfort zone and give it a try,” she shared, adding that confidence is key in learning a language.
Combining teaching and storytelling
Often, students memorise sentence structure, as opposed to actually understanding it, which is why Abeyrathna thinks it is important to find interesting ways of creating engagement when learning a new language.
“For example, I did French for my A-Levels and was able to achieve a really good result in six months, because I always listened to French music and watched French cartoons.”
She uses her personal experience in learning languages to encourage her students to go the extra mile to explore the language.
Abeyrathna has been teaching since 2011, and highlighted the importance of having study material to which students can relate. She recalled teaching at an international school, where a textbook spoke about various French foods, which the students were not familiar with, and she too had trouble explaining to them, as these were not everyday items.
“But when it comes to taking examples from day-to-day life, it will be easier for students to learn the language and use it in a very comfortable manner,” she said, explaining that through a survey she carried out with a friend, she understood that instead of incorporating foreign elements in our curricula, it was important to focus on local, and thus relatable, elements. This would change the mindset about learning a language as well, as many learn it to pass an exam and not to use it in their day-to-day life.
“We shouldn’t glorify English; we should normalise it so that people feel more comfortable learning it,” Abeyrathna explained, adding that language should never be a weapon. She went on to talk about bullying and ragging she experienced herself while in university, a result, she said, of the inability to speak English making some students hold a grudge against those who can.
In addition to teaching and writing, Abeyrathna also runs Word Boutique with her friend Yashodhara. She described it as a virtual hub run by girls, through which they provide services like social media marketing, graphic designing, website development, creative content, and translations.
She also runs Cake Corner, a home-based business, with her cousin. Abeyrathna also conducts French classes for children.