- An artist’s journey in search of release
Art is born out of need, and for the most part, that need is selfish. Eventually a painting, a book, a brilliant piece of music, a poem, or a sculpture may end up serving the greater good of humankind, but somehow, when one traces the art all the way back to the artist, one realises that it was born out of one of the greatest needs of all time – release.
A self-proclaimed introvert with a voracious appetite for 19th Century literature, Dr. Gayathri Hewagama published her collection of short island tales, Conquering Karma recently. Quiet at first, she eases into the conversation, surprising pleasantly with her ability to articulate eloquently and her depth of self-awareness, embellished by her charm of being able to laugh at herself, as she sat down with Brunch, to turn the pages of her travails to conquer karma.
A curious mixbag of island tales
Consisting of seven stories divided into two sections or books, Conquering Karma is a collection of short fiction, or island tales according to Dr. Hewagama. She explained that the first book had stories which were thematically connected, while book two consisted of three tales which were not exactly linked. “I have never been a method writer. Rather, I have been more of a spontaneous writer, and so, even though I did start off this book with a particular theme in mind, I could not hold on to it for too long, and it went off in its own direction,” she shared.
Dr. Hewagama describes her work as a ‘mixbag’ and explained that she wanted to explore a variety of writing styles within this one book, partly because of her academic background in literature, as well as the fact that it kept her from feeling monotony throughout the writing process.
“There are some stories that use the simple and realistic vein, and then there’s political allegory, surrealism, philosophical storytelling, and a generous serving of intertext reality that feeds off of other literature, and sometimes, I feel that there is a wholesome smattering of humour,” the author explained, delving into the various genres that Conquering Karma explores.
Discussing what made her choose the specific title for her book, Dr. Hewagama shared that the first section, or book, in Conquering Karma, had Buddhist philosophy interspersed throughout, albeit “nothing fancy”.
“I explore the theme of trishna, or desire, along with the island mindset that most Sri Lankans hold about karma and how much of what we experience in life is due to karma, which is where the title of the book comes from as well,” she shared, adding that this brings in a social critic angle along with a subtle hint of political critique.
When karma inspires
Many say that great creation comes from great pain and the need to release it. Whether or not this is always true, is a question that may never find a definitive answer. But Dr. Hewagama herself believes that this saying may, to a certain extent, be relatable to her own experiences. As she took a rather solemn walk down memory lane, the literature enthusiast explained that the time of her life living outside Sri Lanka broadened her mind in many different ways, all of which ultimately contributed to her work as an author.
“I met many different people, in different circumstances, and I experienced both the good and the bad – the latter more often. But I am thankful, because it helped me figure out what was truly important to me in my life,” she shared. Opening up a bit more, Dr. Hewagama said that these bad experiences brought about a period of emotional, personal, and psychological growth, and an understanding that all that matters in the end is that one is good to others and is doing the best that they possibly can.
“I also exposed myself to a lot of Buddhist philosophy and literature, for my peace of mind and psychological growth, alongside the Sinhalese literature I started reconnecting with, together with some brilliant English classics. I think all of these influences came together seamlessly to nurture the vision that I had for Conquering Karma,” she shared.
Dr. Hewagama also spoke fondly about the cover illustration of her book, explaining that it was just the right depiction of samsara – the cyclicality of life, matter, and all existence. “Most people in these island tales are trying to conquer their karma, and therefore, to me, this cover illustration is just beautifully perfect. The swirls of colour, I feel, speak volumes about the confusion, the chaos, the light and the darkness, and the depth that is samsara,” she shared.
Of heart, soul, and ink
“I can tell you that most writers put their heart and soul into their books. Conquering Karma is my heart and soul etched in ink, in that sense. I think that more than anything cerebral and intellectual, an author releases their heartstrings when they write,” shared Dr. Hewagama.
She laughingly admitted that she read her own work just prior to this conversation, after a very long time, and that she was truly surprised that she herself had written the book. “I think this book has helped me on a personal level more than I ever imagined. It helped me grow and explore myself on a very deep level and discover things about myself that I had not known before. It has been a journey of self-discovery,” she shared.
Dr. Hewagama shared that while she had written quite a bit of material, she had never really had the confidence to publish her creative writing pieces, adding that she was deeply grateful to the people in her life who motivated her and pushed her to publish. “My heartfelt gratitude goes out to Dr. Nihal Fernando, from the University of Peradeniya, for reading all my drafts painstakingly; Professor Joseph Black, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, who wrote a glowing foreword; my husband Asanka Prematilleke, whose intuition and presence in my life is crucial to my work; and Jeremy Muller for his timely guidance and cover illustration,” she shared.
The author expressed her gratitude for having been able to write out her heart and soul and to have grown so much through that experience. “I can never feel alone again. As long as I have this book, I can never feel alone again. I don’t feel alone anymore,” she revealed, while holding the book in her hands, a mix of endearment and pride on her face. And perhaps, that is exactly what it all ties back to – all those brilliant masterpieces that ever came to be, no matter how little or well-known, perhaps they all made their creators never feel alone again.
Conquering Karma is available for purchase at The Jam Fruit Tree Publications, Expographic Books, and all Sarasavi Bookshop branches.