By Dimithri Wijesinghe
Andrew Fidel Fernando was awarded the 2019 Gratiaen Prize for literary excellence for his travelogue Upon a Sleepless Isle. A renowned sports journalist and writer for one of the world’s leading sports websites ESPNcricinfo, Andrew’s now award-winning travelogue is humorous while representative of the conventions of sports journalism and is combined with cleverly weaved together anecdotal storytelling.
Interestingly enough, despite being known for his cricket writing, Andrew chose to write his first book on travel. To the question of “why not a book about cricket?”, Andrew has said that so many of his waking movements are spent thinking about, watching, and writing about cricket; he said he is not so interested in writing a book about cricket as he just has too much of it in his life. The travelogue has allowed him to explore his other interests – his love for history, travel, and fulfilling his desire to write a funny book.
Fresh off his win, we spoke to Fernando about his thoughts on winning the Gratiaen for his very first book; the significance of awards and the role they play in the lives and careers of writers, especially English language writers in Sri Lanka; and finally a little about Upon a Sleepless Isle and the process of writing it.
Below are excerpts of the interview with The Sunday Morning Brunch.
You’ve won the Gratiaen Prize for ‘Upon a Sleepless Isle, your first book. How did it feel to win on your very first? Did you expect to win at all when you were going through the application process?
I didn’t really expect anything when I submitted the book for the award, but I did hope it would have some sort of recognition in its place of origin. A travelogue is tricky because while I wanted the book to appeal to a foreign audience, it was also vital that what I wrote rung true for Sri Lankans. I’ve been overjoyed at the reception the book has had at home, first from local readers and now this validation from the Gratiaen Prize judges.
How do you think winning the award will affect your future work? Do you feel there will be a different expectation somehow?
I’m trying not to think of those expectations. I think whatever I write in future should stand on its own merits, rather than be a reaction to the response to this first book. No one wants to be a one-hit wonder, so I suppose that pressure will always be there. But the second book also shouldn’t skate by on whatever momentum this first one has created. It’s its own thing. I am starting from scratch again.
In your opinion, what purpose do awards such as the Gratiaen which recognise literary excellence serve in the sphere of Sri Lanka’s English language literature?
I think English language writers in Sri Lanka operate in a very small market, so the Gratiaen is vital in helping popularise Lankan works, and perhaps provides a fillip in the direction of gaining an international readership as well. I was lucky that Upon a Sleepless Isle already had a publisher, but for some others, the Gratiaen has helped excellent writing find a publisher and hence an audience.
When you first started writing the book, were awards and accolades something you thought would be in the cards for you? And do you think such things are important to the career and longevity of a writer?
I hadn’t given much thought to awards at the writing stage at all. You always know that the awards are around, but my sole focus was to produce a book that was truthful, fearless, insightful, and readable. Prizes such as the Gratiaen are a bonus.
‘Upon a Sleepless Isle’
Even prior to being shortlisted for the Gratiaen, Fernando’s book was creating immense buzz, getting positively glowing reviews. Fernando has spoken about how when writing the book he did not at first think of an audience; rather, he wrote what he wanted to write and then proceeded, in the editing process, to consider simplifying certain aspects to appeal to someone who might not have a deep knowledge of Sri Lanka.
We spoke to Fernando about how he approached this project of writing a travelogue; writing about something he loved doing but had never written about before.
Was there an inciting incident that inspired you to get started on your published travelogue?
The idea formed gradually, so there was not one incident exactly. I am a travel junkie and went through a phase of reading several travelogues. It was during the course of that stretch the initial thoughts formed.
How much of what you’ve learned from being a sports journalist came in handy when putting together this story? Or was writing a novel something that required a whole new set of skills?
Good sports writing is still writing about place and culture, just through the lens of sport (cricket, in my case). For me, it wasn’t a big transition into travel writing. I developed technical skills during my cricket writing career – interviewing skills, nose for a story, etc. – which were valuable to put together the book as well.
In your seven weeks of travel, what were your preparations like before heading off to whichever location you had in mind, in terms of the research going into each location, and how did you pick the places you would visit?
I did a lot of general reading on Sri Lanka before I set out, mostly looking at history and anthropology, so that I knew what kinds of stories to expect from each locale. I didn’t have a huge plan about where to visit. I picked destinations on the fly based on what stories I hoped to find there. I was often surprised.
Did you have an end goal that you wanted to achieve – a specific message that you wanted people to take away after reading ‘Upon a Sleepless Isle’?
I hope people come away with a deeper understanding of the nature of our island and an appreciation for the complexities and nuances of our history and our culture. Sri Lanka is so diverse and vibrant, and so different from place to place – it’s difficult to pin down. But then there are also unexpected similarities that unite us, even if we are not aware of those commonalities.
What was one of the most memorable things you experienced on your journey and what was your own personal take away from your travels about our country and our people?
There were many memorable incidents – being incessantly chased by packs of dogs in Polonnaruwa, going tumbling into a ditch in a trishaw in Kandy, wanting to punch this Austrian tourist who wouldn’t stop badmouthing the place in Anuradhapura…I came away with a much deeper understanding of the fissures – some of them very deep – in our country. And yet, despite that, I was more optimistic about Sri Lanka than when I had begun the journey.