By Dimithri Wijesinghe
One of the foremost literary minds to ever have originated from Sri Lanka, novelist, short story writer, poet, literary critic, and essayist Gunadasa Amarasekara just celebrated his 93rd birthday (12 November 2022).
Often referred to as one of the founding fathers of modern Sinhalese literature, Amarasekara is also considered one of its more controversial writers. This is partly thanks to works like ‘Karumakkarayo,’ his debut novel which examined the selfish and power-hungry nature of politicians, which was later adapted into an incredibly successful feature film by Tissa Abeysekera.
A rejection of foreign literary influences in the early parts of his literary career lent itself to Amarasekara’s distinct style. His stories deal mostly with the social and cultural aspects of the middle class.
A literary career that cannot be rivalled, spanning well over 50 years, it is needless to say that Amarasekara has amassed an endless slew of accolades, most notably his earliest achievements. His short story ‘Soma’ was selected to represent Sri Lanka in a global short story competition organised by the New York Herald Tribune and was published in the collection of World Prize Stories in 1952.
As we celebrate the author’s 93rd birthday and over half a century of contribution to Sri Lankan Sinhala literature, The Sunday Morning Brunch sat down with the illustrious writer to talk about the past, present, and future of Sinhala literature and what keeps the flame alive when it comes to being a creative in today’s climate.
Sri Lanka today
Pulling no punches, Amarasekara was quick to express his dissatisfaction with the direction in which Sri Lankan Sinhala literature is now headed. “We are experiencing a kind of neoliberal economic situation at present, and I believe literature cannot grow in this type of environment where you are immersed in this foreign influence – a space where the indigenous element is completely ignored,” he said, adding that there was far too much emphasis on English in today’s Lankan culture. “There is too much emphasis on the English language. The interest in the Sinhala language – the language of the people – and its literature is very weak,” he said.
“This globalisation and neoliberal economy is not conducive to any kind of indigenous identities in culture. You become absorbed in globalisation and it is very difficult for a small country like Sri Lanka, with a small population and a small Sinhala reading public, to survive,” the author said.
It also did not help that the readership too had dwindled, he added: “In the past, there was a much bigger readership for Sinhala literature. Now it is far less, and this could be partly due to the education system and of course how content is consumed. However, where earlier a novel would have sold 5,000 copies, it now sells about 1,000.”
Why writers write
Despite the bleakness of the present, Amarasekara expressed that the driving force behind his continued output and the many contributions to literature remained the same.
“From childhood, I was interested in the local culture and Sinhala literature; this feeling of optimism and looking forward to a bright future. In the ’40s, there came the revival of Sinhala literature prior to the independence movement and we were caught up in that. That was the driving force then and we wanted to take part in that cultural revival. As a literary person, I was also very much involved in that cultural process,” he shared.
He said that the movement at the time was largely fuelled by this shared optimism and drive to contribute to a movement that would lend itself to the continued survival of our culture, noting that there was a pressing need to be a part of it.
“Of course, we had the change in ’56 which ushered in a new era where local culture and indigenous culture was beginning to be much appreciated and desired,” he said, adding that during this time there was understandably a revival of all things truly Ceylonese, as the period in 1956 when Parliamentary Elections were held is well-known for the introduction of the Official Language Act No. 33 of 1956, commonly referred to as the Sinhala Only Act.
“We wanted to have a modern Sinhala literature and there were people like Martin Wickramasinghe and Ediriweera Sarachchandra heading that movement. We were very interested in this revival and that is why we contributed to it,” Amarasekara noted.
Keeping culture alive
Considering Sri Lanka’s rich history, especially that of the legacy of Buddhism, the Sinhala language, and 2,000 years of civilisation, Amarasekara noted that it was imperative that a cultural revolution occurred to make way for the revival of these histories.
“If we are to continue and flourish as an independent nation in the future, the religion of the majority and its language must be preserved,” he said, adding that this was under threat at present, considering the dwindling numbers and the way that language was practised. Therefore, there was value in reminding ourselves to respect and practise the ways of our indigenous cultures, he stressed.
Speaking of his own journey, Amarasekara noted that he could identify two phases in his literary career. “There was a time when I was influenced by Western literature. My literary heroes were from the West – that was the earlier phase. However, later on I realised that if we are to be an independent nation, we must preserve our indigenous culture and our literature must also be rooted in that. We can’t be imitators of Western literature, so my second phase was literature that was rooted in our civilisation and culture. My work reflects these two phases, especially my latter work, which reflects the more independent stance,” he said.
Amarasekara identified these two phases as having contributed to forming his distinct style, especially around the beginning of the mid 1970s when he ventured into the field of social, cultural, and political criticism and adopted the role of a social activist and commentator.
A guide for new readers
New readers are always discovering Amarasekara’s body of work. Personally, Amarasekara believes that the best entry point to his work is most likely his collection of short stories titled ‘Jeewana Suwanda’. This was massively popular at the time of its release and has had a life of its own over the years, developing into a cult classic and being adopted as a text for Advanced Level literature students. Together with this collection of short stories, he shared that his debut novel ‘Karumakkarayo’ would also be an ideal entry point for new readers.
Speaking of young readers discovering his books and understanding where he once came from, he shared his thoughts on legacy and what he hoped to leave behind. He noted that while he could never be certain of how long one’s influence could last once they were gone, he hoped to be remembered as someone who tried to revive Sri Lanka’s indigenous culture.
“I don’t know and we can never know how long our influence will last and what people will remember us by or what people will think of us but I want to be remembered as a man who tried to revive indigenous culture, the Sinhala Buddhist civilisation of this country. That has always been my main objective,” he said.