The Gratiaen Prize is an annual literary prize for the best work of literary writing in English by a resident of Sri Lanka. It was founded in 1992 by Sri Lankan-born Canadian novelist Michael Ondaatje, with the money he received as joint winner of the Booker Prize for his novel The English Patient. The prize is named after Michael Ondaatje’s mother, Doris Gratiaen. Administered by a trust based in Sri Lanka, the Gratiaen Prize accepts printed books and manuscripts in a range of genres including fiction, poetry, drama, creative prose, and literary memoir.
The long list for this year’s nominees was announced recently to be Chamanthi Denisha Jayaweera for A Sunbirds Guile, Piumi Wijesundara for Overyacting!, Jehan Aloysius for Mind Games, Megan Dakshini for Softly we Fall, Ameena Hussein for Chasing Tall Tales and Mystics: Ibn Battuta in Sri Lanka, Carmel Miranda for Crossmatch, Lal Medawattegedera for Restless Rust, and Mandulee Mendis for The Red Brick Wall.
Brunch spoke to some of the nominees on their thoughts on this achievement.
‘This is the premier award for literature in English’: Jehan Aloysius
Jehan Aloysius is a full-time theatre practitioner, as well as a visiting lecturer at the University of Visual and Performing Arts. Speaking about the awards, he stated that the Gratiaen Awards is the premier award for literature in the English language, adding that he was first nominated 20 years ago. “Even at that time, I was excited to be shortlisted and this time to be longlisted. To have the opportunity to move further on is wonderful indeed.”
He has also been a judge for this award a few years ago. Speaking on his experience, he added: “I know how difficult it is for judges to go through so many texts in order to make that decision because there are so many genres – from scripts and plays, poetry, to novels – to pick the best from that is not an easy task, but I really respect the choices of the judges as well and hope for the best.”
Talking about Mind Games, the play he was nominated for this year, he explained that it was about mental health from the perspective of a woman who was suffering from bipolar disorder. “The reader meets her in a very manic state. The play is set in a house; it’s up to the audience to decide whether the house is in her imagination or if it’s a metaphor. It’s almost like a pressure cooker because everything happens in one place – the emotions and the drama is heightened to the point where it can almost erupt. It builds up and there is no escape. The play essentially describes the challenges one would face when someone is diagnosed with bipolar disorder and what their day-to-day life is like.”
‘This is a cause for celebration’: Megan Dakshini
Megan Dakshini is a creative multidisciplinary who toys with a few pet expressive avenues like writing, voice acting, singing, yoga, and art direction and design for advertising.
Her book, Softly We Fall is her second collection of poetry, taking flight from her first collection, Poison Apple (Unsolicited Press 2018). The short, emotionally charged poems explore feelings of helplessness, loss, and love, and sometimes touch on the dark abyss of depression. The language is light and easy to comprehend and anyone is sure to find a line in the book that speaks directly to them.
Speaking on this achievement, she stated: “It’s an absolute honour to be longlisted for the Gratiean, especially among a group of such eminent writers. Personally, I consider this nomination a huge step forward for many of us who write in this genre of ‘short poetry’, which has been accepted and celebrated internationally, but has not gained much traction within Sri Lanka.”
She added that a shortlist place would be a dream, but this alone is cause for celebration.
‘This made me take my own writing more seriously’: Piumi Wijesundara
Piumi Wijesundara is an aspiring artist who works in the theatre field as an actor, freelance director, performer, and writer. She commented that she is honoured to be on the Gratiaen longlist among some incredible writers, some of whose works she’s read and been inspired by as well.
She added that she has always loved reading and writing since she was quite young, and has been inspired over the years by some Sri Lankan writers in English for their authenticity and relatable storytelling. “To be among some of them means so much and has actually made me take my own writing more seriously. I hope to be able to write more stories that can make people feel, think, and reflect,” she said.
She was put on the list for her story, Overyacting!, which is a devised play for children that attempts to tackle the myths and taboos surrounding menstruation in our society. Describing the script, she said: “It follows a young girl as she tries to understand the changes happening in her body as she deals with how everyone around her reacts to this.” The play came together with the stories researched and devised with the all-girl student cast from Methodist College, Colombo.
‘It’s quite a thrill’: Ameena Hussein
Ameena Hussein is a Sri Lankan sociologist, novelist, and editor, whose books have won many awards. The latest award she has been nominated for is the Gratiaen Prize. Sharing her thoughts, she said: “I’m absolutely delighted to learn that Chasing Tall Tales and Mystics: Ibn Battuta in Sri Lanka has been longlisted for the Gratiaen Prize, together with other wonderful authors. It is quite a thrill.”
Her book, she elaborated, is centred around the fabled Moroccan scholar Ibn Battuta, who is reputed to have travelled further through the medieval world than any other explorer, including Marco Polo. She added: “When I saw a grimy street sign in Puttalam bearing his name, it precipitated a quest of my own to track Ibn Battuta’s trajectory in Lanka or Sarandib, as he knew it.”
Along the way, she seeks Ibn Battuta’s memory in the minds of men and discovers a land brimming with myth and legend as colourful as the traveller himself.