ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday September 2, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 14

Evolution of writing within and without

We publish today extracts from the Pulimood oration delivered recently by Sita Kulatunga at Visakha Vidyalaya.

The theme of my oration is ‘The Creative Writer and Social Change'. The creative writer creates something out of human experience. Creative writing can be both literary and political simultaneously. It’s a debatable subject whether fiction can achieve the kind of impact that Noam Chomsky or Arundathi Roy achieves through non-fiction.

When we take a historical view of literature, we see that it has often been religious and propagandist, political, within limits. However, today neither critic nor writer believes that art is for art’s sake. Art indeed should serve man. If so, literature is an instrument of social change and social progress and it performs an objective social function.

Creative writing engages the reader in complex and multiple ways - emotional, moral, symbolic, social and intellectual to name a few. In my view, creative writing can do a great deal in moulding and forming character both individual and public. After all, it's individuals who make up society. Fighting social discrimination of all forms and attacking social hypocrisy, corruption of all forms, promoting equality and respect for all beings are just a few aspects of social change.

Literature - that is creative writing uses the normal channels of communication-language, story, images, symbols - but uses them with more subtlety. The serious creative writer is invariably motivated by the betterment of society. It may be an ideology that one believes. Or it may be an ideology that is abused by a dictator whom one wants to decry - that is grist to the mill. There are so many aspects of life - its beauty, its suffering, love, hate and its conflicts, wars and peace - that the creative writer deals with.

Above all it is that most complex thing of all- the human mind. The writer helps the people to conceptualize. The different genres that fall within creative writing are the novel, short story, poem and drama.

Folklore created by those who were not highly literate has left a significant mark on our socio-cultural patterns, our traditions. Mahabharata and Ramayana are epics of great length. They are epics of heroism and violent persecution. The Mahabharata is a mix of Hindu folklore, drama, poetry and divinity that may appear naïve to today’s sophisticates. Yet, their socio-cultural impact one cannot gainsay.

About one thousand years after Mahabaharata, Buddha, the greatest human being of our ‘Kalpa’ was born in India. Buddha’s words were written down in black and white. Much, much later, whenever I read the Buddha word in the original Pali, I am filled with 'ardha' not only by the Dhamma but also by His amazing creative use of the language, the brevity, aptness of the used word - the intellectual approach and the imagery He used to clarify a point are illuminating. See the brevity and the directness here - the forcefulness
Yo gilanam uppattati,
So man uppattatati,
Or in the first verse in the Dhammapada’s Yamaka wagga. I quote only the last two lines - tato nam dukkha manveti Chakkam va vahato padam.

He invariably took His images, similes and metaphors from the life and nature around Him. He spoke to clarify, not to confuse. Some of today’s writers write to confuse. I don’t like writers who write to confuse. Good creative writings are not puzzles to unravel.

In the 5th century there was this great awakening of Greek literature. The Greek tradition, particularly the drama continues to influence dramatic productions all over the globe. Plays like Oedipus and Antigone have been translated into Sinhala and have reached the Somalatha Subasinghe Sinhala stage. In Sri Lanka, the dramatists have gained from their knowledge of Greek drama, both in format and content.

Post-colonial awakening of drama in Sri Lanka brought political satire to the stage. Early Sinhalese creative writing, both poetry and prose were based on religious themes. Amavatura, Kavyasekaraya, Budugunalankaraya, Guttila Kavyaya, all have religious stories. But they are by no means similar or imitative. Subhasithaya, Lovadasagarawa, Srith Maldama they all dealt with moral life.

Jataka stories came around fifth century B.C. and were translated into Sinhala subsequently. We can consider them the forerunners of the Sinhala short story. They mostly focus on the human psyche. The content of some of these Jataka stories have an uncanny resemblance to the modern short story. The works such as Vessantara Jatakaya and Ummagga Jatakaya have had a socio- political and cultural influence. It would do good for every politician to read the Ummagga Jatakaya and a few more Jatakas if possible.

I talk about English literature because it has been so close to us and because we have lived with it and enjoyed it so long. The most distinguished work of 14th century English literature was Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. And a little later when Ven. Sri Rahula was doing wonders with the Samudraghosa Vurta in Sri Lanka, there appeared that man from Stratford upon Avon on the literary scene in London, to do wonders with blank verse and the sonnet. The Elizabethan times, called the Golden Age of literature had dawned.

Shakespeare followed Spencer and Marlowe. It was not just the craft of drama and poetry that Shakespeare exemplified, but the intellectual and artistic analysis of the complex, multifaceted nature of the human mind. His work has been translated into practically every language. Love, hate, greed, ambition, alienation, jealousy - he has worked through the whole gamut of human emotions.

In English literature there has been a strong element of satirical writing that has left a strong impact on society. Satire and irony generally cause laughter and critical awareness. Dryden and Pope were both known for satirical poetry. They definitely had strong social influence.

I presume, that works of these creative artists had greater impact on the global society because this was the time when the British empire was expanding along with English literacy at least among the rich and the elite in the colonies. At this time writers like Swift came into prominence. The Romantic poets of the late 18th and 19th centuries - like Wordsworth, Blake - I speak of them because they have had an obvious influence on Sinhala poetry. Their love of nature - further democratization of thought was remarkable.

In the Victorian times that followed English fiction came into prominence. George Eliot, the Bronte sisters, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, Joseph Conrad, Virginia Woolf, D.H. Lawrence and James Joyce were all some of the creative writers who took their art very seriously. One lesson that some of today's 'careless’ writers could learn from them is their meticulous care in the use of language. Most of these writers have affected social change just as much as social changes have affected them. For example, how deeply have we been affected by Charles Dickens description of Oliver? A child’s acute pangs of hunger. He brought the treatment of children to the forefront of social conscience. There are creative writers among journalists. We find journalists who have become creative writers and creative writers who have become journalists. Dickens is one of them. Later Ernest Hemingway journalist/ writer. Closer home, there were writers like Dayasena Gunasinghe who made journalese creative. Siriwardhana of one time Aththa, and some journalists of today fall into the category of creative writers. I do not want to name them for obvious reasons.

At the beginning of the 20th century, creative writing was affected by Marxist-Leninist thinking. Jean Paul Sartre was born in Paris in 1905: his creative writing has an ideological and satirical flavour. A widely read philosopher, Jean Paul Sartre’s work influenced society and European thinking.

No account of creative writing can ignore the great Russian novelists and short story writers. Those impressive and highly readable works - Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Gogol’s Dead Souls, Anton Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard are just a few. The short stories of Chekhov in particular have exercised an obvious and wholesome influence on the Sri Lankan short story. The creative writers played an important role in bringing about both the French and Russian Revolutions and Indian.

Alongside the Indian freedom movement came the cry for independence for Sri Lanka. The great patriot, writer, orator, journalist, a Sinhala Buddhist, Anagarika Dharmapala tried to wake up the people against the colonial empire. Many writers and poets took up the cause. There were many, but Piyadasa Sirisena deserves mention. He was a popular novelist as well as a persuasive writer. His novels may not meet all the critical criteria of today, but they were popular at the time. He wrote strongly against western customs and dress. In his novels the good women, the heroines always wore the saree and not western dress!

Martin Wickramasinghe brought new insights and greater sophistication into fiction. Wickramasinghe’s criticism of westernization was more subtle than Piyadasa Sirisena’s. In his trilogy Gamperaliya, Kali Yugaya and Yuganthaya, he tries to portray how the society is actually changing and how the attendant trauma and alienation was faced by those who resisted change.

Gunadasa Amarasekera’s ideological motivation is part and parcel of his literary endeavour. His creative writing and reformist writings are avidly read by the young and old Sinhala speaking readership. He also helped to remove the Victorian sanctimoniousness from Sri Lankan creative writing. Some of your older ones here may remember the stir that "Karumakkarayo” made.

There are many Sinhala writers today but the great majority try to titillate the youthful readership of little education. That I presume is the popular culture. Among the more serious Sinhala writers we see K. Jayatilleke, Eileen Siriwardana, a past Principal of Visakha, Arawwala Nandimitra, Jayatilleke Kammallaweera, Simon Nawagatthegama, Somaratne Balasuriya, Sunethra Rajakarunanayake, Soma Jayakody, Sumithra Rahubedde and Anula Wijeratne Menike. This is only a representative list, but there are many more equally distinguished writers.

Among the English writers, Punyakante Wijenaike, Manel Ratnatunga, whose books are found in prestigeous world libraries. Anne Ranasinghe, Carl Muller, Shyam Selvadurai, Neil Fernandopulle, Ashok Ferrey and Ransiri Menike de Silva are a few who come to mind who have made valuable contributions.

Since we spoke earlier of the connection between political, sociological and literary writing, I like to speak at this juncture, a few words about the academic sociological writing of sociologist professor, Asoka Bandarage, that distinguished, old Visakhian. I confine myself to two of her books only - her doctoral thesis "Colonialism in Sri Lanka” and one of her post-Doctoral works “Women, Population and the Global Crisis”. In both these books, there is a quality that brings them very near creativity. She brings a deep sense of empathy with the abjectly poor and the exploitation of women. I am proud that it is a Visakhian who wrote this. She holds the chair for women’s studies at Holyoake College, Massachussetts, U.S.A.

I would like to see more and more Visakhians take to creative writing but with a due sense of social responsibility. I like to quote a line from Jorge Luis Borges’ poem “Boast of Quietness”.“Writings of light assault the darkness, more prodigious than meteors.’ Let your writing of light be an assault of varied forms of darkness -poverty, ignorance, corruption, nepotism, war and envy.”

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