Two local voices in anthology that transcends time and geography

Book Facts: "Women's Worlds": The McGraw-Hill Anthology of Women's Writings, edited by Robyn Warhol-Down et al. Reviewed by Dr. Sarojini Jayawickrama

"Women's World" is a compilation of writings in English by women from diverse areas of the world, from different geographical spaces and across time - from the fourteenth century to the present day. Different from traditional women's studies, its focus is not limited to Anglo-American writings. It is a richly textured tapestry of writings from Africa, Asia, Australia, New Zealand, Scotland, Ireland and the Caribbean and of works by writers of mixed heritage - African American, Asian American, Afro Caribbean and Anglo Indian.
It features classic as well as exciting new voices from these geographical spaces and diverse cultures. In this aspect it reflects the global spread of English through colonization and emigration and so traces the impact of colonialism and its attendant dispersal of people, not simply from choice but through compulsion - through slavery and the slave trade and through enforced emigration when, for instance, beginning in 1788, British prisoners were transported to penal colonies in Australia.

Two Sri Lankan writers

Many of the Asian and Caribbean writers do not live in the country of their birth but have moved to different locations. Both Anne Ranasinghe and Yasmine Gooneratne share this diasporic experience. Ranasinghe, of German birth, became a citizen of Sri Lanka in her adult life in 1956 and has been living there since, whereas Gooneratne's life has followed this path in reverse. Born in Sri Lanka, she has lived much of her adult life in Australia.
Anne Ranasinghe

The only poem on the Holocaust and the genocide of six million Jewish people and perhaps the only poem by a German born writer in the anthology, is Anne Ranasinghe's "Auschwitz from Colombo". Like many another writer featured here, she was compelled to leave the country of her birth. Being Jewish, the accession of Adolf Hitler as Chancellor of Germany in 1933 and the entrenchment of Nazism placed the lives of Anne and her family in danger. She was sent by her parents to the comparative safety of England in 1939. They were unable to follow her there as they had planned, being murdered in Chelmno, Poland in 1944, as she learnt much later.

Her life experience is varied. She has inhabited diverse cultural and geographical spaces - Germany which she left as a teenage girl, England where she trained as a nurse working in many London hospitals in war service, and now Sri Lanka where she has lived since her marriage to a Sri Lankan professor. Her viewpoint is multi-layered, where she brings her cultural past to bear on her cultural present, illuminating and reading into it a complexity of meaning.

If, to use Ranasinghe's words, one's mind were to "skim over the surface of things" the poem appears to be a simple contrast between the Auschwitz of the 1930's and the Colombo of the 1980's. Though one of her relatively early poems, it shows Ranasinghe's consummate skill in the power of evocation. The scene shifts from Colombo to Auschwitz and back again, weaving back and forth to different periods in time. She subtly conveys the sense of an underlying violence in the city in her opening lines. The burning tropical heat of a March day in Colombo is invested with sinister undertones; "white fire", "vehement trees burst into flame", "the searing winds" do not simply etch a visual scene but creates an awareness almost visceral that beneath the seeming calm of the city where there is only a searing wind stirring the dust, there lies an incendiary situation, explosive, Sri Lanka during the mid 1980's, a time when violence was endemic and human lives were being incinerated on burning tyres. The reference to Sri Lanka's colonial history links the present home grown violence to the "vile deeds", the violence attendant on the forcible imposition of power on a people by a foreign invader. The questioning mind is provoked to ask whether there is any difference between the two.

The juxtaposition of these scenes with "that winter" in a German city with its "tree[s] leafless" and frost flowers encrusting "hostile window panes" when Nazi violence was unleashed on "Kristallnacht" on a defenceless people, is quite startling. Ranasinghe moves to the inhumanity of Auschwitz. She vividly presents the horrific murder of children who were stunned by heavy wooden mallets, then cruelly "Garrotted and then impaled, on pointed iron hooks".

Her mind takes refuge in ".... the unechoing street, burnt white in the heat of many tropical years". In a deliberate act of forgetting she "skims over the surface of things, temporarily blotting out the memories of the past, erasing the memory of what happened in Auschwitz. Skimming over the surface of things is on two temporal planes for simultaneously her mind refrains from probing beneath the "surface of things" in the present, in Sri Lanka. But the haunting fear is ever present that beneath the surface calm is violence waiting to be unleashed. As beneath the ancient dust lies a history of violence, so does the "unechoing street" mask the violence waiting to erupt in the present (mid 1980's Sri Lanka). The unusual image of the mind "skimming over the surface of things" being likened to the wind "that stirs but slightly the ancient dust" ends this powerful poem.

"Auschwitz from Colombo" is a piece of writing packed with meaning and complexity which links the violence of the 1980's Sri Lanka, the genocide in Auschwitz and the vile deeds that resonate in the colonial history of Sri Lanka. In this aspect her poetry reflects the trends in twentieth and twenty first century women's writing which draws connections between seemingly unconnected things as in Sylvia Plath's "Daddy" (pp.1636-38) where a father's abuse becomes analogous to the murderous fascism of Nazi Germany, or the poetry of Diane Wakoski.
Yasmine Gooneratne

Yet another poem by a Sri Lankan writer included in the anthology which I would like to comment on is Yasmine Gooneratne's "Peace Game", not simply because Ranasinghe and Gooneratne share a nationality but, more importantly, share certain concerns as in the two poems included in the anthology.

Gooneratne, like Ranasinghe, has lived in different cultural milieus and has written in many genres, poetry, short stories, and novels. Her work expresses the diasporic writer's experience of migration and the cultural contradictions and tensions implicit in living between East and West.

The personal and the political intersect in her writing as in the poem featured in the anthology where Gooneratne comments on the social and political overtones of a game she played with the children down the street where she lived – "The Peace Game". The game becomes an allegory for war/peace, where the contending factions do not have "an equality of arms", not battling on a level playing field. She problematizes the concept of peace.

Like most writers of the postmodern period, Gooneratne questions the validity of definitions - the impossibility of nailing down language, restricting a word to a single meaning which closes off all other possibilities, a question Toni Morrison discusses in her Nobel Prize acceptance speech (pp. 1612-17). Gooneratne's poem is open ended:

We called the entertainment 'Peace'
Or 'War' - I can't remember which...

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