Which way does the wind blow? The judges of the 2010 Gratiaen Prize will tell you that the zeitgeist – the spirit of our time – is reflected in the literature written in any given year.
“As one would expect in 2009, Sri Lankan writers have responded to the government’s solution to the ethnic conflict,” said Asoka de Zoysa Kelaniya University don, who was on the panel of judges alongside theatre personality Rohan Ponniah and writer Vijitha Fernando.
|The Gratiaen judges: Rohan Ponniah, Vijitha Fernando and Asoka de Zoysa.
The three were responsible for selecting five entries out of over 50 submissions. When the winner is announced on May 8, he or she will walk away with a cash prize worth Rs. 200,000 – and the distinction of having won Sri Lanka’s premier literary award.
Instituted in 1992 by Michael Ondaatje with his Booker Prize winnings for The English Patient and named in honour of his mother Doris Gratiaen, the prize is currently administered by the Gratiaen Trust.
It is awarded to a resident Sri Lankan each year, and the three judges select a winner from a range of entries which include fiction, poetry, dramas and literary memoirs, all of which must either have been published during the last year or presented in manuscript form. As is traditional, the announcement of the shortlist was hosted by the British Council, with many nervous writers in attendance.
The first name to be announced (in alphabetical order) this year was that of author Santhan Aiyadurai. His novel ‘The Whirlwind’ follows a group of villagers hemmed in by two opposing factions – the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) and the LTTE. Mr. Aiyadurai, currently a lecturer in Engineering at a private institute, hails from Jaffna. A bilingual writer, he began writing in Tamil in the late sixties.
His collection of stories ‘The Stark’ (1990) marked his debut in English writing. His next book, ‘In Their Own World’, won him a State Literary Award. ‘The Whirlwind’ itself was launched in Chennai last week by an Indian publishing house.
Praising the novel, Rohan Ponniah declared, “it is related with compassion and understanding, revealing at the same time a vivid picture of the uncertainty of the lives of the people living in the north.”
Premini Amerasinghe’s ‘Tangled Threads’ was the second novel to make the shortlist this year. Describing the novel as “meticulously researched and elegantly presented,” the judges praised it for how the author “cleverly juxtaposes the past and present to reveal the intricacies of family life and tangled relationships...” In ‘Tangled Threads’ we are introduced to Pushpa as she stands beside her grandfather’s grave.
It is the beginning of two concurrent stories, says Ms. Amerasinghe, explaining that the novel follows its heroine as she discovers her grandfather’s diaries and his revelations about the Spanish War.
Retired from her profession as a Consultant Radiologist, Ms. Amerasinghe lives in Kandy. A member of the Wadiya Group, her collection of poems ‘Kaleidoscope’ was shortlisted for the Gratiaen in 1998. She is also the author of ‘The Search’ (longlisted for the Dublin IMPAC prize) and ‘Sophie’s Story’.
T. Arasanayagam was shortlisted for his collection of 10 short stories titled ‘Singing of the Angels’. The stories reflected the “traditional and religious aspects of life in the north,” said the judges, going on to commend the author for his “vivid and dramatic descriptions” and for his “sensitive insight into a community living through a prolonged conflict and upheaval.” Mr. Arasanayagam is a published novelist and playwright besides.
A Founder Member of the Young Artists Group, he has exhibited at the Commonwealth Institute, London, the Paris Biennale and Sao Paolo. Explaining that his stories have been germinating over a long period, Mr. Arasanayagam says he resurrected them and worked on them till he felt the “jewel” had been finally crafted.
A one-time lecturer at the University of Peradeniya, Mr. Arasanayagam continues to work with young students of English Literature. He lives with his wife, the writer Jean Arasanayagam in Kandy.
Asgar Hussein made the shortlist with his collection of 13 satirical short stories. “My stories deal with a wide array of subjects but focus largely on human follies and vices through humour and irony,” the author of ‘Mirror of Paradise’ told the Sunday Times.
The judges dubbed the collection “sparkling” saying that it included “stories that pull at your heart strings or make you explode with laughter.” Having served for nearly a decade as a journalist at The Sunday Leader, Mr. Hussein currently works in advertising. His novel ‘Termite Castle’ (2006) won him the State Literary Award.
He hopes to publish ‘Mirror of Paradise’ in two months, but in the meantime he says he has enough ideas in his notebooks to create several more collections of short stories.
Prashani Rambukwella’s ‘Mythil’s Secret’ had the dual distinction of being both the only children’s novel as well as the only one that belonged to the fantasy genre on the list. (She could not be reached for comment.)
The wife of a diplomat, the author graduated with a BA in English Literature from the University of Peradeniya. She has experience both as a playwright and director. Her first book, ‘Mythil’s Secret’, was published by Perera Hussein Publishing.