It’s naughty and titillating the Lankan way

Ameena Hussein opens a new chapter in English writing here, with an adults only anthology
By Smriti Daniel

“Titillate – it’s my new favourite word.”
“For the week?”
“For the month!”

It’s clear that Ameena is feeling naughty...and is more than willing to do something about it. This week, the first collection of contemporary Sri Lankan erotica will find its way onto bookshelves courtesy the Perera Hussein (PH) Publishing House. Ameena, who puts the Hussein in PH, is its editor, but the book opens with her husband Sam Perera’s debut. ‘The Proposal’ is the first of 16 pieces. Some may be poetry, others prose but here are 16 reasons why no children were allowed to attend the launch – this one is for adults only.

It says as much on the cover. When she first called for submissions for the ‘Blue’ anthology (named in homage to the genre of scandalous movies), Ameena began by writing personally to 50 people she thought she could persuade to participate in the project. But it wasn’t until she placed the call for submissions on her blog that the responses began pouring in. Determined to be truly liberal in her choices, Ameena didn’t specify a theme or limit her authors by stating just how explicit they could be. “I said, hard, soft, whatever, bring it on. Let me see what you write.”

Though she edited the anthology, she compiled it by democratic vote. 14 readers were invited to rate and comment on the submissions, gradually whittling them down to 16 pieces. The author’s names were kept a secret to ensure impartiality. Among the finalists were Ameena herself and another Gratiaen Prize winning author, Shehan Karunatillake. But many of the names are new – and for those who chose to publish under their real names, ‘Blue’ makes for a very courageous debut. Ameena says she’s pleased with the final choices – “I thought it was a very successful process, and it was certainly the most egalitarian one we have ever employed.” Her unconventional approach helped set the tone. “I wanted this to be a very fun book, not so heavy, not so serious. I don’t want anyone doing a thesis on this. It’s not meant to be ‘literature’.”

What it is exactly, is a little harder to place. Ameena decided not to attempt to define erotica for her authors. In her call for submissions she declared: “Sex is raw, honest, beautiful, embarrassing, shameful, and confusing. Written well, it reveals things about characters that little else can, because sex makes us vulnerable - in those moments, we’re naked in more ways than one.” Will readers agree that this collection constitutes erotic literature? (Erica Jong who wrote the feminist classic ‘Fear of Flying’ explained it as “erotica celebrates the erotic nature of the human creature - and does so artfully, dramatically. Pornography, on the other hand, serves as an aid to masturbation, with no artistic pretensions and no artistic value.”) Ameena is uncertain – she believes it to be a matter of taste, Portnoy’s Complaint vs. The Penthouse Letters. She is proud though, of how very Sri Lankan it is.
“I hope that people will see it for what it is – these are Sri Lankan naughty stories. I mean come on, why read about blue-eyed, blonde Russians. Why read about what the Arabs want or the Chinese? Read about brown skins and dark areolas. This is about us. Read about us and what we find naughty and titillating.”

Her interest in this project first began when the couple received a copy of ‘Electric Feather: The Tranquebar Book of Erotic Stories’ which featured Indian authors. “When you talk to the average Sri Lankan man, the conversation can be relied upon to quickly find its way to the gutter, so how come we didn’t have any form of erotica?” Looking for answers, she began by making a concerted effort to find any classical erotica that might have been produced on the island centuries ago. She drew a blank – finding an abundance of texts in other cultures only highlighted the lack of it here – and she attributes this to a lack of accessible translations. The sensuality inherent in the country’s frescoes and sculptures did however, have their own story to tell.

“Right now we seem to be going through a period of prudery,” she opines, eyes twinkling, “we frown on girls wearing mini-skirts, when we were going topless in ancient Sri very Victorian we have become.” To her great pleasure, Ameena found what she was looking for did exist - sex continued to fascinate and inspire modern writing. After attending a series of open mike sessions, where love and lust served as muses for a new generation of writers, Ameena was possessed of the conviction that local readers were ready for her racy anthology.

It’s worth noting that a number of those involved – both writers and readers – are women. Beginning with Ameena herself, (“I know I am an unusual woman, I’m not embarrassed by sex, I don’t give men the response that they expect or want”) women seem increasingly comfortable talking about sex, writing about it and reading about it. While editing the collection, Ameena discovered that women were often as explicit as men and in the end the number of female authors selected outstripped their male counterparts by a small percentage. “If they say that women like the erotic word better, it might be because women have better imaginations,” she says, tongue in cheek.

However, there’s room for at least one man amid this congregation of fertile imaginations. Designer Deshan Tennekoon (“He’s practically a woman, he has a wonderful imagination”) took her book and returned a piece of art, says Ameena, declaring herself more than pleased with Blue’s dramatic cover and the photographs (also courtesy Deshan) that accompany each piece. Some of the pictures feature women together – the stories that follow do the same. Ameena, who notes that even the Tranquebar collection was not as inclusive, is happy to have a collection that is so diverse.

Readers can decide what they like for themselves – a copy of ‘Blue’ can be had for Rs. 700- in local bookstores. At the launch, guests who purchased a copy were given their books sealed in small paper bags. “I want it to be like this dirty thing, that you go buy, quietly,” says Ameena, mimicking an under the counter exchange. The novel inside, however, is likely to be a surprise in more ways than one. On the back cover, Ameena, a survivor of Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma, makes clear her intention to donate all the royalties to the Shantha Sevana Cancer Hospice, Maharagama. For her, the book is nothing less than an affirmation, “a celebration of life.” “I’m doing this because I’m still alive, I’m happy to be alive, this book is a fun book, and I want my life to have fun and I want it to have meaning,” she says. That her approach so cleverly juxtaposes virtue with vice is what I most like about it.

The collection is also due to make a splash in the subcontinent later this year – in a pretty twist Tranquebar has bought the Indian rights for the book, sight unseen. It makes Ameena hopeful that this one will sell well and that a sequel, featuring more authors, will be possible; we’ll have to see whether that will materialise or not, but that this anthology is likely to inspire both curiosity and controversy is certain.

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