The Gratiaen prize, created by Michael Ondaatje with the prize money he received as the joint winner of the Booker Prize for his novel The English Patient, will once again take place this year on May 21. The shortlist will be announced tomorrow, April 4 at the British Council. Standard Chartered Bank while having partly sponsored the main event for a number years, have further increased their involvement with the prize.
'English in text, Sri Lankan in essence' is the campaign that Standard Chartered Bank and the Gratiaen Trust will present, reflecting the spirit of the Gratiaen prize, which is synonymous with literary excellence in Sri Lanka.
Initially, Michael Ondaatje gave the task of administering the prize which was named after his mother Doris Gratiaen to Ian Goonetileke, the former librarian of the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya, who was a close friend of his. Subsequently, the running of the prize was handed over to a Trust with the mandate to formulate the rules of the competition, appoint the judges, and initiate other literary events in consultation with Michael Ondaatje.
The prize which provides Rs 200,000 to the winner and has now been in existence for almost eighteen years has rewarded some of the island's most senior writers in English and has also been instrumental in identifying unknown literary talent. The fame brought about by winning this prestigious prize has encouraged fledgling authors to embark on gainful careers. Carl Muller's Jamfruit Tree charted new territory for Sri Lankan writing in English, the late Nihal de Silva's The Road from Elephant Pass had such an impact on the literary world that it was made into a successful film, and more recently Shehan Karunatilaka's Chinaman has attracted the attention of many overseas publishers, including Random House India and Jonathan Cape UK-the latter, one of the foremost publishers in the world.
Winners of the Gratiaen have also featured in literary festivals. Shehan Karunatilaka was invited to the Galle Literary Festival before his book was even published, and this year he was the only writer to represent Sri Lanka at the Jaipur Literary Festival. Prashani Rambukwella, the current winner, was also accommodated in the GLF in 2011 and has been invited to the Bookaroo Children's Literature Festival to be held in Delhi this November.
In 2003, the Gratiaen Trust instituted the HAI Goonetileke Prize for Translation which was worth Rs 200,000 as well, a decision that has been equally beneficial to translators, on the one hand, and to those who choose to submit memoirs, poetry, fiction, drama and other entries for the Gratiaen, on the other. The translation prize has been awarded on three occasions thus far.
The Trust's contribution to letters has not been confined to prizes. Over the years it has organized creative writing workshops and established the Three Wheeler Press which has brought out The Lankan Mosaic, translations of stories from Sinhala and Tamil into English, and two other volumes which translated the original stories in this collection from Sinhala to Tamil and vice versa.
The final part of the translation project which is to translate and publish two significant novels from Tamil and Sinhala into English is now on the verge of completion.