The Gratiaen Prize for Sri Lankan creative writing in English, at 28 years, has left a rich trail. When the 2017 winner, the late legendary Jean Arasanayagam, trilled “This is our local Oscars!” she was paying tribute not to glamour but to the high quality the prize has throughout kept up- and the mid-year excitement [...]


New chapter for Gratiaen as it goes digital

With literature and lit prizes having to adjust to the ‘new normal’, Gratiaen Trust chairperson Neloufer de Mel talks to Yomal Senerath-Yapa

Neloufer de Mel

The Gratiaen Prize for Sri Lankan creative writing in English, at 28 years, has left a rich trail. When the 2017 winner, the late legendary Jean Arasanayagam, trilled “This is our local Oscars!” she was paying tribute not to glamour but to the high quality the prize has throughout kept up- and the mid-year excitement it generates. The Gratiaen’s long footfall – from Carl Muller’s salacious Railway Burgher sagas to Arun Welandawe-Prematilleke’s intense, gay soul searching which made him the last winner- have the promise of leading us to new literary pastures- fresh, heady, exhilarating.

Here, Neloufer de Mel, chairperson of the Gratiaen Trust, and Senior Professor of English (Chair) at the Dept. of English, University of Colombo, looks forward to ushering in a brand new era for the Gratiaen.

  •   Gratiaen will be moving to a digital platform this year. Can you tell us exactly what this entails?

Yes, we have had to adapt to the times, the “new normal” we are in, and move onto a digital platform. We are grateful to the John Keells Foundation, our primary sponsor and the Wijeya Group which is our media partner for making it happen, particularly the Daily Mirror Online which has offered to record and stream the online events. We will be having three events: the short list announcement on the 20th of June at 6.30 p.m.; a question and answer session with the short-listed writers on the 27th of June also at 6.30 p.m., and the announcement of the main award of the 2019 Gratiaen Prize in early July. The events will be a mix of pre-recorded and live elements. They will be streamed online, over the social media platforms of the Daily Mirror (Daily Mirror FB page, Twitter and Instagram) as well as cross posted on the Gratiaen Trust Facebook page.

This move to online streaming of our events is both challenging and exciting. After 26 years of holding conventional short listing and main award events, we have had to, in a relatively short period of time, “think digital.” We have also had to coordinate with judges and writers, some of who are currently overseas, and think of what is visually attractive rather than relying on voice and the verbal alone.  The advantages for us in streaming these events online is that we can reach a wider audience that is also younger. University students from the Dept. of English have always participated at our award events, and last year we invited school students studying English for the A’level exam for the final award event which went down well. We want to increase the numbers of young people who tune into the Trust’s work and it is very important for us to inspire young people to engage more with literature, whether as writers or readers.

  •  Apart from the prize itself, the Gratiaen Trust has grown busier- improving local creative writing with programmes of training, education and linking up with international resources. Can you speak of this expansion- while looking at fruitful projects you undertook?

We have been extremely fortunate to obtain the support of the John Keells Foundation for our activities from October last year. This sponsorship really enabled us to expand our activities. For some time now we have wanted to support our Prize – which is still our main activity and event – with workshops that would help improve the quality of creative writing in English in Sri Lanka. Towards this we came up with a programme of masterclasses and editing workshops. We had our first masterclass last December with well-known actor and theatre director Fiona Shaw.

We also held editing workshops. Editing is neglected by both our writers and publishers. Many think editing is proof reading for grammar and spelling. This area needs much improvement too, but a good content editing is much more: it’s about placement, non-repetition, learning how not to over-write and so on. One workshop was led by Ritu Menon (author and founder of the publishing firm Women Unlimited), and the other by well-known novelist Shyam Selvadurai.  Shyam’s workshop was held in Jaffna –followed by a short play by Arun Welandawe Prematilleke, followed by a Q & A in which Ayathurai Santhan, a senior writer who has been short listed several times for the Prize, also participated. These events were an opportunity for audiences in Jaffna to see contemporary Sri Lankan theatre and engage with authors face to face.

We also want to develop a longer-term mentoring programme where our short-listed writers and winners will be paired with a well-known international author who will act as a mentor on work in progress.

  •  What do you think of the role played by art in the midst of COVID-19?

I think art has a very important role to play at this time, and it is upsetting that it is likely to become one of the worst-affected sectors by the funding cuts caused by the COVID-19 crisis. Artists have always asked important questions, particularly at times of crisis, about who we are as individuals and a society and so on. Under COVID-19, people have turned to art. We have had more time, under curfews and lockdowns to watch films, listen to music, paint, read and write. People have appropriated art, often quite wittily.  Mona Lisa, Vincent Van Gogh and Marilyn Monroe found themselves wearing face masks. Folk artists in India painted Gods and Goddesses with masks for messages on social distancing. Music and art have been used in innovative ways over tik tok. Italians sang opera arias from their balconies, and locally, people sang popular songs at quarantine centres and urban tower blocks. Virudhu was used for messages on the virus and social distancing. This was a very earthy way in which people used art to cope with the times. This is inspiring because it shows that art, in its multiple forms, remains an important resource for all kinds of people.

  •  Awarding the prize to Kider Chetty Street in 2004 was radical. Has the Gratiaen kept up this trend?

The award for Kider Chetty Street, particularly because of its use of language, was, as you say, a watershed. But I don’t think the history of the Gratiaen Prize doing something different starts in 2004. Take, for instance, its very first award in 1993 to Carl Muller for Jam Fruit Tree, a novel about underclass Burghers with a very powerful, unique use of language. This set the stage for the Prize to be a platform which recognized innovative creative writing. It has also not shied away from giving the highest recognition to bold writing, whether this be political satire or works on diverse sexualities. Shehan Karunatilleke’s phenomenal success with Chinaman started, for instance, with the novel winning the Gratiaen Prize in 2008.

Moreover, if you take the short list these past several years, you will see younger and older writers who come from different walks of life, from Colombo as well as the provinces. They use Sri Lankan English creatively in their work and the fact that they are on short lists means that successive jury panels for the Prize have had no problem with this.  I think this expansion of the canon, and that the Prize is accessible to English creative writing by a wide range of people who apply each year (anything from 60 to 70 entries) is a very important contribution the Gratiaen Prize has made to the literary scene in Sri Lanka over these past 27 years of its existence.

  •  Anything else you would like to say?

Michael Ondaatje’s vision and generosity has been a great gift for Sri Lankan creative writing in English. At the same time, there are many others who, over these past 28 years of the Trust’s existence, have supported it voluntarily – whether by judging the entries, or conducting workshops, or helping with the Prize events. These “friends of the Gratiaen” have been an enormous support. Together with the writers who enter their work for the Prize each year, and our sponsors, the John Keells Foundation,   the British Council which has been with us throughout our journey, the Sarasavi Bookshop from 2016-2019, the Wijeya Group as our media sponsor, we remain hopeful about our work even at this challenging time.


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