ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, December 03, 2006
Vol. 41 - No 27

Cooking, not writing was her first love

Back from Australia Yasmine Gooneratne who has just released her latest book, 'The Sweet and Simple Kind' has a candid conversation.

By Ayesha R. Rafiq

A conversation with Yasmine Gooneratne, to use an analogy from her latest book 'The Sweet and Simple Kind' released just last month, is like ‘going on safari in a Tarzan movie'. You never know what awaits you each time you turn a corner.

It's barely mid-morning and the conversation has already raced and skidded over academia, cookery, literature, love and sexual politics, with Yasmine gaily debunking all preconceptions about academics, writers and women of her generation along the way. One of the most respected Sri Lankan academics of our times, Yasmine now in her seventies, is a woman of many parts. She is an internationally known university professor, literary critic, editor, bibliographer, novelist, essayist and poet, and combines these roles with those of loving mother and wife with characteristic charm.

Yasmine at the launch of her book last month Pic by J. Weerasekera

Seated in the verandah of her beautiful home in Colombo with birds chirping all around, and trying to digest her resume which is crammed so full of awards and accolades it reads like a book, I do a double take when she nonchalantly mentions that she initially never wanted to go to university, wanting to study Cordon Bleu cookery instead.

“My father was an avid cook, and I was always a willing accomplice in his culinary adventures which used to send the staff scattering in dismay. With my father’s help, I learnt to enjoy cooking so much that I wanted to immerse myself in it,” she explains. And although her destiny lay in a different direction, cooking, especially if it's her favourite yellow rice with cardamoms or wattalappan, is still close to her heart, and an opportunity for a good recipe swapping chat with her faithful appu is rarely passed up.

A chance remark to her mentor Pauline Hensman that she wanted to study cookery instead of attending university however, decided her fate. Recognising her literary genius, Pauline guided her towards English Literature, as a result of which Yasmine today, among numerous other accomplishments, is an Officer of the Higher Order of Australia in recognition of her contribution to English Literature, and holds the only higher doctoral degree awarded by Australia's Macquarie University.

But Yasmine, whose poems and stories have been presented on television, radio and at public readings across the continents and translated into several languages, once thought that 'fiction was for other people'. Initially an academic who had never ventured beyond the boundaries of factual analysis, she wrote her first creative work, a poem, when her father, whom she was extremely close to, died. “To write poetry, you have to be pushed into it by some deep emotion – it could be love, happiness, despair or dislike, but it has to be strong enough to resonate in your poetry,” she says.

While soaring up the academic ladder, it's plain to see that Yasmine has been equally devoted to her husband Brendon, the love of her life, and her two children. It is heart warming to hear the gentle exchanges between husband and wife, full of endearments such as 'dear' and 'darling', thoughtful gestures and loving looks, as each one praises the other and downplays their own stellar achievements.

Having collaborated with Brendon, himself a highly acclaimed medical academic and ardent historian, on several projects, Yasmine fondly says of the man she has been married to for over 40 years and attributes her success to, “I never once thought of divorce, but have frequently contemplated murder”. Today the author of over 20 published works, she will not send a single manuscript to press unless Brendon approves of it first. Like any fond mother, she is also immensely proud of her children and is very close to them.

The project close to her heart, currently keeping her busy is ‘Guardian Angels’, a literary service company which offers fine-tuning and constructive advice to writers.

Although having lived in Australia for the past 35 years, Yasmine who considers herself ‘fortunate to have been born a Sri Lankan’, is very much of the old school. But she somehow manages to effortlessly merge her ideas about life and love, which she admits she derives from one of her favourite authors Jane Austen, on whose work she is an eminent expert, with those of today’s generation.

Talking about her friends around the world and how they have influenced her writing, she suddenly springs it on you that she has lots of gay friends. “These are things that are happening today and it would be foolish of me to act like I don’t know about it or am embarrassed to talk about it. I believe there is nobody who is bad or wrong, each person has their own case,” she adds.

An enthusiastic traveller and movie buff in her spare time, but unable to keep away from her writing for any length of time, Yasmine is now thinking of recreating through a novel, Sri Lanka’s golden years before the 1950’s, a time “during which I was so fortunate to have been born”. At a time when so many Sri Lankans set their sights on foreign shores, it is encouraging that here is a rare individual who having found the greener pastures, has realised that east or west, home is indeed the best.

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Copyright 2006 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.