ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, April 01, 2007
Vol. 41 - No 44

They were the attention grabbers

Co-winning the Gratiaen Prize 2006 were Seneka Abeyratne for the play Three Star K and Isankya Kodituwakku for her collection of short stories The Banana Tree Crisis.

By Ruhanie Perera

Inside of each one of us is an untold story; quirky, intense, and perhaps even disturbing. It bubbles away silently waiting till we unleash it over the roofs of the world, like Whitman’s barbaric Yawp. And then, someone finds their story. They cough it up, mould it, lead it by the hand and then take a step back to watch as it soars. March 24, marked an evening when stories soared and people applauded those stories told.

Seneka Abeyratne receiving his award from chairman of the Gratiaen Trust Tissa Jayatillaka

Co-winning the Gratiaen Prize 2006 were Seneka Abeyratne for the play Three Star K and Isankya Kodituwakku for her collection of short stories The Banana Tree Crisis. Written in two different genres, interestingly, the entries were deemed attention-grabbing, and winning, because above all, as chair of the panel of judges Vivimarie VanderPoorten noted, the work stayed on in the hearts and minds of the reader long after the book was closed. Yes, a judge can never be completely objective when immersed in a task of this nature, she said in her comments on behalf of her colleagues on the panel Neil Fernandopulle and Priyanthi Fernando. Each brings with them their values and beliefs shaped by their education and exposure to English Literature, but their search is the same – for the creative, the bold, the sharp and the fresh.

Three Star K by Seneka Abeyratne was such a work. With its multitude of themes of domestic violence, alcohol and drug abuse, arms dealing, political intrigue and murder, this play in ten acts is set in Colombo 7 and is what the writer might call “an unconventional play” – because it is provocative. “While the theme of domestic violence is a hackneyed one,” says Seneka, “it remains a huge problem, bigger than people imagine.” Three Star K was deliberately set in Colombo 7 within the context of a particular subculture where people don’t speak nice and wife beaters and drug addicts exist, in contrast to the ‘clean’ image urbane living has.

For the man who writes on the side of the unreal, abnormal behaviour is fascinating. Flirting with the unconventional and the off beat, Seneka stays away from and distorts without remorse, the stereotype. “This is why people have difficulty in relating to my work. You may not often encounter the people I write about, but they do exist. I don’t have mass appeal, but I believe in what I am doing – so I just keep working.”

Isankya Kodituwakku.

And so, “it is nice to win a prestigious literary award,” says the writer, “for it gives you the confidence and conviction you need to keep on writing.” Such appreciation from the literati makes one feel comfortable doing what one does, quips Seneka. Largely a playwright, as far as his creative writing goes, Seneka has been shortlisted twice before for the Gratiaen; in 1993 for his novel Fragments Of A Fugue, which was published in London, and in 2005 for his play Mad People.

A freelance consultant economist by profession, Seneka, who was the director, economic affairs at the Peace Secretariat until recently finds that the writing he does on the job and off coexist, and in fact, reinforce each other. Writing creatively, which is his passion, seriously started in the late 80s, but it is something Seneka dabbles in mainly as a hobby. He doesn’t write for a market, he writes to develop and expand the mind. “Thinking creatively is important. As children we have such imaginations – you stretch your mind. But as you grow up you are held back by subconscious inhibitions.” This, Seneka breaks away from, determined always to experiment. Even his mental compositions are experimental, laughs Seneka, who elaborated on his “strange” habit of mentally composing his work backwards. “I know my characters and I know my ending, so I have the ending and then work backwards – but I don’t write backwards.”

Moving forward, anything we can expect in the near future? For starters, a published collection of plays…

Publishing her work is also a priority for Kumari Goonesekere, winner of the H. A. I. Goonetileke Prize 2006. Awarded this year after a period of hibernation, the prize went to a translation of short stories by Liyanage Amarakeerthi titled The Hour When The Moon Weeps. The work is a selection of short stories chosen from three volumes of short stories by the original author and compiled as one volume of six stories – The Nest in the Colony, The Hour When the Moon Weeps, Red Pokuta and Black Pokuta, The Sprig of Ehela Flowers, The Forest of Sharks and Jinadasa’s Children. The stories were chosen by Kumari because they depicted Sri Lankan life in all its variety, the characters were drawn from different levels of society and as works of literature, she felt these were the best work.

Kumari Goonesekere, winner of the prize for translation

In 2001 the Gratiaen Trust compiled a volume of translated work from Sinhala and Tamil to English titled Lankan Mosaic. It was for this volume that Ranjini Obeysekere gave Kumari two stories to translate. Thus, a friend of the family launched her on a journey from which there would be no turning back. It was quite the detour for a woman who had completed a BSc at the University of Colombo and a master’s degree in Chemistry in Princeton. Suddenly, there was no chemistry between the woman and her chosen field and so she switched to a PhD in English, as she had always loved literature, but which she could not complete as a result of her battle with schizophrenia. Returning to Sri Lanka, Kumari lost herself in the art of translation. “I was in hospital shortly before I took up translating and it helped me come out of my depression because I worked through it. And it lifted my spirits a little.”

Although she hasn’t tried her hand at creative writing, Kumari who is an editor, seems to have found herself in her translating work. Describing her process, she says, “You actually hear it first.” Like music. Then you re-read sections and go back and work on it. Sometimes when you hear certain sentences, the translation just flows; in other instances you just work through it. All the while making fundamental decisions – where you will directly translate and where you will replace a word or a phrase with something similar, staying true to the meaning and the nuances of the original. It is a balancing act, and it is, in a sense, a creative process in itself.

“I feel that a translation is not rendering literally a creative work in itself,” says Kumari, “You have to be sensitive to the nuances of language – and find meaningful replacements in the language of translation, while respecting that each language comes with cultures and expressions of its own.” Of the five entries competing in this category, The Hour When The Moon Weeps expressed what the panel of judges chaired by Arjuna Parakrama were looking for – the ability to translate the spirit of the text.

There’s that spirit, and then there’s the spirit of a person whose absence you feel. Joint winner of the Gratiaen 2006 Isankya Kodituwakku was not present at the awards ceremony. In Columbia, at present, doing her Master’s in creative writing, Isankya’s published work The Banana Tree Crisis won for its “authenticity”, “sensitivity” and the ability to take on a vast geographical landscape populated with characters diverse, but human, embroiled in the everyday highs and desperate lows of our contemporary world. Accepting the award on behalf of Isankya, her sister Manikya decided to speak of her rather than for her. And through her, we saw a shadow of the child Isankya used to be always at bursting point with a story to tell.

And, in the end, that’s what they do best. The woman finding herself in translation, the grown up story teller in New York studying creative writing and the playwright who hangs up on me in order to deal with a serpent that wandered into his garden. What stories…

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.