ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday March 2, 2008
Vol. 42 - No 40

He said, ‘English will come back, it has to’

Remembering a "great" among English novelists in Sri Lanka

James Goonewardene

With the almost deafening blasts of accolades for the recently concluded Galle English Literary Festival, I am reminded that it is a decade since the passing away of that "great" among English novelists in Sri Lanka, James Goonewardene. In the mid 1960s when James Goonewardene's first novel, A Quiet Place was published by another bold and supportive pioneer, K.V.G. De Silva & Sons, English had been already thrown out with the bathwater in "literary Ceylon" (not yet Sri Lanka). As far as I remember only Punyakante Wijenaike had an edge on him with her first collection of published short stories.

But James’s was a full length, if idyllic novel and himself a truly flamboyant personality from the deep south, yet he had the courage to use the discarded language to write his book. James Goonawardene had many a "first" to his credit. With other stalwarts like Merle Williams, he kept the English Services of Radio Ceylon, buzzing; also the popular "External Services" channel, when even those were on the brink of being closed down. His adaptations of the English classics in dramatic episodes was a popular series, much looked forward to. Creative scripts by other writers re-creating the ancient to modern history of the island for broadcast on the External Services were admirably produced by Merle and James between 1965 and the 1970s.

He was the first Sri Lankan novelist to have a novel published by Penguin - India in 1990. His novels and short stories won wide acclaim. Those were not days when Awards were handed out for English writing nor was the "climate" conducive to conduct English Literary Festivals, even though the more far-sighted people of this country saw the need to attain literacy in this "universal language”.

My own long working association with James Goonewardene began with writing scripts and voicing them for several of his radio programmes. It was James who urged me to publish a "collection" of my short stories in 1984. The award winning "Mists on a Lake" was the result. He was a stickler for style and content in his own writings and a talented presenter for radio.

When several others left the country for fairer climes and greener pastures, some despairing that English would never make a dramatic come-back into the literary sphere, James would not even think of doing so. And as he was married to his charming Australian wife, Sonia, it would have been so easy for him to up and go. He was a passionate patriot. "I am a man from the South,” he would boast, "I use English to express myself, it was the language of my education, my favourite reading matter the English classics and moderns like Hemingway, Scott, Fitzgerald and Maugham, those greats of the early to mid 20th century. But I tell you,” he would add, "English will come back here. It has to. There is no way we can do without it." And that was in the arid desert-days for the language in the 'Bandaranaike era'.

Two very exclusive English Literary Festivals in Galle (a city strongly associated with the minority Dutch Burghers, the only people remaining in this land whose first language/mother tongue is English) is proof that James' prediction was true. How pleased and proud he would be to know that, except for one or two local literary luminaries, the majority whose names were put up in lights at Galle, among our locals, were all to whom English, as it was for James Goonewardene, is not their mother tongue.

I am reminded of what the wife of the Ambassador for Czechoslovakia told me in 1974. The way you Sri Lankan people nurture English is how the Polish people nurture Roman Catholicism!

The Roman Church in the 1980s elected a Polish Pontiff. There is nothing I thought to prevent one of our own English – literary – lights (after the Galle Festival) from carrying away the Nobel Prize for Literature or better (as it is awarded for an English-language novel) the Booker Prize. I mean a Sri Lankan who is not only born Sri Lanka but who had remained here through all the vicissitudes of our turbulent modern times. And none would be more pleased and proud than James Goonewardene, who may have been forgotten at Galle where only the living "greats" were feted but whose books are his lasting memorial. His several novels he chose to write in English - English that was so deplorably marginalized after 1956 so that here in our country it has become mostly the language only of the few elite privileged ones; a pity indeed as James Goonewardene believed. He wanted it made available to all, even the barman's children at his favourite (SSC) Club.

James Goonewardene, the writer, stood a head and shoulders taller than most others in this isle. He dreamed his dream but time inexorably caught up with him: he did not live to see it fulfilled. He deserves to be remembered but there is only space for the living in a country where blood and death even cast their shadows on the scintillating spectacle: the second English Literary Festival in Galle.

By Maureen Seneviratne

Top to the page  |  E-mail  |  views[1]

Reproduction of articles permitted when used without any alterations to contents and a link to the source page.
© Copyright 2008 | Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka. All Rights Reserved.