The audience stirred with a collective sense of pride when Jean Arasanayagam was announced the winner of the Gratiaen 2017 last Saturday at the BMICH. It had been a long wait for the country’s most cherished living poet in English. She was one of the early judges for the award in 1994, and then was [...]


In the presence of a great chronicler

Yomal Senerath-Yapa talks to Jean Arasanayagam, winner of the Gratiaen 2017 for ‘The Life of the Poet’

Jean Arasanayagam receiving the award from Gratiaen Trust Chairperson Walter Perera at the BMICH event held to announce the winner on May 26. Pic by Indika Handuwala

The audience stirred with a collective sense of pride when Jean Arasanayagam was announced the winner of the Gratiaen 2017 last Saturday at the BMICH. It had been a long wait for the country’s most cherished living poet in English. She was one of the early judges for the award in 1994, and then was shortlisted in 2016. In 2015 she saw her husband Thiyagarajah Arasanayagam being felicitated as the winner.

This year’s Gratiaen marks the award’s 25th anniversary. Michael Ondaatje established the Gratiaen Trust, to recognize annually the best work of literary writing in English by a resident Sri Lankan, with the prize money he received for The English Patient, the winner of the Booker Prize for 1992. This year’s panel of three judges comprised Carmen Wickramagamage, Professor in English and Head of the Department of English at the University of Peradeniya; Andrew Fowler-Watt, Principal of Trinity College, Kandy, and Michelle de Kretser, the celebrated Colombo-born and Australia-based author.

The shortlist for 2017 was singular in many ways. All the four writers were women, while each represented a different genre of literature: Chiranthi Rajapakse’s Names and Numbers was a collection of short stories, Neshantha Harischandra’s A House down Queer Street was an unpublished novel, and Sunela Jayawardene’s The Line of Lanka was a travelogue/ memoir while Jean’s own collection of poetry was titled The Life of the Poet.

As Jean made her way to the front, in intricately patterned bird of paradise colours and heavy silver heirloom jewellery, and as she made her ebullient, spirited speech, I was conscious of some fine line between the public Jean and the private Jean- i.e. the poet. Certainly the colours and the intricacy seep into the private domain of poetry- albeit in such nuanced or brilliant shades and detail that everyday language has no words to describe them. Also evident was the mix of cultures- Burgher and Tamil as well as shades of so many others (being astonishingly well-travelled and well-read, quite apart from the actual, historical miscegenation). But the very human warmth and enthusiasm in her words concealed the fact that we were in the presence of a great chronicler.

For the very essence of Jean Arasanaygam oozes out of her pen. In their comments, the Gratiaen judges were visibly moved by a writer with such lucidity, power and passion; with an ability “to capture in language the sights, sounds, flavours, fragrances and feel of places she visits”. This is classic Arasanayagam- the magical marriage of the lyrical and the sensory her readers have relished since the early 70s. What is novel about this fresh collation published in 2017- The Life of the Poet?

As the title suggests, the collection explores in verse “what the writer feels it means to be a poet and how those who are blessed with this noble and ancient gift see the world with different eyes.” The judges were struck by the way she “forensically analyzes in verse both herself and a way of thinking about subjects as diverse as family, art, war, faith and memory. Whilst deeply personal, the poems do not come across as indulgent or biographical. As the title suggests, these are poems designed to analyze and question what it means to be a poet. It is not about this poet in particular.”

Jean affirms that in this collection she focused on themes that are more universal and relate to the human condition. Every aspect of life and experience is mirrored in it. You also come across fresh evocations of familiar motifs: the historical past, colonialism and what colonialism has engendered in the island.

In a curious way Jean’s life is a narrative that runs closely parallel to the saga of our island. As a Dutch Burgher born before Independence she was a product of colonialism and her associations with Tamil culture were to suck her into the whirlpool of ethnic trouble much later, since marrying a Tamil from Colombo and falling forever in love with the vibrantly colourful culture of the Dravidians. But she points out also that it is this tropical island that inspired her with the new linguistics which she creates, and facilitated the search of metaphor and imagery- and of “the image which is not stereotypical”.

Jean herself does not pigeonhole herself into one genre, but explores the tremendous potential of creativity also in fiction, drama and creative non-fiction. Travelling has continually helped her dismantle the boundaries of her world, thus widening the dimensions of thought and experience. Yet in all her travel, she would always look forward to the return to the homely island shores.

Jean began writing very early. Her first book, Kindura (poems) appeared by 1973. The Life of the Poet, her most recent publication, is her 46th oeuvre, coming at the tail end of works of fiction, poetry, drama and creative non-fiction, many of them having been translated into Danish, Swedish, French, and Japanese among other languages. Among the many accolades she has received, the most noteworthy are a Doctor of Letters awarded by Bowdoin College, Maine, and the Premchand award, given by the Sahitya Akademi, India. Jean is also the recipient of many State Literary awards and the Lifetime Achievement Award, Sahitya Rathana.

Throughout her life Jean has called the green glades of Kandy home. She schooled and went to university there, and would teach at the Teacher Training College, Peradeniya and St. Anthony’s College, Katugastota.

Jean, Thiyagarajah and their twin daughters Parvati and Devasundarie form a tightly-knit menage of writers cum artists, making Jansz House down Peradeniya Road an ashram, serenaded often by the wafting music of Jean playing the Theremin, her favourite instrument. It is little known that Jean is a painter, has written and produced many plays and touched the lives of countless students as teacher, lecturer and mentor.

Much water may have flowed down the Mahaweli since Jean was a ‘Nice Burgher Girl’ attending the Kandy High School, but she remains as fresh- with so many things to say with as much passion and energy as she can summon to change the world.

“I love life, humanity, this country and its people. And I want everyone to join me in my journey. ” For it really has been an unending epic saga for Jean the poet, an extraordinary woman with not just an admirable way with words and extraordinary sensitivity and observation, but also a timeless vision.

Share This Post


Advertising Rates

Please contact the advertising office on 011 - 2479521 for the advertising rates.