Dr. Harshana Rambukwella, Director, Post Graduate Institute of English, Open University, Sri Lanka and Honorary Assistant Professor, School of English, University of Hong Kong will launch his book “The Politics and Poetics of Authenticity: A Cultural Genealogy of Sinhala Nationalism” published by UCL Press, at the International Center of Ethnic Studies, Colombo, on July 16, [...]

Sunday Times 2

Embracing the different shades of cultural nuances

Madhubhashini Disanayaka Ratnayake in conversation with Dr. Harshana Rambukwella on his latest book which is to be launched this week

Dr. Harshana Rambukwella, Director, Post Graduate Institute of English, Open University, Sri Lanka and Honorary Assistant Professor, School of English, University of Hong Kong will launch his book “The Politics and Poetics of Authenticity: A Cultural Genealogy of Sinhala Nationalism” published by UCL Press, at the International Center of Ethnic Studies, Colombo, on July 16, 2018 at 3 p.m.
A roundtable discussion by Liyanage Amarakeerthi, Jayadeva Uyangoda, John Rogers and Jonathan Spencer, moderated by Vagisha Gunasekera, will mark the event, which is open to the public.

He speaks to the Sunday Times about the book, which makes a significant contribution to the pluralistic readings of history and culture necessary in a post-conflict country aiming for sustainable peace.

The book can be downloaded free from: http://www.ucl.ac.uk/ucl-press/browse-books/the-politics-and-poetics-of-authenticity
n Could you give a brief outline of how this book came about?

It started a long time ago as a PhD thesis at the University of Hong Kong. Initially I was working on “postcolonial literature”. Basically literature written in English but from places like Sri Lanka, India and Africa. But I always felt a little uncomfortable about this because the “real” cultural and social life in these places happened in other languages.

At the same time, I had studied for my A/Ls in the Sinhala medium. So I was familiar with Sinhala writing and Sinhala culture and my first language was and is Sinhala. I wanted to bring this knowledge into the work I was doing but the way English literary studies was structured it was difficult.

During my PhD I received a scholarship to participate in the School of Criticism and Theory at Cornell University in the US. Here I met Liyanage Amarakeerthi. It was Amare who initially pushed me to think about bringing aspects of Sinhala culture into my PhD research and introduced me to a number of other scholars such as John Rogers and Charles Hallisey who helped shape my thinking in broader ways.
The book per se was written between 2016 and 2018 but the process I described above meant it had a long gestation.

n Jonathan Spencer’s introduction speaks of the rarity of getting postcolonial scholarship in English engaging with issues expressed in the mother tongue. You are one of the few bilingual scholars in Sri Lanka capable of engaging in theoretical levels in both languages and cross fertilizing both discourses. How important do you think such cross fertilization is?

Thank you for this question. This is critically lacking in Sri Lankan scholarship – partly due to the linguistic policies of the 1950s. For my parents’ generation bilingualism at least in terms of English and Sinhala was natural – of course that was also based on a certain class background. But relatively more people from that generation were fully bilingual. Tissa Abeysekara, Reggie Siriwardena and Gamini Hatthotuwegama to just name a few. But this is a rarity for my generation.

Those reading and writing only in English have access to sophisticated theoretical concepts but may have little understanding of local realities. Conversely those reading and writing only in Sinhala have a very good grasp of local realities but may have little exposure to global scholarly trends. For good scholarship to happen you need both. And I also think one of the tragedies is that I can’t work in Tamil. I think a book like mine would have been that much richer and more nuanced if I could understand Tamil.

The story I tell about the complexities of Sinhala culture, society, politics and literature is not complete if we don’t bring in Tamil culture as well. No culture exists in a vacuum. By Tamil culture I am not trying to homogenize – there is a lot of diversity there. I meant cultures in Sri Lanka that use Tamil as their medium of expression.

When we write and theorise in the English language, can we actually step outside the boundaries of a ‘comprador class’? What do you think?

I think labels like ‘comprador’ can be misleading – it’s a Marxist term that might have made sense in the 1950s but not today. However, if you are asking if theorization happens from people who only think and feel in English, yes that is a problem. But when it happens bilingually or multilingually, it is much richer and more nuanced.

It also interesting how in Sri Lanka our mainstream cultural consciousness is still very anachronistic – in a way stuck in a kind of anti-colonial mindset of the 1950s. This is very useful for politicians, etc., because they can divert people’s attention from current problems by invoking tired anti-colonial rhetoric. Today’s world is very different to the world of the 50s – so invoking an ideology from that time is not very useful to finding solutions to problems we face today.

You have picked three personalities to theorize your concept of authenticity: Anagarika Dharmapala, SWRD Bandaranaike and Gunadasa Amarasekera. Why these three?

This was not an arbitrary or random choice. Both in scholarship critical of Sinhala nationalism and in Sinhala nationalist thinking these three figures are very central. You can call them ‘father figures’ of the ideological Sinhala nation. I do realize of course that there were many others both men and women who played a significant role but telling the story I wanted to tell through these three figures made a lot of sense to me.

What I really wanted to do was to restore some historical complexity particularly to Dharmapala and Bandaranaike. Both in scholarship critical of Sinhala nationalism and Sinhala nationalist discourse these figures are understood in a very one dimensional manner.
n You have given a nuanced reading of authenticity “Apekama” in this book. History in Sri Lanka has shown how fundamental this concept has been to our consciousness and political practice as a people. What is the importance of trying to dissect a construction considered as “natural” by most people?

Things we take as ‘natural’ are not so. They have a contested history – they come into being due to specific social and political conditions. However, we often forget this and tend to think that things like our identity are natural and have always been so – so we are ready to fight over our identity and die for it. But if we can have a more nuanced sense of history and see how these things have always changed and keep on changing maybe we will not try to defend these things so violently.

Culture for instance is a very dynamic thing. You can’t keep it frozen unnaturally. If we take a Buddhist perspective on this, it’s about impermanence and transience. But we fight trying to keep certain things about our culture static. We try to regulate and police it but this rarely succeeds. If we can embrace change, we will be a more dynamic and happier society.

What are the risks you run in trying to do so?
The risk is that people dislike their ideas about tradition being questioned. But I think it’s a risk worth taking because if we want to progress as a society we need to get out of a static mindset. We must not be judgmental and compare new cultural trends with the old and dismiss them. We have to allow new ideas and creativity to flourish.

When you write about concepts such as nationality and authenticity, in which language do you think you should be writing, to reach out to the people most in need of knowing about such concepts?

I think I have partly answered this question above. I think the major impact of a book like this will be among the Sinhala reading public. In some ways when you write something like this in English you are preaching to the converted. But a Sinhala translation will have a big impact.

n In your opinion, what is the role of academics in a country that is trying peace after a protracted conflict?
Academics have a role to play as public intellectuals. We should not produce knowledge and hide it away in university libraries or specialist reports. We should actively find ways of getting our research out into society. In a society that has faced multiple cycles of conflict and is still not at peace itself, a scholar cannot be neutral. For a scholar in the cultural studies domain this is about thinking how culture has contributed to or can help mitigate conflict.

For me a very important critical position is to occupy a place from where you can critically look back upon your own culture. You can’t stand completely outside it. However, you shouldn’t idolize and valorize culture – instead you have to be able to keep one foot out and turn your critical gaze inwards. That way you will see what is redeeming about your culture but what is also lacking and retrograde.

The late Edward Said, a scholar I admire very much, called this a position of ‘affiliation’. Said was attacked by other scholars for claiming that writers like Joseph Conrad were ‘great’ writers. They argued that Said was being contradictory – at one point he called Conrad a colonially biased writer but at the same time he called him ‘great’ – how can this be? I take a similar position with the religious, political and cultural intellectuals I discuss in this book. They are ‘great’ in some ways – they made significant contributions but we should also realize their limitations. The ability to hold two or more seemingly contradictory positions in balance I think is something we need to cultivate – it is through that kind of orientation to the world that we can perhaps create a more inclusive society that can accommodate diversity.

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