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29th November 1998

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This book is an answer to those prophets of doom

"The anthology has disproved the estimates of gloom and prophecies of doom made periodically," says D.C. R.A. Goonetilleke the editor of 'Sri Lankan literature in English 1948-1998'. The fine collection of fiction and poetry has been published by the Department of Cultural Affairs to mark the Golden Jubilee of Independence.

Calling it an attempt to capture the achievement of Sri Lankan literature in English in the post-independence era, he points out that a survey of the literature from 1815 when the British seized control of the whole island to 1972 concluded: the English speakers 'produced very little which is worth remembering'. In 1981 it was asserted: 'creative writing in English is unlikely to have the chance for survival that its counterpart in India has.'

Tracing a little bit of the history, Goonetilleke says that as in many countries, the colonial period of Sri Lanka was, despite fitful flashes, generally an era of mean achievement as far as original writing in English was concerned. "Jinadasa Vijayatunga's Grass For My Feet was published in London to much acclaim in 1935 and Maharanee and Other Stories was issued in 1947, but these books were among the isolated efforts and did not impart a stimulus to writing by others. The presence of the colonial masters had a suffocating effect on the creative energies of the local inhabitants and it was only after Independence (1948) that a body of literature in English by Sri Lankans began to emerge. Actually, this had to wait till after 1956."

The anthology has been introduced as one which provides a cross-section of writing in English during the last fifty years conveying the changing images of the island during this period. "It covers both the urban and rural sectors, the North and the South, religions, decolonization, the stresses caused by nationalism or class and race conflict in the post-colonial society. Its polyphonic voices write the nation."

Goonetilleke's interesting introduction briefly traces how society changed over the fifty years and how the writings selected by him mirror those changing times. He calls the 1950s and '60s a period of tranquility. He shows how the JVP insurrection in 1971, one of the most traumatic events in recent years, spurred creative writing in English. Ethnic problems have surfaced at times and have assumed in their current manifestation a far more fearful and intractable dimension than the JVP insurgencies. The tangled complexities of ethnic conflict have been depicted in some of the selections.

The selection of fifty items, both fiction and poetry, are not only from books and journals but also from newspapers. They have been arranged not according to date of publication or alphabetically, but "more subtly and organically - to picture the passage of time."

Notes on the contributors provide brief introductions to the forty writers of fiction and poets. Editor Goonetilleke who is Senior Professor of English in the University of Kelaniya is also the Chairman of the English Literary Panel of the Arts Council of Sri Lanka.


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