2014 Gratiaen shortlisted writer Vihanga Perera talks about his works and the opportunities for writers in Sri Lanka
He loves to call himself a writer; someone who writes and rewrites, working with manuscripts all year round. “I have been experimenting with my writing within and between genres for over ten years now since first being published – being lucky and generally, enjoying my work,” Vihanga Perera, 2014 Gratiaen shortlisted writer, said in an interview with The Nation. He is a poet, novelist, short story writer, publisher, political and social commentator, critic, blogger and academic. His shortlisted poetry collection ‘Love and Protest’ was compiled by Paw Print Publishing. The collection contains poems written during October 2013 to November 2014.
His first publication was in 2006: A collection of experimental short fiction that drew a lot of criticism, titled ‘The(ir) (Au)topsy’. This, in fact, earned a slot in the Gratiaen shortlist. Since then he has published two collections of short fiction, three novels and four collections of poetry. ‘Love and Protest’, 2014 Gratiaen shortlisted collection, is the fourth in that list of poetry editions. He has also published criticism and non-fiction and has been shortlisted twice before for the Gratiaen Prize in 2006 and 2008.
Vihanga is not sure what inspired him to develop affection for literature. “I didn’t have a very early start on writing or reading as a kid. In fact, my start on writing in a consistent way didn’t happen until my late teens. When I self-published my first collection of short fiction I was 21,” he recalled. “When I look back on my writing between those teen years and that first collection, there is a sizeable jump, a kind of a leap which is quite extraordinary for me, even when I look back on those works from today. Rather than look for “what inspired me” in literature, I would say that Literature and I crossed paths one day and decided to stay,” he said.
“Literature is something I am daily in the company of – it has become over the years more and more a part of who I am. I would, as well, call myself a reader across a broad range, which – again – brings me into close touch with literature. I would say that it is an irreplaceable part of my day,” he further said.
“There are tough times, but I have always had good support from friends, family and well-wishers who have even shared the finances of my publications. These have kept me writing and pursuing the path I have always wanted to take”
Vihange has a ‘soft spot’ for poetry, but he shows his competence in many skills. “I immensely enjoy working with my poetry. However, over the last few years, I think, I have been working on several fiction projects which took some effort,” he said adding, “Even as we speak, I have two further projects – one, fiction, the other memoir – on my workbench. So, I guess I am a bit of a Jack of several trades, though surely not the master of any.”
He was barely 22 when he first published his work. He said that although it seems like a daring move to publish his work at this period, it indeed was a good move, which paved the way to get where he is today. “It came to a point where I had been writing steadily for a while, and a fever took hold of me to go ahead and turn my writing into a project of sorts. Looking back now, it looks like a daring move when I first published, for I was barely 22. But, I would say, that was a very good move,” he reminisced.
The Gratiaen Award Ceremony is held annually, and as Perera said, a submission for this prize happens almost as a logical step. He feels that it is an opportunity given to writers. “Opportunities have to be used,” he said. “There are tough times, but I have always had good support from friends, family and well-wishers who have even shared the finances of my publications. These have kept me writing and pursuing the path I have always wanted to take,” he added.
Perera’s collection of poems ‘Love and Protest’ deals with the very themes it is named after – love and protest. “The title of the book as well as the project as a whole was incentives of PawPrint Publishers, Colombo, who told me that they want to do a publication of my poetry. I gave PawPrint a free hand and I didn’t even know what poems were chosen to be anthologized until I saw the first draft of their selection last October,” he said. “I have a feeling that the title is inspired by the two broad themes the selected poetry covers, but this is a question PawPrint alone must answer.” The whole collection is about human relationships in their various shades.
In one of his Facebook literature groups he wrote, “Read my poetry! Make me richer!” When he was asked whether he believes it’s fair to price literature he said that literature should be priced and should be given the right price as well. “Literature has to be priced. Literature not being priced is the crisis we are facing today,” he stressed. “But, I would also add that literature should be given the ‘right’ price, and not be over-priced,” he further said.
He believes that Sri Lankan literature in English can develop, become more popular and accepted in the country. “Satisfaction on contemporary Lankan Literature is a very open and discussion-provoking question. It is something we can talk about for a year, maybe. There are, indeed, areas where Lankan literature (in English) can develop and gain ground, but at the end of the day it is a discourse and it is what it is. We – writers, readers, journalists – are just players in that discursive space and we have to feed it with what we can,” he iterated.
According to Perera, English Literature in Sri Lanka hasn’t really propped itself as an industry and maybe for this reason we don’t have a very strong critical department. “Also, since those active in English literary activity often belongs to a very thin sliver of society and that they can largely be put into an exclusive (if not elite) pocket, there seems to be very little of a serious critical bench in our engagement with English literature,” he said. “This is mostly felt outside the classroom, the academy and the newspapers,” Perera pointed out.
In the scope of writing in English, he thinks, awards and festivals try – where possible – to provide a platform for writers. “It is not like we have a hundred festivals to choose from, or a dozen awarding bodies to compare among. But, I think, in trying to open up and open out literary spaces, some of these forums have done a commendable job. Sometimes we can attack or critique certain ‘literary’ festivals for ideological and political reasons – which, I think, should be done for the betterment of things, in general,” he reiterated.
When he was asked whether he sees Sri Lankan literature festivals and award ceremonies, catering to English literature, are limited to a certain group he said that, “It depends on how far you are ready to be inclusive, really. If you want to keep a festival ‘classed’ I am sure you can very easily do so. In the same way, if you want to make your forum meaningful and open, there are plenty of ways in which you can reach out and incorporate diverse stakeholders in literature. A fine-tuning or revision of how you look at the society around you can be a starter,” he said.